Thursday, October 06, 2005

Do miracles violate the laws of nature?

I wrote a paper on Hume's argument against miracles for one of my philosophy classes, and I've been debating with myself lately about whether I should post that paper here. You see, the problem with writing papers for school is that you don't get to say what you want to say the way you want to say it. You have to focus more on fulfilling the criteria your teacher is looking for. There are some things in that paper that I'd like to post on this blog, but I don't really have the time to write it the way I want to write it.

One of the issues I addressed in there is whether or not miracles violate the laws of nature. Since I've been thinking about that tonight (October 4), I've decided to go ahead and write a blog about it.

A miracle is an event in the natural world whose cause is not natural. For example, Jesus rising from the dead is a miracle. Since the resurrection happened to Jesus' physical body, it was an event in the natural world. The resurrection was not caused by natural processes, though. It was caused by divine agency. That's what makes it a miracle.

A law of nature describes natural processes. It describes the way nature behaves. For example, the law of gravitation says that there is an attractive force between any two objects that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and indirectly proportional to the square of the distance between them.

What would it mean for a law of nature to be violated? If a natural law describes the way nature operates, then a violation of a law of nature would entail nature doing something contrary to what the law describes. Nature would have to deviate from its usual course. If it turned out that in some isolated case, there was not an attractive force between two objects, that would be a violation of the law of gravity.

Assuming I've explained "law of nature" and "miracle" correctly, it seems clear that a miracle is not a violate of a law of nature. When we say that a miracle has occured, we aren't saying that nature has spontaneously done something other than it usually does, or that some event is uncaused. We aren't saying nature has done anything unusual at all. Rather, we are saying some supernatural force has acted in nature to bring about some effect that nature could not have produced by itself.

People do not naturally rise from the dead. Nature does not deviate from its course in order to bring about resurrections. Rather, resurrections are caused by supernatural agents, such as God.

When God acts in nature, nature accomodates those causes according to the ordinary laws of nature. Take gravity for example. If the law of gravity is true, then an object will fall to the earth until it is stopped by some force acting against it. When it lands on a surface, for example, the surface will exert a force equal to the force of gravity in order to keep the object from moving any farther. When we catch a falling rock in our hands, we do not violate the law of gravity by preventing the rock from falling. Rather, we apply a force up to counter the force of gravity pulling the rock down.

Now suppose you see a rock sort of floating there in midair. You pass hoops around it, put your hands around it, and take all kinds of measurements, and you can find no physical causes that keep the rock suspended in midair. If there is nothing at all causing the rock to remain in midair, you might say the event was a violation of a natural law. Nature was, by itself, doing something other than is usually does. But if it turned out that God or some angel was causing that rock to remain in midair, then the event is a miracle, not a violation of any law of nature. Nature didn't produce the result; it only responded to a cause. It is quite usual in nature for rocks to remain where they are caused to remain.

If you think about it, a violation of a law of nature isn't even possible, because it would entail a logical contradiction. If some law describes the way nature behaves, then any way nature behaves would have to be part of the description. If it turns out that there are objects without any attractive force between them, then the law of gravity simply isn't true. It needs to be revised to account for the anomoly. If some law said, "X happens in situation Y," and there was some situation, Y, in which X did not happen, then reality contradicts the law. The law does not accurately describe reality. Any true law of nature must accurately describe the way nature behaves, so whatever nature does would have to be accounted for in the description.

But there's nothing logically contradictory about a supernatural agent having causal influence in the natural world. So a miracle cannot be a violation of a law of nature.

17 Comments:

At 10/06/2005 7:54 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, you make a good case that a miracle need not be a violation of the laws of nature but why do you conclude that it cannot?

What if the method used by God to accomplish a certain miracle is to suspend a law, or temporarily and locally change a law?
Take gravity for instance, and your floating rock scenario. It seems God could accomplish this miracle in the following ways:

1) apply an invisible force against the gravitational force (what you describe)
2) suspend gravity itself in the vicinity of this rock
3) Just for this rock, change the atomic mass of granite
4) a physicist could probably think of other ways.

Would you argue that the above do not qualify as a violation of a natural law?

Could it be that you have set up a false logical contradiction when you say that violating the laws of nature is contradictory?
Wouldn't the implication of that position be that God is bound by the physical laws? Since He transcends these laws that would be a problem.

 
At 10/06/2005 8:38 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, our difference in opinion may just be a matter of semantics, but let me explain. The way I understand a law of nature is that a law of nature is a description of the way nature behaves. If God chose to suspend the force of gravity in some localized spot, I would not consider that a violation of the law of gravity. Instead, I would say the law of gravity is not true in that spot at that time. There cannot be a violation of a law if there is no law to violate.

