“Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!” This is reportedly how
renowned atheist Bertrand Russell replied when asked what he would say if he had
to front up to God and explain why he never believed.i Contemporary atheist
Richard Dawkins comments “God's existence or non-existence is a scientific fact
about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice. If he existed and
chose to reveal it, God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and
unequivocally, in his favour.“ii
Miracles. They would be so convenient. Imagine the arguments we could settle, if
we could point to a few well-placed and well-timed miracles. Maybe we can! The
Bible is full of accounts of the miraculous. Can we trust them? Some people want
to see miracles in order to believe in God (“If God would just...then I'd believe) and
others want to know if it's possible that Jesus really did rise from the dead or walk
on water. The aim of this essay is not to address whether or not miracles do
happen, but rather lay the groundwork for how you might approach that question.
To that end, the content will be collected into three sections: the definition of
miracles, the possibility of miracles, and the plausibility of miracles.
Definition of miracles
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Philosopher David Hume, in his 1748 treatise, An Enquiry concerning Human
Understanding, wrote, “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature”.iii While this
definition has led to much helpful discussion on miracles over the past few
hundred years, the definition itself has not stood the test of time for several
reasons. First, it is anachronistic. The concept of and words for miracles are at least
as old as human civilisation, while the concept of laws of nature was only coming
into use in Hume's own time. Nature, or the created order, was indeed understood
to be ordered, but ordered by the consistent behaviour of God or gods, whose
prerogative it was to alter that ordering for their own reasons whenever they
chose. There was no concept of a god who created mathematical laws that then
ran the universe without further input from the deity. Whatever was meant by
miracle in biblical times, for example, it wasn't a violation of the laws of nature.
Second, it is ambiguous. One need only ask to which laws of nature Hume is
referring to see that there is a problem. Is he referring to Newtonian gravity or
Einstein's general relativity? Under Newtonian gravity, the precession of Mercury's
orbit would have to be defined as a miracle because it violated the established laws
of nature. That is, what makes something a miracle rather than simply another
piece of data that needs to be accounted for in an updated law of nature? How do
I know if what I have observed is a miracle or a natural phenomenon that I've never
seen before? Hume's definition assumes an 'end-of-history' view of his own time.
The present is the pinnacle of human achievement.
Third, it is circular. The definition assumes the answer to the question of whether
miracles are possible. In Hume's day, 'laws of nature' were mathematical certainties
about the universe, by definition, in violable. By defining a miracle as a violation of
an inviolable law, Hume has defined miracles out of existence without ever having
to consider whether any given miracle might have happened.
A more helpful definition of miracle can be found in The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy where it states, “A miracle is an event that exceeds the productive
power of nature”.iv While this definition isn't specifically religious, it takes account
of supernatural possibilities by not closing the universe in the definition. That is, it
doesn't place any constraints on the type of intervention that might have caused
the event. While it is possible in principal to describe a biblical miracle that doesn't
require this definition, e.g. the wind blew back the water at the Red Sea (Exodus
14:21-22), the conjunction of the timing, the need for Moses to stretch out his arms,
and the ultimate effect of the wind, suggest that this is something nature wasn't
going to do if left to itself. On the other hand, the definition covers other defining
moments, like the resurrection of Jesus, without any qualification.
We will now consider the question of whether miracles are possible at all.
Possibility of miracles
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The question of whether or not a miracle is possible is entirely trivial. The answer is
yes, and, well, no, depending on who you are. Before we turn to consider those
answers, we need to first make a clarification.
Our definition of a miracle takes into account neither any current ignorance in
relation to the workings of the physical universe nor any future progress in
understanding the same. Given a finite level of ignorance, any event, when first
observed, could be concluded as to have exceeded the productive power of
nature. By our definition then, at that time, a miracle has occurred. However, as
our understanding increases, we may discover the physical mechanisms behind
that event and realise the event was, after all, within the productive power of
nature. At that point, the event ceases to be a miracle. That is, even though the
definition is couched in absolute terms, any given event can only be considered
within the context of the contemporary understanding of the productive power of
nature, so the pronouncement of 'miracle' must necessarily be tentative. Nature
does have a limit to its productive power, therefore allowing us to discuss the
possibility of miracles, but, because of our ignorance of that limit, the designation
of any individual event will always include 'as far as we know'.
