Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

08/03/2009 (9:54 am)

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Are Miracles Possible? (Part I)

In previous installments I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here).
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here.)

We’ve established that the facts of nature and morality support the claim that there exists a real, theistic God. I am a Christian, so naturally I’m gratified that the observed facts of the universe comport so well with what I believe. However, if I’m going to demonstrate that my particular brand of theism is true, rather than simply be satisfied with proving that theism generally fits the facts, I have to take the next step, and that’s to discuss whether miracles are possible.

Why Miracles?

Why miracles? simply because Christianity is a miracle religion. Without miracles, there can be no Christianity. The central claim of Christianity is that two remarkable miracles took place, the first confirming the second: Jesus rose from the dead by the power of God, proving by doing so that He was God incarnate. And let’s be plain about it; the idea that God actually took human form and walked among us is the greater of the two miracles, and arguably the greatest possible miracle. If Jesus was, in fact, God incarnate, His rising from the dead is hardly a surprise; the surprise is that it was possible to kill Him in the first place. But clearly Christianity rests on the plausibility of miracles, and we cannot go on to prove that the historical claims of Christianity are true unless we first establish that it is even possible for them to be true. Thus we have to ask, “Are Miracles Possible?”

Of course, there are a lot more miracles in the Bible than just those two. However, if we can establish the plausibility of those two, the others follow along fairly easily. For one thing, if God exists and came to us in the form of a man, it’s hardly surprising that that man might have power over nature sufficient to produce miracles. For another, if God in the form of Jesus believes that God dried up the Red Sea and allowed the Israelites to cross, well, then it’s pretty likely that He actually did that, or at least that believing that He did is not going to hurt us in any way. So, we’re going to focus on the central miracles; if we can establish those, the rest come along for free.

Sometimes people speak of ordinary life as a miracle, or of childbirth as a miracle. There’s a sense in which this is correct: as we’ll see in a while, the creation of our universe and of the laws of nature does fit the strict definition of a miracle, so it’s not entirely wrong to speak of specific natural events as miraculous. In another sense, though, it’s wrong; what makes something a miracle is that it does not conform to what we expect nature to do. In Christian theology, specific behaviors of nature are direct acts of God, but they’re acts of God we have come to expect. Miracles are acts of God that we do not expect; they do not conform to the outcomes we’ve come to expect in nature. So for the sake of this discussion, we’ll leave out calling the wonders of nature “miracles.”

There are also reports of contemporary miracles, and some contraversy within Christian circles over whether these are legitimate or not. These are not crucial to our topic, though, so we’ll avoid them until the end.

Miracles in a Skeptical Age

We need to ask whether miracles are possible because we live in a highly skeptical age. There are a large number of people-in-the-street who think that if a person believes that miracles are possible, that person must be a pre-scientific idiot. When we approach one of these people, we’re likely to hear how ancient man believed in all sorts of silly things because he could not explain natural events. Ancient man believed, for example, that thunder was the rumbling of the gods’ tummies because they ate too much at a great party, or that the world was flat and rode on the back of a giant turtle. But now, we’re told, science has banished such ridiculous notions forever.

In fact, one does not have to stick to people in the street to hear this approach; one can hear it from certain Oxford professors as well. But whether man-in-the-street or Oxford professor, these are easily dismissed. The person saying such things does not understand what miracles are, and has not thought about them carefully. When we’re talking about thunder coming from a god’s tummy, what we have described is not belief in the miraculous, but rather animism. In an animistic belief system, people do not think hearing the god’s tummy is miraculous, they think it is part of the natural order. It is not even possible to talk about miracles until we understand the limits of nature.

To explain, let me posit a couple of definitions:

miracle: an event in nature that is caused by an agent that exists outside of nature and has power over it, the occurrance of which does not conform to the expected pattern of events in nature; a supernatural event.

I’ve just used the word “nature” three times in that sentence — four, if you count “supernatural” — so I had better be clear what I mean by “nature”:

nature: an unbroken chain of cause-and-effect relationships between material objects and energy, obeying certain identified patterns that we call “laws.”

