Miracles Of Modern Science Essay Example

Science and Miracles (1998)

Theodore M. Drange


1. The definition of "Miracle"

The problem I wish to investigate is the relation between science and religion, with a special focus on religion's appeal to miracles. Let us define a "miracle" simply as an event which violates at least one law of nature. I realize that the term is used in other ways. For example, it is sometimes additionally required that miracles be caused by a supernatural being. For our purposes and in the interest of economy, that further requirement can be dispensed with. Alternatively, a miracle is sometimes taken to be any extraordinary event, particularly one that provides someone with a great benefit. That is certainly another use of the term in English, but not relevant to our topic, so let us disregard it. If we employ the definition initially given, that will allow us to focus on a particularly troublesome puzzle in the philosophy of science.

If miracles violate laws of nature, then they could never be explained by appeal to natural law. Note that it needs to be a genuine law of nature that is violated by a miracle, not a manmade generalization erroneously taken as a law of nature. This needs some clarification. By a law of nature I mean a proposition which describes an actual uniformity that obtains in our universe. An example would be the Archimedean Law that a floating body always displaces an amount of fluid the weight of which is equal to its own weight. And an example of a miracle which violates that law would be a man walking on water (thereby displacing an amount of fluid the weight of which would be considerably less than his own bodyweight). In science, events are explained naturalistically (i.e., by appeal to laws of nature), so a miracle would be an event that could never be explained in that way. But if events which cannot at present be explained in that way were to come to be explained naturalistically in the future, then, in retrospect, it would need to be said of them that they were never miracles, although they may at one time have (erroneously) been thought to be that. At the very least, the laws that miracles violate need to be genuine ones.

Consider an example. Centuries ago, it was regarded a law of nature that matter cannot be destroyed. Thus, an event like an atomic explosion, in which matter is destroyed, would at that time have been considered a miracle, for it violates the given law. But subsequent science came to abandon or amend the law in question in such a way that atomic explosions no longer violate natural law. A miracle, then, must be regarded, not as an event which violates current law (which may very well come to be superseded), but an event which violates one or more genuine laws, i.e., ones which can never be superseded by laws of nature which are more accurate and which cohere better with other parts of science.

What would be the status of laws of nature if miracles were actually to occur? First, would they cease to be genuine laws? If we say that a generalization that is violated by some event cannot be a genuine law of nature, then it would follow that miracles are logically impossible. That can be shown as follows:


(1) Miracles, by definition, are events which violate genuine laws of nature.
(2) If a generalization is violated by an event, then it cannot be a genuine law of nature.
(3) Thus, it is impossible for a genuine law of nature to be violated by any event. [from (2)]
(4) Hence, it is impossible for any event to be a miracle. [from (1) & (3)]

I think what we need to do here, to generate our philosophical issue, is to allow that it is at least logically possible for a law of nature to be violated. Let us therefore understand the concept of a law of nature in such a way that step (2) of the above proof is false. It may be that no laws of nature are ever violated, but there is no contradiction in the mere idea of it.

Another issue is that of truth. If a law of nature were to be violated, then could it still be true? One answer that might be given is: Yes, a violated law could still be true because laws of nature are only intended to describe events within the natural realm and miracles are outside the natural realm. Thus, miracles would not then render laws of nature false, for they would not show that the laws fail to correctly describe the natural realm. However, to view the matter in this way, the definition of "miracle" would need to be changed slightly. Instead of saying that miracles violate laws of nature, we would need to say that miracles are outside the natural realm and would violate laws of nature if they were in the natural realm. They would then not actually violate laws of nature, since laws of nature only describe events within the natural realm.

I do not like this way of viewing matters, because it places too much emphasis on the concept of a "natural realm." To work with a definition of "miracles" as events outside the natural realm, we would need some criterion for deciding whether or not an event is inside or outside that realm, and we do not have any such criterion. The result would be that the term "miracle" would be obscure, perhaps even meaningless. Let us, therefore, simply go with our original definition of a miracle as an event which violates a law of nature. That results in the conclusion that if an miracle were to occur, then the law of nature which it violates would be false, since such a law would be a generalization with at least one exception to it. Thus, some laws would be false (namely, the ones violated by miracles) and other laws would be true (namely, those not violated by any miracles). This way of speaking, distinguishing true laws of nature from false ones, may sound rather peculiar, but there seems to be no other meaningful way to permit talk of miracles to enter the discussion. The idea of a law still being useful even though it is false is a familiar one. Newton's Laws, for example, have been superseded in contemporary physics (and thus regarded as false), and yet they are still used in various practical fields. So, to speak of a law as false is not incoherent.

