Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Disambiguating miracles

It seems to me that the stock objection to miracles conflates two ideas:

i) A miracle is an extraordinary event

ii) It’s extraordinary that a miracle would ever happen

It seems to me that these are two distinct ideas. They aren’t interchangeable claims. Moreover, I think the move from (i) to (ii) is illicit.

One problem is the notorious ambiguity of the adjective (“extraordinary”). What does that mean?

On one interpretation, “extraordinary” is a synonym for “unnatural.” Miracles are unnatural. But if we plug that definition into the objection, it either generates a tautology or an equivocation:

i) It would be unnatural for an unnatural event to occur.

That’s tautologically true, but that says nothing one way or the other about the plausibility of unnatural events happening. The skeptic needs more than a tautology. He needs to show the implausibility of unnatural events occurring.

After all, a theist could accept the definition and say that just means unnatural events occur unnaturally–not that unnatural events don’t occur. Rather, they occur, but not by natural means.


ii) It would be unlikely for an unnatural event to transpire

But that reformulation introduces an equivocation of terms into the objection, since the adjective (“extraordinary”) no longer means the same thing in both occurrences. It has one sense when it modifies “claims” or “evidence,” but a different definition when it modifies “events.”

An alternative is to use the same definition in both cases, where “extraordinary” always means unlikely:

i) A miracle is an unlikely event

ii) It’s unlikely that a miracle would ever happen

However, it seems to me that that definition highlights the fact that these are two distinct claims. Moreover, that it is illicit to infer (ii) from (i).

At first blush, it might seem to be obviously or definitionally true that it’s unlikely that an unlikely event will ever happen. But that’s specious, since it’s easy to come up with counterexamples.

The statement is ambiguous. On the one hand, it may be unlikely that an unlikely event will occur at any particular time and place. It may be unlikely that unlikely events will bunch up. Will occur in rapid succession. A series of unlikely events.

On the other hand, it may not only be likely, but inevitable that an unlikely event will occur sooner or later. Given the odds, unlikely events are bound to happen at some time or another, even if they are rare. 

Of course, that’s not the best definition of a miracle, since miracles would involve personal agency. Purpose. Rational discretion. Teleology. But for now I’m just dealing with the typical objection.

One might take another comparison:

i) A coincidence is an unlikely event

ii) It’s unlikely that a coincidence will happen

But, of course, coincidences do happen, so we can’t infer the implausibility of a coincidence from its improbability.

Permit me to illustrate the principle with a personal anecdote. Many years ago my parents went to the Seattle bus station at night. I no longer remember the reason.

When we got there, we bumped into my Aunt Ruth, who was sitting in the bus station. That was coincidental. And it was highly unlikely.

i) My aunt lived in Seattle. My parents did not. My parents lived in a bedroom community across the lake.

ii) Although my parents often drove into town, they rare drove to downtown Seattle at night–where the bus station was located.

iii) As I recall, this was the only time we ever went to the Seattle bus station. We almost never had occasion to go there, much less go there at night.

iv) I doubt my aunt went there very often. You went to the bus station to get a ticket to take a bus out of town, like taking a bus from Seattle to Yakima (in E. Washington). You used a bus stop to catch a bus from one part of Seattle to another part of Seattle. I doubt my aunt, who was an older woman at the time, took bus trips out of town very often.

v) We didn’t make prior arrangements to meet her there. She was there for a different reason. The encounter was fortuitous.

This coincidence involves nested improbabilities. An improbable conjunction of independent variables. Increasing improbabilities, as the specificity of the conditions increases.

Yet it happened. It would be unreasonable to demand extraordinary evidence for this coincidence. It would be unreasonable to doubt it or disbelieve it absent extraordinary corroboration. Coincidences are a commonplace of human experience.

I’m not saying miracles are equivalent to coincidences, although there are coincidence miracles. I’m just examining a stock objection to miracles from different angles


  1. It was helpful that you moved around this objection to miracles and probed it from different angles. I get what you are saying about miracles not being equivalent to coincidences, but the analogy did make your point more clear, IMO.

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. I think it would be easier to give the stock answer I always get: "Given enough time, even extraordinary events become ordinary." It was about time that God became flesh, was born of a woman, lived a perfect life, was killed for our sin, and rose from the dead. I mean, what, the universe has existed for 13 billion years give or take? I'm surprised that doesn't happen all the time. :)

    1. Or you could talk to someone who believes in the multiverse, in which case everything that is possible to happen has happened somewhere at sometime. Under such a view, it would seem to me that it would be more miraculous to live in a universe where nothing miraculous ever happened, than it would be to live in one where miracles have happened.