On Miracles

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..."

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [Shelby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1902, 1972].


At two o'clock one morning, Hawkeye and Trapper John were fighting what seemed to be a losing battle in the OR with a kid who had been shot through both chest and belly. Despite control of hemorrhage and administration of blood, the patient, whose peritoneum had been contaminated for ten hours by spillage from his lacerated colon, went deeper and deeper into shock.

"Maybe we'd better get Dago Red," said Hawkeye.

"Call Dago," ordered Trapper John.

A corpsman went for him. Within minutes he appeared.

"What can I do for you fellows?" asked the Father,

"Put in a fix," said Hawkeye. "This kid looks like a loser."

Father Mulcahy administered the last rites. Shortly thereafter, the patient's blood pressure rose from nowhere to 100, his pulse slowed to 90, and he went on to recover.

From then on Dago Red put in many a fix. With the Swampmen it was mostly a gag, but one they could not quite bring themselves to forgo when things were rough. As far as Red was concerned, it was no joke.

Richard Hooker, MASH, A Novel About Three Army Doctors [1968, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.37]


Just as I master the turn, the car stops twirling like a top and slides sideways. I see a concrete road divider sailing toward my door. In slow motion, it comes, and I feel like a corpse flipped from a catapult, flying at a castle battlement. Rain has slicked the street into black metal, and I know in one soul-destroying eye blink that my son will wake without a mother, for I'm at last about to smash into something more solid than I am.

But I don't. In some flash of molecular inversion, my car and I become ghost forms. The car passes skidding sideways right through the concrete. I sit unhurt, facing the wrong way on the river drive. I climb out in driving sleet just as a truck wooshes by, blowing its horn. I climb over the fence that edges the river, and I bend over to puke my guts out. Then I wait for the police to come arrest me. But they do not come and do not come.

Mary Karr, Lit, A Memoir [2009, Harper Perennial, 2010, pp.212-213]



per fidem enim ambulamus et non per speciem.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:7

One of the most famous essays in the history of philosophy, and specifically in the philosophy of religion, is Hume's "Of Miracles," which is Section X in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Yet Hume's argument against miracles suffers from a logical circularity:

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.

When we ask how it is that "a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws," we learn from Hume himself, in some of his most famous arguments, that even "a firm and unalterable experience" cannot establish the necessity of any natural law -- either in so far as we know it, de dicto, or in so far as it exists in itself, de re. We can discern a premise in Hume's system, which is his own belief that there would be no laws of nature at all, and we would not learn of or believe in them, if there were any exceptions to the regularity of natural events. It is only absolute and unbroken regularity that gives us any sense of a law. Thus he can conclude, although he does not put it quite this way, that if miracles occurred, then we would have no reason or inclination to believe in laws of nature in the first place. However, even if that were true (and it is at odds with the practice of science, which often must deal with anomalous data), it does not change the problem that even such an absolute regularity of nature, according to Hume himself, does not establish its necessity. Some philosophers, after all, were briefly enthusiastic that quantum mechanics had demonstrated a violation of causality, which they believed, in their confusion, that Hume had argued to be possible.

The circularity of Hume's argument comes out when we consider some of Hume's further statements:

But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country.

However, Hume himself knows that this is not true. It is been "observed" and reported, often in texts quite familiar to Hume, that dead men have come to life, in many ages and countries. It is just that Hume is not going to credit these observations, reports, and testimonies. Why not? Because such events would violate the laws of nature. And why will we not credit violations of the laws of nature? Because such things never happen and have not been observed. So the argument reduces to the terms that violations of the laws of nature never happen because they never happen. And we know a priori that they cannot be "observed" because they never happen.

This circular argument is not unlike the trick that Hume plays at the beginning of the Enquiry, which has been examined elsewhere. That is, Hume says that his Empiricist epistemology can be refuted if we produce an "idea" that cannot be traced back to experience. However, within a couple of pages he shifts the burden of proof and holds that if a "philosophical term" cannot be traced back to an antecedent impression, then it is "employed without any meaning or idea." So suddenly, the kind of "idea" that previously was said to falsify his theory now is dismissed as meaningless -- not a proper "idea" at all. But since Hume can never trace the necessity of any matter of fact back to experience, such as with the Principle of Causality, this leaves him in an awkward position and has muddled the understanding of his readers ever since. Here, the certainty that perhaps illegitimately attends causality is waved through, just to render miracles impossible.

The modern skeptic occasionally wonders why the laws of nature should be necessary or unalterable, and Hume himself is typically cited as the philosopher who has exposed just this possibility. It is thus ironic that Hume should be cited with equal frequency as having exposed the absurdity of belief in miracles, when this exposure is based on his own certainty in the necessity and unalterability of the laws of nature. Someone is experiencing some confusion in this.

A further irony is that, while Hume is the most famous for undermining the certainty and necessity of the Principle of Causality, that every event has a cause, miracles do not in fact violate the Principle of Causality. They are caused. The Red Sea parts, not because it just happens, but because God makes it happen. So what is it going to be? If Hume's Skepticism allows for violations of causality, then miracles are in the same situation as the laws of nature and no one, not to mention Hume himself, has any business getting on their high horse about it. And if Hume's principal arguments leave causality standing, as in fact they do, then what is the further step that separates laws of nature from miracles? Well, we don't hear much about that; and in fact Hume's views about natural law are absurd:

These ultimate springs and principles [of events in nature] are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse [!]; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature...

