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It seems that in most of philosophical history, the attention of the word miracle has referred to a direct violation of a law of nature.

It would, however, be naive to not notice how religious coincidences often underpin the reasons for many people believing in god. A religious coincidence is simply an event that is deemed religiously significant but also unlikely. More crucially, these events do not violate any laws of nature.

R.F. Holland, as described here gives the example of a train stopping right before a baby on a track.

By coincidence, the engineer faints at just the right moment, releasing his hand on the control lever, which causes the train to stop automatically.

His mother, a believer, attributes this to God’s design and providence. Should these kinds of events be considered miracles? The IETP miracle criticizes this account since the notion of a miracle now depends upon how a person views an event, and not the event itself. But surely, correlations, especially significant ones, are often the first step in finding a cause for things.

A person winning the lottery multiple times gets us to search for a cause. Why can’t something be done in the case of a religiously significant miracle?

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  • Yes, miracles are "acted by God"; thus, obviously, the believers in miracles are believers in some religion. For an atheist, there are no miracles at all, but only "strange" facts that our current scientific knowledge is not able to explain. See Miracles: "David Hume famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature” ". Nov 10, 2023 at 12:23
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    God seems to be very stingy with those miracles, as billions of dead people could attest.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 10, 2023 at 13:45
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    Does this answer your question? Can a coincidence be evidence of a god? Nov 10, 2023 at 17:02
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    By starting from the premise that a coincidence is "religiously significant", that risks begging the question / assuming the conclusion. I think this would be improved by asking whether or in what circumstances do coincidences become "religiously significant" such that they fall within a religion's definition of "miracle."
    – Lowri
    Nov 10, 2023 at 17:51
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    So the argument is: religious coincidences help some people believe in God, therefore... we should do something? Like what? Catholic Church has a whole division (Congregation for the Causes of Saints) that investigates purported miracles already. At least, in the lottery case, there is a suspicion of foul play that police can look into. And then there is apophenia. That we are psychologically drawn to searching for causes does not mean that it is always reasonable. There is one practical benefit from the demise of PSR.
    – Conifold
    Nov 11, 2023 at 0:16

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The definition of a "miracle" as a violation of the apparent laws of nature, expressed cogently by Hume in his essay on the topic, is common in both philosophy and in the general population. But it's not necessarily the definition used by the majority of religious believers. In C.S. Lewis' Miracles, he explicitly says "Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature." For Lewis, as for many (not all) believers, a "miracle" is an occurrence through which we can perceive the action or the will of God. That could be as dramatic as the transformation of the water to wine, as personal as Augustine hearing "take and read" in the garden, or as a much a shared everyday experience as a beautiful sunset.

As you have noted, this means the miracle inheres in the perception of the believer, and not in the event itself. This is "a feature, not a bug." For the Christian believer, at least, the personal nature of the relationship with God is a foundational belief. From that point of view, the idea of an objective, depersonalized, scientific taxonomy of miracles is arguably point-missing. The miracle is an expression of God's personal love--a form of communication. It has a sender and a receiver. It can not be adequately understood in isolation from either.

With all that said, there are also many believers--and religious institutions--who do have a conception of miracles closer to that outlined in the original post. I find that less personally defensible, and will pass over it in silence.

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    Nice summary. Would the religious definition of miracle imply they are much more commonplace than we seem to think? Is that fact considered when canonizing someone (where we usually point to an outwardly observable miracle). I only ask because I've seen miracles used in an evangelizing manner and not only as a private experience.
    – Annika
    Nov 10, 2023 at 15:43
  • @Annika - I don't want to imply that there's one single unified religious view on this topic. I personally perceive miracles daily. But those wouldn't be accepted as evidential by the Catholic Church's canonization team, which does strive for a level of objectivity alien to my own belief system. Nov 10, 2023 at 15:52
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    Gotcha! thanks! Great insights either way
    – Annika
    Nov 10, 2023 at 16:30
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There are two aspects to this that spring immediately to mind.

  1. The word miracle can be used to describe any particularly unlikely and beneficial event, so in that sense the accidental stoppage of a hurtling express train with the resulting avoidance of a tragic and gruesome death of an innocent child would be considered a miracle. (Or perhaps not so innocent- haven't I told that holy terror a thousand times not to play on the railway!!)

