Epistemology and Miracles by MatthewDylanBeck


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Matt Beck                                                                                  Paper # 1
Phil. 3340                                                                                Question 9


         In this paper I will defend the claim that we are sometimes justified in believing that a

miracle has occurred, and I will examine three criteria (two necessary, one sufficient) for making

that determination. Since I have not the space here for a thoroughgoing exploration of the topic,

certain considerations must be omitted from our discussion. I will not, for example, set forth a

general theory of knowledge in the light of which miraculous claims may be included as a subset

of acceptable propositions, nor will I attempt rigorously to criticize various skeptical arguments to

the contrary. Instead, I will assume that there exists in all fully functioning human beings a basic

process of belief-formation which, while perhaps not amenable to explicit presentation, is

nonetheless intuitively solid enough to be taken as a datum. Using this as a starting point, I will

simply describe the analytic conditions under which a miracle can be said to have occurred, given

that the justification for belief in said miracle must ultimately rest upon the same mysterious

process which justifies the rest of our more prosaic beliefs. On this account, a miracle requires no

special epistemic warrant; it is simply a type of belief, and it falls to us to analyze the type of

belief that it is.

         Since the term “miracle” has rather a broad application in contemporary usage, most of

our ensuing discussion—indeed all of it—will derive its impetus from the manner in which we

choose to define it. I take it for granted that we are not interested in colloquialisms (e.g., “It will

be a miracle if the Broncos make it to the Super Bowl this year.”), but in the traditional religious

sense of the word, viz. a suspension of the natural order, carrying with it a supreme moral or

revelatory significance, and seemingly emanating from the heart of reality itself, i.e. God. This

definition contains explicitly all that is comprehended in the concept of miracle as such.

Consequently, it contains implicitly the very criteria by which we are to judge purportedly

miraculous occurrences. The remainder of this paper will focus on the three distinguishing marks

of the miraculous, with commentary on the unique epistemological concerns relevant to each, and

will conclude with a prima facie argument that any set of conditions minimally requisite for

justified human belief-formation would also require the admittance of miraculous occurrences

into our general picture of reality. The criteria I mean to examine, then, are these:

Condition One: Natural Insufficiency

        A miracle is a sense-perceptible event, not a subjective interpretation of an event. By

declaring them thus, we rule out the possibility that miraculous claims can be reduced to merely

ordinary occurrences that happen to have a high symbolic value for people in a particular state of

mind. Miracles happen “in the field of nature;” and like every other natural event, they can be

objectively witnessed and subjected to various tests. The first criterion of a miracle, then, is that it

is a physical occurrence that exceeds the ordinary powers of nature to produce. But this

immediately raises a problem: If we do not have an exhaustive description of the laws of nature

(and few would argue that we do), then how can we say of a certain event that it is beyond the

capacities of nature to perform? Perhaps there are unknown laws of nature that could produce the

same effect; or alternatively, perhaps there are individual laws of nature, each severally known

more-or-less exhaustively, that can combine in unexpected ways, under unusual circumstances, to

produce it.

        However, this objection would have force only on the supposition that there are no

known laws of nature, the violation of which would strike us as impossible in the natural course

of events. On the contrary, if there are such laws, then there is something in reference to which a

miracle can be defined. Therefore, if an event seems to violate the most fundamental and

generally applicable physical principles that we know of, then we can conclude with certainty that

it “exceeds the ordinary powers of nature to produce.”

        And there are such principles. There exist, namely, the so-called “conservation laws” of

matter and energy, and also the second law of thermodynamics, which we might call the

conservation law of entropy. These laws are not so much empirical discoveries as they are a

priori necessities of systematic physical theorizing, for any physics that failed to include them

would be unreliable and worthless. If an event violates any of these, then whatever else it may be,

it must certainly derive from somewhere beyond the system of nature-knowledge. The first

condition is thus shown to be a necessary condition; for if nature herself can produce the effect, it

is ipso facto not miraculous. Intelligent people can disagree about whether the condition is ever

satisfied in practice, but we have shown it to be at least satisfiable in principle. We have thus

denied a leg to those skeptics who say, following Hume, that “whatever happens is natural and

the unnatural does not happen.” This statement’s first conjunct is defeasible due to the fact that

hypothetical and otherwise believable events may nevertheless trespass the strict nomological

relationships inherent in the concept of “nature.”

        But the first condition is not sufficient for authenticating a miracle. There is more going

on in the world than just the blind operation of physical laws: there are also intelligent beings

who contend with and against these laws, and who are capable of devising many ingenious tricks

of self-deception. When giving a full description of a miracle, we do not want to know merely

what happened, but also why it happened. Why were the laws of nature suspended for this person,

at this particular time and place, and not others? To answer that question we must discuss not

only how miracles relate to the laws that govern nature, but also how they relate to the laws that

govern rational creatures—and that leads us to our second condition.

Condition Two: Narrative Applicability

        If a tree unnaturally materializes in a forest, and there’s no one around to see it, is that a

miracle? And furthermore, does anybody care? The answers to these questions are, respectively,

“no” and “no.” Miracles never happen outside of a personal context—they happen to somebody,

and they happen to a purpose. All miraculous claims of which I am aware can be subsumed under

the general headings of supernatural healings and provisions, military victories, and prophetic

apparitions disclosing important information. In other words, one effect of miracles is to fulfill

the moral and physical needs of human beings under conditions in which those needs would not

otherwise be met. But this reading assumes that there is some sort of teleology supervening over

the lives of individual humans, and over human history as a whole. A story is being told; and the

purpose of the miracle is to impact the story at critical junctures, and to bring about the desirable

ending. Thus, the second criterion of a genuine miracle is its narrative applicability.