Our senses inform us of the colour, weight, and consistence of bread; but neither sense nor reason can ever inform us of those qualities which fit it for the nourishment and support of a human body. [boldface added]

In both physics and organic chemistry, Hume would be astonished and perplexed by the progress of later science. His epistemology makes no provision for it, a fact that is rarely noted in the (perhaps dishonest) history of Analytic Philosophy. So, if we are worried about miracles violating the laws of nature, the matter becomes muddled when we can't really say what the laws of nature are or how, in Hume's terms, we know about such things. This is especially noteworthy when we turn to Buddhist metaphysics for a contrasting perspective. Despite a very modern critique of substance and essence, Buddhism has no doubts about causality whatsoever; but we also find no separation between natural causality and karmic causality. What we call "miracles" are simply the natural working of karma, which produces events that are suitable karmic recompense. In line with Western religious ideas that divine justice requires personal divine intervention, Hume never considers the possibility that miracles, as part of the system of causality, obey causal laws that reflect moral (i.e. karmic) as well as non-moral realities.

Be that as it may, there are reasons why Hume likes his argument against miracles, and why the agument has been popular. Well, for one thing, we are given to understand that the fraudulent nature of miracles discredits religion altogether. This was as popular an idea in the Enlightenment as it is among more recent "secular humanists." One form of this is that each miracle, although intended to prove the validity of a particular religion, is discredited by the miracles of another religion even as the former are presumed to discredit the latter.

Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other. According to this method of reasoning, when we believe any miracle of Mahomet or his successors...

Of course, Hume does not seem to be aware that the Prophet Muhammad did not claim, and is not believed, to have performed any miracles, which should inform us that Hume is not very familiar with the history of religion. But, more to the point here, the case closer to my own heart was a story from my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class at the University of New Mexico in the Spring of 1968. The professor, who had done his dissertation research in India, treasured a book by a Jesuit missionary to India in the 16th century. Part of the frustration of the Jesuit was that in relating the miracles performed by Jesus, he found that his Indian audiences were neither skeptical nor impressed. This hardly seemed possible. How could they believe in the miracles without immediately converting to Christianity? Well, he was finally told, there was nothing particularly impressive about walking on water, raising the dead, etc., because this was something that Indian holy men, like one in the next village, did all the time.

Thus, contrary to what we see in Hume, it is not a universal belief in religions that only the "true" religion has true miracles. Instead, Hinduism, and much of traditional Indian religion, is a matter of syncretistic and disorganized systems, in which spiritiual practices can engender supernatural powers but that this only has a tangential bearing on ultimate truth. After all, the magicians of Pharaoh also performed prodigies; but those of Moses, directed from God, are bigger and better. So it is perhaps just a matter of degree. And the whole business may be viewed as irrelevant. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the point is not miraculous power, but liberation, which in great measure involves the surrender of the very desire for power, miraculous or otherwise. We find something similar in the Neoplatonist Eusebius of Myndus, who thought that the thaumaturgy of some of his fellow Neoplatonists was something by which they were "led astray into the exercise of earthly and material powers." Hume did not need to know about Indian religion to have read this point in the book by Eunapius as part of his Classical education.

So Hume is unaware of religious traditions, less focused, organized, and dogmatic than Christianity, where the performance of miracles doesn't prove or disprove anything, let alone the validity of a particular religion, but is only the exhibition of a certain level of spiritual achievement, which anyone may attain by generally understood ascetic practices. I expect that Hume, like the Jesuit, would find these ideas bewildering.

Hume himself relates a couple striking accounts of miracles. The first concerns the Emperor Vespasian, whose ability to cure the sick might have been rejected by an earlier generation because of his pagan religion ("that exploded and idolatrous superstition"), although the pagans themselves subsequently deified him, which in terms of a Christian ruler would have meant sainthood as established by just such miracles. In Christian Europe, Kings were often thought to have a healing touch whether saints or not (as when a young Samuel Johnson, with scrofula, was brought to Queen Anne). But if we were to allow that such things could be true even of benevolent pagans, then Hume himself provides little evidence for his judgment of the story being "so gross and so palpable a falsehood." He has clearly rejected the possibility a priori, on the basis of arguments that are undermined by, well, his own arguments.

One of the best attested miracles in all profane history, is that which Tacitus reports of Vespasian, who cured a blind man in Alexandria, by means of his spittle, and a lame man by the mere touch of his foot; in obedience to a vision of the god Serapis, who had enjoined them to have recourse to the Emperor, for these miraculous cures. The story may be seen in that fine historian; where every circumstance seems to add weight to the testimony, and might be displayed at large with all the force of argument and eloquence, if any one were now concerned to enforce the evidence of that exploded and idolatrous superstition. The gravity, solidity, age, and probity of so great an emperor, who, through the whole course of his life, conversed in a familiar manner with his friends and courtiers, and never affected those extraordinary airs of divinity assumed by Alexander and Demetrius [Poliorcetes]. The historian, a cotemporary writer, noted for candour and veracity, and withal, the greatest and most penetrating genius, perhaps, of all antiquity; and so free from any tendency to credulity, that he even lies under the contrary imputation, of atheism and profaneness:  The persons, from whose authority he related the miracle, of established character for judgment and veracity, as we may well presume; eye-witnesses of the fact, and confirming their testimony, after the Flavian family was despoiled of the empire, and could no longer give any reward, as the price of a lie. Utrumque, qui interfuere, nunc quoque memorant, postquam nullum mendacio pretium. To which if we add the public nature of the facts, as related, it will appear, that no evidence can well be supposed stronger for so gross and so palpable a falsehood.

The next story brings to mind churches I have visited in New Mexico, which feature crutches disposed of by those miraculously cured of injury or disability. But in Hume's terms, no "just reasoner" will express anything more than "derision" for such accounts or beliefs.

