Miracles and Science 


It's just about Christmas, time to celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation--God becoming man, born of a virgin. It's an obvious opportunity to consider whether the Christian claims of miracles are still credible in light of modern science. Christianity without the Virgin Birth is about as meaningful as Christianity without the Resurrection; both miracles were necessary for God to have conquered sin and death as a man. But what about scientific objections to miracles? 

These objections fall into three main versions: (1) Miracles can't happen, (2) Miracles shouldn't happen, (3) Miracles never have happened. The second of these will make more sense as I proceed. We'll start with the first, though.

First Version: Miracles Can't Happen
David Hume set the direction for modern scientific critiques of miracles. This is the heart of it:

"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined."

C.S. Lewis answered this, in his excellent book Miracles, by showing its circularity:

"Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely 'uniform experience' against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle."

Hume's argument depends on "firm and unalterable experience." How does he know that all experience through all human history is so firm and unchangeable? Hume's argument against miracles is strong if they have never happened. But if they have, then they have, and Hume cannot point to "firm and unalterable experience" as a premise.

A more modern version of this argument points to the generally agreed fact of natural law; and says that, for example, we know for a fact that human virgins never give birth--they just don't. Therefore Mary didn't. The world doesn't work that way. Since science has given us such a great understanding of how the world works, we can confidently say that science rules out miracles.

The Christian's answer is that God has designed the world to work in regular ways, and we can count on it working that way almost all of the time; but when he wants to step in and do something different, he has the power and the right as God to do that. If there is a personal God, then the universe is not a closed system of cause and effect. Things can be different.

Second Version: Miracles Shouldn't Happen
But some suggest that miracles should not happen. If miracles are real, we might just as well give up on learning how the world really operates. The value of science--and it is valuable indeed--is that it tells us about regularities in the world. If the world can be so irregular as to allow miracles, then the whole foundation of science is worthless. Given the success of science, that would be absurd.

Or, on a slightly different line, it's just rather unseemly for God to poke around in his world that way. Why not just let it go the way he created it to go? C.S. Lewis answers both of these "shouldn't" objections in Miracles. Avery Cardinal Dulles summarized it:

"Lewis in a long discussion of the laws of nature shows that such laws, far from precluding miracles, are necessary conditions for their possibility. If there were no regular laws of nature, miracles could not be recognized as exceptions and would lose their function as divine signs. Miracles are possible provided that such laws exist and provided also that God is not absolutely bound by the laws He has established. True, it would be unreasonable for God to suspend laws of nature in an arbitrary way, but it would make sense for Him to suspend them on occasion for adequate reasons such as the manifestation of the new order of salvation.

"If miracles were haphazard events, reports about them might not be credible. But the biblical miracles, generally speaking, fall into a meaningful pattern, exhibiting the beneficent designs of God. All the biblical miracles lead up to, or attest to, the Incarnation, which Lewis describes as 'the great miracle.' Jesus' mastery over life and death and over the powers of nature is convincing evidence of his divinity."

God not only has the right to intervene in his creation; when he does it, he does it for a purpose, not willy-nilly. He does it to reveal himself. His self-revelation through miracles depends on general regularity, by the way. Too much noise in the regularity of the world would prevent the signal of God's specific interventions from coming through.

Third Version: Miracles Have Never Happened
Another objection says that all of that theorizing is so much wasted time, since miracles haven't happened anyway. I disagree.

When I was a junior at Michigan State University, my roommate, John, and I were in charge of an outdoor rally for our Christian student group. Being poor college students, we had no sound system to work with except for John's stereo. We had a dilemma on the day of the rally: it was raining everywhere in the entire state of Michigan (or at least the Lower Peninsula). Would anyone come in that weather? Should we put John's stereo out in the rain? Or should we just cancel? We decided to put the question to God in prayer. I don't know who was the first to open his eyes and notice it, but as we were praying, there on the floor of our dorm room there was a bright patch of sunlight shining in. I'm convinced it was the only sunlight in the whole county that day, if not the whole state.

We recognized that was God's answer. We loaded up John's equipment, and as we went outdoors with it, the rain stopped. We held the rally, and though the crowd was small, it was at least respectable. We brought the stereo equipment back to the dorm. As we were carrying the last item up the steps to bring it back inside, the rain started again.

Having had experiences like that, I find it difficult to accept Hume's dictum of "unalterable experience" against the occurrence of miracles. But some will question whether this really happened, or if it did, whether it was actually a miracle. Maybe I made it up the whole memory, maybe I'm lying, or maybe (at best) John and I were just really, really lucky that day (coincidences will happen, after all). This is partly a scientific question--determining the probability of such a coincidence, for example. It's partly in the realm of forensics and/or history. Science deals with what happens regularly; history and forensics, in contrast, try to discover what has actually happened at some particular time. Both history and forensics ask about the reliability of testimony, the agreement of various lines of evidence, and so on. It would be entirely appropriate if someone wanted to apply that kind of test to my report here. For my own convictions, it's not necessary, because I was there and I know.*

I know, too, that science has not proved it that it all had to be mere coincidence. Nor has science proved that miracles have never actually happened--though some have tried to make it so. It's entirely rational to propose that we live in an open universe, in which God, from time to time for his own good purposes, intervenes with something special. This week we can be especially thankful that he intervened by visiting us in the form of a Baby who grew to be a Man who died and rose again for us.

I've laid out only the sketchiest outline of this discussion. For greater depth, I recommend you read the web articles by John Warwick Montgomery and William Lane Craig.

*Since this is a blog entry in a series on Christianity and science, history and forensics are off topic. They had to be mentioned, but I do not propose to deal at all properly with them here.  

Posted: Sat - December 16, 2006 at 07:36 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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