The Miracle and the Abstracting Lens

These words, written in white electric bulbs, stand outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Nathan Coley’s in stallation totters sugge stively between the indicative and the injunctive: is it a statement of fact or a demand? This work was inspired by a 17th-century anecdote about the French village of Modseine. The number of miraculous occurrences at the village was apparently so profligate as to be problematic. A notice was put up with the injunction, ‘There will be no miracles here. By order of the King.’

Even today, surprisingly, those who profess to having witnessed a miracle are easy to come by. Huge, even shocking numbers of people claim to have witnessed things such as miraculous healings. A 2007 Pew survey of 35 ,000 adults living in the USA found that 34 per cent of participants claimed they had witnessed divine healings. A Pew survey from the previous year asked Penteco stals from the USA, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India, the Philippines and South Korea whether they had witnessed divine healings, divine revelations or exorcisms. If the survey is representative, given the numbers who responded affirmatively, hundreds of millions from this demographic alone profess to having seen these kinds of things with their own eyes. Yet despite the pervasiveness of miracle reports, some will be skeptical. After all, it is possible for many people to say things that are untrue, and for all to say the same untrue things. Mendacity and delusion are not so uncommon, and neither are sincere, sane but otherwise mi staken claims. Why give credence to the miracle when it’s easier to accept that the witnesses are just plain wrong? Something like this was the line of thought taken by the 18th-century Edinburgh philosopher David Hume. Under his influence, two que stions have come to dominate the philosophical conversation on miracles.

Image: Nathan Coley, There Will Be No Miracles Here, 2006. Installation, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh ©studioNathanColey. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


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James Henry Collin is a philosopher who writes on the nature of language, the metaphysical foundations of science, epistemology and the philosophy of religion. He is currently writing Metaphysics for Analytic Pragmatists (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan), which ties these strands together.