Saturday, January 20, 2018

Are miracles hazardous?

I'm going to comment on this: Yujin Nagasawa, Miracles: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2017):

Performing miracles seems to be extremely risky. Nature is uniform and stable because it is regulated by the laws of nature. If the laws of nature did not exist, we should not breathe, sleep, or even exist. Hence, when miracle workers violate the laws of nature they may endanger living things in nature as well as nature as a whole (47). 

We saw in the Preface to this book that, according to recent polls, the majority of people in the USA and the UK today believe in miracles. We also saw in Chapter 2 that reports of miracles can always be found, irrespective of time, geographical location, or religious tradition. How could that be possible? The most straightforward answer to this question is that miracles do really take place everywhere, all the time. However, miracles should not be so prevalent. Recall our definition of a miracle: it is a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent and has religious significance. If miracles take place everywhere, all the time, then the laws of nature are being violated everywhere, all the time. If this is indeed so, then nature is so unstable that, it would seem, we should not be able to live normal lives. Suppose, for example, that water was frequently being turned into wine or that dead people were frequently being brought back to life. If these events took place regularly then water supply companies and funeral directors would not be able to run their businesses smoothly. However, we almost never hear them complaining about miracles taking place. If miracles do take place then they are extremely rare events. So that brings us back to square one: why is belief in miracles so widespread (51).

This objection is unintentionally comical. An example of smart people with dumb ideas. Presumably, Nagasawa is a bright, sophisticated guy, but his objection is blind on several levels:

i) He begins with an a priori definition of miracle which he then imposes on reports. That generates a discrepancy between the definition and the reports. But instead of adjusting his definition to accommodate the reports, he adjusts the reports to accommodate his definition.

ii) It's doubtful that most respondents to the surveys define a miracle the way he does. 

iii) I myself prefer to define a miracle as a type of event that won't happen when nature is allowed to run its course. 

iv) Then there's the equivocal language about "everywhere, all the time". For instance, suppose a miracle happens everyday in every town, city, and suburb across the globe. Yet the relative distribution of miracles would still be an infinitesimal fraction of all the ordinary events that transpired across the globe on any particular day. Miracles could happen every day or every hour without happening constantly in the sense of representing a sizable proportion of what happens. 

To take a comparison, suppose that every day, in every town, city, and suburb across the globe, there are people with green eyes. Yet in relation to seven billion human inhabitants, that might constitute a tiny fraction of the overall population. Widely scattered specks. By the same token, miracles might be widely distributed in time and place without being densely pervasive. 

v) Perhaps the deepest weakness of Nagasawa's analysis is the apparent, unstated assumption that by breaking a law of nature, each miracle temporarily suspends the laws of nature at a cosmic level. Every time a miracle occurs, assuming a miracle ever occurs, the laws of nature momentarily wink out all across the universe. In that case, the disruption would be cataclysmic. 

But even if we define a miracle as an event that defies the laws of nature (a dubious definition), it doesn't seem to even occur to Nagasawa that the violation can be local rather than global. The transgressive effects can be contained. 

vi) One of the problems may be that Nagasawa adopts a religiously pluralistic viewpoint (although he himself is clearly a skeptic). Within a framework of animism, polytheism, or witchcraft, a wonder-worker might not be able to control the effects of his actions. 

But from the standpoint of biblical monotheism or classical theism, miracles are coordinated with general providence. Even if a miracle requires the suspension of natural laws (a dubious definition), that doesn't mean natural laws must be inoperative everywhere to be inoperative at a particular point in time and space. Rather, the effects would be insulated. A closed system within a larger system.

To take a comparison, passengers inside an airplane are immobile (seated) or walking up and down the aisles within the passenger compartment, even though the plane may be traveling at supersonic speeds.  

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