By Sheikh Mansour Leghaei
What are miracles? Do they exist? Are miracles a form of magic? What is the scientific take on miracles? This and more in this very educative and thorough text.
Are Miracles Possible?
Three different concepts of possibility:
1. Rational Possibility
2. Scientific Possibility
3. Historical Possibility
4. Religious Possibility
1. Rational Possibility
In order for a statement to be rationally impossible it has to eventually lead to the Principle of Contradiction.
The principle of contradiction is a law of thought stating that a thing cannot ‘be’ and ‘not be’ at the same time. The principle of contradiction usually develops itself on three specific forms known as the “Three Logical Axioms” which are:
• A is A.
• A is not ‘Not-A’
• Everything is either ‘A’ or ‘Not-A’.
For a miracle to be logically and rationally impossible, it should result in the principle of contradiction. If for instance the concept of a miracle is like a ‘triangle square,’ then it is rationally impossible. Then we are obliged to conclude that what happened was not a miracle or whatever is a miracle does not happen.
Here we can certainly assert that the claim of Christians on the deity of Jesus and the concept of trinity as a miracle is wrong, for it is rationally impossible and hence their claim must be rejected.
Similarly, the law of cause and effect is a rational law and hence for miracles to be in violation of any rational law, it has to be rationally impossible. If a prophet for instance claims that the total of the angles of a triangle miraculously equals to 190 degrees, then his claim is rationally impossible.
Our claim is that miracles are rationally possible for it is not against the principle of contradiction nor is it against the law of cause and effect.
In order for something to be rationally possible, it is enough that it cannot be logically proven wrong. Presumably no one can rationally prove that there cannot be any other influencing force to nature beyond ordinary human knowledge.
If the concept of miracle is like saying this object is a triangle square, then it is irrational.
Miracles are rationally impossible if they happen without any cause. But if the natural cause that we are aware of is replaced with another cause – which was not known to us, it is not irrational.
For instance, we have discovered a relation between Nurofen as a painkiller and a cure for headaches. If one claims that, ‘My headache was miraculously cured,’ meaning that it was cured without any cause whatsoever, then he is talking irrationally and only then we can say that either a miracle did not occur and he is wrong in his claim, or what happened is not miracle.
The claim in a miracle is that perfect humans such as prophets, due to their access to divine knowledge, have access to other causes of healing a headache different from ordinary known medical methods. Thus, the cause is there, though it is a different cause to the one known to ordinary humans.
Moreover, the correlation between a cause and its effect is also present in a miracle. Because what the necessary correlation between a cause and its effect is that the cause must enjoy what it wants to give to the effect. For instance, ice does not enjoy the heat to burn the wood. Again, the claim in a miracle is that the extraordinary cause by far enjoys the properties required, for instance to cure a person who was born blind.
Therefore, our claim in miracles is the substitution of one cause with another; be it a known physical cause to us, or a metaphysical.
There are many phenomena that appear to contradict physical laws but today parapsychologists suggest the possibility of their causation by mental processes such as telepathy, clairvoyance and psycho kinesis that are inexplicable by science.
Dr. V. Frankle; the founder of logotherapy claimed that he could even cure an asthmatic by the method of logotherapy. Does it mean his claim is irrational?
In religion we are taught of some causes that otherwise would have been unknown to us. For instance, paying charity, visiting the first of kin, and praying for others are introduced as possible methods of prolonging one’s life.
Statistics today show that people with strong religious faith react better to fatal diseases such as cancer and enjoy more chance for recovery. (See the chapter on the Power of Faith)
2. Scientific Possibility
Is a miracle scientifically possible?
In order for us to understand whether miracles are scientifically possible or not, we ought to get acquainted with some of the characteristics of natural science.
Some Characteristics of Natural Science:
1. Nomological (Newtonian): That means according to the Newtonian natural concept of the world, the scientific laws are general based on our observation.
2. Repetition: (See the article: Miracles and Modern Scientific Thought)
3. Statistical (Quantum Physics): That means according to quantum physics, what we call a natural law is in fact the most possible option, not the absolute one.
4. Natural laws are conditional not absolute. That means the relation between a natural cause and its effect is not absolute and limited and hence there are scientifically more possible methods to achieve the effect. For instance, one of the ordinary known methods of splitting the water of a river is to construct a damn. But is this scientifically the only possible method? Science has no negative answer for it. Thus, though perhaps exceptionally there is a natural phenomenon of making a path amidst a sea in Korea which is one of the most surprising sights in Korea.
Internationally renowned, “Chindo’s Sea Way” is a natural phenomenon that occurs when the waters around the island of Chindo recede to reveal a long path connecting Hoedong-ri with the neighboring Modo-ri. The seaway is formed because of the great difference between the ebb and flow of the tide. The path is 10 to 40 meters wide and 2.9 km long.
