Purtill “Defining Miracles” – Part 3

Objections to Condition (5)

I have previously argued that the following condition in Richard Purtill’s definition of “miracle” should be rejected (see Purtill’s essay “Defining Miraclies” in Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997):

(5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p.72)

This condition is based on an unappealing conception of God that draws from the Bible, but that does not fit with the assumption that God is a perfectly good person. It also makes the concept of a miracle too subjective, so that whether an event counts as a miracle depends on the specific beliefs and attitudes of the particular people who happen to observe the event.

Do Miracles Have Some Other Essential Purpose?

Is there some other purpose that is essential for an event to count as a miracle? We previously looked at one possible suggestion of an alternative requirement:

(5a) for the purpose of rescuing some person who is in danger, curing some person of an illness, or providing for a basic need of some person.

But this condition appears to be too restrictive, in that it excludes events in which God performs a supernatural feat in order to do something positive and beneficial for someone other than helping that person to escape from danger or illness, and other than providing for a basic need (e.g. food, shelter, and clothing).

Let’s try a revision of the above condition that includes a broader range of purposes:

(5b) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some person.

What about non-human animals? If we imperfect humans can care about the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals (e.g. dolphins, monkeys, whales, horses, cats, dogs), then certainly a perfectly good person (like God) would also have some concern for the safety, health, and well-being of non-human animals.

So, if a starving puppy is scrounging through a trash bin in a grimy third-world country, God might have mercy on this creature and create a meal ex nihilo for the puppy, to ease the pain of hunger and to provide nutrition that would keep the puppy from starving to death. This would be a miracle, even though God would be helping a creature that was not a person.

I’ll try again:

(5c) for the purpose of helping or benefiting some sentient creature.

This still does not appear to allow a sufficiently broad range of purposes. Helping others is a good and admirable thing to do, but there is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits oneself or that satisfies a personal desire or a personal objective. It is only obsessive or excessive focus on one’s own needs, desires, and objectives that constitutes selfishness or cold heartedness.

Thus, God might intervene in history in a particular instance not to help or benefit some creature, but to benefit himself or to satisfy a personal objective. For example, God might intervene in history to increase the beauty or symmetry of something from his own point of view (as opposed to making something look more beautiful to human beings). So long as indulging in this expression of himself did not create negative consequences for humans and other sentient creatures, I see no reason to exclude such an event from being considered a miracle.

It might be difficult in practice to determine whether a specific event was caused by God for the purpose of increasing the beauty or symmetry of something from a divine point of view, but if one could get past the epistemic difficulties and arrive at a justified belief that this was the case, then the word “miracle” would properly apply.

One way to expand the scope of purposes further would be to focus on exclusion of certain specified purposes, and allow all other sorts of purposes in relation to events that can be classed as miracles:

(5d) for any purpose other than to hinder or harm some sentient creature.

This gets around the starving orphan example, the starving puppy example, the example of creating a horse as a gift for a young woman, and the example of supernatural intervention for satisfaction of God’s personal objectives. However, this still excludes too much.

Sometimes it is good to hinder or harm evil and dangerous people. A sniper on a SWAT team might intentionally put a bullet through the brain of a violent kidnapper in order to rescue innocent children from immanent danger. If one of my daughters were held captive by a violent criminal who was threatening to harm or kill her, and if a SWAT sniper ended the crisis with a clean shot through the skull of the criminal, I would thank and praise the sniper for his/her excellent work.

If God intervened in history to cause Hitler to spontaneously burst into flames, and if God had caused Hitler to die in this manner prior to the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and if God’s purpose in creating this supernatural event was to kill Hitler and to hinder him from implementing the “Final Solution”, then there would be no objection to calling this event a miracle. So, it is not hindering or harming that is objectionable, but doing so when this is not morally justified.

So, if we want to restrict the character of events to exclude some undesirable events from being considered miracles, moral justification appears to be a key concept:

(5e) unless it is morally wrong to produce that event.

To be continued…