There is also a memorable story related by Cardinal De Retz, which may well deserve our consideration. When that intriguing politician fled into Spain, to avoid the persecution of his enemies, he passed through Saragossa, the capital of Arragon, where he was shewn, in the cathedral, a man, who had served seven years as a door-keeper, and was well known to every body in town, that had ever paid his devotions at that church. He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs. This miracle was vouched by all the canons of the church; and the whole company in town were appealed to for a confirmation of the fact; whom the cardinal found, by their zealous devotion, to be thorough believers of the miracle. Here the relater was also cotemporary to the supposed prodigy, of an incredulous and libertine character, as well as of great genius; the miracle of so singular a nature as could scarcely admit of a counterfeit, and the witnesses very numerous, and all of them, in a manner, spectators of the fact, to which they gave their testimony. And what adds mightily to the force of the evidence, and may double our surprize on this occasion, is, that the cardinal himself, who relates the story, seems not to give any credit to it, and consequently cannot be suspected of any concurrence in the holy fraud. He considered justly, that it was not requisite, in order to reject a fact of this nature, to be able accurately to disprove the testimony, and to trace its falsehood, through all the circumstances of knavery and credulity which produced it. He knew, that, as this was commonly altogether impossible at any small distance of time and place; so was it extremely difficult, even where one was immediately present, by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery of a great part of mankind. He therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.

I do not know that Vespasian cured the sick or that the door-keeper of Saragossa Cathedral had regrown a leg, but I am also curious how the skeptical modern, much like Hume, can possess no certainty in the necessity of the regularity of nature, and of the reality of "laws" whose nature and functioning is entirely hidden from us, and which our more recent, radical skeptics deny even exist, and yet possess absolute certainty that events of a certain nature, which have been recounted and believed by humanity in all nations and at all times, nevertheless do not warrant the slightest consideration. Hume is willing to pick and chose among his own principles in order to get the anti-religious result that he desires. His modern successors also rather wish to have their cake and eat it too, to revere science when it discredits religion but then to savage it, rhetorically far beyond what Hume would have countenanced, when science impeaches the nihilism that they, as good Niezschean fools, otherwise embrace. Hume, of course, had no desire to discredit morality, as the moderns usually do.

We cannot expect that science would ever vindicate miracles; for the practice of science depends on the reproduction of its results, which depends on the regularity of nature. Miracles as exceptions to the laws of nature thus cannot, by definition, be reprodued in a regular and reliable fashion. But miracles also seem to predictably hide themselves from direct inspection. I have heard more than one report of a lost limb being miraculously regrown, but we have never seen this sort of thing happen in the public exhibitions, often on television, of modern faith healers. This is where we might be compelled to agree with Hume that this sort of thing "has never been observed, in any age or country." Yet the miracles reported of Jesus were performed publicly before large groups, which today would contain cellphones if not local news cameras and so could not escape finding their way into a permanent and incontrovertable record.

I have my own example of such an event. When I lived in Beirut from 1969 to 1970, there was a miracle reported at a local church. After dark, it was noticed that the cross on the dome of the church glowed with a white light. This persisted through the night and drew a large crowd of spectators. By dawn, the cross had been transformed into a spire. This was photographed and reported in the newspaper. I did not observe the event personally.

Such an event has a couple of features that seem to me characteristic of the modern miracle. (1) It still was not available to direct inspection, testing, or study. A scientist would want to say, "Do that again"; but he will be disappointed. (2) Even spectators might be perplexed and wonder, "What is the point of this?" If an evangelist had pulled Christopher Reeve, walking, out of his wheelchair, the world might have sat up and taken notice. But it is hard to imagine what transforming a cross into a spire is going to mean about anything. It even seems vaguely anti-Christian. Instead, about the most we can get from it is like the response of Indiana Jones when questioned about the light radiating from the Ark of the Convenant. It's "the power o' God, or something." This will impress those who already believe far more than skeptics.

But that may be just the point. The skeptic wants evidence that rather renders mere faith unnecessary. But, as I have heard from one evangelist, "Faith is the evidence." The skeptic requires the miracle before the faith, while the believer holds that faith must come before the miracle. After all, if we are given empirical proof, then we actually don't really need the faith at all. If we determine not to believe before the proof, then, as the evangelist would say again, "That is not faith, but doubt."

But then, it is fair to ask, why is faith demanded for this, when direct knowledge might simply be provided? I do not know why it would be necessary in general, but such a difference does make for a distinction between prudence and morality. If miracles demonstrate, even to the skeptical, that divine justice exists, and that there is recompense for good and evil in the hereafter, then only a fool would be wicked. Instead, the wicked may be comforted that it ultimately doesn't matter what they do. They can rob, murder, and rape, without suffering any consequence for this in eternity. Divine reward and punishment are fairy tales for the ignorant, in order that they can be preyed upon by Nietzschean supermen.

What I cannot say is why it is ultimately important that there be a difference between prudence and morality. We might all be better off were the wicked shown the terrible consequences, for themselves, of their acts and thus be intimidated from further evil. But this is not the world we see. The wicked think that they will get away with it and that all this "goodness" and "righteousness" stuff is a lie. It is true that we have more respect for those who are good on principle rather than on calculation. They are worthier persons -- even if their good intentions are the path to hell for others. But, again, it is hard to say why this is so without lapsing into prudential considerations, e.g. that the worthier are more trustworthy (when, if they are in error, they even may not be).

Another consideration is the Kantian view that a consistent theory of transcendent objects is impossible. It generates antinomies, where what we require in ultimate things end up contradicting each other. Again, one might wonder why this impossibility need exist. If there is a just God, why can't he just show us what is the case? Why should faith be necessary, when this does not even enable us to distinguish between different religions, i.e. different faiths? If knowledge is impossible, because of the antinomies, perhaps that is why faith is necessary; but then the problem is only pushed back a notch to the next question.

