The Reality of Miracles
Denying the reality of supernatural intervention from God (miracles) causes one to resemble the hilarious characters in Joseph Heller’s famous novel Catch-22, which features an American bomber squadron situated in World War II Europe. A SparkNotes plot overview of Catch-22 comments on Heller’s use of paradox and circular logic throughout the novel:
“Yossarian [the main character] discovers that it is possible to be discharged from military service because of insanity. Always looking for a way out, Yossarian claims that he is insane only to find out that by claiming that he is insane he has proved that he is obviously sane—since any sane person would claim that he or she is insane in order to avoid flying [extremely dangerous] bombing missions. Elsewhere, Catch-22 is defined as a law that is illegal to read. Ironically, the place where it is written that it is illegal is in Catch-22 itself. It is yet again defined as the law that the enemy is allowed to do anything that one can’t keep him from doing. In short, then, Catch-22 is any paradoxical, circular reasoning that catches its victim in its illogic and serves those who have made the law.”
The reality of miracles is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the primary philosophical arguments against miracles present in contemporary scholarship constitute textbook examples of such “paradoxical, circular reasoning” that catch their victims in illogic. Those who try to wriggle free of the truth of miracles resemble Yossarian in his attempts to avoid flying dangerous bombing missions.
The 18th century Scottish atheist philosopher David Hume first formulated the main contemporary arguments against miracles. Hume’s primary argument is that miracles cannot occur because they constitute violations of natural law. In his book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig Keener comments how Hume’s logic is notably Heller-esque:
“…Thus, on the usual reading of Hume, he manages to define away any possibility of a miracle occurring, by defining ‘miracle’ as a violation of natural law, yet defining ‘natural law’ as principles that cannot be violated. As one philosopher complains, once a miracle could be proved to occur, natural law would be redefined to accommodate this occurrence, which would thus no longer be accepted as miraculous. ‘The miracle seems for ever frustrated in its attempts to violate; for as soon as it imagines that it has succeeded, it finds that there was nothing there after all to violate!’ That is, Hume’s definitions assume what he claims to prove, a standard fallacy recognized in logic.”
But Hume’s circular logic does not stop there. Hume famously attacked the credibility of those who claim to have experienced a miracle:
“There is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves.”
How does Hume determine if an individual is of “good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves”? The answer reveals not only the circularity of Hume’s logic, but also his appalling ethnocentric bias. Hume writes:
“They [miracles] are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors.”
According to Hume, only “ignorant and barbarous” cultures believe in miracles. How does one determine if a culture is ignorant and barbarous? Such a culture believes in miracles. (Joseph Heller would have been proud).
(Click here to read a full article about the circularity of Hume’s arguments against miracles).
Keener responds by pointing out that one must declare a majority of the world’s population to be “ignorant and barbarous” in order to declare that only “ignorant and barbarous” peoples believe in supernatural intervention. Keener uses the term “Majority World” to refer to cultures outside of the modern west…Latin America, Africa, and Asia:
“…Today, however, abundant claims of miracles, particularly from the Majority World, challenge Hume’s skepticism about the existence of many credible eyewitnesses. Hume demanded ‘a sufficient number’ of witnesses of unquestioned integrity and intelligence who would have much to lose by testifying falsely. In today’s academic climate, many who testify to miracles have much to lose even by testifying truly; but I shall first respond to Hume’s quantitative demand. In contrast to the environment assumed by Hume, today hundreds of millions of people claim to have witnessed miracles.” (italics are mine)
Keener spends several chapters detailing how the experience of miracles is absolutely pervasive throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and has been a major source of church growth in these areas. For example, he notes:
“…Reports from some members of the official China Christian Council suggested that roughly ‘half of the new conversions of the last twenty years have been caused by faith healing experiences’ of the convert or someone close to them. Speaking more broadly of Christians in China in general, one researcher cites less conservative estimates; ‘according to some surveys, 90% of new believers cite healing as a reason for their conversion.’”
Keener further notes that,
“Often these [Christian converts] are people reared in entirely different religious traditions, for whom changing their faith tradition is socially costly, sometimes even leading to ostracism or persecution.”
“…Western scholar of global Christianity Philip Jenkins notes that in general Christianity in the Global South is quite interested in ‘the immediate workings of the supernatural, through prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances, and healing.’ Such an approach, closer to the early Christian worldview than modern Western culture is, appeals to many traditional non-Western cultures.”
“…[These cultures] have simply never embraced the Western, mechanistic, naturalistic Enlightenment worldview that rejects the supernatural.”
