9. Miracles

by Blake

The problem of miracles is the problem of the apparent contradiction between miracles and the laws of science.  How can a miracle occur if it breaks a law of science?

Following C.S. Lewis in his book, Miracles, the first question to determine is whether or not you are a naturalist.  A naturalist believes that nothing exists except this physical world.  A miracle involves some kind of interaction outside of this physical world.  Since naturalism and a belief in miracles are incompatible then if you are a naturalist, miracles are impossible and no further discussion is necessary.  But if you are not a naturalist, then the problem of miracles becomes the question: does anything outside our physical world have causal interaction with our physical world?

Science has nothing to say on this question.  Science describes what goes on in the physical world when it is not acted upon by outside influence, but it cannot say whether or not this physical world that it describes is causally closed.  Consequently, the question of whether or not the physical universe is closed is not a question that you will ever find in a science textbook.  It is not a scientific question – it is a metaphysical question.  How would science ever even begin to answer questions about things outside the physical world?

Newtonian mechanics describes the behavior of billiard balls on a pool table well, but it cannot determine whether a person will walk up to the table and manipulate the billiard balls.  Likewise, the laws of science describe well how our physical world works, but they cannot determine whether God will manipulate our physical world.  And if a person does walk up and manipulate the billiard balls, creating different results than the Newtonian mechanics predicted, has he broken Newton’s Laws?  Of course not.  He has merely changed the scenario that Newton’s Laws are describing.  And Newton’s Laws don’t cease operating when this occurs – they just begin describing this new scenario instead.

C.S. Lewis gives this example: “If I put six pennies in 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.”  And if I do only find two, have the laws of arithmetic been broken?  Of course not.  A new development has occurred on which the laws of arithmetic are now operating.

If science describes how this physical world behaves as a closed system (and it cannot say whether or not the system is closed), then not only does God not break the laws of science by performing miracles, but God cannot break the laws of science by performing miracles since a miracle would necessarily involve the physical world to cease being closed, if only for a moment.  Indeed, God could go so far as to create a second sun in our daytime sky ex nihilo and this would break none of the laws governing creation of matter and energy – no more than God’s original creation of the universe itself did.

Maybe miracles have happened, or maybe they have not.  The question answered here, though, is whether or not they could occur and as you can see, if you are not a naturalist then a miracle is at least possible without contradicting the laws of science since science cannot say whether our physical universe is closed.