Signs and Wonders

Like most people, I have received forwarded emails containing claims someone found on the internet that seemed to me utterly crazy. My sense that what is claimed is ridiculous is often an immediate reaction. I suspect that most people have had similar experiences. But it is also clear that what one person thinks outlandish can seem to another to be true or possibly true. In other words, we all have a sense of what is believable, but some of us find plausibility in what others think is not worth considering. Occasionally people speak about the value of having an open mind. We can agree that there is such a virtue, but no one’s mind is open about everything. If we had to be open to every proposed idea, we couldn’t operate effectively. We need a set of fundamental beliefs that is resistant to change, which provides a perspective that enables us to evaluate everything else.

For some people, claims about miraculous events evoke immediate disbelief. Sometimes the reaction is to a particular story that seems far-fetched, but for many it is a more generalized response to the suggestion of anything miraculous. Often this kind of reaction is rooted in a fundamental view of reality that rules out the possibility. If you are convinced that everything that happens is explainable in scientific terms and that something miraculous would be unexplainable in this way, you may automatically dismiss any story claiming a miracle has occurred.

When philosophers discuss miracles, they are typically thinking about violations of natural laws that are produced by some power beyond nature. I have no problem with discussing whether there can be good reasons to accept reports of miracles defined this way. But for many events that people call miraculous, we are not in a position to say whether what happened would violate a natural law. Often all we can say is that an event was unexpected, given our ordinary understanding of how the world works. In the ancient world when people talked about extraordinary events, they used terms that we usually translate as “signs” and “wonders.” They didn’t talk about laws of nature being violated, but they did think that some events were not what we would expect apart from the operation of some extraordinary power.

If we ask whether there are events that are unexpected, given our understanding of how the natural world operates, the answer is yes. There are credible reports of such events both from the contemporary world and from earlier societies. Craig Keener catalogs numerous contemporary reports from cultures around the world in his two-volume study Miracles (2011). Of course, people who think that whatever happens is a natural event and that all natural events are explainable by contemporary science can point out that what we find surprising or noteworthy may just reflect a lack of the kind of knowledge we would need to predict what will happen. In the case of a surprising healing, for example, it might be suggested that we can’t predict spontaneous remissions, but we shouldn’t see anything unnatural about their occurrence. That kind of response works well enough in some cases. But when we encounter cases where what is described seems unexplainable without positing forces or powers beyond those recognized by contemporary science, rejecting miracles may mean denying that reported events actually occurred.

While I take a skeptical attitude toward many claims of extraordinary events, I am not persuaded by those who think they can rule out all such events in advance. It is not really a scientific claim that whatever happens is explainable in terms of the forces recognized by contemporary science. It may be useful to think in this way when you are doing scientific investigation, but it can also lead to discounting reports of events that don’t fit with standard scientific accounts. The American philosopher William James reported that many of his scientific colleagues at Harvard were unwilling to investigate evidence of telepathic communication that he judged credible because they thought they already knew that such phenomena could not be genuine. 

Like James, I think there are credible examples of phenomena that can’t be explained in terms of the paradigms of contemporary science. There are well supported reports of knowledge that is not acquired through ordinary sensory observation and of influences of mind on physical phenomena that are not explained by forces recognized by science. Someone could say that a future science might be able to explain such phenomena, but that claim amounts to admitting that within the natural order are powers to bring about what biblical writers would have called signs and wonders. If the issue is whether extraordinary events that involve powers beyond those recognized by our science occur, this kind of expanded natural order opens the door to such events.

Those who accept that such powers exist need to ask how to account for the kind of reality containing powers that would not fit with contemporary materialist views of nature. If human minds can under the right conditions produce phenomena that defy any kind of physicalist explanation, then we have grounds to wonder whether mind is a fundamental feature of nature that is not reducible to physical stuff. While thinking in these terms need not imply God, it does seem conducive to taking seriously metaphysical views that are recognizably like religious understandings of reality.

Western education tends to bias people toward thinking that what happens in the world is fully explicable in terms recognized by contemporary science. Part of this bias is connected with the assumption that ordinary sense experience is the only way to know about reality. Traditional religions arose in contexts where people presumed visionary or mystical apprehensions could put human beings in touch with deeper dimensions of reality than what we find in ordinary sense experience. In the contemporary world many people think something similar about near-death experiences. If we can entertain the possibility that altered states of consciousness sometimes reveal a deeper level of reality, it becomes easier to entertain the idea that signs and wonders may occasionally function as pointers to that reality. For someone who believes in God, it is a short step to thinking that God sometimes uses powers built into this deeper order of reality for revelatory or redemptive purposes.


For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 13 (Signs and Wonders) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.