Accommodating Miracles

A reader asked me about the Deist argument against miracles.

The first argument, best elucidated by Thomas Paine in his unintentionally oxymoronically-titled AGE OF REASON, says that God, being an omnipotent and omniscient creator, has made the machinery of the universe with all the chains of cause and effect in place as neatly as clockwork, with no need for further direct intervention. Direct intervention supposes the Creator either to lack the foresight (hence not omniscient) or lack the power (hence not omnipotent) to foresee and forestall all possible exigencies otherwise requiring intervention via natural chains of cause and effect laid from before the dawn of creation.

To suppose the Creator to lack the necessary foresight or power to avoid the use of miracles is to insult the dignity of His deity.

The second argument comes from Hume: In nature, every effect proceeds from a sufficient cause so that nothing comes from nothing; no matter nor momentum is ever created or ever destroyed. Supernatural events, such as miracles, divine intervention, or granted prayers, on the other hand, proceeds by the will and fiat of God, without any intermediary mechanism. Ergo for Providence to grant prayers or perform miracles by definition intrudes a supernatural break or lapse in an otherwise solid chain of natural cause and effect. Since no events occur aside from cause and effect, ergo miracles do not happen.

Or, to put both arguments more succinctly, if God needs to break the laws of nature by interrupting with miracles, He those laws were made imperfectly, which is impossible: therefore miracles do not happen.

A third argument one from time to time encounters in writers of less skill than Paine or Hume is to say it offends the dignity of the Creator to propose he has need either to answer prayers or grant miracles or otherwise interfere with any of the workings of the clockwork cosmos, for the same reason a skilled watchmaker need not push the hands on the clockface with his finger to see the time is correctly kept.

Hence a correctly organized Providence would unfold events to carry out the will of Providence from the outset without any further need for impromptu corrections or adjustments, just as a correctly made clock keeps time without continuous intervention by the watchmaker fixing, tinkering, fiddling, correcting, re-calibrating, repairing, and puttering.

Hume’s argument is easy to dismiss: it is a circular argument. It assumes that it is impossible for events to arise aside from mechanical causes, and concludes that nothing aside from events arising from mechanical causes is possible.

As for Paine’s more thoughtful argument I submit it is a category error based on the same error which radical materialists make when they say the mind must be a machine on the grounds that nothing but machinery exists.

The radical materialist argues that if the mind is not machine, it must be a nonmaterial machine that moves the parts of the material machinery of the universe in violation of the laws of cause and effect. If a cogwheel of immaterial thought machinery moves a cogwheel of brain machinery into moving the cogwheel of a muscle, then the brain machine moves without material cause, which means it moves without cause, which violates the laws of cause and effect: therefore the immaterial thought machinery must be material machinery. If the first gear of thought is not set in motion by a prior gear, it could not have moved.

Whenever I have attempted to explain that the mind is not a nonphysical machine using physical motions to move a physical machine called the body, indeed, that it is not a machine at all, and does not possess any moving parts, extension or location, the radical materialists just stared blankly, as if something is jamming the gearboxes of their thought, before repeating their exploded argument without change, like a recordplayer whose needle is stuck in one groove. This has ironically convinced me that the radical materials’ description of their own brains as malfunctioning meat robots is correct, at least as far as it applies to them.

Myself, I do not believe in Cartesian Duality, for I doubt the question of whether the mind and the body are made of different substances, that is, different bodies, a meaningful one.

(For what is substance, aside from the word we use for the thing a body is made of? It is meaningless to ask of what substance insubstantial substance is made, or to say it differs in substance from substantial substance.)

I submit that the world of externals (that is, things known by perception, also called) can only be described meaningfully in terms of non-intentional reactions of physical bodies in motion, each motion set in motion by a prior: and likewise mental events of the interior world (known by apperception, also called self awareness) can only be described meaningfully using terms that refer to the intent of thought and the logic of categories and deductions, which are not motions of any kind.

The two are not two different substances describing two different parallel realms of reality that cannot touch and cannot interact. They are instead two different descriptions of two different aspects of the universe.

The two descriptions are incomprehensible except as awkward metaphors when applied to the other reality: calling agitated iron molecules angry tells the metallurgist nothing useful, and taking the temperature of the accused does not tell the jurist whether the requisite malice aforethought exists for a verdict of murder in the first degree.

