This is first in a series of posts about miracles. I have wanted to explore miracles for some time now. Lately, I have had some time to think about miracles while reading some materials preparing a class. This is a very interesting subject and there are a number of theories out there. People tend to hold to their theories very strongly. I am not sure why people hold their theories so strongly, given proving one way or another may be impossible. Proving any theory on miracles is out of reach at the moment. The best we can do is, objectively, explore the possibilities and see which one fits best with what we know.
This will be a series of posts, as I don’t think I can contain all of my thoughts in one short post. Difficult topics are never easy or straightforward. As I explore this topic, I welcome your comments. I welcome them because that is how we learn and there is nothing an amateur philosopher likes more than to be challenged. ;-)
In order to have a meaningful conversation about miracles, we are going to have to nail down the theories of causation first. We have to start with causation because a miracle, by definition, is something unnatural, unwarranted and unexplained. In other words, the only explanation, or cause, is something beyond our normal natural experience. Since we don’t see an obvious cause, we then theorize about what the cause might have been. God is generally seen as the cause, however others may see the cause as something spiritual or even some type of non-cognizant power or energy. For this first post, I will limit my comments to God as the cause and simply note that I understand there are other points of view. I hope to address these other theories in future posts.
In western cultures, there are two opposing theories about causation, Supernaturalism and Naturalism.
Supernaturalism posits a Universe where God is the cause of all things. Supernaturalism holds that God is the immediate cause of all effect. In other words, if you place water on a gas stove it would not be the flames or heat that boils the water, it is God who boils the water. Supernaturalism in this sense is not necessarily the action of spirits, ghost or the paranormal. Supernaturalism requires one cause; multiple causes (various spirits etc…) would be causing different things in different ways and nothing would be predictable. However, our experience is predictable.
I can see three problems with Supernaturalism. First, scientific inquiry seems like it would be impossible. Science requires predictability. If God intervenes unpredictably or does not cause water to boil just once, science is rendered useless. Second, supernaturalism leaves us with a deceptive God because the universe appears to follow natural laws. Finally, if God causes all things, it is not the ax murderer who kills people, it would be God. In addition, there would be no such thing is free will. Again, we seem to have a free will and if we seem to and we don’t, we end up with a deceptive God again.
A key thing to remember about supernaturalism is that science does not disprove this position. Science and predictability would only prove that God, “the cause of all things” is consistent, as consistent as the laws of nature.
Naturalism, in the classic sense, posits a God who created the Universe, the laws that govern it and was the primal cause by starting all things. Think of a line of dominoes, you hit the first one and then the one you hit, hits the next one and so on. If we look at the last domino to fall we can determine that the cause was the previous domino falling on it. We can look at all the dominos and see that this cause and reaction are predictable. We call the predictability natural laws and they are and we can determine their immediate cause. You can make the case that you dropped the last domino though secondary causes or a type of causal change. God is the primal cause and thus the source through inheritance for all other causes. In creation, we call this causal chain the cursus communis naturae or the common course of nature.
One problem with naturalism is it seems to support either a deist or atheist position. In its extreme form, naturalism is a deist position. God, like a watch maker, winds up the universe and lets it run without intervention. Naturalism denies miracles and requires an, as of yet anunknown, cause for anything that is labeled as a miracle. This position militates against many religions and theologies that see God as intervening in the world.
These two theories are seen as extreme ends of a large continuum of intermediate positions. Through most of Church History the majority position has been that God created the Universe with natural laws to govern them and that, on rare occasions, God intervenes. These rear incidents are considered miracles because they don’t fit in the normal course of nature. This position squares better with what we know from our experience and revelation.
In a later post I will explore some different questions about miracles:
- What if a miracle has a natural cause? Is it still a miracle?
- Can science explain all miracles? If we can show a scientific explanation or natural causes for miracle, does that disprove God?
- What about the objection that eventually our science will catch up to the point that we will be able to explain miracles. Just because it can’t now, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
- What about some of the extreme positions on miracles?
- Do you have a question about miracles?
Principe, Lawrence M. "Science and Religion." Chantilly,VA: The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2006.
Williams, Thomas. "Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages." Chantilly,VA: The Teaching Company, 2007.