David Hume, god, miracles, religion, philosophy

Are Miracles Possible?

Miracles are inconsistent with the idea of God, and we have no reason to believe miracle testimony, despite it being used to prove God’s existence.

The alleged occurrence of miracles is often considered by theists to be strong evidence for the existence of God. It is a phenomenon present in almost all of the world’s religions. It is an attempt to explain an event the causes of which are unknown and, as theists argue, physically inexplicable, untraceable, and therefore attributable to the actions of a non-physical entity.

The occurrence of miracles and their theological significance, however, cannot be accepted with such ease, as there are a number of problems concerning the nature of miracles, their possibility in the real world, and their consistency with the notion of God.

god, miracles, religion, philosophy, David Hume

Defining God and miracles

For the purposes of this article, I am going to use the definition of God as used in Christianity. Some attributes that are assigned to God and that will be useful in setting forth the arguments of this article are: omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, and holy.

Probably the most widely-known and accepted definition of miracles was given by David Hume in Section X of his book An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, titled Of Miracles:

‘A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.’

Other definitions include ‘an event that exceeds the productive power of nature’, given by St Thomas Aquinas, and ‘irregular and non-repeatable occurrences in the natural world which are brought to the world by a supernatural agent’, given by David Alan Johnson.

Again, for the purposes of this article, I am going to use Hume’s definition of a miracle. This is by no means an exhaustive definition, nor is it exempt from criticism. It satisfies, however, the widely-held conception of a miracle as something that happens externally, ‘over and above’ the physical realm, and is the definition that most philosophers of religion have used in their writings. Problems that may arise with this definition will be addressed to avoid ambiguities.

Reporting a miracle and testifying for it

It is true that most, if not all, knowledge of miracles comes either from testimony from other people or from one’s own personal experience. Hume mostly dealt with the nature of testimony.

Hume heavily questioned the extent to which one can believe the testimony of others when they report a miracle. ‘One must always proportion their belief to the evidence’, he said. Therefore, when someone reports a miracle, the report must not just be ‘wishful thinking’ or ‘mere belief’, but a statement that comes after careful consideration of the facts. Great stress needs to be put in the vulnerability of witnesses to be influenced by what they wish or what they think to be true.

In fact, Hume put forth various criteria as to whom can be considered a reliable source of information regarding miracles. He said that people who report an event, in this case miracles, should be of ‘unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.’ Also, he acknowledged that religious people are often influenced by wonder, mentioning that ‘A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality’, when making his case for delusions regarding sight of miraculous events.

It is indeed true that when someone reports an event as ‘miraculous’, it is more probable that they are either lying, mistaken, or having been deceived, rather than that an actual miracle has occurred, Hume says. Believers are too quick in trying to find non-physical explanations for an event that they then, in their own terms, label as a miracle. For this reason, I would not only argue that one must exhaust all possible natural explanations for a given event that is described as miraculous, but also that one needs to suspend giving an explanation for an event until the natural sciences manage to explain the phenomenon.

What is more, Hume establishes a very strong condition that a testimony of an event needs to satisfy in order to be called a miracle. He says: ‘No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless its falsehood is more miraculous than the fact which it tries to establish.’

A miracle, then, would be an occurrence the denial of which would be more miraculous than the event it attempts to explain. Miracles, however, are falsely reported, as eyewitnesses and third-parties are unable or unwilling to find a physical explanation for an event, swayed by their own beliefs and wishful thinking.

One could say that all possible physical explanations for an event need to be examined before a particular event is called a miracle. Two points need to be made, though. One, even if all possible physical explanations for an event are to be examined and none proves sufficient, this gives us no reason to attribute the occurrence of the event to an intervention by a supernatural agent. Doing that would make us victims of a false dichotomy.

Two, even if an explanation is found for an event which can be called, under Hume’s terms, ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, this is not to be labeled as miraculous.

It is important to note that the above arguments do not concern the logical or metaphysical impossibility of miracles happening, but they are simply arguments that one has very little to no reason to believe that a miracle had occurred on the basis of testimony.

It is difficult to dismiss the possibility of miracles simply by referring to the unreliability of testimony, as the theist can argue that miracles could still take place if there are no eyewitnesses, and therefore no testimonies.

Hume’s arguments against testimony provide a plausible reason as to why one must not believe testimony unless some criteria are satisfied. However, I believe, it does not render miracles impossible, in principle.

Instead, the case against miracles needs to be made from a metaphysical point of view.


Is a miracle really ‘a violation of the laws of nature’?

This gives rise to a possible objection to Hume’s definition, although not a strict one. Events reported as miracles can simply be treated as opportunities to revise and expand our knowledge of the physical world. If one treats an event e as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, then what the occurrence of this event tells us is that something previously believed to be a law of nature, was never actually a law of nature. Something cannot be violable and still be called a law of nature. What happens in such cases is that what was previously believed to be a law of nature is updated; that is, it remains in place (or in some cases, it is wholly disregarded) and further conditions are added to it.