If the Kantian theory is that human reason is limited, perhaps this whole process is an example of that limitation. Asking one question after another leads to an infinite regress, and this leaves us no better off than when we began. So, if morality as a categorical imperative and faith stop the regress, then that is why they are the way they are. Human reason cannot do better; and, as I have considered elsewhere, there is a "need to know" feature to this. If all we need to know is that we should do what is right, then the consequences of this, for good or ill, are irrelevant. That is the difference between prudence and morality.

But there is no easy answer here. Even the saints often have required a Sign; and it is not clear why Paul should have been struck down on the road to Damascus when other fools are rarely vouchsafed such a dramatic correction. Hume's philosophy, in the end, is one of complacency; and this seems characteristic of a modern social elite who do not want to be troubled by the judgments of others, let alone God, yet are haunted by the "liberal guilt" that regularly moves them to vote for stripping others of their freedom and property, out of compassion. Their moral confusion is palpable. Hume should have taken some of his own advice, that "as a philosopher, who has some share of curiosity, I will not say scepticism, I want to learn the foundation of this inference." Hume gave up on that foundation, which it was left to Kant to further explore. We are in the same situation. Even if faith is one of the solutions to the human condition, it is still obvious that much more remains to be explored, explained, and discovered. The occasional miracle wouldn't hurt.

The Mystery of Miracles

Anscombe v. Lewis

Faith, Works, and Knowledge

Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence

Philosophy of Religion

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Mystery of Miracles

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: "This was divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?"

JOHN TRAVOLTA: "I think so. That means that God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: "That's right. That's exactly what it means. God came down from Heaven and stopped these motherfuckin' bullets."

Pulp Fiction, 1994, Miramax Films





Faciamque in eis ultiones magnas arguens in furore,
et scient quia ego Dominus cum dedero vindictam mean super eos.

And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger;
And they will know I am the
LORD, when I lay my vengeance upon them.

Ezekiel 25:17



Exinde coepit Iesus praedicare et dicere,
Paentientiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Matthew 4:17



Multi autem sunt vocati, pauci vero electi.
For many are called, but few are chosen.

Matthew 22:14




Considera quod hodie proposuerim in conspectu tuo
vitam et bonum et e contrario mortem et malum.

Behold, I set before you today life and good and death and evil.

Deuteronomy 30:15 (Septuagint, "life and death, good and evil")



Stipendia enim peccati mors.
For the wages of sin is death.

Romans 6:23



.

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi
neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, quoted by Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 21, 404 E, The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge, 1964, p.211

If miracles still happen, why aren't they on the news? Everybody has a cell-phone these days, and they take pictures and movies of all sorts of things. If Jesus came back and raised the dead, there would be film at eleven.

We have also seen Hume say, "But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country," when we know that miracles actually have been observed and reported, according to witnesses, in every age and country, including accounts of people being raised from the dead. So we are given to understand that Hume simply will not believe such reports, as he rejects those, however credible, that he relates himself, even from recent history.

But there is a curious feature about miracles in sacred and hagiographic literature, which is that very often those who witness the miracles may simply refuse to believe what they are seeing, act like no such thing ever happened, or entirely forget their own experience.

A nice starting point isn't in either sacred or hagiographic literature but in the Hollywood movie Pulp Fiction, as recounted in the epigraph above. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, as gangsters, are busy murdering people. Thinking they are finished, they are surprised by someone coming out of a bathroom, who sprays them at close range with bullets from a large handgun. No bullet hits them, even though we can see the pattern they make on the wall behind. After killing this new opponent in turn, they reflect on the unlikely nature of what just happened to them.

Samuel L. Jackson's character, Jules Winnfield, immediately asserts, as we see above, that this was "divine intervention." John Travolta, as Vincent Vega, argues that it was no more than chance, and that random odd things like this happen every so often. Jackson strongly disagrees and subsequently vows that now he must abandon his life of criminal activity and murder. After various other events, Jackson and Travolta, in the last sequence of the movie, are having breakfast in a Los Angeles coffee shop.

Travolta thinks that maybe Jackson has forgotten about the business of the "miracle." He has not, and has not altered his determination. He will "walk the earth, like Kane [i.e. David Caradine] in Kung Fu," until he goes where God wants him to be. Travolta thinks that this is ridiculous. Jackson will be no more than a "bum." And we might wonder:  Why have the two reacted to the happening so differently? Jackson tells us. Whether or not what they saw was an "according to Hoyle" miracle, the key thing was, "I felt the touch of God." In other words, in traditional terms, God's Grace (, Gratia) descended on Jules Winnfield. He cannot go back to "the life."

But if this is the reason why the same event has so different an effect on Vincent and Jules, why has God favored Jules with his Grace and not Vincent? One answer, and a traditional one, is that God has just chosen Jules and not Vincent. Some Christians would find this reasonable, others not so much. It would be perfectly orthodox in Islâm, where the Qur'ân says that God could save everyone [Sûrah 10:99], if he wanted to, , Wa-lau shâ'a-llâhu [Sûrah 6:107]. But we can actually see something else going on here. Before Jules shoots his victims, in gangland retribution, he recites verses from the Bible, which he identifies as Ezekiel 25:17. What he recites actually contains very little of what is in Ezekiel 25:17, but it ends with it, as cited in an epigraph above. At the end of the movie, after the bullets have missed, after he feels the touch of God, and after he decides on a different life, he says that the verses he used to recite, which really had not meant anything to him, except in a cruel and brutal way, now do mean something. He was an evil man, and now he will try to do better.

