Saturday, November 21, 2009

Earman and Oderberg on miracles

Bill Vallicella quotes John Earman:

...if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, then whether or not the violation is due to the intervention of the Deity, a miracle is logically impossible since, whatever else a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity.

Well, maybe, and maybe not. But from an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) point of view, a miracle is not to be understood as “a violation of a law of nature” in the first place. That’s just yet one more modern philosophical error alongside all the others. For a useful discussion of how A-T does understand miracles, see pp. 148-9 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, available here through the magic of Google Books. (For the whole book, you’ll need to shell out a mere $31.16 at Amazon, which if you haven’t already you should do at once.) As Oderberg’s discussion implies, Bill is mistaken in attributing the definition in question to Aquinas, whose actual view (I would argue) is that miracles are suspensions of the laws of nature (as Oderberg puts it) rather than violations.


  1. To me, the only way miracles are intelligible within our physical world is to presume they are psychological, or cognitive phenomena. What I take to be similes: water into wine, or Jesus calming the storm are, in fact, describing something else, something like calming the storm, and so forth. Obviously anyone inclined to a more literal interpretation of the gospel stories would not see it this way.

    On another note: I remember asking earlier, but can anyone compare the blog author's latest book with the Copleston? I was in B&N this afternoon, coupon in hand, but the Feser book was nowhere to be found. Plenty of pop stuff: The Metaphysics of Amos and Andy, The Ethics of Dancing with the Stars and a slew of others. Must be Christmastime. But no Feser. I guess I'll have to order it and write my own book review, comparing the two. Who knows? Maybe Copleston was able to manage a bit of lightness in prose. Usually, though, he takes dry seriousness to new levels.

  2. I think your view is consistent with CS Lewis' view of miracles as a new initial condition ie the laws of nature are not violated but the initial condition has been changed.

    But supposing the law of local conservation of energy, a suspension of law might not count as a violation.

  3. It certainly consistent with Lewis' view. That's probably because Lewis also got his view from Aquinas. The book Miracles is actually a very good philosophical work on the question of whether or not miracles are possible. Lewis does a great job refuting Hume's view of probability with respect to miracles.

  4. Mr. Feser,

    A tad off-topic, but you might find this amusing:

    Having bought and read your books (Last Superstition, Aquinas, and Philosophy of Mind), I could only giggle at some of the "arguments" and "flaws" at that link. You will probably only shake your head in weariness.

  5. Natural laws can be thought of as natural predisposition, or habitual behavior of things. Probable outcomes.

    It is natural that lobsters have claws and people hands. So when we rarely see a person born with a claw for a hand, you could say it miraculous.

    Likewise, if we say in nature, order that only man is rational, then we observe a primate gathering stones all morning in order to let loose a sudden premeditated noon-time stoning attack on zoo goers, that, too, must be miraculous.

    I find it extremely hard to accept the perennial assertion that it is rationality that is the highest human operation - and so this is man's nature, his substantial form.

    Why not creativity, or aesthetic impulse? I am sure the other creatures (as well as disadvantaged people) do not necessarily applaud what passes as man's rational acts.

  6. Presumably the 'suspension' view differs from the 'violation' view as much in the way that 'laws of nature' are understood as in the way that miracles are understood. I never cease to be amazed at the frequency with which otherwise intelligent people seem to imagine that 'laws of nature' do some sort of causal or explanatory work. Unless I'm missing something, the laws themselves need to be explained by appeal to the nature of the things whose behavior is law-like; to try to explain the behavior by appeal to laws seems about as informative as saying that "physical entities behave in regular ways because they behave in law-like ways." Of course, explaining their law-like behavior as a function of their natures may be just as uninformative (though not quite), but at the very least it has the virtue of not suggesting that there are some entitative 'laws' out there somewhere that are prior to and cause or constrain the behaviors of things. To say, by contrast, that the the laws are a description of the behavior, which is itself explained by the natures of the things in question, is at the very least to say that the behavior is not caused by something else, whether an entitative 'law' or anything else. No?

  7. I remember both Alston and Plantinga pointing out that laws of nature are understood to hold only in a closed system: that is they are state exceptionless regularities that occur within a closed system.

    Miracles however occur when something "outside" the system influences it and hence occur in a context where the system is no longer closed.

  8. St. Thomas Aquinas's views on miracles are in Summa Contra Gentiles, lib. 3 cap. 101:

    These works that are sometimes done by God outside the usual order assigned to things are wont to be called miracles: because we are astonished (admiramur) at a thing when we see an effect without knowing the cause. And since at times one and the same cause is known to some and unknown to others, it happens that of several who see an effect, some are astonished and some not: thus an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun, for he knows the cause; whereas one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder, since he knows not the cause. Wherefore it is wonderful to the latter but not to the former. Accordingly a thing is wonderful simply, when its cause is hidden simply: and this is what we mean by a miracle: something, to wit, that is wonderful in itself and not only in respect of this person or that. Now God is the cause which is hidden to every man simply: for we have proved above that in this state of life no man can comprehend Him by his intellect. Therefore properly speaking miracles are works done by God outside the order usually observed in things.

    Of these miracles there are various degrees and orders. The highest degree in miracles comprises those works wherein something is done by God, that nature can never do: for instance, that two bodies occupy the same place, that the sun recede or stand still, that the sea be divided and make way to passers by. Among these there is a certain order: for the greater the work done by God, and the further it is removed from the capability of nature, the greater the miracle: thus it is a greater miracle that the sun recede, than that the waters be divided.

    The second degree in miracles belongs to those whereby God does something that nature can do, but not in the same order: thus it is a work of nature that an animal live, see and walk: but that an animal live after being dead, see after being blind, walk after being lame, this nature cannot do, but God does these things sometimes by a miracle. Among these miracles also, there are degrees, according as the thing done is further removed from the faculty of nature.

    The third degree of miracles is when God does what is wont to be done by the operation of nature, but without the operation of the natural principles: for instance when by the power of God a man is cured of a fever that nature is able to cure; or when it rains without the operation of the principles of nature.

  9. I would not think Aquinas would say "that miracles are suspensions of the laws of nature." He says that "miracles are works done by God outside the order usually observed in things" ("miracula [...] sunt quae divinitus fiunt praeter ordinem communiter observatum in rebus").

    Is not there a distinction between laws of nature as we humans conceive them—"the order usually observed in things," which seems to be the sense Oderberg uses—and the way things actually are, because our knowledge of nature is not perfect?

  10. Perhaps laws of nature don't apply to the lawgiver; hence, they need be neither violations nor suspensions of the laws of nature

  11. Must miracles be suspensions or contraventions of the laws of nature? Can't they simply occur because God isn't bound by the laws of nature--that the only subjects of the laws of nature are created things?

  12. How about a superseding of the laws of nature rather than suspension or violation? If you catch a falling ball, gravity has been neither violated or suspended. It has been superseded by a causal agent acting in space-time. Surely a miracle is nothing more (!) than a divine causal agent acting within his creation, like a painter who is free to "mess with" his painting, or the owner of a toy train set stepping into his mechanical universe and, e.g., lifting up one of the artificial trees and re-positioning it.