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Miracles: Are Science and Faith Irreconcilably Separated?
Eighty-four percent of Americans say
they believe in so-called “miracles,”
as “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause. “ But many scientists reject the possibility of such things because, by their very definition, they require a violation of the known laws of nature.
In the 19th Century, David Hume
and their contention with both reason and science. He argued that miracles are scientifically impossible and superstitious delusions. We only believe something is a miracle because we haven’t witnessed it occurring naturally, and this is not sound thinking.
As Hume states:
“…(T)here is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning as to serve us against all delusion in themselves; of such undaunted integrity as to place themselves beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood, and at the same time attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world as to render the detection unavoidable...”
In a more modern example, Dr. Steven Dutch, a professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay wrote a piece in 2001 titled,
“Why Science Can’t Accept Miracles (Even If They Really Exist).”
He argues that scientists work on evidence according to observable laws and therefore cannot allow for the possibility of miracles. “Science rejects miracles for exactly the same reasons that accountants do when conducting audits, the police do when conducting forensics, and mechanics do when trouble-shooting cars,” writes Dr. Dutch.
He goes on to say that a strong belief in miracles can just be a lazy way of explaining away facts or avoiding the hard work of investigation. Here Dr. Dutch makes a salient point, for many Christians often ascribe events to God what may or may not actually derive from God. “That’s totally a God thing,” you may hear a fellow Christian say after he or she has merely analyzed the circumstances.
But do these scientists' assertions prove that the reality of miracles—a fundamental belief held by Christians—is nonsense? Is the wall of separation between scientists and the religious on this issue too high to climb?
[For more on the faith and science divide check out Q's
The Spirituality of Science
small group study.]
Actually, not all scientists and skeptics rule out the possibility that such things
occur, even if they agree that science is not the correct tool by which to test and judge such things.
, for example, is editor of
and a regular columnist for
. He uses statistics to show that “miracles” happen hundreds of times a day in America.
“I cannot always explain such specific incidents, but a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America,” he
Shermer doesn’t ignore Dr. Dutch’s assertion that miracles can be a scapegoat for the intellectually lazy. In fact,
he believes talk of miracles does a great disservice to the faith
“Let’s say 1 million people have cancer in America (it’s much higher than this), and only one-tenth of 1 percent experience a spontaneous recovery (it’s actually higher than this). 1,000,000 x .001 = 1,000 people. Out of that cohort of 1,000 people, what are the chances that half a dozen of them have compelling narrative stories worthy of broadcast television? Pretty good! Here is a show you will never see on any television series: “Next, we examine the remarkable fact that 99.99 percent of people who were diagnosed with incurable cancer and were prayed for died anyway. Stay tuned, for you won’t want to miss these stark statistical realities.”?Of course you will never see such a show because of the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore or rationalize the disconfirmatory evidence. This is naturally what any religion or television production team is going to do when telling a story about miracles: They will pick and choose the most compelling cases that seemingly defy science and reason, and present those to the public, while blindly (and cruelly) ignoring all those devoutly religious people whose loved ones prayed in earnest for them and who died nonetheless.”
Science and Religion Today
, April 2010
We must be careful that we allow science to answer the questions that science is asking using scientific methodology. We cannot force science to operate on faith's terms. Still, the mere fact that respected non-Christian thinkers like Shermer allow for the possibility (or even probability) of miracles is significant. It seems to be one more indicator that the divide between faith and science is not nearly as wide as some might assume.
Do you believe that science and faith are irreconcilably separated on this issue and others? How can the science and faith communities begin dialoguing more meaningfully?
Editor's Note: The painting featured above is "The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes" by Lambert Lombard, 16th Century.
Do you have to believe in miracles to be a Christian? I don't think so. Well said, but still.
Kenneth E. Poague
I do not believe science and faith are irreconcilably separated on the issue of miracles. Sometimes miracles of healing leaves doctors baffled, but their science proves its veracity. Science proves the miraculous.
Of course one has to believe in the possibility of miracles in order to be a Christian. How else would we describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ? If this wasn't a miracle, or if Jesus wasn't truly resurrected, what then is the foundation of Christian faith?
The real question is not whether it is inherent in Christian faith to believe in miracles. The questions are whether miracles can still occur today, whether we expect to see them, and if so, how often? C.S. Lewis' book - Miracles - is brilliant on this.
I wish the time and energy spent on this was used trying to solve real problems. The church spends it's time and energy on nonsense like this while children die from starvation or join gangs so they can feel like they belong.