I consider "violation of a natural law" to be a contradiction in terms, because a natural law describes the way things are, so a violation must be a contrary description. If the law of gravity were actually violated, that would entail that "There is a force of gravity" is true because that's what the law states, and also "There is not a force of gravity" because that would be a violation. It cannot be the case anywhere in the universe that the law of gravity is both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. Either the law of gravity accurately describes the universe, or it does not.

 
At 10/06/2005 10:01 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

OK, semantics as you say.

Are you going somewhere with this? Perhaps it has implications in the charge made by naturalists that to postulate any divine intervention in the world violates some rule of science?

 
At 10/06/2005 10:45 AM , Blogger Jeff Travis Henderson said...

Perhaps it has implications in the charge made by naturalists that to postulate any divine intervention in the world violates some rule of science?

This is where I kind of understand where naturalistic scientists are coming from because:

1) A hypothesis is only valid if it is testable
2) The only causes we can test (ie. make observations of) are material causes
3) God is not a material cause
4) Therefore a scientific hypothesis involving God as a causal agent is not valid.

I'm not entirely sure if I believe that, but I've heard it a lot and can't really see any holes in the argument.

 
At 10/06/2005 11:05 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Jeff, I addressed this very issue in my latest blog entry. Take a look, and for the deepest understanding, be sure to read the source document I link to by Stephen C. Meyer.

 
At 10/06/2005 12:20 PM , Blogger Steve said...

Sam - well I think you're assuming a "law" in Physics really is in fact a law. And I think you're also assuming that we can determine the difference between miracles and anomolies.

If a scientist saw an anomoly in nature that defied a "law" they would probably say that the law is wrong and seek to conform it to new evidence. Thus, even under your new rubric, we still have a difficult time determining when a miracle has occurred, or there is simply something we dont understand.

Moreover, logically, just because we dont understand how something conforms to the "laws of nature" does that necessarily imply that it is a miracle? It would seem that making that determination would be a mistake.

Take for example modern incidences of "ressurection." there are some instances of people who can make their heart stop for a brief period of time, and start it again. Now, lacking in the scientific ability to determine that this person has died and become alive again, if this occurred in say 1450, they might say "MIRACLE!" But today, with better technology and science, we arent so easily fooled!

 
At 10/06/2005 8:00 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, David Hume defined a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, and then based his argument against miracles on that. I just think he was mistaken in his understanding of what a miracle was. A miracle isn't a spontaneous deviation in the course of nature; a miracle is a caused event that leaves the laws of nature perfectly in tact. You see, he wanted to pit the evidence for natural laws against the evidence for miracles as if they were mutually exclusive, and I think that was a mistake.

 
At 10/06/2005 8:02 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Steve, you're right that in this post, I'm assuming a law really is a law. You are addressing epistemological issues--how we can know a miracle has occured--and that's a different subject entirely. I do think you raise a good point, though. Whenever we observe some anomoly, how do we determine whether we were just mistaken about our scientific theory before, or if a miracle has occured? Sounds like a good topic for another blog.

 
At 10/06/2005 9:31 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I sometimes hear this objection framed as if it is a principled objection rather than a scientific objection, i.e., that God is doing something morally wrong by breaking His own laws via miracles. Here's an example from Richard Dawkins:

"What I can't understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists...who...believe in a god who does things like...perform cheap miracles which go against, presumably, everything that the God of the physicists, the Divine Cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature."

I think there is a category error here in saying that God cannot "violate" these regulative "laws." They are not moral laws after all.

Here's something I've often wondered: What if there are no laws independent of the direct sustaining actions of God? That is to say, there is nothing on autopilot that God could take a vacation from. What if we are not actually seeing laws but, rather, just witnessing what God has determined to regularly do? The "laws" would then merely be descriptions of what He can be counted upon to do under certain known conditions. (I think this view might be known as "occasionalism.") On this view, miracles would not then be an intervention or suspension of independent laws/forces, but would simply be God choosing to act temporarily in some unique way. If I have cereal for breakfast every day for years, it will seem a miracle if I once have eggs.

 
At 10/06/2005 10:07 PM , Blogger Steve said...

thats VERY interesting Paul I see what you're saying.

Or even further, lets suggest then that the presents of "laws" could not be laws because they depend on God sustaining them to be true. In which case they are only apparently true.

