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What are miracles?

January 17, 2011
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In discussions of the scientific method I often hear that science cannot study miracles. I have no disagreement with this statement but its ramifications are not always entirely clear. For some this means that miracles are not real, something that is clearly a philosophical add-on to the chassis of science and one I disagree with. For others it means that anything that smacks of miracle should be avoided by scientists. However, when I tried to figure out what science can and should do I realized there may be a problem: it’s none too easy to define a miracle.

The normal definition is something that violates the laws of science but C.S. Lewis has already taken a good, and easy to understand, crack at that one. Imagine the known universe as a billiards table. The movement of the balls can be modeled provided I know how I plan to strike them. However, when I hit the balls my friend reaches over and grabs one. My model fails to predict the result because it fails to predict my friend’s action. None of this actually violates the laws of physics. The ball stopped because a sudden acceleration has been applied in the opposite direction to its current direction of movement (deceleration, if you prefer). The problem for the model is that my friend is outside the model and unpredictable to the model. I can’t research physics if he keeps sticking his hand into my experiments.

The other problem with the “something that violates the laws of science” explanation is an intensely practical one. We’ll take another example. I am fond of claiming that I can shoot lightning from my fingers and so we will imagine that I have manifested this ability. Is this a miracle, magic, or science? To determine this we first have to do science. And, in fact, we’ll treat this phenomenon as a scientific one the minute we get data. Imagine, for instance, that we determine that for every half-second of lag time between blasts I am able to generate an additional hundred amps of power, and that if I emit lightning from multiple fingers my power is cut in half for each stream of electricity. This is the sort of thing one could publish a paper on, presuming, of course, it were real. In fact, let’s make the scenario even less like real physics. Now we determine that I am able to direct the lightning to either stay in a straight bundle of charged skeins or allow each side branch to strike various targets, fanning out in a roughly cone-shaped pattern. The mechanism for this is entirely unknown and appears to violate laws of physics but with sufficient evidence that I can switch between modes at will we could, again, publish. In fact, we could probably publish if we determined that, in what appears to be a completely magical phenomenon, the thousands of volts flowing at high amperage through my otherwise normal arm caused no physical injury and that I could not be harmed by the primary effects of my lighting (for instance, shooting myself with it), although I could injure myself with secondary effects (like lighting the building I was in on fire or collapsing the roof upon myself).

This begins to get at what makes science science: quantifying things and predicting things. Ultimately, even if my superpower creates electrons and guards my body from their effects by force of will alone if we can predict the effects of various distances, lag times, and choices on the emitted blasts, and maybe, for good measure, scan my brain with an MRI to see me willing those electrons into being, science will have a lot to say about this supernatural event.

This is where we return to miracles. Sometimes we (naively) think that for something to be a miracle it must all be unexplainable. However, this rarely seems to be the case. In the crossing of the Red Sea (or Reed Sea, depending on one’s translation) the miracle is described as God sending a wind which then causes the sea to withdraw (although the wall of standing water described is not natural). Given how fire from heaven is used to describe lightning, we might imagine that Elijah, in his prophetic duel with the prophets of Ba’al (a storm god, in case you were wondering), wins when lightning strikes the altar he has prepared with effects that are not entirely unexpected from a high-power lightning strike. Miracles seem to be, for the Bible, as much about intent as result. Sure, lightning sometimes strikes things. But does it strike exactly the object you have just asked God to light on fire? Does the fact that an atheist could dismiss this as an exceptional coincidence make it less of a miracle for the faithful?

And what about the scientist? The reality is that a genuine miracle probably contains only a small amount of unexplainable material. If someone was supposedly healed of cancer it’s worth asking where the cancer cells went and what the tissue in the previously tumor-ridden areas looks like. This remains the case even if there was a miracle. In fact, the odds are that you can’t even verify a miracle as a miracle until you’ve done quite a lot of science and so you certainly can’t reject studying certain phenomenon a priori.

There’s even more of a vicious tailspin hidden in “miracles are something that violates the laws of science”. Specifically, this is a claim that can only be made once you know the laws. If you don’t know the laws, or you think you know them but you are wrong, and yet you decide that anything that violates the laws as you know them is out of bounds you will never know the laws. You will kill science in its cradle.

What are the practical effects of all this? For the scientist it means, primarily, that the miracle category is practically useless. Popular as it is to contrast faith and science and talk about how science and miracles are at odds, the reality is that you need to do your work anyway. Science cannot sit by and say, “Well, someone called that a miracle, we can’t touch that,” nor can science afford to say, “We could not explain that and so we cannot accept those results.” After all, science was unable to explain several interesting and real experimental results prior to Einstein and no atheist would want to dismiss the key to fixing a major flaw in the theory as something that was out of bounds. For the faithful, who compose my primary audience, it means, simply enough, that mechanisms can be expected for most miracles or most parts of miracles. If God speaks into your head, for instance, we should expect an MRI to see parts of your brain responsible for integrating information working just as if I spoke to you. Perhaps they won’t, or perhaps some other area will, but the fact remains that miracles are not about special effects. They are not meant primarily to discombobulate but to accomplish God’s will. Indeed, from the perspective of living life as a Christian it becomes unimportant whether particular events are miracles in the modern sense or not, as long as they happened. It is sufficient that they are, to use a more Biblical word, signs of God’s work.

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