A spectacularly improbable event that is attributed to divine intervention.

Of course, not eveything claimed to be a miracle is improbable, just that it may be thought so by an individual.

The name of the white buffalo calf born in Wisconsin in 1994, believed to be the first white buffalo born since 1933. The white buffalo and the legend of White Buffalo Calf Woman is extremely significant in many native cultures, particularly the Lakota people of the Black Hills of South Dakota, who still carry, father to son, the peace pipe said to have been given to the Lakota people along with the teachings of their sacred ceremonies by White Buffalo Calf Woman many many generations ago.

David Hume on 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. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

From David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, L. A. Selby Bigge, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 114-16.
Some may feel that David Hume is hairsplitting, but his central argument is interesting. He holds that to believe a miracle exists, we must believe testimony or evidence as to its truth; but there will always be a stronger reason to believe the testimony or evidence is flawed.

To expand, even if I see something with my own eyes, I do not know for sure it is true: I do not always recognise things correctly even in everyday life; I may be hallucinating through illness, tiredness or drugs; it may be a fraud. And if I have to rely on the testimony of others, the strength of the evidence I have is even weaker, since you can add communication flaws and deliberate lying or deception to the fact that they may be mistaken. Is it more likely that I am deceived, of which I admit the possibility, or that some natural law I hold to be certain is false? Surely the former.

Most of us would hold as a self-evident truth the fact that it is possible for a miracle to happen and for us to acknowledge it as a miracle. But would we really? Would we look for a scientific explanation, or accept that it is a miracle against natural laws (assuming a miracle is by definition something against natural laws)? Would we seek deception, rational reasons we could be mistaken? Are only certain people ever susceptible to believing in miracles? Does it require a credulity, an openness, a belief that rationality is not always the best way to approach the world?

(One criticism is that Hume is disputing our epistemological grounds for believing in a miracle, rather than the question of whether miracles can exist. However, Hume was an empiricist, who believed the evidence of our senses is the only way we can understand the world, and therefore to talk of miracles existing without evidence is as ridiculous as to talk of invisible pink unicorns. And since his concern was largely the argument of the existence of God based on miracles, this approach of Hume's has force.)

David Hume was a clear and unwavering atheist. He sought to demolish what he saw as the superstitions of religious belief. Elsewhere he attacked the main arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument, the argument from design and the argument from first cause) on the basis that even if these are true they prove nothing about the nature of God, other than that It is an entity capable of creating a universe (no morality, scriptures, etc.) In modern terms, even if we accept God created the Big Bang, that proves nothing else than that something created the Big Bang and we choose to call it God.

The argument against miracles is complementary to that claim, since miracles justify the existence of God on a small scale to individual people in the same way that the ontological argument and other philosophical arguments seem to prove the existence of God in the philosophy class. The latter attacks philosophers; attacking miracles attacks the ordinary believer who may believe they have witnessed something extraordinary. In either case, Hume says, you have no grounds to believe in any religion.

It may be argued that Hume is guilty of circular reasoning, by defining a miracle as something which is irrational to believe and then claiming it is irrational to believe in miracles. However, Hume's definition does not depend on his conclusion: if we define a miracle as something which goes against what we believe are certain natural laws, or something far less probable than anything in our natural experience (which includes being tricked and mistaken), there is nothing circular about his argument.

But following from this, we can take Hume's argument as a criticism of the concept of miracles in general, based question of what is the definition of a miracle. If we define that a miracle is something against current natural laws, and expect to prove any miracles exist, we will fail, since many things against past scientific laws are now wholly lawful; and rather than declaring it a miracle, we can formulate a new scientific law.

And if we define it is against all scientific laws both now and in future, there is no way of proving this assertation. We are left with a definition based on probability or believability, which Hume can attack with ease. By this linguistic version of the argument, there is no definition of miracle which allows us to claim miracles exist. (And claiming "A miracle is an act of God" gets you nowhere, unless you can catch God in the act.)

