God and Science

V. Miracles, Wonders, Signs: God's Interactions with the World

Table of Contents

I. Introductory Notes

II. Is God Necessary?

III. Is the World Necessary?

IV. Theodicy: The Problem of Evil

V. Miracles, Wonders, Signs: God's Interactions with the World

VI. Appendix: Scientific Theories and Science's Life Cycles

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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"And from the great and well-known miracles a man comes to admit to hidden miracles which are the foundation of the whole Torah. A person has no portion in the Torah of Moses unless he believes that all our matters and circumstances are miracles and they do not follow nature or the general custom of the world …rather, if one does mitzvoth he will succeed due to the reward he merits …" (Nachmanides, or Ramba"n on Exodus 13:16)

“This Universe remains perpetually with the same properties with which the Creator has endowed it… none of these will ever be changed except by way of miracle in some individual instances….” (Maimonides, Ramba"m, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:29).

"(N)othing then, comes to pass in nature in contravention to her universal laws, nay, nothing does not agree with them and follow from them, for . . . she keeps a fixed and immutable order... (A) miracle, whether in contravention to, or beyond, nature, is a mere absurdity ...  We may, then, be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws." (Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologica-Politicus)

"Those whose judgment in these matters is so inclined that they suppose themselves to be helpless without miracles, believe that they soften the blow which reason suffers from them by holding that they happen but seldom ... How seldom? Once in a hundred years? . . . Here we can determine nothing on the basis of knowledge of the object . . . but only on the basis of the maxims which are necessary to the use of our reason. Thus, miracles must be admitted as (occurring) daily (though indeed hidden under the guise of natural events) or else never . . . Since the former alternative is not at all compatible with reason, nothing remains but to adopt the later maxim - for this principle remains ever a mere maxim for making judgments, not a theoretical assertion ... (For example: the) admirable conservation of the species in the plant and animal kingdoms, . . . no one, indeed, can claim to comprehend whether or not the direct influence of the Creator is required on each occasion ...  (T)hey are for us, . . . nothing but natural effects and ought never to be adjudged otherwise . . . To venture beyond these limits is rashness and immodesty . . . In the affairs of life, therefore, it is impossible for us to count on miracles or to take them into consideration at all in our use of reason." (Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone)

Miracles have always been a lucrative business. Mindful of its bottom line, the Medieval Church went as far as threatening those who would not embark on pilgrimage to one of its repositories of relics and holy sites. But are miracles for real? Can God suspend the Laws of Nature, or even change or "cancel" them?

I. Historical Overview

God has allegedly created the Universe, or, at least, as Aristotle postulated, he acted as the "Unmoved Mover". But Creation was a one-time interaction. Did God, like certain software developers, embed in the world some "backdoors" or "Easter eggs" that allow Him to intervene in exceptional circumstances and change the preordained and predestined course of events? If he did, out go the concepts of determinism and predestination, thus undermining (and upsetting) quite a few religious denominations and schools of philosophy.

The Stoics were pantheists. They (and Spinoza, much later) described God (not merely the emanation of the Holy Ghost, but the genuine article Himself) as all-pervasive, His unavoidable ubiquity akin to the all-penetrating presence of the soul in a corporeal body. If God is Nature, then surely He can do as He wishes with the Laws of Nature?

Not so. Philo from Alexandria convincingly demonstrated that a perfect being can hardly be expected to remain in direct touch with imperfection. Lacking volition, wanting nothing, and not in need of thought, God, suggested Philo, uses an emanation he called "Logos" (later identified by the Apologists with Christ) as an intermediary between Himself and His Creation.

The Neoplatonist Plotinus concurred: Nature may need God, but it was a pretty one-sided relationship. God used emanations to act upon the World's stage: these were beings coming from Him, but not of Him. The Council of Nicea (325 AD) dispensed of this multiplication: the Father, the Son (Logos), and the Holy Ghost were all of the same substance, they were all God Himself. In modern times, Cartesian dualism neglected to explain by what transmission mechanisms God can and allegedly does affect the material cosmos.

Finally, as most monotheistic religions maintain, miracles are effected by God directly or via his envoys and messengers (angels, prophets, etc.) Acts that transgress against the laws of nature but are committed by other "invisible agents" are not miracles, but magick (in which we can include spiritualism, the occult, and "paranormal" phenomena).

