A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 18, 2009

Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III is an amazing pilot-he managed to water land a cripple  jet in the Hudson River without losing a single passenger. As such, he is a hero in the classic sense: someone who does something great through skill and courage.

Listening to the news coverage of the event, I was struck by how the news folks kept using the word “miracle” over and over to describe the landing. I found that this bothered me a bit. This was not because I had any doubts about the landing being an amazing and impressive accomplishment. Rather, I think that the news folk misuse the word “miracle.”

A miracle is an event that violates the normal laws of nature and is typically regarded as divine or supernatural. While landing a plane on a river is amazing, it is well within the laws of nature and involves no supernatural aspects. Rather, it involves a great deal of skill and some luck.

If the plane had been surrounded in a nimbus of divine light and gently set down upon the earth, then that would have been a miracle.  Since nothing like that happened, it was not a miracle.

Yes, I’m being picky, but I think that words should be used properly. Yes, I am aware that words are a purely human creation and that their meaning is a matter of convention. So, one might say, if news folks and other people want to use “miracle” to describe an event that is impressive or amazing, then they should do so and I should simply accept that.

On one hand, I do see that as reasonable. After all, people should be free to use words as they see fit-accepting, of course, that other people might have no idea what they mean.

On the other hand, if  “miracle” is used to describe anything that is impressive, then we will need a new word or phrase for miracles in the classic sense.  Also, there is also the worry about sloppy thinking-that people will call events miracles and slide easily into seeing them as having a supernatural causal factor involved.