If those laws were objectively true regardless of Gods wishes, then they would be as powerful or more powerful than God.

But then that presents the possibility that the study of science could in fact be a study of the wonderful creations of God and all the individual parts that work together. Thus, there is no real conflict between science and religion!

 
At 10/06/2005 10:32 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Oh, that makes me so mad! I just wrote a long post, and somehow it got lost. I hate it when that happens!

Lemme see if I can remember what I said.

Paul, I don't think Dawkins is necessarily assuming the laws of nature are moral or even prescriptive. He's just saying that if God designed the universe in a particular way, then that's how God intended the universe to operate. But if God suspends or violates a law of nature, then he's going against his own intentions. He's at odds with himself. He's acting contrary to his own nature.

The theory you raise about God sustaining the universe continuously rather than allowing it to operate according to fixed natural laws ties in well with Hume's comments about causation. Hume argued that we never actually experience causation (or a necessary connection between two events, as he says). What we observe is conjiguity in space and time, and our assumption of "causation" is just a habit of the mind. Hume never came right out and denied causation; he only pointed out that we cannot experience causation directly. We can only assume it when we observe two events closely joined in space and time.

Given the doubts Hume raised about our knowledge of causation, that makes your theory possible. It's possible that what we're observing isn't really naturalistic cause and effect, but only God acting consistently in nature to produce the appearance of natural laws that govern cause and effect.

I believe in the sovereignty of God, but I do not believe he acts that way. God's sovereinty doesn't require it. Lemme use a pool game analogy to explain. Let's suppose some guy is so good at pool that before he hits the cue ball, he knows where every single ball is going to end up in the end. So he's able to hit the cue ball in such a way that the balls end up where he wants them. He doesn't need to go and individually move each ball to get it where he wants. He can use secondary means. He only has to intervene in a subtle way. I think God's sovereignty works the same way. God works through secondary as well as primary means.

And I also believe this is how the brain and soul interact. The soul does not need to move every molecule in the brain in order to will an act. It can operate in such a subtle way that it is virtually undetectable when the soul wills and the brain reacts. After all, look at bodily actions themselves. They are the result of extremely subtle chemical reactions in the nervous system. Lifting the arm is dramatic and observable, but the chemical reactions through the nerves to the arm which gave rise to its movement are extremely subtle.

I don't buy your theory, because I think it goes against common sense. There are some things our minds just automatically tell us, and we should believe those things unless we have good reason to think we're mistaken. George Berkley argued that the external world doesn't really exist independently as it appears to. Rather, God creates the appearance of it in all of our minds. The reason we all consistently perceive the same thing is because God is consistent. I think your theory is mistaken for the same reason Berkley's theory is mistaken. It requires us to go against our common sense intuitions that things really are the way they appear to be.

There isn't anymore reason to doubt causation and the laws of nature than there is to doubt the external world, other minds, the uniformity of nature, moral laws, or the past. A normally working mind automatically assumes these things, because that's the way the world appears.

Your theory is similar to how young earth creationists account for light from distant stars. There are stars more than 10,000 light years away that we can see, which means the light from them has been traveling for more than 10,000 years. Young earth creationists will argue that the light could have been created in transit less than 10,000 years ago. But if that's true, then God is deceiving us. We aren't really seeing the light from the stars themselves; we're only seeing light created in transit to make it appear to be coming from some real stars.

If your theory is true, then God is deceiving us. He's making it appear that the universe is acting causally according to uniform laws of nature, when in fact it isn't. I just don't buy that.

 
At 10/07/2005 7:55 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, I don't buy your argument that God's active participation in the laws of nature constitute deception.

I do agree that the young earth position on appearance of age does amount to deception. You've just inappropriately used an argument from analogy.

The Scriptures themselves testify to God's constant sustaining of the universe, so in a sense, I think your position is anti-Scriptural.

Steve, I think you are right to say that, if these laws existed outside of God, then we'd have a theological problem. An inviolable tenet of Christian theology is that absolutely everything outside of God was created by Him (either primarily, or secondarily). This does include the 'laws' of chemistry and physics of course.

I do not mean to say that Paul's perspective is necessarily true, just possibly true. And, unlike Sam, I think that a theological/philosophical case can be made for it. Hint: Consider the Ontological argument.

Steve, I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. In fact, the entire scientific endeavor has its genesis in Christian Theology. Science is said to be "Thinking God's thoughts after Him".

 
At 10/07/2005 8:34 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, why do you think God sustaining the universe entails that every event in the universe is directly caused by God?

