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, Good Sense The purpose of this article is to examine the possibility of miracles. I begin by assuming I 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 factors must 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 nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."1 Hume's definition is considered authoritative by atheists and theists2, so I feel comfortable using it as well as a point of departure. In any case, those familiar with miracles from experience observing and adhering to common religious beliefs share an intuitive understanding of what constitutes a miracle and there is likely to be no question of the human capacity to recognize one as such when it is thought to occur. What comprises a miracle? A quick analysis of Hume's definition reveals that it consists of two halves. The first half is given as "a transgression of a law of nature." In other words, a miracle is any act that violates or, better stated, exceeds the limits of the natural universe as described by its laws. Such an act constitutes a supernatural event and, in this definition, that event breaks and, essentially, nullifies a physical law. This point of nullification will be raised later.

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 to Hume. To simplify, one may call these transgressors supernatural agents, for, I submit what should 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 supernatural event caused by a supernatural agent. Having now simplified our definition, let us begin to unravel in terms that are more specific 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, that act would exceed the limits of a physical law, and it would be experienced by a wholly natural and 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 implies that the event is rare and somehow extraordinary. For example, if a person witnessed time halt, an elephant float in mid-air, or trees walk, then, unless that agent is suffering from a delusion, these observations would probably be interpreted as a miracle. Let us examine these qualifications. First, a supernatural agent would perform a physical act. What does this tell us? It tells us that a supernatural agent would choose to intervene in the natural universe, that it would have a purpose for doing so, and that the natural 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 a physical law. A physical law is a law that describes how the universe consistently functions according 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, the limits of a physical law are those that govern how the universe consistently functions, without contradicting other physical laws. For instance, gravity is a consistently observed component of the universe. Because gravity consistently increases and decreases in specific relationships between the masses of two objects and the distances between them, a physical law can be formulated to describe these relationships, which states that gravity is proportional to the product of two objects' masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between those objects. Were one to observe a change in these relationships, it might appear that a miracle had occurred. Imagine seeing a large rock hovering over an ocean as in René Magritte's painting entitled "La Chateau des Pyrenees." Large rocks with castles carved into them are not known to hover above the earth, so observance of this unprecedented phenomenon might well be considered a miracle. There may well be a natural explanation, like a hallucination or the mistaken 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 a supernatural event might have occurred. In the case of Magritte's floating rock, a person seeing this would realize that a large rock does not normally defy gravity and that a supernatural force might be responsible. Note that this force is interpreted as supernatural in that it only seems to defy a law of nature, not in that it actually does. Again, there may be a natural explanation, but the realization of a supernatural possibility is sufficient.

We have established that an agent who witnesses a miracle might be mistaken in attributing a supernatural cause to an anomaly. This point is important and connects to another point I briefly mentioned earlier, which is that a supernatural event nullifies a physical law. What we find when we examine a claim of supernatural intervention is that such intervention creates an inconsistency in how the universe naturally functions, and given that consistency is a prerequisite for a physical law, supernatural intervention nullifies that law. Moreover, not only has natural existence been disturbed, but supernatural existence has also ceased to be supernatural in that it is observed as part of natural existence. What results is a natural world short of one or more physical laws and one or more supernatural causes. In other words, the very possibility of a supernatural force or cause is removed from consideration by supernatural intervention, leaving the agent who witnesses an anomalous event with only a natural explanation. This does not mean that the agent will interpret the event as natural, but only that a natural explanation is the only logical explanation of what appears to be supernatural. Furthermore, because a supernatural force effectively becomes natural when it intervenes in the natural universe, a supernatural force has no power to act supernaturally. This stretches the notion of what is supernatural, since one who has the power to intervene in the natural universe and create an anomalous event does not have the power to prevent that event from becoming wholly natural once it happens. What results from a natural agent's perspective is that a supernatural agent has no power to act supernaturally, but only to act naturally via anomalous effect. One way of looking at this conclusion is that it creates an unpassable chasm between supernatural and natural forms of existence. However, a more logical way is to realize that supernatural existence can never be known or realized. Not only can it never be realized, but

also it can never be comprehended by a natural agent, since there is no natural means of knowing what, if anything, distinguishes a supernatural from a natural anomaly. Finding that miracles can never be realized or comprehended, I conclude the following. Because a supernatural event cannot be distinguished from a natural one, there seems to be an equal possibility for an anomalous event to be either natural or supernatural. One might conclude on this basis that a supernatural event can occur. However, because a supernatural event cannot be comprehended as such, there is also no natural means by which to determine the possibility of a supernatural event. Thus, this inability precludes a natural agent from determining whether a supernatural event has any possibility. There is no possibility for a supernatural event to occur. Therefore, there is no possibility for a miracle to occur. UK


David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Vol. XXXVII, Part 3.

The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14;, 2001. Retrieved November 18, 2005, from

Richard. "For the Possibility of Miracles."

Retrieved November 18, 2005, from