E know miracles occur. Too many people have seen or experienced them to claim otherwise. Definition-two miracles at least. Definition-one miracles are extraordinary events manifesting supernatural interventions in worldly affairs, while definition-two miracles are extremely unusual yet possibly entirely-natural wonders. How do we know which is which?
In even spiritual naturalism there are no definition-one miracles, special divine interventions. There are only the continual and universal— albeit sometimes amazing— workings through nature. But are definition-two miracles sufficient to explain all the occasionally incredible things that happen and have happened in human existence and experience?
Whether divine intervention is involved or not, all miracles are extraordinary events— def-two. All def-one miracles are also def-two miracles, but def-two miracles are not necessarily also def-ones. Since def-twos are the simplest in means, by the law of parsimony they would be all we need for explanation, unless unsufficient to explain all true occurrences.
There are three possible types of natural, or def-two miracles— the cryptohappenstance, the nontechnological cryptonatural event, and the technological cryptonatural event. While it is possible that not all three types are operational, it is only necessary to show that those that are can suffice to explain any and all true occurrences.
We know that extremely unlikely events occur by chance, an obvious example being the winning of a lottery prize against odds in the many-millions-to-one. People can be hit by lightening twice, even twice in the same place. Two people from opposite sides of the earth can meet and find they are related.
We don’t normally call these events true miracles, except perhaps loosely, in the same sense that a person might remark, “It would be a miracle if I ever got married.” We would only call events real miracles if they seemed beyond all reasonable chance— too unlikely to occur.
However estimating the odds of an event occurring can be difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. An event that could seem impossible even by the rarest of chances could actually be remotely possible. Such an event might be called a cryptohappenstance— crypto-, meaning hidden or covered, and happenstance, meaning a chance occurance.
For example there are billions of people on earth, each living millions of seconds, each of which is a possible event. This means it is likely that there will not only be a few but thousands of chances for a one-in-a-trillion event. What is a possible one-in-a-trillion event? Winning the lottery twice. Or becoming President, then winning the lottery.
We know such events are still remotely possible. But these particular examples also happen to lend themselves to quantification. Perhaps more importantly in true cryptohappenstance (as opposed to just happenstance), there are almost always factors that get in the way of sensing likelihoods and/or calculating mathmatical odds.
For example in the above case of the person getting hit by lightening twice in the same place— it might be someone who is outside a lot, often during violent storms. The place might be a high elevation, or for some other reason is more attractive to lightening. Considerations like these— if not overlooked entirely— can make quantification difficult.
Consider a case of a person with an incurable cancer that has already destroyed much of his body. Even though it has never happened before in an instance of that nature with that type and degree of cancer, the cancer starts receeding, the damage to the body starts repairing itself, and the person ends up entirely cancer-free and perfectly healthy.
While seemingly impossible, it still might be the one-in-a-trillion case where factors— the type of cancer, genetics of the patient, the cocktail of drugs administered, and even chemicals released by the brain via emotions or thought processes— combine in such a way that the cure obtains, yet may not again for another trillion instances, if ever.
But let’s say we can rule out any chance, much less crytohappenstance, altogether— the mechanics of the event just won’t allow it, no matter how unusual the occurance. Then there are two other possibilities, both involving something that could be called cryptonaturalism.
Nontechnological Cryptonatural Event
Crypto- (meaning hidden) when prefixed onto natural, thus cryptonatural, means covered (or cloaked) natural, something that is in conformance with natural law but doesn’t seem to be. There are two catagories of cryptonatural occurrances, nontechnological and technological, the latter referring to a deliberately-crafted product or system.
Nontechnological then basically means that the causative process was not a result of design, but rather an unconscious or even random process of nature. An example of a nontechnological cryptonatural event would be one precipitated by a yet-unknown law or process of nature that does not however seem to be natural.
Even with recent advances in science and cosmology it is likely that there are laws of physics yet unknown, and unknown phenomena based on such laws. Still with our modern knowledge and outlook it is likely such an event would still be recognized as natural, even though based on a newly discovered or yet unknown law of nature.
To the ancients though this scientific outlook would be much less the case. So if for example a primitive people who had always lived in temperate climates migrated to the far north and saw the aurora borealis for the first time, they could easily regard it as miraculous, being unable to associate it with any other natural event they had ever experienced.
Technological Cryptonatural Event
There may also be cryptonatural events that occur as a result of a purposeful design, instigated by a sentient entity. Let’s say a genius inventor builds a robot that on its own repairs your lawnmower (if needed), starts it, and very effectively uses it to mow your lawn. While amazing, we would recognize this as merely clever engineering, nothing more.
Now let’s hypothesize that someone say from another planet hundreds of years ahead of us technologically plants in our mind the idea that to do anything, all we have to do is think it done. We think gas can and the can rises on its own and fills the mower’s tank. We think cap and it rescrews itself. We think mow and the mower moves according to our thought.
We're not really sure whether it’s sorcery or science until our guest explains that just as we cloak our jet fighters from radar and are beginning to render military hardware less visible, their mind-sensing and propulsion equipment has, through technology completely unknown to us, been made entirely invisible to all our senses.
Likewise if it were still possible to find a primitive community that had never had any contact with the rest of the world and you showed them an HD camera and a flat screen monitor, they would be amazed and probably scared, being unable to associate these things with any tool known to them, rendering them unrecognizable as just engineered devices.
An event that was truly miraculous could be easy or difficult to describe even if we experienced or witnessed it ourselves, but any such challenges would be magnified in cases where we only read or heard an account of it from another source, no matter how reliable, especially if it involved unusual or unfamiliar phenomena.
As a very general rule the older the account the more likely it would be to reflect bias, error, and/or inadequacy of description, whereas the more recent the account the more likely the documentation would be at least more comprehensible, not only because of linguistic but cultural affinity.
A primary effect of application of the scientific method is to eliminate or at least greatly reduce bias, so if the phenomenon was recent enough then ideally it could be comprehensively documented and recorded, photographically and with other instruments, so as to render it suitable for scientific analysis.
Legitimate stage, parlor, and street magicians do not infer that they are doing anything but trickery or illusion, nor do they claim access to supernatural powers. There have been a few people throughout history though who have used trick or illusory techniques to try to convince people they possess such capabilities, and can work miraculous wonders.
For example many mediums were exposed by the magician Harry Houdini as having used trickery and illusion to convince clients that they had access to the afterlife, since the manifestations they exhibited seemed to suggest that as the only possible explanation. (This is not to disparage mediums who do not do this, and honestly believe in what they do.)
Some magicians like Houdini were so good at what they did that even intelligent people were convinced they must have had access to supernatural powers. The honest ones, including Houdini, assured them that it was only a trick done via entirely natural means, while not usually revealing how it was actually done.
While definition-two miracles do occur, all real phenomena can be explained without the need to venture outside the realm of natural process. By the law of parsimony then supernatural intervention does not occur, or rather most-likely does not occur, since that law while usually right is not always, reflecting evidence rather than proof.
This does not obstruct positive faith, but liberates it. The creative divine in the universe, instead of putting on the occasional show of intervention, is active in every moment of existence, everywhere, via nature. A simple act like waking up in the morning becomes as incredible and important an event as any other in this beingness we call life.
This outlook is reflected in the history of faith. From Moses and Buddha to Jesus and Mohammed, life and teachings are emphasized over miracles. These are the things that are passed down to us, and that can daily inspire us.
© 2010 Warren Farr for the Unitheist Fellowship — revised 8/18