Thursday, March 06, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (13): Look at it as a miracle

I originally posted this in June of 2006, but it's worth bringing back up and putting into this sequence. There is more to be said, but this is a reasonable start.

(Something I wrote in 1995; I'm prompted to put it in from reading this and this)
‘The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle… For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of the term’ (Wittgenstein)
The "violation concept"
I suspect that if you asked the proverbial ‘man in the street’ what a miracle was you would end up with an account which referred to laws of nature being transgressed. Rather like the way the hand in the National Lottery adverts reaches in to the world to change the course of a person's life, so miracles are understood as the intervention of a divine actor into a system, transgressing the laws by which that system operates.

This sort of conception owes a lot to David Hume. He defined a miracle as
"a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent".
This can be described as the violation concept of miracle as it stresses two things: a system of natural laws which the world follows, and an intervention by God which violates those laws. This understanding of miracle has been exposed to severe criticism, in the first place by Hume himself.

Hume’s scepticism
Hume’s criticism of this conception is quite subtle, and very powerful. He does not deny that such events can occur, rather, what he says is that no reasonable person can believe that such an event has occurred. It is always more reasonable to believe that a person is mistaken than to believe that the laws of nature have been broken. Hume takes it as a fundamental principle that a reasonable person will always proportion his or her belief to the evidence available (he gets this from John Locke) and the evidence for there being natural laws is extremely strong, attested to by common experience and controlled experiments. In contrast the evidence for miracles is very poor.

Once we accept that we should apportion our belief according to the evidence, why should we believe in anything miraculous? We are never going to be in a position where it would be reasonable to believe that a miracle had occurred, one which was ‘attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in the case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time attesting facts, performed in such a public manner, and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable.’

There are four main elements to Hume's critique:
  • Testimony: no miracle is attested to by enough people of sufficient education and integrity to make us believe them;
  • Gullibility: we know that people are prone to look for `signs and wonders', and that they enjoy stories of marvellous events (and are prone to embellish them);
  • Ignorance: most stories of miracles come from `barbarous' cultures who do not know better;
  • Incoherence: if miracles truly established anything then there would be some coherence to what they seem to show. Instead the different miracles from different religions effectively cancel each other out.
There is actually a fifth point which can be added to this sceptical charge sheet. This is that, if presented with the evidence for a supposedly miraculous event, why should we look for a supernatural explanation? Wouldn't we now simply try and understand what had gone on, possibly by trying to reproduce the events leading up to the supposed ‘miracle’, trying to understand what has gone on - in essence trying to tie it in to our understanding of the world? The most amazing of events would only be seen as a miracle if that is the way a person’s preconceptions lead.

The moral case against the violation concept
Hume’s sceptical arguments are quite powerful, but they essentially come from outside a religious framework. I think that a more devastating critique of the violation concept comes from Maurice Wiles in his book God's Action In The World. In essence Wiles says that, if you accept the violation concept of miracles (and therefore of God’s action) then the God that is responsible for such action becomes monstrous. Such a God chooses to perform some relatively interesting but trivial tricks (eg let Jesus turn water into wine) but turns a blind eye to situations that horrify us such as Hiroshima or Auschwitz.

There are corollary problems for human action if the violation concept is accepted. If we act in a world with stable natural laws then we can plan our actions with some degree of certainty as to their probable outcome and effect. However, if we have a God who intervenes to change things from their expected course then an element of arbitrariness is introduced which trivialises our actions. In addition, unless we can have a degree of surety about the results of our actions then we cannot be responsible for them - if the world was such that a God could intervene every so often to change the course of events then God assumes that much greater a degree of responsibility for what happens in the world.

There is also an issue about divine consistency involved here, ie how consistent is a God who sets up the universe to operate according to certain laws, only for those laws to cease to hold at times and places that are religiously convenient for a particular grouping of people on a small planet on the edge of an average galaxy in a small corner of the universe?

The idea of a miracle as a violation of natural laws is only one way of understanding the nature of a miracle. I would say that it is in fact quite a modern conception - Hume has a lot to answer for. It presupposes a stable and ordered environment within which God can act - essentially a Deist framework, whereby the creation is a vast machine which only has to be started off and then left to its own devices. An alternative way of looking at miracles, (which I would also contend has a rather more substantial Biblical basis) is to think of miracles as a sign, and not involving any breach of natural law. Rather than a miracle being a particularly interesting event, to describe something as a miracle is to talk of a way of perceiving that event.