There is another difference between Jules and Vincent. Jules has been reciting from the Bible. He was doing so in a twisted and vicious way, but he was doing it. This can go back to a very traditional matter in many religions. Sacred texts are not just words on a page. They are intrinsically sacred and powerful. This is why people around the world recite prayers in languages that they may not even understand, from Hebrew, to Arabic, to Latin, to Sanskrit, to Classical Chinese (which, however much modern Chinese speakers may understand it, may be obscure or largely unintelligible to the Japanese, Koreans, or Vietnamese who recite Buddhist texts in their Classical Chinese translations, in local phonology). Whether Jules knew it or not, cared or not, he was engaged in a religious practice by quoting the Bible. He was invoking God. It got God's attention. And God answered. Which brought him up short. Jules may not have realized that in the oldest strata of religion, belief doesn't really matter, the practice does. And the practice, the ritual so despised by Protestants and enlightened rationalists, has a power in itself. We get this a lot in stories about magic, where many things cannot be said (spells, etc.) without a manifest effect. You better not even open the Necronomicon, much less actually read it.

The story of Pulp Fiction is not told in chronological sequence. The scene in a coffee shop is actually a fashback (or, since the movie actually begins in the coffee shop, most of the movie may have been the flashback), and we know something about subsequent events. Jules Winnfield leaves the story, and Vincent Vega is left doing his job alone. He is then killed with one of his own guns by a character played by Bruce Willis. Having failed to perceive the Sign given by the miracle of Divine Intervention, Vincent is rewarded with death -- "For the wages of sin is death" [Romans 6:23]. This happens in a humiliating way, since he is unprepared for the attack because he is sitting on the toilet, reading -- not the Bible. Elsewhere in the movie Vincent has also been absent from events in the bathroom (while Uma Thurmond overdoses on heroin and while the robbery in the coffee shop begins), so there is more than one echo of the ignominious circumstances of his coming death.

The event in Pulp Fiction may not have been an "according to Hoyle" miracle, since bullets missing their target, however unlikely in this case, does not violate the laws of nature. In gunfights, most of the bullets may miss their target. Vincent Vega quite reasonably dismisses the business as a "freak event." In another story that may be fictional or legendary, we find a clearer case of a miracle. This is in the great Indian epic, the Mahâbhârata, . While various miraculous and supernatural events occur in the epic, one of the most striking and memorable is when an attempt is made to strip the princess Draupadî of her clothes. But as the clothing, a continuous sari, comes off, it is miraculously restored. While the text does not say what or who causes this to happen, it has been generally supposed and believed since that the miracle was effected by the Lord Krishna, Draupadî's brother-in-law, who is actually an incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu (hence the blue skin).

What is of interest about this for my purpose here is the reaction of the various characters to it. After the event, everyone refers to it as the "disrobing of Draupadî," as though she was effectively stripped naked, when she was not. To avenge this outrage, various oaths are sworn, mainly to kill Duhshâsana, the evil cousin who attempted to carry it out. Draupadî's husband Bhîma swears to kill him and drink the blood from his chest, while Draupadî herself swears to leave her hair down until she can wash it in his blood. In the end, both of these oaths are fulfilled. In those terms, after the event, one might have difficulty understanding that no effective disrobing had actually taken place.

This curious circumstance is magnified in the person of the principle villain of the Mahâbhârata, prince Duryodhana, brother of Duhshâsana and cousin of Draupadî's (five) husbands, the Pândavas. Duryodhana seems blind to the occurrence and sigificance of any of the miraculous events of the epic. We never find him asking, "How did Draupadî's clothes get restored?" or reflecting that this sort of thing must mean something. What's more, he remains doggedly unaware of the signifiance of Krishna himself. In one sequence, Duryodhana tries to arrest Krishna in Court. This is impossible, and hostile hands cannot be laid upon him. In the course of this, Krishna temporarily gives sight to the blind King Dhrtarâshtra, so that the king can see Krishna in his true form. Duryodhana is oblivious to what is going on. He seems to think that some of the acts effected by Krishna are magic, but he uses this to reproach and belittle Krishna, dismissing him as as "milkman" (after his history with the lovely Gopis, the milk maids), rather than taking it as evidence that Krishna may be more, a lot more, than he seems.

In the course of the Mahâbhârata, various characters express awareness of Krishna's status, and Krishna occasionally displays his powers; but it also seems to be something hard to keep in mind. In the Bhagavad Gîta, Krishna famously reveals his divine form (of multiple incarnations and manifestations) to prince Arjuna, in a sequence recalled by Robert Openheimer after the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site. After intimate relations between Arjuna and Krishna, who are cousins, including Arjuna wedding Krishna's sister, we might have thought Arjuna would have picked up on a few things. Instead, at the beginning of Chapter 4, he expresses puzzlement at Krishna's implication that he is older than the Sun god.

Looking at these cases, there seems to be feature, not only that the wicked or the unbelievers simply fail to perceive that miracles are taking place, but good people and believers, even when they clearly perceive miraculous events, have difficulty remembering them. In other words, those in the best positions to testify to miracles very often will not do so, or even seem unable to do so. In terms of traditional magical ideas, it is as though both unbelievers and believers are under an "enchantment," which governs what they are able to experience or remember, or the events themselves are under a "glamour," which in some fashion conceals their nature. Apart from magical terms, in neurology there is a disorder called "Neglect," where brain damage means that people are not only unable to perceive or process part of the visual field, but which compels them to deny that what they are unable to perceive even exists. This almost seems more like the situation with miracles than with magical phenomena, although it looks like enchantments and glamours could be more finely tailored than what we see in Neglect. Why miracles should be conditioned or protected by enchantments, glamours, or Neglect is something I will consider below.