I believe The Church has the ability and responsibility to solve most if not all the problems facing humanity.
Will our misleaders ever stop wasting time on trivial issues and become beacons of God’s Love by working to solve real problems?
@ Greg Wilkinson - yeah - that WOULD be a miracle, wouldn't it? ;-)
Was it not C. S. Lewis that posited that if there is a God, you can't preclude the possibility of miracles?
To even posit the question is to answer it.... yes Virginia, there are miracles.
Mike: Well said.
Greg: I'd like to push back. Wasn't it Paul who said if the resurrection (miracle) never happened, we are to be pitied above all people? And wasn't it he who said the Gospel (a story, which includes the miracles of incarnation and resurrection) is of "first importance?"
I agree with Shermer in one sense, that, as Christians, we truly do tend to use God as an intellectual crutch. Rather we should believe God as the glorious creator of all these mysteries and the science that makes efforts at explaining them, and thus find ourselves absorbed in science rather than repelled by it. Not that simple faith should be discounted but that we should look deeper or at least respect those who do.
On the same point, though, Shermer would be wrong to suggest that Christians should (whether it be because of intellectual responsibility or whatever) not credit God as the author of it all. We can respect and embrace science while viewing the obvious activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the tenets of science itself and throughout the mysteries it can't explain. The Christian viewpoint should especially be respected since science has been discrediting its own "laws" and "axioms" in light of Quantum theory that finds the universe completely and wholly indubitable.
Also, @ Greg, how can we NOT think about these things and discuss them? Issues of faith, issues of logic are at the very core of what it means to be human. The ways in which we, as Christians, view science in particular can and does drastically impact the way we see, as Jonathan points out, the Gospel itself. Certainly we should act on our convictions and doctrines, but that doesn't mean we can't think about them, whether corporately or individually.
It has only been relatively recently that science and religion have been thought of as incompatible. I view science as a look into the magnificence of God's creation.
@ Greg. It is not the Church's role to "solve problems". Rather it is the Church's role to minister to those in need. Only God through Christ "solves problems", in particular fixing a world which is broken by sin. Yes, Christian are to care for His creation, but to fix His creation is not something within our capacity to do.
I'd have to push back on your assertion. On the one hand, the tension between science has reach all time highs in the last 120 or so years, but who can forget Galileo's bout with the Roman Inquisition in the 17th century. And he wasn't the first. Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century English priest, was imprisoned for fourteen years for writing that “in the quest for truth, experimentation and observation are challenges to the uncritical acceptance of spiritual and secular authorities.”
Saying that the tumultuous relationship between faith and science is a recent development is an oversimplification, I think.
Isn't the point of Science to discover how events happen and how things work - to understand the basic working principles for observed phenomena? And the point of Faith, to experience those phenomena with God? They actually work with each other, not against - unless one part or the other loses perspective.
Thoughtful piece. As a scientist I must assume a miracle has not occured when I apply the scientific methodology to investigate a physical phenomenon. Of course, miracles, by definition, do not fit into the cause and effect, reproducible, law abiding scientific paradigm. Therefore, if scientists see a phenomenon they can not explain it is either a miracle or it is simply beyond current understanding. They can not say which answer is true - we must just become better scientists to explain what we can. In the meantime I pray for miracles that will continue to point to the glory of God (like obtaining grant funding :) ).
I believe in miracles. But I do not believe in them as in them as a mere exercise of faith. I believe in them as an exercise of an actual partnership between science and Christianity.
Partnership? What am I talking about?
Simply this. It is no stretch of reason for me to believe that the God who created this universe with its myriad of operational laws could interject a higher law at His discretion to fulfill His greater purposes.
Higher laws do exist. We are bound to this planet by the law of gravity. However, we have learned how to apply a higher law to overcome gravity called the Law of Escape Velocity. It is what has allowed us to explore the moon and send probes to distant planets.
Water into wine? Is that not just a function of time which itself is a creation of His Divine wisdom. Walk on water. Is that not just a matter of relative density or surface tension. Isn't it possible that there exists a higher law that the Lord, by the authority and power of the Holy Spirit, which would enable Him t "do the impossible."
Science is about observation and discovery. That is why scientists who make new discoveries are called pioneers, "boldly going where no man has gone before" (with apologies to Trekkies everywhere).
Love is a miracle and Love supersedes knowledge. Science can think about love but it can not love.
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