Two weeks ago, I looked up and asked for a pen. I was passed one by a friend, but the sort of friend who quickly forgot I was there and I quickly forgot to give the pen back. A day later I decided to write something on my desk, scanned it for a pen and couldn't find one. Remembering the loaned pen I headed downstairs to get it and brought it up. After half an hour writing I looked up again for a moment's reflection. Absent mindedly I put the pen down on top of my paper and pondered. Only a brief moments reflection in the autumn sun. I looked back down and another identical pen sat lying on my desk. The borrowed pen had become two. I immediately noticed it and was genuinely startled. Leaning back in my chair I picked up the twin pens and inspected them. Identical levels of ink, weighed the same in my hands, exact same brand and make, clones.

Not only was the event significant but unlike other unexpected occurrences (looking for your phone and finding it in your pocket) this time I was certain, straight away, that it was miraculous. I didn't think for a moment that the other pen might have been on my desk all along, perhaps hidden and now it had rolled in to sight, it didn't cross my mind that maybe I'd brought two pens up and forgotten about the other one, I immediately and intuitively felt I had just witnessed a miracle.

But what would that mean?

Defining the word: miracle

The root cause of many problems in life, and especially philosophy, is miscommunication. It's hard to overestimate the importance of ensuring the words you're using mean the same thing to you as they do to the person with whom you're speaking. Because of this, and the undeniable ambiguity of the word "miracle", I'd like to first discuss and decide upon an appropriate definition.

The dictionary is traditionally the authority on words, so let's look there first. Merriam-Webster gives us "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs" and the Collins English Dictionary reads "an event that is contrary to the established laws of nature and attributed to a supernatural cause". Both these definitions reveal the paranormal connotations of the word, but do they reflect it's common usage?

I think the first definition lacks the assumed positive connotations of a miracle. If God were to strike down all of life in a fierce and mighty blow that shattered bones and boiled blood then that would undeniably be divine intervention in human affairs but I don't think that's what we usually mean by a miracle. Indeed, Christians rarely refer to the Biblical flood as a miracle, or to the Book Of Job as a tale of miracles. This is a minor point and it doesn't effect this node's goal so I'll move on. An extraordinary event is a sort of hyperbolic or metaphorical use of the word miracle but it is quite common. "I miraculously guessed the password first time!" I'll stick to the words philosophical use and as such I'll address the aspect of miracles that is the most extraordinary: the claim that they defy/break the laws of nature. From this point on I'll be using the word "miracle" to mean:

"a violation of the natural/physical laws of the universe"

Are there such things as miracles?

Of course there are such things as miracles! If there weren't, then to what would the word "miracle" be referring? Could it be referring to not a thing? That seems a little odd, and if it were true then the statement "There are no such things as miracles" is about as meaningful as saying "There are no such things as r$6hrwxlcjws". It seems to me fairly apparent that there are such things as miracles. So perhaps they're a thing that doesn't exist? To answer this will require a precise definition of "existence" and I don't want to wrestle with that in this node. I'm not sure I ever want to wrestle with that.

No, to me the more important question is "Have miracles ever happened, will they happen, or can they ever happen?" That is to say:

Can the event of a miracle take place?

I've gladly got out of the task of defining existence, but let me just reiterate my use of the world miracles. I will be using "miracle" to mean "a violation of the natural/physical laws of the universe". This implies the existence (uh oh) of such a set of laws, and this claim can only be validated with a clear definition of what the laws are, so here we go again: I'll define "physical laws" as "the set of laws or rules that govern the behaviour of all reality". I won't go in to defining "laws" or "rules" because I WOULD LIKE TO GET TO THE POINT!

Do such a set of laws exist?

If it wasn't a set of laws that made the world behave in the way it does, what could it be? What could cause nature to act in a certain way but not be described as a law? Perhaps if the universes behaviour was utterly random, if each action was causeless and caused nothing, independent and unique, then such a world could be lawless. In this random, impossible to predict world, miracles could not occur. For no matter how strange or out of place an event seemed, it would truly be no more odd or defiant than the rest of existence. You can't break any laws if there are none to break.

