What is a miracle?

So, the topic of what it means to be a miracle has come up again (and it has come up in Kaufmann as well, which I’m reading). A number of scientists — Sean Carroll seems to be one, and I’ve heard of others — are claiming that with what we discovered with the Higgs Boson there is no possible mechanism for anything that is not natural to interact with the natural, and so that therefore there cannot be supernatural mechanisms that can interact with this world, and that therefore — and this is important — by the laws of nature we cannot have anything like miracles or many entities or mechanisms that are claimed to be supernatural.

I think that these arguments rely on a confused notion of miracle, one that simply defined it as being supernatural without thinking about what that really meant. From the beginning, supernatural has meant that it violated natural laws, but the argument was made that in order to have an impact on “natural” things there needed to be a mechanism from the “supernatural” things to the “natural” things to provide that. But they say that there’s no room for mechanisms, and so such things simply cannot exist. But let me define a miracle thusly:

A miracle is an intentional, local, temporary suspension of the laws of nature to produce a result that one could not achieve if those laws of nature were in place.

Now, no one would deny that the instances of miracles that we’d care about meet that criteria. I also think that it would be clear that any god that we would consider able to perform miracles could, in fact, do them. But if we follow this definition, we can see that the criticisms leveled against miracles don’t work for two reasons:

1) No interaction is required according to the laws of nature; all that’s needed is a way to suspend the normal rules somehow.

2) There is no possible law of nature that could rule out these sorts of interactions, because if an entity had the ability to suspend all natural laws then they could suspend that one as well.

Now, you could claim that I’m treating the laws of nature as “real” things instead of just as descriptions, but that isn’t really the case. All there needs to be are natural mechanisms that work a certain way, and the entity has the ability to change, locally and temporarily, how they work to bring about abnormal results, without following an existing mechanism in the universe. A god that created all the mechanisms or that maintains all of the mechanisms could certainly do that, locally and temporarily, at will.

Note that we can also use this as a general definition of “supernatural”, but if we do that we’d have to reintroduce the notion of divinity to deal with miracles.

3 Responses to “What is a miracle?”

  1. Crude Says:

    Can you explain how the ‘higgs boson shows there can’t be miracles’ argument is supposed to even work? I know you addressed it here, but it seemed incomplete, and the whole idea just seems downright absurd.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I don’t really get it myself. There are some videos and stuff out there, but it’s hard for me to watch videos. I E-mailed Sean Carroll asking if he had anything written down that I could look at and critique, but since he’s a busy person I guess it slipped past him.

      The best I can piece together is that the idea is that they’ve gotten down to so fundamental a level that they’ve mapped all possible things that could interact with particles, and so there’s no room for any other mechanism to interact with natural things, thus no possible supernatural mechanisms, which is what I loosely described above. I’m not taking that idea on directly here, but pointing out how that idea doesn’t really address the supernatural claims that are under discussion here.

      • Crude Says:

        The nearest I can tell from googling around is that it seems to be related to Krauss’ “nothingness” arguments. In fact, come to think of it, I recall Sean Carroll had a similar attitude to Krauss on that – basically, ‘Science will disprove the existence of a supernatural creator because we’ll dig as deep as science can take us… and then we’ll assume everything beyond that is a brute fact or something.’

        Which I think has been blown out of the water so many times (at the very least, it’s easy to make clear that whatever such a claim is, scientific it ain’t) it’s kind of funny when it pops up again. Krauss’ book was such a fiasco.

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