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Miracles and Science, Part 1

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June 25, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Miracles and Science, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the first blog in a series by physicist Ard Louis, taken from his recently-posted scholarly essay.

Unbelievable, isn’t it, that there are still students at this university who believe in stories from the Bible, said Martin, an older colleague, at one of the formal dinners around which the traditional life of Oxford University revolves. But Martin, I answered, their faith probably doesn’t differ much from mine. I can still see his face go pale while he nearly choked on his glass of St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé: How can you believe in such things nowadays – Walking on water, a resurrection from the dead? Those are miracles, and aren’t you a scientist?

Oh, how interesting, say John and Ruth, a couple that I have just met at the end of a church service. You are a scientist. They look a bit unsure of what to say next and John blurts out, I read recently that we still don’t understand how birds can fly so many miles to the south and yet return to exactly the same place each summer. Scientists can’t explain this; it is a miracle, don’t you think?

I never quite know what to say next in such conversations. Perhaps nine years of living in Britain have made me too sensitive to that most cardinal of English social sins – causing embarrassment. But there is more to it than that. Behind these statements lies a tangle of complex intellectual issues related to the definition and scope of science, the nature of God’s action in the world, and the reliability and interpretation of the Bible. These have exercised many of greatest minds in history:

The debate between atheism and religious belief has gone on for centuries, and just about every aspect of it has been explored to the point where even philosophers seem bored with it. The outcome is stalemate.

So says my Oxford colleague Alister McGrath. Although these subtleties are well known to philosophers and historians of science, public discourse on science and religion often seems blissfully unaware of them.

Miracles as violations of the laws of nature?

Everyone brings a set of presuppositions to the table. To make progress, these should first be brought out into the open. Without time for an honest conversation in which we can listen to each other in depth, I won’t know exactly what Martin, John, or Ruth’s presuppositions are. But, for the sake of this blog, I will be a bit presumptuous and venture a guess. My guess would be that, although both seem to be on opposite sides of a vast divide, they are in fact influenced by a similar perspective on science and miracles, one first laid down by the great sceptical Scottish philosopher David Hume, who wrote:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.

This language of “miracles as violations of the laws of nature” has framed the debate ever since. Martin, John and Ruth, perhaps without realizing it, are living under the long shadow of David Hume.

Martin may think that science is the only reliable route to gaining knowledge about the world, and that, since belief in miracles is obviously unscientific, such belief must ipso facto be false. John and Ruth may feel a similar tension between science and miracles, and are therefore encouraged by any natural process that seems inexplicable. Weakening the power of science would seem to strengthen the case for God acting in the world: If we know that today God miraculously steers a bird back to its original habitat after a long return flight to the south, then it is easier to believe that 2000 years ago he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana.

Now, as a Christian scientist who believes in the miracles of the Bible, I take issue with both of the views above. But to explain this better, I need to first take a step back and answer two critical questions: What do I mean by science, and what does the Bible say about miracles?

Defining Science

The problem of deciding where to draw the lines around science has vexed generations of philosophers. Like many unsolved issues, it has been given its own name—“the demarcation problem.” Although one can determine with some degree of consensus what the extremes of the science/non-science continuum are, exactly where the boundary lies is fuzzy. This doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot recognize science when we see it, but rather that a watertight definition is difficult to create. The old fashioned idea (still taught in many schools) that scientific practice follows a well-defined linear process—first make an observation, then state a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis—is certainly far too simple.

In his next post, Louis will explain that science is rather more like a tapestry woven together from many threads (experimental results, interpretations, explanations, etc.).

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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merv - #18937

June 25th 2010

Good start .....  but way too short.  Bring on the next parts already!


merv - #18941

June 25th 2010

Your insufferable teaser at the end of one paragraph speaks of the rest of your essay addressing the demarcation of science and then also what the Bible says about miracles.

It might also be interesting to what science really says (or doesn’t say) about miracles (contra Hume,—-is my own preconception showing through here yet?)  I was going to add then also:  what does the Bible say about the constancy of nature (science)?  Granted, that has been addressed in the series on uniformitarianism—-though you wouldn’t think so to hear the MacArthur followers howl their response to that thread for more Scripture references. 

Sorry —guess I’m asking you to get around to Life, the Universe, and Everything in several paragraphs or less.  I’ll look forward to whatever thought provocation comes. 


Darrel Falk - #18946

June 25th 2010


“Bring on the next parts already.”

Good news, Merv.  The whole essay is posted (see intro) together with a full set of footnotes.  You can read ahead!

Irenicum - #18947

June 25th 2010

I’m so glad you’ve brought in Ard. I’ve enjoyed his video presentations for a while now and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say regarding this essential issue. Just recently this very issue of how to define the natural/supernatural relationship (not necessarily divide) has become a concern of central importance to me.

Merv - #18958

June 25th 2010

Ahhh, the link at the top hidden in plain sight.  Not the first time, I’ve overlooked the obvious —-thanks for pointing it out.


Charlie - #18963

June 25th 2010

Again, how does one distinguish something violating the laws of nature from something within the laws that are not yet understood by us?  Take the bird migration example you were talking about; because we don’t understand it, how can it be determined whether or not it is a miracle or simply a natural process we don’t understand?  Because these cannot be distingushed, how can we claim something to be a miracle.  Can anyone tell me a miracle that has been directly observed and tell me why it’s a miracle?

