Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 1-9

First online:

Miracles and the limits of medical knowledge

  • William E. StempseyAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, College of the Holy Cross

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In considering whether medical miracles occur, thelimits of epistemology bring us to confront ourmetaphysical worldview of medicine and nature ingeneral. This raises epistemological questions of ahigher order. David Hume's understanding of miraclesas violations of the laws of nature assumes thatnature is completely regular, whereas doctrines suchas C. S. Peirce's ``tychism'' hold that there is anelement of absolute chance in the workings of theuniverse. Process philosophy gives yet another viewof the working of nature. Physicians have noepistemological grounds for declaring any cure to bemiraculous. Miracles are theological (orphilosophical) entities, and not medical entities. All physicians can do is to determine whether or nota cure is scientifically inexplicable according to thecurrent epistemological standards of medical science. As these standards change, what is currentlyunexplainable may become explainable. However, we canalso come to realize that our current explanations arein fact unsatisfactory. Our justifications ofknowledge claims about miracles will depend on ourviews about determinism and indeterminism. If theuniverse is not a deterministic one, we should be opento the possibility of encountering what appear to usas sui generis events. These would not beviolations of immutable laws of nature, butmanifestations of the true workings of nature, andcertainly causes for wonder.

determinism epistemology Hume laws of nature metaphysics miracle Peirce Whitehead