How Would You Define A Miracle?

In the past few months, via several discussions with a variety of learned skeptics and religious people, I've come to better understand the disparities in our concepts of miracles, and specifically, I've been thinking about how falsifiability and confounders diminish the extent to which an alleged miracle can be considered authentic. It may very well be that proving a miracle is impossible, and on this matter I haven't quite decided yet, but I've certainly concluded that there is a wide range of skeptical positions one might take concerning the concept of miracles, and what we can justifiedly say about them, if and when they do occur.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome regarding alleged healing miracles is developing a reliable method for excluding confounders of spontaneous remission and the placebo effect. Hitherto unexplained, either of these mysterious phenomena would provide good confounding cover for a genuine miracle, and that's not to say that all instances of spontaneous remission and placebo effect are intrinsically miraculous, either. Some skeptics are fond of claiming that only repeatable, observable, systematic instances of miracles would be sufficient to convince them that they were unjustified in their skepticism. This is sounds more like magic than miracle.

Miracles as described in the Bible are best defined as disparate and discontinuous acts of God, not predictable acts of cause and effect. The definition of a miracle is an event that purportedly breaches the natural order of things, so how can we reasonably expect such events to be repeatable, let alone to the degree needed to draw an affirmative conclusion from reliable, systematic and consistent data? The person who demands that miracles be repeated asks for something that did not even occur amongst the original apostles. There were times when for some reason or another even they couldn't affect the desired phenomena, and to demand that God work miracles on our terms for our purposes was certainly not the way it went down in scripture. Nowhere in the Bible is God alleged to be a magic genie.

On EvangelicalRealism, when asking for particular definitions and criteria that would constitute a miracle, the best I could get was a series of vague criteria that were difficult to accurately quantify. For example, the word "unambiguous" certainly implies something eminently clear, of course, but just how out of the ordinary does something have to be before somebody is justified in assuming it to be a miracle? The same goes for the word "extraordinary" sans further precision. Another criteria given was that the alleged miracle be "stringently verified," and my objection that such terms were insufficient and subjective was met with scorn.

I assure you I proceeded in earnest. I offered what I thought were reasonable preliminary definitions of those words. I said I would classify something as "stringently verified" when three or more independent sources have corroborated the story, and these sources do not always necessarily have to be eye-witnesses. By "independent sources" I said I meant disparate sources with no discernible conflicts of interest or questionable corporate, scientific, religious or political agendas or lobbies. These sources can be described as more or most independent if they share conflicting world views, and they can be described as less or least independent if they share the same world views.

I said I would classify something as "unambiguous" when standard naturalist explanation cannot account for the evidence, but even that is totally shaky, because the range of evidence that naturalist explanations can account for is always increasing. We might say today, “Oh, that girl was healed in a way naturalist explanations cannot account for,” then a year later science may in fact turn that stone over. We can seemingly always wave potentially miraculous healing away as spontaneous remission or the placebo effect.

As for "extraordinary" well, I said I would take this word at face value – not ordinary – but would you consider spontaneous remission and/or the placebo effect to be ordinary, or extraordinary? Why? What types of healing will you accept as ordinary vs. extraordinary, or potentially miraculous? Why?

Other proposed criteria included, "something that doesn’t easily fall onto the skeptic’s side of Occam’s razor," but again, the fulfillment of this is to a large degree in the eye of the beholder, no?

What about our particular definition of God? Is God falsifiable or not? If so, can we reasonably demand that God perform miracles on our terms for our purposes, for example, the repeatable and testable miracles? And if we say God is not falsifiable, what of the difficulty in excluding the potential action of an unfalsifiable God?

On the other hand, an isolated yet unambiguous and extraordinary instance of the miraculous might be much easier to stringently, objectively verify. Are any skeptics or atheists willing to accept one or more isolated events as sufficient? There are at least two positions, those who would accept even one sufficiently corroborated miracle, and those who would only accept repeatable miracles. Do you fall into either one of these positions? Something else? How would you specifically define a miracle, and would an isolated instance persuade you to recant or at least honestly doubt your atheism, or would you need something more?

5 Comments

  1. Arthur says:

    As hard as this might be to believe, I thought using the word “unambiguous” would make my post automatically clear (as a point of interest, it appeared to be clear along party lines). In retrospect, I suppose I was being naïve. I will try to make my point with a little more precision, because I think it’s the source of a big part of the past-each-other talking over there.
    Imagine someone who believes that miracles have no basis in reality. Imagine that this skeptic has any number of arguments at his disposal, none of which, needless to say, are convincing to you. A little back-and-forth with this guy would make it obvious that you will never even agree to disagree: he cannot be made to concede that any occurrence in the real world can reasonably be construed as a miracle because he doesn’t believe the word “miracle” refers to something real. Actually, I’m sure this doesn’t require your imagination at all.
    At the end of the day there is only so much you can do, because you’re just another person talking, after all. Nonetheless, it will still-and-always be true that the skeptic could become convinced (and he and every other skeptic knows it) if God exists, and He wants the skeptic to be convinced.
    That is my definition of “an unambiguous miracle”: one which would change the above skeptic’s mind. I don’t mean that, on some fine day, for some random reason, some skeptical individual might suddenly be persuaded of something. I’m talking about, simply, an event which could not fail to be convincing—whatever that might be.
    If this sounds like a lot of unreasonable bluster, remember: we’re talking about people who don’t already believe in God, and who have no inclination to give Him the benefit of the doubt. I’ve really only stated the obvious (I think): that, to be convinced, such people need to see something that can’t be understood in more than one way. It’s not God being commanded to jump through hoops; it’s a simple statement of fact.