We will see in a little while that my definition of “miracle” is not complete, but that we have to add that it occurs in a context relevant to religion, and that it possesses certain characteristics consistent with that religion — for example, an event must be consistent with the moral nature of God in order to be called a miracle. There are some apparently supernatural events that give no reason for observers to think that God or divine beings are involved, and these are not considered miraculous; an appearance of a ghost is an example. However, we’ll let the definition stand as stated for now, and add to it later.

We regard nature as more or less of a machine, with an enormous number of complex, interrelated parts that operate in a predictable manner. Every event within that machine is caused by a prior event, and the outcomes are predictable if we know the rules and the input conditions. (Fans of Heisenberg’s uncertainty might dispute that, but none of my arguments rest on strict determinism, so it’s a quibble with no consequence here. We’ll let it pass for now.) We observe how the world works, we derive laws describing the normal order, laws like “the total energy in a closed system remains constant” (conservation of energy), or “a body once in motion tends to remain in motion in the same direction” (inertia.) We expect everything to conform to those laws. Almost all the time, our expectations are met. We would not consider an event a miracle if everything in the event conformed to the rules and expected outcomes.

When we are talking about a miracle, we are suggesting that something exists outside of the machine, and we are saying that whatever is out there, has interfered in the ordinary working of the machine to produce what would, without that intervention, be an impossible result. In order to say that, we have to know a great deal about how the machine works.

This is very different from the animism we were speaking about a moment ago. Animism does not differentiate between the machine of nature and the realm of the gods. To the animist, they are all together in the mix, and because there is no limit to what can happen in nature, they cannot distinguish anything as a miracle. What has been banished by modern science is not the possibility of miracles, but inaccurate descriptions of the mechanisms that cause natural events. The inaccurate descriptions have been replaced by more precise, more knowledgeable descriptions of the same events, in terms of the proper working of natural parts and according to natural laws. This does not banish miracles, it makes it possible to define them. As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, miracles are an appeal to knowledge, whereas what I’m calling animism is an appeal to ignorance; animism bases its claims on what we don’t know, while miracle claims base themselves on what we do know.

If we are given that a theistic God exists, it seems self-evident that He could initiate events from outside the machine; God is not part of the machine, He created the machine. Even if one is a Deist, and believes that God in effect wound up the universe like a clock and is now letting it run, the existence of a theistic God clearly creates at least the possibility that this God could, if He chose, reach in and stop the clock, or move the hands. Clearly, if God exists, then miracles are possible. Whether He chooses to do them, or whether we can recognize them when He does, are other questions entirely; it is certain that He could, if He exists.

Naturalism

The skeptical-man-in-the-street objects, “There can be no miracles, because there is nothing outside the machine.” This could be a simple but incorrect definition; by “nature,” he could mean “everything that exists, whether God or gods, or universes, or whatever.” If that’s what he means, there’s nothing to argue with, except to say that what he calls nature is not an unbroken chain of cause-and-effect; he’s simply erased miracles by fiddling with the definition of “nature.” But if he is a more thoughtful person, what he probably means is that once we have reached the edge of our universe, that vast, complex causal interaction of parts and energy that behaves according to rules, there is nothing else out there. If that is what he means, we have encountered a Naturalist; more specifically, a Metaphysical Naturalist.

Naturalism, sometimes called Materialism (not to be confused with the inordinate love of wealth, which is also called “materialism”,) is a philosophical system that started gaining credence in the West in the 18th century, during the period we now (in self-congratulatory fashion) call the Enlightenment. Naturalism is not the majority view, but it has disproportionate influence in the public square because of the number of influential intellectuals who have embraced some form of Naturalism over the centuries since the Enlightenment.

Naturalism holds that nothing exists outside of the natural universe that we experience. Obviously, if this is true, then miracles are impossible.

