Friday, January 22, 2016

Could natural law be miraculous?

Hume famously defined a miracle as a broken law of nature. Although that definition has many critics, many supporters and opponents of the miraculous continue to define a miracle in those broad terms. They may tweak it a bit, but the definition still involves the concept of natural laws or laws of physics.

I think that's most consistent with physical determinism. The universe as a closed system of cause and effect. Within that framework, a miraculous event must temporarily violate intramundane causality or temporally violate physical determinism. It could either be indeterminate, or be the determinate effect of an external cause. 

On this model, what makes an event miraculous is the contrast between physical determinism and the miracle. 

Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that we turn this around. Let's posit indeterminism. Seven times out of ten (in no particular order) the same subsequent (physical) state follows the same antecedent (physical) state, but three times out of ten, a different subsequent state follows the same antecedent state. Say, seven times out of ten, water runs downhill, but three times out of ten, water runs uphill. And the alternation is random. Suppose the universe is a billion years old, and that's how it has always operated.

Let us now suppose that for a span of a million years, God makes physical determinism reign. The same subsequent state always follows the same antecedent state. During this time, water invariably runs down hill. 

Given Hume's principle, that be a miracle. If indeterminism is the norm, if that's the backdrop, and determinism is the exception, then cause and effect would be miraculous.

So Hume's definition has paradoxical consequences. If a miracle is defined as the opposite of the status quo, then, in principle, a (temporary) regime of natural law could itself be miraculous so long as that stands in contrast to what's normally the case (i.e. randomness). If we maintain his principle of contrast–as a necessary backdrop–then we can simply reverse the norm. Physical determinism and indeterminism changes places. 


  1. First I have to reframe the question in Calvinist terms. You don't really mean that at first water behaved randomly and then God makes water behave predictably. You mean to say that from the beginning of time God created the world such that water would behave randomly up until such-and-such a date and water would behave predictably after that date.

    It may be second nature to you, but I have to work at it. Framed that way, it doesn't sound like such a miracle at all. It is just how the world works. The world works such that water behaves one way before and a different way after a moment in time.

    Calvinist miracles is another thing I do not have the imagination to fully grasp how it could exist.

    1. i) You're obsessed with Calvinism. My post was about a hypothetical scenario. Whether or not that's consistent with Calvinism is beside the point.

      ii) In addition, Calvinism does not entail physical determinism.

    2. Jeff, you don't need to do anything as complicated as understand Calvinism, you just need to understand what a counterexample is. The counterexample need not assume anything about Calvinisj. We're trying to get at the *concept* of a miracle. You may not think Steve has offered a counterexample, that's fine. But to start talking about Calvinsm shows that you don't even grasp the nature of the philosophical discussion at hand.

  2. According to the first example, there is still some level of deterministic order. According to the laws of that universe, water flows down or up hill in a fixed 7:3 ratio. After that the ratio just changes to 10:0. The 7:3 ratio was once how the whole universe worked and the 10:0 ratio is now how the whole universe works. In a universe where the general law of the universe was that water flowed down or up in a 7:3 ratio a solitary stream that always ran downhill would be miraculous, yes. But if you changed the rules of the whole universe, a stream running downhill would not be miraculous.

    By the way, if quantum mechanics is really true, it is a real world example of what you are talking about. Electrons and such sometimes run uphill and sometimes run downhill (so to speak).

    I'll have to read up on other definitions of miracles. The broken law of nature one is the only one I know.

    1. It's a popular misconception to think that quantum mechanics is indeterministic. But that's just one influential interpretation. David Bohm and Hugh Everett both offer different deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    2. So Jeff, suppose Bas van Fraassen is right and there are no such things as laws of nature. Or suppose Leibniz or Edwards are right and there are no laws of nature because occassionalism is true. There's just what God ordinarily brings about and what he doesn't ordinarily bring about but extraordinarily brings about for a specific theological purpose. Are you suggesting on these views, each compatible with the truth of indeterminism, miracles couldn't happen because there are no laws of nature? Seems odd.

    3. Jeff D.

      Quantum mechanics didn't arrive in a vacuum. It originally built upon classical physics. For example, if I'm not mistaken, the Schrodinger equation takes its cue from equations used in classical physics to describe certain phenomena such as the transmission of light. Of course, others like Dirac further built upon Schrodinger - who, not unlike Einstein, was reticent to pursue the probabilistic implications of his own discoveries - but that came later.

      In any case, there are concepts within quantum mechanics which are just as invariant or at least substantial as certain bedrock fundamentals in classical physics. Take the concept of energy or the concept of momentum. Or consider the Pauli exclusion principle and its direct relevance to the periodic table in terms of electron shells, etc. These are fixtures within quantum mechanics as well.

