Christmas time in the air, it was very fitting that my last philosophy course essay topic was on miracles. It was in the context of the philosophy of religion and focused on the questions of what do we understand by miracles and should we believe in them.
While working on the essay I caught myself thinking that adopting a purely analytical, logical approach (what is expected of you in a philosophy assignment) almost entirely misses the point. It is like trying to describe a masterpiece painting by giving a detailed account of the colours, stroke techniques, types of brushes and the canvas. I have a feeling that with miracles it is in this sense similar to the works of art – their true value and meaning is not in the “technical” parts that make up the whole, but rather in that incomprehensible whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Of course, it is important to clarify how we define miracles before starting the discussion of whether we should believe in them. After all – believe in what exactly, right? There is no single answer here, to a large extent because it is something pretty subjective and private. This is crucial, I think, in all matters where we want to apply scientific method because if you cannot agree on a definition, you cannot study it. That is the weakness of the purely empirical approach to understanding miracles. To give an example, D. Hume defined a miracle as a ‘violation of the laws of nature’. In my opinion, this tells us more about Hume than about miracles. For him, the ‘laws of nature’ were the phenomena observed by the scientific method and established as an unbreakable rule (because no matter how often we repeat an observation or experiment, A still always causes B). In short, based largely on his definition of miracles, Hume argued that we should not believe in them since there can never be possibly enough trustworthy evidence to support something that violates unbreakable rules. This immediately prompted the following first thought in my mind – I wonder what would Hume say about quantum physics and all of its discoveries that do not fit neatly into the “A causes B” formula. The second thought that I had was a more general one – do we really need evidence to believe in miracles? And if I don’t believe in them, will any amount of proof convince me to change my ways (and vice versa)? Surely, sometimes the line between thinking and believing is thin and blurred, but it is still there, for otherwise whom do we hope to convince with all our fancy arguments?
While preparing for my assignment, I came across the following statement by Keith Ward in an interview on religious experiences – every experience comes with an interpretation. He also mentioned Catholic philosopher’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s quote that “Truth is tradition-constituted”. This is a simple and yet truly profound insight in my view. Whatever we experience or learn, it always comes to us within a certain context, often a complex web of influences, and this context informs how we interpret our experiences. If I come from a religious or in any way spiritually-inclined ‘context’ (family, education, society, my own values etc.) and I see a snow-covered mountain-peak landscape and breath in the crisp air, I may feel as if I experience the miracle of creation. If I come from a different ‘context’, I may still enjoy the view but interpret it in terms of the cocktail of chemical reactions happening in my body caused by the fact that I achieved a challenging goal and climbed that mountain. No version is wrong, they are coming from different foundations and they can, during different phases of our lives, give us a sense of meaning in various ways.
Whatever each of us understands by miracles, I think it is important not to forget the fact that all experience comes with interpretation and in many cases, especially in the domain of the incomprehensible, truth is context-bound. Exactly this makes it even more fascinating because it does not limit us to the ‘truth’, the one and only. On the contrary, it means we can continue our journey of development, of opening up to life and expanding our horizons, finding ever new routes along with the manifold insights on the way. This search might well be the point of the journey.