  2. cl says:

    Arthur,

    As hard as this might be to believe, I thought using the word “unambiguous” would make my post automatically clear…

    Well, that’s not an entirely unreasonable assumption most of the time, because after all, the meaning of the word is something that is clear or unmistakable. Pregnancy is pretty unambiguous, but certainly no ironclad proof that a woman’s virginity has been abandoned.

    In retrospect, I suppose I was being naïve. I will try to make my point with a little more precision, because I think it’s the source of a big part of the past-each-other talking over there.

    I’m presuming your not being sarcastic here, and thank you. The internet is tough because we lack pictures and non-verbal cues to communication such as inflection and posture. It’s really easy to talk past each other. And I can always respect a desire for further precision. In fact, I often wonder why so many people quibble about this and say I’m “obfuscating” or “muddying the waters” by attempting to establish precise and agreed interpretations of language. I mean, trying to read one another’s mind is always a laugh, but I want to make some actual progress in these discussions. So thanks for being a good sport about things.

    Actually, I’m sure this doesn’t require your imagination at all. At the end of the day there is only so much you can do, because you’re just another person talking, after all.

    No, the paragraph was clear and well-reasoned, and you’re correct – at the end of the day we’re all just other people talking.

    Nonetheless, it will still-and-always be true that the skeptic could become convinced (and he and every other skeptic knows it) if God exists, and He wants the skeptic to be convinced.

    I agree, and would add that such requires an act of God, the skeptic, or possibly both.

    That is my definition of “an unambiguous miracle”: one which would change the above skeptic’s mind. I don’t mean that, on some fine day, for some random reason, some skeptical individual might suddenly be persuaded of something. I’m talking about, simply, an event which could not fail to be convincing—whatever that might be.

    Of course, and that’s certainly reasonable. But it should also be readily apparent that what you or I are willing to accept as unambiguous might certainly differ, and what either one of us thinks is just as likely to differ with whatever the next person thinks. So sans precise and equally understood definitions and criteria, the whole exercise cannot even get sufficiently off the ground. Commenters jim, GaySolomon and one or two others chided me quite strongly on this point, yet here we are a week and a half later verifying it.

    I’ve really only stated the obvious (I think): that, to be convinced, such people need to see something that can’t be understood in more than one way.

    I agree, but we certainly have to concede the subjectivity here. For example, education and cultural time periods play a huge factor in all of this. A person living 3,000 years ago would have likely worshipped a 747 or a television were either to have suddenly flew into a wormhole and reappeared in their time. We’d have a Bible where Boeing or Sony was God.

    It’s not God being commanded to jump through hoops; it’s a simple statement of fact.

    Depending on the scope of this statement, I can both agree and disagree. An individual unbeliever is not commanding God to jump through hoops by simply wanting an unambiguous sign of God’s existence. An individual unbeliever might be commanding God to jump through hoops if their particular definition is framed as such – for example, demanding that God’s sign be videotaped is certainly comparable to asking God to jump through hoops. Or take those silly prayer experiments as other examples. By even raising the bar, we’re asking God to jump it, right?
    What I’m saying is that if any unbeliever merely wants an unambiguous sign from God, such is not asking God to jump through a hoop, but when we start demanding that the sign be this, that or the other thing, then the situation changes.

  3. Lenoxus says:

    I think it is only human intuition and nothing more that makes us think there’s something exceptionally rude about asking God to “jump through hoops”. Like, if I were to ask Barack Obama to prove he can shoot a basketball, that would be impertinent, because he’s the president and has more important things to do with his time. (Plus, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that he can anyway.) But an omnipotent god has no such limits, and either he wishes for his presence to be known or he doesn’t.
    “Silly prayer experiments” exist precisely because people have repeatedly made the claim that (intercessory) prayer can cure, which would logically lead to prayer, you know, curing. Even with the pressure of someone watching, and writing the results down. Apparently, as it turns out, prayer doesn’t cure. Or at least, our universe is no different from one in which prayer makes no discernible difference.

  4. cl says:

    Lenoxus,
    Well, I agree with you that God either wants to be known or not.
    I don’t think it’s rude to ask God to jump through hoops (say, in the form of prayer experiments); I believe it’s arrogant and narcissistic, for the same reasons you allude to with Obama.

    Apparently, as it turns out, prayer doesn’t cure.

    I wouldn’t expect prayer studies to reveal anything otherwise. The Bible says 1) that the majority of those who say “Lord, Lord” have not the power of God; 2) that putting God to petulant testing (as opposed to genuine, personal request for confirmation) is an affront; 3) that Jesus responded not with more miracles but criticism of those who demanded more miracles.
    I believe prayer studies prove only that a magic genie doesn’t exist, but I don’t need studies to confirm that a magic genie doesn’t exist. I simply disbelieve that the God of the Bible is a magic genie.

  5. joseph says:

    “The Bible says 1) that the majority of those who say “Lord, Lord” have not the power of God; 2) that putting God to petulant testing (as opposed to genuine, personal request for confirmation) is an affront; 3) that Jesus responded not with more miracles but criticism of those who demanded more miracles.”

    Of course the trouble non-believers (maybe believers too) have with this argument is, that even if it is correct, it lets you have it both ways.

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