Are miracles beyond scientific analysis?
Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight starts a new series on miracles with a look at how miracles fit in with scientific knowledge.
In a previous article here on Network Norwich and Norfolk we had an in-depth look at miracles as a theoretical investigation, exploring what they really are in the grand scheme of creation and revelation. Following my Easter message last week, I want to look at some other aspects of the miraculous, and this week my focus is on how miracles might fit into our current knowledge of science.
Miracles are, of course, a wonderful way of telling people about Jesus by the sharing of experiences. That is to say, relaying our extraordinary experiences to others provides us with a great means for witnessing and helping others to see that the world is more amazing than everyday activities indicate. But it ought to be admitted that a great many sceptics are very unconvinced by tales of the miraculous, naturally choosing to opt for any other explanation rather than a supernatural one, so it is important that we approach this issue in the right way. The litmus test regarding the truth of Christianity is that if it is indeed true we expect to see the following three things:
- That God did as He said He would - that He lived on earth, performed miracles, and died for us and rose again so that we can have salvation.
- That He would make it incredibly easy for us to know Him – so that all we would have to do is search honestly and humbly and He would show Himself to us.
- That He would constantly show Himself through prayers being answered, miracles, healings, cognitive impartations, spiritual gifts, etc.
And this is exactly what we find. The truth of Christianity and the set of propositions that would accompany such a truth are found to be operating in every walk of life in every nation – God is tangibly present and the supernatural and the miraculous can be found whenever one’s eyes are open. But as I have said the main problem we face with testimonies of the miraculous is that they are conveyed second and third hand and are thus unconvincing to those hearing the accounts in this way. This causes real problems for the Christian who is hoping to convince by testimony alone– it is a catch 22; his interlocutor won’t believe in miracles unless he sees one or experiences one, yet he won’t go to a place where he might see one or experience one because his beliefs that they are false are prohibiting his desire to go. In order to help tackle this catch 22, we must look at the situation more expansively and see how the philosophical approach might work.
Are miracles beyond scientific analysis?
When the subject of the miraculous is coupled with people’s views of science, the topic often causes much disagreement. Now one has to admit straight away that even though we Christians are pretty consensual on what miracles are, this is not an easy subject; therefore before we go any further we ought to look at what is perhaps the most common and eloquently articulated definition of how miracles fit into creation, given to us by C.S Lewis. He says:
"It is inaccurate to define a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature. It doesn't. If I knock out my pipe I alter the position of a great many of atoms: in the long run, and to an infinitesimal degree, of all the atoms there are. Nature digests or assimilates this event with perfect ease and harmonizes it in a twinkling with all other events....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 over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born....If events come from beyond nature altogether she will (not) be incommoded by them. Be sure that she will rush to the point where she is invaded as the defensive forces rush to a cut on our finger, and there hasten to accommodate the new comer. The moment it enters her realm it will obey all her laws."
Now it ought to be noted that there are difficulties with Lewis’s interpretation; after all, there are many miraculous events in history that are not comparable to knocking out a pipe (which incidentally isn’t miraculous at all). The altering of the atomic configuration from spilled pipe ashes may well become harmonised in nature ‘in a twinkling with all other events’ as Lewis says, but something else, like say, the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19) does not, as nuclear transmutation does not happen in that way. There are other Biblical accounts that do not sit with Lewis’s principle either - the burning bush is a good example. The first law of thermodynamics says that energy is conserved in any process involving a thermodynamic system and its surroundings; that is to say, the increase in the internal energy of a system is equal to the amount of energy added by heating the system minus the amount lost as a result of the work done by the system on its surroundings.
Thus we can see quite clearly that a bush burning but without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics. Another example, Lazarus was brought back to life after being dead for over three days (John 11) - but with death all his ATP would equilibrate to ADP and his body would start to decompose (particularly in a hot climate like the Middle East), thus the miracle breaks the second law of thermodynamics (that the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time), as nature cannot reverse the effects of the second law on a dead body, even if it is entombed. A third example, Peter walking on water (Matthew 14) contradicts Archimedes’ principle which states that any object wholly or partially immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.
Given the foregoing examples we can see that C.S Lewis’s claim that “It is inaccurate to define a miracle as something that breaks the laws of Nature” is wrong - on first showing natural law and the Biblical miracles cannot be reconciled by simply postulating an open-ended nature, for then we might as well say “The first law of thermodynamics says that energy is neither created nor destroyed, unless God breaks that law”. But this leads us to an important question about how ‘open’ or ‘closed’ nature really is, and it is that issue that I turn to next.
Is nature open-ended or not?
