Defining Miracles

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Most most of them occurred during times of revelation when God was announcing His message. In Scripture we witness an abundance of these works during these time periods:. The message of Jesus and the Apostles has been preserved in written form by the Bible. Today God works through His Word and Spirit, proclaiming His message of salvation through His servants, preachers and teachers. Paul wrote:. For more, see the fine book by Walter Chantry, Signs of the Apostles.

Defining Miracles Miracles have been defined variously, according to the writer. If we are trying to persuade a skeptic of God's existence, we are trying to demonstrate to him that there is something beyond or transcending nature, and he will demand to be persuaded on his own terms; we must make use of no assumptions beyond those that are already acknowledged by the naturalistic worldview. Because the history of modern thought regarding miracles has been strongly influenced by apologetic interests, the emphasis of this entry will be on the apologetic conception of the miraculous—that is, on the concept of miracle as it has been invoked by those who would point to the reports of miracles in scripture as establishing the existence of a supernatural God.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that any difficulty associated with this apologetic appeal to miracles does not automatically militate against the reasonableness of belief in miracles generally. A successful criticism of the apologetic appeal will show at most that a warranted belief in miracles depends on our having independent reasons for rejecting naturalism; again, see Lewis A major concern with the rationality of belief in miracles is with whether we can be justified in believing that a miracle has occurred on the basis of testimony.

To determine whether the report of a miracle is credible, we need to consider the reliability of the source. Are S's reports generally true? Clearly if she is known to lie, or to utter falsehoods as jokes, we should be reluctant to believe her. Aside from the possibility that she may be influenced by some tangible self-interest, such as a financial one, her report may also be influenced by emotional factors—by her fears, perhaps, or by wishful thinking. We should also consider whether other reliable and independent witnesses are available to corroborate her report. We must also ask whether S is herself a witness to E, or is passing on information that was reported to her.

If she witnessed the event personally, we may ask a number of questions about her observational powers and the physical circumstances of her observation. There are quite a few things that can go wrong here; for example, S may sincerely report an event as she believed it to occur, but in fact her report is based on a misperception.

Thus she may report having seen a man walk across the surface of a lake; this may be her understanding of what happened, when in fact he was walking alongside the lake or on a sand bar. If it was dark, and the weather was bad, this would have made it difficult for S to have a good view of what was happening. And of course we should not neglect the influence of S's own attitudes on how she interprets what she sees; if she is already inclined to think of the man she reports as walking on water as being someone who is capable of performing such an extraordinary feat, this may color how she understands what she has seen.

By the same token, if we are already inclined to agree with her about this person's remarkable abilities, we will be all the more likely to believe her report. If S is merely passing on the testimony of someone else to the occurrence of E, we may question whether she has properly understood what she was told. She may not be repeating the testimony exactly as it was given to her. And here, too, her own biases may color her understanding of the report.

Defining Miracles Biblically

The possibility of distortions entering into testimony grows with each re-telling of the story. It will be fruitful to consider these elements in evaluating the strength of scriptural testimony to the miracles ascribed to Jesus. The reports of these miracles come from the four gospel accounts. Some of these accounts seem to have borrowed from others, or to have been influenced by a common source; even if this were not the case, they still cannot be claimed to represent independent reports.

Assuming they originate with the firsthand testimony of Jesus' followers, these people were closely associated and had the opportunity to discuss among themselves what they had seen before their stories were recorded for posterity. They were all members of the same religious community, and shared a common perspective as well as common interests.

While the gospel accounts tell us that miracles took place in front of hostile witnesses, we do not have the testimony of these witnesses. It is sometimes suggested that these men undertook grave risk by reporting what they did, and they would not have risked their lives for a lie. But this establishes, at best, only that their reports are sincere; unfortunately, their conviction is not conclusive evidence for the truth of their testimony.

We could expect the same conviction from someone who was delusional. Let us consider a particular report of Jesus' resurrection in applying these considerations. Popular apologetic sometimes points to the fact that according to Paul in 1 Corinthians , the resurrected Jesus was seen by five hundred people at once, and that it is highly improbable that so many people would have the experience of seeing Jesus if Jesus were not actually there. After all, it may be argued, they could not have shared a mass hallucination, since hallucinations are typically private; there is no precedent for shared hallucination, and it may seem particularly far-fetched to suppose that a hallucination would be shared among so many people.

Accordingly it may be thought much more likely that Jesus really was there and, assuming there is sufficient evidence that he had died previously to that time, it becomes reasonable to say that he was resurrected from the dead. But let us suppose that Paul means to report that the five hundred saw Jesus in the flesh. Unfortunately we do not have the reports of the five hundred to Jesus' resurrection; we have only Paul's hearsay testimony that Jesus was seen by five hundred. Furthermore Paul does not tell us how this information came to him.

