The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “miracle” as “a marvelous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by any human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or some supernatural being.” (OED, 1989) This meaning reflects how the word “miracle” has been commonly used in the English language for hundreds of years.
Since a miracle, by definition, involves a suspension of physical laws in nature by some supernatural entity, the question of whether miracles take place, or have ever taken place, is an important one. Most adherents of religion — any religion — are inclined to believe in miracles; skeptics argue that there is no evidence to support the existence of miracles.
I believe skeptics are correct that the evidence for a supernatural agency occasionally suspending the normal processes and laws of nature is very weak or nonexistent. Scientists have been studying nature for hundreds of years; when an observed event does not appear to follow physical laws, it usually turns out that the law is imperfectly understood and needs to be modified, or there is some other physical law that needs to be taken into account. Scientists have not found evidence of a supernatural being behind observational anomalies. This is not to say that everything in the universe is deterministic and can be reduced to physical laws. Most scientists agree that there is room for indeterminacy in the universe, with elements of freedom and chance. But this indeterminacy does not seem to correspond to what people have claimed as miracles.
However, I would like to make the case that the way we think about miracles is all wrong, that our current conception of what counts as a miracle is based on a mistaken prejudice in favor of events that we are unaccustomed to.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “miracle” is derived from the Latin word “miraculum,” which is an “object of wonder.” (OED 1989) A Latin dictionary similarly defines “miraculum” as “a wonderful, strange, or marvelous thing, a wonder, marvel, miracle.” (Charlton T. Lewis, A Latin Dictionary, 1958) There is nothing in the original Latin conception of miraculum that requires a belief in the suspension of physical laws. Miraculum is simply about wonder.
Wonder as an activity is an intellectual exercise, but it is also an emotional disposition. We wonder about the improbable nature of our existence, we wonder about the vastness of the universe, we wonder about the enormous complexity and diversity of life. From wonder often comes other emotional dispositions: astonishment, puzzlement, joy, and gratitude.
The problem is that in our humdrum, everyday lives, it is easy to lose wonder. We become accustomed to existence through repeated exposure to the same events happening over and over, and we no longer wonder. The satirical newspaper The Onion expresses this disposition well: “Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time,” reads one headline.
Is it really the case, though, that a wondrous event ceases to be wondrous because it occurs frequently, regularly, and appears to be guided by causal laws? The birth of a human being begins with blueprints provided by an egg cell and sperm cell; over the course of nine months, over 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements gradually come together in the right place at the right time to form the extremely intricate arrangement known as a human being. If anything is a miraculum, or wonder, it is this event. But because it happens so often, we stop noticing. Stories about crying statues, or people seeing the heart of Jesus in a communion wafer, or the face of Jesus in a sock get our attention and are hailed as miracles because these alleged events are unusual. But if you think about it, these so-called miracles are pretty insignificant in comparison to human birth. And if crying statues were a frequent event, people would gradually become accustomed to it; after a while, they would stop caring, and start looking around for something new to wonder about it.
What a paradox. We are surrounded by genuine miracles every day, but we don’t notice them. So we grasp at the most trivial coincidences and hoaxes in order to restore our sense of wonder, when what we should be doing is not taking so many wonders for granted.
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