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Monday, April 25, 2022

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Hi Bill,
I have a question regarding the ontic approach to miracles. If we assume that God sustains the being and operation of the natural world at every moment of its existence, i.e., that He is engaged in a continuous causative action without which all that exists would pass away, why must we assume that a miracle is a “special divine intervention”? Specifically, I am troubled by the word” “intervention,” since it appears to deny this understanding of continuous divine causality, which, while allowing for regularities in nature, permits unexpected modifications of one or more natural existents at any moment, in favor of one that is initiatory and definite. Given my lack of expertise in these matters, my question may well be naïve and rest on a misunderstanding, but it puzzles me, so I am posing it to you.
Vito

Dear Bill,

I suggest a difficulty in the analysis is the definition of the term 'nature', not just our epistemic apprehension of it (or something..). If 'nature' is 'whatever God wills', then it is by definition 'anything goes', at least potentially. This means that any regular structures, relationships and other phenomena our brains naturally codify in daily life (we appear to be evolved to do this), and that science formalises, are illusions. Put another way, such regularities have no ontic primacy, since they can be violated at any time.

Such a reality is therefore not strictly intelligible to us, assuming we don't have direct access to the mind of God. Our attempts to find formal regularities in our apparent reality are ultimately pointless, even if we seem to be able to rely on quotidien regularities sufficiently often to get through our lives without spontaneously combusting or falling backward in time. Such regularities serve no other purpose than as a survival heuristic, like 'don't eat red mushrooms' - they're right until you discover they're not. All natural laws, from gravity to relativity to thermodynamics carry no more weight than the statement 'a swan is a white bird ...'.

If we pursue this line of reasoning, we presumably have to be anti-realists, and then any notion of regularities in nature is all in our minds - and so are miracles. What then could a religious scientific realist truly have faith in?

Hi Vito,

You have given a clear explanation of the classical doctrine of creatio continuans according to which God is the sustaining and not merely originating cause of the creaturely order (which includes, but is not identical to, the physical cosmos). But I am not clear as to what your question is.

Are you assuming that continuous creation is miraculous? No doubt creation is the effect of a supernatural agent, God, but there is nothing miraculous about God's originating and continuing creation of the world. A miracle involves a suspension of a law of nature. (God presumably has the power to suspend Bernoulli's Law in the vicinity of a certain airplane to keep it from taking off.) The creation of the world is not miraculous because there are no natural laws governing the creation of the world. All such laws 'govern' events that occur within the world.

You seem to think that divine intervention into nature somehow contradicts continuous divine sustenance of nature. Perhaps you could explain why you think this.

Dear Thomas,

If theism is true, then everything other than God is created and sustained by God, who was under no necessity to create anything. It follows that the existence of the world (i.e., the creaturely order, including nature, the physical cosmos) is metaphysically contingent. The laws of nature are also contingent. But it doesn't follow that nature and its regularities are illusions. Thy are real, it is just that their reality is derivative from God.

As for intelligibility, a theist will argue that it is precisely because nature is the creation of a divine mind that it is intrinsically intelligible.

Classical theism tries to navigate between two extremes, an extreme realism according to which nature exists and exhibits the regularities it exhibits independently of ANY mind and an anthropoccentric anti-realism that makes everything relative to our conceptual frameworks and ends up denying nature's intrinsic intelligibility.

I am sorry to be unclear. What I am trying to suggest is that if “creatio continuans according to which God is the sustaining and not merely originating cause of the creaturely order (which includes, but is not identical to, the physical cosmos)” is true, then what exists or occurs in nature at each moment is fully dependent on the divine will. If so, then what we call the “laws of nature” are less determined and stringent than they appear to be and that their suspension or alternation—miraculous occurrences—are not surprising, given that God is an active, free, and unconstrained creative agent. I hope that this makes some sense, but if not, I must simply not understand the issue at hand, which is entirely possible.

I am sorry to be unclear.

You write: “You seem to think that divine intervention into nature somehow contradicts continuous divine sustenance of nature. Perhaps you could explain why you think this”

What I am trying to suggest is that if “creatio continuans” is true, then what exists or occurs in nature at each moment is fully dependent on the will of God. If so, then what we call the “laws of nature,” are less stringent than they appear to be and that their suspension or alternation—miraculous occurrences—does not involve an intervention, which implies a breaking into nature, since the distinction God/nature, although real, obscures the intimacy and immediacy of the causative, sustaining relation.

