Sunday, September 17, 2006

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

This is the second in a series on miracles - the first can be found here. It's mostly stuff I wrote a while ago, but haven't put on the Web until now.

Do Miracles Break the Laws of Nature?

It is a common belief today that a miracle is something that does not fit in with the laws of nature. Does the Bible support this? Let's look once again at the events surrounding the Exodus, in this case, the parting of the Red Sea, one of the many miracles performed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
Exodus 14:21-22, NIV

First, let us be clear that this was God's action. I showed last time that the purpose was to teach the Egyptians and the Israelites that God was powerful. The passage above says clearly that it was God who drove the water back.

Why then was there a wind, and why did it take all night? It certainly seems that here God uses normal "scientific" means to drive the water back, just as he uses normal "scientific" means (gravity) to cause it to crash back down on the Egyptians.

This should not surprise us. After all, if scientific laws are only a description of the way that God acts in the universe, then why should he not follow them when demonstrating his power? If God brings the rain through the normal physical processes at work in the universe, why should he not deliver his people using those same processes?

The crossing of the Red Sea can be "explained" in terms of physics. So what makes it a miracle?

The parting of the Red Sea is a miracle because it displays God's power. Moses could not have parted the sea on his own. Neither could Pharaoh, and neither could we. But God could.

I have heard it said that occasionally strong winds do come, and do cause the sea in that area to part. Even so, people cannot make it part on demand.

If we could build a machine to do it, then that would still not make this occurrence any less of a miracle, because God did not use such a machine. It was a miracle because it showed that the wind and water obeyed God in a way that they do not obey people.

We see the same thing in Mark 4:35-41. Jesus commands a storm to stop, and it stops. It was not a miracle because the storm stopped –storms stop all the time. It was a miracle because, as the disciples noted:

"Even the wind and the waves obey him."

So, in the Bible, miracles do not have to break the laws of nature in order to be miracles.

Can Miracles Break The Laws Of Nature?

There is a real danger of saying that God does not work through the normal operation of science. But there is also a danger of domesticating him and saying that he can only work through the normal operation of science.

In some miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, God works in accordance with the laws of science. But that is not true of all miracles.

The clearest example is the resurrection of Jesus. All the evidence points to Jesus being dead on the Friday evening. Yet on the Sunday morning, Jesus was able to convince people that he had conquered death rather than merely surviving it. This was not just a resuscitation where Jesus came back from death but was still near it. This was a resurrection where Jesus conquered death and came out the other side.

Now this does not fit in with the normally observed way that the universe works. In general, people do not come back from the dead. Occasionally, people are wrongly thought to be dead and later revive. But when they do, they are nowhere near as clearly dead as Jesus was, nor able to give the impression that have conquered death so soon afterwards.

So Jesus' resurrection was not in accordance with the laws of science.

That does not make it in some way more God's action than parting the Red Sea. Both are miracles; both are things which God did and we could not, and both point to God's power and rescue of his people. One is done through the way the universe usually works, and one is not.

How Can God Break His Own Laws?

All of this raises an important question about God's faithfulness. After all, in Jeremiah, God said that he had "established the fixed laws of heaven and Earth", and he used it to show his faithfulness.

So if God established those laws as fixed, how can he break them?

I think the best answer to this is that there is one fundamental law of the universe, which is that everything does what God tells it to do. This is actually necessary if we are to explain how the universe works at all.

Now if the fundamental law of the universe is that it does what God tells it to do, he can sometimes tell it to do things a bit differently.

Why would he do this? To show clearly that he is God, and that he has total power over the whole universe. To show that he is not domesticated – that he is not always limited by what we think he should be like. To show that he is not limited by the way that the universe works, but that he can do anything he wants to do. Scientific agnostics can cling on in the face of miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea by saying that it is just a very unlikely coincidence. But they can do nothing in the face of the resurrection of Jesus.

As Don Carson writes:

A miracle is not God doing something for a change, it is God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so should keep science humble.
Don Carson, How Long, O Lord?

So why then does God sometimes do miracles which fit in with the way that the universe works? To show that he is God over science as well. God is accomplishing his purpose through the normal way that the universe works, just as he is also accomplishing it when he does things a bit differently. It is to show us that the universe does not just carry on regardless except for the odd moment when God steps in and decides to act. God is continually at work in the universe.


Anonymous said...

Aside from the resurrection of Jesus, of which there is no "evidence" only myths, some of which are collected in the bible, any recent documented evidence of a miracle in which god works in contravention to the laws of nature?

John said...

