Rationality, Religiousness, and the Belief in Miracles

By Nuyen, A. T. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Rationality, Religiousness, and the Belief in Miracles


Nuyen, A. T., Philosophy Today


And He was buried and rose again; this is certain because it is impossible.

Tertullian

David Hume is supposed to have demonstrated the irrationality of the belief in miracles. If Hume is right, it is never rational to believe that some event is a miracle, or a "transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity or by the interposition of some invisible agent."1 Recently, there have been many attempts, made largely by analytic philosophers, to show that there are circumstances in which it is not irrational to believe that some events are miraculous. Given the fact that a supernatural agent is invoked in Hume's definition of a miracle and in all variations of it,2 it may be thought that the success of philosophical attempts to defend the belief in miracles would strengthen the case for theism, or at least give a great deal of comfort to believers. They should thus be welcome by believers. However, I will argue instead that, from the religious point of view, such logical attempts are at best irrelevant, and at worst, if they succeed, what they succeed in doing is to take away the religiousness of the belief in miracles, depriving the believer an important expression of religiousness. This does not mean that as a religious belief, the belief in miracles must be irrational, or "contrary to reason," to borrow Hume's words. My claim is that the belief in miracles, to be a religious belief, is an expression of a certain passion, and is not a matter of cognition and hence not a matter of rationality. Nevertheless, for those who believe in miracles, it supplements in an important way our set of cognitive beliefs, which, ideally, must conform to the standard of rationality.

Can the Belief in Miracles Be Rational?

Contained within the general idea of believing in a miracle are many different ideas, such as the law of nature, the "transgression" of such law, a supernatural agent, when it is rational to believe something, and so on, each with its own logical structure. It is not surprising, then, that opportunities exist for adjusting the structures of the constituent ideas to render the belief in miracles rational. For instance, Richard Swinburne has argued that the notion of "transgression" can be understood in such a way that a miracle is not a violation of any law of nature.' Alternatively, laws of nature can be conceived in such as way as to allow for miraculous violations of them.4 Another possibility is to distinguish between natural and supernatural violation and argue that a miracle involves a supernatural violation of a law of nature, not a natural one.5 Perhaps aware of all these possibilities, Hume chose to anchor his attack in the differential probabilities of a miracle having occurred and the report of it being reliable. While it is possible to object to Hume's calculation of probabilities,6 some commentators have chosen to raise objections of a logical kind against Hume. The most recent and, on the surface at least, quite plausible objection has been raised by Steve Clarke.7

Against Hume, Clarke has argued that we can construct a set of circumstances under which it would be rational to believe in miracles, more rational indeed than any alternative account of the anomalous occurrences. Thus, if we are "confronted with repeated, reliable reports of a type of event which is an anomaly to a well-established law of nature" (99), then Hume's probability objection does not hold. If further we are "unable to justify allowing the exception as a ceteris paribus clause to the law, and we have no realistic expectations of being able to do so in the foreseeable future" (ibid.) then it becomes rational to believe that miracles have occurred, that is, there has been a supernatural violation of natural laws, provided that the "theology we [thereby] commit ourselves to does not itself raise too many further problems for the coherence of our stock of accepted beliefs to warrant its rejection" (ibid.

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