The Concept of Miracle




The Concept of Miracle



Where do we get the concept of the miraculous? Why does that concept seem compelling to us? Why do we take to it so readily? It is not, to be sure, from the observation of miracles, in the style of empiricism—we don’t have perceptions of actual miracles. Nor, presumably, is it innate: what would be the use of a concept so inapplicable? Apparently it is a complex concept, so it could be constructed from simpler components, but why does it grip us—why this concept and not any of the indefinitely many other concepts that we might construct? Why does it seem so natural, so inevitable? It is a conceptual universal, but nothing about the world to which we apply it suggests its necessity. What explains its presence in the human conceptual scheme? Even those who reject its application most fervently are familiar with the concept itself.

Here is how the OED defines “miracle”: “an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws, attributed to divine agency”. This is too narrow for our purposes, since not all supernatural events are thought to be welcome, nor assigned to divine agency. Some are unwelcome and assigned to malign forces—the Devil is deemed capable of devilish “miracles”, i.e. extraordinary events not explicable by natural or scientific law. The broader concept we are interested in connotes the uncanny, the inexplicable, the exempt from natural law—the weird, the spooky. How does that idea enter our thoughts? Whence the concept of magic, whether for good or ill? Might it simply never have occurred to us? Is it just a dispensable historical accident, a piece of cultural detritus with no discernible foundation? Or does it have deep roots in our experience of the world, including ourselves?

I once compared the emergence of consciousness from the brain to the miracle of converting water into wine.[1] Why did I do that? It was because the concept of the miraculous suggests itself when considering the way consciousness arises from the physical world: this seems uncanny, contrary to natural law, freakish, inexplicable. I emphasized that this can only be an appearance—consciousness is not really miraculous. The mind is not objectively a miracle; rather, it is a mystery that looks like a miracle. But now I want to invert that thought and make a speculative suggestion: we get the concept of a miracle from our sense of ourselves as conscious beings. We strike ourselves as freakish and uncanny, at least when we reach a certain level of self-consciousness, and we then project this idea onto things outside of us. The dependence of mind on body appears unintelligible, extraordinary, possibly a sign of divine agency (assuming we find consciousness a “welcome event”). So it is not so much that the brain is like water and the mind is like wine; rather, water is like the brain and wine is like the mind. The emergence of mind from matter is the paradigm of the miraculous–everything else is projection and extension. Thus the concept arises spontaneously in us as a consequence of our very nature, at least as that nature strikes us; it isn’t just an adventitious eccentricity of culture. We don’t regard the mind-brain connection as miraculous because we alreadyhave the concept of a miracle from some other source; we derive the concept of the miraculous from our apprehension of ourselves as psychophysical beings. This is why it is universal and deep seated. This is why the concept seems so familiar, so easy to grasp. No wonder people often feel that the supernatural is all around them and ever-present—because it is part of our nature (as we apprehend ourselves). We see the world as spooky because we are spooky. In fact, of course, we are not objectively spooky, just deeply mysterious; but we convert a mystery into a miracle and then spread the concept outwards. After all, if we are a miracle inside, why can’t there be miracles outside? When someone miraculously rises from the dead (allegedly) isn’t this just like the way conscious life rises from dead matter, even when that matter resides in a living brain? There is that peculiar sense of getting something from nothing that attends all putative miracles. And the miracle of consciousness does occur all the time—every time a baby is conceived, every time we wake from sleep, every time our brain causes a thought. So why can’t external miracles happen regularly too? Clearly they are possible because they happen all the time in our own lives. Is water turning into wine any more impossible than brain chemicals turning into consciousness? In fact, it looks a lot more possible, what with water and wine both being liquids and all.