Why, then, does western culture (and much of modern western academia) differ so vehemently with the majority of the world’s population, when it comes to the topic of miracles? Disbelief in miracles first requires that one subscribe to a theory (or philosophy) that denies the existence of God. This deeply rooted western philosophical tradition, known as naturalism or materialism, says that, since nothing exists except for the “natural world” of material objects interacting with one another in a mindless and mechanical fashion, belief in God (and miracles) is an airy-fairy superstition.
As philosophers Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro put it in their book Naturalism, “The conflict between naturalism and theism is not a matter of different scientific theories of events within the cosmos, but of conflicting overall philosophies of the cosmos itself.”
Renowned physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin explain how materialism/naturalism took such a strong hold on the modern western worldview, and therefore persists despite being incompatible with modern physics, in their book The Matter Myth:
“…At the time of the publication of the Principia [Isaac Newton’s landmark work] the most sophisticated machines were clocks, and Newton’s image of the working of nature as an elaborate clockwork struck a deep chord.”
“…It is hard to overstate the impact that these physical images have had in shaping our world view. The doctrine that the physical universe consists of inert matter locked into a sort of gigantic deterministic clockwork has penetrated all branches of human inquiry. Materialism dominates biology, for example. Living organisms are regarded as nothing more than complicated collections of particles, each being blindly pulled and pushed by its neighbors.”
The insidious influence of materialism/naturalism on the western mind causes a prevalent misperception that science objectively describes observable material objects which are out there, whereas religion deals with unobservable and airy-fairy concepts such as God and miracles. Despite the fact that modern western culture categorizes belief in God as “religious,” and belief in naturalism/materialism as “scientific,” there exists no objective rational means for establishing why the materialist/naturalist philosophy of the cosmos itself (in the words of Goetz and Taliaferro) should be categorized as “scientific,” whereas theism is not.
Both theism and materialism/naturalism are philosophies based upon human experience. It is just that adopting materialism/naturalism requires one to ignore or discount a vast amount of human experience.
Further, it is crucial to understand that the insights of modern physics which were not available in Hume’s day have made it immensely more difficult to justify a theory or philosophy of the cosmos that does not include God. Specifically, as difficult as it is for the western mind to grasp, modern physics has shown that what we perceive as the material world is the product of a mind.
Johns Hopkins University physicist Richard Conn Henry writes in his article The Mental Universe:
“The 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the universe’s nature. Bright physicists were again led to believe the unbelievable—this time that the universe is mental. According to [the knighted mathematician, physicist and astronomer] Sir James Jeans:
‘There is a wide measure of agreement which, on the physical side of science approaches almost unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail mind as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.’” (italics mine)
(Please read the above mentioned article, my essay titled God Is Real: Why Modern Physics Has Discredited Atheism, as well as Mindful Universe by the University of California, Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp for a further exploration of this topic).
The difficulty which the modern western mind has in grasping the concept of the material world being the product of a mind can be compared to the difficulty which many ancient people must have had in accepting the concept of the Earth being round. If the Earth is not flat, why doesn’t everything just fall off? Much as the concept of a spherical Earth was a non-intuitive shock for such people, the concept of a mental universe is a non-intuitive shock to the western mind.
And if what we perceive as the material world is the result of a mind (read: God’s mind), rather than being “inert matter locked into a sort of gigantic deterministic clockwork” (in the words of physicists Davies and Gribbin), what reason remains for denying divine intervention…miracles?
Keener notes that, “None of the ancient sources respond to Jesus’ miracles by trying to deny them.” Even ancient sources hostile towards Christianity, such as the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus and the ancient Roman historian Celsus, do not attempt to deny Jesus’ miracles. Celsus, for example, rather than denying Jesus’ miracles, accused him of sorcery. As this essay notes, Celsus wrote:
“It was by means of sorcery that He [Jesus] was able to accomplish the wonders which He performed… Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves… These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers… It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of power…”
Perhaps it is time for modern westerners to relinquish the old-time religion of materialism/naturalism, which is based on outdated scientific concepts, and admit that the majority of the world’s population (primarily from Latin America, Africa, and Asia) has been right about miracles all along. Even Christians in the modern west are susceptible to a subconscious skepticism toward miracles which stems from the subtle influence of deeply rooted western philosophical traditions.
In order to be truly objective, one must subject the core assumptions of one’s own birth society to just as much scrutiny as anything else. As Heller put it in Catch-22: “[They] agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.”