Meanwhile, after considering miraculous events in modern fiction and Indian mythology, we should consider the same phenomena in something famliar in Western religion, namely the story of Moses and the Exodus. Here there are plenty of miracles, from minor ones like turning a staff into a snake to several of a vast scale, like the Plagues of Egypt or the Parting of the Red Sea, which involve such damage that materialists or secularists resort to speculation about geological forces -- e.g. the eruption of Thera in the Aegaean -- to account for the scale of the events -- if something like them even happened. In these events, both the Egyptians and the Israelites have difficulty understanding what they are seeing. The Egyptians, at least, have some excuse. God tells Moses that he will "harden the heart of Pharaoh" [Exodus 4:21, etc.], which accounts for the folly of the King of Egypt in refusing to free the Israelities despite Egypt being afflicted with one Plague after another. Ten of those things is a lot. Nor is that the end of it. God also hardens the heart of Pharaoh to send his chariots after the fleeing Israelites. Thinking that he has trapped them by the Sea, Pharaoh sends on his chariots even when the Sea parts and the Israelites go between the waters. As though the Power that parted the waters will not be just as able to let them close in on the Egyptians, as they do. Were Pharaoh's heart not "hardened," most of his behavior looks very foolish. If the purpose of miracles is, as Hume thinks, to persuade people of the validity of a religion, the natural response of Pharaoh and the Egyptians to them is unaccountably irrelevant. God displays his power, but Pharaoh is not allowed to react reasonably to it. And, of course, no attempt is ever made to convert the Egyptians to the worship of .

But the Israelites seem no better off. They are continually skeptical of Moses, even after God has been smashing Egypt mercilessly. They expect to be ridden down by Pharaoh's chariots, even after God has killed all the first-born of Egypt. The ranks are probably a little thin there. Yet everyone is seized with fear that the jig is up. Later, when the Nation has been brought into Sinai, God keeps Moses on the Mountain a little long. Suddenly, the Israelites decide that what they need is an Egyptian god, a Golden Calf (Hathor?). Have they not been keeping up with current events? Are their memories really that bad? Jesus says so himself, at Matthew 13:14 (quoting Isaiah 6:9):


Auditu audietis et non intellegetis,
et videntes videbitis et non videbitis.

You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive. [
note]

This is nicely elaborated in the epic movie version of The Ten Commandments [1956], where we see Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) voicing all the idiocy of someone who doesn't seem to have noticed what is going on. The fury of Moses, Charlton Heston, and God is considerable; and thousands of the Israelites are killed and all then suffer the punishment of wandering in the desert until the generation that knew Egypt has died out [Numbers 14:22-23]. In other words, none of the people who fled Egypt will make it to the Promised Land, not even Moses (but Joshua is there [Numbers 14:30]). God had not been hardening their hearts. Something else must be going on.

The problem here has two levels. Hume is free to doubt the existence of miracles because they have not been happening before him. But then even the people before whom the miracles happen seem to have a sort of similar difficulty. What this adds up to is that the ability to recall miracles varies inversely with the amount of time that has elapsed since their occurrence. We have no difficulty remembering what we read about the miracles of Moses. It is the people who saw the miracles who had the difficulty. What this means is that the evidence for miracles is attenuated at both ends of the temporal divide. Hume can dismiss accounts because they amount to no more than hearsay (for something that is otherwise incredible). At the other end, for Vincent Vega, Duryodhana, and Edward G. Robinson, their own perception of the miracles simply does not register as empirical evidence. But then even those who see the miracles and believe the evidence of their senses have some difficulty remembering what they have seen, or at least in retaining the meaning of it all. The key to that may lie in the discussion of Jules Winnfield, that the miraculous nature of what he saw was irrelevant to "the touch of God" that he felt.

One thing this means is that the supposition of Hume, that miracles exist to prove the truth and validity of a religion, is not true. There are several ways to reach that conclusion. One is, as we have seen, Hume taking it for granted that the Prophet Muhammad went around performing miracles -- when, not only did he not, but the Qur'ân itself explicitly denies that he did -- except for the deliverance of the Qur'ân itself, which an illiterate tradesman cannot have done. But the case for Islâm is full of miracles; it is just that they are those related to have been performed by previous prophets. So, in preaching Islâm, Muhammad was not relying on the evidence of the senses of anyone whom he was addressing. Similarly, one of the disciples of the Buddha used occult powers to cause his begging bowl to levitate before laymen. He was rebuked by the Buddha, who, like Muhammad, did not promote his religion with displays of miracles. In a lot of this, there is a sense that occult powers can be displayed even by the wicked. Thus, the staff of Moses becomes a snake, but then this was also done by Pharaoh's magicians. It is just that the snake of Moses eats the others [Exodus 7:12]. Similarly, the Japanese sect-founder Nichiren said that even if an adept can pour the waters of the Ganges into his ear, and hold them there for twelve years, this does not mean he understands the doctrine of Buddhism.

So if miracles do not prove anything and cannot even be properly remembered by their witnesses, what is the point? Well, if you were healed of blindness by Jesus, or even by Vespasian, you would not have any difficulty identifying the point. So Jesus did not go around performing the equivalent of magic tricks -- although walking on the water comes a little close -- but doing things of manfest benefit, from healing the sick to turning water into wine, which should be of interest to Prohibitionist Protestants (they might prefer Coke into Pepsi). But then he doesn't heal all the sick does he? Why not? What is the point of being able to heal the sick unless you do so with, well, all of them?

Jesus gives the answer to this at John 9:

[2]

[3]

[2] et interrrogaverunt eum discipuli sui: rabbi, quis peccavit, hic aut parentes eius ut caecus nasceretur? [3] respondit Iesus, neque hic peccavit neque parentes eius, sed ut manifestetur opera Dei in illo.

[2] And his disciples asked him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" [3] Jesus answered, "Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him."