  2. A miracle can also mean something considered to be the result of an intervention by god, a saint, etc etc. Yes, you can consider the stopping train to be a miracle in that sense if you are so inclined, or you can simply assume it was a fortunate coincidence. You cannot be proved wrong either way. However, if you take it to be a miracle you have rather more questions to satisfy yourself about, such as: Why did god bother to save this child when millions of others die? Why did god inconvenience all of the passengers, and blemish the immaculate punctuality record of the train company, by stopping the train instead of arranging for a freak gust of wind to blow the child off the track? Etc etc.

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    Those are some interesting questions in 2.) although those can be countered by simply assuming that God works that way. Here is how I think of it. Each event is either determined or not determined. If it is not determined, there is no need to posit god. It adds a useless explanatory layer when the event is uncaused or rather unintended anyways. If it is determined, and one posits god to explain the particular event, one can instead just more simply posit some natural law that determined that event. Either way, the god hypothesis seems to be reasonably washed away by Occam’s razor. Nov 10, 2023 at 12:15
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    I agree entirely, except perhaps 'shaved away' might be more appropriate! Nov 10, 2023 at 12:43
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With respect to observations of reality, the role of religion is to seek interpretation in favor of the assumed beliefs. That is, religion intentionally uses biases.

The role of philosophy is to interpret reality without biases. As such philosophy has a need to investigate all statistical deviations from models of reality to improve those models. Attributing supernatural causes to unusual looking events which are not statistically unexpected deviations is thus against the role of philosophy.

Otherwise said, a god which seeks to influence the world while hiding from the prying eyes of philosophers can do so by limiting divine intervention in shape and frequency to remain statistically insignifiant.

Such as healing only so few sick praying believers that it statistically does not significantly change how many people of the true religion get healed versus all other sick people.

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The OP’s question brings together three relevant terms

coincidence, significant, miracle.

  1. The first term “coincidence” is not problematic. Coincidences can be observed, they are factual. The observers can come to an agreement whether two observed events are coincident or not.

    The second term “significant” prompts the question under which condition a set of observed coincidences should be considered significant. That’s also the field of statistics. There is much subjective assessment concerning the choice of the confidence interval. In any case its threshold should have been defined before making the observations.

    The qualification "religiously significant" mixes up two different things, being significant on one hand, and having a "religious" interpretation on the other hand.

    Possible definitions of the third term “miracle” are discussed in the link from the OP’s question, from a philosophical point of view.

  2. From a scientific point of view, initially one speaks about observing a significant coincidence of events, which cannot be explained on the basis of current scientific knowledge.

    Before classifying a report of experiences as a miracle one should compile a protocoll of corresponding coincidences. Next one checks the reliability of the data and whether they satisfy the predefined treshold of significance.

    I conjecture that several of the reported miracle candidates do not pass the test. I am curious how the remaining reports look like and if alternative explanations of the coincidences are possible.

  3. In the end, a scientist would not classify the rest as a miracle because science operates under the naturalistic premiss: Miracles do not happen. He would classify the reports as open questions.

    But people with a different background may classify the report of significant coincidences as the proof of a miracle.

  4. Before being able to propose an answer for the title question

    Should religiously significant coincidences be seen as miracles?

    I would like to see such reports of "religiously significant" coincidences and to hear the arguments for classifying them as a religiously significant miracle .

    First one needs the data before thinking about their correct interpretation - not vice versa. At least the train example from the link seems to be only a fictive example, not real data.

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A miracle is - in general - considered as an intervention in the regural flow of events. The singnificance though of this intervention is that it does not seem to have a logical cause, or in other words a logical series of causes does not seem to interpret the phenomenon.

Whether a specific miracle is considered as a violation of the laws of nature or not, the significant point in your question is that is considered by some as an act of God.

It is obvious that the interpretation of the phenomenon as a miracle is a matter of those who experience it; there is no doubt about that, by their claim should be taken seriously. It is logical to accept that you too - by being a witness to a similar case - would be puzzled about what happened.

So, the question that arises is whether this series or flow of events has just something random in it, or there is something more profound, but then again where is this profoundness to be found?

My explanation is this:

Cause-and-effect relationships in the world, owe their meaning to ( can be explained by ) principles of organization, rather than be the sum of their inclusive events.

Without going into details about this, I will just say that in many natural phenomena, the way in which the parts of a system are organized, is based on, or is according to, the general principles of the system.

A system may be a biological organism, a crystal, an atom, a society, an enterprise and why not a specific event like the train story.

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