Are Miracles Possible? Essays & Opinions
Paid Program Sponsored by John Templeton Foundation

Has Science Subsumed the Miraculous?

Has Science Subsumed the Miraculous?

Stephen Barr is Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware.

For many “scientific skeptics,” the most absurd aspect of religion is belief in miracles. The miracles claimed by Christianity are looked upon in the same way as magic spells, voodoo dolls, and Ouija boards; and the prophesies of Isaiah or Christ are seen as just as baseless as the predictions of Tarot cards or fortune tellers.

In this view, nothing could be more antithetical to modern science than miracles. Fundamental to science is the conviction that phenomena have rational explanations, whereas belief in miracles supposedly reflects an obscurantist hankering after the mysterious and inexplicable. The prestigious scientific journal Nature famously gave voice to this opinion in a 1984 editorial:

[F]ar from science having “nothing to say” about miracles, the truth is quite the opposite. Miracles, which are inexplicable and irreproducible phenomena, do not occur.

All explanation in modern science rests ultimately on the assumption that nature follows “universal laws,” that is, laws that apply in all times, places, and circumstances throughout the universe. But many of the miracles in which religious people believe would certainly violate the laws of physics. It is this that leads some to conclude that miracles are, quite simply, impossible.

Is this a valid conclusion? It depends on what is meant by “impossible” and what kind of “laws” the laws of physics are.

There are some kinds of laws whose violation is impossible in an absolute sense: the laws of logic and the laws of mathematics. For instance. 2 + 2 = 4 is a statement that cannot not be true. That isn’t so of the relationships we call “laws of physics.” If it were, we wouldn’t have to do experiments to discover or confirm them, we could do so by pure reasoning, without leaving our armchairs.

The laws of physics express patterns and regularities in the physical world that didn’t have to be true but happen to be true. Thus, an event that contravenes the laws of physics is not “absolutely impossible” or “logically impossible.” The most one can say is that it is “naturally impossible,” or impossible insofar as the laws of nature hold.

All of this raises a deep question: Why do they hold? Why is the universe lawful? This does not have a scientific explanation, because, as already mentioned, all scientific explanations assume the lawfulness of nature. Theistic religion, on the other hand, does propose an explanation: there are laws of nature because there is a Lawgiver. We see that theism is not a flight from rational explanation; it is actually trying (successfully or not) to explain more than the “scientific skeptic” is able to.

From ancient times, when Jews and Christians argued for the existence of God, they pointed primarily to the beauty, harmony, order, and lawfulness of the world. A typical example is the following passage from the late second-century Latin Christian writer Minucius Felix:

If upon entering some home, you saw that everything there was well-tended, neat, and decorative, you would believe that some master was in charge of it, and that he himself was much superior to those good things. So too in the home of this world, when you see providence, order and law in the heavens and on earth, believe that there is a Lord and Author of the universe, more beautiful than the stars themselves and the various parts of the whole world. [Emphasis added]

The Bible speaks in many places of God as Lawgiver to the cosmos. For example, the Book of Jeremiah speaks of God having “a covenant with day and night,” and giving “laws to the heavens and earth.”

At this point, one may be tempted to accuse religious believers of trying to have their cake and eat it too, by appealing both to the lawfulness of nature and the lawlessness of miracles as evidence of God. But they are being consistent. If the laws of nature are God’s ordinances to begin with, then God can certainly suspend them.

But why would God suspend them? Here too, Judaism and Christianity offer an explanation. Miracles are not claimed to happen in an utterly capricious fashion. They always have a religious context and meaning. God, it is claimed, has revealed himself to the human race, in order to lead people to live in a relationship with him based on love and mercy. Miracles have always played two roles in that divine plan: they either testify to the authenticity of those through whom revelation is claimed to occur (for example, Moses, the Prophets, Christ), or they manifest God's love for his people and his saving power. It is precisely because only God has the power to suspend his own laws that miracles can play these roles.

Several years ago, I attended a lecture by an eminent public intellectual who was defending a religious conception of human nature. In a ten-minute excursus, he expressed the view that “modern people can no longer believe in the miraculous.” Since science is based on universal laws, belief in miracles, he said, would make it impossible to do science. One would never know when a miracle might interfere with one’s experiments.

During the Q&A, I pointed out that Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and indeed most great scientists down to Faraday and Maxwell in the 19th century had believed in God and in miracles. This not only didn’t prevent them from doing science, it didn’t prevent them from founding modern science. As for miracles disrupting one’s experiments, I suggested that if one were doing an experiment in fluid dynamics, it might be a good precaution to keep Moses out of the laboratory.

Stephen Barr is Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware.

Have something to say?