Miracles and Science

For a many people in the West, science seems to be at odds with belief in God because of its ‎claims to the miraculous. How can modern scientific people possibly believe in ancient stories ‎about signs, wonders, and resurrections from the dead; written by uneducated men in pre-‎scientific times?‎

The underlying assumption that the authors of the Bible were gullible and we’ve‎ only now ‎become critical thinkers, is what C.S. Lewis describes as “chronological snobbery”. People have ‎always known that dead people don’t come back to life, and the Bible records very human ‎reactions to miracles (e.g. fear and disbelief). Miracles are never expected.‎

Moreover, modern attempts to relativise theistic beliefs in terms of socio-cultural assumptions ‎of the time, are necessarily rooted in socio-cultural assumptions of our time. The sociology of ‎knowledge (the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within ‎which it arises) should not only be applied to other cultures, but to our culture as well. As ‎Peter Berger, one of the founders of the sociology of knowledge, points out:‎

“The past, out of which the tradition comes, is relativised in terms of this or that socio-‎historical analysis. The present, however, remains strangely immune from relativisation. ‎In other words, the New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness ‎rooted in their time, but the contemporary analyst takes the consciousness of his time as ‎an unmixed intellectual blessing. The electricity- and radio-users are placed intellectually above ‎the Apostle Paul.‎

This is rather funny. More importantly, in the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, it is an ‎extraordinarily one-sided way of looking at things. What was good for the first century is good ‎for the twentieth. The worldview of the New Testament writers was constructed and maintained ‎by the same kind of social processes that construct and maintain the world view of ‎contemporary “radical” theologians. Each has its appropriate plausibility structure, its ‎plausibility-maintaining mechanisms. If this is understood, then the appeal to any alleged ‎modern consciousness loses most of its persuasiveness – unless, of course, one can bring ‎oneself to believe that modern consciousness is indeed the embodiment of superior cognitive ‎powers.” (Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the ‎Supernatural, 41)‎

One of the differences between ancient cultures and modern Western culture, is that modern ‎Western culture often conflates methodological naturalism (the view that miracles are ‎miraculous) with philosophical naturalism (the view that miracles are impossible). Miracles are ‎miraculous by definition, but what makes miracles impossible (apart from unprovable ‎assumptions about the world)?‎

No one doubts the monumental advances of science, but science depends upon the regularity of ‎nature (also known as methodological naturalism), not the non-existence of the supernatural ‎‎(also known as philosophical naturalism). There is simply no one scientific worldview. ‎Christians can do science, Buddhists can do science, Muslims can do science, Hindus can do science. You don’t have to ‎be an atheist, all you need to assume the regularity of nature.‎

Nevertheless, the assumption of the regularity of nature (which is required for science) wasn’t ‎obvious for most of human history, and it took the Christian view that God is a God of order ‎for it to be well established enough to give rise to the scientific method. In 16th century Europe, ‎the Christian Reformation led to the questioning of tradition and the push to go ‘to the sources’. ‎In 17th century Europe, this was applied to creation, which led to the rise of modern science.‎

No historian of science chalks up the rise of modern science coming on the heels the ‎Reformation, in the same place as the Reformation, to coincidence. Indeed, most historians of science hold to some ‎form of Merton’s ‎thesis, that “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they ‎expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A ‎Preliminary Study, 169)‎

Philosophical naturalism simply does not follow from the regularity of nature. Indeed, without ‎the regularity of nature, we would have no way of recognising a miracle as a miracle. Belief in ‎God doesn’t deny the regularity of nature (which is required for science), but rather, the ‎evidence for God depends on it. As C.S. Lewis wrote:‎

‎“If I put six pennies into a drawer on Monday and six more on Tuesday, the laws decree that – ‎‎other things being equal – I shall find twelve pennies there on Wednesday. But if the ‎drawer has been robbed I may in fact find only two. Something will have been broken (the lock ‎of the drawer or the laws of England) but the laws of arithmetic will not have been broken. The ‎new situation created by the thief will illustrate the laws of arithmetic just as well as the original ‎situation. But if God comes to work miracles, He comes ‘like a thief in the night’... The better ‎you know that two and two make four, the better you know that two and three don’t.” (C.S. ‎Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 92-93)‎

Far from disproving the existence of miracles, the regularity of nature is precisely what’s ‎required to recognise miracle as a miracle. Miracles are incredibly rare (because of the regularity ‎of nature), and so most theists are somewhat sceptical about claims of the miraculous. But ‎unlike committed atheists, who, as Lewontin admits, “cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door”, the ‎theist’s worldview allows them to follow the evidence wherever it leads.‎

Return to main page