It is possible that he spoke personally to some or all of these five hundred witnesses, but it is also possible that he is repeating testimony that he received from someone else. This opens up the possibility that the report was distorted before it reached Paul; for example, the number of witnesses may have been exaggerated, or the original witnesses may have merely reported feeling Jesus' presence in some way without actually seeing him. For the sake of argument, however, let us suppose that there was at one time a group of five hundred people who were all prepared to testify that they had seen a physically resurrected Jesus.

This need not be the result of any supposed mass hallucination; the five hundred might have all seen someone who they came to believe, after discussing it amongst themselves, was Jesus. In such a case, the testimony of the five hundred would be to an experience together with a shared interpretation of it. It is also possible that the text of Paul's letter to the Corinthians has not been accurately preserved. Thus, no matter how reliable Paul himself might be, his own report may have been modified through one, or several, redactions.

There are, therefore, quite a few points at which error or distortion might have entered into the report in 1 Corinthians: 1 The original witnesses may have been wrong, for one reason or another, about whether they saw Jesus; 2 the testimony of these witnesses may have been distorted before reaching Paul; 3 Paul may have incorrectly reported what he heard about the event, and 4 Paul's own report, as given in his original letter to the Christian community in Corinth, may have been distorted.

The apologist may argue that it would be very surprising if errors should creep into the report at any of these four points. Hume did not explicitly address the question of whether actually witnessing an apparent miracle would give us good reason to think that a miracle had actually occurred, though it is possible that the principles he invokes in regard to testimony for the miraculous can be applied to the case of a witnessed miracle. His stated aim is to show that belief in miracle reports is not rational, but that "our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason" Enquiries, p.

Hume surely intends some irony here, however, since he concludes by saying that anyone who embraces a belief in miracles based on faith is conscious of "a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding" Enquiries, p. The most compelling of these is the one I will call the Balance of Probabilities Argument. For a brief discussion of some of the other arguments, see the entry "David Hume: Writings on Religion. We have already examined some of the considerations that go into assessing the strength of testimony; there is no denying that testimony may be very strong indeed when, for example, it may be given by numerous highly reliable and independent witnesses.

The problem that arises is not so much with the reliability of the witnesses as with the nature of what is being reported. A miracle is, according to Hume, a violation of natural law. We suppose that a law of nature obtains only when we have an extensive, and exceptionless, experience of a certain kind of phenomenon. For example, we suppose that it is a matter of natural law that a human being cannot walk on the surface of water while it is in its liquid state; this supposition is based on the weight of an enormous body of experience gained from our familiarity with what happens in seas, lakes, kitchen sinks, and bathtubs.

Defining Miracles

Given that experience, we always have the best possible evidence that in any particular case, an object with a sufficiently great average density, having been placed onto the surface of a body of water, will sink. According to Hume, the evidence in favor of a miracle, even when that is provided by the strongest possible testimony, will always be outweighed by the evidence for the law of nature which is supposed to have been violated.

Considerable controversy surrounds the notion of a violation of natural law. Thus given that we have a very great amount of experience regarding dense objects being placed onto water, and given that in every one of these cases that object has sunk, we have the strongest possible evidence that any object that is placed onto water is one that will sink. Accordingly we have the best possible reasons for thinking that any report of someone walking on water is false—and this no matter how reliable the witness.

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While objections are frequently made against Hume's conception of natural law, in fact no particularly sophisticated account of natural law seems to be necessary here, and Hume's examples are quite commonsensical: All human beings must die, lead cannot remain suspended in the air, fire consumes wood and is extinguished by water Enquiries p. This may be a naive conception of natural law; nevertheless it is true that, all things being equal, we can assign a minimal probability to the occurrence of a counterinstance to any of these generalizations. Past regularities do not establish that it is impossible that a natural law should ever be suspended Purtill However, regardless of Hume's original intent, this is a more extravagant claim than his argument requires.

After all, there is no precedent for any human being walking on water, setting this one controversial case aside, but there is ample precedent for the falsehood of testimony even under the best of circumstances. Accordingly Hume says Enquiries p. We must ask ourselves, which would be more of a miracle: That Jesus walked on water, or that the scriptural reports of this event are false?

While we may occasionally encounter testimony that is so strong that its falsehood would be very surprising indeed, we never come across any report, the falsehood of which would be downright miraculous. Accordingly, the reasonable conclusion will always be that the testimony is false.