II. Miracles and Natural Laws

Can we even contemplate a breach of the natural order? Isn't this very juxtaposition meaningless, even nonsensical? Can Nature lapse? And how can we prove divine involvement in the un-natural when we are at a loss to conclusively demonstrate His contribution to the natural? As David Hume observed, it is not enough for a miracle to run contra to immutable precedent; it must also evidently serve as an expression of divine "volition and interposition". Indeed, as R.F. Holland correctly noted, even perfectly natural events, whose coincidence yields religious (i.e. divine) significance, amount to miracles. Thus, some miracles are actually signs from Heaven even where Nature is not violated.

Moreover, if God, or some other supernatural agency stand outside Nature, then when they effect miracles, they are not violating the Laws of Nature to which they are not subjected.

Hume is a skeptic: the evidence in favor of natural laws is so overwhelming that it is bound to outweigh any evidence (any number of testimonies included) produced in support of miracles. Yet, being the finite creatures that we are, can we ever get acquainted with all the evidence in favor of any given natural law? Our experience is never perfectly exhaustive, merely asymptotically so (Rousseau). Does this leave room for exceptions, as Richard Purtill suggested in "Thinking about Religion" (1978)? Hume emphatically denies this possibility. He gives this irrefutable examples: all of us must die, we cannot suspend lead in mid-air, wood is consumed by fire which is extinguished by water ("Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding"). No exceptions here, not now, not ever.

In "Hume's Abject Failure" (2000), John Earman argues for the probability of miracles founded on multiple testimonies by independent and reliable observers. Yet, both Earman and Hume confine themselves to human witnesses. What if we were to obtain multiple readings from machines and testing equipment that imply the occurrence of a miracle? The occasional dysfunction aside, machines are not gullible, less fallible, disinterested, and, therefore, more reliable than humans.

But machines operate in accordance with and are subject to the laws of nature. Can they record an event that is outside of Nature? Do miracles occur within Nature or outside it? If miracles transpire within Nature, shouldn't they be deemed ipso facto "natural" (though ill-understood)? If miracles emerge without Nature, how can anything and anyone within Nature's remit and ambit witness them?

Indeed, it is not possible to discuss miracles meaningfully. Such contemplation gives rise to the limitations of language itself. If one subscribes to the inviolable uniformity of Nature, one excludes the mere possibility (however remote) of miracles from the conversation. If one accepts that miracles may occur, one holds Nature to be mutable and essentially unpredictable. There is no reconciling these points of view: they reflect a fundamental chasm between two ways of perceiving our Universe and, especially, physical reality.

Moreover, Nature (and, by implication, Science) is the totality of what exists and of what happens. If miracles exist and happen then they are, by this definition, a part and parcel of Nature (i.e., they are natural, not supernatural). We do experience miracles and, as Hume correctly notes, we cannot experience that which happens outside of Nature. That some event is exceedingly improbable does not render it logically impossible, of course. Equally, that it is logically possible does not guarantee its likelihood. But if a highly incredible event does occur it merely limns the limitations of our contemporary knowledge. To use Hume's terminology: it is never a miracle, merely a marvel (or an extraordinary event).

In summary:

Man-made laws are oft violated (ask any prosecutor) - why not natural ones? The very word "violation" is misleading. Criminals act according to their own set of rules. Thus, criminal activity is a violation of one body of edicts while upholding another. Similarly, what may appear to us to be miraculous (against the natural order) may merely be the manifestation of a law of nature that is as yet unrevealed to us (which was St. Augustine's view as well as Hume's and Huxley's and is today the view of the philosopher-physicist John Polkinghorne).

Modern science is saddled with metaphysical baggage (e.g., the assumptions that the Universe is isotropic and homogeneous; or that there is only one Universe; or that the constants of Nature do not change in time or in space; and so on). "Miracles" may help us rid ourselves of this quasi-religious ballast and drive science forward as catalysts of open-minded progress (Spinoza, McKinnon). In Popperian terms, "miracles" help us to falsify scientific theories and come up with better ones, closer to the "truth".

III. Miracles: nonrepeatable counterinstances, or repeatable events?

Jesus is reported to have walked on water. Is this ostensible counterinstance to natural law an isolated incident, or will it repeat itself? There is no reason in principle or in theology that this miracle should not recur. Actually, most "miracles" had multiple instances throughout history and thus are of dubious supernatural pedigree.