However, there is a problem here. Previously, a distinction was drawn between "genuine laws" and "erroneous (or superseded) laws." How could that distinction still be drawn if we allow that even some of the genuine laws might be false? Let us say that if genuine laws are false, it is only because of isolated counter-instances which cannot be explained or predicted on the basis of any other empirical laws. But when erroneous (or superseded) laws are false, it is because of regular counter-instances which are both explainable and predictable on the basis of other empirical laws. Atomic explosions, for example, occur according to known regularities on the basis of which they could be explained and predicted. Thus, the law that matter cannot be destroyed is an erroneous (or superseded) one. But if a man were to walk on water, although that would make Archimedes' Law false, it would not make it an erroneous law in the given sense. The counter-instance(s) would still be isolated and neither explainable nor predictable on the basis of any other empirical laws. Archimedes' Law could still be a genuine law, though it would no doubt be somewhat suspect under such circumstances.

What would be the result if people walking on water were to become commonplace? Suppose various men were to do it every year, say, on Easter Sunday. Their action could not be explained by Archimedes' Law, since the amount of fluid they displace as they walk on water does not correspond to a force sufficient to keep them from sinking. Some other force would be sought, but suppose that none is ever found and so their actions remain a mystery for science forever. Although such counter-instances to Archimedes' Law would in that case not be isolated events, they would still be miracles if, indeed, the law cannot be replaced by other natural laws which are not violated by the given events. Thus, miracles need not be isolated events, but they do need to be events that violate natural law which are forever unexplainable within the system of science.

2. Scientists' Attitudes

The philosophical issue which now comes into play is that of the relation between science and miracles (defined in the given way), particularly the attitude of scientists towards miracles. There seem to be at least the following possibilities:

(A) No scientist could ever believe in miracles under any circumstances.

(B) Scientists could believe in miracles, but not as scientists.

(C) Scientists could believe in miracles, even as scientists, but not when they are engaged in scientific research on the specific area in which the alleged miracles occur.

(D) Scientists, as scientists, could believe in miracles, even when engaged in scientific research on the specific area in which the alleged miracles occur, but such belief could not be regarded to be a result of the research or a scientific finding.

It seems clear that position (A) is incorrect, for there certainly have been scientists in the past who believed in miracles and there are still scientists today who do so (for example, many of those who identify themselves as Christians). But even if (A) is deleted, the question of which of the other positions is the correct one is rather difficult.

Certainly the last part of position (D) is correct. It could never be a scientific finding that a miracle occurred, for science is the attempt to understand reality in terms of the laws of nature. To say that a miracle occurred is to abandon the scientific (= naturalistic) perspective on the matter. If a scientist were to end up with such a belief, then it would be incompatible with the scientific point of view. It would be as if to say, "Here is something that could never be naturalistically explained and so it lies outside the domain of science."

It might be objected here that the purpose of science is not to try to understand reality but only to predict it and thereby control it. That is, science is of significance only to the extent that it yields (or has the prospect of yielding) technological results. This is the pragmatic view of the nature of science. I don't particularly care for it, since I find it too limited, but even if it were correct, it would still leave no room for any appeal to miracles within science. There is no way that an appeal to miracles could lead to theories which produce predictions or technological results. Thus, whether science is construed realistically or pragmatically, all appeals to miracles would be excluded from it.

But even if the last part of position (D), above, is correct, the first part of it may not be. It could be, instead, that (B) or (C) is the correct approach to take on this matter. Let us consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose a man is diagnosed with a terminal illness but then recovers fully. Such events have been known to happen and they are often termed "miracles." Some medical researchers believe that miracles, of that sort, do indeed occur. One main question is whether, when they express such belief, they can do so as scientists, or whether they necessarily do so only as laypersons (or private citizens, as it is sometimes put).

According to position (D), it is indeed possible for medical researchers to believe, as scientists, that a miraculous cure has occurred. It is simply that they cannot put this down as a "scientific finding." But it might be objected that if they cannot put the result down as a "scientific finding," then when they claim that a miracle has occurred, they are not speaking as scientists at all. In order to speak as a scientist, one must be in a position to report a scientific finding, for the reporting of such findings is a major component of science. The first part of (D), therefore, conflicts with its last part, and so (D) needs to be rejected.

