Monday, November 20, 2006

The Problem of Miracles by WIlliam Craig

This is a portion of the entire article, available at
Craig's references to "Bilynskyj" are references to my husband Steve's 1982 dissertation, "The Concept of Miracle."

Assessment of the Debate

Natural Law and Miracles

It will be remembered that the world view that formed the backdrop to the Deist controversy was a model of the universe as a Newtonian world-machine that bound even the hands of God. So ironclad a view of natural law is, however, untenable. Natural law is today understood essentially as description, not prescription. This does not mean that it cannot serve as a basis for prediction, for it does; but our formulation of a natural law is never so certain as to be beyond reformulation under the force of observed facts. Thus an event cannot be ruled out simply because it does not accord with the regular pattern of events. The advance of modern physics over the Newtonian world-machine is not that natural law does not exist, but that our formulation of it is not absolutely final. After all, even quantum physics does not mean to assert that matter and energy do not possess certain properties, such that anything and everything can happen; even indeterminacy occurs within statistical limits and concerns only the microscopic level. On the macroscopic level, firm natural laws do obtain.{62} But the knowledge of these properties and laws is derived from and based on experience. The laws of nature are thus not 'laws' in the rigid, prescriptive sense, but inductive generalizations.

This would appear to bring some comfort to the modern believer in miracles, for now he may argue that one cannot rule out a priori the fact that a certain event has occurred which does not conform to known natural law, since our formulation of natural law is never final and so must take account of the fact in question. It seems to me, however, that while this more descriptive understanding of natural law re-opens the door of possibility to certain anomalous events in the world, it does not help much in settling the question of miracles. The advantage gained is that one cannot rule out the occurrence of a certain event a priori, but the evidence for it must be weighed. The defender of miracles has thus at least gained a hearing. But one is still operating under the assumption, it would appear, that if the event really did run contrary to natural law, then it would be impossible for it to have occurred. The defender of miracles appeals to the fact that our natural laws are only inductive generalizations and so never certain, in order to gain admittance for his anomalous event; but presumably if an omniscient mind knew with certainty the precise formulations of the natural laws describing our universe then he would know a priori whether the event was or was not actually possible, since a true law of nature could not be violated.

As Bilynskyj argues, whether one adopts a regularity theory of natural law (according to which laws are simply descriptive of events and have no special modal quality) or a necessitarian theory (according to which natural laws are not merely descriptive of events but possess a special sort of modality determining nomic necessity/possibility), still so long as natural laws are conceived of as universal inductive generalizations the notion of a 'violation of a law of nature' is incoherent.{63} For on the regularity theory, since a law is a generalized description of whatever occurs, it follows that an event which occurs cannot violate a law. And on the necessitarian theory, since laws are universal generalizations which state what is physically necessary, a violation of a law cannot occur if the generalization is to remain truly universal. So long as laws are conceived of as universal generalizations, it is logically impossible to have a violation of a true law of nature.

Suppose that one attempts to rescue the notion of a 'violation' by introducing into the law certain ceteris paribus conditions, for example, that the law holds only if either (1) there are no other causally relevant natural forces interfering, or (2) there are no other causally relevant natural or supernatural forces interfering. Now clearly, (1) will not do the trick, for even if there were no natural forces interfering, the events predicted by the law might not occur because God would interfere. Hence, the alleged law, as a purportedly universal generalization, would not be true, and so a law of nature would not be violated should God interfere. But if, as (2) suggests, we include supernatural forces among the ceteris paribus conditions, it is equally impossible to violate the law. For now the statement of the law itself includes the condition that what the law predicts will occur only if God does not intervene, so that if he does the law is not violated. Hence, so long as natural laws are construed as universal generalizations about events, it is incoherent to speak of miracles as 'violations' of such laws.