How many would you want? One for each unbeliever to witness? Or would you want something repeatable for each unbeliever?

John said...

Oh yes, and what do you mean by "in contravention to the laws of nature"? Do you mean "something happens that we can prove was not due to physical causes"? And how would you go about proving that, even if it were the case?

Lets be clear what you're asking for here...

J.L. said...

Your post here contains nothing but fiction.

"The crossing of the Red Sea can be 'explained' in terms of physics"

I'd like very much to see the explaination for this in terms of physics and mathematics. But somehow I don't think I ever will.

"...there is one fundamental law of the universe, which is that everything does what God tells it to do. This is actually necessary if we are to explain how the universe works at all."

How so? And why do so many of the things that 'god' apparently does make so many people think that there is no 'god'? Is the intent to create individuals who disbelieve in the notion of 'god'?

I put this to you: If 'god' really does control *everything* that happens in the universe, then this entails manipulating uncountable numbers of atoms, including the ones that are in VX nerve gas, the atoms (and therefore the thoughts) in the brain of a mass murderer, the atoms in cancer cells, and everything else that humanity considers harmful, bad, abhorrent, cruel and evil.

Therefore 'god' is the root of all malady and evil, since these things are controlled by 'god'.

John said...

I'd be interested to know on what grounds you think it was "nothing but fiction". I was trying to analyse what the Bible meant by the term "miracle", specifically the relation such events bear to the laws of physics. And I don't see you arguing with any of that analysis.

Two real questions in your comment.

Full explanations in physics are always very long indeed. In short, strong winds have been known to cause gaps to appear in the sea in that sort of area.

There are also more exotic theories to do with volcanic eruptions. I'm not sure of the detail of exactly how God did it.

Secondly - about the providence / God manipulating stuff. In general, he provides the laws. He makes sure that things keep the laws (and if you've got a better proposed mechanism for how things keep scientific laws, I'd love to see it, coz I don't think there is one). What we do with this world with remarkably consistent laws is our responsibility.

An (admittedly weak) analogy: Just coz Google make and maintain search engine software, keeping it working from moment to moment, doesn't mean that they're reponsible for all the porn or whatever that some people dredge up.

Anonymous said...

Oh let's make it easy for your omnipotent deity. How about one well-documented miracle every year? By well-documented I mean witnessed by many hundreds of people, recorded by many people, and possibly photographed and videotaped, now that we have photography and videotape. And everyone would pretty much agree about what had happened. At the very least, there would be no plausible natural explanation for what had occurred.

And by "in contravention to the laws of nature" I mean something that can't be explained by natural means. So how about having the stars all align to spell out "I am the lord thy god?" Or having a glowing red cross appear on the foreheads of all infidels, that everyone could see and science could not find an explanation for? Or something along those lines?

What we find instead is a lot of myths and stories coming from a gullible, nonscientific community from hundreds or thousands of years ago. Surely if God could work miracles in the past he can do so now. I mean, aside from getting your driving license.

John said...

"No plausible natural explanation" - my experience of discussions with committed atheists is that they'll take any natural explanation, whether even vaguely plausible or otherwise, over believing in God.

There is always a potential naturalistic explanation in this world, even if it involves alien intervention, mind control and macroscopic quantum tunnelling.

It's kind of the corollary of Clarke's Third Law - people can always claim that magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. I can imagine the alien cults now....

Such a demand also tries to put us in a power relationship over God, which the Bible tells us God isn't exactly overly keen on.

John said...

My guess is that you would find any naturalistic explanation plausible compared to a theistic one.

Which shows that the assessment of which explanations are most probable is actually heavily weighted by our own presuppositions. So the question then becomes which set of presuppositions is it best to start with. Is it best to assume that God does not exist, and it would thus take evidence of a kind that could not exist (whether God did or not) to convince you? Is it best to assume that God does exist, to the point where nothing could persuade you otherwise? Or is it best to assume that God might well exist?

It's kind of the Humian problem of what prior probability to attach to the claims of miracles.

J.L. said...

Hey Custard,

I need to know whether I just plain forgot to submit the comment I was working on in response, or whether I did, and it has been deleted...

(I was quite tired last night! I spent ages writing it too - I can't touch type.)



John said...

I haven't deleted any comments lately (and the only ones I delete are spam, ones where I've messed up the code, ones where the author wants them to be deleted). I might add others to that list, but I certainly wouldn't delete a comment simply because it was disagreeing with me or anything - if nothing else it would feel intellectually dishonest.

