Purtill’s Definition of “Miracle” – Part 4

The philosopher Richard Purtill proposed the following definition:

A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (“Defining Miracles” in In Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997, p.72).

I have argued that condition (5) should be rejected, and in my last post on this subject (posted 6/9/08), I explored some possible alternative requirements on the purpose of an event, in order for the event to be considered a miracle. But the alternative requirements appear to be too restrictive, excluding possible (hypothetical) events that would generally be considered miracles.

Before moving on to other conditions in Purtill’s definition, let’s consider the condition suggested at the end of my previous post:

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

Instead of specifying a particular purpose or range of purposes, this condition simply excludes certain events from being classified as miracles, based on moral grounds. Such a condition allows for a very wide range of purposes for miracles and thus avoids the counterexamples that worked against all of the previous requirements on purpose for an event to be classed a miracle.

However, (5e) appears to be superfluous because condition (1) specifies that an event must be caused “by the power of God” in order to be a miracle, and God, as traditionally conceived by Christian philosophers, is a perfectly good person.

If an event is brought about by a perfectly good person, then it follows that the event will not be one that it is morally wrong to bring about. A perfectly good person will not intentionally do something that is morally wrong to do.

Furthermore, since God, as traditionally conceived by Christian philosophers, is all-knowing, he cannot accidentally or unintentionally do something that is morally wrong. So, (5e) appears to be redundant, if we accept condition (1) and understand “God” in the way that this word has traditionally been defined by Christian philosophers.

This is a good place to switch the focus from condition (5), to condition (1):

(1) brought about by the power of God

The first thing to note about this condition is that Purtill has used an unclear and problematic word (“God”) to define another unclear and problematic word (“miracle”). Since the point of a definition is to clarify, this is a defect in his definition.

As we have seen in my comments on Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion, there are a number of different ways of understanding the word “God” (see “15 Kinds of Athesim”, posted 7/12/08). Purtill does not go on to clarify or define the word “God” in the essay “Defining Miracles”, so condition (1) is unclear even in the immediate context of the article.

However, it is likely that Purtill would accept a definition of “God” that is in line with how Christian philosophers have traditionally defined this word, so I will revise this first condition accordingly:

(1a) brought about by the power of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

Given this clarification of condition (1), the resulting definition of “miracle” appears to exclude the possibility of miracles being brought about by deities who are less than all-powerful, less than all-knowing, or less than perfectly good. It appears to exclude the possibility of miracles being brought about by: Zeus, Wotan, Satan, angels, saints, prophets, demons, psychics, witches, wizards, shaman, etc.

The phrase “by the power of God”, however, might be intended to allow for the possibility of miracles being performed by angels, saints, and prophets. Purtill could say that such miracles were performed by means of God’s power which was provided in some temporary and limited way to these intermediary persons. Angels, saints, and prophets might be viewed as deputies or agents of God, and who thus function as conduits for the power of God to affect earthly events.

The phrase “by the power of” thus makes condition (1a) somewhat ambiguous. Can only God (an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person) cause a miracle, or can God pass on some of his power over nature to lesser beings (such as angels, saints, and prophets)? Here are the two alternative interpretations:

(1b) brought about directly by the action of a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

(1c) brought about either directly or indirectly (through the actions of others who have been empowered to do so) by a person who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God would presumably be able to give supernatural power over nature to other lesser beings. Since God, if God exists, has allowed humans to have great destructive natural powers (e.g. nuclear weapons, and biological weapons), there is no obvious reason why God would refuse to grant some supernatural powers to lesser beings, especially on a limited or temporary basis.

I’m not going to try to resolve this ambiguity here by choosing between (1b) and (1c) and defending my choice with reasons. I will just leave condition (1a) as is, noting the existence of this potentially significant ambiguity.

Another point to notice here is that to the extent that God can deputize or empower other beings to have supernatural control over nature, this makes the identification of God as the cause of an event more problematic. For example, if Zeus or Satan or a psychic can perform supernatural healings, then how can we know whether a specific (alleged) supernatural healing was caused by God as opposed to Zeus, Satan, or a psychic? This problem applies whether or not we define “miracle” in a way that allows beings that are less than all-powerful, or less than all-knowing, or less than perfectly good to bring about miracles.

If we define “miracle” more strictly, using condition (1b), so that lesser beings cannot perform miracles, then we have the problem of trying to avoid mistaking an event in which there is a supernatural overriding of nature by Zeus, Wotan, or a psychic for an actual miracle performed by God. On the other hand, if we define “miracle” more loosely, using condition (1c), so that lesser beings can perform miracles, then we have the difficult problem of figuring out whether a given (alleged) miracle should be attributed to God or to some other being. If attributed to some other being, then the miracle in question is probably not going to be of much use for either establishing the existence of God or for revealing the character and purposes of God.