To explain, let’s take the case that it is a physical law that the speed of light in a vacuum is 1.08×109 km/h. However, one day, a speed of 1.09×109 km/h was reported by some scientists working under some particular condition x. What does this tell us? First of all, scientists should investigate whether this measurement is accurate, whether they have been deceived, or whether their calculations were wrong. That is, they should eliminate all possible physical explanations for the event. Now, either scientists will find that that measurement was a false report, or they will accept that under condition x, the speed of light increases. They will need to prove, beyond all doubt, how the physical law was ‘broken’, if that was the case, and not report the occurrence as miraculous just because an anomaly occurred.

Therefore, in the case that the speed of light indeed was 1.09×109 km/h, no event that can be reported as a miracle took place, because there was no law of nature to be violated in the first place. The anomaly that was observed was obviously not part of what was previously believed to be a law of nature, but simply provided the opportunity to update the previously thought law of nature to include the anomaly. A violation of the laws of nature is, then, a contradiction in terms.

‘Events reported as miracles can be simply treated as opportunities to revise and expand our knowledge of the physical world.’

A more extreme example should help clarify any confusion. Let’s suppose that someone says, ‘Person S has been raised from the dead 3 days after they died’; what shall we take from that? Either the eyewitness of the alleged miracle is lying, mistaken, or having been deceived, or person S had been raised from the dead. This is a case where our refusal to label the event as a miracle is not more miraculous than the facts which it tries to explain.

However, even if the eyewitness is indeed honest and reliable, and S did actually rise from the dead, we still cannot call the event a miracle. What needs to happen, in this case, is examine under which conditions S rose from the dead and revise which law of nature should apply in this case. The law, then, that ‘A dead person remains dead and cannot be revived after 3 days of being dead’ should be revised as ‘A dead person remains dead unless such-and-such happens which makes it possible for them to be revived after 3 days of being dead’.

God or no God? No difference for miracles

Setting the case of testimony aside, miracles are used most of the time, if not all of the time, as proof for God’s existence. In fact, another definition of a miracle that is given by Hume is

‘A miracle is a transgression of a Law of Nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent.’

However, the impossibility of miracles still persists both in worlds in which God exists, and worlds in which It (i.e. God) doesn’t.

Spinoza makes a very valid point regarding the impossibility of miracles. He argues that in a world where God exists, we are supposed to believe that nothing differs from the will of God. In fact, laws of nature are identical with the will of God. What Spinoza argues, then, is that as the will of God cannot be violated, natural laws cannot be violated either.

What is more, miracles are sometimes referred to as violations of the common course of nature, in an attempt to avoid reference to physical laws. However, it is questionable whether God’s actions take place outside the common course of nature and to what extent Its actions are violations of the common course of nature. Whichever course nature has chosen to follow, that is identical to the course that God willed, and any intervention by God is still part of this course that nature takes. A natural law and, similarly, the common course of nature, cannot be immutable and violated at the same time.

Simply put, for God to be able to intervene in the physical world, it must either be the case that God has some physical properties, or that the physical world has some non-physical properties. This is necessary for any relation between a physical and non-physical object to be made. It is doubtful whether a purely physical and a purely non-physical entity would be able to interact with each other without sharing some common property, even a relational one. In any case, an intervention of God into the world is adopted and incorporated in the common course of nature, and therefore no violation is taking place.

‘A natural law and, similarly, the common course of nature, cannot be immutable and violated at the same time.’

In addition, the same rules apply in a world where God does not exist. It is much easier, in such a world, to see how every action is part of the common course of nature. In a world where God does not exist, there is nothing that can bring about a violation of natural laws, if such a violation is even possible in some form. Violations of natural laws require action from ‘outside the universe’, as Matt McCormick argues, and if no such action can be taken in principle, then it means that miracles are not possible in a world where God does not exist.

Image source: Good Samaritan Ministries

Sorry, no miracles here

Defining a miracle as something that takes place outside the common course of nature and beyond the physical laws is troubling, as it is the case that events described as miraculous are, in fact, occurrences, however impossible, which indicate that a particular physical law is no longer to be thought of as a law and needs to be revised. Hume gave valid reasons as to why testimony should not be believed, especially when it refers to miracles. The reasons being that eyewitnesses of events which they report as miracles do not proportion their belief to the evidence and are just wishful thinking.

When someone hears testimony that a miracle had taken place, it is more probable that they are either lying, mistaken, or deceived, rather than that an actual miracle has occurred. However, even if an event actually happened which contradicts something thought of as a physical law, then the occurrence of that event calls us to revise that physical law to include the fact that that particular event which was described as a miracle, can actually take place under such-and-such circumstances.

Hence, what should happen when one encounters an event that is considered miraculous, is to take it as an opportunity to strengthen our understanding of natural law and attribute natural explanations to that particular event, and not just do wishful thinking, hoping that miracles are not only possible, but that they can prove God’s existence.

Angelos is a Philosophy (MA) student at the University of Durham, UK. He writes on philosophy, religion, politics, and science.

Article Discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.