Properly speaking, only living things act; unliving things react. Only living things initiate actions that have goals. Even the simple amoeba moves toward nutriment and away from danger in order to preserve its life. The motions cannot be predicted nor understood unless categorized as serving a purpose. But even the most complex atomic or energetic reactions of inanimate objects, the waltz of the planets or the furious dance of high energy particles in the heart of a star, cannot be understood if categorized this way: if you speak of a falling rock as trying to return to earth in order to achieve a condition of rest as its goal, you will not understand how a satellite stays in motion. Saying a particle follows the path of least resistance is an observation of its form of motion; saying it seeks the path of least resistance is a metaphor, not a statement of psychology.

While we frequently use metaphors which grants intent to inanimate objects, or describes mental operations as if they were physical motions, the two have no overlap. Physical causes can be found for the breakdown and damage to the faculties of thought, such as drugs or drunkenness or a blow to the head, or even simple fatigue, but none for the content of thought. Radical materialists routinely reason that since a fire can burn a book and make it ash, it must have been fire, or something equally made of matter and equally non-intentional, which wrote the book and intended a happy ending or a tragic one.

But the existence of happy ending in books written by authors who deliberately write what they write is not sufficient to prove that a non-deliberate natural process created that happy ending by means of blind molecular and atomic actions. Likewise, the fact that one can burn a book says nothing about how well or poorly the story is written. The two things, the entertainment value of the story, and the physical mass, shape and duration of the book, coexist without interfering with each other or depending on each other.

In the same way, miracles are part of the meaning or intentional aspect of the universe. Cause and effect is part of the underlying predictability we call the laws of nature. Miracles are part of the story whereas cause and effect is the book leaves and leather binding.

The word ‘miracle’ is like the word ‘message’, in that it refers to the form and not the matter. Take your favorite Greek tragedy, and shove it through a malfunctioning Star Trek transporter so that every ink molecule still exists, but the syllables have been rearranged at random. All the physical measurements of the book are all the same. What is lost is the meaning. It is not longer a tragedy because it is no longer a story at all. The ink spots no longer form letters and words.

A miracle which held no meaning would not be a miracle, because it would be an act without a point.  A miracle which has a point still retains it power to awe and inspire wonder, even when the lines of cause and effect are known to the observer, as a child’s birth or a beautiful sunrise. However, when the lines of cause and effect are known to the observer, the Hand of God is harder to see, and the particular dyslexia of the skeptic, which allows him to look at a meaningful message and see no meaning whatever, is easier an error to fall into.

Hence, in common parlance, we use the word miracles only for those acts of divine intervention which do not admit of any known type of cause and effect, events rightly regarded as impossible to anticipate, impossible in the normal course of events, such as an incarnation or a resurrection from the dead, but which also turn the eyes of man toward the supernatural world which everyone, except for those spiritually autistic people called atheists, knows in our hearts is there.

The destruction of Pompeii was an unexpected event, but it has no ulterior meaning. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was not unexpected, or, at least, Lot and Abraham were warned, and even if modern investigations discovered a volcanic mudslide was the mechanism, it would still have an ulterior meaning. Pompeii’s destruction was an accident, not a sign of divine wrath: Sodom’s was not an accident, and was, whether a material mechanism is found or no.

I am not proposing that miracles all obey chains of cause and effect merely of a kind currently unknown to mankind, and I certainly am not claiming that a close study of the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus will enable us to discover the causes, reproduce them, and raise the dead by means of a clever application of chemistry and nanotechnology. While that may or may not be the case, that is nothing to the point. I am proposing that what makes a miracle miraculous is its character as a deliberate divine act meant to be seen by men and change their lives. Miracles, like angels, are messengers. Miracles, like angels, are marvels.

I do not believe miracles ‘break’ the laws of nature any more than a hot love scene in the pages of the physical book in which it is written make the book catch on fire, or that the mournful themes in a dirge or solemn song make the notes feel sad feelings in their hearts. I believe the appearance of a collision or contradiction between miracles and natural law is an illusion created by a lack of precision in our definitions.

The laws of nature, if defined properly, refer to nothing more than the regularity of appearances allowing us to predict how certain inanimate things will react when certain abstract conditions or ideal conditions obtain. Galileo and Newton allow us to know what would happen if, assuming negligible air resistance, and no accidental interference by any nearby bodies, two spheres of the same radius but different weight were flung off the top of the leaning tower of Pisa at the same time. Under ideal conditions, they strike the ground at the same time. That is the so called law of nature.

However, if you fling a fish and a bird off the top, they may or may not strike the ground at the same time. Surely no one but a madman or a philosopher would deduce from the experimental result that the fish lands first that the law of gravity is broken.

