The subject has popped up again in a FaceBook discussion - that of Miracles, and whether or not they happen.

Kevin Moss | 19:45, 23rd April 2016

In the days when I had sufficient emotional resilience for the kind of systemic outpouring of bile which characterises the webforums, this was a common enough topic, usually closely connected with an almost pathological obsession with the regrowth of amputated limbs.

On this occasion, the imminent focus of the exchange was on the theme of openness to the idea of miracles, and then the actual definition we use for the word. I say "imminent focus" because these kinds of discussion rarely stay on track, and usually unravel like a knitted blanket being attacked simultaneously by several enthusiastic puppies. The two themes are, however, closely related: how we define our subject is usually an indication of how "open" our minds are to the possibility of a miracle.

Hume's definition and subsequent caveats are very far from reflecting a kind of "openness" to the very idea of miracles.

Typically, David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, defined a miracle as 'a violation of a natural law', asserted that such a thing was contrary to 'universal human experience', and then went out of his way to question the credibility of anyone who might wish to claim that such a thing had happened. Hume's view was not highly regarded at the time, and indeed was controverted by other Enlightenment thinkers such as John Stuart Mill. More recently, scientific development has led us to view natural laws as convenient constructs for how nature functions, and far less deterministic than Hume perceived them to be.

Hume's definition and subsequent caveats are very far from reflecting a kind of "openness" to the very idea of miracles. If we follow his line of thinking, we simply meander around in unprofitable circles: what do we get if a miracle is a 'violation of natural law', and 'natural laws cannot be violated'? Well, it certainly does not make a great deal of sense and if – if – someone could point to an incontrovertible miracle, then the Humean skeptic would simply readjust the 'natural law' to encompass it and – Bingo! – it would no longer be a miracle. Believe it or not, this line of reasoning has acquired the status of dogma within modern atheistic circles.

Hume took the step of rejigging the definition of miracles, contrary to the prevailing theistic view of his day. In so doing, he created a powerful polemic but engaged in poor philosophy, because his argument had to presuppose that God did not exist.

Craig Keener more usefully takes us back to a workable orthodoxy: a miracle may be defined as an extraordinary event with an unusual supernatural cause. He admits that the definition is not without its problems: from a theistic perspective, all the natural world has an ultimate supernatural cause – and, of course, words such as "extraordinary" and "unusual" are usually a matter of degree. We might, for example, wish to describe the incomprehensible sophistication in the fine-tuning of the universe in order to permit life as 'miraculous', but that's not the same thing as we are describing here, relating to events of great rarity within our individual experience. Science works, inductively, from 'normal', repeatable events, so by definition it doesn't have a great deal to say about miracles. If we are to be skeptical, then we should be so about the inaccurate claims that 'science' somehow rules out the miraculous.

We should be "open" to the idea of the miraculous, but that should not reduce it to an expectation of an everyday occurrence

And so we return, with weary steps to the idea of regrown limbs as some kind of 'proof' of the miraculous. The skeptic stands with his back turned resolutely to the mountain of documented evidence that Keener adduces in his two-volume treatise, and demands this particular miracle. No other will do. This is a modern variant of the "Just one more trick" demand of the skeptics of Jesus' day, wherein God is regarded as a kind of performing dog, who will caper and twist to the whims of those for whom skepticism has gone beyond a helpful device, and morphed into a dominating worldview. It is worth noting that this takes us back to the presuppositional atheism of Hume, for that kind of God, the doggie-god, who performs tricks at our beck and call, would be no God at all. And – of course – who knows? Who can say, given the evidence of so many other individual experiences of miracles throughout history, that lost limbs have not regrown? Keener's volume documents the regrowth of spinal disks or spleens lost previously to surgery, and the restoration of an oesophagus, eaten away by cancer – as well as innumerable other examples involving the repair or replacement of damaged organs, all as a direct outcome from prayer.

We should be "open" to the idea of the miraculous, but that should not reduce it to an expectation of an everyday occurrence.

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