Thursday, November 14, 2013

Hacking nature

i) Normally, it's not terribly important for Christians to be able to define a miracle. Where Scripture is concerned, it's sufficient to affirm the occurrence of whatever events the Bible says have occurred or will occur, as the Bible describes them. It isn't generally necessary to assign each event to a miraculous or providential column. 
ii) There are, however, times when this becomes more important. If a Christian apologist deploys the argument from miracles, he needs to define his terms. If an atheist attacks Biblical miracles, we reserve the right to challenge his definition. If cessationists insist that certain kinds of miracles don't occur in Medieval or modern times, then it's incumbent on them to define their terms. 
iii) Let's consider some standard definitions in the Christian apologetic and philosophical literature:
Either the event appears to defy known physical laws (a superseding miracle), or a set of events seems too improbable to come together on the basis of coincidence alone (a configuration miracle).
Coincidences and unusual things do  happen; so, in order to be called a miracle, the event should be the kind of occurrence in which we might look for God's direct intervention. By "direct intervention" we mean that God is directly responsible for bringing about this usual event. Christians recognize God's hand in providence (His everyday care for us) as well as in answered prayer, but we may consider God to have answered a prayer even if the answer consists of an otherwise normal event. Only when we are confronted with the "unusual" and see that God's action is the easiest explanation for it that we are inclined to call it a miracle. W. Corduin, Reasonable Faith (B&H 1993), 157-58.
In order to differentiate between the customary way in which God acts and his special, miraculous action, theologians have traditionally distinguished within divine providence between God's ordinary providence and his extraordinary providence, the latter being identified with miracles.For example, just as the Israelites approach the Jordan River, a rockslide upstream blocks temporarily the water's flow, enabling them to cross into the Promised Land (Josh 3:14-17); or again, as Paul and Silas lie bound in prison for preaching the gospel, an earthquake occurs, springing the prison doors and unfastening their fetters (Acts 16:25-26).Events wrought by special providence are no more outside the course and capacity of nature than are events produced by God's ordinary providence, but the context of such events–such as their timing, their coincidental nature and so forth–points to a special divine intention to bring them about. J. P. Moreland & W. L. Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP 2003), 566.
iv) Apropos (iii), in theological parlance, extraordinary providence is a synonym for the miraculous, in contrast to ordinary providence. Let's begin with a rough and ready distinction between providence and miracle. An automated traffic system illustrates providence. The system regulates traffic flow by programming the duration and timing of traffic lights. When the red light goes on. How long it stays on. This has to be coordinated with traffic lights up and down the street to prevent gridlock. Once the system is programmed, things always happen the same way. Lights go on and off in a predetermined sequence, relative to other intersections.
In The Italian Job, a character hacks into the system to override the system. He makes the driver of an armored car go to a particular destination by selectively operating the traffic lights to reroute the armored car. 
Now this is still "natural." But it's analogous to a miracle because it's not something the system would do on its own. The system is indifferent to individuals. It doesn't target a particular vehicle for special treatment. Unless the system is artificially intelligent, it can only do what it's programmed to do. It takes a rational agent to be more discriminating. 
Here we might invoke Del Ratzsch's criterion of counterflow:
Counterflow refers to things running contrary to what, in the relevant sense, would (or might) have resulted or occurred had nature operated freely. Nature, Design and Science (SUNY 2001), 5
Providence is what nature will do on its own unless an agent intervenes to impede, deflect, or redirect nature. Change must come from outside the system.  For instance, orange trees don't naturally grow in evenly-spaced straight rows. It takes a farmer to arrange them that way.
At the same time, that doesn't break any law of nature. Indeed, the farmer takes advantage of lawful nature. Once in place, the seeds, thusly planted, will grow accordingly. 
v) In addition to the examples cited by Moreland and Craig, we might consider examples of divine judgment where God sends a deadly plague (e.g. Num 11:33; 14:37; 16:46-50; 25:8-9; 1 Sam 5:6ff.; 24:15).
In a sense, that's death by "natural causes." But the specificity of the event in time and place is miraculous. 
Likewise, the fate of Korah and his cohorts (Num 16:31-33). You could say that's death by natural causes, but the specificity of the event is miraculous. It was predicted. It happened at a particular time and place. And nature, left to its own devices, wouldn't single out Korah and the other culprits. 
Or take the death of Ananias and Sapphira. Is that miraculous?
If they were autopsied, the coroner might discover that they died of natural causes. A heart attack. He might also discover that they both had coronary artery disease, which put them at high risk of heart attack.
What makes it miraculous is not the physical cause, but the opportune timing of the event. Judicial punishment. Predicted punishment. 
Same thing with the draught of fish (Lk 5; Jn 21). Is that miraculous? 
Phil Johnson says "here’s a proper definition: A miracle is an extraordinary work of God that transcends or contravenes the ordinary laws of nature."
By that definition, none of these events was really miraculous. But why should we accept his narrow, a priori definition?  
vi) MacArthurite sometimes favor ostensible definitions of the miraculous, like raising the dead, restoring lost limbs, restoring sight to the congenitally blind. But there are problems with that maneuver:
a) Does that mean other examples cited in this post are sub-miraculous? 
b) In what sense do MacArthurites think curing the congenitally blind is distinctively miraculous? In principle, medical science might well reach the point where it can cure the congenitally blind. On the face of it, that prospect doesn't violate a law of nature. If medical science can someday pull that off, would it cease to be miraculous, as MacArthurites define it?
c) What makes healing the blind miraculous? In the sense that, when nature is allowed to run its course unimpeded, the sightless don't become sighted. For that to happen requires intervention, be it medical intervention or divine intervention. 
d) It's natural for some animals to regrow lost appendages. But that doesn't come naturally for humans. In principle, medical science might figure out how to transfer that ability to humans, or clone replacement limbs. 
That wouldn't be miraculous. But it would be miraculous if that happened apart from changing the status quo by introducing a new dynamic from outside the system.  

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