Is nature open-ended? Yes and no. Clearly nature is not so open that we can say ‘all things are possible’. The laws of nature work, and our ability to theorise consistently with them and in accordance with how they assent to our expectations has been demonstrated extensively. We know that all things are ‘not’ possible because the laws work and all the evidence certainly points to a system that is not entirely open-ended. Moreover, we would not have acquired even a fraction of the knowledge we have if the universe was entirely open-ended. The functioning of the universe is consistent and its concomitant laws are interdependent. For example, the second law of thermodynamics and Archimedes’ principle can be arrived at from classical mechanics, which can be arrived at from quantum theory. Pre-relativistic physics led the way for our understanding that energy and mass are the same thing, and that neither one appears without the other. Conservation of energy states that the total amount of energy in a closed system remains constant over time. This is consistent with the finding that chemical energy can become thermal energy. Conservation of momentum is due to the cosmological principle; conservation of angular momentum is due to the isotropy of space. Furthermore, the second law of thermodynamics, in a strange way, also implies Einstein's relativity, from which classical mechanics can also be propounded, as well as the conditions for the conservation laws above.
There are many other examples I could give, but from the few just mentioned, clearly we can see that the great disciplines of science are concomitantly consistent with one another, and in most cases dependent on one another and on a general regularity in the universe. Now of course, we have achieved a great deal with science and acquired a huge amount of knowledge about the vastness of our universe. We can even measure the spectra of stars all the way to the edge of the observable universe; we can look at the salient features of these spectra and explain them with precisely the same laws that explain the phenomena we observe on earth (we can even determine their composition). So in summary, all things are not possible, but equally nature is to us slightly open-ended (that is, is endowed with ‘possibility’) in the sense that we allow for new information and new knowledge with fresh discoveries.
It ought to be pointed out that some scientists have gotten into the habit of underestimating the potential for new discoveries – and while we can agree with them that the created order admits statistical descriptions that provide us with the degree of uniformity and regularity necessary for our epistemology, the staggering dimensions of possibility that potentially await our discovery may even be inimical to probability estimates (think of all the one-off events that come upon us). Using the second law as en example, the laws of physics imposes order on the universe in that the physical model has many possible states but regulating laws limit those possibilities, and the microscopic provisions demonstrate thermodynamic laws from which we can observe that hotter regions become colder, and colder regions do not become hotter. But despite this, our knowledge of the created order remains open-ended in the sense that nature reveals more of herself to us as humankind progresses in knowledge and scientific capacity – things that our ancestors would have once thought supernatural are now readily explicable and accessible in the contemporary field of science and technology, and laws that we once thought mechanical are now seen in accordance with a peculiar sense of randomness and quantum unpredictability.
So given that 1) Christians view nature as one big miracle created by God, and 2) we have acquired a prodigious amount of knowledge about nature yet still admit that miracles are to be seen as category distinctions within the grand miracles of creation, how are we to view these anomalous events that occur periodically in creation? Well, with regard to water turning into wine all by itself (as an example), you might remember that I said in a previous article that although the odds against it are probably so great that if you had the entire 14 billion year history of the universe to write them out, you couldn’t write a number big enough (see Borel’s law as a good rule of thumb), changes in the structure of atomic nuclei and in the numbers of orbiting electrons could conceivably bring about the vast changes needed to turn water instantly into wine – it is not beyond the realms of possibility. The same cannot be said regarding the Devil’s request for Jesus to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:3), for here we see something entirely different – a process that would not occur no matter how long nature endured. The Bible says that the Son can do nothing of Himself but what He sees the Father do, and this probably applies to the whole of nature – Jesus does on a small scale what the Father does throughout the whole of nature, but I will return to that in a moment.
Going back to the water into wine miracle, if we consider all the reactions that would have to occur, we see that although the processes of Christ’s methods are beyond empirical and scientific scope, one can in theory at least suggest what in nature would have to be altered slightly for this miracle to occur. Wine contains thousands of different types of molecules, all in the right proportion, and under nature’s laws not a single one of them would generate spontaneously from air and water, as CO2 and H2O are more stable than organic compounds made of the same atoms (which, incidentally, is why organic compounds are flammable). In order to form the bonds between the atoms, Jesus would presumably need to procure supplementary energy from the environment – that is, energy would have to be aggregated to make the series of reactions to form these molecules. Under normal circumstances energy wouldn’t do that – energy spreads out (which explains why when you open a can of coke the air fizzes out and a vibrational increase occurs) – but under these conditions it wouldn’t be very much of a violation for this process to occur, nor would it take very much manipulation for the hydrophobic components of wine to enter the liquid, but it would take a very peculiar twist in natural law for stones to turn into bread.