      As an aside, I suppose in some sense one could argue there are indeterminate aspects within the deterministic world of classical physics too. For instance, we're finite creatures and, as such, don't have perfect accuracy in prediction. Hence a miniscule irregularity in an event (e.g. the slightest change in the position or velocity of an atomic particle) could be amplified such that randomness seems to eventuate from our limited perspective. Granted, this is debatable.

    4. Maul P.

      My first impression on those two views would be that everything would be miraculous. Every event divine. It sounds like pantheism to me.

      Let me introduce a counter example.

      Suppose a lumberjack went into a forest and clear-cut a field in the shape of a 3:4:5 right triangle. Someone else discovering that field would be right to conclude that the field is not natural and must have been produced by an intelligent agent and they would be right, but that is not my point.

      My point is, that if left alone, the forest would soon reclaim that field. I couldn't tell you the location in the field where new trees would grow, but I could tell you that very soon new trees would indeed start sprouting. Seeds would have been dispersed the way seeds are dispersed. Some seeds would be carried on the wind, some by unsuspecting animals.

      My rational mind reasons this to be a natural process. Some trees have seeds encased in puffy cottonballs which get carried by the wind on their own. It happens without a hand. I don't believe the two views you are talking about. It makes the apparently natural regrowth of a clear cut patch of forest to be a deception.

      I don't have any reason to disbelieve the regrowing of the forest is as natural as it looks, so I don't. If God brought about the forest regrowth as you describe, I would expect it to look differently. All the trees would grow with perfectly straight trunks in perfectly aligned rows or something. The fact that looks natural would mean that God is feigning naturality to trick us.

    5. Jeff, pay attention. You said "the broken law of nature" is "the only definition [of miracle] you know of." On the views I gave, how could "everything" be a miracle? Rather, *nothing* would be a miracle. In fact, if we think that natural laws are necessarily true, if true at all, then van Fraassen's view that there are no such things as natural laws entails that there *couldn't* be natural laws, which entails that miracles are *impossible* (on your definition).

      You also don't define what you mean by "pantheism." If you mean that everything is identical to God, could you show how you get from "laws of nature don't exist" to "everything is identical to God"?

      Finally, you didn't offer a *counterexample*. I don't think you know what those are haha. Anyway, note that you confuse epistemology (wouldn't expect) with the *metaphysical* issue at hand. So, you're talking about what you'd be justified to *believe*. Now, suppose you would be antecedently justified in believing that there were laws of nature given your remarks about how forests typically grow. The problem is, I've cited *new* evidence that undercuts that belief. You're just throwing around a name, "law of nature," but what are such beasts? You haven't told us. Just naming something doesn't bring it about that there are such things. So now you need to give us a story. You haven't shown that we *need* such things to account for your forest. We can account for that sort of empirical data quite easily (as philosophers have shown).But as I said, suppose you're antecedently justified in believing that there are laws given your story about a disorderly(!) forest tree line (ironic, I say!). Well now you have defeaters, so your job is to defeat the defeaters. You can start here

      Or here:

      But really, the point is conceptual. It doesn't seem like the part of the essence of 'miracle' is 'violation of law of nature,' otherwise there's be no miracles given anti-realism about laws of nature. But it certainly seems there could still be miracles if the anti-realists happened to be right.

    6. I certainly do not need laws of nature to explain an ordinary, disorderly forest. God could have personally worked every tree into existence in such a way that it looks like the only reason a particular tree was there was because that is where the wind chanced to blow the seed.

      But I have no reason to believe that, except "philosophy." I can see the forest for what it is. I can see a tree for what it is. If I graft an apple tree branch from one tree onto another, the graft takes because that is how apple trees work, not because God personally fused the branch on.

      I don't see what you are describing as pure pantheism. Maybe one half step away. A half step away from everything being God would be that everything is of God. If you turned over anything it would have God's signature on it. What is a good adjective of being "of God"? I'm thinking "divine." Instead of everything being God, everything is divine.

    7. Sigh. I granted you your pre reflective belief in these things called "laws". But the word doesn't make reality, much like how being named Armstrong doesn't make you have mighty biceps. So you need to give *content* to your name, otherwise it might as well be magic for all we know. But once you do give content so we know the exact conception of law you hold, then the we can present the standard problems with that view, and your wide-eyed puzzlement about how apples grow doesn't count as a defeater-deflector.

      On your pantheism point, I'm afraid you went from the ambiguous to the wholly obscure! Seems to me there's precisifications of "from God" such that all orthodox theists would affirm that "everything is from God." Finally, your claim that everything "is divine" doesn't follow from everything has God's finger prints on it anymore than the fact that my apply has Steve Jobs' fingerprints on it doesn't mean my apply is Jobs, or even human. lol