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Saturday, April 30, 2022


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“So a miracle, I think, properly defined, is an event which the natural causes at a time and place cannot produce at that time and place. Or, more succinctly, a miracle is a naturally impossible event – an event which the natural causes at a certain time and place cannot bring about. It is beyond the productive capacity of nature.”

I am not sure what you think of this quotation of William Craig, but I am happy to see it posted by you, along with the link to Craig’s essay, since I believe that if conforms to the view of miracles that I was stumbling to express in my comment to your earlier post “Spinoza’s Epistemic Theory of Miracles,” when I wrote:

“What if we assume that “the order of nature” remains unchanged, intact, and that God acts through powers that are not encompassed by such laws? If this be the case, then no “laws” are interrupted or contravened; they remain fully operational; rather, God deploys other powers, unknown to us, not designed to govern the normal functioning of the universe, to accomplish special ends. They fall outside of and are superior to the space/time continuum of the natural world.”

I am convinded that we have to liberate our thinking from the confines of “the laws of nature,” and thus the entire Humean framework, in dealing with miraculous events.


I will attempt an evaluation of the Craig quotation, maybe today. I did have the impression that you were aiming at something along Craigian lines.

>>I am convinced that we have to liberate our thinking from the confines of “the laws of nature,” and thus the entire Humean framework, in dealing with miraculous events.<<

But surely there are laws of nature, else nature would be unintelligible to us. This goes back to a point that Thomas Beale made. Ceteris paribus laws are laws. Also: talk ofl aws of nature does not commit one to the whole Humean kit and kaboodle.

The Humean condition is one thing, the human condition another.

I am curious, Vito: do you find my points (1)-(6) clear? And do you agree with them?

Hi Bill.

I think that I understand your points 1-6, but I do not agree with 6, although I may well lack the means to express my disagreement with it in a rationally compelling way. I don’t dispute that “there are laws of nature, else nature would be unintelligible to us,” but I cannot accept the notion that a law of nature must be an “exceptionaless regularity.”

In this regard, I am thinking of the argument of Richard Swinburne, who regards a miracle as a “non-repeatable counter-instance” to a law of nature (R. Swinburne, “Violation of a Law of Nature,” in R. Swinburne, ed. Miracles, Oxford U Press, 1989). In such an instance, “If a putative law has broad scope, great explanatory power, and appealing simplicity, it may be more reasonable . . . to retain the law (defined as a regularity that virtually invariably holds) and to accept that the event in question is a non-repeatable counter-instance of that law than to throw out the law and create a vastly more complex law that accommodates the event” (summary of Swinburne's positon by Timothy McGrew, “Miracles,” SEP.

In this case, a law of nature, retaining its practical descriptive power, would still hold in virtually every instance, even though a non-repeatable counter-instance, a miracle, has occurred; thus, we could abandon the assumption of a law of nature as possessing “exceptionaless regularity” without losing our intelligible grasp of the world. And, by not insisting on “exceptionaless regularity,” we would not largely preclude the possibility of a miracle.

This approach allows for something like Craig’s understanding of a miracle to get off the ground, since in this unrepeatable instance, all things are not equal, for God has entered the equation in a startling fashion.

Anyway, for what they are worth, these are the thoughts of un vecchio storico.


Here's a thought. If what 'nature' is is debatable, and miracles are just epistemic failings on our part to understand the true 'deep' nature of nature... then it must be the case that the *true* versions of the law of gravity (violated by walking on water), the second law of thermodynamics (violated by the resurrection) etc, are in principle statable, explainable and would yield predictions for the future.

I would say that they are not. So-called miraculous interventions are not ruled by laws, because there are no laws that can be stated, and no explanatory framework that can be developed, that will cover literally anything happening. If the latter is not the case, then miracles are in fact subordinate to some system of natural laws, and therefore are limited in certain ways. So even if brain death and cell decay can be reversed (meaning localised time flows backward and forward at the same time, but only in exceedingly rare circumstances), there would in fact be some set of equations that explain this, just as quantum electrodynamics replaced earlier quantum theories and even earlier Newton laws.

Anyone who argues for 'anything goes' miracles (on the basis of God's omnipotence) is agreeing that the natural world cannot *in principle* be properly describable or explainable. Those who argue for 'limited miracles' of some sort are saying that there are in fact natural laws, but (cunningly) God has made them such that a sufficient amount of truly bizarre things are allowed on top of all the regular phenomena. But still they would be bona fide natural laws, and God would be just as subordinate to them as anyone else.

We then fall back to the question of why such extended laws of nature conveniently cover strange happenings in the bible and other holy books, but not more, and why those strange happenings appear truly unexplainable, not to mention unreproducible in modern times. How, after all, would we scientifically proceed on a search for the equations describing localised time-reversal? There's not even a starting point, and in any case, the historical evidence of it happening appears weak (compared to other more likely things). It is surely much more likely that the natural world is regular in the ways we have determined - at least, for basic laws like the laws of thermodynamics.

I think I return to my original point then: how in the above situation can we believe in miracles, and at the same time consider the natural world (God's creation, for the faithful) intelligible. Consequently how then can we think we could ever understand God's will?

