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Feedback archiveFeedback 2006

Miracles and science

Response by Dr Jonathan Sarfati

1 September 2006

Introduction

This email questioning miracles comes from the self-styled Peidos from South Australia, who gave permission for this to be posted but without name or initials (real name and address supplied). Peidos in another email wanted to make it clear that he was ‘taking the “evolutionist” or “atheist” side’, not that we doubted it.

The response (posted after the whole letter) points out that Peidos commits the fallacy of false dilemma, overlooking an alternative that successfully avoids both horns. The response also addresses some misconceptions about natural law and probability fallacies of skeptical denials of miracles. Finally, it also points out that anti-Christian systems have no rational basis for the idea of natural law in the first place, so their arguments from natural law against miracles ‘commit suicide’.

Many of the arguments have already been covered in our materials (which is why we encourage inquirers to search the site first), for example, in Section 1.2) Miracles and science of What’s Wrong With Bishop Spong? and Ch. 1: Argument: Creationism is religion, not science of Refuting Evolution 2. Also, one of the first talks I ever gave for CMI was Miracles and Inerrancy, which we hope to make available on DVD. [Update: this has been done now; see top right.]

Other reading

  • C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) wrote a very worthwhile book called Miracles (1947) that anticipates the anti-miraculous attacks of almost all sceptical and liberal ‘Christians’ on the Incarnation, not that they would be interested in challenges to their naturalistic faith.
  • John Earman, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, and not a Christian, wrote Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000). This is a devastating response to the anti-miraculous attacks of the skeptic David Hume (1711–1776). Sceptics today do little more than regurgitate Humeanism. However, Hume made a crucial blunder in his probability analysis, and Bayes’ Theorem demolishes his argument—I mentioned this briefly in a recent feedback. The online chapters of Earman’s book require registration, but the main point is explained lucidly in William Lane Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman.

On scientific proof of miracles

If one contends that miracles have occurred and that they are the direct intervention of a creator god it implies that within natural law there is a loophole that allows god to alter outcomes on his whim.

That is: this god can and does cheat when he wants to.

So any evidence for or against his existence, be it a book, a fossil or supposed miracle, may just be his intervention, perhaps hidden from our ken.

If god will cheat or boast that he can or does intervene in our lives, in the natural order, to create a species, for prayer, for adulation, or any purpose not even disclosed to us, it makes observation of the world and the affairs of the tiniest microbes to galactic catastrophe, all futile, for they are then placed at the whim of a fickle god who will deceive us when it suits him.

Therefore to test that god exists or does not by appeal to observations in and of this world and its affairs is quite futile. If god has intervened in the world even once then no observation or consequent conjecture we can make is reliable.

Let us suppose that some clever person makes an observation that purports to prove a miracle has occurred, that god has intervened just once. We cannot thereafter trust our observation on any other point, for it may be another intervention. And since the tool science is ideally rigorous observation and conjecture it would seem to discredit that very tool as a way to discover the nature of the world, and since it is, by this test, a discredited tool, its proof that a miracle has occurred is also discredited.

So either there is a god and he cheats with miracles, or the world obeys strict rules of action and consequence. If the former, we can prove nothing by even the most rigorous observation and conjecture. If the latter, our world is true to its appearance and we have a chance of understanding it.


Response to On scientific proof of miracles

The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.—G.K. Chesterton

First of all, we don’t claim to have this. Rather, miracles are a matter of history not (operational) science. But the principles of origins science are consistent with certain miracles in the past, as we have said before:

Origins science uses the principles of causality (everything that has a beginning has a cause) and analogy (e.g. we observe that intelligence is needed to generate complex coded information in the present, so we can reasonably assume the same for the past). And because there was no material intelligent designer for life, it is legitimate to invoke a non-material designer for life. Creationists invoke the miraculous only for origins science, and as shown, this does not mean they will invoke it for operational science.
If one contends that miracles have occurred and that they are the direct intervention of a creator god it implies that within natural law there is a loophole that allows god to alter outcomes on his whim.

First, it is better to call miracles an addition to natural laws rather than a loophole within them. This is because natural laws are formulated in isolated systems. For example, Newton’s 1st Law of Motion states that objects will continue in a straight line at constant speed — if no unbalanced force is acting. But there is nothing in the law to prohibit unbalanced forces acting—otherwise nothing could ever change direction!

This can be applied to a sceptic in Britain who claimed that Jesus couldn’t have walked on water because it would ‘violate’ Archimedes’ Principle, ‘Objects will sink in water if they weigh more than the buoyant force’. But this is true only if no other are forces operating. For example, if you were tied to a helicopter you wouldn’t sink. There is nothing that ‘violates’ Archimedes Principle, just that it can’t preclude other forces acting.

If God exists, there is no truly isolated system. Thus there is no basis for disallowing miracles unless you could prove that God doesn’t exist, but you can’t prove a universal negative. And if Jesus really were God Incarnate as I believe (see documentation), He could certainly bring other forces into play without violating science.

C.S. Lewis applied these concepts to the virginal conception of Christ: that is the zygote was made by the Holy Spirit’s action on Mary’s ovum, i.e. an addition to the system. But after that, the embryo developed in the normal manner.

Second, this comment treats natural laws as real entities. In reality, scientific laws are descriptive of what we observe happening regularly, just as the outline of a map describes the shape of a coastline. Treating scientific laws as prescriptive, i.e. the cause of the observed regularities, is like claiming that the drawing of the map is the cause of the shape of the coastline.

That is: this god can and does cheat when he wants to.