We also get it from Heraclitus. The god at Delphi, , "Neither speaks nor conceals but gives a sign." The miracle is not a proof; and it is not a substitute for ordinary natural remedies to natural evils. It is a Sign -- , sêmeîon (plural , sêmeîa; Sanskrit, , , "mark, token, sign," , , "having auspicious marks"; , Japanese zuisô, "auspicious signs," "good omen"). As St. Paul says, , the "Jews seek signs" [1 Corinthians 1:22] -- as was necessary for Paul himself -- and one of the priests tells Caiaphas, of Jesus, , "This man does many signs" [John 11:47]. Thus, the blind man healed by Jesus was not being punished for sin, but he was simply heir to one of many natural evils. We may wonder why God allows such natural evils; but by healing this man, and not necessarily all men, Jesus gives a "sign," as one of the opera Dei, , "works of God," of what God can do.

The thing about a "sign" is that its meaning is not obvious. The "god at Delphi" delivered obscure and ambiguous oracles. You needed to bring something to its interpretation. Thus, the meaning and significance of a miracle depends on what is brought to it. It may mean nothing to Vincent Vega, Duryodhana, or Edward G. Robinson, while its significance to those for whom it has meaning will be, not so much the miracle (unless, like the blind men, or the wedding party short of wine, it is of direct benefit to you), as what goes along with it, i.e. "the touch of God." Whether with Saul of Tarsus -- St. Paul -- or Jules Winnfield, the Sign effects a conversion experience. With Jules, the event could be dismissed as random. With St. Paul, the event could be dismissed as a stroke or (transient) ischemic attack -- the temporary blindness and auditory hallucination are very suspicious. But, again, it is actually irrelevant whether it is an "according to Hoyle" miracle or not. The acts of Moses, on the other hand, could only have been miraculous, but they also fall into the category of delivering a material benefit, the Deliverance of Israel from Egypt. But there were more miracles than necessary, because God had "hardened the heart" of Pharaoh. This served no purpose with the Egyptians and, if anything, does not seem to have been enough to impress all of Israel. Its real role, instead, looks to emerge the further away from the events we are. It makes a great story. If much of the value of miracles is in the later telling, then the Mighty Hand that brought Israel out of Egypt is just the thing for the ritual established by the event, namely Passover. There, as it happens, it is just the ticket. And we also must remember that the Ritual of Passover is transformed into the Christian celebration of Easter, where the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, is supposed to deliver humanity, not from Egypt, but from the burden of sin. [note]

If the existence of miracles, at least at the time of their occurrence, is concealed by enchantment, glamour, or Neglect, this would mean that they should not and cannot be used as evidence for religion, or for a particular religion. There is a parallel case in morality. If punishment for wrongdoing is certain, because of Divine Retribution or the Law of Karma, then those acting correctly are only acting out of prudence, not out of righteousness or a consciousness of moral duty. This has been considered elsewhere. Even so, it is not obvious to me why it is important. The righteous are morally more laudable than the merely prudent, but they can also be kind of snotty. But a difference there is; and since prudence is basically self-interest, there is always the danger that the self-interested will be tempted into wrong for their own benefit.

The parallel is that, while the righteous do what is right for its own sake, regardless of material benefit, in the same way, the Saved accept religion, not because of evidence, proof, and reason, but because of a particular sense of religious truth, a recognition of , , "the holy things." Salvation, indeed, involves material benefit, certainly in the hereafter but even, as is often believed, in the present, where miracles may heal or upright behavior promotes fourishing and prosperity. Indeed, we know as a matter of fact that religious people, certainly with an effect from prudential behaviors, are safer, healthier, and more prosperous than others -- with Mormons now as one of the most successful identifiable demographics in the United States (along with Indians -- from India -- East Asians -- Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, & Vietnamese -- and Jews). Yet they know themselves that the prudence of their behavior is secondary to the meaning and importance of its righteousness. Without the Wrath of God, the proper Confucian knows that, , , "The superior man understands what is right, the mean man understands profit" [Analects IV:16]. But those in Confucian traditions now are expected, reasonably, to be more prudent than anyone.

Miracles are a sign, a clue, and a promise. The sign, of course, is that things of religion are present in the natural order. The clue is that, indeed, there is more to things than just the natural order itself, whose very terms can be suspended or contravened. And the promise is that there is more to be obtained in life, in our existence, than just the natural order, like Krishna revealing and unpacking all the variety and forms of his extraordinary existence. But in the Bhagavad Gîtâ we also get Krishna telling Arjuna, "I remember my past lives, and thou hast forgotten thine" [4:5]. So there is more to Arjuna, the mortal, than he knows, or we know, of his current life.

We can also find an analogy of the status of miracles in quantum mechanics -- where goings on often seem miraculous without any help from religion. Niels Bohr's theory of "Complementarity" (part of the "wave/particle duality") is that particles can appear as particles, with a discrete location, or as waves, spread out in space, but not both. The difference is that they function as waves as long as we are not looking; but then when we do look, or when we can just make inferences as to location, the "wave function" collapses, and the particles assume discrete locations. With miracles, it is often as though they occur when we are not looking. But when we do look, they evaporate -- perhaps leaving something like the grin of the Cheshire Cat -- until they are better remembered later.

It is as though we are not to be given too much information, as I have previously considered under the terms of "need to know." Religion will not be confirmed by science, just as miracles, as violations of the laws of nature, cannot be confirmed by the repetition of experiments that rely on the uniformity of nature. But if religion is not to be confirmed by science, then miracles cannot enter into the role of empirical evidence. But if miracles cannot be confirmed by science, and miracles cannot stand as evidence for religion, what does confirm them and what does constitute evidence for religion? Again, we have seen it. It is the equivalent of the "touch of God" cited by Jules Winnfield, the special recognition of , "the holy things."