The upshot of Bilynskyj's discussion is that either natural laws ought not to be construed as universal generalizations about events or that miracles should not be characterized as violations of nature's laws. He opts for the first alternative, arguing that laws of nature are really about the dispositional properties of things based on the kinds of things they are.{64} He observes that most laws today, when taken as universal generalizations, are literally not true. They must include certain ceteris paribus clauses about conditions which seldom or perhaps never obtain, so that laws become subjunctive conditionals concerning what would occur under certain idealized conditions. But that means that laws are true counterfactuals with no application to the real world. Moreover, if laws are merely descriptive generalizations, then they do not really explain anything; rather than telling why some event occurs, they only serve to tell us how things are. Bilynskyj therefore proposes that natural laws ought to be formulated as singular statements about certain kinds of things and their dispositional properties: things of kind A have a disposition to manifest quality F in conditions C, in virtue of being of nature N.{65} Laws can be stated, however, as universal dispositions, for example, 'All potassium has a disposition to ignite when exposed to oxygen.' On this understanding, to assert that an event is physically impossible is not to say that it is a violation of a law of nature, since dispositional laws are not violated when the predisposed behavior does not occur; rather an event F is not produced at a time t by the powers (dispositions) of the natural agents which are causally relevant to F at t.{66} Accordingly, a miracle is an act of God which is physically impossible and religiously significant.{67} On Bilynskyj's version of the proper form of natural laws, then, miracles turn out to be physically impossible, but still not violations of those laws.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Bilynskyj's understanding of natural law and physical impossibility. So as not to create unnecessary stumbling blocks, however, the defender of miracles might ask whether one might not be able to retain the standard necessitarian theory of natural laws as universal generalizations, while jettisoning the old characterization of miracles as 'violations of the laws of nature' in favor of 'events which lie outside the productive capacity of nature.' That is to say, why may we not take a necessitarian theory of natural law according to which laws contain ceteris paribus conditions precluding the interference of both natural and supernatural forces and hold that a miracle is not, therefore, a violation of a law of nature, but an event which cannot be accounted for wholly by reference to relevant natural forces? Natural laws are not violated by such events because they state what will occur only if God does not intervene; nevertheless, the events are still naturally impossible because the relevant natural causal forces do not suffice to bring about the event. Bilynskyj's objections to this view do not seem insuperable.{68} He thinks that on such a view it becomes difficult to distinguish between miracles and God's general providence, since according to the latter doctrine every event has in a sense a supernatural cause. This misgiving does not seem insurmountable, however, for we might construe God's providence as Bilynskyj himself does, as God's conservation of (and, we might add, concurrence with) all secondary causes and effects in being, while reserving only his immediate and extra-concurrent causal activity in the world for inclusion in a law's ceteris paribus conditions. Bilynskyj also objects that the physical impossibility of a miracle is the reason we attribute it to supernatural causation, not vice versa. To define physical impossibility in terms of supernatural causation thwarts the motivation for having the concept of physical impossibility in the first place. But my suggestion is not to define physical impossibility in terms of supernatural causation, but, as Bilynskyj himself does, in terms of what cannot be brought about wholly by natural causes. One may argue that some event E is not a violation of a natural law, but that E is naturally impossible. Therefore, it requires a supernatural cause. It seems to me, therefore, that even on the necessitarian theory of natural law, we may rid ourselves of the incoherent notion of 'violation of the laws of nature' and retain the concept of the naturally impossible as the proper characterization of miracle.

So although an initial advantage has been won by the construal of natural laws as descriptive, not prescriptive, this advantage evaporates unless one abandons the incoherent characterization of a miracle as a 'violation of a law of nature' and adopts instead the notion of an event which is naturally impossible. Now the question which must be asked is how an event could occur which lies outside the productive capacity of natural causes. It would seem to be of no avail to answer with Clarke that matter has no properties and that the pattern of events is simply God's acting consistently, for, contrary to his assertion, physics does hold that matter possesses certain properties and that certain forces such as gravitation and electromagnetism are real operating forces in the world. Bilynskyj points out that Clarke's view entails a thorough-going occasionalism, according to which fire does not really burn nor water quench, which runs strongly counter to common sense.{69} Nor will it seem to help to answer with Sherlock and Houtteville that nature may contain within itself the power to produce events contrary to its normal operation, for this would not seem to be the case when the properties of matter and energy are sufficiently well-known so as to preclude to a reasonably high degree of certainty the occurrence of the event in question. Moreover, though this might secure the possibility of the event, so as to permit a historical investigation, it at the same time reduces the event to a freak of nature, the result of pure chance, not an act of God. It seems most reasonable to agree with modern science that events like the feeding of the 5000, the cleansing of the leper, and Jesus' resurrection really do lie outside the capability of natural causes.

But that being admitted, what has actually been proved? All that the scientist conceivably has the right to say is that such an event is naturally impossible. But with that conclusion the defender of miracles may readily agree. We must not confuse the realms of logical and natural possibility. Is the occurrence of a miracle logically impossible? No, for such an event involves no logical contradiction. Is the occurrence naturally impossible? Yes, for it cannot be produced by natural causes; indeed, this is a tautology, since to lie outside the productive capacity of natural causes is to be naturally impossible.

The question is: what could conceivably make miracles not just logically possible, but really, historically possible? Clearly the answer is the personal God of theism. For if a personal God exists, then he serves as the transcendent cause to produce events in the universe which are incapable of being produced bycauses within the universe (that is to say, events which are naturally impossible. But it is to such a personal, transcendent God that the orthodox defenders of miracles appealed. Given a God who conserves the world in being moment by moment (Vernet, Houtteville), who is omnipotent (Clarke), and free to act as He wills (Vernet, Less), the orthodox thinkers seem to be entirely justified in asserting that miracles are really possible. The question is whether given such a God miracles are possible, and the answer seems obviously, yes. It must be remembered that even their Deist opponents did not dispute God's existence, and Clarke and Paley offered elaborate defenses for their theism. But more than that: if the existence of such a God is even possible, then one must be open to the historical possibility of miracles. Only an atheist can deny the historical possibility of miracles, for even an agnostic must grant that if it is possible that a transcendent, personal God exists, then it is equally possible that He has acted in the universe. Hence, it seems that the orthodox protagonists in the classical debate argued in the main correctly against their Newtonian opponents and that their response has been only strengthened by the contemporary understanding of natural law.


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