Note that a Naturalist does not prove that miracles are impossible, he presupposes it. This is, in fact, characteristic of virtually all modern skepticism toward miracles; they do not, and cannot, prove that miracles are impossible, they simply presuppose it. Anybody who claims that the possibility of miracles has been disproved by science is mistaken; no testable, peer-reviewed hypothesis has established any such thing, nor could it. Science occupies itself with the study of the machine that we call nature; it can say nothing at all about what exists or does not exist outside of nature. People like to claim that “nobody intelligent believes in such things anymore,” but that is just a “40 million Frenchmen” fallacy, and it is plainly false; I am intelligent, and I believe in such things. It has nothing to do with intelligence, knowledge, scientific rigor, or any such thing; it’s a presupposition, and if one does not accept the presuppositions of Naturalism (which have never been proved in any way) then one need not regard miracles as impossible.

A naturalist might respond to this as did the author of Wikipedia’s article on Metaphysical Naturalism:

To date, nothing that is not physical has ever been discovered, and so metaphysical naturalism remains a valid position based upon what is currently known.

This is an absurd statement. In the first place, it’s circular. Reports of miracles, of ghosts, of unexplained phenomena, are common throughout the world. To claim that nothing non-physical has ever been discovered is to claim that every single one of those accounts has been explained away. If we investigate how we know that they have all been explained away, we learn that it is because most of them claim things that are impossible; but saying they are impossible just posits the presuppositions of Naturalism all over again. We know nothing non-physical has ever been discovered because such things are impossible; we know they are impossible because nothing like them has ever been discovered. It is a circle.

In the second place, we might ask the Naturalist what he thinks an idea consists of. Ideas are not material, but they clearly exist; therefore something does exist that is not physical. In fact, Naturalism itself is an idea, so we can actually say that Naturalism refutes itself.

Naturalism refutes itself even more completely than that, though. Pure Naturalism requires that human thought be part of the cause-and-effect machine, so Naturalists assert that all the functions involved in constructing an idea are physical functions occurring within the brain, involving the interaction of matter or energy or both. All interaction of material and energy in nature is related by cause and effect in an unbroken chain. If ideas are purely the function of physical elements, then all thoughts are completely determined — they cannot be other than what they are, because they are the result of a series of cause-and-effect interactions of matter and energy obeying laws. Given Naturalism, once the universe was set in motion, all the thoughts and acts of all the participants were inevitable, given the interaction of the parts; Heisenberg’s uncertainty adds that observers cannot determine in advance the outcome of an interaction, but this does not change the characteristic of the universe that concerns us. In a completely Naturalistic universe, there can be no free will, nor can there be meaning, justice, morality, or anything else. There is simply what is, and it is all related by cause and effect.

The problem is that if thoughts are determined by cause and effect, then they have no necessary connection to truth. We each think what we must think, given the history of the interaction of particles; we have no choice, and therefore any relationship between our thoughts and reality is completely coincidental. However, the Naturalist making the claims of Naturalism, makes the claim by asserting that his ideas are true. Since Naturalism abolishes any possibility that ideas can be true, it abolishes any possibility that Naturalism is true. Thus, Naturalism refutes itself.

Richard Taylor, in his 1974 book “Metaphysics,” explained by way of example. Suppose, he said, you were riding a train in England and passed a hillside on which a series of white stones was arranged in a pattern that spelled out the words, “British Railways Welcomes You to Wales.” One might infer that the stones had been laid there deliberately, or one might suppose, a little less reasonably, that the stones had simply rolled down the hill by accident and fallen into that configuration by way of gravity and momentum. Now, let us assume that we have decided they actually rolled down the hill and that the arrangement is a freak accident of chaotic nature; if that were the case, would it make sense to imagine that when we passed that hillside, we had actually arrived in Wales? Of course not; however improbable it is that the stones simply came to rest in those positions, it is infinitely more improbable that they did so exactly at the border of Wales. If it occurred naturally, it has no relation to meaning. And by the same token, if our thoughts arrived by way of chaotic interaction of parts and energy, they have no relation to meaning. Taylor goes on to argue that Naturalists’ claims are irrational when they argue both that our thoughts come about solely by natural means and that our thoughts can have relation to truth.(1)

CS Lewis also explains this at great length in his book, Miracles. His explanation spends a great deal of time examining the difference between cause-and-effect, which is the basis for determined actions in a Naturalistic universe, and ground-and-consequent, the relationship that produces correct inferences in logic. Lewis observes that there is no connection between cause and effect on the one hand, and ground and consequent on the other; they’re separate systems. There is no path that leads from cause-and-effect to ground-and-consequent. If the universe had ever existed as nothing but material and energy in a cause-and-effect relationship, what we call logical inference would never have arisen. Reason must have come from outside nature.(2)

