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Norwich talk on ‘Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?’

Revd Dr Rodney Holder from the Faraday Institute, Cambridge talked about how a scientist can still believe in miracles at an Science and Faith in Norfolk event on March 6, attended by 80 people of various views.

Event report by Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin

Dr Holder first noted that there have been many scientists who do believe in miracles. An astrophysicist himself, he noted that James Clerk Maxwell, often considered one of the greatest physicists of all time after Newton and Einstein, was one such believer. So, scientists can believe in miracles, but can they do so rationally?

The 18th Century Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume described a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature”. He argued that “as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

In contrast to Hume’s idea, St Augustine argued that God has established and sustains the lawful order of nature and remains supreme over it. Miraculous events are not against nature from God’s perspective, for nature depends totally on God.

Hume was writing against the background of a deterministic “clockwork” view of nature. For example, Pierre Simon-Laplace famously thought that Newtonian laws in principle allowed the calculation of any and every position of every being in the universe. But, given quantum uncertainty and chaotic systems, this is not the current view. In the words of physicist theologian John Polkinghorne, ‘There is an emergent property of flexible process, which encourages us to see Newton’s rigidly deterministic account as no more than an approximation to a more supple reality.’ The view of laws of nature as forcing rigid certainties is now outdated.

Furthermore, as CS Lewis argued, Hume’s claim that experience against miracles is “firm and unalterable” assumes that all reports and experiences of miracles are false, and so assumes exactly what he needs to prove. In fact, Hume’s views on probability were shown to be deficient when Bayes’ theorem was published in 1763. Ordinary testimony and evidence of miracles from many different sources can in principle accumulate to overcome the initial improbability. Our current understanding of science and probability does not allow us to dismiss all reports of miracles either as “violations of the laws of nature” or as obviously unbelievable. The talk prompted lively group discussions and questions about, amongst many other things, the symbolic nature of biblical miracle stories, and how reports of the resurrection of Jesus compare to miracle stories in other religions.

The meeting was organised by Science Faith Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group affiliated to Christians in Science.

The next event will be the annual Science-Faith Cathedral Lecture to be held on Wednesday 10th May from 7.00 – 8.30 pm in Norwich Anglican Cathedral. Professor Tom McLeish, a distinguished physicist from the University of Durham will give a lecture entitled: “Why God loves Science and Science needs God”.

For further information contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); sfnorfolk1@gmail.com.

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