On the other hand, the magnitude of the challenge to the prevailing formulation of the relevant natural laws increases with every recurrence of a "miracle". While nonrepeatable counterinstances (violations) can be ignored (however inconveniently), repetitive apparent breaches cannot be overlooked without jeopardizing the entire scientific edifice. They must be incorporated in a new natural law.

How can we tell miracles apart from merely unexplained or poorly understood events? How can we ascertain, regardless of the state of our knowledge, that a phenomenon is not natural in the sense that it can never be produced by Nature? How can we know for sure that it is nonrepeatable, a counterinstance, a true breach of Natural Laws? As Sir Arthur Clarke correctly observed: a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Antony Flew suggested that we are faced with a Problem of Identifying Miracles.

The Problem seems to emanate from three implicit assumptions:

(1) That God is somehow above or outside Nature and his actions (such as miracles wrought by Him) are, therefore, not natural (or supernatural);

(2) That every event (even a miracle) must have a cause, be it natural or supernatural; and

(3) That explanations and causes ought to be empirical concepts.

All three assertions are debatable:

(1) As pantheists and occasionalists who adhere to the principle of immanence demonstrate, God's place in the scheme of things depends on how we define Nature. They postulate that God and the World are one and the same. This requires God to have a material dimension or quality and to occupy the entirety of space and time, allowing Him to interact with the Universe (which is material and spatio-temporal).

(2) As for causality: now we know that the Laws of Nature and its Constants are not immutable nor permanent and that causes (as expressed in Laws of Nature) are mere statistical, true, and contingent generalizations with non-universal predictive powers (applicable only to a localized segment of space-time, or, at the maximum, to our Universe alone). Thus, we can definitely conceive of events and entities that have no causes (as these causes are perceived in our patch of the Cosmos).

(3) There is, however, a true problem with the empirical nature of causes and explanations: they require a body of observations which yield regularity based on events oft-repeated or repeatable in principle (capable of being retrodicted). Supernatural causes satisfy only one requirement (their effects are, arguably, observable), but not the other: they are, by definition, irregular (and, thus, cannot be repeated). Does this inherent irregularity and non-repeatability render specious the supernaturalness imputed to miracles?

Probably. If God pervades Nature (let alone if God, Himself is Nature), then no event is supernatural. All occurrences are natural and, thus, obey the Laws of Nature which are merely the manifestations of God's attributes (this is also the Muslim and Jewish points of view). And because the Laws of Nature and its Constants are changeable and not uniform across the Universe (and, possibly, the Multiverse), there is room for "spontaneous" (cause-less), ill-understood, and irregular (but objectively-observed) phenomena, such as "miracles". Nothing supernatural about it.

There is no contradiction in saying that miracles are natural events brought about by God, or even in saying that miracles are basic (or primitive, or immediate) actions of God (actions clearly attributable to God as an agent with a free will and for which we do not need to show a natural cause).

This leads us to the question of divine intervention and intent. Miracles serve God's plan and reflect His volition. They are an interposition, not merely a happenstance. They are not random: they serve a purpose and accomplish goals (even when these are unknown to us and inscrutable). This holds true even if we reject Leibnitz's Principle of pre-established Harmony (in "Monadology") and disagree or the occasionalist's point of view that God is the direct and exclusive cause of all events, including natural events and that all other forms of purported causation ("Laws of Nature") are illusions.

If we believe in God's propensity to uphold Good against Evil; to encourage and support virtue while penalizing and suppressing sin (through the use of what Wittgenstein called "gestures"); and to respond to our most urgent needs - in short: if one accept Divine Providence - then a "Theory of God" would possess predictive powers: it would allow us to foresee the occurrence of miracles. For instance: whenever Evil seems on the brink of prevailing, we should expect a miracle to eventuate, restoring the supremacy of Good. There's the rudimentary regularity we have been seeking all along (Locke).

Admittedly, it is impossible to predict the exact nature of future miracles, merely their likelihood. This is reminiscent of the Uncertainty Principle that is at the basis of Quantum Mechanics. Miracles often consist of "divinely-ordained" confluences and coincidences of perfectly "natural" and even pedestrian events. We are awed by them all the same. The true miracle amounts to our sense of wonder and restored proportion in the face of this humungous mystery that is our home: the Universe.

<--- Previous         Next--->           

Read Note about Parapsychology and the Paranormal

Read Note about The Science of Superstitions

Read Note on Teleology: Legitimizing Final Causes

Read Note on Complexity and Simplicity

Read Note on Scientific Theories and the Life Cycles of Science


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Atheism in a Post-Religious World


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