Why is the distinction between water into wine and stones into bread important here? Well, nature seems to be endowed with a regularity through which God communicates His purposes, and conveys the created order, thus it is easy to see why bread from stones is much more anomalous than water into wine. Whether it is through our perceptions of the miraculous, or through natural order, God will heal, and feed, and, in the end, raise us from the dead – nature and God’s sustenance provide a combination fit for His purposes. And whether God heals a man’s torn ligaments instantly after the elders have prayed over him or whether He does it over time through the body’s natural capacity to heal itself, it is all God’s work, and the glory belongs to Him and Him alone – thus with water into wine there is a relevance in relation to God’s nature that we would not find with a stone into bread miracle – the latter is not part of a creation that we understand. Equally whether He feeds five thousand people with only enough food for a small family, or whether He provides the rich pickings for a banquet big enough for a whole city, it is God at work every time – as I said, He has given us a nature that feeds and heals, and He has given us a Son of God through whom we can conquer death.
The relevance of miracles
I received an email earlier in the year as a response to my original article on miracles; it was from a sceptic who does not believe in miracles. Ironically, this gentleman is a believer in God (he is a Jehovah’s Witness) but does not believe that miracles have happened since the first century – a belief I find peculiar, to say the least. What I find more peculiar is his reason for believing this – he claims that since the development of science, the question of whether or not miracles happen becomes a scientific question, and that as science has never shown a miracle has happened we must conclude that they have not happened.
The question is - is he right? I would say he is wrong, but the reasons why I think he is wrong aren’t much to do with science; for if miracles can be analysed scientifically, there is no reason to suppose that we would ever be in the right place in the right time to analyse them; and if miracles are beyond scientific analysis then his contention is automatically negated. To show that some things are in theory amenable to scientific analysis yet so utterly intractable that they might never get found out, let us take the spontaneous arrival of life in the primordial soup as a good case in point. It could be true that on one occasion on our planet a few billion years ago life spontaneously arrived, and that that is the only time it has happened in the history of our universe. That being the case, our chemical analysis of such an occurrence might be beset with futility – after all, if such an event was so uncommon that it would only happen once, the conditions under which such an occurrence took place would be so rare and exceptional that it would make scientific analysis of it tremendously difficult, if not impossible.
Now clearly, even aside from the difficulty (often impossibility) of our predicting a miracle, the argument I just gave regarding the spontaneous occurrence of life would in most cases provide the same difficulty for the gentleman who claimed in his email that science would provide us with evidence for the miraculous. It would be true of course that if a sceptic decided to attend, say, a healing service where there were miracles expected to take place, he would place himself in a position to see miracles, but then he could hardly claim that the world has not presented us with any evidence for miracles because he could see them for himself. So on that point as well, my sceptical friend’s position is difficult to concur with.
So in exploring the question of whether miracles are beyond scientific analysis we have to say that the answer is yes and no. In the sense that in the physical sciences one can infer from behaviour what might be the expected outcome of announced healings or salvation with regard to change of character, then there is certainly some scope for procedural analysis. But regarding the test/refute conditions under which physical scientists usually operate, the subject of miracles, as we have already seen, becomes more problematical. An acknowledged event of instantaneity like, say, Christ’s water into wine miracle at Cana (which we have already covered), and the healing of a blind man or His healing of a paralytic may well be beyond the transient test/refute magnifications under which science so often operates. If reality is a kind of highly coherent simulation of the Divine realm then Christ’s manipulations of that reality may have in most cases such an area of analytical or empirical impregnability that the very notion of scientific analysis is outmoded for this kind of mystique. One case in point might be when, say, a man’s torn ligaments are instantly healed as the result of a miracle from God (I was reading a testimony of this kind recently). A scientist might like to examine the flesh before and after the miracles and look for cellular differences (such as new tissue), but if the same Divine activity is occurring here as I conjectured with the water into wine miracle, this might be beyond the sphere in which scientists would ordinarily operate. The point is that the mystique of the miraculous (particularly miracles after which the anatomy can be examined) as a concept raises some rather practical and procedural issues and in the mind of many Christians is often portrayed as a precept beyond the writ of authorised examination.