I have dealt with this before by pointing out that we are not just advocating any ‘god’. Christians don't advocate just any ‘god’ who may or may not be capricious. Rather, they identify the Designer with the faithful triune God of the Bible, as stated:

The Bible explains that: we are made in the image of a rational God (Genesis 1:26–27), God is a God of order not of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), God gave man dominion over creation (Genesis 1:28), and He commanded honesty (Exodus 20:16).

Applying this, as well as a correct understanding of the nature of scientific laws as description, leads to a worldview that historically led to science without jettisoning miracles, as previously stated:

These [founders of modern science], like modern creationists, regarded ‘natural laws’ as descriptions of the way God upholds His creation in a regular and repeatable way (Col. 1:15–17), while miracles are God’s way of upholding His creation in a special way for special reasons. Because creation finished at the end of day 6 (Gen. 2:1–3), creationists following the Bible would expect that God has since mostly worked through ‘natural laws’ except where He has revealed in the Bible that He used a miracle. And since ‘natural laws’ are descriptive, they cannot prescribe what cannot happen, so they cannot rule out miracles. Scientific laws do not cause or forbid anything any more than the outline of a map causes the shape of the coastline.
Because creation finished at the end of day 6, biblical creationists would try to find natural laws for every aspect of operation science, and would not invoke a miracle to explain any repeating event in nature in the present, despite Scientific American’s scare tactics. This can be shown in a letter I wrote to an inquirer who believed that atoms had to be held together by miraculous means:
‘“Natural laws” also help us make predictions about future events. In the case of the atom, the explanation of the electrons staying in their orbitals is the positive electric charge and large mass of the nucleus. This enables us to make predictions about how strongly a particular electron is held by a particular atom, for example, making the science of chemistry possible. While this is certainly an example of Colossians 1:17, simply saying ‘God upholds the electron’ doesn’t help us make predictions.’
And in my days as a university teaching assistant before joining CMI, I marked an examination answer wrong because it said ‘God made it so’ for a question about the frequency of infrared spectral lines, instead of discussing atomic masses and force constants.
So, Scientific American is wrong to imply that creationists are in any way hindered in real operational scientific research, either in theory or in practice.

We have also cited the succinct thoughts of philosopher and apologist J.P. Moreland:

‘But some will object, “If we allowed appealing to God anytime we don’t understand something, then science itself would be impossible, for science proceeds on the assumption of natural causality.” This argument is a red herring. It is true that science is not compatible with just any form of theism, particularly a theism that holds to a capricious god who intervenes so often that the contrast between primary and secondary causality is unintelligible. But Christian theism holds that secondary causality is God’s usual mode and primary causality is infrequent, comparatively speaking. That is why Christianity, far from hindering the development of science, actually provided the womb for its birth and development.’ [Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation, Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 226, 1989.]
So any evidence for or against his existence, be it a book, a fossil or supposed miracle, may just be his intervention, perhaps hidden from our ken. If god will cheat or boast that he can or does intervene in our lives, in the natural order, to create a species, for prayer, for adulation, or any purpose not even disclosed to us, it makes observation of the world and the affairs of the tiniest microbes to galactic catastrophe, all futile, for they are then placed at the whim of a fickle god who will deceive us when it suits him.
Therefore to test that god exists or does not by appeal to observations in and of this world and its affairs is quite futile. If god has intervened in the world even once then no observation or consequent conjecture we can make is reliable.

Public domain image from www.lib.utexas.edu

G.K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874–1936)

Actually, you are a perfect illustration of G.K. Chesterton’s point (Orthodoxy ch. 9):

Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.

Also, C.S. Lewis pointed out that arguing against miracles based on the alleged total uniformity of nature is actually circular reasoning (from Miracles):

No, of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, 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 know all the reports are false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.

[Note, see also response to an agnostic who asked whether biblical Christians commit circular reasoning]

Let us suppose that some clever person makes an observation that purports to prove a miracle has occurred, that god has intervened just once. We cannot thereafter trust our observation on any other point, for it may be another intervention. And since the tool science is ideally rigorous observation and conjecture it would seem to discredit that very tool as a way to discover the nature of the world, and since it is, by this test, a discredited tool, its proof that a miracle has occurred is also discredited.

Actually, the exact opposite is true. Without a belief that the universe was made by a God of order and that we are made in the image of this God, the Logos, we have no basis for either an orderly universe or that our thoughts can be trusted, as explained before.

Atheists can’t prove that the universe is orderly, because the proofs would have to suppose the order they are trying to prove.

Atheists can treat these premises as axioms, i.e. accepted as true without proof, but they are theorems for Christians since they follow from the propositions of Scripture. Indeed, atheists can’t prove that the universe is orderly, because the proofs would have to suppose the order they are trying to prove. Similarly, they can't prove that their thoughts are rational because the proofs would have to assume this very rationality. Yet evolution would select only for survival advantage, not rationality.

So either there is a god and he cheats with miracles, or the world obeys strict rules of action and consequence.

This is the false dilemma. However, an alternative, as explained, is a God of order who used miracles for creation, and in rare occasions at other times when working out His program, but normally works by what we call ‘natural law’. The logical feasibility has been amply proved in practice by the good science discovered by believers in miracles.

If the former, we can prove nothing by even the most rigorous observation and conjecture.

And most philosophers of science agree that it is impossible to prove things with science; rather, scientific progress comes from disproving things. This should become very clear upon understanding the underlying logic.

If the latter, our world is true to its appearance and we have a chance of understanding it.

You cannot derive an orderly universe from the proposition ‘God does not exist’. Indeed, you need to accept an orderly universe as a ‘brute fact’, which ironically was actually plagiarized from the Christian world view.

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