There's a question on this site regarding what a rational person should accept as a miracle, but the question and its answers seem to take the definition and categorization (as well as consequence) of a 'miracle' for granted.

Hume defined a miracle as a violation of a law of nature (a law being how nature is expected to behave). However, how would we identify such an event? In the days of Aristotelian physics, many considered magnets to be 'miraculous' (or magical, what have you), because they violated the law of nature that for one body to affect another those two bodies would have to be in physical contact with one another. Imagine if Einstein (or anyone else) had come along to hypothesize relativity, and Herbert Ives and G.R. Stilwell conducted experiments and made observations that were incompatible with the current model of physics (see experimental evidence for relativity). Would we call the subjects of their observations miracles?

A more precise definition of 'violation' in this context might be 'a non-repeatable counter-instance' of natural laws. However, then we're stuck with a similar problem: imagine that Ives and Stilwell were unable to repeat their results. Would they then call it a miracle? No, they would attribute it to error (human error, measurement/instrumental error, etc.) On the other hand, of course, if they could repeat their results they would also not call their observations miraculous (or magic, or whatever), they'd propose a new scientific theory to fit their observations.

Therefore, I ask, what is a miracle, and why should a miracle be an impetus for changing our metaphysical views (i.e. posit that a God or similar being exists as a force greater than nature, etc.) instead of revising our physical (as in, scientific) ones?

EDIT: actually, looking more carefully at the answers here, it seems like this issue is addressed. The question therefore is directed at those who do believe in (at least the possibility of) miracles


4 Answers 4


This is very closely related to the question of "what should a rational person accept as a miracle", because the question assumes that nothing should be accepted as a miracle in the strict sense of the word.

However, that is debatable, and the example given of something similar to the Ives and Stilwell experiment (or almost any historical experiment) is unfair, because the possibility of error, especially if the results couldn't be repeated, is very high compared to the probability of a miracle occuring. However, as I've noted, it is theoretically possible to have a miracle occur.

[Migrated from above-linked question and answer]:

Allow me to tell an illustrative story of what I would perceive as a miracle, were it to occur. (Please indulge me, as I like telling illustrative stories)

A man, who has yet to be identified, is killed by a major bomb explosion, resulting in his body being blown apart into a thousand gory pieces. Occurring in a relatively crowded area, emergency services and all that go along with them are fairly quick on the scene. A few hours later, with hundreds of witnesses present (press, cleanup, doctors, other victims and their families, interested passer-bys, etc.) these thousands of pieces, both solid and liquid, some only a few dozens of cells large, begin to move about of their own accord, with a force greater than anything that can hold them back, whether they be boxes, bags, or gloved human hands, all travel to a central location. As more and more onlookers gather, these pieces begin to assemble themselves into the shape that they were in before the bomb exploded: bones assemble, blood is covered and flows through newly remade veins and arteries, etc. Finally, in what is now being broadcast live internationally in every form of media available, the recreated man opens his mouth and says "and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a second coming for the 21st century".

Such a case qualifies as a miracle: while being impossible to reproduce, the likelihood of this occurring by chance, or the observation being an error or illusion, is so absurdly low that the possibility of supernatural intervention appears to be more likely. Hence, this even shows that another force is stronger than the forces of nature, and while that alone wouldn't necessarily be a reason to drop to my knees and offer sacrifices to this display of supernatural force (I've tried that with the natural force without much positive results), it would definitely influence my understanding of metaphysics, as now I'd revise my conception to include a force stronger than that of nature.


A rational person, by virtue of the qualifier rational should accept no miracles; his metaphysics sign-posted by the word rational already precludes them.

If a rock fell up into the sky; such a person who holds onto their metaphysical beliefs rigorously will not jump to the conclusion that he has seen a miracle; but a phenomena that is presently not understood by science.

This of course does not imply that a man has fidelity to a religous tradition cannot be rational too; that he can accept both the articles of faith and the description of the world as described by the close observation of it, that is science; his metaphysical assumptions are different; were he to see a rock fall up into the sky; he wold call that an act of God; but on further reflection he might then call all acts of nature acts of God; and that nature acts in fidelity to the laws of God; and it is this sentiment that motivates the wonder that there is anything at all; or that we are here to contemplate it and act in it.

It worth while to examine what I've written above in the ligt of what Simone Weil, wrote in The Need for Roots:

The problem of miracles only causes difficulty between religion and science because it is badly presented. To present it properly, it is neccessary to give a definition of a miracle.

Thus she agrees your question is a good one, but contra Hume she adds:

To say that it is a fact contrary to the laws of nature is to say something completely devoid of significance.

And she explains why:

We do not know what the laws of nature are. We can only make suppositions in regard to them. If the laws we suppose are contradicted by facts, it shows that our supposition was at any rate in part erroneous. To say that a miracle is the effect of a particular act of volition on the part of God is no less absurd.


