According to Wikipedia,

“A miracle is a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature, such that can be attempted to be explained by divine intervention, and is sometimes associated with a miracle worker. Some suggest that God may work with the laws of nature to perform what we perceive as miracles. A miracle is often considered a fortuitous event: compare with an Act of God.”

To know how to spot a miracle, first we must define what a miracle is. Reflecting Wikipedia’s definition above, a miracle is most often considered to be the result of some divine intervention, of a god dabbling in the affairs of nature and in our affairs. When theists pray, they are praying for divine intervention of some sort, if what they pray for happens to come true, they often consider it miraculous. If it doesn’t happen, they will claim that god knows what is best and hasn’t answered their prayer for good reason or that god’s lack of an answer is actually an answer meaning, “No, it is not best for you right now.”

Now, how are we able to attribute an event to being caused by divine intervention? Most events that theists attribute to divine intervention are those events that are also statistically unlikely to occur and may have even been prayed for, yet happen anyways. There are a couple problems with calling these things miracles though. One, is that there is no evidence linking the event to being influenced by divine intervention. Yes, it may have been statistically unlikely, and it may have been prayed for to happen, but a lack of understanding why something so unlikely could happen does not equate to “god did it.” This is an argument from ignorance that basically equates to, “I don’t know how that unlikely occurrence could have happened without divine intervention, so it must have been the result of divine intervention, a miracle.” Obviously, this is not an effective and accurate way to identify miracles or divine intervention. Two, is that things that are statistically unlikely to happen, can and do eventually happen. given enough time.

If one out of every one-hundred apples has a worm in it, and if you eat on average one-hundred apples a year, the chances are in favor that one time in the year you will find a worm in one of those apples whether you prayed for it or not. Should we consider this a miracle due to divine intervention? Of course not. It is nothing but probability. However, a theist that may have also prayed for this to happen may consider it to be a miracle. But it would have happened even without prayer. But they will discard the statistics and blame the effectiveness of prayer and as a result of that prayer, claim divine intervention.

Let’s look at another example of what is sometimes claimed to be a miracle. A plane filled with passengers has an instrument failure causing it to be uncontrollable sending it crashing into the ocean. All the people on the plane die except for one. He or she survives the crash, finds a float device, and waits for rescue atop the float. Upon being rescued, the person claims it was a miracle that they survived. That they prayed to god to save them in the last minute while the plane was twirling down through the air. That god intervened and saved them.

When we look at this, again, there is no real evidence of divine intervention to begin with. Second, what about all the other people on the plane that prayed to be saved in the last minutes, yet their lives were not spared. And what about the plane failing in the first place, sending everyone except for one to their death? If god were to intervene in our affairs, why attribute the prevention of one death to being the result of divine intervention, but not attribute the instrument failure, the plane going down, and the death of all the other people to divine intervention? Just as easily as one can say they were saved by god, we can also just as easily say that god is responsible for sending the plane crashing down to begin with, perhaps because some terrorist prayed for it to happen and had his prayer answered instead of all the passengers. And this was the actual miracle, but the person that survived, simply a statistic. There is just as much evidence for this as there is for the latter. Absolutely none. This cherry picking of attributing events to divine intervention and calling certain events miracles reflects ignorance and bias.

How can one identify that a miracle has occurred? Think about this, what about all the successful flights that are made every day? We could say that many of those would have actually crashed hadn’t it of been for divine intervention. But we would never know about these “miracles” because these events were intervened with without any signs of disaster. A flight instrument fails, god fixes immediately, the plane carries on, and nobody knows this miracle occurred. There could be all kinds of these interventions every day and we would never know about them. Just as easily as it can be said that these “miracles” are occurring, we can also say that no miracles are occurring, and everything that happens, happens naturally without divine intervention.

Christopher Hitchens words seems to apply here,

“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

So what do you have here? We do not have evidence that there are occurrences that are the result of divine intervention. We have those that don’t understand probability and statistics, we have people that cherry-pick due to ignorance and bias as to what to attribute to divine intervention and what not to, and we have prayers that contradict each other. Just as anything can be said to be the result of divine intervention, anything can be said to not be the result of divine intervention.

So how do you spot a miracle? How can you honestly say that a certain event with caused by divine intervention? The same way you would identify the reality of anything else, through evidence, not ignorance. Do miracles even occur? I don’t believe they do as they have been defined here. Not only is there no evidence of divine intervention, there is no evidence of a god. Do things sometimes happen that have a low probability of happening, yes. Does our occasional lack of understanding these things mean a god did it. No.

In my next post, I will touch on what the effects of divine intervention would be. How even one simple divine intervention, one change in the natural order of things causes a chain reaction of events that follow that change. A single interaction would touch and affect everything, would change the course of causality, and would conflict with the common concept of free-will.

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Comment by Just Trying on June 3, 2014 at 1:48pm

I really appreciate this post. It's great to see this kind of line of questioning.

It reminds me of similar ideas I had when I was trying to take Christianity very seriously and give it the "benefit of the doubt" before deciding, once and for all, not to convert to it:

What would "modern miracles" consist of? At what level of our physical and now highly technological world would God divinely intervene?

Let's suppose that, for argument's sake, Mormonism is true. A Mormon man gets kidnapped by radical atheists who are hell-less bent on ridding the world of inferior minds that they consider to be polluting the gene pool in. They blindfold this man and take away all the electronic devices they can find on him. They put him into a helicopter and bring him to a dessert in Africa, and leave him to die with his blindfold on, and his hands and feet bound.

They fly away. The man struggles and is able to remove his blindfold. This enables him to spot some debris in the sand that he crawls too and is able to wear down the cloth bounding his hands. Finally, he frees his feet and begins walking.

What the evil atheists didn't do, though, we remove a hidden cell-phone that he keeps in a secret compartment in his boots. To his joy, the phone turns on.

But, alas. No signal.

There are no TOWERS in range!

The Mormon man prays to God, "Please almighty God, rescue me from this desert. Please enable me to get a cell signal so I can call for help and people can track my location!"

Suddenly, in the distance, a loud crackling sound from the sky startles the man. A flash of lightning blinds him, but when he opens his eyes he is amazed as a cell tower now stands 1,000 feet in front him. He looks at this phone and has 4 bars!

He makes a call and soon gets rescued!


So, my question: Would God intervene in this fashion? That is, could God work with the constructs of modern technological society to create that tower? Or, is God limited to things like parting waters, or helping people walk on top of water? I don't really know the answer.

I don't know if Christian or Mormon or other theology allows God to work with and through our technologies. I suppose the closest example in the Bible would be turning water into wine. Wine is almost certainly and invention of humankind. Other things, like death, disease, locusts, risen saints, fish, bread, and the like could be, theoretically, traced back to God himself.

So, the question remains: in our technologically advanced society, does or would God ever manifest miracles with highly sophisticated adaptations or applications of our human-created technologies?

Comment by TJMorgan on January 12, 2010 at 8:00pm
Ah yes, your post is relatively similar to what my follow up will be like.
Comment by Loren Miller on January 12, 2010 at 6:58pm
Know what you mean about effectless causes and upsetting the apple-cart. If you'd like my take on it, please feel free to have a look.

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