According to position (C), it would be possible for other scientists to claim, as scientists, that a miraculous cure has occurred, but not those scientists (medical researchers) who are engaged in the specific area of research in question. But that seems rather anomalous. Why should scientists who are outside a particular field be in any better position to speak in the name of science on a matter related to that field than those scientists who are working in the very field in question? It would seem more reasonable to say that the people best able to speak in the name of science on a particular area would be the very scientists who are working in that area. Position (C) has other difficulties as well, but this one seems sufficient to refute it.

By a process of elimination, only position (B) remains, and that is the one which I shall endorse. Scientists can claim that miracles occur, but when they do so, they do so only as laypersons, not as scientists. But what, then, are we to say about such persons? Their minds seem to be compartmentalized into at least a scientific part and a religious part. When they think in terms of their profession, they have a positive outlook on science, assuming that what it deals with is in principle explainable by appeal to natural law, but when they think religiously, they have a negative outlook on science, assuming that there are aspects of reality that can never be explained by appeal to natural law, no matter how far science advances.

Why would anyone assume that science has such limits? What possible evidence could there be that there are events which science will be forever unable to explain? The only possible evidence is that certain events have not as yet been given naturalistic explanations. However, many such events in the past later came to be explained naturalistically. Thus, the mere use of induction should lead us to infer that, eventually, the events presently unexplained may very well, and perhaps even probably will, be explained. It would seem, then, that the epistemic stance most compatible with a scientific way of thinking would be to withhold judgement on whatever events have not as yet been explained naturalistically. To reason that what has not as yet been explained can never be explained would be invalid. It would be a non sequitur (more specifically, a kind of hasty generalization). Furthermore, one should not adopt a pessimistic outlook on science by calling such events "miraculous," for to do so would be not only unscientific, but anti-scientific as well.

Two points should be made regarding this matter. First, if there are scientists who have such a pessimistic (anti-scientific) outlook with regard to their own profession, then presumably they acquired it from religion, which partly regulates the early mental development of most children. There is certainly no scientific basis whatever for such pessimism. And, second, it may be that the belief in miracles is connected with the idea that there are aspects of reality which must be forever beyond scientific scrutiny. If one already believes that there are facts which it is impossible for science to explain, then one would be already predisposed towards a belief in miracles. Well, what sorts of facts might those be? Here are some possible candidates:

(A) Religious experiences in people
(B) Selfless love and sacrifice
(C) Objective values (e.g., morality)
(D) God and an afterlife
(E) Free will
(F) Mind or consciousness
(G) Life
(H) Basic uniformities of nature
(I) The fact that the uniformities permit life
(J) Laws of logic
(K) Abstract entities, like numbers
(L) The existence of the universe itself
(M) The fact that something exists

In each case, there are two questions: whether there is some fact there to be explained, and, if so, whether there is any hope that science might come up with a complete and adequate explanation of that fact. If, for some items on the list, the answers are "yes" and "no," respectively, then that would predispose one towards a belief in miracles. That is, if there are other facts to be explained which science can't possibly explain, then there is not so much involved in adding (the occurrence of) miracles to the list. I think that many of the items listed above are ones which religion appeals to as "facts beyond scientific explanation." At any rate, if one is indoctrinated by religion to believe that there are such facts, then the acceptance of miracles would come easily. If the person should later adopt science as a profession, then the kind of compartmentalization of the person's mind mentioned above would be an expected outcome.

It is an interesting question whether any items on the above list really have the features claimed for it by religion, that is: (1) a fact to be explained, and (2) forever incapable of any naturalistic explanation. I myself am inclined to deny it. For some of the items, it is condition (1) that fails to be met. I would say that of (C), (D), (J), (K), & (M). For all the other items, it is condition (2) that fails to be met: i.e., naturalistic explanations can be given. I shall not defend this here, for it is a large topic and beyond the scope of the present essay.

Perhaps the main question before us at this point is whether, within such mental compartmentalization as described above, the person necessarily holds incompatible beliefs. What it comes down to is the issue whether the scientist qua scientist must believe that all of reality is naturalistically explainable. If so, then scientists who believe in miracles would be inconsistent in their thinking.