So sorry, but I haven't deleted it and have no record of it. My guess is either you forgot to post it or the word verifcation thingy messes up, which it sometimes seems to.

J.L. said...

Cool. Much appreciated.
I'll retype it - maybe in a text editor first! - might take me a while though.

Anonymous said...

I disagree but don't have time to debate in detail now...maybe later. In fact, I was a theist for 46 years and I am still open to the possibility that a god or gods exist. However, it was the complete absence of any evidence for any meaningful divine intervention in earthly affairs, together with the problem of evil, that convinced me that either god does not exist or the concept is meaningless since he does nothing to stop the nasty shit that goes on here on earth.

But if you have any evidence that doesn't involve 1600 year old myths, bring it on.

Anonymous said...

I have been witness to a miracle of healing which took place in a hospital, where the patient was being closely monitored (because of being fatally ill). Due to the environment and moitoring, when the miracle occured (during being prayed for), the (non-Christian) doctors all said there was no way to explain it medically as the impossible had occurred. God healing the patient was the only explanation that made sense to these non-Christians.

So, if miracles are supposed to convince people that there is a God, then surely all these doctors and nurses would become Christians. However, that was not the case. Yes, some did become Christians but others did not. Even the spouse of the patient did not become a Christian! As humans, we have a great ability to discount that which does not fit into our set ideas of how the world works; even if something occurs which should logically prove some of our thoughts to be wrong, we can still ignore it. Therefore, even if miracles could be called for on demand (e.g. one well-documented miracle a year as mentioned above), the majority of people would probably do a pretty good job of ignoring or discounting them. The story of the Israelites is a good example of this - they saw amazing miracles yet later in their lives they still turned away from God.

In my opinion, miracles do not exist for converting people (instead, they are visible signs of God at work), therefore to try and use them for proving God's existence is not going to work in a lot of cases as people will just discount the evidence.

J.L. said...

Hey Custard,

Here is a half-remembered, reconstructed version of the comment that I wrote but mistakenly forgot to submit (d'oh!).

Re-reading your post, it is not evident that you have come to any conclusion about exactly what contitutes a miracle. In one instance an apparently natural, scientifically explainable event is a miracle, and in another the miracle is quite extraordinary. I would assert that if an event is scientifically explainable, then it cannot be called a miracle, since it is perfectly predictable, and (at least to my reasoning) not outside the ordinary. I was under the impression that any miracle would be considered the action of a supernatural being because of the fact that it is not an ordinary occurrence and not explainable any other means. By your reasoning, any mundane event such as draining your kitchen sink is a miracle.

"Full explanations in physics are always very long indeed."

Yes, you are right, the mathematical explanation for the parting of the Red Sea would probably be long winded (droll engineer humour!), but I'd still like to see it.

I am assuming (as I don't know) that the Red Sea must be incredibly shallow in at least one area that bisects it. It is conceivable that if this is the case, and the water was very shallow, then very strong winds could expose areas of 'dry land' over which people could travel, but I'd estimate that the frictional force required to do this would be quite considerable. However, if the water was this shallow to begin with, it is possible that the Israelites could have crossed it without the wind exposing any land and unaided by miracles.

One thing that strikes me about the "wall of water" mentioned is that it would suggest that the water rose above the Israelites as they walked through the gap, as if they walked through a dugout trench. Either this is fiction, or gross exaggeration of the above-mentioned wind phenomenon. As someone who used to teach physics, you will appreciate that a fluid, such as water, cannot support a shear stress, and flows to conform to the sides of its container. In addition, particles are apt to find their lowest energy state. The water would have gained gravitational potential energy as some of its volume had been displaced to form "a wall of water on their right and on their left". Assuming that no localised spontaneous rapid evaporation took place, and that the volume of the water was conserved, the force of gravity would not permit the water to behave in this way: The gravitational force would redistribute the water into the gap (which was filled with air, I presume - also a fluid and unable to support a shear stress). You will have noticed that if you try to bail out a full bath, say, with a bucket that the temporary gap left by the removal of liquid is always filled as the remaining liquid is redistributed by the force of gravity, and that the water will always sit level in the bath if undisturbed: The water is is static equilibrium.

What we're really debating here is whether or not these events - the parting of the Red Sea and the ressurection of Jesus - did actually take place, and in the manner described in the bible. I would put it to you that modern scientific knowledge and current understanding precludes this, as these events as described contravene the laws of science.