The question of the possibility of miracles is trivial because it is a matter of logic
rather than the messiness of measurement. I believe in the God of the Christian
Bible. That God created the universe and everything in it, he owns it and rules over
it, and has the freedom and power to alter it in any way he choses at any time.
What we experience as the seemingly unalterable laws of nature are merely the
faithful behaviour of the creator and sustainer of the universe. Given that belief,
miracles are possible. That is, the possibility of miracles follows directly from my
presuppositions about the nature of the world. Are miracles possible? Yes! Did
Jesus rise from the dead? Maybe, maybe not. However, could he have risen from
the dead? Absolutely. My particular 'God' presupposition immediately renders
miracles possible.
You may not believe in my God or in any gods at all. For the sake of making the
comparison, let's say you believe in Naturalism, the view of the world that says that
what exists is only the common matter and energy that Science is so good at
understanding and that there are no supernatural entities, and, therefore, no
supernatural causes, no spiritual dimension to the world. In your view of the world,
the answer to the question of whether miracles are possible is equally trivial, no. If
the natural is all there is, then nature will never exceed its own productive power.
It may surprise us from time to time, causing us to change our description of the
laws of Physics, but, by definition, nothing can be a miracle.
Hume continues from his definition of a miracle, “and as a firm and unalterable
experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very
nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be
imagined.”v Later, “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every
miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”vi His
point is straightforward, it doesn't make sense to call something a miracle unless it
is impossible. He goes on to say, “in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any
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fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree”.vii That is, within
Hume's view of the world miracles are impossible, and, while that will cause him to
disregard certain facts that don't fit neatly, his presuppositions don't allow any
other conclusion.
Human beings will never be free from their presuppositions, whether Christian,
Atheist, or Muslim, and, in the 21st century, Richard Dawkins has also declared his
hand along these lines. In his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins says
An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who
believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no
supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe,
no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles -- except in the sense of
natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. If there is something
that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly
understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the
Any evidence presented to him that does not fit current theories is to be
interpreted as a “natural phenomenon that we don't yet understand,” because the
presupposition of his naturalistic worldview is that there cannot be any
supernatural forces at work. Bertrand Russell may not really have had an excuse
since it may not be the lack of evidence from God's side, but rather Russell's own
presuppositions, that kept him from seeing the evidence!
Are miracles possible? No! Will strange things happen from time to time?
Absolutely. Could Jesus have risen from the dead? Sure, but, if he did, it's a natural
phenomenon that I don't yet understand.
The answer to the question of the possibility of miracles depends entirely on your
view of the nature of our universe, so as you draw your conclusions about any
particular claim to the miraculous, perhaps insert an appropriate degree of humility
to account for the influence of your worldview.
Plausibility of miracles
As we investigate the plausibility of miracles, we need to take on a third
perspective, that of the agnostic. That is, there might be something more than just
the physical, not sure, but willing to listen. In this section, we take on the question
of how to understand and evaluate claims to the miraculous. In order to do that,
we will work through two different issues: the difference between proof and
reliability and how different fields of knowledge measure reliability. Our method
will be to examine three different types of knowledge: rational, scientific, and
Proof and reliability
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Rational knowledge is knowledge derived from working within a system of objects,
rules, and operations. It is deductive. It takes the given objects and manipulates
them according to the appropriate rules and operations. An example of this kind
of investigation is Geometry. I can prove to you that the three inscribed angles of a
triangle always add up to 180°.
Here is a triangle with inscribed angles α, β, and γ.
Let’s put our triangle between two non-intersecting lines, or parallel lines. Any line
segment is the diameter of a circle, which means it has to sweep out 180°, or half a
circle. Now we have that α1+α+α2=180°, but, because these lines are parallel,
α1=β and α2=γ, so, substituting for α1 and α2, we have α+β+γ=180°.
