The Impossibility of Divine Intervention
by Francois Tremblay
Are miracles, and divine intervention in general, possible? Since they believe in divine causation, all theists must answer yes. They must conclude that a god acts on the universe in some way, and that it is meaningful to speak of divine intervention. Yet I intend to demonstrate that this proposition is meaningless and irrational: that it is generally irrational for us to believe testimonies of miracles, and that it is meaningless to speak of a miracle occurring.
Anyone the least familiar with the problem of miracles knows about Hume’s elegant refutation of the belief in miracles. He argues that the very nature of miracles makes them automatically irrational.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature… There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation…
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
David Hume, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, p. 114-16
We know that all knowledge is comparative. That is to say, when we evaluate something as true, we are saying that it has conclusive evidence and that other positions do not. In the case of belief in miracles, the two alternatives are:
- We should believe that miracle X happened.
- We should not believe that miracle X happened.
Given this, the evidence for each is:
- Personal testimony, subject to the fallibilities of deception, self-deception, and so on.
- Established facts of nature.
For instance, if we are to believe that a man was raised from the dead, we have to believe that this is an actual possibility, despite all the scientific and inductive evidence that says otherwise. Some other claims are even more vulnerable. Medical “miracles” can very well be explained by remissions, thus dulling the impact of (a). Many more assessment of miracles are actually bad statistical conclusions.
It is important to highlight the scope of this objection. Hume is not merely saying that miracles are unlikely: indeed, that would be a trivial conclusion, since that is what “miracle” means. Rather, he is saying that we should never believe the testimony of a miracle, because of this unlikeliness, i.e. that (a) will always be less credible than (b).
Of course, this objection presumes that we know that event X breaks a law of nature. We could be wrong about that, or the event could have occurred in a manner that is not disproven by science. But in these cases, the event would not be a miracle. Should some incredible things be true? Of course, but not miracles.
But divine intervention does not have to be a miracle. We also do not necessarily have to believe a testimony, but rather could experience divine intervention directly.
Let’s put ourselves in such a situation. Suppose that you are Moses walking in the desert. You see what appears to be burning bush. Tentatively walking towards it, you hear a voice saying “Moses! Moses!”. Really in awe now, you conclude that this must be God talking to you, it must be divine intervention.
It is at this point that we must stop the course of events and, in Moses’ place, ask ourselves a few questions.
1. What does it mean to say divine intervention obtained?
When we make a claim of divine intervention, what meaning are we communicating? Implicitly, we mean that a god acted on the universe in some way. Because of noncognitivism, we know that the word “god” is meaningless. And because of the modus operandi problem, we know that “a god acting on the universe” is also meaningless.
The modus operandi problem points out the incongruity in declaring that a supernatural being acts on natural objects. How is such a passage possible? In our experience, we know that passing from one medium to another demands that the object that does the passage has the possibility of existing in both media. We can dip our arm in water because our arm can exist in both air and water. A news article can exist both in newspapers and on the internet because texts can be transposed from one to the other with relative simplicity. But in the modus operandi problem, it does not seem obvious at all that a supernatural being can have this property.
Our only conclusion is that the claim of divine intervention is defined negatively. By virtue of being “divine”, we must conclude that it excludes the possibility of material causes. If the wind blows on a tree, we would not call this divine intervention, since there is no god involved in the equation. It would, however, be divine intervention if a god created the wind.
2. What criteria can I use to determine whether divine intervention obtained?
Given that divine intervention is only meaningful in that it is a negation of material causes, what criteria can we use? We now have a major problem. We need to be able to negate the possibility of any material cause, but we cannot do so unless we know everything there is to know about possible causes of this sort. If there is a possible material cause we are not aware of, then we cannot make the wholesale claim that no material cause can explain an event. In short, we need to be omniscient!
I must illustrate here why the theist has a complete burden of proof in his claim. His claim is:
- Divine intervention obtains.
And the proposition he must prove in order to demonstrate (1) is:
- There is no possible material cause that can explain X.
But if the following is true:
- There exists, or could exist, a material cause which can explain X.
Then (2) is necessarily false. And the only way to refute (3) would be to know all material causes, and demonstrate how none of them explain X. If a single material cause remains unknown, then the burden of proof of (2) is not met. (2) is a universal negative. The theist can argue that the notion of a “possible material cause that can explain X” in (2) is meaningless or incoherent, just as the strong-atheist argues for the universal negative “there is no god”, but no such argument has ever been presented. Methodologically, we have to refuse the possibility of (2), although I would have no a priori objection against such a possibility.
3. What do I presuppose when I claim divine intervention obtained?
Proponents of Reformed Epistemology claim that propositions such as “Moses heard God” are irreducible. But we can now see that this is not at all the case. A claim such as “Moses heard God” presupposes a great number of propositions and beliefs, such as:
- I believe that God exists.
- I believe that God can, and does, intervene in the universe.
- I believe that God can speak to human beings.
- I believe that God would appear or manifest itself as a burning bush.
- I believe that I can understand God.
- I believe that I am communicating with God, and not Satan, devils, angels, etc.
- I believe that it is meaningful for me to claim divine intervention (which in itself is a claim of omniscience, as we have seen).
We can now see, for instance, that claims of divine intervention given as evidence for the existence of a god are circular, since acceptance of divine intervention presupposes (1), the idea that a god exists. We also cannot use divine intervention as proof that a god intervenes in the destiny of the universe, since we must presuppose (2), that a god actually does intervene.
As such, claims of divine intervention are qualitatively different from claims of material causes. We already know that material causes exist, indeed we have no choice but to accept that fact. We observe them at every instant of our conscious life. To try to deny them for some particular event demands a denial of all that experience. Do we still dare to make such denials?
4. What is the ontological consequence of such a claim?
I have already described the specific problems of one example of divine intervention, the “creation” of the universe, in my article ‘The Incoherency of Divine Creation’. While the atheistic cosmological argument does not apply here, one of my objections does: the fact that it is illogical to posit something coming from nothing.
If a god created the universe, then something came from nothing. This is absurd and illogical. Nothing can come from nothing, by definition, since nothingness is a total absence of actuality and potentiality. Likewise, if divine intervention is true, then a god made a property or object out of nothing. We must reject this as equally illogical.
To come back to our example, Moses heard a voice which he identified as the voice of God. This voice was supposedly produced by God. If this is the case, then it came from nothing. No material cause preceded the existence of this voice. To be more exact, the fact that Moses heard the voice is preceded by the existence of a sound wave and its translation by Moses’ ear, but this only pushes back the problem. At some point, something came out of nothing. And we have to reject such a view because it is illogical.