Miracle Or Magic?

ACIM – Interfaith Community Sanctuary

For, first, never in all of history has a miracle been attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to guarantee that they aren’t deluded; of such undoubted integrity as to place them beyond all suspicion of wanting to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have much to lose if they were found to have told a falsehood; and at the same time testifying to events-the reported miracle-that occurred in such a public manner and in such a famous part of the world as to make the detection of any falsehood unavoidable. All these conditions must be satisfied if we are to be completely acim confident of the testimony of men.

In other words, a miracle stands as so momentous and at the same time so unlikely, and mankind so notably fallible and imperfect, that no person could given testimony sufficiently credible. We should more question the testimony than believe the miracle.

Note, however, that is in our world. Mankind’s fallibility pertains to our actual, contingent, messy, version of a world.

Philosophy allows us to consider not just our world, but possible worlds. So could we, in some conceivable world, a world with a better human nature, achieve sufficiently credible testimony? Certainly. Give people more accurate perceptions, higher moral integrity and improved mental memory. Or populate the world with Three Rule Asimov robots. The accuracy of testimony in such conceivable worlds could rise to sufficient integrity.

Now, in Hume’s time, maybe such a world could not be conceived. But today, such a conceived world could become a real world.

Compared to the time of Hume, we possess sophisticated technology. We can record, detail and store recordings and data of all types. We can collect phenomena in multiple media. We can disseminate, cross-check, review, question, and otherwise scrutinize reports and data of any occurrence.

So, if in our time the walls of Jericho have been foretold to come down at the sound of trumpets after seven days of marching, CNN, and Fox, and every news outlet, and a plethora of scientific instruments, and an array of digital recording devices, would stand ready to observe, record and document the event.

I will leave as not discussed a corollary, but unfortunate question. The miracles of God-made-man, of Jesus, did not occur under the scrutiny of modern techniques, but two millennium ago. Does the testimony of that time from ancient Galilee rise to sufficient accuracy to attest to a miracle? We will not discuss that here, but we are left to ponder the question.

Critical Miracle Issue Two: Extraordinary

Every day, across our globe, and more broadly throughout the universe, within the billions and billions of occurrences, a subset for sure fall outside the ordinary, many standard deviations outside the ordinary.

But amongst this cascade of events, can we separate the uniquely divine from the simply extraordinary. How can we even recognize a phenomena as being an act worthy of consideration as a miracle? Note here we assume sufficiently accurate testimony. We thus ask if we could cull from the enormous cacophony of extraordinary but otherwise worldly events, accurately reported, those that represent miracles, or at least candidates for miracles.

Maybe, in fact most likely, if we look at the proper attributes of the phenomena. Three attributes stand out: 1) variability 2) originality, and 3) attribution.

Consider weather. Variability lies in the very nature of weather. Temperatures, precipitation, winds – all can vary across enormous ranges. A 200 inch rainfall, or 250 mile an hour hurricane, stands as extraordinary, but within possible variability.

However, within that variability, certain variations essentially never occur. Rain falls as precipitation, but wheat grains do not. Temperatures vary, but not in directly adjacent locations. So if we stepped outside our house to a rain of wheat flakes, and the temperature between our front and back yard differed by one hundred degrees, we might think miracle.

In terms of originality of the observation, consider exoplanets. We have just begun discovering planets, and thus just begun understanding the principle behind planet production. An original discovery of planets would likely be an addition of our current limited knowledge, not an exception.

But water. Many years of practical experience and scientific study give us a sense of the properties of water. If some suddenly became wine, we might think miracle.

Let’s turn to attribution, in other words can we attribute the event to a divine cause.

Consider, for example, if a standard water sample, from an average lake, taken by a typical graduate student in biology, contains, unexpectedly, a here-to-for unknown, astonishing and strange life form. Or consider, if a normal archeological dig, in an average location, by a typical graduate student of ancient history, turns up a here-to-for unknown, astonishing, and strange human civilization.

Would we attribute the findings to a miraculous intervention by a divine entity? Some might, but we might not. Even given that these findings represented an enormous outlier, we might not judge the findings as a miracle. Why? No causal connection exists to the divine; no divine motivation or purpose appears present; no foretelling of the findings occurred; no religious message or divine revelations were received.