Are Miracles Transgressions of the Laws of Nature?
In his 1748 work, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume's full definition of a miracle is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" (1955, 123m). This has become almost a standard definition given to all first-year philosophy students. But that definition could not have existed before the time of Newton, and the use of the words transgression and invisible agent subtly convey the impression (and are meant to do so) that miracles are criminal acts by beings rather like fairies. So Hume's definition already begins to make miracles seem absurd.
The philosopher Richard Swinburne, author of one of the best modern philosophical treatments of miracles, The Concept of Miracle, is reasonably happy with Hume's definition, even though he offers as an alternative the much better formulation that a miracle is "an event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a god, and of religious significance" (1970, 1). But the problem with Hume's definition is that it may conjure up a picture of a universe as a machine, in which every event falls under one or more of a set of universal and unbreakable mechanical laws and in which those laws, taken together, give a complete and exhaustive explanation of the universe. In such a universe, any breaking of the laws seems like arbitrary interference by some person outside the machine.
This picture was indeed held by many after the time of Newton, and it led to the deistic view that a Perfect Designer would make such good laws that no interferences would be necessary. Some even thought that the very existence of science depends upon denying the possibility that the laws of nature could be violated. For every event must have a cause; a cause is a preceding physical state plus a universal law; and if any exceptions are allowed, science and the rationality of the universe are undermined.
Christian theologians were especially influenced by the deistic world-view, and this sometimes led to a denial of the occurrence of miracles. Friedrich Schleiermacher, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century and sometimes called the "father of liberal Protestantism," held that the miracles recorded in the Bible were literalizations of purely spiritual truths. The Resurrection of Jesus, for example, may have consisted in the remarkable spiritual experiences and visions of the apostles and in the new understanding of human existence these brought about. But Jesus' tomb was not miraculously empty, and his body did not literally rise from the dead. The twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann also regarded literal miracles as wholly legendary. Christianity, he thought, is about the possibility of a new understanding of human existence and about inner spiritual renewal. It was not about the occurrence of very odd facts very long ago.
It is certainly possible to have religion without miracles. A Muslim may say that the Qur'an is a unique literary and spiritual work without saying that it breaks any laws of nature. A Jew may regard the biblical record of the Exodus from Egypt as a highly exaggerated and largely symbolic account of what may originally have been a series of unusual natural disasters. A Christian may regard the New Testament miracles as exaggerated accounts of the inspirational effect of the presence of Jesus or as physical symbols of his spiritual status and authority. And a Hindu or Buddhist may similarly regard miracles as legends expressing in literal form the important spiritual teaching of the way to liberation from desire and despair.
It is probably true that all major religious teachers would regard the physical occurrence of miracles as much less important than the spiritual teaching of how to overcome what Buddhists call the three "fires" of greed, hatred, and ignorance and of how to achieve union with a Spiritual Reality of greater consciousness, wisdom, and bliss. Jesus, for example, apparently resisted all requests to provide a sign from heaven that would prove his authority (cf. Luke 11:29).
This suggests that miracles are not properly regarded as visible proofs of the existence of God. If they were, we might reasonably ask, as David
Hume does, for more evidence and for a host of personal miracles that might leave none of us in any doubt.
Nevertheless, if miracles, even when taken in a purely symbolic sense, testify to the superior reality of Spirit and to the possibility of spiritual liberation for beings embodied in a physical world, it might seem surprising if there were no physical symptoms of spiritual presence and liberation. There may be no demonstrative proofs of the existence of God, but surely one might expect some indications of divine presence, at least for those who wish to know more of God, who "have eyes to see."
For deists, the elegance and rationality of the laws of nature, the handiwork of the Great Mathematician, is such an indication. But it is quite hard to see that such a spiritual reality could have any active, personal relation to human beings or that humans could be transformed by relation to it if all the thoughts and acts of humans are caused solely by the laws of the natural world. Most religions are founded on claims that Spirit has acted in the world in some specific way—in freeing the Israelites, dictating the Qur'an, or becoming incarnate in Jesus. In nontheistic traditions, humans can be freed from the constraints of physical desire and suffering and become aware of a nonphysical dimension of reality. Awareness of a nonphysical reality must be partly caused by that reality (if knowledge is genuine, the object partly causes awareness of it). So, there must be some causal connection between spiritual reality and the physical world.
Even for a view like that of Schleiermacher, the apostles had visions of Jesus after his death. If those visions were genuine, this posits a causal interaction between the dead Jesus and the living apostles. This might not break a law of nature since perhaps all those who have died continue to exist in some other form after death and some of them even appear in visions to the living. But it would be a causal influence of the spiritual (after-death) world upon the physical world in which the apostles still lived.
If, in addition, the tomb of Jesus were, in fact, empty, this implies that the physical body of Jesus was transfigured into a spiritual form, and this would be a miracle in the sense of an extraordinary manifestation of spiritual power over the physical. Yet, for Christians, this is not just breaking a law (that dead bodies gradually decompose). All the dead, they think, are going to be transfigured at the general resurrection. Seen in that light, Jesus' Transfiguration—the resurrection of his physical body to a new form of life—is unusual in its timing but not in its occurrence.
In fact, a Christian might say, there is a spiritual law that all the dead will be transfigured and will rise again. Normally, bodies decompose. But, in special circumstances, perhaps if humans are wholly filled with the divine Spirit, that tendency to decompose is checked. In some cases, transfiguration ("assumption into heaven," in traditional terms) may follow immediately.
Of course, the objection may be raised that the invention of such spiritual laws is a totally fruitless fantasy. We can always invent invisible and untestable spiritual laws to justify ridiculous opinions. But they are totally useless to science as they lead to no new predictions, and the evidence for their existence is wholly speculative, not based on public and repeatable observations.
This objection is fair. These spiritual laws are not laws established by experiment, leading to fruitful predictions. What the believer is doing is accepting the testimony to a miracle and then thinking of some way of making its occurrence seem reasonable in the light of the alleged purposes of a God. Accordingly, much will depend upon whether it is reasonable to accept testimony to the occurrence of a miracle.