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The Argument Back to Top

The Argument from Miracles contends that the occurrence of miracles (which can be broadly defined as the suspension of the natural operation of the universe as some supernatural event occurs) presupposes the existence of some supernatural being. Thus, eyewitness testimony of the occurrence of physically impossible (or at least extremely improbable) events establishes the active intervention of a supernatural being, or of supernatural agents acting on behalf of that being.

A variation of this is the Christological Argument held by many evangelists, which argues that miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus are historical facts and that the best explanation for such facts is that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. If the Bible is to be believed, then, such miracles demonstrate both the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.

The Refutation Back to Top

The Argument from Miracles is usually considered one of the less convincing arguments for the existence of God. The main problem revolves around exactly what can be considered “miraculous”. If a miracle is defined as something which is not naturally possible, then the burden should be to demonstrate that a particular event cannot occur due to natural means. Given that there may well be natural laws which science has not yet discovered, this becomes all but practically impossible, just as it is it is practically impossible to distinguish between a natural and a supernatural event when both look identical.

However, even if a “miraculous” event is indeed exceptional enough to warrant an exceptional explanation, there is no reason to jump to the conclusion that it was caused by the incredible powers of a god’s mind. It can just as easily be argued that, for example, the incredible powers of a human’s mind (or the cumulative powers of many humans) is just as likely - and unlikely - an explanation. After all, at least human minds are known to exist, while the existence of a god's mind is in dispute.

While the witnesses of miracles may (or may not) be well-meaning, the perception of miracles is fraught with unknowns. Often they are reliant on hearsay or uncorroborated reports in scriptures. There is always the possibility of hallucinations, hypnosis, deliberate deceptions and any number of other explanations. There are many well documented examples of individual or mass hysteria, and the intense desire for a miracle can itself help to convince an individual that one has actually occurred.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
- Carl Sagan (1980) (paraphrasing Marcelo Truzzi, Pierre-Simon Laplace and David Hume)

As David Hume pointed out in the 18th Century, no matter how strong the evidence for a specific miracle may be, it will always be more rational to reject a miracle than to believe in it, given that there are two factors to assess in deciding whether to believe any given piece of testimony: the reliability of the witness, and the probability of that to which they testify. So, according to Hume, reports of miracles should never be believed, because the possibility of a miracle actually having happened is always lower than the possibility either that the reporter is somehow mistaken or that the reporter is just lying.

Certainly, anyone claiming the truth of a miracle has a significant burden of proof to overcome. To use the oft-quoted phrase, variously attributed to Carl Sagan and Marcello Truzzi, but which is essentially a paraphrasing of an idea by the great 18th Century French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.

Even if one were to accept the rather unlikely proposition that miracles have occurred, the type and quality of the miracles claimed, not to mention their inconsistency, leave much to be desired. For example, why would Jesus squander his alleged supernatural powers on frivolous magician’s tricks like turning water into wine, cursing a fig tree, walking on water and the odd isolated cure of blindness or leprosy, rather than something truly impressive and worthwhile like ending world hunger or producing a cure for cancer.

As for latter day miracles, these are few and far between, and the evidence for them equally sketchy. The once popular alleged miracle of the image of Christ on the Turin Shroud has been proven definitively fake and dated to the mid-14th Century, as has the James Ossuary. The allegedly “incorruptible” bodies of some saints are easily achieved by basic embalming techniques familiar to the ancient Egyptians.

One of the best known miracles sanctioned by the Catholic Church is the alleged visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 at Fatima, Portugal, by the ten-year-old Lucia de Jesus dos Santos, whose own mother described her as “nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray”. Another is the apparition of Mary allegedly seen in 1858 by fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (now Saint Bernadette), at a grotto near Lourdes, which has since attracted millions of hopeful visitors to the “healing weaters”, despite the noted absence of proof for anything other than the healing of psychosomatic illnesses (Bernadette herself died at the age of 35 after suffering tuberculosis of the bone for many years). The only other apparition of the Virgin Mary sanctioned by the Church was the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531.

Scientific research into the apparent efficaciousness of placebos (the perceived medical improvement caused by a sham or simulated medical treatment) throws some light on these kinds of phenomena. It appears that confidence and belief in a treatment can itself have a therapeutic effect, indicating the importance of the brain's role in physical health, as exemplified by tests showing that a placebo pain-killer administered by a doctor in a white coat is much more effective that the same placebo administered anonymously. As is the case with many new age or alternative medical treatments, the time, care and attention the patient receives is actually more healing than the treatments themselves. It is interesting to note in this context that the reception of pilgrims to Lourdes appears very much like a more caring and welcoming hospital, right down the nurse-like attendants.
Take from the church the miraculous, the supernatural, the incomprehensible, the unreasonable, the impossible, the unknowable, the absurd, and nothing but a vacuum remains.
- Robert G. Ingersoll (1877)

Regarding more recent allegedly miraculous phenomena like the image of Jesus discovered in the skillet burns of a tortilla in 1978 in New Mexico, or the weeping statue of Our Lady of Fatima reported in 1981 at a Catholic church in Thornton, California, etc, perhaps the less said the better. The claims by a South Carolina woman of a miraculous image of Jesus on her cheese toast in 2009 has spawned a huge number of Internet parodies and has earned its own just reward.

However, regardless of the actual existence of miracles, there is even less reason to pin the cause of a supposedly supernatural or miraculous event on any on particular god. Many different religions have claimed miracles in support of their own god, and it seems unklikely that the Christian God was performing miracles in the name of ancient Greek gods at one time, or that a Hindu deity is responsible for miraculous healings in Lourdes.

Additionally, the Argument from Design proposes that the order and consistency of the laws of nature proves the existence of a supernatural designer. The Argument from Miracles proposes that a breakdown in those same laws of nature also proves the existence of God. This sounds very much like eating one’s cake and having it.

On a related matter, theists have long touted the power of prayer, and even claim to have proof of the effectiveness of intercessionary prayer. However, in a recent Harvard study in 2006 (the largest study of its kind and conducted under rigorous conditions), researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had absolutely no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.

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