McKinnon’s Paper on Miracles

In the Alastair McKinnon paper (“Miracle” and “Paradox”) I cited in a recent comment, it is argued that miracles of a certain kind are impossible.  The impossible ones are the ones that would provide any evidence of supernatural objects or occurrences.

We can call any of those most wondrous miracles a “miracle1.”  Any other miracle, which would be more in the nature of an amazing coincidence, we can designate as a “miracle2.”  Note that there’s nothing about a coincidence that provides evidence of the supernatural (something beyond nature).  And what does it mean to be “supernatural”?  It means to violate a natural or physical law.

OK, so why does McKinnon say there can’t be any miracle1s?  He says there are two ways of looking at natural laws.  The first is to make them absolute.  An absolute law would be of the following form:

Whenever events of type X happen, events of type Y must happen.

But many people think such absolute laws are really not to be found.  Such people would say that physical laws should really be taken to be of this form:

99.999% of the time that events of type X happen, events of type Y will also happen.

So, for example we may think that If you throw a ball in the air (under normal circumstances) either that it must fall, or that in an extremely high percentage of instances it will do so.

Ok, let’s take an event that is standardly called a miracle, say, Jesus walking on water.  To be a miracle1, it would have to violate a natural law.  If the supposed law is

Whenever a something of the density of human being tries to walk on water s/he will sink.

then, if Jesus really walked on water, that supposed law was actually false, because it says that EVERY SINGLE TIME something with the density of a human being attempts to walk on water, there will be an epic fail.  Thus, what Jesus would have done by walking on water would have been to show that something that seemed to be a physical law wasn’t really one after all.

But what about if we construe laws as statistical rather than absolute?

This time, the walking on water would be consistent with a law that doesn’t require that a particular result occurs EVERY SINGLE TIME.

So, McKinnon concludes, in neither case is a natural law violated, which means that in neither case have we been given anything that provides evidence of the occurrence of anything supernatural (outside of physical laws).  We have either disconfirmed something we wrongly believed was a physical law, or we have found an amazing coincidence (like a bee stinging a locomotive engineer just in time to wake him up before the train hits a car–amazing, but no proof of anything supernatural).

FWIW, I think this is a very clever argument. And what I think it does is suggest that being able to bring out “amazing coincidences” should be enough for theists. If somebody or something can make my prayers come true, I don’t care if this somebody or something is, strictly, supernatural or not.

As I’ve said, though, Christians aren’t any better at getting what they want by wishing/praying than anybody else, AFAIK.

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17 thoughts on “McKinnon’s Paper on Miracles

  1. Yes, that argument seems about right.

    I think the ordinary use of “miracle” simply refers to something unexpected.

    “Chewed some willow bark, and my headache miraculously went away.”

    I expect that would have been seen as a miracle before we knew about aspirin. Miracles usually have mundane explanations.

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  2. I think people usually distinguish between coincidence and impossible, although many people suspend reason when unexpected healing occurs

    Sometimes when expected healing occurs. Someone recently hovered over me for ten minutes, and I could see, whereas before, I was blind.

    That used to be the gold standard for miracle.

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  3. walto:
    Is it possible a bunch of Christians prayed for you?Maybe on TV?

    That was a long time ago on the radio. The prayers were effective in bringing about good surgical procedures.

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  4. Maybe we could call a type 1 miracle a violation of a physical principle that meets two requirements: 1) that there has never ever been an observed violation of that principle; and 2) the physics underlying that principle are as thoroughly understood as understanding permits.

    Or another way of putting it is, IF we are seeing a genuine violation, THEN reality must be regarded as inconsistent and paradoxical, but ONLY in the case of one particular violation.

    When something appears to violate well understood principles, the smart money is on the observation being wrong, rather than the principles. When we watch a good stage magician, we can marvel at his skill and wonder how he did that, but we know it’s a trick. The lady was never really sawed in half.

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  5. Well, it’s precisely that argument that IDists are making when they claim “Design” on the basis of biological complexity.

    The problem is computing the probabilities. You can’t compute the probability of something happening “by chance” unless you have a probability distribution for your observed under your null.

