Do Miracles Happen?

From The Augsburg Book of Miracles, bound circa 1550

Do Miracles Happen?

Occasionally something occurs that you or I might be tempted to call “a miracle.” But: what follows when you try to talk about a “miracle” that you think might have happened to you?  Despite the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution, which says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of

religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

actually we moderns do have an Established Religion, from which we can only dissent at our social peril:

Secular Humanism.

Like any religion that’s effective in the modern world, Secular Humanism is a life-changing belief system requiring public adherence and treating dissenters with a wary and qualified “tolerance.”  Nowadays, there are textbook anthologies of religion with chapters allotted to Secular Humanism, as one more religion.  But it’s not just “one more.”  It’s established.  It polices the public square.

What are its major doctrines?  I’ll list some of them.

  • Since consciousness is an effect of brain activity, it can’t possibly survive brain death.
  • Living organisms enjoy their present state — as functional wholes made of interdependent, working parts — by chance.
  • Space, time and the laws of nature exploded into being suddenly, without antecedent causes or explanation.  An explanation would have to reference a natural law – and there weren’t any before the Big Bang!
  • The gentler characteristics of humanity exist on the same basis as their brute features: survival.

As they used to say in Brooklyn — where I taught philosophy for many years —

If you can believe all this,

I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.

My suspicion?  Nobody really buys all of it.

Take the first tenet:

brain death = annihilation.

Some years ago, when A. J. Ayer (one of the more influential philosophers in the English-speaking world) was hospitalized for pneumonia, he started to choke on something he’d been eating.

His heart stopped for four minutes.

Despite the expectation of his doctors –- of irreparable damage to his brain — Ayer revived unimpaired.  Afterward, he wrote an account of his experience during the four minutes.  Under the title, “What I Saw When I Was Dead,” it was published, for all the respectable world to see, in the widely-read Sunday Telegraph.

Prior to this experience, Ayer had held that any report of consciousness without brain function must be “meaningless.”  In his article in the Telegraph, he showed keen awareness of the risk of excommunication from his own social circles.

“I trust,” he wrote, “that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.”

Given the risks he had mentioned, I thought the fact of this philosopher’s coming out of the closet with an experience like that should be taken seriously.  (Reportedly, he told his private physician that he had seen God, but he did not write this in the Telegraph.)  My article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” explored what the experience he did describe publicly might mean philosophically.  At least one highly-regarded colleague and friend – who held that the mind is the brain – declined even to read my article, explaining, on behalf of himself and others in his department, “Freddie has lost his cool”!

I did not believe them.  That is, I did not believe that they were avoiding all contact with Ayer because they were sure he was suffering from mental confusion.  In my view, they feared that Ayer’s mind really did sail through the oxygen starvation that should have damaged his brain.  His having done so raised the alarming possibility that one of their key doctrines was wrong!

Was it a miracle?  Did an atheist philosopher return from near-death to tell the Secular Humanists that they had been misinformed?

What is a miracle?

It’s usually defined as a happening credited to God because it overrides or violates relevant laws of nature.  Since we don’t know what all the laws of nature are, I think it’s risky to define a miracle that way.  So let me give it a go, in rather different terms.

How about

a happening that sheds light on the meaning of one’s life

– or the lives of others –

which could not have been brought about by human contrivance alone

or by nature in its random operation?

In Ayer’s case, the miracle showed that you don’t need a working body to have experience.  All his life as a working philosopher, he’d striven mightily to demonstrate that you can, by reasonable inference, get from private experience to a world that exists objectively, bodily.  From time to time, he’d noted briefly that his philosophical effort had not been successful.  But he continued to think that it ought to work, if somehow he could solve the conceptual difficulties involved.

Now all that changed.  He hadn’t needed a working brain to have a complex and lucid experience.  So his philosophical work was shown to have been a failure — misguided at the outset.  A light was shed on the meaning of his life.  Not a flattering light, but a light just the same.

In my working life, “miracles” have not required a near-death experience.  In the cases I think of, I’d been making long and strenuous efforts that seemed to be getting me nowhere.  My very strivings seemed to leave me isolated, a figure of fun, someone to ridicule.  The happenings I termed “miraculous” involved a confluence of events – not supernatural but synchronous and highly improbable – that combined to bring my efforts into high-resolution focus as meaningful and fruitful.

