Friday, February 1, 2013

Philosophical Friday: Miracles and "Natural Law"

Last week I made the point that since Scripture presents God as constantly upholding the created order, one could legitimately question whether a Christian should ever speak of the “natural world.” While we may speak of visible and invisible realities, we should never fall prey to the notion that the visible world is removed from the sustaining providence of God.

This naturally (ahem) leads to a discussion of “natural laws”
and the relationship of these laws to miracles. I have often heard Christians define miracles as “violations of natural law” (and I have often used that definition myself). Ironically, David Hume, the most influential skeptical philosopher of the English-speaking world, used this very definition of miracles in his famous argument against the possibility of miracles:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; 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. 
-An Enquiry ConcerningHuman Understanding
The logic here has a compelling ring to it. “Firm and unalterable experience” has established the existence of the laws of nature; therefore, violations of the laws of nature cannot occur.

But as compelling as this argument appears on the surface, it makes an assumption that is not consistent with the Christian worldview. It implies that natural laws are prescriptive rather than descriptive. A prescriptive law is one that prescribes or dictates what should happen, such as “Thou shalt not kill.” A descriptive law is a description of how things usually work. No one discovered a stone tablet with “what goes up must come down” inscribed on it. What we call the “law of gravity” is a description of what we have seen to be the case. And from a Christian point of view, what we are describing in formulas like the inverse square law of gravitation is how God ordinarily works in His sustaining care for the visible world. And indeed, for the benefit of creation itself, it is crucial that God’s providential care follow patterns of order and regularity that we can rely on from moment to moment.

But since “natural laws” are in fact descriptions of how God normally works, it is an enormous assumption to presume that God cannot depart from His usual pattern of operation and occasionally work in the visible world in ways that are out of the ordinary, that are extra-ordinary. What Christians claim is that the God who created the visible universe and holds it together by His power at times departs from His normal course of providence and does remarkable acts of power that only He could do. To dismiss even the possibility of miracles by sweeping them under the rubric, “violations of natural law,” is therefore to misunderstand the fundamental relationship between God and His creation.

What is peculiar to me about Hume’s insistence that miracles simply cannot happen is that the entire arguments runs counter to one of his most famous philosophical contributions, what philosophers call the “problem of induction.” Simply put, the problem of induction is that merely because B has been observed inductively to follow A in the past, this is no proof that B will follow A in the future. The only way to prove that such an inductive prediction will actually be the case is to inductively demonstrate it, thus assuming the validity of induction to prove the validity of induction (P is true because P is true!). Notice this excerpt from his Enquiry, Part II:

For all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.

Isn’t this the very basis of the Christian claim about miracles? That while past observance has indicated that water does not normally turn to wine, this is not a guarantee that it could not happen in the future, and that on one rare instance it was observed to do so? I do not see how Hume’s critique of miracles can stand up to his own rigorous analysis of the limitations of induction.

If one wants to argue that such testimony about miracles is flawed, or that other religions make miracle claims as well (Hume also made these sort of arguments), that is a different proposition to consider, one Christians can reasonably engage. But testing such historical claims is a different matter altogether from the philosophical effort to make miracles impossible a priori.

To my Christian friends, I suggest staying away from the “violation of natural law” definition of miracles, and instead put together a definition based on the biblical vocabulary: “mighty works” (dynamis); wonder (teras); “sign” (semeion). All three terms are used in Acts 2:22. Miracles are extraordinary works in the visible world that only God could do that evoke amazement in those who witness them and bear testimony to His power and to His word. Since miracles are to provide attestation to God, they must of necessity stand out from the normal or regular course of things. But the exceptional nature of miracles is not due to their “violating a law”, but to their departure from how God ordinarily interacts with creation. Such a definition seems to me to be more in line with an overall Christian view of reality, and avoids the mechanistic baggage associated with the phrase “natural law.” 

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