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Consider the view that miracles by definition cannot happen
How we understand what miracles are is central to debating the possibility of their occurrence. David
Hume provided a now widely used definition of a miracle and argued that we can never know if
miracles happen. However, other philosophers such as Aquinas and Swinburne contended that the
definition of a miracle does not prohibit the possibility of their occurrence. It cannot be held that by
definition, miracles cannot happen.
Hume defines a miracle as a "violation of the laws of nature", brought about by the "deity...or some
invisible agent". Further he argues that miracles cannot happen because these laws have been
established by "a firm and unalterable experience". He appeals to the principle of induction: we have
seen countless examples of the universe behaving in a certain way that we can induce that it will
always behave in such a way. For example, every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
We have no reason to believe that this will not happen tomorrow or in the future because we have
seen it happen so many times before. A miracle is highly improbable because it contradicts these
highly probable laws and so we could not prove that the miracle happened. "A wise man proportions
his belief to the evidence" and the evidence suggests that people cannot walk on water or be
resurrected from the dead. Therefore, miracles, by definition, cannot happen because a violation of
the laws of nature is so improbable.
Hume's arguments here are successful because he uses empirical evidence to discredit miracles. This
is very relevant in an age where scientific knowledge has hugely increased and is very much relied
upon in many areas of thinking. However, it is perhaps unreasonable to force that the laws of nature
can under no circumstances be broken. Richard Swinburne suggested that laws of nature are more
like general rules of the way the universe normally operates they are descriptive rather than
prescriptive. This does not mean that they are laws that hold in every circumstance without
exception. Therefore, in theory, it is possible for a miracle to contradict this normal behaviour.
Furthermore, John Polkinghorne claimed the very idea of `laws of nature' is outdated. They are based
on the idea that the universe runs as clockwork and is completely fixed and rigid. Although this is
scientifically true, so is unpredictability and randomness. For example, Quantum theory stresses the
characteristic unpredictability of sub-atomic particles. If the idea of fixed laws of nature is to be
rejected, then the argument that miracles cannot happen by definition must also be rejected. It is
perhaps unfair, however, to criticise Hume for these reasons, for in the time that he lived scientific
understanding was not the same as it is today.
In Hume's definition of a miracle, he states that the event must have some supernatural cause, most
likely God, but this does not exclude angels or demons. Under the same argument we could claim this
is highly unlikely because we do not have any prior experience of an undisputed event with such as
cause. If a miracle, by definition, needs such a cause, then a miracle, by definition, cannot happen.
However, it could be argued that people have experienced such an event. In the Bible, the disciples
personally saw Jesus perform many miracles, including walking on water and feeding five thousand
people with five loaves and two fishes. Modern stories also report similar divine intervention, such as
the miracles at Lourdes. Hume may criticise such stories, claiming that people who testify to such
incidents should not be believed for four reasons: they have not been attested by enough people of
good sense, learning and education and so cannot be believed to be true; they tend to come from
ignorant or barbarous nations; they come from different religions which therefore cancel each other
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Aquinas, a thirteenth century monk, may disagree with Hume. Aquinas placed a strong emphasis on
the work of God when defining a miracle and divided them into three ranks. A miracle is such when
God does what nature or humans could not do (for example, in the book of Isaiah, God makes a
shadow move backwards as a sign). A miracle may also be when God does something that nature can
do, but in a different order, such as the blind being able to see.…read more
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For a religious believer,
however, it may not be sufficient to include coincidences as a miracle as it removes God and the need
for His power.
In conclusion, miracles can be defined in many similar yet different ways. Hume claims that a wise
person can never believe that miracles happen because they contradict experience. Others,
however, suggest that this is not impossible through the work of God. Lucky coincidences can also be
termed miracles. Therefore, miracles, by definition, can happen.…read more