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How do miracles happen?

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Published: 11 May 2017 (GMT+10)
commons.wikimedia.org Red-sea-parting
We don’t need to know how God does miracles to know that He has done a miracle.

Atheists and agnostics don’t like miracles (though ironically they need them to justify their evolutionary worldview: Five Atheist miracles and A miracle by any other name would be … called science?). They often claim that miracles are somehow impossible, or inherently improbable, or unprovable—although their proofs become circular, as explained in Miracles and science. The idea is that miracles can be safely ignored as an option before the evidence is considered (see Defining arguments away—the distorted language of secularism).

Do we need to know a miracle’s mechanism to believe in miracles?

Skeptics often use the limits of science to justify ruling out miracle claims. For instance, we can’t use science to describe how miracles happen. After all, we have no empirical access to how non-physical beings might interact with the physical world to produce effects in it. But if there’s no describable ‘mechanism’ by which non-physical beings can produce effects in the physical world, can we justifiably believe that non-physical beings like God can affect the physical world?

Now, miracles should normally be considered not violations of ‘laws of nature’ but additions to them. Since scientific research is confined to ‘natural law’, it could not by definition investigate events outside it. Moreover, there are many things in science that are accepted though we do not understand their mechanisms. Examples abound in the properties of subatomic particles. As such, even within science, just because because we don’t understand something does not mean that it can’t be.

Nonetheless, there is a certain level at which the ‘mechanism’ by which a miracle is caused is indescribable. For instance, terms for describing spiritual realities (e.g. ‘non-physical’, ‘immaterial’, and ‘incorporeal’) are usually negative concepts—they tell us what such things are not, rather than telling us what they are. They don’t give us a readily available positive account of what non-physical beings are made of and how they make stuff happen, especially one we can test empirically.

Knowing that things are true without knowing how they are true

But does it matter that the ‘mechanisms’ of miracles are beyond empirical description? Not really. Why? Well, how do we know a miracle has happened? It usually involves two aspects: an event not explainable by physical or biological causes, and a context for the event that warrants seeing it as the action of a supernatural agent.1

Jesus’ resurrection is a perfect example. There is powerful evidence that Jesus was seen alive by many people after He had died by crucifixion. That implies an event not explainable by physical or biological causes. After all, no biological or physical cause back then (or today!) could bring a man who died by crucifixion back to life in such a way as to convince people that the resurrected man was the conqueror of death. Moreover, Jesus claimed to be the Divine Messiah, and that His resurrection from death would be the ultimate vindication of His claims. This clearly provides a context that warrants seeing Jesus’ resurrection as a divinely caused event.

However, though we are inferring an adequate cause (God) based on the context and the effects we see, we have no way to investigate how Jesus’ body came back to life. Does this mean that the miracle conclusion is too fast? No. It’s based in part on what we know to be empirical fact—no biological or physical cause can spontaneously reanimate a corpse. This gives us two options with respect to Jesus’ post-mortem fate. We can limit the causes we’re willing to admit into the investigation to physical and biological causes, and say that we can’t know what happened. Or we can admit that we know too little about how putative non-physical causes work to be able to rule them out, and that by a process of simple elimination, a non-physical cause is the only plausible explanation left for the evidence surrounding Jesus’ post-mortem fate. As such, we arrive at the conclusion that a non-physical cause obtained without knowing how He did it. The only thing holding the skeptic back is his naturalistic bias.

Miracles and design

There are also parallels between miracles and intelligent design. Both appeal to the inadequacy of natural causes, and both invoke an intelligent agent as the only plausible adequate cause of the effects we observe. The difference is that with design we don’t so much look for a religious context but for features common to designed objects (see David Hume and divine design and Who designed the Designer?). Even though the designer may be indescribable, it doesn’t mean we can’t infer a designer from the effects we observe. ‘Intelligent Design’ proponent Stephen Meyer, addressing questions regarding the origin of the major animal body plans, put the matter in a helpful way:

“There is a different context in which someone might want to ask about a mechanism. He or she may wish to know by what means the information, once originated, is transmitted into the world of matter. In our experience, intelligent agents, after generating information, often use material means to transmit that information. A teacher may write on a chalkboard with a piece of chalk or an ancient scribe may have chiselled an inscription in a piece of rock with a metal implement. Often, those who want to know about the mechanism of intelligent design are not necessarily challenging the idea that information ultimately originates in thought. They want to know how, or by what material means, the intelligent agent responsible for the information in living systems transmitted that information to a material entity such as a strand of DNA. To use a term from philosophy, they want to know about “the efficient cause” at work.

“The answer is: We simply don’t know. We don’t have enough evidence or information about what happened … to answer questions about what exactly happened, even though we can establish from the clues left behind that an intelligent designer played a causal role in the origin of living forms.”2

Meyer goes on to provide an analogy from archaeology in the statues on Easter Island. It was easy enough to see that they were designed, but we still don’t know how they were designed. Another interesting example is the famous portolan charts.3 They are ‘too accurate’ for what we know of ancient cartography, and even medieval cartography, and yet they exist, but we don’t know how the maps were made. In the same way, we don’t need to know how a miracle happened to know that it happened.