We haven’t assumed anything special about our triangle, and simply used the rules
of the game of geometry to manipulate a few objects. We have proven that the
three inscribed angles of any triangle will always add up to 180°. Given the rules of
the game, there are no grounds on which to dispute that truth. It is a certain piece
of knowledge and it makes sense to say we have proven it.
That is rational knowledge. Let’s compare that with scientific knowledge.
Science takes on different forms, but, typically in the hard sciences like Physics and
Chemistry, knowledge gained is primarily founded on repeatability. The sun rose
today, yesterday, the day before that, and so on. Every night before going to bed
we can say to ourselves, ‘on average, in the past, the sun has risen about 12 hours
from the time it set, and I predict it will do so again tomorrow.’ We use the
observation of the repetition of particular events to generalise about the way the
world works in a more universal way. We make predictions based on repeated
successes in the lab.
Take our triangle from before. The scientific method for determining whether it is
true for all triangles that the three inscribed angles add up to 180° would be to
measure the inscribed angles of a triangle. Then measure the angles of another.
And another. And another. After a while, finding that they always add up to 180°,
you might decide you had done enough to make a prediction. Your prediction
would be that the three inscribed angles of any triangle add up to 180°.
What you need to notice here, however, is that you have not proven anything. The
only thing you can ever prove using the scientific method is that your theory is
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wrong, not that it’s right. There are more triangles to be measured. If you’ve
measured every one you can find, I can draw another one on a piece of paper to
measure. You will never know if the next one you measure will fit your prediction.
You cannot know. This is a fundamentally different way of knowing something
than our rational knowledge.
In Science, reliable information is information that is derived from repeatable
observations. Proof is not the issue. Proof is about certainty, scientific knowledge
is about reliability. Science is always one observation away from disproving any
theory, law, or hypothesis. It is not about certainty, but rather reliability.
In our comparison of certainty and reliability, we’ve seen that knowledge of the
way our world works is fundamentally uncertain, and yet, reliable. In fact, reliable
to the point that we trust it to get on a plane for a 14 hour trip over the Pacific
Ocean. We trust it to go to the top of the Sydney Tower and lean on the glass as
we look down on the city below.
To tackle the issue of how different fields of knowledge measure reliability, we will
now examine historical knowledge.
Measuring reliability in different fields of knowledge
How do you know that World War I happened? Someone told you. Do you believe
them? Why? When it comes to history, we’re dealing with, yet again, a different
way of knowing something. How do we know that a piece of information like
World War I happened is reliable?
Have scientists gone to the lab and reproduced the conditions under which it
started and rerun the experiment? Having been successful, have they run dozens
of more trials to confirm the early success? Historical events are by definition nonrepeatable. Historical events are not accessible to scientific investigation. That is
not to say that the methods and tools of Science cannot be applied to aspects of
historical investigations, e.g. chemical analysis of pottery or papyrus, but what that
is doing is establishing the credentials of various sources rather than running
experiments in history. Scientific knowledge is based on repeatability. History is all
about singular events.
Primarily, reliability in History is based on what you can discover about the sources
of your information. You might want to know both the chronological and
geographical distance of a source from the events they are describing. The closer
in time a source is to the events being described, the more weight given to it in
evaluating what we think really happened. Also, if a source is a historian writing
from half way around the world with no obvious contact with the events they are
describing, one might be rightly suspicious of the information. Then you would
weigh up the number of sources. Are they independent? What information about
the events do they corroborate? What new information does each provide, and
does that information fit with the rest? Also, the bias of the sources. Might they
have a vested interest in a particular viewpoint? These are the various things
historians consider as they decide on the reliability of any historical information.
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The important thing to note here is that when their deliberations are completed
and they make a pronouncement about whether or not some event happened and
how it happened, it is taken as true (in proportion to the reliability of the sources).
