Are Miracles Possible?
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Are miracles possible?

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“Nothing can
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C.S. Lewis
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Are miracles rational?

BY ANDREW PINSENT

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. It is not irrational to believe in miracles in the sense of believing in something contradictory, like a square circle. Nor is it irrational to believe in miracles because they purportedly break the “laws of nature.” For a start, it is not always easy to identify what laws are being broken in specific reported cases, and our views of nature have changed anyway from the old view of the cosmos as a vast, law-like machine. Contemporary science suggests a more “organic” cosmos, including spontaneity and many phenomena that are natural but not easily described by laws, making it harder to specify a miracle as a law-breaking event.

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Opinions

Do Miracles Really Violate the Laws of Science?

Dr. Timothy McGrew is professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University.

The late Christopher Hitchens, in his debates with Christians, liked to put his opponents on the spot with a straight question or two, gravely asked. “Do you really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? Do you really believe that he rose from the dead?” If the Christian answered in the affirmative, Hitchens would turn to the audience with a theatrical flourish: “Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent has just demonstrated that science has done nothing for his worldview.”

It is always a shrewd move to paint one’s adversary as an enemy of science, and Hitchens rarely let slip an opportunity for good theater. But good theater is not always good reasoning. Did Hitchens really believe that first century Jews didn’t know where babies come from or that Roman soldiers didn’t know how to kill an unarmed man? Did he doubt that peasants in an agrarian society had seen enough death to know that in the natural course of things, men who are dead—completely dead, not just mostly dead—stay that way? Christians from Pentecost onward have been shouting from the rooftops the astounding message that Jesus, who was crucified and buried, had risen bodily from the dead. Did Hitchens really think he could show them up by suggesting that there is something out of the ordinary about the claim?

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Can Atheists Believe in Miracles? Can Theists Reject Them?

Elliott Sober is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Can atheists believe in miracles without contradicting themselves? Can theists disbelieve in them, again without contradicting themselves? In both cases, the answer depends on what you mean by a miracle.

Atheists believe that God does not exist. If a miracle is defined as an event that is brought about by divine intervention, then atheists are obliged to think that miracles don’t exist. However, if you adopt a different definition of a miracle, the situation is different.

People often speak of “the miracle of childbirth,” meaning that the event is awe-inspiring and welcome. Atheists can and do believe that miracles in this sense are not only possible; like their fellow theists and agnostics, atheists think it is obvious that such miracles actually occur. 

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The Ubiquity of the Miraculous

Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Is it possible to believe in miracles today? That might depend on how one defines “possible,” but certainly the majority of the world’s population does believe in what could be called miracles. This is true even in many parts of the secular Western world. Thus surveys over the past few decades have placed belief in miracles in the United States at roughly 80 percent. Indeed, one wide survey of physicians gave a figure of 73 percent, with over half of U.S. doctors believing that they had witnessed one.

Moreover, for many, the belief in miracles goes beyond the merely hypothetical to how they understand some of their experiences. One 2006 Pew Forum Survey of Pentecostals and charismatics in ten countries suggests that some 200 million people from these groups claim to have witnessed divine healing. Even more surprising, 39 percent of Christians in these countries who did not identify as Pentecostal or charismatic claimed to have witnessed divine healing.

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The Irrationality of Belief in Miracles

Larry Shapiro is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Consider one of the “big” miracles, by which I mean those that require divine intervention. Events that are simply awe-inspiring or marvelous—like the “miracle” of childbirth or the Miracle on Ice—don’t count. Instead, consider examples such as Jesus rising from the dead or turning water into wine; Moses parting the Red Sea; a trace of oil burning for eight nights. Events like these require divine intervention because, presumably, without such intervention the natural laws according to which the universe marches would have prevented them from happening.

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At Twilight of the Sabbath Eve

Lenn Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.

Biblically, there is bound to be some tension between talk of miracles and thoughts of nature, with God its guarantor. The Talmudic Rabbis seek to ease the tension by imagining the prominent exceptions to nature’s regularity woven into its fabric from the start:

Ten things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korah and his cohort (Numbers 16)], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the mouth of the she-ass [of Balaam (Numbers 22:28)], the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-17), the manna (Exodus 16:14-26), Moses’ rod (Exodus 4:17, etc.), the Shamir [whose tracks cleaved the stones for Solomon’s temple, lest any iron tool desecrate it with even a suggestion of bloodshed (Exodus 20:22, 1 Kings 6:7)], the letters, writing, and tablets [of the Decalogue (Exodus 24:12)].... And some say, the tongs made with tongs. (Mishnah Avot 5.8)

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The ShamWow! Argument for the Possibility of Miracles

Kelly James Clark is the Senior Research Fellow, as well as a visiting professor of Religious Studies and Honors, at Grand Valley State University.