Thus to return to Paul's report of Jesus' resurrection in 1 Corinthians: It may be highly unlikely that the original witnesses were wrong, for one reason or another, about whether they saw Jesus; it may be highly unlikely that the testimony of these witnesses may have been distorted before reaching Paul; it may be highly unlikely that Paul incorrectly reported what he heard about the event, and it may be highly unlikely that Paul's original letter to the Christian community in Corinth has not been accurately preserved in our modern translations of the New Testament.

Suppose the apologist can argue that a failure in the transmission of testimony at any of these points might be entirely without precedent in human experience. Apologetic appeals frequently focus on the strength of testimony such as Paul's, and often appear to make a good case for its reliability. Nevertheless such an appeal will only persuade those who are already inclined to believe in the miracle—perhaps because they are already sympathetic to a supernaturalistic worldview—and who therefore tend to downplay the unlikelihood of a dead man returning to life.

Having said all this, it may strike us as odd that Hume seems not to want to rule out the possibility, in principle, that very strong testimony might establish the occurrence of an unprecedented event.

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  5. He tells us Enquiries p. Thus even if we were convinced that such an event really did take place—and the evidence in this case would be considerably stronger than the evidence for any of the miracles of the Bible—we should suppose that the event in question really had a natural cause after all. In this case the event would not be a violation of natural law, and thus according to Hume's definition would not be a miracle. Despite this possibility, Hume wants to say that the quality of miracle reports is never high enough to clear this hurdle, at least when they are given in the interest of establishing a religion, as they typically are.

    Definition of Miracles |

    People in such circumstances are likely to be operating under any number of passional influences, such as enthusiasm, wishful thinking, or a sense of mission driven by good intentions; these influences may be expected to undermine their critical faculties. Given the importance to religion of a sense of mystery and wonder, that very quality which would otherwise tend to make a report incredible—that it is the report of something entirely novel—becomes one that recommends it to us. There is something clearly right about Hume's argument. The principle he cites surely resembles the one that we properly use when we discredit reports in tabloid newspapers about alien visitors to the White House or tiny mermaids being found in sardine cans.

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    Nevertheless the argument has prompted a great many criticisms. Some of this discussion makes use of Bayesian probabilistic analysis; John Earman, for example, argues that when the principles of Hume's arguments "are made explicit and examined under the lens of Bayesianism, they are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice" Earman The Bayesian literature will not be discussed here, though Earman's discussion of the power of multiple witnessing deserves mention.

    Earman argues that even if the prior probability of a miracle occurring is very low, if there are enough independent witnesses, and each is sufficiently reliable, its occurrence may be established as probable. Of course the number of witnesses required might be very large, and it may be that none of the miracles reported in any scripture will qualify. It is true that some of the miracles of the Bible are reported to have occurred in the presence of a good number of witnesses; the miracle of the loaves and fishes is a good example, which according to Mark Mark was witnessed by 5, people.

    But we have already noticed that the testimony of one person, or even of four, that some event was witnessed by a multitude is not nearly the same as having the testimony of the multitude itself. Another objection against Hume's argument is that it makes use of a method that is unreliable; that is, it may have us reject reports that are true or accept those that are false.

    Consider the fact that a particular combination of lottery numbers will generally be chosen against very great odds. If the odds of the particular combination chosen in the California Lottery last week were 40 million to 1, the probability of that combination being chosen is very low. The unreliability objection, made out in this particular way, seems to have a fairly easy response.

    There is no skeptical challenge to our being justified in believing the report of a lottery drawing; that is, reports of lottery drawings are reports of ordinary events, like reports of rainstorms and presidential press conferences. They do not require particularly strong testimony to be credible, and in fact we may be justified in believing the report of a lottery drawing even if it came from an otherwise unreliable source, such as a tabloid newspaper. This is surely because we know in advance that when the lottery is drawn, whatever particular combination of numbers may be chosen will be chosen against very great odds, so that we are guaranteed to get one highly improbable combination or another.

    Despite the fact that the odds against any particular combination are very great, all of the other particular outcomes are equally unlikely, so we have no prejudice against any particular combination. We know that people are going to win the lottery from time to time; we have no comparable assurance that anyone will ever be raised from the dead. Nevertheless if we are to be able to make progress in science, we must be prepared to revise our understanding of natural law, and there ought to be circumstances in which testimony to an unprecedented event would be credible.

    For example, human beings collectively have seen countless squid, few of which have ever exceeded a length of two feet.

    For this reason reports of giant squid have, in the past, been sometimes dismissed as fanciful; the method employed by Hume in his Balance of Probabilities Argument would seem to rule out the possibility of our coming to the conclusion, on the basis of testimony, that such creatures exist—yet they have been found in the deep water near Antarctica. Similarly, someone living beyond the reach of modern technology might well reject reports of electric lighting and airplanes. Surely we should be skeptical when encountering a report of something so novel.

