Natural Science and the Christian Faith: Pt. 2 of 4–How Miracles Do Not Violate Nature’s Laws

Check out this two-minute video from Honda: click here; it illustrates well the idea that the laws of nature are uniform, and that all events in the universe are caused by the preceding conditions that led up to said events. [See video now; but you probably could watch just a the first few seconds to get the idea.] This commercial represents a picture of the universe from the perspective of the naturalist—one who doesn’t believe in the possibility of miracles.

Are miracles in fact impossible? Are they a violation of the strict laws of nature? Has science disproved Christianity? To consider these questions and answers to them, let us engage in dialogue with a motley crew of thinkers—three Brits and a North American: David Hume, J. L. Mackie, Alvin Plantinga, and John Donne.

First, David Hume, the eighteenth century British philosopher, has argued that indeed a miracle, were it to occur, would be “violation of laws of nature.” Hume opines, in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748): “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, . . . a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, [thus] the proof against a miracle . . . is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” We could break down Hume’s argument into a simple syllogism:

Premise 1: A miracle, if it occurred, would be a violation of the laws of nature.
Premise 2: We know from experience that the laws of nature are inviolable.
Conclusion: Therefore, miracles cannot occur.

[To note: Hume also give a probabilistic version of the argument; however, given that the aim of this blog is simply to consider whether or not “miracles violate nature’s laws” in any formalistic way, I do not consider it here.]

The first point to make regarding Hume’s argument is simply that it presupposes naturalism, and does not prove it. In other words, Hume does not provide much by way of argumentation against the possibility of miracles, but instead makes a number of assertions. That is, Hume never demonstrates the truth of premise 1 or premise 2; rather, he simply takes each of them as given. But, specifically regarding premise 1, who says miracles violate the laws of nature, and on what basis? Are the regularities we see in nature (e.g., that objects on earth fall towards its surface at 9.84 m/s2) indeed unalterable laws? Could it not be the case that, if in fact there is a God who exists, that he would not be free to enter into nature and “alter” the regularities we encounter?

Again, regarding premise 2, who says (aside from Hume) that “unalterable experience has established these laws” and on what basis? Hume makes no argument except to point to a very general set of “firm and unalterable experience”; but is it everyone’s experience that these alleged laws are inviolable? Certainly, Jesus’ disciples—whose testimonies are historically well corroborated—wouldn’t agree; neither would the untold (hundreds of?) thousands of others who themselves have experienced supernatural, divine action in some form (e.g., healing, answered prayers, and the like).

Another prominent atheist, J. L. Mackie, also argues against Christianity with regard to its claim about miracles. Writing a bit more cautiously, if judiciously, a few decades ago, Mackie in his book The Miracle of Theism argues:

“The laws of nature . . . describe the ways in which the world . . . works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order . . . intrudes into it” (Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, pp. 19-20).

Though as an atheist ultimately arguing against the possibility of miracles, Mackie seems to get the issue right (or nearly right at least): that the laws of nature describe the regularities one might expect in a (literally) godless universe; and that if miracles occurred, we could expect that “something distinct from the natural order”—i.e., something supernatural—exists and has acted on or in the world. To note, this way of considering the issue is simply to state the problem, not to solve it. That is, the way Mackie describes the crux of the matter does not offer an answer to the question of whether or not miracles can occur: he simply tells us what would be the case if they occurred—namely, that some supernatural agent would have to have acted in the natural order. In technical language, we’re considering whether a universe is “causally open” or “causally closed”; so it is a matter, for Christians, of making the case that we live in a causally open universe. And one such Christian who does just this is the world-renown and -respected philosopher, Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga writes: “If God were to perform a miracle, it wouldn’t at all involve contravening a natural law. That is because . . . any occasion on which God performs a miracle is an occasion when the universe is not causally closed; and the laws say nothing about what happens when the universe is not causally closed” (Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, pp. 83-84). In other words, first, there is no reason to assume that we lived in a causally closed universe; second, if a miracle occurred, we would have good reason to think it is God who performed it; thus, if God performed a miracle, we could properly conclude: (i) that we live in an causally open universe; and (ii) that natural laws are not “inviolable,” i.e., they are not the kind of things that could be “contravened,” since God who upholds these so-called laws (regularities) would be free act on them as he sees fit.

So, one major lesson to take from this blog is that one’s worldview entails one’s definitions; in other words, your theology drives your theories; and since we all begin somewhere (e.g., Hume with inviolable natural laws; Christians with a supernatural God), the apologetic enterprise should involve a significant amount of work in challenging the foundational assumptions of another’s position. Miracles are the acts of God; they are divine action. As John Donne (the famous seventeenth century English poet) eloquently argued, there are the regular “customs of the creator,” and there are the irregular ways in which He acts within creation (e.g., incarnation, resurrection, divine healing, and the like). And there is very good reason to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” are a pseudonym for the way in which God normally acts within creation, and from which He occasionally (and beneficently!) departs on behalf of His creation.

Having considered specifically how miracles can be understood not to be a violation of the laws of nature, next time I look at the relationship between natural science and Christian faith more generally.

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4 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Gordon Reid

    Gordon Reid - March 23, 2014, 1:14 am

    Please focus on the next to last sentences of your post, specifically, “And there is very good reason to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” are a pseudonym for the way in which God normally acts within creation, and from which He occasionally (and beneficently!) departs on behalf of His creation.” You are saying that God normally acts in accordance with the “laws of nature” except when God performs a miracle and “departs” from acting in accordance with those laws. It seems this sentence states the exact opposite of what you intended to show in this post.

    Your stated intent was to show that “miracles do not violate Nature’s Laws.” But you seem to think there is some significant difference between the words violate and depart. Please look up these words in a dictionary and you will see that either word indicates that God is breaking a “Law of Nature” when a miracle is being performed.

  2. Profile photo of Richard S. Park

    Richard S. Park - March 23, 2014, 4:15 am

    Hi Gordon, thanks for this.

    As you write, it is my aim to show that miracles do not violate the laws of nature precisely because God is the one who upholds the so-called ‘laws’, and when he ‘departs’ from them — i.e., acts in ways uncustomarily — a miracles occurs. It is like what a recent analytic philosopher pointed out by suggesting that for God there is no such thing as ‘intervention’ because God sustains the natural order which he himself created.

    I appreciate your taking the time to engage on this post.

    Best, RSP

    • Profile photo of Gordon Reid

      Gordon Reid - March 23, 2014, 11:14 am

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your reply. So let me see if I understand your point. I think you are saying, God cannot violate the laws of nature because God is the laws of nature so it is incoherent to think of God violating Himself. Do I understand you correctly?

  3. Profile photo of Richard S. Park

    Richard S. Park - March 24, 2014, 2:40 pm

    Hi Gordon, close but not quite: I believe (like many early theorists/thinkers/scientists who helped start the scientific revolution in Europe) that God upholds the natural laws of the universe by his power such that (as you rightly put it) it would be incoherent for God to ‘intervene’ into the natural order. That said, I do believe that by and large the regularities we see in nature (‘laws of nature’, for short) exhibit a certain reliable pattern — indeed, one on which the many theologian-scientists in early modern Europe based their scientific observations and because of which they were able to make the discoveries they did (cf. Rodney Stark’s work: http://amzn.to/1djwDma). In short, I see that the claims of science and those of the Christian faith are compatible; going further, I think they cannot conflict, if there is a God — like the one the Christian scriptures describe — who created the universe, for such a God has made the whole universe, a universe in which scientific discoveries and theological truths make claim on one the same reality.

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