What makes a miracle? A glance at media output suggests we are surrounded by the supernatural. We have miracle foods, miracle drugs and miracle babies. According to the Central Bank, Ireland is a “Phoenix miracle” for bouncing back from economic disaster, while the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has pleaded for miraculous intervention in EU-UK negotiations.
"Juncker says miracles are needed for progress on Brexit talks," ran a perfectly serious headline in The Guardian.
The overuse of the m-word serves to highlight what truly defines a miracle – because if it is to have any meaning it must signify more than just an unlikely event. A miracle importantly assumes the hidden hand of a greater, benevolent power, as Yujin Nagasawa, professor of philosophy at University of Birmingham and author of Miracles: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), points out.
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent; and it has religious significance,” he says.
Having properly defined a miracle, then, can we ever speak of one taking place (outside of fairy stories)? Nagasawa, today’s Unthinkable guest, keeps an open mind on the subject. However, he says, “even if we directly encounter a miracle we would struggle to convince others and even ourselves that a miracle has really taken place”.
Is it unreasonable to believe in miracles?
Yujin Nagasawa: "According to the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Without violating the laws of nature it is impossible for anyone to turn water into wine or resurrect the dead.
“Hume claims that no matter how much evidence we gather for miracles it can never be stronger than evidence against them because evidence against them consists of the entire laws of nature, which are confirmed through firm and uniform observations of the operation of nature. He concludes, therefore, that it is always unreasonable to believe in miracles.
“I don’t agree with Hume. The laws of nature aren’t mathematical or conceptual truths so there is nothing logically contradictory about violating them. I think there are possible situations in which we can reasonably believe in miracles.”
What’s the most common type of miracle proclaimed by world religions? Healing miracles and miracles surrounding the weather seem to feature prominently.
“Healing miracles are indeed abundantly reported in the world’s great religions. Jesus is said to have healed paralysis, dropsy and deafness. Muhammad is said to have healed burnt skin, broken legs and muteness. In the Asian traditions, there are numerous health deities, such as Bhaisajyaguru in Buddhism and Dhanvantari in Hinduism, who are believed to have healed people seeking their blessing.
“Healing miracles play a particularly important role in beatification and canonisation in the Catholic Church.You might remember that Mother Teresa was canonised in 2016 on the basis of her miracle of healing a Brazilian man with brain tumours.
“Miracles of controlling weather are also widely reported in religious scriptures. In the narrative of Noah’s Ark, God caused flooding by sending rain down on the Earth; Jesus is believed to have rebuked a furious windstorm on the Sea of Galilee; and Muhammad is believed to have saved the people of Medina from drought by causing heavy rain.
“Obviously, a miracle of controlling weather has an immediate practical benefit: weather is changed in accordance with needs. But it can also serve as an exemplification of the authority of a miracle worker over nature.”
Can you be a religious practitioner without believing in miracles?
“We could argue that belief in miracles is essential to religion. If you claim to be religious but maintain that nature is all there is and that there can be no act beyond the laws of nature, then you would struggle to explain in what sense you are different from nonbelievers.
“Interestingly enough, however, leaders of the world’s great religions aren’t always enthusiastic about miracles. For example, when the Buddha met a yogi who had been trying for years to learn to cross a river by walking on water, he told the man that his effort was a waste of time because he could simply cross the river on a ferry for a small charge. To take another example, when Jesus was challenged by the Devil he refused to perform the miracles of turning stones into bread or jumping off from the highest point of a temple without getting hurt.
“I think the religious leaders warn against dependence on miracles because they want their followers to focus on acts that are truly important. Violating the laws of nature can impress people easily but it doesn’t in itself make that act worthwhile.”
How would one go about proving a miracle occurred?
“My view is that although a miracle can occur it’s not easy to prove it. Like historians and forensic investigators, we have to examine available evidence carefully to figure out exactly what happened.
We have to filter out these cognitive biases when we evaluate miracle reports
“When we deal with testimonies we have to be aware that people have all sorts of cognitive biases. According to some psychologists, for instance, we have a cognitive tendency to attribute characteristics of agents to natural objects and events. If we see the shadow of an object in the woods it is better for our survival to recognise it as a predator. We constantly scan our environment and look for agency because of the survival advantage.
“Some psychologists also maintain that we are biased towards seeing things in nature as purposefully designed. That is, we are cognitively predisposed to explain natural objects and properties in terms of order, purpose and intention. Perhaps that’s why we naturally assume the intervention of a supernatural agent like God when we encounter an inexplicable event. We have to filter out these cognitive biases when we evaluate miracle reports.”
We call all sorts of things "miraculous" – surprising sports results, longed-for pregnancies, acts of altruism, and so on. Is it misleading to call such events miracles?
"Television and newspapers regularly report unusual events with surprising outcomes as 'miracles'. I think this makes sense to some extent because the word 'miracle' comes from the Latin miraculum, denoting an object of wonder and amazement. Yet they aren't real miracles because they don't violate the laws of nature.
"Acts of altruism are important here because even though they don't violate the laws of nature they do something similar. Consider, for example, the altruistic act of Maximilian Kolbe, who was sent to the Auschwitz death camp. When a prisoner from Kolbe's barracks was selected to be sent to a starvation bunker Kolbe volunteered to take his place. This is a remarkable act of altruism that exhibits love and compassion to the maximum extent.
“This kind of act doesn’t violate the laws of nature but it defies a strong biological urge to prioritise one’s own survival, which humans have acquired through the long process of evolution. While acts of altruism aren’t miracles in the philosophical sense they can be seen as ‘miraculous’ as, or even more so than, miracles.”
Ask a sage:
Question: Is it daft to say prayers?
Ivan Turgenev replies: "Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: 'Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'"