Monday, February 7, 2011

Arguments to and from Miracles (Part 3) - Direct-acts, Inexplicability and Coincidence Miracles

This post is the third (and final part) of my series on Chapter 6 of Nicholas Everitt’s book The Non-Existence of God. It also forms part of my series on Miracles, which will continue after this.

Over the first two entries we dealt with the concept of a violation-miracle and the problems associated with that concept. In this entry, we will consider three alternative conceptions of miracles. They are: (i) the directly-willed-acts conception; (ii) the inexplicability conception; and (iii) the coincidence conception.

1. Miracles as Directly Willed Acts of God
According to this conception of the term, a miracle is any event in the natural world that can be attributed to an act of God.

Theists usually conceive of God as the creator of the natural world. This implies that every event in the natural world can be traced back to at least one of God’s acts (viz. the original creative act). Does this imply that every event counts as a miracle? No; there is a distinction to be drawn between an event that is indirectly attributable to an of God and an event that is directly attributable to such an act.

As an example of the distinction between the two, consider the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Presumably, God could have made this happen by direct or indirect means. If he opted for direct means, then the sea would just have spontaneously parted allowing for Moses and the Israelites to cross. If he opted for indirect means, then the sea might have “parted” following a drought or a whirlwind. The former would count as a miracle, but the latter would not.

This conception of miracles avoids the problems associated with violation miracles (it is surely not correct to say that God could violate his own indirect willings). But it has some problems of its own. Two seem particularly apposite here:

First, in order to successfully identify a miracle under this conception, one would need to develop some criteria that allow you to reliably discriminate between the indirect and direct acts of God. Usually this involves pointing to the religious significance of certain events like the parting of the Red Sea. But for this to work we need to be sure that (a) we have a good (non-miraculous) source of information about what is religiously significant and (b) that we are not being deceived by another supernatural being. We’ll consider this problem in future entries.

Second, this conception seems to reduce the evidential significance of miracles. With the violation conception the idea, presumably, was that certain rare and/or impressive events constituted particularly good evidence for the existence of God. With this conception all events count as evidence for the existence of God. Thus it becomes much more difficult to see why we should care especially about arguments to the existence of miracles.

2. Miracles as Inexplicable Events
According to this conception of the term, a miracle is an event that is inexplicable. This obviously folds an epistemic concept -- i.e. explicability -- into our definition of miracle and thereby creates certain problems. To see what these problems are we need to distinguish between two varieties of inexplicability (i) de facto inexplicability and (ii) in principle inexplicability.

Look at de facto inexplicability first. If an event is de facto inexplicable then this implies that, as a matter of fact, we cannot currently explain it. The problem with this is that we are constantly improving our ability to explain events over time. And so what is or what is not de facto explicable is subject to revision over time.

To take an example that has been doing the rounds recently, it was, no doubt, once true that we could not explain why the tides obeyed the regular patterns that they do. But nowadays we can explain this phenomenon. Does this imply that the tides were once miraculous but no longer are? It would be absurd to answer in the affirmative.

The absurdity of the de facto sense of inexplicability leads to the idea of in principle inexplicability. According to this version, an event is inexplicable -- and therefore miraculous -- if it is forever and always incapable of being explained.

Although this might appear to solve the problem with de facto inexplicability, it simply creates a new problem: it assumes we can reliably identify events that are in principle inexplicable. But this is to assume more than we can know. When it comes to any event that is currently inexplicable it might be the case that it can never be explained, but it might also be the case that it will be explained in the future.

In other words, we could be standing in the same relation to the currently inexplicable event as the ancients were in relation to the tides. Thus, it would seem like we could never really identify an in principle inexplicable event.

3. Miracles as Coincidences
According to this conception of the term, a miracle can be said to arise whenever there is a very surprising coincidence with significant beneficial effects. The coincidence is said to count as a miracle even if there is a naturalistic explanation for it. Everitt cites the following example from R.F. Holland (this is a mix of Everitt’s words and Holland’s words from pg. 125 of Everitt's book):
A child has wandered onto a railway track. A train is approaching at high speed but because the track is curved, there is no possibility that the driver will see the child in time. The mother is watching from a distance ... but is too far away to intervene. The train hurtles down upon the child and then suddenly its brakes are applied and it comes to a halt a few feet from the child.
There was nothing supernatural about the manner in which the brakes of the train came to be applied. The driver had fainted... on this particular afternoon because his blood pressure had risen after a heavy lunch during which he quarrelled with a colleague, and the change in blood pressure caused a clot of blood to be dislodged... He fainted at the time he did...because this was the time at which the coagulation in his blood reached his brain.