I hope that this makes some sense, but if not, I must simply not understand the issue at hand, which is entirely possible.

Vito writes,

>>What I am trying to suggest is that if “creatio continuans” is true, then what exists or occurs in nature at each moment is fully dependent on the will of God.<<

That would be the case only on occasionalism. Consider this event sequence: lightning strikes tree -- tree explodes into flame. Suppose that deism is false and that some form of conservationism is true, that is, God is not a mere cosmic starter-upper. but an ongoing sustaining cause of the universe and everything in it. It does not follow that one must be an occasionalist. On occasionalism, all causation is divine causation, and no thing or event in nature does any causing. What happens is that on the occasion of a lightning strike, God creates a tree ignition. On this sort of scheme, there would be no real distinction between special acts of divine intervention into nature (miracles) and *creatio continuans.* But there are two other ways of upholding *creatio continuans* One could be a mere conservationist or one could be a concurrentist. On conservationism, God is not directly involved in the causation of secondary causes; he merely sustains the universe in which they operate on their own. Maybe I'll explain concurrentism later.

The sun also rises and the mountain bike beckons.

In sum, Vito, I can attach meaning to your question if you are assuming occasionalism, but occasionalism is not the only game in town.

Ostrich repeats, as is customary, his nominalist theory of miracles or rather 'miraculous reports'. Everything that happens, is caused, including happenings caused by God, of course. So there are no 'miracles' as types of events.

However there are many miraculous reports, and we must examine each on its merits and particularly with the hermeneutics of suspicion. How likely is it that the report was an invention. Men have strong reason to claim abilities that will gain influence over others.

Hume is the starting point here.

Bill,
there are of course many rabbit holes to potentially follow here (and I appreciate the sense of your original post, which is just to provide some tools for navigation, not to solve anything), but just picking one:

"As for intelligibility, a theist will argue that it is precisely because nature is the creation of a divine mind that it is intrinsically intelligible."

I understand this of course, but I think it is not a sustainable argument. Reality is intrinsically intelligible only to the mind that created it. But since the interesting question is intelligibility to us poor humans, the argument either means that a) God's intelligence is no greater and of no different qualitative character than our own or that b) God creates realities specifically designed to be intelligible to those creatures who inhabit them (or at least some conscious, self-aware subset).

Argument a) seems untenable - we can't even colonise Mars or cure cancer, but God can create the entirety of creation. That does seem to imply mental powers of a different order.

Argument b) would imply that physics-defying miracles are out of the question, since our way of making sense of our world has led us to discover precisely those laws (and many others) that 'classic' miracles would violate. As soon as we see people walking on water and waking from the dead, our confidence that we know what is going on around us must retreat, if not completely evaporate.

For one who believes in the resurrection literally, there must be at least a view of 'reality' (something malleable) distinct from that of the average physicist.

I suspect there are simply no good answers to any of this!

It the Ostrich maintains that there are no miracles, then there are no miraculous reports either, if these are taken to be reports of miracles. The Ostrich should also observe the difference between 'reports of miracles' and 'miraculous reports.'

>>Everything that happens, is caused, including happenings caused by God, of course. So there are no 'miracles' as types of events.<<

This is false if a miracle in the ontic sense, a miracle as a type of event, is a suspension of a law of nature caused by God.

Does the Ostrich think that a miracle is an uncaused event? Is he open to miracles at the quantum level?

Hume is not the starting point, philosophically or otherwise, but he is essential reading WRT miracles.

T. B. writes,

>>Reality is intrinsically intelligible only to the mind that created it.<<

This implies that nature as it is in itself is not understandable by us. (For we did not create it.) Do you really want to say this?

More later, perhaps. Busy now with computer hassles.

TB: Reality is intrinsically intelligible only to the mind that created it.

BV: This implies that nature as it is in itself is not understandable by us. (For we did not create it.) Do you really want to say this?

TB: I would not go that far but I would say that there are no guarantees (whatever) that nature (if created by God rather than natural processes simply set in motion by God) is understandable by us, since we work by discovery of patterns, regularities, natural laws. Our 'understanding' is absolutely based on the reliability of those natural laws - if they can be broken on a whim of an external creator, and such things seem whimsical and irregular to us, then by definition it means we do not understand how the universe works, not really.

