What are Miracles?

Professor K. Codell Carter discussed ways to define miracles in relation to natural and scientific laws in the semester’s first installment of the Philosophy Lecture Series.


PROVO, Utah (January 14, 2016)—Parting the Red Sea. Calming the storm. Walking across the waves. Miracles, both ancient and modern, form the foundation of faith for religions and individuals around the world. That miracles seem to fly in the face of natural laws has been both a springboard and a hurdle, and religious thinkers have spent centuries trying to reconcile this conflict.

For example, philosophers David Hume and Antony Flew believed that miracles are not violations of natural laws, because natural laws cannot be violated. If a violation does take place, it only means that the law itself is flawed. There need be no conflict between God and nature’s laws.

But professor of philosophy K. Codell Carter believes that the tension between miracles and natural laws is vital. In the semester’s first installment of the Philosophy Lecture Series, he explained that there is no reason to deny events that “simply cannot be explained or described by . . . scientific laws.” He added, “This does not mean that these events violate laws or that they involve one law superseding another; those events may simply be transparent with respect to any laws that we can identify.”

Carter referenced Ernst Gombrich, who observed that artists see the world in terms that their medium will allow them to depict: “Pencil in hand, the artist will . . . tend to see his motif in terms of lines, while, brush in hand, he sees it in terms of masses.” Carter further compared humanity and science to a cartographer making a map without contour lines or any other means to indicate elevation. Mountains wouldn’t mean that the map is wrong, only that the map was unable to account for them, lacking the proper tools.

For a modern-day example of a miracle, Carter told the story of Canadian hematologist Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, who was asked to review a series of medical slides with no context. After viewing the first few slides, she diagnosed the mystery patient with myeloblastic leukemia and, as the slides were from seven years prior, deduced that the patient was likely dead. She was surprised, then, to see evidence in later slides that the patient had gone into a remission, relapsed, and then entered a second remission (unheard of in patients of myeloblastic leukemia) and was now doing fine. Dufflin could give no explanation for the healing, only testify that it had taken place.

Only afterwards did Duffin learn that her testimony would be used to decide the sainthood of Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal. After relapsing, the patient had prayed with a medallion of d’Youville, and she and the Order considered her second remission a miracle performed by d’Youville herself. Duffin, an atheist, was called to give testimony of the case in an ecclesiastical tribunal, ultimately meeting Pope John Paul II when d’Youville was canonized.

In deciding sainthood, the Vatican wasn’t interested in whether or not Duffin believed that there had been divine intervention; only whether or not she could provide any other explanation. Writing about her experience, Duffin said, “Though still an atheist, I believe in miracles – wondrous things that happen for which we can find no scientific explanation. That first patient is still alive some 30 years after her brush with acute myeloblastic leukaemia, and I cannot explain why. She can.”

Carter agreed with Duffin’s definition of miracles, but also drew attention to how her experience had hinged on a prayer and a saint. “Suppose . . . miracles are events that God alone can perform or . . . by one who has sufficient faith or to whom special authority has been given,” he said. “This would mean that no description or explanation of those events could be adequate without some reference to God or perhaps to the faith of the agent or to the agent’s authority.”

That, Carter believes, is the reason why miracles cannot be qualified as operating within natural laws. The very definition of a natural law demands that they are generalized: they cannot apply only to certain individuals in certain situations. In other words, natural laws are all or nothing.

Carter concluded his remarks by saying, “Miracles can indeed be events that are absolutely supernatural; that is, that are indescribable and unexplainable by any collection of statements that qualify as laws within what we call science.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Philosophy Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.

Christ Walking On Water by Ivan Aivazovsky