Consider also biomimetics. It treats biological systems as designed systems that are so optimized that they actually teach us about how to apply science to technology, as well as giving us new technologies. Of course, biomimetics researchers often give the obligatory nod to ‘how well evolved’ the functional feature they’re copying is. But it’s empty praise (and committing the fallacy of “advantage proves adaptation”). And in reverse engineering functional biology, they are not reproducing the process (evolutionary or otherwise) that supposedly produced the feature they are reverse engineering. They are just reverse engineering the ‘final product’ with no reference to the processes involved in how the ‘original’ it came to be. But it’s the very fact that they are reverse engineering the feature of functional biology that strongly suggests these features look engineered because they were engineered.

But this also explains why the engineer’s inability to reproduce the process a divine designer used to produce something is utterly irrelevant. We don’t need to be able reverse engineer the process by which God produced something to be able to reverse engineer what God produced (not that we could reverse engineer everything God produced—we can’t create mass-energy from nothing, for example—but we might eventually be able to reproduce some things He has produced). For instance, say that Jesus miraculously healed a man blind from cataracts. He just spoke the word, and the man was healed! Now, consider Fred Hollows4 (who was an atheist) healing a man blind from cataracts … by means of eye surgery. And let’s say that the effects were the same in both people—their sight is ultimately fully restored. Would it be right to say that Fred Hollows has reproduced the effects of Jesus miracle? I think there’s a sense in which it would be right to say that. The change in circumstance brought about—the restoration of sight from cataract blindness—is the same in both scenarios. The only difference is how it happened (and likely Hollows’ patient’s recovery time).

Conclusion

The indescribability of the ‘mechanism’ by which a miracle happens is irrelevant to whether miracles are possible or knowable. We not only know too little about putative non-physical causes to describe them mechanistically, but we also know too little about them to rule them out. But we often do know enough of what is physically possible to rule out physical causes by processes of elimination and comparison.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References and notes

  1. Corduan, W., Identifying a miracle; in: Geivett, G. and Habermas, G.R., In Defense of Miracles, IVP, Downers Grove, IL, p. 105, 1997. Return to text.
  2. Meyer, S.C., Darwin’s Doubt, HarperOne, New York, pp. 395–396, 2013; see our review . Return to text.
  3. Jacobs, F., Portolan charts ‘too accurate’ to be medieval, bigthink.com, accessed 13 March 2017. Return to text.
  4. Fred Hollows (1929–1993) was an eye surgeon who devoted his life to being a voice for the health of Aboriginal Australians. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Vern R., United States, 13 May 2017

My comment is on, "how a miracle happens". My sister was told by doctors that her daughter would never reach the age of 5. She was born with MD.

She was left in our care with her older sister one weekend. My niece could barely walk, her little legs were badly bowed, she was frail and would not eat, her coloring was almost a gray color. She was four months from being 5. My kids were running and playing with her sister and she tried to no avail to be a part of it.

We took the girls to church with us and there was an evangelist that day. After the song service the evangelist simply said, "there is someone here that needs a healing touch from the Lord." I didn't even hesitate, I scooped her up in my arms and went forward. She was anointed with oil and the congregation began praying. There was a power so strong that it was almost overwhelming, then her little body leapt in my arms. I took her back and set her on the pew. At the end of service the kids all ran outside and a couple minutes later it hit me, they ran. I went out and spotted her immediately. She had color in her face, her legs were straight, she was running and playing. I took the girls back to my folks place and an hour later my step dad called and asked what happened, she was eating him out of house and home. I told him,and it was the thing that brought him back to his childhood faith before his death.

Faith, and acting upon it is what the cause of a miracle is, nothing more, nothing less.

Yes, I believe it is beyond science.

I also believe science and faith in God go hand in hand.

Shaun Doyle responds

Thank you for that account. What I'm talking about here is how much (if at all) we can know of how God 'issues forth' his causal power into the physical world when He does a miracle, and how relevant that is for knowing that a miracle has happened. As you describe what happened, the miracle was known by the timely and physically implausible transformation of your niece's body. As such, we don't need to know how God changed her body to know that He likely had a special hand in doing so. This also applies to miracles that had no human input, such as the creation of the world and the creation of Adam.

Tommy S., United States, 12 May 2017

To your response Shaun Doyle, it's disappointing to hear you are in the other camp on this. Perhaps I can persuade you with a simple example. If a cancer patient diagnosed with terminal cancer suddenly has a truly miraculous recovery where the cancer has just vanished, and these things have happened before, is there going to be evidence of how God did it? None whatsoever. It is human arrogance to believe we can know all things. It's a particular staple of evolutionists to believe such things, but we, as Christians, can accept that God is so far beyond us that some things just aren't knowable and scripture tells us that as well.