To prove the occurrence of a miracle, you must also prove we do not live in a lawless world.

It looks like with miracles, the rules really are made to be broken. You must prove that something has caused the ant to be small, and the same thing caused the elephant to be big. You must show that the whole world is obeying some sort of universal rules. For if each object or event was governed by its own set of separate laws then miracles too could be governed by their own laws, and thus not be miraculous at all. All events must have common laws to allow for something truly extraordinary to happen else "amazing" events are really just rare, but lawful, events or objects with their own unique, idiosyncratic set of laws.

For a miracle to exist a causation must be more than a common coincidence. A turkey is not right in assuming that after being fed everyday for two years, the week before Thanksgiving he has nothing to fear from the farmer. The life long observance of the farmer arriving before being fed is no proof that when the farmer arrives he'll feed you. In coming to this conclusion the poor turkey has confused repeated correlation for causation, and it will come as quite a shock to him when the farmer chops of his head.

Perhaps we are making the same mistake in thinking that just because every time we've observed an action we've also observed an equal and opposite reaction, there is some link between the two, and that the first caused the second. It's plausible that one day we will be like the turkey, shocked and afraid at the observance of an action without an equal and opposite.

Could such an event be labelled a miracle? I think not, it would only be amazing because we'd made a silly mistake in our world view and not because it had violated some universal law.

Let's imagine our world is obeying some universal laws.

Let's imagine the world isn't random or coincidental, but caused and controlled (perhaps even designed?). In a world of this kind, could there be something outside of the universe and it's laws that steps inside and changes the world in a way that contradicts the laws that control it? No, there could not. The very premise of a universal law is one that encompasses everything, if there was anything outside of a laws jurisdiction, it would not be universal.

Perhaps the physical laws don't encompass everything?

Perhaps the laws of reality are themselves just one piece of a larger system. Suppose there are other parts of this system that do not obey physical laws but instead some other set of rules as governed by some universal law that controls the whole system. Both our real world and this other world would be obeying the overarching universal law but this other world would not be obeying our natural law and we would not be obeying their strange laws. A similar example would be of two people speaking different languages. They'd both be obeying the laws of physics but then within that they'd each be obeying their own separate rules on grammar and syntax etc.

Could the events occurring on this other world be labelled miracles? They certainly fit my definition proposed earlier, as whilst they'd be conforming to their own private set of laws they'd be undoubtedly violating our own natural law. Of course, proving the existence of such miracles would be impossible, and observing them an even more absurd idea.

There is also a sense of miscommunication in saying they break laws that don't apply to them. Like saying someone was breaking the rules of football (soccer for you Americans) when they picked up the ball, even though they were playing Rugby. Can a law ever truly be broken by something it doesn't apply to? Can I claim I am breaking a rule because in some prison inmates aren't allowed on the internet? I feel this is a misunderstanding of the word "law" and so I shall refrain from allowing events on other planes of existence the name "miracles".


So I have failed to provide any reason to believe in the occurrence of miracles! Hardly an impressive feat. And what of the pens? I suppose after thinking it through it's fairly clear I can't consciously believe I did witness a miracle, not seriously at least. Oh well.

At least I got a free pen.

Mir"a*cle (?), n. [F., fr. L. miraculum, fr. mirari to wonder. See Marvel, and cf. Mirror.]


A wonder or wonderful thing.

That miracle and queen of genus. Shak.


Specifically: An event or effect contrary to the established constitution and course of things, or a deviation from the known laws of nature; a supernatural event, or one transcending the ordinary laws by which the universe is governed.

They considered not the miracle of the loaves. Mark vi. 52.


A miracle play.


A story or legend abounding in miracles.


When said was all this miracle. Chaucer.

Miracle monger, an impostor who pretends to work miracles. -- Miracle play, one of the old dramatic entertainments founded on legends of saints and martyrs or (see 2d Mystery, 2) on events related in the Bible.


© Webster 1913.

Mir"a*cle, v. t.

To make wonderful.




© Webster 1913.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.