Friday, April 27, 2012

[PHI 3000] Miracles and Laws of Nature

According to Hume, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. For example, given our understanding of the chemical laws that govern the behavior of liquids and solids, we think that a human being cannot walk on water. Hume argues that, since reports of miracles are based on the testimony of witnesses, it is more likely that the reports are inaccurate than that a genuine miracle has occurred.

Some think that Hume's argument begs the question. Be that as it may, there seems to be a false dilemma here. That is to say, if we think that the only two options available here are "the laws of nature have been violated (i.e., a miracles occurred)" and "the laws of nature have not been violated (i.e., reports are inaccurate)" then it seems that we are engaged in black-and-white thinking, i.e., we are ignoring two additional options. The first option is that the laws of nature have changed. The second option is that we were wrong about what the laws of nature are.

In other words, when we are considering reports of miracles, we should consider which of the following four options is more likely:
  1. The laws of nature have been violated (i.e., God intervened in the natural order and suspended the laws of nature).
  2. The laws of nature have changed.
  3. We were wrong about what the laws of nature are.
  4. The laws of nature have not been violated (i.e., reports are inaccurate).
Even if we think that (1) is more likely than (4), as some might think, we should still consider whether (1) is more likely than (2). For example, it could be the case that we wrongly believed that human beings cannot walk on water, but it might turn out that they actually can. And even if we think that (1) is more likely than (2), as some might think, we should still consider whether (1) is more likely than (3). For example, it could be the case that human beings used to be unable to walk on water, but now they can. (If you think that it is highly unlikely that the laws of nature can change, listen to this Radiolab podcast.)

If this is correct, then is it ever reasonable to believe that a genuine miracle has occurred solely on the basis of witness testimony?


  1. I believe that it is unreasonable to believe that a genuine miracle has occurred solely on the basis of witness testimony. There can be many variables in play when witnessing an event. As discussed in an earlier argument, our eyes may be playing tricks on us. Also, we may want to experience something even though it did not actually occur. Therefore, we make ourselves truly believe that it did happen.

    Another reason why it may be difficult to believe witness testimony is that events become fabricated over time. An example of this is the telephone game, in which a sentence takes a different meaning as it is passed down from person to person. I would find it extremely hard to believe that humans were unable to walk of water previously and now can. Unless I see a miracle with my own two eyes, I cannot trust what others say.

  2. Throughout the years, many people would probably say that they have seen a miracle happen in their lifetime. However, many people would disagree with them and that they probably really didn't see a miracle but there is another explanation for what they have seen. In the blog, there were four different reasons that could explain these miracles. After reading the blog and listening to the podcast, I don’t think it is reasonable to believe that a miracle has occurred solely on the basis of witness testimony. I do agree that witness testimony is really important in most cases like in court. However, after listening to the podcast, it changed my view. One of the cases that the podcast mention was the bank robber. They separated a group of people who was at the scene and divided them in half and asked the half to describe the bank robber in detail. After they were finished, the police officer asked the entire group to identity the bank robber at the police station. I found it really strange that the group who didn't have to describe the bank robber actually picked the right person, while the other group didn't pick the right person out. This example demonstrate that sometimes witness testimony is not as accurate as everyone think it is. This doesn't mean that witness testimony is not always reliable, but it shows that there can be faults in witness testimony. Since there are examples to show that witness testimony is false, I don’t think people should based miracles on witness testimony. Miracles are something that can be interpreted differently by different people. There are many science “rules” that are applied, so one person can see something but it may be different to another person who saw the same miracle. So even though witness testimony can be useful, I don’t think that it is ever reasonable to use a witness testimony to determine if a miracle occurred.

  3. In response to the question of, “ Is it ever reasonable to believe that a genuine miracle has occurred solely on the basis of witness testimony?” I find myself shaking my head in disapproval. Absolutely not, under no circumstances are any miracle claims substantiated by witness testimony. For example, in our Miracle reading the text indicates on page 2 that, “It becomes difficult to say in some cases just which natural laws are being violated by the event in question. That dead men stay dead is a widely observed fact, but it is not in the ordinary scientific use of the term, a law of nature that dead men stay dead. The laws involved in the decomposition of a dead body are all at a much more fundamental level, at least at the level of biochemical and thermodynamic processes and perhaps at the level of interactions of fundamental particles. “ If someone is not familiar and formally educated on the human body and all of the incidents that occur within it, one may easily misperceive something that has a biological explanation as a “miracle”. Take for example Cotard’s syndrome, a disease in which an individual genuinely believes that they are dead, and that all of their life events are actually occurring in their afterlife. A person who is unfamiliar with this diagnosis can easily misinterpret their neighbor’s Cotard’s syndrome for a full-fledged form of resurrection from the dead. There have also been instances in which people have “died” only for people to find out that they attempted to escape from their coffins and were in fact given premature burials and genuinely alive. To some throughout history, this was perceived as vampirism, when in reality a lack of understanding on how to determine a dead body was really what was occurring. From page 15 the author states in relation to confirming witness testimony as evidence of a miracle, “This argument of course proves at best only the sincerity of the witnesses. But in the present case, he goes on to argue, the nature of the facts attested precludes the possibility that the witnesses are themselves deceived.” I think that even to deem a witnesses level of sincerity can be confirmed in describing a miracle is also not a valid enough argument. Take for example the many people in which testify for court cases as witnesses to murders, kidnappings, and robberies who are genuinely unable to decipher the absolute details of the crimes. In a bank robbery with 20 witnesses, there is a chance that one perceived the robber’s sweater as black, while a handful of others saw it as dark green, and the rest navy blue. This too can be said about those who witness miracles. For example, if 3 people are watching the same car accident unravel, one person might state that they saw an angel protect a child in the backseat, while another states that the seatbelt kept the child safe, and the third person just couldn’t see anything. Witness testimony are absolutely not enough to validate the existence of miracles.

  4. In order to believe whether or not a genuine miracle has occurred solely on the basis of witness testimony would be to believe in the idea of a miracle itself. One may not believe in miracles, but it does not necessarily mean it does not exist. Many may believe it exits on the sole reasoning that they have seen it occur, only because they are able to define what a miracle is in their own way. According to Hume’s definition of what a miracle is, I believe it is not reasonable to believe a miracle has occurred due to one’s testimony because simply put, I do not believe in it. As we have heard in the radio lab podcast, “An act of observation changes the nature of reality”. If what we observe can change the nature of the thing itself, how can we ever be sure of what we are seeing, let alone define it? There once was a time when the world thought the world was flat, that was the law of nature during that time, until it was soon discovered to be untrue. Our world is forever changing constantly along with our observations, so I do not believe it is possible for miracles to exist. However, this conclusion is based on what I have been observing as well throughout my life up until now, so it can never be 100% certain.


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