Invasions Into Nature

That’s all fine, you say, but we know without question that our brains produce our thoughts. Lewis, however, replies that the function of the brain in this matter is no different from the function of the radio in our listening to a broadcast.(3) The radio does need to function in order to hear the broadcast, and if you smash the radio with a brick, the sound ceases; but this does not mean that the broadcast originates in the radio. Proving that a machine is involved in producing words and sentences and thoughts, does not prove that those thoughts originate within the machine. So the fact that our brain operates when we think, does not mean that the brain is the source of the thought, simply that it is the medium through which it is transmitted.

In fact, it appears to all of us that our choices are most usually not part of the machine of nature at all, they’re honest and free choices. The thoughts that we have that are obviously and directly “machine responses” — i.e. reflexes and impulses — are very often irrational, and we know it. To the extent that we yield our thoughts to nature, we become increasingly irrational. We consider ourselves most rational when our responses are the furthest divorced from what our machinery demands; self-denial in the face of inconvenience is often considered mature, and self-sacrifice in the face of torture is frequently considered heroic.

Moreover, we routinely apply ourselves to change the course of natural events, by building houses and bridges and air conditioners. When reason imposes itself on nature, we produce wealth, comfort, beauty, or utility; however, when nature imposes itself on reason by way of impulse, it produces irrational behavior. The relationship between reason and nature is asymmetrical; reason supersedes nature, but nature does not supersede reason. Reason is greater, and rules nature.

Even those who argue against the existence of free will, as pure Metaphysical Naturalists must, behave and live their lives as though they have it, and as though their choices matter. Consequently, it is senseless to proceed in our thinking as though free will is an illusion. Occam’s Razor applies here: the best explanation for the appearance that we have free will is that we do, in fact, have free will.

Reason, therefore, according to Lewis (and I agree), is not part of the machine, but exists outside of it. Each individual’s reason, in some sense, resides outside of nature (Lewis would say, resides at the source of Reason, which is God Himself(4)) and impacts nature from the outside. In a sense, then, all reason is supernatural, as are all acts of the will. We do not regard them as miracles so long as they’re simply choices made by beings with a natural body; we expect them, and therefore they’re not miraculous. But they originate from outside nature, so they are not part of the cause-and-effect chain. And thus we know that nature can be, and has been, invaded from the outside.

Christian philosopher Francis Shaeffer notes the impact of this idea in Western history. Shaeffer argues that the primary difference between Christian-based scientific thinking (which he calls “modern science”) and Naturalist-based scientific thinking (which he calls “modern, modern science”) is that modern, modern science regards man entirely as part of the machine. Psychology, in the first half of the 20th century, was expected to yield deterministic laws of human behavior like those which physicists discovered for the natural universe. While psychologists have produced useful tools for human beings to use, the study of human psychology has not yielded laws like the physical laws, and if our reasoning is sound here, we understand why. It’s because human reason is not strictly natural; it is not part of the machine we call nature. It is because humans really do have free will.(5)

Norman Geisler and Frank Turek add a more tactile observation: the machine itself has a beginning, and was created.(6) This idea was developed more completely in the post in this series regarding the Cosmological argument for the existence of God, which discusses the cosmology of the “Big Bang.” It is nearly universally accepted that our universe began in a huge explosion from a singularity, a point of infinite mass and no dimension. All matter and all energy in the universe came into being from that point, and that explosion; so did all time and all space. Most physicists would add that the laws of nature came into being at that time, as well; the laws of nature cease to function at a singularity. Clearly, then, the act that brought our universe into being was a supernatural event, and the first miracle in our universe. And there’s plenty of evidence demonstrating the occurrence of that miracle.

By all this we know that nature is not all that there is; our entire universe is the result of acts of will and reason originating outside of nature, and we add further acts of will and reason every day that impact nature.