    But science depends for its progress on an ability to revise even its most confident assertions about the natural world. Discussion of this particular problem in Hume tends to revolve around his example of the Indian and the ice. Someone from a very hot climate such as that of India, living during Hume's time, might refuse to believe that water was capable of taking solid form as ice or frost, since he has an exceptionless experience against this. Yet in this case he would come to the wrong conclusion. Hume argues that such a person would reason correctly, and that very strong testimony would properly be required to persuade him otherwise.

    Yet Hume refers to this not as a miracle but as a marvel; the difference would appear to lie in the fact that while water turning to ice does not conform to the experience of the Indian, since he has experienced no precedent for this, it is also not contrary to his experience, because he has never had a chance to see what will happen to water when the temperature is sufficiently low Enquiries, p.

    By the same token, we ought to be cautious when it comes to deciding how large squid may grow in the Antarctic deeps, when our only experience of them has been in warm and relatively shallow water. The circumstances of an Antarctic habitat are not analogous to those in which we normally observe squid. On the other hand, when someone reports to us that they have witnessed a miracle, such as a human being walking on water, our experience of ordinary water is analogous to this case, and therefore counts against the likelihood that the report is true.

    Jesus' walking on water will only qualify as a miracle on the assumption that this case is analogous in all relevant respects to those cases in which dense objects have sunk. The distinction between a miracle and a marvel is an important one for Hume; as he constructs an epistemology that he hopes will rule out belief in miracles in principle, he must be careful that it does not also hinder progress in science.

    Whether Hume is successful in making this distinction is a matter of some controversy. Many commentators have suggested that Hume's argument begs the question against miracles. See for example Lewis , Houston Suppose I am considering whether it is possible for a human being to walk on water. I consider my past experience with dense objects, such as human bodies, and their behavior in water; I may even conduct a series of experiments to see what will happen when a human body is placed without support on the surface of a body of water, and I always observe these bodies to sink.

    I now consider what is likely to occur, or likely to have occurred, in some unknown case. Perhaps I am wondering what will happen the next time I step out into the waters of Silver Lake. Obviously I will expect, without seriously considering the matter, that I will sink rather than walk on its surface. My past experience with water gives me very good reason to think that this is what will happen. But of course in this case, I am not asking whether nature will be following its usual course.

    Indeed, I am assuming that it will be, since otherwise I would not refer to my past experience to judge what was likely in this particular case; my past experience of what happens with dense bodies in water is relevant only in those cases in which the uniformity of nature is not in question. But this means that to assume that our past experience is relevant in deciding what has happened in an unknown case, as Hume would have us do, is to assume that nature was following its usual course—it is to assume that there has been no break in the uniformity of nature.

    Like all expressions of love, which are always miraculous in the true sense, the exchange reverses the physical laws. They bring more love both to the giver and the receiver. It is the maximal service one individual can render another.

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    It is a way of loving your neighbor as yourself. While he believes he is in a body, however, man can choose between loveless and miraculous channels of expression. You have no problems which He cannot solve by offering you a miracle. Miracles are for you. It may seem a little odd to think of the Holy Spirit as conducting behavior, but when He makes a book fall off a shelf or heals a sick or broken body, what else are we to call it?

    It makes as much sense for the Holy Spirit to express love to us as for us to express love to each other. I did not study each and every one of them in the process of writing this article. That makes a ratio of The first hit started with:. No chapter and paragraph reference is given, of course, because the quote does not actually occur in ACIM. The Course never calls a miracle a shift in perception. In the longitudinal or horizontal plane, the recognition of the true equality of all the members of the Sonship appears to involve almost endless time.

    However, the sudden shift from horizontal to vertical perception which the miracle entails introduces an interval from which the doer and the receiver both emerge much farther along in time than they would otherwise have been. Although words are rearranged and the placement is quite different, the concepts presented in the two versions are the same. The Holy Spirit promotes healing by looking beyond it to what the Children of God were before healing was needed and will be when they have been healed. This alteration of the time sequence should be quite familiar because it is very similar to the shift in time perception which the miracle introduces.

    The Holy Spirit is the motivation for miracle-mindedness, the will to heal the separation by letting it go. This will is in you because God placed it in your mind, and although you can keep it asleep, you cannot obliterate it. I found that last quote to be very interesting for two reasons. Getting back to my Google search, the fifth hit was an article by Rev. However, ACIM does talk about perception shifting and shifts in perception in various places, so it is inferred that a miracle is a shift in perception. At this point in my Google search both Rev.

    Since Rev. The first is in Chapter The sentence reads as follows:. This is part of what I find to be a wonderful passage. IV The paragraph reads as follows:. And an adjustment is a change; a shift in perception or a belief that what was so before has been made different.