    And they never produce the null. That’s also the problem with the Miracle1 argument. There could be a condition that makes Miracle1 likely, we just don’t know what it is.

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  6. Neil Rickert:
    Yes, that argument seems about right.

    I think the ordinary use of “miracle” simply refers to something unexpected.

    “Chewed some willow bark, and my headache miraculously went away.”

    I expect that would have been seen as a miracle before we knew about aspirin.Miracles usually have mundane explanations.

    Herbal healers were pretty suspect, much of the time.

    Of course it took on different interpretations. If I chew on willow bark and my pain subsides, I’m using God’s gift. If the old hag down the way heals, but sometimes seems not to do so (or possibly her herbs even do kill at times), she could very well be a witch. Then if my pig is born with two heads, ha, we know she’s a witch, and let’s have a weiner roast/witch burning.

    Glen Davidson

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  7. Elizabeth:
    Well, it’s precisely that argument that IDists are making when they claim “Design” on the basis of biological complexity.

    The problem is computing the probabilities.You can’t compute the probability of something happening “by chance” unless you have a probability distribution for your observed under your null.

    And they never produce the null.That’s also the problem with the Miracle1 argument.There could be a condition that makes Miracle1 likely, we just don’t know what it is.

    And before we could claim “coincidence”, don’t we have to know what the coincidental factors are? Or at least have a good idea of what they could be. So, if Jesus walking on water was not a miracle, then either one must come up with an explanation for the extreme buoyancy of Jesus, or extreme local surface tension events, or extreme local shallowness of the water, or the possibility that the whole story was fictional.

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  8. Elizabeth:
    Well, it’s precisely that argument that IDists are making when they claim “Design” on the basis of biological complexity.

    Hi, Elizabeth. Would you mind explaining that a bit? I don’t understand what you are referring to as ‘that argument’. Something in McKinnon?

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  9. McKinnon’s paper is rather old (1967). You might like to have a look at Norman Geisler’s comments here:
    http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth19.html

    If you ask me, the cardinal error of the OP is to construe laws as statements about kinds of “events.” They’re not. They’re statements about natural kinds of objects and their causal powers. An exception to a regularity doesn’t necessitate a revision of any law, unless it can be shown that the exception is caused by some kind of natural object, exercising its built-in powers.

    Finally, God, as the Author of Nature, is not to be construed as merely one causal agent among many.His agency is in a category of its own.

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  10. Finally, God, as the Author of Nature, is not to be construed as merely one causal agent among many.His agency is in a category of its own.

    Which is why (supposing the above is true), ID commits egregious category errors.

    Glen Davidson

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  11. vjtorley,

    The Bible actually predates 1967, no? Plus, the McKinnon is much more carefully argued than the basic summary doc you linked. In addition, as I believe I made clear in the OP, it doesn’t actually require the premise criticized in in your cute overview. If the event doesn’t actually violate the law, then it’s not evidence for anything supernatural. That’s part of the point of the article, but was apparently completely missed by your (admittedly more recent) crib sheet.

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  12. I think VJT’s point was that there are no laws to be violated. To the extent that the McKinnon paper relies on violation of laws it begs the question against those who deny that such laws exist in a way that they could be violated.

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  13. Mung:
    I think VJT’s point was that there are no laws to be violated. To the extent that the McKinnon paper relies on violation of laws it begs the question against those who deny that such laws exist in a way that they could be violated.

    McKinnon’s point is precisely that there are no laws that can be violated.

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  14. walto: McKinnon’s point is precisely that there are no laws that can be violated.

    My point is precisely that there are no laws there to be violated. Unless you know of a way to violate a law that doesn’t exist.

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  15. Mung: My point is precisely that there are no laws there to be violated. Unless you know of a way to violate a law that doesn’t exist.

    There’s an awful lot of confirmation. If some law candidate says that at least 99.999% of the time X happens, Y will happen, and it’s been confirmed thousands of times, what’s your basis for denying that it is indeed a law?

    (I think you’re just being contrary myself.)

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