Miracles as an insight dependent on ignorance

Many contemporary people recognize that there is something wrong about defining miracles as disruptions in the laws of nature, though they a.) find it hard to do away with the definition and b.) fail to see what exactly they are missing about a miracle when they define it in this way. C.S. Lewis is a good case of this (see page 5 here), and he might be to some extent responsible for its perpetuation. So what does such a definition make us miss about miracles?

Etymology is not always a good guide (see St. Thomas’s frequently repeated “stone” example in resp. ad. 2 here). But it is a very good guide to what is formal in a miracle. “Miraculus” named what was a marvel or an extraordinary wonder, and rather than shoving the wonder aside as subjective and trying to attain to some objective fact, it’s better to just stay with the idea of wonder and develop it.
Wonder requires ignorance, though not just any sort of ignorance. We are usually not aware of the things we are ignorant of, but this does not make for marveling. Marveling requires our ignorance to enter into consciousness. But the ignorance does not enter into consciousness in its usual mode, that is, as a confusion, an irritation, or a perplexity, or even an extremely rare fortuitous event (it’s the rare person who doesn’t find something marvelous in the account of human generation, or the fertility of the spring, and neither is  rare.) What seems most formal in the sense of wonder proper to miracle is that we have the sense that it reveals some agency or personality (or at least some transcendent reality) behind the action itself. Just how this personality is related to the event can remain obscure: no one has to be committed to the idea that the personality or transcendental cause behind a wonder moves the marvel that we see like a mere puppet, for example. We can remain perfectly ignorant of how this personality relates to the miraculous event – all that is necessary is that the event be a wonder revealing the action of a personality.

[To forestall one obvious objection, though wonder is a sort of ignorance it does not follow that just any increase or decrease in ignorance will lead to a proportionate change in wonder. Certain kinds of wonder increase as we find out more about things. All that is required is that something remains obscure or unknown.]

An argument from miracle or wonder requires ignorance – but it is a real argument. To see the marvelous is to see evidence for the divine, and to fail to see it is to fail to see such evidence. Since wonder is formally something within us and not merely some fact in the world, one and the same fact in the world can go from being a wonder to not being one. Say someone sees a finch beak and finds it marvelous, revealing personality and agency seeking to make itself known. Then say the same person reads Darwin’s account of finch beaks and, after seeing a perfectly natural cause for why the finch beak is as it is, ceases to marvel at it and ceases to take it as revealing personality. Note that it’s not that he has “replaced a supernatural explanation with a natural one”, rather he has changed the object of his consideration from a marvel to a non-marvel by removing or ignoring an element that is formal to it being taken as a wonder. We have not explained away something, we have simply changed the object we were considering, for, so far as a miracle or wonder is concerned, an object we are ignorant of is not the same object as one we understand. Ignorance is essential to wonder, and so the eliminating or overlooking of that of which we are ignorant makes us overlook what is marvelous. It’s not that the one who wonders meditates on ignorance for the sake of being ignorant – the one who wonders seeing something through ignorance. Just as an awareness of our own ignorance is useful to make us humble, and this awareness of humility is real knowledge, so too the peculiar sort of ignorance that gives rise to wonder reveals some personality working behind the marvel.

I experience the insight of ignorance all the time. I do metaphysics and natural theology, and so I’m especially sensitive to all the times when people say things like “how could you see X and not believe in God?” I tend to find such claims naive and even irritating – what an unreflective thought! What a vulnerable argument! There is so much more to seeing that God exists! This is, at least, my reflexive response. The truth of the matter is that one really does see God through marvels, and these marvels are essentially dependent on ignorance. God must show himself as much to the learned as the unlearned. What sort of God would only manifest himself to philosophers? It’s not even obvious to me that the learned are any better off for their knowledge.  I would expect myself to be the sort of person who in the Gospel who thought the voice from heaven was only thunder. If there were any way to explain it away (and especially if all the rubes or non-philosophers were convinced of it) I’m pretty sure I would try to explain it away.

We can hypothesize that when we have totally driven out ignorance we will no longer see the working of a personality behind marvels, but this does not describe the world we live in now, still less does it prove that we would lose nothing valuable by driving out all ignorance.

For the same reason, the exultation of human intelligence (say by a mythology that speaks of a time when science will have explained everything) cannot tolerate miracle, not merely because it “interrupts the natural system” or because it is unpredictable or goes against “natural law”, but simply because miracle requires human ignorance. A miracle is God’s way of speaking through human weakness and revealing himself in a special  way to the humble (that is, to those who make their ignorance and weakness an object of their consideration). For the same reason, God must hide himself from the proud, that is, from those who believe that they possess an intelligence that could in principle explain everything and a will that could accomplish all they desire.



  1. thenyssan said,

    September 28, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Before reading this I would have related marveling to beauty instead of to ignorance. Now I’m wondering if one marvels at an ignorance one finds beautiful. Is it a peculiar kind of ignorance that can be called beautiful? An ignorance that has a ratio, or that one suspects has a deeper ratio? Try as I might I can’t break my idea of beauty from truth, so your line on marveling is quite perplexing. It seems to me that the ignorance you are speaking of here must have a kind of surprising unity with truth.

  2. thenyssan said,

    September 28, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Hah! You changed the last half of your post between my composition and my posting, didn’t you? My spidey-sense should have warned me you were in draft mode!

    • September 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

      Your point is the one Chesterton makes about myth in The Everlasting Man, where beauty is more developed (this section in TEM – Chapter 5 – is G.K.’s best work). I’m developing the A-T element of wonder or marvels as ignorance.

      Beauty is a marvel if by the beautiful we mean “the sublime”, though the marvel is more weighted to one element of the sublime: it’s radiance as disproportionate to the intellect. This disproportion is a sort of argument, for in confronted with a reality that exceeds the intellect, we can make an inference to reality beyond intellect. The sublime is an argument for transcendence – and is more formal to it than ignorance.

      Another way to put it is that the ignorance of marvel is the ignorance of the mind confronted with the transcendent, from which it concludes to the reality above mind. But whatever is better than mind cannot be dead, unknowing, etc.

      • thenyssan said,

        September 28, 2011 at 10:19 am

        I was thinking about the disproportion as well. If marveling is this encounter with ignorance that speaks to transcendence, then don’t we know when we encounter the transcendent? Aren’t you put in the position of arguing that we can tell the difference between encountering the transcendent as opposed to our individual deficiency in knowing?

  3. March 22, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Without ignorance there would be no intellect.

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