Amidst all the events which take place, we have no right to maintain that certain of them rather than others are the result of Gods will. All we know, in a general way, is that everything which happens, without any exception, is accordance with the will of God considered as Creator.

Finally, in the Christian tradition miracles are associated with Saints; in Islam this is much less important; and she adds:

But when a Saint performs a miracle, what is good is the saintliness, not the miracle. A miracle is a physical phenomenon neccessitating as one of its prerequisites a total abandonment of the soul to either good or evil.

At a first reading, I thought that Weil was stating it was the saintliness of a saint that was a miracle, and not the miracle itself; she isn't saying this; what is interesting here though is she allows that a purely evil soul can also perform miracles (this is why she says that the good isn't attached to a miracle - as common convention expects it).

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    I think this belongs as an answer to philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/914/… (though the questions are related, your phraseology appears to be better suited there)
    – That Guy
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 3:13
  • @Matt: I've added a supporting extract from Simone Weil where shes at odds with Humes definition of a miracle; the view I've put forward is fairly standard in Islam - though, perhaps eccentrically phrased; I can't speak for Christianity - but Weil is in places regarded as a Christian Mystic. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 6:24
  • It seems like a nice addition, though I don't fully understand it. I understand how special relativity being the case in matter moving closer to the speed of light is not a miracle; it is a special case of nature. But can't there be a case so special that it is unique? Would that not be a miracle? Furthermore, I don't know for sure, but I don't think that's the standard Christian view at all. It seems like Jesus is reported to have said to believe in him for his miracles (John 4:48, 14:11) and almost all believing Christians who I know take that position
    – That Guy
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 11:13
  • @Matt: special relativity is operates at all speeds; its just that near the speed of light the effects become appreciable; I'm sure you right about Christianity, I can't say myself; it is a standard view amongst muslims; but there are plenty who will take the same line as you've pointed out. Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 16:32

What is a miracle?
A miracle is an event or object that has characteristics or attributes that can not be explained by the current state of the "world knowledge." An example of this is the "painting" of the Virgin Mary in a canvas at the Basilica in Mexico City. It has been studied several times and its creation can not be explained. In addition, there is a "picture" inside the eyes of the Virgin, showing what she was looking at, when the painting was made. This "painting" was made over 500 years ago, when nothing about how the eyes work, or that the retina has the image of what the eye is looking at, was known! If this is all legitimate and true, then this would be a clear example of a miracle.

Why should it influence our metaphysical beliefs?
Just like in science, repeatable test results give validity to the theory/premise/experiment, miracles give evidence that a "superior," "omnipotent" being exists. If this evidence convinces us, then our metaphysical beliefs would be affected.

  • If we're going by that definition, then everything new that science discovers would be considered a miracle.
    – alfred
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 9:44

David Corner describes R. F. Holland's alternative to Hume's view of miracles as the act of a divine agent which violates the laws of nature.

More recently, the idea that a miracle must be defined in terms of natural law has come under attack. R.F. Holland (1965) has argued that a miracle may be consistent with natural law, since a religiously significant coincidence may qualify as miraculous, even though we fully understand the causes that brought it about.

Corner calls such non-causal miracles coincidence miracles rather than violation miracles.

R.F. Holland (1965) has suggested that a religiously significant coincidence may qualify as a miracle. Suppose a child who is riding a toy motor-car gets stuck on the track at a train crossing. A train is approaching from around a curve, and the engineer who is driving it will not be able to see the child until it is too late to stop. By coincidence, the engineer faints at just the right moment, releasing his hand on the control lever, which causes the train to stop automatically. The child, against all expectations, is saved, and his mother thanks God for his providence; she continues to insist that a miracle has occurred even after hearing the explanation of how the train came to stop when it did. Interestingly, when the mother attributes the stopping of the train to God she is not identifying God as its cause; the cause of the train's stopping is the engineer's fainting. Nor is she, in any obvious way, offering an explanation for the event—at least none that is intended to compete with the naturalistic explanation made possible by reference to the engineer's medical condition. What makes this event a miracle, if it is, is its significance, which is given at least in part by its being an apparent response to a human need.

This means that the coincidence has to be accepted as "religiously significant" by those experiencing it:

But now a new problem emerges: If the question of whether an event is a miracle lies in its significance, and if its significance is a matter of how we understand it, then it is hard to see how the determination that some event is a miracle can avoid being an entirely subjective matter.

Here is the OP's question:

Therefore, I ask, what is a miracle, and why should a miracle be an impetus for changing our metaphysical views (i.e. posit that a God or similar being exists as a force greater than nature, etc.) instead of revising our physical (as in, scientific) ones?

If one looks at non-causal coincidence miracles rather than causal violation miracles, the problem of scientific views becomes irrelevant. Those physical views are not challenged. What is challenged are the metaphysical views of those experiencing the coincidence who then see it as a miracle.

David Corner. "Miracles" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on April 14, 2019 from https://www.iep.utm.edu/miracles/

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