I give you this analogy: Before you walk into a building, you don't know how structurally safe it might be, and whether or not it might collapse on top of you. You might be 50% certain - either it will collapse, or it won't. You decide that your accumulated experience with buildings is a good guide, and enter the building. If you repeatedly return to the same building, and it doesn't collapse on top of you, your previous experience leads you to the conclusion that this building is structurally sound, and is unlikely to fall down while you are inside. You go further into the building each time you visit, increasing the risk of being trapped or hurt if it does start to collapse. You might be 80% sure, or 90%, or given long enough, 99.999999% sure. You can never be 100% sure, but you conclude that given the evidence and experience, the likelihood of this particular building collapsing with you inside is remote in the extreme.

Now, if you have carefully and clearly documented every visit, it would be the most sceptical, fearful and unreasonable of people who would refuse to enter this building on the grounds that your report does not show that the building is 100% safe, and might collapse. Of course, no-one should be compelled to enter, but this type of reaction would be unwarranted.

Taking the analogy further, if the building has been carefully planned and thoroughly tested, well designed and constructed, it will survive all manner of adversity unscathed: fires, floods, earthquakes, strong winds. By the same token, small defects might be uncovered after such events, and these deserve much scrutiny and enquiry, and ultimately some resolution.

It is probably rather obvious that the 'building' I am describing in this analogy is science, and that's exactly how I feel about it.

What you seem to be saying (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is that 'god' operates the universe in a concisely ordered, predictable, structured manner, except when he doesn't. This is inconsistent, and at minimum makes 'god' unreliable and unpredictable.

On the issue of Clarke's Third Law, I would say that a logical error has occurres somewhere in the thinking of people who use it in this context as you have. Clarke (whom I remember was a science fiction author) claims "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". The key here is the phrase "advanced technology". Technology has its basis in science, no matter what perspective you take, and given enough time, can be understood and even improved upon.

Maybe I was a bit hasty in calling your post 'fiction'. I'm glad that we have the opportunity to discuss these things. What are your thoughts?

J.L. said...

A question to RM:

How do you know that the equipment used in the monitoring process was not faulty, and incorrectly showing that the patient was more ill that was the case?

Technology sometimes breaks down.
Science doesn't.

John said...

j.l. thanks for your thoughts. A few comments:

My point is not that I don't know what constitutes a miracle, but that the Bible's categorisation doesn't seem to correspond to our "natural" / "supernatural" categorisation. "Miracles" in the Bible can be "natural" or "supernatural". Personally, I don't like the "natural" / "supernatural" distinction either, but at least it's fairly common parlance.

On the wind and the Red Sea - I'm assuming something on the scale of a hurricane. Water can't support a resultant shear stress, but I'd guess that the wind provides a force to balance the gravity-induced stresses. For example, if you blow downwards on a small pool of water, it can indeed form a clear region with walls on all sides. In any case, the passage strongly suggests the wind was "all night" Ex 14:21, and that when morning came the sea returned to its former position. So the sea is only like that while the wind is present, which makes sense.

"as these events as described contravene the laws of science."

That looks like the standard Humian mistake. The whole point is that these events are not meant to be normal - that's why they are pointers to God's action. Just because we do not observe something to happen normally does not mean that it does not happen at all.

I agree with you about the nature of scientific knowledge.

I am indeed saying that God operates the universe consistently, except on a few occasions when he doesn't. In a sense, those occasions demonstrate that it is God's power that enables the universe to work normally the rest of the time. Without it, the best that we could say about science would be "well, it seems to have worked so far, so lets hope it keeps on working".

My point with Clarke was this - that however good the evidence for a miracle, people could always argue that it was in fact technology vastly in advance of our own being operated by aliens, leading to, for example, teleportation via wormholes (which may or may not be possible).

In a way, your reply to r.m. demonstrated that. There was no reason to believe that the hospital equipment was faulty - and likewise in the cases of various friends I have who have experienced healings which could not be medically explained (though I personally have not witnessed the healings). As r.m. points out, if someone wants to be a sceptic, then no evidence will ever be good enough for them.

Anonymous said...

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story ;)

Good discussion points! I particularly like the idea of windproof Israelites traversing a hurricane sufficient to turn the Red Sea into a wall (Note to the believers: please take no offense at my perverse sense of humour).

On the notion of miraculous healing, I believe the human body is a piece of technology so advanced and complicated that science is a long way from fully understanding. In many ways, I believe modern medicine interferes with the natural healing process. But my unfounded beliefs are born of an accumulation of vague and lacklustre scientific studies. I still hold a high certainty that this particular building is not going to collapse yet.

John said...

My discussion with JL continues here and here

Oh, and Shewbie - ever heard of the eye of a storm?