The proper deduction is that the law does not apply to cases where some entity (let us a say a bird who does not want to strike the ground) who has the present power to set in motion a chain of cause and effect to avoid that outcome (let us say, avian street pizza) and uses that power to avoid that outcome (let us say, by taking wing).

I quite frankly see neither a conflict with the laws of gravity when a bird flies from a tower top rather than plunging to its doom, nor any necessity to suppose the bird beats into submission those laws when beating its wings so that those laws break.

All that happens is category error: an observer who is told an object weighing four ounces  is about to be flung off the tower of Pisa will naturally expect the object to fall at the rate of 32 feet per second per second — unless he is also told this object is a falcon, in which case he would expect the bird to attempt to save itself from injury by flapping its wings and flying to a safe landing where it would. If he is further told that the falcon is dead, he will return to his first expectation.

Is this clear?

The so called laws of nature are a list of the ratios or relations between such abstract things as weight, duration, time, current, candlepower, temperature, moles of substance and suchlike that obtain between inanimate objects in motion where we expect certain outcomes under certain ideal conditions. When the ideal conditions do not obtain, the law of nature is not suspended in its operation: gravity still influences every wingstroke of the bird at every second. The downward acceleration of gravity is the same, the weight of the falcon is the same, whether the bird is alive and flying versus dead and falling. But with the dead bird falling, we need not in our predictions take into account the will of the bird.

Likewise, if we reproduce the exact same experiment using the same tower in an airless vacuum, we need not take into account whether or not the falling object is lighter or heavier than air. On the moon, a hot air balloon and cannonball all fall at the same rate. The moon approaches more closely to ideal conditions.

But my point is that balloons do not break the law of gravity. They still have weight. They merely are lighter than air.

Please keep in mind that a moon-man, raised his whole life in an airless vacuum and kept in ignorance about the gas laws, if whisked to the foot of the Tower of Pisa in the time for our experiment, if he expected the cannonball and the helium balloon of the same radius to strike the ground at the same time would be making a category error without even being aware that he was making it. On the moon, helium balloons and cannonballs do indeed fall at the same rate. He is dealing with something outside his experience.

Likewise here, God Almighty dropping manna from His hand onto the heads of the Children of Israel in the desert is no more and no less a violation of the laws of cause and effect than dropping dew before dawn, or the dawn itself.

Dewfall and dawn we modern and scientific men can perhaps describe and predict more accurately than our bronze age ancestors, but we have no advantage over our bronze age ancestors in predicting the deliberate actions of someone trying to show us by certain astonishing signs his power and mercy. The fall of manna is described in the only surviving account we have of the event of being such a sign: it is described as being as deliberate as the Berlin Airlift.

Let me use a second example:

Imagine that a philosophical microbe is living in my stomach. It is the only world he knows, and, unfortunately, my stomach is quite large enough to be a world. He has observed the world and deduces from the regularity of certain events that there are laws of biology which govern the stomach world.

He hears a report from his grandfather, who was alive at noon, that chewed and spit-covered bits of a ham and bread and mayo fell from On High into the lake of the stomach, and put nutrition into the body.

Suppose our philosophical microbe asked whether my eating the ham sandwich at noon is a miracle ergo natural or not a miracle ergo natural? He would ask whether the decision to ham at noon breaks the laws of biology by which the chemical elements of the food are digested and pass nutriments into my bloodstream.

The microbe’s question is based on a category error: he assumes that EITHER the decision to eat ham at noon is part of the world of my body, natural, OR comes from an outside invasion that shatters and suspends and halts the operation of the laws of biology and nutrition, supernatural.

Is there anything wrong with the microbe’s categorizing this question as an either/or when he asks whether a ham sandwich at noon “breaks” the laws of biology?

It seems to me that the answer must be yes. Yes, there is something wrong with the categorization into an either/or question.

What happens outside the body is beyond the microbe’s range of perception: it is, so to speak, another world. But it is a natural world in the sense that there is no miracle if I eat a sandwich for lunch. What happens inside my mind is another world again: the human free will is mysterious. If my refrigerator is empty, or if I refuse to eat meat on Friday, is a truth not even the most expert examination of my stomach and the biological laws governing it will disclose.

Perhaps the microbe can detect my hunger pangs or hear my stomach rumbling, and perhaps he knows enough to know that the stomach pangs often come before the hailstorm of ham bits down the throat. But any law of nature he deduces from this should properly be restricted to the biological and mechanical laws of eating and digesting, and he is both arrogant and foolish if he deems the laws of biology to govern things outside biology.  Whether I eat fish on Friday is a matter for theology, not biology.

