My church just concluded a sermon series on the subject of miracles. On the whole, it was an interesting series and some good points were made. However, there was one particular part of the series that especially intrigued me, that being the definition of "miracle." To explain the concept, the speaker appealed to a Grahamian definition which is (roughly) as follows:

"A miracle is an event which occurs in space/time which can not be explained on the basis of knowledge concerning the laws and processes of the natural universe"

Thumbing through my desktop Oxford, the technical definition is not meaningfully different:

"An effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause."

At first glance, this definition of the miraculous seems quite sensical; after all, there is plenty of naturalistic phenomenon which cannot be explained on the basis of current knowledge of the physical universe. Is it not convenient, then, to be able to locate these phenomenon within a helpfully organizing philological (and perhaps metaphysical?) category? While such a linguistic grouping might be categorically helpful, I would suggest that such a definition of the miraculous is not only misleading, but moreover (and more importantly) disastrous to the viability of speaking about the miraculous en toto.

Consider the definition again:

"A miracle is an event which occurs in space/time which can not be explained on the basis of knowledge concerning the laws and processess of the natural universe"
According to this criterion, a miracle is such only in juxtaposition to human ignorance of naturalistic phenomenon and its correlate functionality within the schema of the cosmos. So the problem is plain and completely obvious: that which is ascribed miraculous nature is quickly dissolved in meaningfulness as knowledge of the natural universe and its processes increases. That is, as human knowledge gains access to organizational paradigms for explicating the reason and processes of that which was formerly unknown on the basis of phenomenological observation, so the species of the miraculous is proportionately diminished.

Now many, of course, will suggest that this is not a problem, for no matter the extent of the attainment of human knowledge, there will always be certain aspects of phenomenological reality that will be beyond the reach of human comprehension. While the legitimacy of such an assertion is hardly self-evident (after all, does not such an assertion require a seemingly contradictory faith in the abilities of human epistemology to adjudicate its own limits?), the actualization or non-actualization of absolute knowledge concerning the physical universe is immaterial to the conversation. The reason is this: As long as the definition of the miraculous is premised upon ignorance of the natural universe, the extent to which the category of "miracle" is meaningful will be relegated to an inverse relationship to the contents of human knowledge. That is, based upon the criterion outlined above, where human knowledge is minimal, the miraculous will have the greatest meaning, and where human knowledge is greatest, the miraculous will have the minimal amount of meaning. Even if one can argue that human knowledge of the universe can never attain absoluteness, the capacity for human knowledge of the physical universe is indisputably infinite (for the location of the precise limits of human knowledge concerning the physical universe would require a certitude which is categorically denied by this thinking). Therefore, given a hypothetical infinite amount of time, human knowledge of the physical universe can attain infinitude, while the category of the miraculous will concomitantly attain an infinitude of smallness.

Clearly, then, the approximation of the miraculous with that which is unexplainable on the basis of human knowledge concerning the processes and nature of phenomenological reality is a shaky, and utterly destructive premise. It is destructive not only because it is short-sighted in locating the criterion for the miraculous in the limits of human knowledge of observable reality, but moreover because it makes a categorical error in concomitantly appealing to the antithesis of this knowledge as its means of verification and authentication. That is, even though the definition of the miraculous is ultimately posited in the inability of human epistemology to fully explicate the nature and processes of the physical universe, this very same definition relies upon an inherent infusion of this same limited epistemological methodology with an absolute attribution of authority and infallibility whereby the limited nature of human epistemology might be classified as an appropriate criterion for determining the nature and method of the miraculous! In other words, the inerrancy of human knowledge is used to prove the errancy of the same, resulting in a gross contradiction whose main casualty is the philosophical and categorical meaningfulness of the miraculous.

The logic which I have laid out is, unfortunately, all too readily displayed in modern tensions between human epistemology and the miraculous. Because of the inappropriate union between the miraculous and human ignorance in the past, the incredible proliferation of human knowledge within the last few centuries has led many to believe that experimental proof against the existence of the miraculous is not only possible, but moreover inescapably inevitable. As human knowledge increases, many of those things categorized as "miraculous" by peoples of the past are being explained purely on the basis of phenomenological observations of the universe. This has, not surprisingly, created more than a suspicion within the minds of many that the "miraculous" has ceased to be a philosophically tenable category, and should be relegated merely to a religious synonym for the vagrancies of (temporary) human ignorance.

More unfortunate, however, has been the reaction of many conscientious defenders of the miraculous. Rather than attempting to articulate an understanding of miracles that rises above the inevitable failings of the view outlined above, these apologists engage in a what inevitably amounts to a perpetual intellectual retreat, trying to maintain the definitional status quo while synchronously attacking the gains in human knowledge concerning the physical universe in order to preserve the assumed miraculous nature of that which is considered perfectly "natural" by their antagonists.
A perfect example, of course, is the disagreements over evolutionary theory and big bang cosmology. Many self-styled defenders of the miraculous begin with the presupposition that the creation of the universe–particularly of humanity–is a miraculous event. Of course, it must be remembered that the criterion for the attribution of the miraculous is based upon human ignorance of the means and processes of such an event. Therefore, when biologists and cosmologists point to advances in human epistemology that provide compelling depictions of the naturalistic processes which formed the background for the rise and development of the universe, these apologists must reject such proposals. Their rejection, however, is not based purely on so-called "contrary" phenomenological evidence. Rather, the objection is primordially located within a philosophical response to the contradiction of their attribution of "miracle" to creation. No matter how compelling the observations and depictions may be, the philosophical will rule the day, providing the filter through which the examination and ultimate evaluation of such evidence must be passed.

The question, then, is whether the category of "miracle" has any meaning beyond philosophical polemics. Is there a way in which to conceive of the miraculous without falling

into the pitfalls outlined above? I would suggest that the answer is "yes," and I will outline some cursory reasons in my next post.