If it appears that the universe operates causally according to laws of nature, and yet that isn't the case, but God only makes it appear so, how does that differ from deception?

 
At 10/07/2005 11:36 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

By way of clarification, I don't mean to say that God causes every event in the Universe. I'm only talking about the physical laws that guide the universe as, perhaps, emanating directly from God in an ongoing basis.

What's your definition of deception? Was God deceiving us in to believing that the earth was the center of the universe in years past? That was a misconception of men as to the true nature of the universe.

Does anyone really have scientific justification to proclaim from where the strong and weak atomic forces come from? Does the natural revelation tell us where the decay rate of the proton comes from? Such that postulating that it comes directly from God, on going, would be an incompatible concept?

As to whether God is the cause of every event in the universe, I say yes. You said 'directly', which, of course, I won't say. He does much through secondary causes.

Perhaps we could use an analogy. Imagine that a given natural law (gravity say) acts on things in the universe. Let's say that gravity is an active act of God's will at every moment.
It might be like me holding a baseball bat extended at arms length and perfectly still (the unchanging law of nature). The pitcher throws the ball at the bat and the ball bounces off the bat. I didn't directly affect the ball, but the bat did (the bat being gravity). I just sustained the bat in place.

The possible justification for a view like this might come from the Ontological argument.

As for Biblical justification, I haven't studied this particular question. I'd guess that Psalms and perhaps Job might have references to ongoing sustaining of the universe by God.

Job 26:8 "He enfolds the waters in His clouds, yet the clouds do not burst beneath their weight".

This verse, and probably dozens like it credit God with things that we know are following the laws of nature.

One answer, is that those verses were the pre-scientific myths of men.

Another answer is that they are only a figure of speach, giving God credit for the laws since He created them.

Another answer is that God is actively carrying out the natural laws that govern such things.

I am sure you're familiar with Anselm's Ontological argument for God. That argument can be applied theologically too, although I don't often see it applied.

 
At 10/07/2005 6:50 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I need you to clarify something for me, Jeff. First, you said, "By way of clarification, I don't mean to say that God causes every event in the Universe." But then you said, "As to whether God is the cause of every event in the universe, I say yes." Which is it?

I'm only talking about the physical laws that guide the universe as, perhaps, emanating directly from God in an ongoing basis.

That seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what a physical law is. A physical law isn't something that stands on its own and governs the physical universe. A physical law is just a description of how the universe behaves, and we infer it from observation.

What's your definition of deception?

When somebody causes you to believe something that isn't true. The comments about subatomic particles are irrelevent to this discussion, because nothing about them involves causing us to believe things that aren't true. We're simply ignorant of some things, not deceived about them.

Was God deceiving us in to believing that the earth was the center of the universe in years past? That was a misconception of men as to the true nature of the universe.

But God obviously gave us the ability to discover that we were mistaken. How is it possible to discover that the universe does not operate according to causal laws?

I understand your baseball analogy. It's basically the same as my pool table analogy. We're agreed that God uses secondary causes. But that supports my view. God can only use secondary causes if the universe operates according to causal laws. Unless the bat is able to cause the ball to change directions by some law of collisions, the batter swings in vain.

I can definitely see how you could infer your view (which is beginning to sound a lot like mine) from that passage in Job, but like you say, there are other ways of understanding it.

I don't know how Anselm's ontological argument would work to support your view. In fact, doesn't pretty much everybody agree that Anselm's argument is unsound? Can you really use an unsound argument to support theology?

 
At 10/10/2005 7:55 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Is God the cause of every event in the universe? I say yes, but through a combination of direct and indirect causes. I think you agree with this.
Sorry for a lack of clarity on that.

That seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what a physical law is. A physical law isn't something that stands on its own and governs the physical universe. A physical law is just a description of how the universe behaves, and we infer it from observation.

Well, there we have agreement. When defined as simply a description of how the universe behaves then there's not much to disagree on. At the end of it I've probably been wearing you out based on semantics.

How is it possible to discover that the universe does not operate according to causal laws?
I've never asserted any such thing.
I'm not entirely sure exactly how you are postulating the interaction between God and the physical world when a miracle occurs. But that's OK.

In regard to the Ontological argument: I am not convinced that the argument in unsound, but I'm not as astute a student of philosophy as you are. I'd love your comments on this (perhaps via email). Perhaps in another venue I can elaborate on how I think it can be applied to theology.

 
At 10/10/2005 9:39 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, it sounds like something interesting to talk about, but I don't have time to get into it. Maybe after October 20th, I'll have more time.

 

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