I am still pondering the question of miracles, so I conducted a Google search of old Maverick Philosopher posts and came up with "Swinburne on Miracles: Quotes and Notes" from 11/21/2009 (https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/11/swinburne-on-miracles-quotes-and-notes.html), in which you present a very stong reasons for rejecting Swinburne's argument on miracles as "non-repeatable counter-instances" to laws of nature. This sentence of yours hits home and forces me to rethink my warm response to Swinburne's view: "Swinburne seems to be saying that if a formulation of a law of nature has repeatable counter-instances, then no law of nature has been violated, it is simply that a formulation of a law of nature has been shown to be false. But if a formulation of a law of nature has a non-repeatable counter-instance, then a law of nature has been violated. I don't get it." This is a potent objection.

You end the post with a question: "Why not say that these happenings are not miracles defined as violations of laws of nature, but simply marvels: events that do not violate any laws of nature but are presently inexplicable given our understanding of the laws of nature, an understanding that is of course limited?" Is this still your view, and if so, do you plan to elaborate on it?


Spending the morning pondering miracles, I find myself caught between your post from 2009 and that of Swinburne, so I went back to his “Violation of a Law of Nature," which appeared in 1970 (you fairly mention these are not considered in your post) and is reprinted in Miracles (Oxford U Press), edited by Swinburne in 1989. I may be wrong, but I think that his argument in the following paragraph that I copied from the essay may meet your objection, in that it appears to take into account not simply to the formulation of a law but the operation of the law "in the field" itself. Correct me if I am wrong, please. He writes:

But what are we to say if we have good reason to believe that an event E has occurred contrary to predictions of a formula L which otherwise we have good reason to believe to be a law of nature, and we have good reason to believe that events similar to E would not occur in circumstances as similar as we like in any respects to those of the occurrence of E? E would then be an non-repeatable counter-instance to L. In this case, we could say either . . . that L cannot be the law of nature operative in the field, since an exception to its operation has occurred, or that L is the law of nature operative in the field, but that an exceptional non-repeatable counter-instance to its occurrence has occurred. The advantage of saying the former is particularly obvious where universal laws are involved. As a universal law has the form “so-and-sos always do such and such,” it seems formally incompatible with a counter-instance reported by “this is a so-and-so, and did not do such and such.” Both statements cannot be true together, the argument goes; evidence in favor of the exception is evidence against the purported law. The advantage of saying the latter is however this. The evidence shows that we cannot replace L by a more successful law allowing us to predict E as well as other phenomena supporting L. For any modified formula which allowed us to predict E would allow us to predict similar events in similar circumstances and hence, ex hypothesi, we have good reason to believe, would give false predictions. Whereas if we leave the formula L unmodified, it will, we have good reason to believe give correct predictions in all other conceivable circumstances. Hence if we are to say that any law of nature is operative in the field in question we must say that it is L.


I've never understood why Hume's definition is so popular. Let's assume that there exist "laws" of nature (as many observed, that's also a precondition for discerning anything *not* natural, that is supernatural).

Hume's def exploits the naive reaction "This is naturally impossible!" equating it with a legalistic sentence "Here God has broken nature's laws", as explained in detail in the present post.
That is not what the naive sentence asserted, whose meaning was simply: "Nature's laws cannot explain what happened".
This assertion implies no violation: the idea is that *another* force is at play, and the primary evidence is that nature's laws do *not* behave this way.

Now, nature itself present us with different forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, and sub-nuclear ones) whose effects are often opposite one to the other, but nobody says that gravitation "violates" electromagnetism: rather, their combination explains what's happening. Interestingly, electromagnetism, which is immensely stronger than gravitation and whose effect dictate most of our experience, was understood only very recently as such - for most of human history it was considered a nice curiosity.

Not only that, but we are also quite familiar with volition causing effects "contrary" to natural laws (when I rise a glass of Brunello against gravity, because I like it); for this reason, quite understandably, we associate events not driven strictly by nature laws and showing a purpose with some form of intelligent cause.

Not a deeply philosophical analysis, but enough for me to accept that a supernatural force can possibly be present, which does not violate anything and is discernible because its effects are not natural (moreover, sometimes the event is preceded by prophetic explanation).


Thanks for the comment. >>Now, nature itself present us with different forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, and sub-nuclear ones) whose effects are often opposite one to the other, but nobody says that gravitation "violates" electromagnetism:<< That's right.

Your comment is in line with what I quoted W L Craig as saying about ceteris paribus laws. Here is a simple example. If two objects are thrown from a plane high above the Earth, they will fall at 32ft/sec/sec. Other things being equal. But if one of the objects is equipped with a functioning parachute, and it is deployed, then things are not equal, but the law in question is not violated.

The surface tension of water in the liquid state will not support a man's weight -- other things being equal. But suppose God intervenes so as to enable Jesus to walk on water. The possibility of divine intervention could be built into law statements so that no miracle violates any law of nature.

OK, but then the problem becomes one explaining how it is possible for there to be a 'vertical' causal input from a supernatural source into nature if nature is a closed deterministic system in which every event is necessitated by prior events.

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