By: Monique Zorzella
In the face of contemporary knowledge, it is said by many skeptics that no reasonable person can believe in the supernatural. As the world finds ways to naturally explain the things that were once an elusive mystery attributed to the divine, the believer finds it increasingly difficult to have faith in the things which are scientifically incomprehensible. Among the most contentious beliefs are divine miracles. Many are mocked for what nonbelievers deem as fanciful speculation of the things not yet known. Unbelievers argue that there is no scientific evidence for miracles so it is safe to assume that they probably do not occur. Additionally, skeptics argue that the lack of evidence for miracles invalidates the existence of God. Closer examination of the reasons they offer in favor of their position reveals that their view fails to be convincing.
There are a few things the skeptic needs to clarify concerning their position on this subject. Firstly, what exactly does the unbeliever define as a miracle? Perhaps they will say miracles are something that is without naturalistic explanation. However, if this is the case then the laws of nature are miraculous as they are without explanation. A possible response is that just because there is no current explanation for the laws of nature it does not follow that there is no explanation at all; it is possible that a natural explanation may be formulated at a later time. Yet, the question arises: when is it appropriate to assume that there is no natural explanation for something? If we should not assume that something does not have a natural explanation because we do not currently have one, then does it not follow by the same logic that it would be inappropriate to assume a miracle has occurred simply because we have no natural explanation for something?
Another possible definition that can be offered is that miracles are events that occur supernaturally. In that case, one needs to explain what exactly it is they mean by supernatural. They could define it as something beyond natural explanation, or something that cannot be explained using natural law, but this would lead to the same problem as saying that a miracle is something without natural explanation. One must explain how exactly it is that we can know if something is beyond or outside of nature. This would mean that nature and its boundaries must be defined; that is to say, what falls outside of nature must be outlined. If the argument is that which defies or contradicts natural law should be dismissed as being true, then the skeptic seems to be making a circular argument. Essentially, what is being said is we should not believe that events can occur that defy natural law precisely because it defies natural law.
Perhaps the skeptic will offer another definition — one that is less problematic than the ones previously mentioned — which is that supernatural refers to an event without a material cause. However, this definition would appear to fail to accommodate the doubters position that miracles don’t happen given there are plenty of events that we consider natural that may have causes that are immaterial. For example, suppose Jane decided to go to the mall because she was hoping to bump into Mark along the way; this cause is neither material or miraculous. The unbeliever may argue that Jane’s cause can be reduced to and explained in purely naturalistic terms. If this is the case, the nonbeliever will have to provide reasoning for why one should accept this claim. Without a coherent definition of what a miracle or the supernatural is, the unbeliever cannot say with any certainty that miracles do not happen. Certainly, one cannot reasonably deny that something exists or occurs without being able to coherently explain what it is that they are saying does not exist or occur.
The second question that arises is how are we to go about testing whether a particular event occurs miraculously? To put it more simply: if something miraculous occurred how would we know it? Perhaps the skeptic will say if there is no possible natural explanation for an event it would be reasonable to speculate that the event was supernatural. However, according to the skeptic there is no reason to assume that something has no explanation simply because we don’t currently have an explanation. Another position may be that because there is no possible way to find evidence for miracles, the believer has no rational grounds for claiming that they do occur. Yet, if this principle is applied equally, it follows that it is no more rational to believe in miracles then it would be to not believe in miracles given that there is no scientific evidence for either claim. Furthermore, one cannot argue that the lack of evidence for miracles counts as any sort of evidence against the existence of God. The inability to test for miracles is merely evidence that Science cannot–at least as of yet–further our understanding on this subject. Science does not come to conclusions based on a lack of evidence for something, nor by being unable to find a means to test certain predictions. Conversely, what convicts a person to believe in miracles is seldom the science of miracles, but from evidence found among other means of obtaining knowledge (e.g. collective personal experiences, evidence for gods existence). Thus, arguing against the Science of miracles largely fails to address the actual reasons why people believe in miracles in first place. All things considered, without articulating how we can test for miracles, the nonbeliever seems to be without any scientific grounds for asserting that miracles don’t occur.
What is particularly fascinating about these arguments against the occurrence of miracles is that the skeptic seems to give mixed messages about their position. On one hand they argue as Science fills in gaps of the unknown there are no longer any reasons to invoke a supernatural entity as the cause for an event. Primitive minds saw thunder as being a miracle caused by Thor; with our knowledge today, we no longer find Thor a necessary entity to invoke when explaining it. In the same fashion, the skeptic argues that all things may eventually be explained without a God, and thus Gods existence is necessarily unnecessary. On the other hand, it is argued that because we have no natural explanations for certain miraculous events, there is no reason to believe they truly occurred. There is no evidence that a global flood can happen naturally, so why believe it? There is no natural explanation for walking on water, so it’s safe to say it didn’t happen. Yet, the fact that events such as walking on water cannot be explained naturally should show that all things cannot be explained naturally and that the divine could be a more sufficient explanation since –according to many skeptics– a divine miracle by definition is something without a natural explanation. And if not, one could argue that just because there is no current explanation for how one can walk on water it does not mean there isn’t one. However, many skeptics will argue that the absence of evidence should be taken as evidence of the absence of miracles. Even if one could show that something cannot be explained naturally, the doubter may reject that such a thing occurred since occurrences which cannot be explained in natural terms are probably not true. It would appear that the doubter has dismissed all possible means by which to falsify or confirm the occurrence of miracles, so will dismiss the miraculous even if it could be confirmed that something had no possible naturalistic cause. Basically, what the nonbeliever is saying is they don’t believe miracles occur because they assume that miracles are not possible. One must critically consider whether this view is more valid than the claim they intend to invalidate.
In summary, while the skeptic intends to show that Science has dispelled the magic of divine miracles, this assertion seems to be without any scientific or rational basis. One needs to provide an adequate definition for what a miracle is before they can conclude with any certainty whether they occur. One also needs to articulate how it is that one can test for a miracle–particularly how to falsify a claim of a miracle occurring. Additionally, views of the nonbeliever present a questionable dichotomy on this subject. If it is true that no current natural cause known for an event does not justify the conclusion that there is no natural cause at all, then it is also true that the lack of known natural causes for miracles does not justify the conclusion that miracles do not occur. Even so, if one defines a miracle as an event with no material cause, then the lack of a naturalistic explanation could be taken as positive evidence of the miraculous. Despite this, the skeptic argues that since not knowing of any natural cause for an event does not justify the conclusion that there is no natural cause at all, miracles should be dismissed based on the very nature of their occurrence. In other words, if miracles by definition are events with no natural explanation, then miracles must be automatically dismissed, given that we assume there is a natural cause for everything. In all, skeptics have ultimately failed to demonstrate that divine miracles have been invalidated in light of modern Science.