Or, in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha [1922], it is the difference that Ânanda perceives in Siddhartha after he has achieved enlightenment and become the Buddha. In Buddhist art, it is the radiance, the nimbus, the halo that surrounds the Buddha (and later Christian Roman Emperors, ). Was everyone able to see that? Probably not. Just as Vincent Vega saw nothing extraordinary about all the bullets missing him. Yet at that moment he stood at a crossroads, facing a choice. One way led swiftly to his death. The other, for which he was not prepared or receptive, was to Salvation. In this case, he did not have the luxury of pondering things at his leisure; and he certainly did not realize that the choice that had faced him was between life and death itself. But once the Divine intervenes, every step may be at one's peril. So a miracle is not just a Sign, it is a caution, a warning. It is a promise of Salvation, but also a promise of reckoning. Vincent Vega was caught, after a fashion, awkwardly clinging to the Golden Calf. It was more than just an embarrassment. It was the looming shadow of Retribution.

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On Miracles, Note 1

Since Jesus quotes Isaiah, we can look at the same text in different places. The Greek text of the "Received" (Textus Receptus) or "Byzantine" recension of the Gospels is identical to the Greek text of the Septuagint at Isaiah 6:9. This text actually does not differ from what has been regarded as the more critical Nestle-Aland text [Greek-English New Testament, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, 1981, 1990, p.33]

Oddly, we see something very different in the Vulgate. St. Jerome translated Matthew 13:14 as:

Auditu audietis et non intellegetis,
et videntes videbitis et non videbitis.

But then he translated Isaiah 6:9 as:

Audite audientes et nolite intellegere,
et videte visionem et nolite cognoscere.

This mostly involves paraphrased grammatical forms, with the interesting exception of the use of nolite, which is a plural imperative of nolo, nolle, "to be unwilling." With a following infinitive, it makes a "perphrastic imperative"; so Audite audientes et nolite intellegere can be rendered, "Hearing, you hear and do not understand." The forms of video, "to see," and cognosco, "to know," are discussed elsewhere. In the Matthew text, we simply have non, "not," and finite verbs. Where we would not be surprised to see three different Greek versions, from different translators and different recensions, but we don't, the Vulgate does surprise, since it is by one translator, St. Jerome -- although he may have worked on the Old and New Testaments at different times. But he doesn't seem to have looked at his own translation, unlike the Evangelist, whom we can say may have been looking at the actual text of the Septuagint.

In Hebrew, what get at Isaiah 6:9 is:

-- Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
-- be ever seeing, but never perceiving.

Here we find the same duplication of the verbs (hear, hear; see, see) that turns up in both Greek and Latin, but not, curiously, in the English translations, including the one (shown) provided in The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament [John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979, 1987]. Instead of the duplication, in the English here we get "ever" and in the Revised Standard translation above we get "indeed." These are perhaps more natural in English, but where Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all use the same rhetorical pattern, it might be nice to see that reflected in the English translation.

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On Miracles, Note 2

Forgetfulness of miracles turns up in a curious way in the Book of Job. C.G. Jung points out that all the challenges and doubts over the faithfulness of Job could be settled by God merely by consulting his own omniscience. What Job's character is like, and how he will act in the future under various circumstances, would be an open book to anyone who "knows all." But God in Job acts genuinely uncertain that Job is faithful only because he prospers. God forgets that he can know about Job without the need to inflict him with disease and murder his wife, children, and livestock -- which leads all Job's neighbors to conclude that he is guilty of some sin and is being punished by God. Unlike our other examples with miracles, where their character is unperceived or forgotten, the case here is God himself forgetting that he can himself perform a miracle, namely an act of omniscience.

If we think that God already knows these things about Job, and merely withholds his knowledge -- of which there is no hint in the text -- this is something we actually find in the Mahâbhârata. Krishna knows many things, in fact all things, but he often withholds knowledge we know he has, for instance of the parentage of Karna, from the others to whom it would make a material difference, i.e. Arjuna would not have killed Karna had he known he was his brother. Why Krishna does this often seems no more reasonable, compassionate, or just than why God inflicts evils on Job. But we do get a sense from Krishna that some things are determined by destiny. What the relationship of destiny is to his own will is left rather vague, which is a little different than the sense of unconsciousness that Jung attributes to God in Job.
Jupiter and Thetis,
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811

The relationship between divine will and destiny is also evident much earlier in the Iliad. The fame of Achilles is the "Will of Zeus," in part as a favor to his mother, the goddess Thetis. At right we see how Thetis entreats Zeus to honor Achilles, "and laid hold of his knees with her left hand, while with her right she clasped him beneath the chin," which Ingres has reversed -- but Homer doesn't describe how her clothes are falling off [Loeb Iliad, 1924, 1988, Book I, 500-501, pp.40-41]. We do not know why Zeus decides to favor Thetis, but his reluctance to let Hera know that Thetis has even been there may indicate that the exchange was flirtatious (perhaps why the clothes are falling off -- Ingres gives us a lot of skin), something to arouse the jealousy of Hera. If Satan had been female, perhaps this would add to the dynamic in Job.

Yet, for all his will and promise, at the end of the Iliad, Zeus seems reluctant to allow the death of Hector; and we have a vivid moment when he raises his "golden scales," , and the "day of doom," , for Hector sinks down to Hades. Even if this is his will, Zeus has often concealed his intentions during the Iliad, allowing the Trojans some periods of success despite the hatred and endeavours of Hera and Athena against them. Hera contrives to put Zeus to (post-coital) sleep so that she can help the Greeks, after being forbidden to do so. Zeus is angry about this but, unlike with Krishna, his purposes are clearer -- everything is contrived to sacrifice Patroclus and win success and fame for Achilles.

These examples involve larger theological issues than I deal with in this essay. But the forgetfulness of God in Job sounds like it is related to our problem, while the sense of constraints on the actions of Krishna, Zeus, or even God in Job lead to the matter of the Kantian Antinomies.

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