Violating the Laws of Nature

Understanding that reason creates breaches in the cause-and-effect fabric of nature, piercing it by free choice, helps us answer the next objection we hear from those who discount miracles. Many people claim that miracles must violate the laws of nature, and further argue that the laws of nature cannot be broken. This was the approach taken by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the 16th century: Spinoza claimed that the laws of nature are both universal and immutable, so miracles, which violate the laws of nature, are impossible.(7)

When giving a talk, I like to illustrate the error of this line of thinking by holding a pen in the air and asking the audience, “According to the laws of nature, what will happen to the pen if I drop it?” People answer, “It will hit the ground.” Then I drop the pen — and catch it with my other hand. It doesn’t hit the ground. Have I violated any of the laws of nature, I ask? Of course not; I’ve just changed the outcome of an event by asserting my will. Every time Dustin Pedroia, 2nd baseman for the Boston Red Sox, catches a pop fly ball, he interrupts the outcome of a natural event, but he does not thereby violate any laws of nature. Every one of us interrupts the flow of events this way, all the time.

The laws of nature, such as they are, operate ceterus parabus — they describe what will happen “all other things being equal”, that is, what will happen if nothing disturbs the system under observation. But we have already established that human wills are not part of the system, so human wills can change outcomes. Those changes do not violate the laws of nature; they use them.

In fact, nature is willing and able to accommodate any and all interruptions in the chain of cause and effect. When I catch the pen that I dropped, nature proceeds onward from that point with the pen at the location where I caught it. Cause and effect continue as though nothing unusual had happened. The same would be true of any miracle; once it occurs, nature proceeds onward in its machine-like manner, absorbing the new circumstance as though nothing was amiss.

So, God performing a miracle does not need to alter the laws of nature; quite the contrary, in fact. It appears as though Nature was designed to receive acts of wilfull beings from outside of herself, and accommodate them seamlessly. God acting on nature is like a male animal planting seed within a female of the same species and reproducing; Christian theology uses the analogy of a groom with his bride. Nothing could be more… natural.

So, we’ve established so far that miracles are neither impossible, nor disproved, nor a violation of nature. We’ve established, on the contrary, that a primary component of a miracle, that of an act of the will interrupting the law-based interactions of nature, happens all the time.

Next, I will consider the most commonly-accepted argument against miracles, Hume’s claim that wise men can never accept that a miracle has taken place, and Anthony Flew’s modern update of that argument. Here’s the link to the next piece.

Notes:

(1)Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, 2nd Edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentiss-Hall, 1974, p. 115; quoted in Nash, Roland, “Miracles and Conceptual Systems,” in In Defense of Miracles, Geivett & Habermas, eds., Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1997, p. 127.
(2)Lewis, CS, Miracles, 2nd edition, Harper Collins Publishers, San Fransisco, 2001 edition, Chapter 3.
(3)Ibid., p. 62.
(4)Ibid., p. 62.
(5)Shaeffer, Francis A., How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Fleming T. Revell Co., Old Tappan, NJ, 1976, p. 146-7.
(6)Geisler, Norman, and Turek, Frank, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2005, p.85.
(7)Benedict De Spinoza, Tractatus Theologica-Pliticus, in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883), 1:83, 87, 92, as quoted in Geisler, Norman, “Miracles and Modern Scientific Thought,” http://www.origins.org/articles/geisler_miracles.html.

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6 Comments »

August 3, 2009 @ 9:55 am #

[…] this week, I will be posting a discussion of whether miracles can be believed or not. Until then… | var addthis_pub = “philwynk”; | Related posts: […]

August 5, 2009 @ 1:45 am #

Phil,

If you’re going to write about miracles, you need to grapple with David Hume. His essay, “On Miracles” is the starting place for anyone who would defend the existence of miracles.

Good luck – and this is from someone who believes in miracles.

Joe

August 5, 2009 @ 4:04 am #

Phil, If you’re going to write about miracles, you need to grapple with David Hume.

Hume is in part II, along with Anthony Flew.

August 14, 2009 @ 10:11 am #

[…] that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here.) […]

November 11, 2009 @ 4:40 pm #

[…] that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here); […]

April 16, 2010 @ 2:04 pm #

[…] that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here); […]

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