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16 Reasons Why I Believe In God: (13) Miracles (Part 1)

James Hoskins

Raising of Lazarus, by Giuseppe salviati (c. 1540) - Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Raising of Lazarus, by Giuseppe salviati (c. 1540) - Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

If God does not exist, then miracles are impossible, since by "miracle" we mean an act of God that does not fit the regular patterns of nature. If there were, however, good reasons to think an extraordinary event had occurred that could not be explained by the regularities of nature, then it could be an additional reason to believe in God, in the right context. It turns out that there is such an event. But I will have to save it for part 2 of this post. First, I need to dispel some common misconceptions about miracles. If I don't address these first, then the miracle event I talk about in my next post will not be given a fair treatment.

What A Miracle Is

The first thing to make clear about miracles is how we define them. Since a miracle is a theological concept, we must look to theology, not science, for its definition.

Within orthodox Christian theology, a miracle is defined simply as an extraordinary act of God, and is contrasted with "ordinary" acts of God. A big misconception people have (both religious believers and non-believers) is that God is not active in the regular patterns of nature -- that nature runs completely on its own. But that is not the view of biblical theology.

According to the Christian perspective, God is not only the Creator and Designer of the universe, he is also its Sustainer -- he actively upholds its existence through each passing moment. That does not mean God is pushing every electron and directly causing every event, as though the universe was his puppet. But it does mean that he is active in normal events, at the very least by sustaining the existence of all things and upholding the patterned regularity of the universe.

This definition is contrary to the notion that a miracle is God "tampering" with his Creation, as if the universe is a machine-engine, and God is its imperfect mechanic. A miracle is not an occasional intervention by God, rather it is a part of God's continued and ongoing action that is extraordinary (to us) in the sense that it doesn't fit the pattern of his ordinary actions.

With this definition in mind, it is easier to see why popular notions about miracles and science are confused and wrong.

Miracles and Science

Science can never say whether or not miracles are possible. A very popular misunderstanding is that scientific discoveries have somehow proved miracles can't happen. This is just conceptually confused, sloppy thinking.

Science, by definition, studies the regularities of nature and looks for patterns and correlations between events. But the only types of events that science can examine are regular, predictable, and (in principle) repeatable events.

Miracles, on the other hand, are by definition irregular, unpredictable, and scientifically unrepeatable events. Hence, whether miracles are possible or not, science can never say because science cannot "see" miracles. There is no laboratory test scientists could conduct, no mathematical model they could construct, to see whether or not miracles occur.

Science can only give us increasing knowledge about the patterns of events in the universe. It can't tell us whether or not an exception to those patterns is possible. Science is essentially indifferent to the possibility of miracles.

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

Miracles do not violate the laws of nature. Another common misconception is that belief in miracles is unscientific because, if a miracle did occur, it would be a violation of the laws of nature. And since the laws can't be violated, then miracles are scientifically impossible. This idea is mistaken (and unscientific) for several reasons:

First, the laws of nature are not these things that exist somewhere and that have causal power to make events happen. Rather, the laws are merely descriptions of what generally occurs in our experience -- they do not make anything happen. The laws, therefore, have no power to prevent a miracle.

In his book Miracles C.S. Lewis explains:

We are in the habit of talking as if [the laws of nature] caused events to happen; but they have never caused any event at all. The laws of motion [for example] do not set billiard balls moving: they analyse the motion after something else (say, a man with a cue, or a lurch of the liner, or, perhaps, supernatural power) has provided it. They produce no events: they state the pattern to which every event -- if only it can be induced to happen -- must conform, just as the rules of arithmetic state the pattern to which all transactions with money must conform -- if only you can get hold of any money.[1]

Second, even the way the laws themselves are stated scientifically does not prohibit miracles. For example, a typical statement of the law of conservation of energy would be: "in an isolated system, energy is not created or destroyed, it only changes from one form to another -- the total internal energy of the system remains constant." The qualifying phrase here is "in an isolated system." The law states only what will happen within a "closed" system -- i.e. a universe with no input from outside. But the law does not claim that the universe is in fact a closed, isolated system. That part is open for debate.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers an entertaining illustration for why the scientific statement of the laws does not prohibit miracles:

It is entirely possible for God to create a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square without violating the principle of conservation of energy. That is because the systems including the horse would not be closed or isolated. For that very reason, there would be no violation of the principle of conservation of energy, which says only that energy is conserved in closed or causally isolated systems -- ones not subject to any outside causal influence. It says nothing at all about conservation of energy in systems that are not closed.[2]

Third, not only do miracles not violate the laws of nature, neither do they require the suspension of the patterns those laws describe. If God were to perform a miracle, all the patterns of events (and laws that describe them) would still apply.

C.S. Lewis again:

If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born... If events ever come from beyond Nature altogether... she [Nature] will rush to the point where she is invaded, as the defensive forces rush to a cut in our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the newcomer. The moment it enters her realm it obeys all her laws. Miraculous wine will intoxicate, miraculous bread will be digested. The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.[3]

To summarize, science in no way limits the possibility of miracles for the following reasons:

  • Science can only examine regular, predictable, and (in principal) repeatable events. But miracles are, by definition, irregular, unpredictable, and unrepeatable events.
  • The laws of nature are merely descriptions of the patterns of nature -- they have no power to make anything happen. The laws, therefore, are incapable of preventing a miracle from occurring.
  • The laws, in their scientific wording, only describe what will happen within a closed, isolated system. They make no claims as to whether the universe actually is a closed system. Hence, even the wording of the laws does not prohibit miracles.
  • If a miracle occurred, all the patterns and laws that describe them would still apply and follow.

Thus, the claim that science disproves miracles is not only inaccurate, it is unscientific, since it misrepresents the types of events science can study and what the laws actually say.

A Theological Objection

There is one final objection to miracles that I've come across, and it is this: it would be deceptive of God to perform a miracle. And since God is incapable of lying, miracles can't occur. The idea here is that science must presuppose that the universe always works according to certain laws and patterns without exception. If it doesn't, then God has deceived us and we can't do science effectively.

The first thing to note about this objection is that it is theological, not scientific. To say, "God can (or can't) do X, therefore Y" is to make a theological argument; not an argument based in science.

The second thing to note about this objection is that it is philosophically and theologically prejudiced. Philosophically, it assumes that science can only be done effectively if the universe is a closed system. Theologically, it assumes that a God who would not perform miracles is better than one who does. But I see no reason to accept either of those assumptions.

The last thing to note is just how unreasonable this objection seems. Why should we think that a miracle, as defined above, is a deception? If, as Plantinga and Lewis convincingly argued, a miracle in no way violates a law or pattern of nature, then what's the problem? How is a miracle the same as God "deceiving" us? It isn't. Only those who have a confused idea of miracles, science, or the laws of nature would argue such a thing.

With these objections and misconceptions out of the way, we can now look at an actual instance of an alleged miraculous event, and see how it points to God's existence. More on that in Part 2 of this post...

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Further Reading

*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!

 

Endnotes

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), p. 93.

2. Alvin Plantinga, Where The Conflict Really Lies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 79.

3. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), p. 94-95.