Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
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The ShamWow! Argument for the Possibility of Miracles

The ShamWow! Argument for the Possibility of Miracles

Kelly James Clark is the Senior Research Fellow, as well as a visiting professor of Religious Studies and Honors, at Grand Valley State University.

Imagine for a moment Bob, an extraordinarily gifted terrarium maker. Bob builds and outfits one of his extraordinary terrariums (terraria?) and places in it some baby salamanders. No ordinary salamanders, these: when mature, they have the brain capacity of a human being: fully human thinking capacities in a salamander brain (to paraphrase the Genie from Aladdin, “phenomenal cognitive powers…itty bitty living space.”). Bob’s terrarium is a nearly perfect living space for his brainiac amphibians. The terrarium has an equilibrium of vegetation, temperature, water, air, and everything else that salamanders require for their existence. They never multiply beyond what their limited space can handle. And their feces and dead bodies, along with the decaying flora, fertilize future flora as needed to sustain life. In order to preserve the equilibrium, a light regularly turns on at increasing and then decreasing intervals as it moves slightly around the top perimeter over the course of a year. Finally, the terrarium is made of glass that is opaque to salamanders but transparent to Bob.

Now suppose that Bob’s inquisitive salamanders begin to reflect on the way things work inside their “world.” They begin to notice and then attend to a variety of discernable regularities. After a process of mostly mistaken guesses over many generations, they learn, for example, how their bodies transform food into energy and life; that is, they develop a science of nutrition. Moreover, they learn about how plants absorb light and turn that light along with water and air into food; that is, they develop a science of photosynthesis. They learn about respiration and perspiration and excretion; that is, they develop sciences of anatomy and physiology. The salamanders acquire sophisticated mathematical skills, which when applied to the regularities they notice in, for example, the moving light source (and the heat it gives off) and the ways objects fall to the ground, lead to the development of the physics of the terrarium.

Their careful attention to astonishing regularities, through a process of disciplined trial and error, yields a deep understanding of the laws that govern life and death in their “world.” They have their own salamander versions of Galileo, Boyle, and even Newton.

There is a lot they don’t know, of course. They know little about Bob, for example. They have no idea why these generalities (and not some others) hold true. And they know not of their beginning and end. But there’s a lot that they do know—biology, chemistry, and even some physics. They know the laws that govern their very natural world. Let us call them, then, natural laws.

When Bob made the terrarium, he set up the initial conditions and the natural laws that combine to sustain his salamanders. That’s how Bob normally operates with his salamanders, according to natural law.

Now suppose that every five years, the glass in the terrarium fogs up. Bob then sneaks in at night and, with a few swipes of his ShamWow! tm, wipes up the excess moisture.

Bob acts in two ways in the world that he has created. First and primarily, his normal way of acting is according to natural laws (which he set up). Second, he occasionally acts in non-normal ways (when he wipes down the terrarium windows); Bob acts non-normally when he intervenes in the salamander world.

Now suppose that there is a God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe. Suppose that God’s normal mode of action is through natural law; that is, he typically sustains the world not through direct and episodic divine action but through God-created natural processes. God, for example, creates the universe by setting the initial conditions for the Big Bang, which then faithfully unfurls according to the general theory of relativity. He generates the entire spectrum of living things through natural selection. The weather is regulated not by direct divine action but through, among many other things, atmospheric flow patterns and principles of convection. That is, suppose God normally acts in the world through the natural laws of physics, biology, meteorology, and chemistry. God, we are supposing, normally acts in his universe according to natural law.

However, God, like Bob, occasionally acts in non-normal ways, intervening in the world.

Isaac Newton (1642–1727), perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, thought something like this. First, Newton believed that God normally acts through freely-created natural laws (“Without all doubt this world […] could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God. From this fountain …[what] we call the laws of nature have flowed”); God’s dominant mode of action in the world is through natural law. God non-normally acts by occasionally intervening in the world. Newton believed, for example, that God moves the planets in their orbits not by (indirectly) pushing them (which was widely believed prior to Newton’s time) but through the law of universal gravitation and the principle of inertia. But, according to Newton’s pioneering but imprecise mathematical formulas, God was occasionally required to enter into the celestial system to give the planets a boost (like Bob and his Shamwow!tm). Newton believed that God normally moves the planets through natural law but occasionally moves them non-normally through direct divine intervention.

We have known since the late 18th century that Newton was wrong about the need for a divine planetary boost. Is it still reasonable for us (with our better-than-Newton physics and all) to believe that miracles are possible?

Newton, like virtually every scientist of his day, thought miracles were not only possible but necessary. There was the first miracle, of course, of the free creation of the universe and the natural laws that govern and sustain it. Then there is God’s normal way of creating and sustaining the universe through natural law. Finally, God acts miraculously through occasional interventions in the cosmos.

God, many of those scientists also believed, non-normally acted in the world in a number of other ways—healing the sick, for example, parting the Red Sea, fulfilling prophecy, changing water into wine, and becoming incarnate in Jesus.

Let us call God’s non-normal actions “miracles,” to distinguish them from God’s normal actions, which are actions through natural law. God’s non-normal, miraculous actions involve God’s intervening in the world.

So, are miracles possible?

If Bob has sufficient powers to create and sustain a terrarium by natural law, he likewise has sufficient powers to occasionally intervene in that world in non-normal ways. So it seems to me that if there is a God with sufficient powers to create and sustain a universe by natural law, God would likewise have sufficient powers to intervene in that world in non-normal, that is, miraculous, ways. Let us call this the Shamwow!tm analogical argument for the possibility of miracles, the conclusion of which is that if there is a God (with the aforementioned powers), then, miracles are possible.

Kelly James Clark is the Senior Research Fellow, as well as a visiting professor of Religious Studies and Honors, at Grand Valley State University.

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