But we could also come from a different angle. If we posit a 'first order reality' as being something consisting of real matter/energy with some coherence (= has discoverable laws), then it must be governed by those laws. If no such reality is possible, then any 'reality' is an illusion - there are only pseudo-realities which are essentially mental simulations, and have no need to obey any strong laws. If the thinker wants a bush to spontaneously combust, ignoring all apparent laws of physics of the simulation, no problem - just like in a computer game. Matter and energy are just concepts.

Aside: my motivation in this line of inquiry is to know what a reasonable man can believe in. Rudolf Bultmann explained away all biblical miracles except the death and resurrection - he thought the rest were unnecessary. Robert Graves got rid of them all in King Jesus, although that book might not be taken too seriously by biblical scholars (but his explanations of some miracles are interesting). Those who think they are all literally real (Feser, for example) don't take reality seriously, and tend to work only at an intersection of conveniently chosen metaphysics and sophistry.

Hi Bill,
I continue to struggle with this post, so please forgive me if my questions or comments are naïve or misinformed.

You write: “But if nature is whatever God wills, then there cannot be any ontic miracles. For nothing can act contrary to the will of God.”

My question: Why must the nature that God wills not be willed in such a way that He allows for special occasions when its ordinary operation is suspended or altered? In other words, the suspension of natural regularities is already an integral part of His initial willing: “I will a nature that operates with regularity (“laws of nature”), governed by a set of secondary, but divinely sustained, causes (against occasionalism), except in rare instances, already known to me (God outside of time knowing past, present, and future) when I choose otherwise (miracles). Would this initial willing of the laws of nature, since it is conditioned, not permit the ontic understanding of miracles?

Again, if the above is off the mark, forgive me, but since so much depends on the actual occurrence of miracles for a religious person, I must pose the question.

Vito

Hi Vito,

I value your comments. Please don't imagine that I have a worked-out theory of miracles. I am no expert on this topic, and when I write about it I am merely trying to sort out my ideas about it. I am mainly just trying to understand the problem of miracles (whether there is a genuine problem here and what exactly it is and how it is best formulated). This attempt at understanding is of course logically prior to any attempt at solving the problem (assuming it is a genuine problem and not a pseudo-problem). So there is no need for any apologies on your part.

To say that there cannot be any ontic miracles is to say that there cannot occur any events in nature that involve the suspension of natural laws. Your point is that God could will the existence of laws that allow for various local suspensions. I see no reason why not off the top of my head. But notice that if a law has certain exceptions built into it, then there would be nothing ontically miraculous about the occurrence of those exceptions.

The extremely intuitive law of the additivity of velocities was long believed to be a genuine law of nature. If a genuine law, then no exceptions! and any counterexample would be an ontic miracle. But we now believe that additivity fails at the speed of light. If Einstein and the boys are right, then an accurate law statement must include a 'codicil' if you will, namely, "at pre-relativistic speeds."

I need to say more, but perhaps my meaning is coming through. The summer is upon us here in the Sonoran desert and the sun is already high in the sky. Gotta go.

Question: Does not the religious contexts in which such local suspensions occur have a bearing on our evaluation of their character (miraculous or not miraculous)? In such a scenario, God, existing outside of time, ordains that such suspensions take place only when certain religious truths are proclaimed, or acts or ends need verification. The occasions for these suspensions thus depend on the contingent actions or teachings of human beings; when these conform to the divine will, God permits local suspensions of natural laws. Here, although God foresees these occasions, they are triggered by a relationship with humanity, which correctly regards them as miracles, in that they would not have occurred unless certain extraordinary states of affairs--prophetic truths, spritiual revelations, etc.--came into being. Without these conditions, the laws of nature would remain undisturbed. For example, the words of Jesus reveal essentials of God’s nature and intentions, so His prayer that the five thousand be fed engenders a suspension of the laws governing matter, and a small quantity of bread and fish are “miraculously” multiplied. Here, through a predetermined, but contingent suspension of the laws of nature, a miracle can be said to occur.

Vito,

But that leaves us with the problem of how the suspensions are possible in the first place.

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