Imagine for a moment Bob, an extraordinarily gifted terrarium maker. Bob builds and outfits one of his extraordinary terrariums (terraria?) and places in it some baby salamanders. No ordinary salamanders, these: when mature, they have the brain capacity of a human being: fully human thinking capacities in a salamander brain (to paraphrase the Genie from Aladdin, “phenomenal cognitive powers…itty bitty living space.”). Bob’s terrarium is a nearly perfect living space for his brainiac amphibians. The terrarium has an equilibrium of vegetation, temperature, water, air, and everything else that salamanders require for their existence. They never multiply beyond what their limited space can handle. And their feces and dead bodies, along with the decaying flora, fertilize future flora as needed to sustain life. In order to preserve the equilibrium, a light regularly turns on at increasing and then decreasing intervals as it moves slightly around the top perimeter over the course of a year. Finally, the terrarium is made of glass that is opaque to salamanders but transparent to Bob. 

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When Is Belief in Miracles Rational?

Hans Halvorson is Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

A recent New York Times bestseller presents numerous accounts of surprising events in the lives of everyday people, arguing that these events were miracles. Should you believe it? My answer here is simple: for any event you experience in your life, no matter how strange, surprising, or wonderful, you should not believe that it is a miracle. Similarly, if somebody tells you that a miracle occurred, you should not believe him.

Really? What if an oncologist is 100 percent certain that her patient has terminal cancer and cannot possibly recover? And yet, when that person’s church holds a prayer vigil, miraculously the next day, the cancer is gone. Would it be rational to suppose that a miracle occurred? I’m sorry to sound harsh, but the answer is No. The oncologist, and everybody else, should continue believing that there is a perfectly cogent scientific explanation for the patient’s recovery.

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Does God Intervene in the World?

Owen Gingerich is Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard University.

The word miracles derives from the Latin word for wonder.

I asked several of my friends what is the greatest wonder in the universe today, and the most common answer was the same as mine: the birth of a human baby. The complexity of the process from a microscopic beginning to a macroscopic infant is wondrously awesome. And to top this off, the human brain is the single most complicated thing we know about in the entire universe.

But in common usage, wonderful is not the same as miracle. To be a miracle there has to be something unexpected, something that goes against the grain of ordinary experience.

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Personal Miracles

Susan Grove Eastman is Associate Research Professor of the New Testament at Duke University.

Are miracles possible? This is a distinctly modern question. It presumes the existence of a “natural world” governed by laws that must be broken for a miracle to occur and a “spiritual world” of divine action that may operate contrary to the laws of nature. But if we take off the post-Enlightenment lenses that make such a distinction between the natural and the spiritual realms, then the question looks very different.

For example, the Greek word translated “miracle” in the New Testament writings of the first century is dynamis, or “power.” Think “dynamite.” When Jesus does “works of power,” the point is not that he contravenes some independently existing natural order, but that he personally enacts the presence and power of God. There were other “miracle workers,” both Jewish and pagan, in the ancient world; the “possibility” of such demonstrations of power was not debated. What mattered was determining their source. How do we recognize a powerful event as coming from God? The question is not, “Are miracles possible?” but, “How do we know or recognize God’s action?” And that question takes us to questions about how we know anything or anyone at all. In answer to this question, the writings of some contemporary cognitive scientists and the ancient letters of Paul converge in surprising ways.

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Has Science Subsumed the Miraculous?

Stephen Barr is Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware.

For many “scientific skeptics,” the most absurd aspect of religion is belief in miracles. The miracles claimed by Christianity are looked upon in the same way as magic spells, voodoo dolls, and Ouija boards; and the prophesies of Isaiah or Christ are seen as just as baseless as the predictions of Tarot cards or fortune tellers.

In this view, nothing could be more antithetical to modern science than miracles. Fundamental to science is the conviction that phenomena have rational explanations, whereas belief in miracles supposedly reflects an obscurantist hankering after the mysterious and inexplicable. The prestigious scientific journal Nature famously gave voice to this opinion in a 1984 editorial:

[F]ar from science having “nothing to say” about miracles, the truth is quite the opposite. Miracles, which are inexplicable and irreproducible phenomena, do not occur.

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A Deeper Vision of Nature

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and author of the acclaimed biography C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).

Debates about miracles have become fairly predictable set pieces these days, partly because the arguments on both sides are so familiar. One of the problems is that so much seems to depend on definition. David Hume famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” raising the difficult question of what it would mean for a “law of nature” to be violated. If the laws of nature are simply summative statements of natural regularities, an apparent “violation” of those laws could be seen as a miracle—but would more reasonably be taken as an indication that what had hitherto been assumed to be a “law of nature” was actually nothing of the sort. No law of nature was violated, because it wasn’t a “law” in the first place.

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