In the climactic scene of the film ‘Pulp Fiction’ there is a discussion of the nature of miracles. The characters played by John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are hit men for a particularly nasty LA mobster. They have recently carried out a ‘hit’ which almost went wrong - one person had hidden away while his friends were being killed, and he then attacks Travolta and Jackson. The person shot six bullets at them, all of which missed. In the circumstances - the gunman was not very far away, it was a powerful handgun &c - Travolta and Jackson should have been killed. In fact, every bullet misses, the gunman runs out of ammunition and our two ‘heroes’ then kill him instead.

What is interesting about this episode is the discussion in a cafe which follows. The shooting incident has affected them in different ways: the Jackson character sees the episode as miraculous - it provokes him to examine his life, and he says that, because God has spared his life it must be for some purpose; he then resolves to give up his life as a hit man and reform his character. For Travolta, however, they were simply lucky - the event was simply unexpected, but doesn’t make him think of anything religious, he does not see this as proof of divine intervention. The important point is that nor does the Jackson character. The fact that the event could have a perfectly ‘normal’ explanation is irrelevant - what was important is that it has provoked a change of view in the Jackson character, which now leads him to describe the event as a miracle.

A change in perception
As discussed above, there are severe problems with a violation concept of miracles. They are impossible to prove and even if proven, they cannot be the foundation of a religion - cannot prove a particular doctrine, or be necessary for religious doctrine (which gives a clue as to the nature of a religious doctrine). Furthermore, this notion of the miraculous emasculates human freedom and shows God as both bizarre (couldn't God do a better job?) and immoral (why did the heavens not darken over Auschwitz?)

These problems stem from the modernist background against which this conception of a miracle was formulated. A miracle is essentially something that provokes a sense of awe and awareness of the divine. It develops a religious understanding of the world. The crucial point about a miracle is that it changes the aspect under which reality is viewed. This involves perceiving something in a different way - it is not a question of new facts being available, which change the way that other facts are seen. Rather it is that the same set of facts are seen in a different way. To use a different vocabulary, changing the aspect is the same as a paradigm shift.

Miracles involve the same process: an insight is gained which changes the way that things are viewed. In the Pulp Fiction example, Jackson and Travolta don’t disagree about the events, they disagree about how to interpret them. A miracle happens when an event strikes you in such a way that you see the event in a religious light - a revelation. It is something that provokes an awareness of the divine at work in creation. It does not mean that a divine figure has decided to intervene at just that point in time, in reaction to our choices. This is why no wonders can be performed if the observers have no faith, or no propensity for faith - see for example Mt 13.58. A determinedly sceptical mind will never be able to see a miracle, they will always search for explanations that cohere with their sceptical outlook - just as the saint sees God in all things, so a sceptic sees the absence of God in all things!

This can be taken even further. Wittgenstein at one point discusses a priest who fakes a miracle, using red ink to show stigmata in a statue of Christ. He says ‘You are a cheat, but nevertheless the Deity uses you. Red ink in a sense, but not red ink in a sense.’ The sense in which it is not red ink is where the perception of it has religious significance. What distinguishes a miracle from the merely strange, improbable or monstrous is the question of religious significance, and that depends upon the entire outlook of the person viewing the event. This is why miracles cannot be produced on demand, and why they cannot be the foundation of a faith - the faith must come first.

To say of something that it is a miracle is not to say anything factual about it, it is to provoke a particular way of seeing it. A student once asked the Buddha, ‘How did you perceive the world before you were enlightened?’ The Buddha answered, ‘Before I was enlightened, when I looked at a mountain all I saw was a mountain, when I looked at a tree all I saw was a tree, when I looked at a stream all I saw was a stream’. ‘Ah!’ said the student, ‘Now that you are enlightened, what can you see now?’ The Buddha answered, ‘Now that I am enlightened, when I look at a mountain all I see is a mountain, when I look at a tree all I see is a tree, when I look at a stream all I see is a stream’.
"Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."

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