We have already established that the scientist qua scientist cannot believe in miracles. But it is a further question whether he must deny that they ever occur. In other words, is the scientist qua scientist like an agnostic regarding miracles, neither believing in them nor denying them, or is he like an atheist, denying that they ever occur? If he is like an atheist, then for him to believe in miracles in some other compartment of his mind would be inconsistent, for it would contradict something that he believes in the scientific compartment. But if he is only like an agnostic, then there need be no such inconsistency. In his scientific compartment, there would (necessarily) be no belief in miracles, but there would not be anything that contradicts their occurrence either.

So, what is the answer? I argued above that when people work as scientists, they necessarily have a naturalistic worldview. But do they, in addition, necessarily believe that such a worldview is complete and not contradicted by anything else in reality? There are indeed scientists who do not regard the naturalistic worldview to be complete in that way. In their scientific work, they are only methodological naturalists and not also metaphysical naturalists. That is, they assume naturalism as an outlook presupposed by their scientific work, but they do not regard naturalism to be generally true of all reality. They might say, "I can make no reference to miracles here in science, but science is limited; there are aspects of reality that lie beyond it." Are such scientists necessarily deficient as scientists? I shall make no pronouncement on this matter here but will leave it open. Certainly scientists who believe in miracles have compartmentalized minds, and some of the time (in their religious life) they have not only an unscientific but an anti-scientific outlook. But whether they must also have inconsistent beliefs is a further matter, one which I shall leave to the reader to judge.

Two good essays on miracles may be found on the Secular Web as follows: "The Conception of the Miraculous and Christian Apologetics" by Keith Parsons at <URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/thesis/> and "Examining Miracle Claims" by Joe Nickell at <URL:/library/modern/joe_nickell/miracles.html>.

"Science and Miracles" is copyright © 1998 by Theodore M. Drange.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Theodore M. Drange.



Do Miracles Really Violate the Laws of Science?

Dr. Timothy McGrew is professor and chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University.

The late Christopher Hitchens, in his debates with Christians, liked to put his opponents on the spot with a straight question or two, gravely asked. “Do you really believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? Do you really believe that he rose from the dead?” If the Christian answered in the affirmative, Hitchens would turn to the audience with a theatrical flourish: “Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, my opponent has just demonstrated that science has done nothing for his worldview.”

It is always a shrewd move to paint one’s adversary as an enemy of science, and Hitchens rarely let slip an opportunity for good theater. But good theater is not always good reasoning. Did Hitchens really believe that first century Jews didn’t know where babies come from or that Roman soldiers didn’t know how to kill an unarmed man? Did he doubt that peasants in an agrarian society had seen enough death to know that in the natural course of things, men who are dead—completely dead, not just mostly dead—stay that way? Christians from Pentecost onward have been shouting from the rooftops the astounding message that Jesus, who was crucified and buried, had risen bodily from the dead. Did Hitchens really think he could show them up by suggesting that there is something out of the ordinary about the claim?

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Can Atheists Believe in Miracles? Can Theists Reject Them?

Elliott Sober is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Can atheists believe in miracles without contradicting themselves? Can theists disbelieve in them, again without contradicting themselves? In both cases, the answer depends on what you mean by a miracle.

Atheists believe that God does not exist. If a miracle is defined as an event that is brought about by divine intervention, then atheists are obliged to think that miracles don’t exist. However, if you adopt a different definition of a miracle, the situation is different.

People often speak of “the miracle of childbirth,” meaning that the event is awe-inspiring and welcome. Atheists can and do believe that miracles in this sense are not only possible; like their fellow theists and agnostics, atheists think it is obvious that such miracles actually occur. 

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The Ubiquity of the Miraculous

Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Is it possible to believe in miracles today? That might depend on how one defines “possible,” but certainly the majority of the world’s population does believe in what could be called miracles. This is true even in many parts of the secular Western world. Thus surveys over the past few decades have placed belief in miracles in the United States at roughly 80 percent. Indeed, one wide survey of physicians gave a figure of 73 percent, with over half of U.S. doctors believing that they had witnessed one.

Moreover, for many, the belief in miracles goes beyond the merely hypothetical to how they understand some of their experiences. One 2006 Pew Forum Survey of Pentecostals and charismatics in ten countries suggests that some 200 million people from these groups claim to have witnessed divine healing. Even more surprising, 39 percent of Christians in these countries who did not identify as Pentecostal or charismatic claimed to have witnessed divine healing.

