Are there any logical proofs that miracles are impossible?

In this case I define a miracle as an interference with nature by a supernatural power.

[Edit: Possibly due to confusion about the difference between "rationality" and "logic" someone marked this question as a duplicate. If you look at the supposed duplicate question ("What should a rational person accept as a miracle?", you can see that this is a very different question.]

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    How is this substantially different from philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/914/… ? Please revise to show what makes it worthwhile to add a similar question – virmaior Jan 5 '16 at 1:26
  • Impossibility of actual events cannot be proven. Even if we could guarantee that there has never been an occurance so far, this could be used as a predictional power, but not a proof. Proofs are part of the domain of thought and logic. It simply is a categorical fallacy to ask for a proof on events in the world. – Philip Klöcking Jan 5 '16 at 12:26
  • @PhilipKlöcking Correct. I wasn't asking for a proof of actual events. I was asking if a miracle is a logical impossibility. – user18800 Jan 5 '16 at 14:41
  • Your comment on the answer of @Izhaki plainly contradicts this, as your general standpoint, i.e. the whole wit of this question, does. Logically, we can "proof" everything. The truth of the proofs depends on the concepts used. – Philip Klöcking Jan 5 '16 at 14:48
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There are three ways one might answer that question:

  1. Miracles, if they do occur, are empirical facts. If you are using the word logic in its formal sense then, by definition, logic is about relations of ideas, not about empirical facts. So logic doesn't have anything to say about miracles one way or the other. For example, as improbable as the idea of a purple dragon is, there is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea, the way the statements " (A is an integer) and (1 < A^2 < 2) " or "John is a married bachelor" are contradictions. Here miracles cannot be disproved by logic, because they are outside of the domain of logic (ideas vs facts).
  2. You could consider logic to be "logic + empirical evidence" or more specifically "logical theories built on available empirical evidence", which is the way the term is sometimes used in everyday speech even if it is not entirely accurate. The term logic then becomes roughly equivalent to the laws of physics, or the laws of science. Miracles are then those events which are not predicted by the laws of science. So if medical science says with certainty that X is going to die in three weeks, but that person survives, then we say that he survived because of a miracle. From this point of view, miracles are by definition those events which contradict the laws of science. Here there can be no logical proof against miracles, again because miracles are outside of the domain of logic, but because this time they are exactly those events which break the rules of logic.
  3. The third approach would be to analyze the question per Quine's holism: Every observation is theory laden, meaning that no matter how hard we try every observation we makes is really dependent on theories that we are using (consciously or unconsciously), and is thus subjective. For example, it might seem that the statement "the rock fell to the earth" to be a perfectly objective statement, but this is because we are basing our observation on the theory that the earth is fixed. Another person who grew up with the idea that his particular rock is absolutely motionless will say that the earth (and everything attached to it) rose up to meet the rock, not the other way around. With this in mind, any observation of a purported miracle, is ultimately dependent on the theories used in interpreting it, and where one would see a miraculous healing, another person would simply dismiss the doctors who originally diagnosed the patient with a terminal disease as incompetent. Here again, it is impossible to logically disprove miracles, because now matter what events you observe, the event is subject to different interpretations, and a mystically inclined person will be inclined to interpret something as miraculous while a materialistically minded person will always interpret it as coincidence, luck, trickery, illusion, etc....
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  • "1. Miracles, if they do occur, are empirical facts."—This is questionable, per Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery: "Every experimental physicist knows those surprising and inexplicable apparent 'effects' which in his laboratory can perhaps even be reproduced for some time, but which finally disappear without trace. [...] (It follows that any controversy over the question whether events which are in principle unrepeatable and unique ever do occur cannot be decided by science: it would be a metaphysical controversy.)" (23–24) – labreuer Jan 5 '16 at 21:48
  • @labreuer "(It follows that any controversy over the question whether events which are in principle unrepeatable and unique ever do occur cannot be decided by science: it would be a metaphysical controversy.)" This eventuality is covered in my second bullet point. – Alexander S King Jan 5 '16 at 21:57

Hume has argued the paradox of miracles in his famous Of miracles. The short version goes like this:

For something to constitute a miracle, it must be unearthly, like "a violation of the laws of nature". However, once observed, such occurrences become both earthly and must be explained by the laws of nature. So by the very virtue of happening, a miracle is no longer a miracle.

There's a good treatment on the topic at Stanford Encyclopedia .