Holland claims that, despite the plausible naturalistic explanation, the mother could still thank God for the miraculous turn of events that saved her child. But is she really in her epistemic rights to do this?

Everitt thinks not. He argues that atheists and agnostics can happily concede that unlikely coincidences like this occur. They would, however, rightly dispute any inference from their occurrence to the existence of God. After all, if a perfectly good naturalistic explanation, which does not rely on any direct intervention of God, is available, then why exactly do we need to bring God into the discussion.

(Aside: wouldn’t assuming God’s intervention in the example just given create problems anyway? Doesn’t it call into question God’s moral character? Surely he could have halted the train without causing the driver to have a stroke?)

4. Conclusion
Through the course of his chapter, Everitt examined four different conceptions of miracles. We can summarise his views on each of them as follows:
  • (1) The Violation Conception: This conception is both: (a) rationally unacceptable because sufficiently strong evidence for the occurrence of a violation of a law of nature would also undermine belief in the existence of that law of nature (Hume’s argument); and (b) logically impossible due to the incompatibility and conceptual confusion arguments.
  • (2) The Directly-Willed-Acts Conception: This conception is problematic because (a) it assumes we have the ability to reliably distinguish between the direct and indirect acts of God; and (b) it reduces the evidential significance of miracles.
  • (3) The Inexplicability Conception: This conception is flawed because we cannot reliably distinguish between an event is “in principle” inexplicable or simply inexplicable due to limitations in our current knowledge-base.
  • (4) The Coincidence Conception: This conception is flawed because we are not entitled to infer God’s existence from a naturalistically explicable coincidence (note: an inexplicable coincidence would just suffer from the flaw associated with (3)).


  1. Will you cover the miracles that occurred in the Super Bowl last night, as evidenced by the profane amount of ceiling-pointings that occurred?

    Seriously, though, fantastic post. I really appreciate it and your explanations have been wonderful so far. I look forward to the rest.

  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    I am afraid to say American Football is completely unknown to me.

  3. Ah -- understandable. I was making a joke about things like THIS, THIS, and THIS.

    I couldn't find examples from Sunday's game (called the Super Bowl, the US championship), but I couldn't believe how many players pointed to the heavens after making various plays.

    It made it very difficult for me to figure out which team god's will was [in]directly providing miracles to.

  4. hi,

    im curious of your opinion of this site:


  5. Hendy,

    Ah yes! I see what you are talking about now. Such invocations of God are, unfortunately, all too common in the sporting context.


    I don't know much about that site, but I have seen some clips of the call-in show on youtube. I don't know that I should really pass judgment or offer an opinion on it since I haven't examined it in-depth, but here goes...

    Based on what I have seen, I would say the call-in show is a mixed bag, like everything else. Sometimes good points are made, but sometimes things get a little too emotional or heated for my taste.

    That said, I appreciate that it is difficult to remain completely calm during the kinds of one-on-one debates they have with callers. I know I have, in the past, lost my cool in such settings. That's why I tend to prefer the written word. Also, I suspect that the presenters are operating in a different social context to my own. They are probably more besieged by certain brands of religiosity in Texas than I am here in Ireland.

  6. John D,

    "for this to work we need to be sure that (a) we have a good (non-miraculous) source of information about what is religiously significant"

    I may be missing something trivial, but why must the source be non-miraculous?

  7. Well, I think it's a bootstrapping problem really. Under that second definition of a miracle the challenge is to correctly identify a direct (as opposed to indirect) act of God. One criterion that has been proposed by some religious thinkers is that a direct act will be an event with some sort of religious significance. It follows that we must have some standard for determining what is and what is not religiously significant when trying to evaluate a particular miracle claim.

    That standard could come from another (well-established) miraculous event, but the miraculous nature of that other event would also have to be established using the criterion of religious significance. Unless you can appeal to other miracles all the way down -- perhaps a possibility that should not be ruled out? -- then at some point you'll need a non-miraculous source for determining whether something is religiously significant.

    I think that seems to be the reasoning.

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