It becomes a piece of knowledge in the annals of history. Is it certain? No. Is it
scientific? No. Is it reliable? Yes. It’s history, and just as scientists are allowed to
make pronouncements about when they think they have collected enough data to
be confident of a pattern, so to we must let historians make pronouncements
about the events they study, and we ought take their word for it because they
know how to measure reliability in that field. The same courtesy we offer the
They haven’t proven anything either, but according to the way they test
information, it is reliable. Different fields of knowledge. Different ways of knowing.
The information can and ought to still be classified as reliable.
In contemporary Western society, there is a general perception that Science is the
best or perhaps even the only way of knowing information. That is called
Scientism, the view that Science is the only reliable form of knowledge. Dawkins
falls into that category, for example.
So where does life come from? What is it? Why are we here? What are we
for? What is the meaning of life? There's a conventional wisdom which says
that science has nothing to say about such questions. Well, all I can say is
that if science has nothing to say, it's certain that no other discipline can say
anything at all.ix
You can see the effect of this perspective on his view of historical knowledge in
another passage from The God Delusion.
Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his
birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is
still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no.
Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he himself come alive again,
three days after being crucified? There is an answer to every such question,
whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific
answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely
event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and
entirely scientific methods.x
From what we've seen in our discussion of history, this view on the resurrection of
Jesus is disquietingly unbalanced. It is true that, if we had DNA of Jesus from, say,
the Shroud of Turin, and we found bones in an ossuary in Jerusalem that had
matching DNA, Science will have contributed to our understanding of that piece of
history by confirming the nature of the historical source under consideration. That
is called Forensic Science. However, it is not true that our methods for
investigating the resurrection of Jesus must be purely and entirely scientific. It is
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not “a strictly scientific question”. Historical methods have much to say on the
Maybe you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. Maybe you think Science tells
us that people don’t rise from the dead. In fact, what Science tells us is that, on
average, in the past, people haven’t risen from the dead, and Science makes the
reasonable prediction that nobody will rise from the dead. But what Science can’t
tell you is whether anyone has ever risen from the dead.
Science can neither explain nor deny, it, but history can investigate it. The
resurrection of Jesus is a non-repeatable event, which cannot be investigated
directly by Science, but must be reckoned with historically. But do not write it off
because it is not scientific. Most of what you know about the world is not scientific.
Are miracles plausible given an open universe? Yes, but the methods by which we
will weigh the evidence are historical rather than scientific.
A miracle is an event that exceeds the productive power of nature. How you judge
the possibility of miracles will depend on your view of the nature of the world.
However, given assumptions that allow the possibility of miracles and given
reliable historical evidence, believing in any particular claim of the miraculous is
For those who want God to do something spectacular for them, so that they can
believe, let me point you to the words of Jesus who, 2000 years ago, was familiar
with that argument. He was telling a story of a man who died and went to hell, but
who was asking God (father Abraham) to warn his family, so they wouldn't end up
like him.
“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them,
they will repent.’ “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the
Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
(Luke 16:30-31)
God has been shouting at people for several thousand years in the pages of the
Bible, if they won't listen to God there, then miracles won't help. God could clinch
the argument, says Richard Dawkins, by doing something really spectacular. “If
God just appeared in front of me, I'd believe.” God says, “No, you wouldn't.” In fact,
Jesus was God standing in front of them, who later did rise from the dead, and
people still wouldn't believe. If you're looking for evidence for God, don't look for
miracles, read the Bible.
Wesley Salmon, "Religion and Science: A New Look at Hume's Dialogues," in
Philosophical Studies 33 (1978), p. 176.
Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p50
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Hume, David, Of Miracles, in Hume on Religion, Richard Wollheim (ed.),
(London: Collins, 1963), p 210
iv http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/
v op cit, Hume, p210
vi op cit, Hume, p211
vii ibid, p213
op cit, Dawkins, p14
ix Dawkins, Richard, The Magic of Reality, (London: Bantam Press, 2011), p257
x op cit, Dawkins, The God Delusion, p59
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