It’s Memorial Day, and it is not an abuse of the word “miracle” to suggest that it applies to the volunteering of the soldier who gives his life so that we might live in freedom.
Here is what I would consider a miracle: a generous, exceedingly wealthy patron decides, after reading this blog, that this man William M. Briggs deserves financial independence so that he is able to continue his curmudgeonly investigations of science and philosophy without having to worry about procuring his rent; and thus the patron provides this man Briggs a sack full of (tax free) gold.
I hope you agree with me that this event is possible It is also is extraordinarily unlikely—winning the lottery three times in a row has a better chance—but it is not impossible.
David Hume would not have labeled this glorious occurrence a miracle. To him, events which are possible, no matter how improbable, but which occur are not miraculous, just rare.
Here is what Hume would have called a miracle: the laws of physical science are suddenly altered in ways unknown and unknowable, such that the stack of newspapers at Briggs’s feet are transmuted into gold (also tax free). And immediately after this just award appears, the laws spring back to their former state.
To Hume, “a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.” But that word “laws” is tricky. Few doubt that the universe is set up to work on certain inviolable guidelines, we just don’t know what all the guidelines are. So how can we say when and if these sacrosanct rules have been broken?
Discrete (quantum) mechanics being what it is, or the, as yet, true but unknown laws that govern the workings of the universe being what they are, it is possible that a complex mass and energy transfer could result in this worthless paper turning to gold.
All of us are willing to say that this event is improbable, but how many would claim that they could deductively prove that it is impossible? Remembering, of course, that the soundness of all premises used in that proof must also be demonstrated with certainty.
We might guess, but guessing means probability, and we’re after certainty here. Can we, with certainty, say when the laws have been violated and a miracle has occurred? Again Hume:
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.
Now, it is obvious that “a pretty strong degree of assurance” is not certainty. So we seem stuck: we cannot always know—with absolute, utter certainty—whether the strange event before us was merely the result of a confluence of improbable circumstance, or that it obtained from a transient shifting of the laws of nature.
But there’s something wrong with our language here. If we say that a “law” is an “inviolable rule”, then, by definition, the law cannot be violated. This says that if we know with certainty that a law holds sway, any seeming violations of it must be due to other causes, such as a mistaken measurement, or false testimony (note that “false” does not necessarily imply “malicious”). And with what authority do we claim that inviolable rules must exist?
Hume famously argues that our knowledge of physical “laws” is so strong that we would always say that a purported miracle is more likely the result of mistaken or false testimony than the result of temporarily shifted governing rules.
Experience is on Hume’s side: most reports of extraordinary events are later found to be the result of mundane forces or false testimony. And those events that cannot be verified, we suspect can also so be explained.
But, and here’s the meat, “suspect” is not “know.” We cannot prove miracles impossible, nor will we be able to prove certain reports of miracles false. We have to settle for something less than certainty.