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The Irrationality of Belief in Miracles

Larry Shapiro is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

Consider one of the “big” miracles, by which I mean those that require divine intervention. Events that are simply awe-inspiring or marvelous—like the “miracle” of childbirth or the Miracle on Ice—don’t count. Instead, consider examples such as Jesus rising from the dead or turning water into wine; Moses parting the Red Sea; a trace of oil burning for eight nights. Events like these require divine intervention because, presumably, without such intervention the natural laws according to which the universe marches would have prevented them from happening.

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At Twilight of the Sabbath Eve

Lenn Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.

Biblically, there is bound to be some tension between talk of miracles and thoughts of nature, with God its guarantor. The Talmudic Rabbis seek to ease the tension by imagining the prominent exceptions to nature’s regularity woven into its fabric from the start:

Ten things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korah and his cohort (Numbers 16)], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the mouth of the she-ass [of Balaam (Numbers 22:28)], the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-17), the manna (Exodus 16:14-26), Moses’ rod (Exodus 4:17, etc.), the Shamir [whose tracks cleaved the stones for Solomon’s temple, lest any iron tool desecrate it with even a suggestion of bloodshed (Exodus 20:22, 1 Kings 6:7)], the letters, writing, and tablets [of the Decalogue (Exodus 24:12)].... And some say, the tongs made with tongs. (Mishnah Avot 5.8)

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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. 

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When Is Belief in Miracles Rational?

Hans Halvorson is Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University.

A recent New York Times bestseller presents numerous accounts of surprising events in the lives of everyday people, arguing that these events were miracles. Should you believe it? My answer here is simple: for any event you experience in your life, no matter how strange, surprising, or wonderful, you should not believe that it is a miracle. Similarly, if somebody tells you that a miracle occurred, you should not believe him.

Really? What if an oncologist is 100 percent certain that her patient has terminal cancer and cannot possibly recover? And yet, when that person’s church holds a prayer vigil, miraculously the next day, the cancer is gone. Would it be rational to suppose that a miracle occurred? I’m sorry to sound harsh, but the answer is No. The oncologist, and everybody else, should continue believing that there is a perfectly cogent scientific explanation for the patient’s recovery.

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Does God Intervene in the World?

Owen Gingerich is Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard University.

The word miracles derives from the Latin word for wonder.

I asked several of my friends what is the greatest wonder in the universe today, and the most common answer was the same as mine: the birth of a human baby. The complexity of the process from a microscopic beginning to a macroscopic infant is wondrously awesome. And to top this off, the human brain is the single most complicated thing we know about in the entire universe.

But in common usage, wonderful is not the same as miracle. To be a miracle there has to be something unexpected, something that goes against the grain of ordinary experience.

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Personal Miracles

Susan Grove Eastman is Associate Research Professor of the New Testament at Duke University.

Are miracles possible? This is a distinctly modern question. It presumes the existence of a “natural world” governed by laws that must be broken for a miracle to occur and a “spiritual world” of divine action that may operate contrary to the laws of nature. But if we take off the post-Enlightenment lenses that make such a distinction between the natural and the spiritual realms, then the question looks very different.

For example, the Greek word translated “miracle” in the New Testament writings of the first century is dynamis, or “power.” Think “dynamite.” When Jesus does “works of power,” the point is not that he contravenes some independently existing natural order, but that he personally enacts the presence and power of God. There were other “miracle workers,” both Jewish and pagan, in the ancient world; the “possibility” of such demonstrations of power was not debated. What mattered was determining their source. How do we recognize a powerful event as coming from God? The question is not, “Are miracles possible?” but, “How do we know or recognize God’s action?” And that question takes us to questions about how we know anything or anyone at all. In answer to this question, the writings of some contemporary cognitive scientists and the ancient letters of Paul converge in surprising ways.

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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.

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A Deeper Vision of Nature

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and author of the acclaimed biography C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013).

Debates about miracles have become fairly predictable set pieces these days, partly because the arguments on both sides are so familiar. One of the problems is that so much seems to depend on definition. David Hume famously defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature,” raising the difficult question of what it would mean for a “law of nature” to be violated. If the laws of nature are simply summative statements of natural regularities, an apparent “violation” of those laws could be seen as a miracle—but would more reasonably be taken as an indication that what had hitherto been assumed to be a “law of nature” was actually nothing of the sort. No law of nature was violated, because it wasn’t a “law” in the first place.

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