Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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When Is Belief in Miracles Rational?

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.

Am I not condoning a highly irrational attitude, namely a bias against supernatural explanations? Isn’t there a point at which an unbiased observer ought to admit that the evidence points toward a supernatural intervention? Again, I claim that the answer is No. Certainly, I can imagine witnessing an event that violated what we now believe to be the laws of nature. For example, I can imagine witnessing a subatomic particle travelling faster than the speed of light. But why would I call that a miracle? The more rational response would be to say that we were wrong about the laws of nature.

Why am I being so stubborn about this? Am I not bringing an irrational, anti-supernaturalist bias to my investigation of the data?  No, I’m not. I am not saying that miracles cannot occur. For all I know, miracles happen every day. What I am saying is that seeing an event as a miracle is to treat that event as falling outside the bounds of science; and there is no amount of evidence that could force us to take such a stance.

What kind of evidence would somebody need to have in order to be rationally compelled to say that an event was a miracle? That person would have to know that this event could not possibly be explained by future science. But not only is such a belief unwarranted, it’s also bad for future science to believe it. If you encounter new data—say, a photon traveling faster than the speed of light—then as a scientist, your job is to find a way to explain it, to make it intelligible in scientific terms. To declare that an event was a miracle would be tantamount to saying: “I’m simply not going to try to understand this event in scientific terms.” (Now, there are perfectly good reasons to give up on seeing events in scientific terms; but these reasons have to do with human desires, not with evidence.) So, I say: as long as you’re trying to see the world scientifically, then you should refuse to believe that any event is a miracle. 

Of course, many religions claim that miracles have occurred. For example, the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain numerous claims of large-scale disturbances in nature (e.g. parting of the Red Sea), storms being calmed, the sick being healed, and the dead being raised. Am I claiming that such events did not occur and could not have occurred? Not at all. Am I claiming that a rational person should not believe these events occurred? Perhaps surprisingly, No. I think that it can be rational to believe the miracle stories told in Scripture.

(Although I’ll also immediately add that sophisticated religious believers recognize that these stories were written in a historical context, and thereby colored by the cultural assumptions of the time. When we read these stories, we bring different cultural assumptions and must take care to grasp the intended meaning of the stories.)

Technically, what I just said contradicts my earlier claim that you ought never to believe that an event was a miracle. So let me amend that claim: you ought never believe that a miraculous event occurred, unless such a claim is an integral part of a religious narrative, the whole of which is rational to believe. That’s a mouthful, so let me explain.

The Bible says that Lazarus rose from the dead. Does science tell you that it’s not rational to believe that? I don’t think so. First of all, I hate to destroy the image of all-powerful science, but “life” is still not well understood scientifically, and the concept doesn’t even come up in fundamental science—physics. Consequently, we really don’t know if there is a law of nature of the form, “Dead people don’t rise again.” The point here is simply that the biblical account traffics in concepts that simply do not figure in fundamental science. So believing these Biblical stories doesn’t require rejecting fundamental science.

What’s more, a person can rationally believe a biblical miracle story—for instance, that Lazarus rose from the dead—while remaining agnostic on the question of whether that fact is consistent with contemporary science. Even assuming (contrary to a great amount of evidence) that current science is correct and complete in all ways, and (contrary to what I claimed above) that current science says, “Dead people cannot rise,” still, if God exists, then God could certainly intervene to make it happen. After all, if God created the universe, then God can surely break a law of nature.

A religious person can believe that the miracle stories of the Bible are true, while remaining agnostic on scientific and metaphysical questions about the nature of these events—e.g., whether the laws of nature were violated, or whether the laws of nature are more permissive than we had supposed. Those questions are really beside the point when it comes to a simple affirmation that the events happened, that God brought them about, and that God is active in history. Leave it to the metaphysicians to speculate on how all of this is possible.

Thus, I have claimed, on the one hand, that you ought never believe that some event, which occurs outside of the biblical narrative, is a miracle.  (You might convince me that a rather surprising event occurred; I’ll just deny that it’s a “miracle” in any technical sense.) On the other hand, I’ve also claimed that it can be rational to believe in the miracle stories of the Bible—because the miracle stories in the Bible are relevantly different than the purported miracles of today. For instance, the miracle stories in the Bible were not intended to make the claim that an event occurred that violated the laws of nature. One can believe these stories without taking any stance on whether these events have a scientific explanation.

More importantly, the reason it might be rational to believe biblical reports of miracles is because these reports play a crucial role in a larger narrative, and that larger narrative might itself be rationally acceptable. And whether it’s rational to accept that larger narrative is one of the most difficult philosophical questions that humans have to face.

Hans Halvorson is Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

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