Why Miracles Are Possible

11/26/2008

Are miracles possible in an age of science? A host of best-selling atheist books, from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, all sneer at the notion of miracles. Dawkins, for instance, writes that miracles are “flatly contradictory not just to the facts of science but also to the spirit of science.” Reasonable people in his view “have to renounce miracles.”

Authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens cite 18th century philosopher David Hume, who made what is perhaps the strongest argument against miracles. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argued: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) We know these laws through repeated and constant experience; 3) The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws; 4) Consequently, no one can rationally believe in miracles.

Of course miracles are improbable. That is why we use the term “miracle” even to de-scribe extraordinary accomplishments. Yet without trying to defend the veracity of any particular miracle, it may be shown that the possibility of miracles is completely consistent with modern science and modern knowledge.

Interestingly, Hume’s argument against miracles can be overthrown using his own empirical and skeptical philosophy. In short, we may observe that: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature; 2) Scientific laws are on Hume’s own account empirically unverifiable; 3) Thus violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible; 4) Therefore, miracles are possible.

CAUSE AND EFFECT Back to Top

Why are scientific laws unverifiable? Hume’s answer was that no number of observations, however large, can be used to make a general conclusion that is logically defensible. For instance, if I say all swans are white and posit that as a scientific hypothesis, how would I go about verifying it? I can check a thousand, a million or 10 million swans and say confidently that all swans are white. Hume’s point is that I do not really know this. Tomorrow I might see a black swan, and there goes my scientific law.

This is not a frivolous example. For thousands of years before Australia was discovered, the only swans people in the West had ever seen were white. Consequently, the entire Western world took it for granted that all swans were white, and expressions like “white as a swan” abound in Western literature. It was only when Europeans landed in Australia that they saw, for the first time, a black swan. What was previously considered a scientifically inviolable truth had to be revised.

But can’t scientific laws be derived from the logical connection between cause and effect? No, Hume argued, because there is no logical connection between cause and effect. We may see event A and then event B, and we may assume that event A caused event B, but we cannot know this for sure. All we have observed is a correlation, and no number of observed correlations can add up to a necessary connection.

Consider this simple illustration: A child drops a ball on the ground for the first time. To his surprise it bounces. Then the child’s uncle explains to the child that dropping a round object like a ball causes it to bounce. The uncle might explain this by employing general terms like “property” and “causation.”

But now let us consider a deep question that Hume raises: What experience has the uncle had that the child has not had? The difference, Hume notes, is that the uncle has seen a lot of balls bounce.

Hume now draws his arresting conclusion: The uncle has no experience fundamentally different from the child’s. He has merely repeated the experiment more times. How does he know that past experience will repeat itself every time in the future? In truth, he does not know. In this way Hume concluded that the laws of cause and effect cannot be validated.

Hume is not denying that nature has laws, but rather says it is presumptuous to claim to know what they are. When we posit our own ways of explaining the universe, Hume suggests this is simply a grandiose way of saying “here is our best guess based on previous tries.”

OBEYING THE ‘LAW’ Back to Top

Some, like astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, believe it is simply ridiculous to say that scientific laws are not reliable: “Science’s big-time success rests on the fact that it works.” Better to fly in an airplane constructed by the laws of physics, Tyson says, than to board one “constructed by the rules of Vedic astrology.”

I agree that science works – and you won’t get any argument from me about the limits of Vedic astrology – but it does not follow that scientific laws are known to be true in all cases. Consider this: Newton’s laws were regarded as absolutely true for nearly two centuries. They worked incredibly well. Indeed, no body of general statements had ever been subjected to so much empirical verification. Every machine incorporated its principles, as did the entire Industrial Revolution. Newton was vindicated millions of times a day, and his theories led to unprecedented material success.

Yet Einstein’s theories of relativity contradicted Newton, and Newton’s laws were shown in important ways to be wrong or at least inadequate. This does not mean that Einstein’s laws are absolutely true; in the future they too might be shown to be erroneous in certain respects.

From such examples, 20th century philosopher Karl Popper concluded that no scientific law can, in a positive sense, claim to prove anything at all. Science cannot verify theories; it can merely falsify them. When we have subjected a theory to expansive testing, and it has not been falsified, we can provisionally believe it to be true. This is not, however, because the theory has been proven, or even because it is likely to be true. Rather, we proceed in this way because, practically speaking, we don’t have a better way to proceed. We give a theory the benefit of the doubt until we find out otherwise.

There is nothing wrong in all this, as long as we realize that scientific laws are not “laws of nature.” They are human laws, and they represent a form of best-guessing about the world. What we call laws are nothing more than observed patterns and sequences. We think the world works in this way until future experience proves the contrary.

Hume insists that miracles violate the known laws of nature, but his own skeptical philosophy has shown that there are no “known laws of nature” that cannot admit exceptions. Yet miracles can be dismissed only if scientific laws are deemed absolutely true, something we have seen is an impossibility. Miracles can indeed happen, and nothing in modern science or modern knowledge shows they cannot.

Dinesh D’Souza is the author of many books, including What’s So Great About Christianity (Regnery). View his Web site.