This phenomenon occurs regardless of the speed of the tide or waves. Every year, around half a million foreign tourists and local tourists come to witness this marvelous phenomenon in February of the lunar calendar.
A variety of lively festivals take place to mark the occasion such as Kanggangsuwollae (Korean traditional circle dance), Ssitkim-gut (a shaman ritual, consoling the souls of the dead), Dul Norae (songs people sing while working in the fields), Tashiraegi, Manga (songs of consolation sung at burial ceremonies), and Puknori (drum performance). A French Ambassador, who visited Chindo Island in 1975, first introduced “Chindo’s Sea Way” to the world, by contributing an article to a French newspaper saying that he has seen Moses’ Miracle in Korea.
In 1996, the Japanese popular singer Taentoyosiri sang about Chindo’s Sea Way, which was a great hit. This song motivated a lot of Japanese tourists. To visit the site:
5. Possible Alternatives. Ibn Sina suggests that miracles and other extraordinary events occur because some humans enjoy a powerful soul that can influence nature. He argues as any human soul can influence his own body, they have the power to exceed this power to other materials. Levitation, thought reading, hypnotism and evil eyes are ordinary examples of this influencing power.
Imagine you are a plant. In the world of plants it is impossible in the natural movement of a plant to move from one continent to another. But a human can interfere and move a plant thousands of miles away just in a few hours.
Therefore, our senses can only claim the relation between two phenomena but cannot scientifically claim that A is the only cause of B. Thus, a miracle is not the violation of a natural law; it is introducing a new cause to a particular effect.
As a matter of fact, given the scientific progress of the last two centuries in medicine for example, diseases that were considered mysterious are now understood without appeal to supernatural powers. Thus, if today’s medicine cannot cure a born blind, it is not rational to assert it is rationally impossible to cure a born blind.
Dr. Paul Feyeraben: Against Method (1924-1994)
The Austrian physicist and scientist who perhaps due to a personal experience of his health problem not only lost his faith in western medicine but in science in general and promoted the school of postmodernism or decentralism.
In his book ‘Against Method’ he argues that there is no scientific method and as such we can’t justify science as the best way of acquiring knowledge. The truth, he argues, is that: “Science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best.”7
6. Descriptive or Prescriptive. We were told that natural laws differ from national laws in that the first is descriptive and hence cannot be changed. One can claim that natural law is descriptive to us since we do not make them, we only discover them, but for the Maker of the natural laws it is possible to be prescriptive. For instance, national law for any ordinary citizen is descriptive as he cannot change it, but for the members of the parliament it is prescriptive. Similarly, natural laws for us as humans are descriptive, but for God who made these laws, it is prescriptive and He can order fire not to burn or harm His Prophet Ibrahim.
‘It is a miracle!’ Many physicians have experienced situations during their careers whereby something out of the ordinary and contrary to their medical knowledge had happened; they call it a miracle. We have witnessed many patients diagnosed with fatal diseases, who without any scientific explanation, and ironically ‘impossible,’ were cured. The Shrines of our Imams (a.s) have cured many miraculously.
3. Historical Possibility: Fact or Fable
Could strong historical evidence prove the occurrence of miracles?
First of all as Swinburne8 stated, it is unfortunate that Hume was so bigoted in his views by refusing to face facts, in that he claimed even if there is ample historical evidence for the occurrence of miracles, we cannot accept them.
Secondly, there can be three different ways of finding the occurrence of an event in the past:
a. By the means of remembering it.
b. The ample and excessive number of eye witnesses narrating it,
c. From the remaining physical impacts
Any of the above methods are acceptable so far as they do not report a rational or scientifically impossible event.
Does testimony of the followers of different religions on their miracles destroy their testimony as Hume claimed?
The fallacy of his argument is that a miracle is a proof for the truth and authenticity of prophet-hood of a prophet not a proof for all the present teachings of those religions.
From the Islamic point of view, all previous prophets are true and we believe in them as well as their miracles unless its narration contradicts the fundamental teachings of religions. The difference between Islam and today’s Christianity is about the wrong concepts imported and fabricated doctrines of churches.
Three Living Miracles
If one persists to argue about the authenticity of historical miracles, we can still prove the possibility of miracles by the virtue of the still present living miracles of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). And the best proof for the possibility of something is its occurrence.
1. The Qiblah of Masjedul-Nabi
2. The Quran
4. Religious Possibility
Any reported miracle from Prophets is religiously possible in so far as their occurrence is not contrary to the sublime teachings of divine religions. Thus, although the Christian narration of the miracle of Jesus, that he had supposedly changed water to wine without any known catalyst, is not rationally or even scientifically impossible, but religiously is impossible and hence cannot be historically agreed upon either.