The ham enters the microbe’s range of perception from something outside it. The ham is there, in the stomach, due to a deliberate act on my part. Does it make any sense to call this a miracle due to the fact that it was unexpected? If eating a ham sandwich is a miracle, then miracles are as common as hailstones. Does it make any sense to say that this is something that could have been predicted by the laws of digestion?

No, obviously not.

So it is neither a supernatural miracle nor a predictable operation of nature: our conclusion must be that these are not the only two categories into which events fit.

I submit that miracles are neither natural nor supernatural in the strict sense of the term. As when an author pens an event into a story to make the happy ending come out correctly, the author must portray a certain degree of predictability in the events, or else there is no story. Cinderella must be able in a predictable fashion to clean the cinders out of the chimney, or else her being forced by her cruel stepmother to clean the chimney neither humiliates the girl nor has any meaning at all.

Likewise again, the author a certain degree of wonder and mercy, such as the appearance of a fairy godmother, if the story is not to end in misery for the meek.

Even here, there is still regularity and predictability: if the fairy godmother says the magic dress and pumpkin coach must vanish at midnight, then midnight it is, with the punctuality of a railway schedule.

Now, a story with a fairy godmother in it introduces an element not normally seen in the real world, were fairies of late are getting rare. Nonetheless, the author is not forbidden by any laws of writing from introducing the unusual mercy of the fairy any more than he is forbidden from writing about the unusual cruelty of the stepmother. The stepmother transforming her husband’s nobly born daughter as a low-class servant girl is no more and no less impossible or difficult, from the author’s point of view, than the fairy godmother transforming the pumpkin into a coach.

To speak of the laws of nature inside the story is either meaningless, or is merely a report of the expectations of the fictional characters based on their fictional experience. When they encounter what is beyond their experience, the categories no longer apply.

But the author is not bound by any expectations of any characters in any case, since he is the inventor of the characters. Indeed, I do not see how the characters would even be aware of the author, unless the author was a very peculiar and inventive one: The author could, perhaps, have certain characters preach and speak his own very words, and be his prophets, as Jubal Hershaw was the prophet of Heinlein; or he could put an autobiographical character into the story as his own incarnation, so to speak.

God stands to us as an author stands to a story. To speak of Him being bound by the set of expectations we call the laws of nature is nonsense talk. By definition, the finite cannot encompass the infinite.

As to what He places in the story,  when the Deist says God offends the dignity of His own omnipotence by having recourse to supernatural wonders in his tale, then the Deist in effect is saying that Cinderella should have been saved by some other means than a fairy godmother, such as by having George Milton, migrant farm worker, shoot Cinderella in the back of the head, that she might die quickly and painlessly, and never play with mice again.

Obviously, this is merely an arbitrary aesthetic preference on the part of the Deist. He prefers dismal progressive message-fic stories to fairy tales. The notion that God needs to abide by this preference is too absurd an argument to merit any rebuttal.

Whether one shows good taste or betrays good taste by adopting a standard that prefers dismal progressive message-fic to fairy tales is an aesthetic question, and outside of the scope of this column.

However, it is clear enough that no matter what your tastes may be in the type of stories you read, the type of story in which you live is one where the main drama of history, starting from the Fall of Man through the Crucifixion to the Last Judgment, follows the tropes and techniques of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and all such tales were an unexpected wonder brings hope unlooked-for to those asleep in the ashes, humble, bedraggled, and hated, or where mighty works can turns the doom of death into a spell of gentle sleep that love alone can break, and where sorrow and death are turned into a ending so satisfying, benevolent and final that it can only be expressed in eternal terms: happily ever after.

Like it or not (and you will be happier if you resign yourself to liking it) you and I, dear reader, live in a story told by the dread and potent hand of a master dramatist, who has chosen for his deep reasons to star each of us in a fairy tale.

* * *

Like all proper fairy tales, the Tale of Man is one where the plot turns on a mighty working of deep wonders.

These wonders are properly foreshadowed by prophets but carried out with the surprising plot-twists and unexpected inevitability only the most perfectly executed drama achieves.

One of the central characters in the drama, on whose one line (fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum) the whole plot turned, explains the theme to any who cares to hear her:

My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

The story contains fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. I am told that the the plot includes a prince in disguise.

The author has the happy facility of using these well-worn tropes in unexpected and even alarming ways.

If the fairy tale in which we find ourselves is not to your taste, find another universe.