Thursday, August 06, 2009

Are Miracles Compatible with Science?

This is a common question in the debates about science and religion. My answer is "no." A miracle, by definition, must be miraculous, which means it is not explicable by the process we use in science (evidence and rationality).

Philosophers love this kind of question because it gives them loads of opportunities to talk about dead philosophers and how they interpreted the word "miracle." If they can find logical inconsistencies, or slight subtleties of meaning, then they can declare victory for belief in miracles.

Watch Hugh McLachlan perform this "miracle" in an article written for New Scientist: Opinion: Do you believe in miracles?.
THESE days most people think it unscientific to believe in "miracles", and irreligious not to believe in them. But would the occurrence of miracles really violate the principles of science? And would their non-occurrence really undermine religion? David Hume and Richard Dawkins have attempted to answer these questions in their different ways, but I am not convinced by their arguments, and for me they remain open questions.
So, it's an open question whether miracles are compatible with science, eh? I wish Hugh McLachlan had given us some examples of miracles that he thinks would be compatible with science.

He's been known to read Sandwalk [Hugh McLachlan on Cloning Humans] so maybe he'll give us an examples in the comments.


  1. Miracles are compatible "in theory" with current science, since current science does not claim to know what the ultimate "causes" for all things are. It is theoretically possible for reality to be structured in a layered fashion, so that a hidden layer or multiple layers control what happens in an observable layer (consistency, "miracles", etc), and no experiments in the observable layer would ever reveal the true nature of the hidden layer. Examples of layered realities include hardware/software systems, simulation and dream scenarios and brain-in-a-vat, and Bohm's "implicate" layers in QM. Such a hidden layer may even be beyond the ape-brain comprehension, since it would exist in terms utterly alien to beings in an observable layer. Can a software program ever truly "understand" the hardware it runs on by doing experiments in its software environment? Not without outside intervention, and maybe not even then.

    Of course, none of that means that miracles are real or that reality is layered. But the mere fact that the assertion of a layered reality cannot be disproven, means that science and empirical methods will always be an incomplete way of knowing, although probably still the best way of knowing.

  2. Actually Anonymous none of what you said is logically consistent that said miracles would be compatible with current science. They may be TRUE, but that doesn't make them compatible. As far as modern science is concerned if no experiments can elucidate these hidden layers than they may as well not exist.

    Like I said, they may be true, but if scientific methods can't touch them then they are not compatible.

  3. It's most interesting to hear apologists twist around the question of miracles when they know they are addressing a skeptical scientific audience. In this circumstance they try their utmost to use the 'soft' version of miracles - a sort of wishful thinking interpretation of a rare natural event. As an example Ken Miller during an 'Infidel Guy' interview described the story of some christian friends of his who adopted a child from abroad but who were told when they went to collect the child from the foreign orphanage that it had tested positive for HIV. They were not under an obligation to go through with the adoption but having talked about it they decided to go ahead and took the child home to the US only to have it retested and found to be HIV negative. This was interpreted as a 'miracle' by them and by Miller. It clearly violates no laws of nature and can be simply explained as a false positive in the original test but Miller insisted that this is an example of a miracle (despite the fact that its pretty easy to imagine the opposite scenario with the child being negative originally and positive when he got to the USA.)
    Mind you, when pressed in the same interview Miller admitted he also believed in the 'hard' miracles of virgin birth and resurrection but was remarkably reluctant to dwell on these ones to any degree.

  4. I have always claimed the notion of "supernatural" is pure nonsense.

    Supernatural means something that defies the known laws of nature, but what it really means (if an experiment can confirm this) is that there are laws of nature we do not yet know.

    Saying some unexplained phenomenon is "supernatural" is equivalent to making two false assertions:

    1) That you KNOW all the laws of nature.
    2) That you KNOW what's behind the unexplained phenomena, when you don't really, it's just an argument by ignorance.

    Nevermind the fact that it's common knowledge among skeptics that 99% of miracle claims are bogus (and 1% are just too vague to consider).

    However, the religious proclaim new miracles as if no one has done that before, as if crying "wolf" isn't the most popular hobby of mankind.

  5. It looks like he makes miracles compatible with science by redefining "miracles" and to a lesser extent, "science". Not as bad as Behe & Astrology-as-science but pretty lame.

  6. It is a miracle that one does not disolve like a lump of sugar in ones bath.

  7. The discussion is still not going anywhere as we still need some reasonable examples for miracles.
    The false positive HIV test is not enough for me. Neither is the resurrection. The Grimm's fairy tales are full of such things, but they are only stories. What we would need is an actual "candidate" miracle that happened in modern times and is well documented.


  8. Isn't the claim of miracle always something like "science can not explain therefore it was miracle"? Then miracle=what science says is impossible.

    Of course problem in there is that we don't know what things science can find in future, so we can not be sure when we say something is miracle.

    But same time is 100% sure that believing miracles is same thing that saying "science has no power". They are (1)incompatible so they are more widely saying you can not do anything with science and there is "stronger thing than that" or (2) they are compatible: Science has working only in a limited area? This problem is "god of gaps" -thinking. "We don't understood" -situation (or falsely claimed ones) are linked "we will never know". And this attitude is totally against sciences principals "Try to understood how things work". It is lazy and passive. And that attitude makes strange linkage "We dont know" is transferred "it is miracle" which is useful definition only if we know something about miracles. So they are basicly saying "we don't understood so we undestood it". Which is quite nonsensial.

    In other definitions of miracle there is "flower is miracle" -type claims. Then anything can be miracle. Gravitation is scienfific and miracle. Only problem in that is "emptyness" of the definition. We still don't know what makes miracles different from "non_miracles".

    And if we put the alla definitions together, the whole word is more than wron. It is useless. Anything anywhere can be miracle and can not be miracle at the same time.

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  10. WHAT!!!???

    Larry, how can you not agree with the distinguished Dr. Manhattan that the singular emergence of life in the universe is certainly a miracle??