Shaun Doyle responds

Thank you for your response. Regarding your example, there is typically a span of time between the diagnostic scan that shows the presence of the cancer, and the diagnostic scan that shows the cancer gone. What happened in that time frame? There are several possible scenarios one can envision, and some options for explaining the history of physical effects through which the miracle was mediated may have left traces that could be investigated.

Crucially, none of this need call into question the reality of the miracle. The time frame over which it happened, the sheer physical implausibility of it happening, and the background data (e.g. someone praying for healing, and healing happening right around the time that person prayed) would all provide clear and convincing evidence that God miraculously healed the person.

Of course, there are serious limits to what any such investigation could tell us. For instance, it can't tell us the mechanics of how God translates His miraculous causal power into the physical world. That's obviously beyond any empirical investigation we can undertake (and that was largely the point of this article). As such, nobody is claiming to be able to know all things in these investigations. There are severe limits to what we can know, or even plausibly conjecture about.

Nonetheless, in Creation Week and the Flood we are dealing with events that did indeed leave physical traces. In some cases, those physical traces appear to require very specific circumstances to explain them, which we know are highly implausible under the range of conditions that are amenable to the continuation of life (e.g. accelerated nuclear decay) or are simply beyond spontaneous physical possibility (e.g. distant starlight). However, in many cases (esp. in the Flood) the effects we observe are clearly just the spontaneous results of physics and chemistry (albeit under catastrophic conditions). How do we explain the causal history of this confluence of traces consistent with the Bible? Dr Hartnett and I are only saying that science is a tool we can use; we’re not saying that it will provide us will sure answers, let alone all the answers. But we are saying that we should try to explain the traces we observe in the context of the laws of physics we have discovered, since God is a faithful God, there is apologetic advantage in attempting it, and in many cases God probably only had to manipulate the boundary conditions, and not the behavioural constraints of the physical system (see ‘Natural law’ in the Creation Week? for more information).

David G., United States, 11 May 2017

At least in its discovery mode, so much of science is the revelation of the miraculous nature of God's creation. Just because scientists can discover and describe things and their processes should in no way detract from the wonder of what CMI and others rightly call "irreducible complexity". And that such complexity did not "evolve" is precisely why it is miraculous, i.e. originally created out of nothing by the word of God and with all its adaptive functionality built in. Christians need a renewed wonder at the marvelous nature of God's world, let alone the greatest of all miracles: the conversion of a single soul through faith and repentance to the light of Christ's wonderful love in the gospel.

Tommy S., United States, 11 May 2017

Great article. This touches on a subject that I've discussed with John Hartnett before and I believe should be considered by CMI scientists in relation to creation events. For example, John and other creation scientists believe that we we can resolve, through the scientific method, how starlight from distant galaxies can reach the earth if creation occurred just 6,000 years ago. They resort to all sorts of theories such as white hole cosmology, anisotropic synchrony convention, etc. So, though God says he created the stars on day 4, they want to end up with a universe that is billions of years old, but with earth's reference frame being only 6,000 years old. The point is that you can't find evidence of how God did the miracle. He could make the entire universe on day 4, have the light be here instantly, and there be no evidence whatsoever for how it happened nor any need for light in transit theories, changing speeds of light or anything else. Then how can it be? It's a miracle and beyond our understanding is the answer. If we had 10 billion years to contemplate it we could never comprehend it.

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. 9"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8-9

God bless and keep up the great work.

Shaun Doyle responds

In this article I was only saying that we don't need to know how a miracle happened to know that it happened. I wasn't implying that there is never a traceable history of physical causes and effects surrounding a miraculous event. Indeed, I suggest the exact opposite in my article Historical science and miracles:

... there can be a role for empirical anomalies to tell us at what points, and to a certain extent in what ways, God may have directly manipulated matter to produce His intended effects—in the context of events likely to involve miraculous elements for which we have independent testimony of in Scripture. In other words, we only expect such ‘empirical anomalies’ relating to physical effects produced in events like Creation Week and Noah’s Flood.

We have an observable body of evidence in the sky. It gives us certain information about the objects up there, and also about their histories. How do we fit that in to the context of Genesis 1:14-19? That is the question of creation cosmology. This doesn't call into question the reliability of Genesis 1, but seeks to understand how the observable evidence of astronomy is consistent with it. Please see Modern science in creationist thinking and Distant starlight and the days of Genesis 1 for more information.

Errol B., Australia, 11 May 2017

This is such an important concept for both Atheists & Christians to understand.

Recently, I saw a video by a ‘thinking’ atheist, where he used the following justification;

“…We just live in a world which is obviously governed by natural laws, and we see apologists and Pastors like you come to us and make a supernatural claim. And we respond by saying ‘fine, provide credible measurable peer-reviewable scientific evidence for your claim. Bring it, show us the money, or we have no choice but to dismiss the charges’…”

I truly believe they cannot see the self-referencing / circular reasoning in their version of ‘logic’. It’s like trying to convince a man who grew up on a deserted Island & thinks all men are bachelors, that married men do really exist, to which he demands; ‘show me a married bachelor and I will consider your claim’.

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