The form of explanation I am suggesting resembles Hume on causation and the origins of animism. Hume couldn’t find a source for the concept of causation in external objects (no impression of necessary connection), so he sought it within the mind in our habit of anticipation; we then project this inner impression outwards and populate the world with causal relations. It is not that we derive our concept of causation from external objects and then project it inwards; we get the idea from our inner feeling of expectation and then project it outwards. By analogy, we sense miracle within ourselves (erroneously but intelligibly) and then project it onto the outside world. We are under the illusion that we are miraculous and we suppose that we are not alone in this. In the case of animism, we attribute the qualities of living things to inanimate objects, mistakenly assimilating them to ourselves: we find intention and will where they do not objectively exist. We have a first-person awareness of life and we spread it around indiscriminately—as we have a first-person awareness of the (seemingly) miraculous and then ascribe it to the world outside. No doubt we are motivated to do this in various ways, but the cognitive groundwork is prepared by our knowledge (sic) of ourselves. The idea of miracle is all too familiar from our ordinary experience.[2] Presumably other animals don’t have the concept of a miracle, because they don’t have the kind of self-consciousness that gives rise to it; but we humans apprehend ourselves as enigmas, which we then convert into the idea of a miracle. Suppose that dualism were really true and that causal interaction takes place in the pineal gland: that would strike us as a type of miracle and God might be invoked to make sense of it. This could be the origin of the concept of the miraculous, and it would be an intelligible explanation of how the general concept arises. But the same is true even if we don’t accept that kind of metaphysics, because emergence is mysterious anyway. The enigma of emergence is readily converted into the idea of miracle, and then projection does the rest.

The obvious next question is whether the concept of God has a similar type of origin. I won’t go into this deeply, but I will make a couple of suggestions. The concept of God is clearly a compound of other concepts: omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, immateriality, and infinity. The last two are the hardest to explain in that both concepts are difficult to account for: where do we get them? We obviously don’t see and touch immaterial spirits and derive the concept by abstraction; and the concept of an infinite being is likewise not derived from perceptual acquaintance with such entities. A plausible hypothesis is that we derive them from knowledge of our own nature, or at least the kind of limited awareness we have of our nature. We certainly don’t experience our own consciousness as material, so it is at least intelligible that we could form the idea of an immaterial being on this basis—even if we are not rightly so described. Crudely, we have an illusion of immateriality. In the case of infinity we have more than an illusion of infinity: we ourselves are infinite beings. I don’t mean that as spatial beings we are infinitely divisible; I mean that we have attributes that are characterized by infinity—namely, language and thought. I intend nothing mystical here; I am just making the familiar point that language and thought admit of infinitely many combinations of primitive elements. And we are aware of this fact about ourselves: we know that we have this kind of infinite potential. So we have no trouble forming the idea of an infinite being, combining it with the other attributes that define God. We thus come by the idea of an immaterial infinite being via contemplation of our own make-up: this concept is not alien to us. So it is not that we have an antecedent idea of God that we subsequently apply to ourselves, casting ourselves in his exalted image; rather, we use ourselves as model to construct the complex idea of God, which we then proceed to project onto the world. Whether the world really contains anything answering to this concept is another question, but the concept itself has its origin in our own nature. How else could we get it? The concept of the supernatural is ultimately based on a distorted picture of ourselves, as a result of partial understanding and incorrigible projection. Religion begins at home.[3]


Colin McGinn

[1] In “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?” (1989).

[2] Does anyone ever really get over the discovery that his or her precious consciousness, in all its glory, is the result of that furrowed and frightful thing called the brain? The miracle seems almost cruel in its absurdity!

[3] Let me stress that this is a speculative proposal—other theories might be suggested. The advantage of the present proposal is that it finds a firm place for the concept of the supernatural in the natural world. We don’t want to discover that only the existence of the supernatural can explain the presence of that concept in our minds—not if we want a secular psychology anyway.

4 replies
  1. says:

    Religion does begin at home, but atheism sometimes too. As for, “the familiar point that language and thought admit of infinitely many combinations of primitive elements”. Again, only iteration and recursion admit of infinitely many combinations of primitive elements in language and thought. Just as familiar is the point that the limits of working memory on the production and understanding of language (and on our own thoughts too!) severely circumscribe the usefulness of one’s iterative and recursive capacity. The questions with respect to the creativity and potential “unboundedness” of human mentation are: what neuro-biological conditions conduce to the expansion of our conceptual competence and what neuro-biological conditions conduce to the expansion of kinds of reliable exercise of our intelligence? As for foot-note (2)—about one’s consciousness seeming especially “precious” to one: I might be singular in my experience here but I’ve found my consciousness an adequate expression of, “a furrowed and frightful brain” (well, maybe not so frightful). Anyway—and this is not an obsequious comment—the quality of your prose seems ever increasing. What do you attribute this to?


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