My Theological Agnosticism on Miracles | Prof. Caner Taslaman


The way miracles are described in holy texts
is among the subjects of philosophy of religion, which in general studies God-universe relations. The Arabic word used for miracle, “mUcize”,
literally describes leaving someone helpless. The Quran does not use this word in today’s
meaning. In today’s daily theological use, miracles
describe extraordinary occurrences at the hands of prophets, used to prove their positions
and challenge disbelievers. One of the most controversial philosophical
questions concerning miracles is whether or not God suspends the laws of nature during
their occurrence. There is no direct answer to this question
in the Quran; such discussions fall within the realm of philosophy. Indeed, the phenomena we call “miracle” (mUcize)
today are described in the Quran most commonly by the Arabic word “ayat”. One of the most commonly used words in the
Quran, “ayat” often describes phenomena in the nature that we witness—everything that
points to the Knowledge, Power and Intentions of God; whether these phenomena occur via
suspension of the laws of nature or not is immaterial to the meaning of the word. Its etymology is not decisive concerning the
way that miracles occur. The only way to proceed on this matter is
to interpret the phenomena described in the Quran and contemplate them under the light
of philosophical evaluation of the relation between the laws of nature and God’s influence. Contemporary theist thinkers who think that
God would never (not even for a very brief period of time) suspend the laws of nature
often defend the theory of evolution as the means God followed in his creation. On the other hand, most of those who think
that God sometimes suspends or modifies the laws of nature and thereby intervenes with
the universe, tend believe in the independent creation of species (as just such an intervention). Yet even supporters of the suspension view
have no reason to reject evolution. Even suspension view holders agree that the
overwhelming majority of the phenomena in the universe occur within the framework of
the laws of nature (without their suspension); laws, on this view, are God’s causal tools. For example, every newborn cat we see has
parents and is borne of its mother. In other words, every cat is born and lives
according to the laws of nature. A Muslim who believes in the suspension view
also regards every cat as a creature of God. He might, however, attempt to explain the
creation of the very first cat couple with divine intervention with suspension of the
physical laws (even though there is no indication as such in the scriptures). Even if we, for a moment, accept this claim,
such an intervention is just one occurrence among billions in the nexus of natural laws. If a Muslim can regard a newborn cat as a
creature of God, a process which happens within the nexus of the laws of nature, he or she
should not oppose the creation of the first cats via evolution from other species as against
creation by God. It is a theological error to deny God’s will
in lawful processes. According to the suspension view, a minor
portion of God’s creation occurs through the suspension of natural laws, and a very
small portion of humans experience suspensions. Holders of the suspension view, who explain
the creation of species by direct divine intervention, hold that the first member of every single
species was created not via laws of nature but through their suspension. However, if we do not know how something was
created, we should expect that it happened according to the ordinary functioning of laws,
rather than exceptional events. Furthermore, the possibility of an event does
not necessitate its occurrence; thus, the possibility of divine intervention through
suspension of the natural laws does not necessitate that species were created instantly. Imagine for a moment that someone has invented
a new game like chess. Imagine further that since he is the creator
of the game, he reserves the right to modify the rules of the game as he pleases, during
a game he plays with someone else. Would he be more talented if he were to beat
his opponent by modifying the rules in his favor in the middle of the game; or would
he be more talented only if he were to win by abiding the original rules. If God is the creator of the laws of nature,
he can suspend them (change the rules mid-game). However, if God’s “talent” is best by
creating within the nexus of the laws of nature, we should expect creation to happen this way. While my analogy has limitations, it is fallacious
to infer the creation of species via the suspension of laws from the mere possibility for God
to suspend the laws of nature. In my other works, I have offered suggestions
about how the miracles (ayat) in the Quran might have occurred within the laws of nature. Of course, those possible models do not mean
that those miracles actually happened that way. Whether or not the laws of nature were suspended
is a matter of philosophical debate. In order to properly answer the question “Does
God suspend the laws of nature?” we need to perfectly understand the laws of nature; however,
we are still far from such a complete understanding. Religious believers can agree that divine
intervention can happen with or without the suspension of laws. Whichever position is chosen, the other remains
a possibility. A Muslim cannot sensibly claim that “God cannot
create species by suspending the laws of nature;” nor can a Muslim sensibly claim that “God
cannot create species without suspending the laws of nature”. Both options are possible and, since we lack
epistemic access to God’s intentions, we should withhold belief about which is actual. The content of the Quran does not force us
to make a choice. I suggest the adaption of “theological agnosticism”
regarding the matter of miracles. Even firsthand observers of the events we
call miracles are unable to explain how they happen. They have, at best, observed a miracle, not
how God did it. For example, even if one had directly witnessed
Moses divide the sea, one would still not know how it happened; one would know that
a miracle happened, not how the miracle happened. One would not have been able to tell whether
God divided the sea by suspending the laws of nature or through a natural process. Our limited knowledge of the laws of nature
and our inability to penetrate into microscopic aspects of the phenomena we observe render
us unable to determine whether or not laws of nature are suspended during miracles. Since no living person witnessed the prophets’
miracles mentioned in the Quran, it is even more difficult to make a judgement on the
matter. One who is agnostic about how God performs
miracles might philosophically prefer one approach over the other. Such a preference would not pose any religious
difficulties. On the other hand, apart from religion, we
should be guided by science, philosophy and intuitions, which together should determine
our judgements. One who adopts theological agnosticism on
a subject agrees that no conclusion reached from non-religious sources could contradict
religion. Moreover, one’s theological agnostic stance
on this matter has no negative implications on one’s Muslim faith; indeed, such a stance
is consistent with the tenet, “Everything is possible to God”.

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