Miracles are improbable.  One has to stop and look – or stop and listen.   There is clatter rattling around in one’s head.  The anxieties and felt futilities of one’s efforts, the never-ending to-do list, the iron doctrines of Secular Humanism, are part of the clatter.  To perceive the patterns of life, one has to try to set all that aside.

One has to silence the clatter –

in order to perceive the improbable.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Do Miracles Happen?

  1. Elmer Sprague says:

    Dear Abigail,
    For me, you show that there is a sense of “miracle” to which philosophers have not paid proper attention. That is, I call something a miracle when something happens that I did not expect—a miracle is a happening contrary to my expectations. The emphasis is on “my expectations.” Never mind decorating my story with references to “the system” that gives my life its framework, or to ironclad natural law, or the will of God, or the machinations of the Devil. I think of my surviving World War II as a miracle, because I expected to die when I entered active service in the army. But I didn’t. I entered the competition for a Rhodes Scholarship not expecting to win. But I did. Looked at in a certain way, my living to be 93, with my wits intact, I think, and with a decent degree of mobility, is a miracle. And so on.

    As for A. J. Ayer and Secular Humanism, there is a paradox. Secular Humanism denies something, is indeed founded on a denial. It’s a slippery job trying to say what that is. That there is a God? But what does that denial mean, when Secular Humanism holds that “God” is a meaningless term. So maybe that’s the better way for a Secular Humanist to go: “God” is just a meaningless term, so far as there being something to look for goes, in our usual sense of knowing how to look for things. Michelangelo is just telling a story; our imagination lets us follow the story—human beings are good at that—but it’s just a story. Ultimately—in western culture—the first chapter of Genesis is just a story with the hero modeled on the story teller’s knowledge of an oriental potentate, the way a God ought to be. But it’s just a story. In the end, the astonished children have to realize that a story teller’s “ought”—Michelangelo and Blake, and my favorite movie, “Green Pastures” included—is just that, a story.

    So suppose Ayer tells us that in some sense of “saw” he saw God, his words are unintelligible, until we know how he is filling that empty vessel, the word “God,” that his Secular Humanist “faith” has declared to be unintelligible. Suppose too that Ayer could tell us a story that makes “God” intelligible for him, would that make it intelligible for us?

    I realize that “intelligible” is a slippery term. How do we learn the difference between “It’s just a story” and “It’s a report of what’s there”? When the children hear “And Jack and Jill found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” they don’t grab their little spades a run out to look for a rainbow. (Well maybe they do, but as they dig at the pretend end of a rainbow, they know in some sense that it’s just play digging for gold.) Yet when you tell them that you saw an okapi at the Bronx Zoo, they ask you to take them. At least part of the difference between a story and a report is that a report gives you somewhere to go, while a story doesn’t. Michelangelo is retelling a story. Could Ayer either tell us a story or give us a report? In any event he has to make “God” intelligible for us, against his “faith” that it can’t be.

    Happy New Year! And thank you for making me try to think philosophically on the new year’s first day.
    You’ve started something that will never stop. In your sense of “story”—the meaningful course of a life—the great religions try to give someone a story in which to have a life. The Jew to recover a lost Israel, where a people are to accomplish a divine promise, their union with their land. The Christian to accomplish a union with the divine—God for breakfast in the oldest varieties of Christianity. So too there is a union at the heart of Secular Humanism—a harmonious union of people and nature. Hence the emphasis on activity in Dewey’s concept of education, the child’s getting to know its world and its place in it. And for Dewey world knowledge is scientific knowledge. Hence the emphasis on measuring out the right amount of flour to make the best pancakes for breakfast at the Chicago Laboratory School. And the Progressive Movement in American education could be seen as an effort to make the school a kind of church.
    I stop.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks, Elmer, for allowing my column to be the jumping-off place for these extended reflections. The reflections reminded me that you may the reason my article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead” was written. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have a dim recollection of telling you how uneasy I felt about writing on that subject. Probably the whole topic of n.d.e.’s was more unmentionable then than it is now. And it was so obvious that Ayer’s colleagues — at least the ones I knew — found his piece in the Telegraph embarrassingly Non-U. “Freddie has lost his cool.” I remember saying to you, something like, “But who will read it?” and your replying, “I will!” So here we are!

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