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  • Hume didn't believe in miracles because his naturalism didn't allow him to. But he didn't provide any evidence that miracles are impossible. – user18800 Jan 4 '16 at 23:13
  • Well, to be precise, the quote above is presuming "anything that is observed is earthly". For miracles defined as above to be possible, it must be possible to "observe" something that is (and remains) "unearthly". (Whatever that means...) – Jeff Y Jan 5 '16 at 11:13
  • It should be noted that your link exposes Hume's formulation to devastating criticism. Just what the "laws of nature" are has become less clear, not more. Any fuzz about what the "laws of nature" are necessarily translates to fuzz in Hume's argument. Such fuzz is devastating to "proofs", which is what the OP is asking about. – labreuer Jan 5 '16 at 21:51

All depends on what kind of impossibility you're referring to.

If by miracle you mean something that contradicts physical laws, and if by physical laws you mean what is physically necessary, then by definition, miracles are physically impossible.

However one could still maintain that miracles are metaphysically possible, because physical necessity is weaker than metaphysical necessity (physical laws could possibly be different from a metaphysical point of view).

In any case, miracles are logically possible because physical laws do not follow from mere logic.

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Making logical proofs that something is impossible is difficult. In particular, you have to define the words you are using carefully enough to be able to use logical terms like "true" or "false." When discussing miracles, this can be difficult to do.

Usually, when faced with such a question, I ask people to define "miracle." You were kind enough to already do that. So, instead, I'd ask you to define "supernatural." For instance, dualism declares that there is a metaphysical mind which interacts with the body. Is that metaphysical mind "supernatural?" If so, then a very popular class of philosophy not only declares such interaction to be possible, but declares that it is happening continuously, every moment of the day.

If the human mind is excluded from the supernatural (along the lines of "well, we're natural beings, so even though metaphysical mind was involved, it's still 'natural,' or through claiming physicalism rather than dualism) then we have to start discussing what is left that can be supernatural. Now we're explicitly excluding the human mind, so we're going to have to explain how we define supernatural more strictly. Otherwise we do see a possible argument that miracles are logically impossible because we may start to redefine "supernatural" to become "things that don't interact with the natural world." Once they interact, they become natural.

There are other definitions we can explore, hidden in the question, which do not require one to hold dualist views to appreciate. For example, it is not uncommon to see the belief that the universe is non-deterministic: that there is some randomness to it. This randomness appears so deeply in our worldview that it can be difficult to argue it isn't "real." Several of the most popular interpretations of quantum physics include a concept of a random variable when discussing collapse. Chaotic systems can be mathematically shown to be arbitrarily sensitive to their initial state, making it very hard to observe whether the laws of physics are being obeyed or broken deep in their core. So far, science has found no reason to believe the laws of physics are anything but obeyed in these circumstances, but it turns out to be terribly hard to make a "logical" proof thereof because we simply cannot know enough about the system to do so. However, these random events are unique, and thus it would be impossible for us to prove that a supernatural event did not occur. A supernatural intervention would be indistinguishable from a tremendously "lucky" event.

And then, of course, there is the big bang. All causality models get tremendously murky around this event. Perhaps it's a miracle? I'd say that depends mostly on how you end up defining it. Were there natural laws beforehand? Some cosmologists say yes, some say no. Nothing is quite definitive yet.

In all, I think the answer is that there is no proof that miracles are impossible. In fact, depending on your preferred definition of many words, you may actually be able to make a meta-proof: a proof that it is impossible to logically prove miracles are impossible! The only way I know of to make a logical proof thereof is to intentionally choose your definitions such that you axiomatically declare miracles to be impossible, and thus axiomatically "prove" it.

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    Dualism a one continuous daily miracle, never thought of that one. Would make for a nice motivational poster. – Alexander S King Jan 6 '16 at 19:05

There are no logical proofs to exclude miracles.

A naturalistic worldview tries to explain the world without referring to miracles. Up to now, naturalism is quite successful (it is the world view underlying science).

When hearing about a miracle naturalism strongly recommends to make a careful analysis of the data first: What did really happen? Are there reliable witnesses?

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I think this subject is very related to Russell's teapot: Using a scientifically unfalsifiable claim instead of proving something in a positive way to justify something (or prove something...).

This leads to statements like "Is there any proof that miracles do not exist?", "Is there any proof that God does not exist?".

But, using this way of thinking, you could easily ask something like: "Is there any proof that unicorns do not exist?". Of course there are no proofs that such animals exist. But is there any proof that they DO NOT exist? So, can we consider that there are unicorns running on the fields somewhere? I don't think so.

As Bertrand Russell said: "Nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice." (1958. Letter to Mr Major. In Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950-1968 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969)).

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  • "there are no proofs that such animals exist" - and there is no proof that there are no proofs. That's the problem with evidentialism. It's self-referentially absurd. – user18800 Jan 6 '16 at 23:43

It depends on the kind of miracle.

Some miracles could be just the consequence of extraordinary coincidence - so extraordinary that we never expect it to happen. And any coincidence is possible, just very unlikely. To point out the blatantly obvious, if something is possible, just very unlikely, then there cannot be any proof that it is impossible.

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