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Castles in the Air

Castles in the Air



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Published by UK
This article discusses the possibility of miracles, concluding that they cannot be detected.
This article discusses the possibility of miracles, concluding that they cannot be detected.

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Published by: UK on May 10, 2007
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Castles in the Air
"In a word, whoever uses common sense upon religious opinions, and will bestow on this inquiry the attention that is commonly given to most subjects, will easily perceive that Religion is a mere castle in the air." Baron D'Holbach,
 The purpose of this article is to examine the possibility of miracles. I begin by assumingI have no evidence for or against their occurrence. I examine the question organically, that is, with freeform composition and without a planned structure or outline. A number of factorsmust be considered and it seems that the most comprehensive and thorough means of achieving an understanding is to approach the question with minimal presumption. What is a miracle? I have found that a number of authors cite eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume's definition, which is "
a transgression of a law of natureby a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.
Hume'sdefinition is considered authoritative by atheists and theists
, so I feel comfortable using it as well as a point of departure. In any case, those familiar with miracles from experienceobserving and adhering to common religious beliefs share an intuitive understanding of whatconstitutes a miracle and there is likely to be no question of the human capacity to recognizeone as such when it is thought to occur. What comprises a miracle? A quick analysis of Hume's definition reveals that it consistsof two halves. The first half is given as "a transgression of a law of nature." In other words, amiracle is any act that violates or, better stated, exceeds the limits of the natural universe asdescribed by its laws. Such an act constitutes a supernatural event and, in this definition, thatevent breaks and, essentially, nullifies a physical law. This point of nullification will be raisedlater.
This leads to the second half of Hume's definition in which he specifies what kinds of transgressors may perform a miracle. These include "a particular volition of the Deity" and"the interposition of some invisible agent." Either kind establishes a miracle according toHume. To simplify, one may call these transgressors supernatural agents, for, I submit whatshould be indisputable, namely, that any agent who has the power to act supernaturally must be supernatural. Thus, we arrive at a simplified definition of a miracle, which is a supernaturalevent caused by a supernatural agent.Having now simplified our definition, let us begin to unravel in terms that are morespecific and descriptive what it would mean were a miracle to occur. Were a miracle to occur,several qualifications would be met. A supernatural agent would perform a physical act, thatact would exceed the limits of a physical law, and it would be experienced by a wholly naturaland less powerful agent, like a human or, conceivably, another kind of animal. Furthermore,this agent would realize that a supernatural event might have occurred. This last point impliesthat the event is rare and somehow extraordinary. For example, if a person witnessed timehalt, an elephant float in mid-air, or trees walk, then, unless that agent is suffering from adelusion, these observations would probably be interpreted as a miracle.Let us examine these qualifications. First, a supernatural agent would perform aphysical act. What does this tell us? It tells us that a supernatural agent would choose tointervene in the natural universe, that it would have a purpose for doing so, and that thenatural universe would be affected in some way.The second qualification is that the supernatural agent's act would exceed the limits of a physical law. What are those limits? For this answer, we must know what constitutes aphysical law. A physical law is a law that describes how the universe consistently functionsaccording to scientific principles of observation and analysis. A physical law must describe a
consistent occurrence, one that has never been contradicted by other physical laws. Thus, thelimits of a physical law are those that govern how the universe consistently functions, withoutcontradicting other physical laws.For instance, gravity is a consistently observedcomponent of the universe. Because gravity consistently increases and decreases in specific relationships between themasses of two objects and the distances between them, aphysical law can be formulated to describe these relationships, which states that gravity is proportional to the product of twoobjects' masses and inversely proportional to the square of thedistance between those objects. Were one to observe a changein these relationships, it might appear that a miracle hadoccurred. Imagine seeing a large rock hovering over an ocean as in René Magritte's paintingentitled "La Chateau des Pyrenees." Large rocks with castles carved into them are not knownto hover above the earth, so observance of this unprecedented phenomenon might well beconsidered a miracle. There may well be a natural explanation, like a hallucination or themistaken identity of a storm cloud, but realization of an anomalous occurrence sufficiently establishes the possibility of a miracle in the mind of a natural agent.This leads to the third qualification, which is that a natural agent would realize that asupernatural event might have occurred. In the case of Magritte's floating rock, a personseeing this would realize that a large rock does not normally defy gravity and that asupernatural force might be responsible. Note that this force is interpreted as supernatural inthat it only seems to defy a law of nature, not in that it actually does. Again, there may be anatural explanation, but the realization of a supernatural possibility is sufficient.

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