Have you ever described an event as miraculous? Perhaps it was a near-miss accident, recovery from an illness or some other fortuitous moment in your life. Did you stop to consider what you meant by that description or did or roll off your tongue like so many other cultural conventions, without a second thought?
One of the reasons I write this blog1 is to allow people the opportunity to examine the world and themselves in more detail and more reflectively than they might ordinarily be inclined to do. In this I have largely attempted to do so using science directly, by showing research that reveals facts about ourselves and the world around us that are not necessarily intuitively obvious (such as biases in our reasoning).
I thought I would deviate from the strictly scientific today to discuss miracles, especially the depiction of miracles in the media and what is really meant when we resort to the designation of “miracle” in describing events.
Recently I have started reading popular philosophy books, trying to be a well rounded person or something, or possibly just so I sound intelligent at parties2. I may delve a little bit into philosophy here but hopefully can keep it light enough that you won’t even notice.
One of the books on my reading list brought up the concept of miracles and attempted to outline the different definitions that are attached to this word3. This sparked in me a thought about how the word is used by those around me, in the general population these multiple versions of the meaning get seem to get merged into an amorphous description that verges on meaninglessness.
Many of the definitions of the word that I could find invoked some sort of supernatural component, in particular the assertion that such an event contravenes the laws of nature. By this criteria I have never witnessed, nor seen credible reports of a single miracle, yet I hear the word used all the time4. How can we reconcile how the word is defined and how it is used?
Let us note one instance of the (over)use of this word, last year when an aeroplane crash landed in the Hudson river after hitting a flock of birds soon after take off the event was labelled a miracle. Currently no fewer than ten news stories with the word “miracle” in the title are listed in the Wikipedia article about this event and I suspect there are many more not mentioned. This seems to be the type of event that attracts exclamations of “Miracle” yet if we delve into the details there is no point at which we can reliably determine that the laws of nature have been suspended or otherwise altered to allow the final outcome.
If we are committed to the definition that for a miracle to have occurred the laws of nature must be violated then this event does not qualify.
Of the multiple meanings that I mentioned above it would appear the most frequently used makes the word “miracle” synonymous with “unlikely coincidence”. This though is insufficient to describe what most people would consider to be miracles as it ignores whether or not an event has any beneficial consequences, so lets add that requirement into our ad hoc definition.
The trouble with this definition is that it leaves us unable to determine what we might term “True Miracles” from merely random (beneficial) occurrences. Especially in as much as, like the Hudson river crash above, said miracles have no religious significance5. This pre-supposes however that we would wish to make such a distinction, if (as I suspect) our use of the word actually no-longer assumes the intervention of supernatural forces then our definition of “True Miracles” becomes superfluous, no different than what we might consider a regular miracle.
In this case the word simply becomes short hand for an amazing6 coincidence that is of benefit to a person or persons7. It would then seem that our definition of miracle actually stems from our own inability to sufficiently appreciate how probability acts in our lives. How many of us are in a position to calculate how probable any particular event is? Our normal day-to-day experience is a poor guide regarding this but if we cannot perform the calculation then by what basis do we conclude that an event is likely or unlikely?
I will readily admit that musings like this are have little practical significance but I think are still worth considering in order to develop for ourselves a more consistent and precise outlook. I hope that there are others beside myself that also see value in this.
1. In general not this particular entry.
2. Who am I kidding? I don’t go to parties.
3. The definitions were broken down into 4: a) Violation miracles where the laws of nature are violated; b) Willed miracles where miracles occur via an act of a supreme being’s will; c) Inexplicable miracles where the event is unexplainable via the laws of nature though does not necessarily violate them; and finally d) Coincidence miracles, as discussed in this article.
See Nicholas Everitt’s “The Non-Existence of God” p112-ish.
4. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but certainly more often than my experience tells me it should be used.
5. Try putting the word “miracle” into google news and see how many look explicitly religious.
6. Or not so amazing, depending on your point of view.
7. Miracle is definitely easier to say, though it does leave us open to misinterpretation by those who apply a more strict definition of the word than we do.