        The inclusion of this criterion is made necessary by the fact that a miracle must be

received and understood as such before it can be believed. Therefore it must have some sort of

cognizable structure or recognizable quality about it, despite issuing from beyond the boundary of

physical law. A miracle that served no human purpose would be superfluous if not harmful, and

would hardly be worthy of the name. It would be more like a local breakdown of order altogether,

a fissure pouring forth chaos and mayhem into the universe. Obviously such an event could never

be given a meaningful interpretation. It could not appear in human consciousness except as the

sort of radical negation that is not encountered outside of explicitly philosophical speculation, and

that would violate the previous stipulation that miracles be sense-perceptible.

        The second criterion, then, is also seen to be necessary: any non-natural event that has no

narrative applicability—an event not ordered to the fulfillment of human needs—is ipso facto not

a miracle. Whether or not such events may nevertheless occur is, of course, a separate question;

but if they did occur, they would doubtless not be called miracles, and that is our only concern at

present. So we have reached a point where we can safely conclude that miracles, while indeed

representing violations of physical law, yet conform to a higher law of reason and structure,

rooted in the inmost needs of human beings. But this condition too is not sufficient, for it does not

follow from it that these supposed miracles are not produced through the agency of some less-

than-divine will, in which case they would not “emanate from the heart of reality.” For that we

need a further condition, to which we will now turn.

Condition Three: The Holiness Criterion

        In order to be fully convinced that our candidate miracle has a divine provenance, we

must be able to ground it in some ontological precept “than which no greater can be thought,” in

the words of St. Anselm. We cannot rule out the possibility that there are persons in the universe

who are sensitive to hidden truths, who can consolidate powers not generally known, and who

can use these powers to produce seemingly miraculous effects. I think the existence of such

persons is in fact quite likely; thus we stand in need of some criterion capable of distinguishing

genuine miracles from the counterfeits of a profound and clever magician. In other words, we

need some way of telling miracles apart from sorcery. This would not be possible unless we

accepted some version of the ontological argument for God’s existence. I do not mean to reprise

that argument here, for in the present context it raises the spectre of circularity. I do not intend to

argue in such a way that my conclusion becomes: “I can believe in miracles because I can believe

in God.” Rather, I am assuming several things about the state of mind of the person who wishes

to verify that the event he has just witnessed is in fact a miracle. First of all, I am assuming that

this person is already convinced of God’s existence on quite other grounds, i.e. the ontological

argument. I am also assuming that the event he’s just witnessed completely fulfills the first two

conditions, thus giving him a strong warrant for believing in its miraculousness. Now just as he is

about to give his assent to the proposition that “Since what I have just witnessed was a miracle, I

can be sure it was God who performed it,” a skeptic comes along and poses a Kierkegaardian

conundrum: How do you know your miracle was not produced by someone else?

        This question, if unanswerable, would prove fatal for the miracle-claim, since it follows

from our definition that only God can perform miracles. But we cannot take the low road of

simply defining miracles into existence, so we need some independent way of showing why the

definition must hold. This way is provided by the holiness criterion. In accepting the ontological

argument we have also accepted its correlates—namely, that God is a necessary and perfect being

who is good-itself (i.e. holy), and that God is the only such being. Therefore the quality of

holiness can be predicated only of God. And since God is not a deceiver (borrowing a page from

Descartes), we know that any event carrying with it the aura of holiness gives us thereby the clear

and distinct idea that it was produced by God and only by God.

        The third condition is the king-maker. It is the only truly sufficient condition for granting

a warrant of miraculous occurrence, but it does not operate in isolation from the other two. The

final justification for belief in miracles can now be expressed by the following complex


               If an event gives me the clear and distinct impression of holiness then,
               provided that conditions (1) and (2) are also satisfied, I know that the
               event was a miracle performed by God (and not by anyone else).

        Notice that the entailment does not also run the other way around—this definition does

not say that everything holy is necessarily a miracle. And that is an important feature of the

theory, for God’s holiness can of course find expression in other, non-miraculous ways. What the

theory does do is provide an unambiguous test by which to distinguish miracles from all other

possible experiences. Therefore it is an indispensable component of any further justification for

belief in miracles, which was to be shown.


        The claim I defended in this paper was a subjunctive conditional: “If there were miracles,

then they would be thus-and-so.” I have said nothing to the effect that miracles actually are. I

know of no proof that could be given a skeptic that would satisfy him on this account, and in fact

I think it quite impossible to devise one. But I also think that the separate elements presented here

collectively provide a rather strong prima facie argument that miracles ought to be accepted. In

the first place, we have shown that natural laws are a necessity of all human thought pertaining to

physical systems; but that, paradoxically, their violation is not only not unthinkable, but has often

enough been justifiably believed. Secondly, we have shown that miraculous claims are never

arbitrary with respect to human life, as they might be expected to be if the events in question did

no meaningful work and were not ordered to a purpose. Finally, we have shown that the

experience of holiness, which is among the more ubiquitous experiences of mankind, is sufficient

for a belief in miracles when certain other conditions obtain. Search the annals of epistemology

though we may, we are unlikely to find any better justification for belief-claims than the

combination of possibility, empirical validation, and near-universal agreement. The miracle

concept meets these standards, and skeptics should reconsider their position.


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