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.