The world of nature and the extraordinary occurrences of God acting in miraculous ways is too complex for us to get a full cognitive purchase on its deeper mystique, but simple enough for us to assemble its many elements and variables in order to possess a rational grip on its complex objects, patterns and potentialities, and construct a reasonable coherent sense-making worldview. Given that God is Supreme, the starting point of such explanations is the most complex things in the cosmos, namely human cognisance, the societies perceived by it and the long history of events from which we construct a coherent worldview. As is often the case when we are constructing worldviews from implicit rationality and explicit sense-making that is readily available to everyone else, the explanation of the elementary is found in more complex facets of human cognisance and the reliability of information sharing and the condition of society as a whole. Not only does this impinge upon the relationship between scientific analysis and the miraculous, but in fact, given that most of science consists of simple physical principles explaining complex physical outputs, they are at the opposite ends of the sense-making spectrum.
In other words, given that in the physical sciences simple constructs may be used to account for complex events, and in our worldview of the miraculous, complex constructs may be used to account for more accessible analyses, we can see that science isn’t necessarily the best road to take to uncover truths about the miraculous. When our Lord talks about our knowing Him and experiencing the stupendous miracle of salvation and a relationship with Him, He does not encourage us to take the circuitous routes of science or long philosophical enquiries, or time-consuming searches for proof - He gives us the simplest commission of all – ask and He will reveal Himself; for those who search with all their heart will be the ones that come to know Him. Of course all this talk of apprehending the Divine would not be much use if He hadn’t given us the fantastic ability for a deep realisation of the concept of God, and this, I would contend, is the principal reason to think that nature is not the whole story, but a prelude to a much greater and more exciting disquisition.
Having gone over some good ground here, the next main point of focus is perhaps even more of an interesting subject to look at - because when we consider different quantum perspectives like the wave particle duality and other queer things in the universe, the question of ‘how’ God might be running the show is valuable, and that will be my focus next week. For now, let me just say that what we perceive and what is going out there externally (what Kant called ‘noumenally’) is interesting because I get the feeling that often if one thinks he can model a process with mathematics or an algorithm he makes the leap to saying that the process is doing the mathematics and conducting the algorithm, imputing a sort of sentience or design to the universe (one sees this all the time in William Dembski’s Intelligent Design). There is a constant switch, for instance they claim that the information in DNA is like a language - but then they leap to saying that it actually IS a language, and then argue that DNA being a language must be communicating intentional information, and so on. In other words, A is somewhat like B, so A is B. With if A is B, the full implications of B must reflect on all the properties of A. Because biological aspects of nature have been explained through modern scientific theories like quantum mechanics, they take it to mean that since quantum mechanics is represented in mathematical terms, it requires designed computations to produce the predictions we use from quantum mechanics. The reductio ad absurdum is that given quantum mechanics therefore it must be using mathematics on its own, and since people use mathematics and since people design things, then elements that use mathematics must be proof of design in the universe. But as we’ll see next week, this is not very sensible
Here I’m reminded of the fallacious mistake of the reversal / converse where one equates "X then Y" with "Y then X", which was famously used by Lewis Carroll in his Alice In Wonderland, parodying the "if/then" structure leading Alice into a logical fallacy. Of course, ‘I mean what I say’ isn’t that same thing as ‘I say what I mean’. Think about going into a bookshop; ‘I read what I buy’ isn’t the same thing as ‘I buy what I read’ – you’d never spend any time browsing.
I remember meeting a physicist gentleman who, upon pondering the atomic forces and attractions that hold a rock together, claimed that the rock is ‘doing’ atomic particle computations, to which I replied 'rocks don’t do computations'. Rather than my interlocutor saying 'rocks do computations', a more accurate statement would be that a rock has atomic activity that is amenable to computational simulations (albeit a very large simulation, even for a rock), otherwise one starts becoming susceptible to what is called a 'pathetic fallacy' where one ascribes a kind of personification to things that are just acting in a way that matches our methods of measuring or giving metaphor to the physical regime. In that sense a rock no more does computations than a star awakens, or a red rose cries, or a white rose weeps. The term 'computation' is a term imputed to nature solely on the basis that it is how we define and measure and compute and conceptualise nature's physical regime.
So next week my principal interest will be to focus on this extraordinarily interesting question; given the general notion that in quantum mechanics we have absolute randomness, and things that appear absolutely unknowable, and moreover things that seem completely acausal (uninhibited by cause and effect) - is the answer to the question of these miracles and their anomalous nature to be found in God running and sustaining a cosmos in ways that we just cannot understand, or is their 'possibility' somehow embedded in the vastly complex cosmological algorithms that God instantiated in nature's original blueprint? In other words, are these miraculous events woven into the universal fabric and liable to pop up at the behest of the Almighty, or is God active in nature in ways that go beyond physical reality? It’s a big question, and the answer may be bigger still.
Part two next week
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James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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