I'm currently thinking about miracles and laws of nature, because I am working on revising this paper on the subject. Also on my mind is a paper of mine called "Divine Language, Unperceived Objects, and Berkeley's Response to Skepticism" which I will be presenting at the International Berkeley Society group session at the Eastern APA in December. It occurred to me that these two subjects of thought interact in an interesting way.
In the Berkeley paper, I argue that we should take quite seriously Berkeley's claim that the laws of nature form the grammar of a language (PHK 108-110), and I apply this to the problem of unperceived objects. I argue that when Berkeley says, "The table I write on, I say, exists, that is ... if I was in my study I might perceive it" (PHK 3) he means that the grammar of the language requires that God display my desk to me under the specified circumstance.
Now here's something interesting. I argue that this subjunctive conditional ("if I was in my study I would perceive my desk") is not to be interpreted as making a claim about God's will or intentions. It's making a claim about the rules of the grammar, and those rules are determined by the facts about the corpus of the language of perception. But that means that God could intend not to give me desk perceptions under those circumstances, i.e., to break the laws of nature. So the account is consistent with law-breaking miracles.
Now wait a minute, you might say, I just claimed that the facts about the grammar depend on the facts about the corpus. The fact that I go into my study and don't perceive my desk is a fact about the corpus, so if that actually happens (rather than merely being intended), then we should hold that the actual grammar is some different set of rules, one which permits me not to perceive my desk.
Well, not quite. Consider a dead language with a substantial corpus; say classical Latin. When philologists examine the corpus of classical Latin to determine the rules of its grammar, they don't come up with rules that capture every occurrence in the corpus. Instead, their aim is to capture 'literate' usage; they are perfectly happy to admit that occasionally a Latin writer (especially if he's not Cicero) might make a grammatical error. The same is true here.
This means, however, that, on this view, if there were law-breaking miracles God would be making grammar errors; he would be less than perfectly linguistically competent (in his own language that he invented!). Berkeley would not, I think, be happy with this result, but this is one of those issues where I've got to side with my other philosophical hero, Leibniz:
According to [the proponents of law-breaking miracles, especially Newton], God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time; otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God's making is so imperfect according to these gentlemen that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it as a clockmaker mends his work, who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. (First Paper to Clarke, tr. Clarke, sect. 4)
Return to blog.kennypearce.net