BenYachov - #18965

June 25th 2010

In my view which I learned from Feser, Conway & others Elizabeth Anscombe has definitively refuted Hume’s nonsense.  Anscombe as you may know was the female philosopher who debated and soundly defeated C.S. Lewis & that forced him to revise his famous Argument from Reason.  She once described Hume as a brilliant sophist.  Also if memory serves philosopher Dave Stove who happened to be an Atheist rapped on Hume’s errors as well.
  One call read the writings of these fine thinkers and see for themselves.  I would say to give a taste of where Hume went wrong, Hume’s major flaw was that he conflated the Imagination with the Intellect and this shoots down the rational plausibility of his critiques of Classic Philosophy.  He might have been able to “imagine” a ball appearing on a table “uncased” but he really couldn’t conceive of it rationally in the intellect anymore than his or anybody’s intellect could conceive of 2+2=5 though one can have the meaningless formula in their imagination.  Just one of the major reasons I find Atheism intrinsically irrational.

Merv - #18980

June 25th 2010

Ben, I tried to find an account of Anscombe’s exchange with Lewis, but such as I did find was difficult to understand (likely due to my own shortcomings rather than the source).  Is there any work or essay of hers that you would recommend?  I am also interested in her reaction to Hume.  Thanks for bringing those up.


Charlie, I don’t think it’s ultimately possible for us to [scientifically] identify the distinction you ask about.  Miracles (either the ‘providential type’ or the ‘extraordinary type’) are identified as such only on a faith basis.  Science serves to give a backdrop against which the second type take on their ‘wondrous’ element.  Without an appreciation of the ordinary (science), recognition of the “extraordinary” would become impossible.  But even in that latter category, the limited interest of science is still to see if it can be explainable as the providential type—which is in no way to demote it.  I confess to using these two categories that the author refers to as type 1 & 2, from having read ahead on the next parts of the essays. Hope I’m not jumping the gun too badly.

Thanks for an excellent article, Mr. Louis.

Francis Beckwith - #19003

June 25th 2010

“Anscombe as you may know was the female philosopher who debated and soundly defeated C.S. Lewis & that forced him to revise his famous Argument from Reason. “

That’s kind of an urban legend, not unlike some miracle claims.

You should read Victor Reppert’s account of the Lewis/Anscombe encounter, here:


These sorts of things are typically far more complicated than we’d like to believe.

Merv - #19007

June 25th 2010

Thanks, [Dr.?] Beckwith.  Now I do remember reading some things along those lines & the Reppert article brought it back for me—-in fact I’m suspicious that I’ve read that article previously. 

Apparent “victory” or “defeat” makes for better press than people merely sharpening each others’ arguments.  (part of the problem in the alleged ‘science-religion war’ perhaps?)


BenYachov - #19052

June 25th 2010

Sorry Dr. Francis Beckwith I certainly wasn’‘t trying to channel the myth that Lewis’ loss at the hands of Anscombe “drove him from apologetics” or other claptrap.  I certainly know better but Anscombe did point out a flaw in his original argument from reason & he did revise it.  It didn’t destroy the argument from reason it just made it better.  If I overstated her victory over Lewis that was not my intention.  My intention was to draw attention to her criticism of Hume.  She never called Lewis a Sophist brilliant or otherwise but she did say that of Hume.

gingoro - #19233

June 27th 2010

Well done Ard!  One of the very best scholarly articles on BioLogos.
Dave W

Charlie - #19296

June 28th 2010


That’s what got me into science, looking at what we percieve as extraordinary and finding an explanation for it.  So I think stating that well understood processes are “ordinary” science is a little misleading.  Science is more a process for understanding.  Thus ordinary science includes the extraordinary, either with or without explanations supported by a sufficient amount of evidence, leading toward our pursuit to discover more about it.  Remember, eclipses used to be extraordinary.

Merv - #19343

June 28th 2010

Point well taken, Charlie.  I didn’t mean to imply that science has no interest in “extraordinary” phenomena.  But wouldn’t you agree that part of the challenge that excites us about science is to see if we can explain the extraordinary in terms of the ordinary?  To put it more crudely, we feel we have “scored” when an item can be moved from the “unexplained” column over to the “explained” column. 

I don’t think a scientist necessarily wants the whole world to be ‘ho-hum’ ordinary.  But she does see ‘extra-ordinary’ as a challenge.  And the challenge is to understand how that ‘extra-ordinary’ thing fits into the larger tapestry, and will the tapestry need to change to accommodate that?.  If so, and this is accomplished, how exciting!  But that will have the effect of making it tomorrow’s ‘ordinary’ thing.  Eclipses probably pack quite the same punch of excitement (or doom) as they used to, no?  (all vastly over-simplified, of course.  I’m not sure anything would cleanly fit into some ‘totally explained’ category.)


Merv - #19344

June 28th 2010

correction:  I meant to say above:  ‘Eclipses probably DON’T pack quite the same punch as they used to…’

Merv - #19345

June 28th 2010

..... which was exactly your thought process in your response to me.    I think I just forgot what disagreement we had, if any.  Merging traffic is less dangerous than head-on collisions, anyway, so that’s good. 

I’m eager to see the successive parts of this essay posted so our discussion can continue.


Charlie - #19419

June 29th 2010

I agree, however (to at least me anyway) there are explained process that I find absolutely amazing, not ho hum ordinary.  For example, simple chemical reactions and evolution lead to life that is incredibly complex.  We understand the process and it is fairly basic, yet the complexity that arises is pretty fascinating.

Tim - #19536

June 30th 2010

Having heard Ard give a lecture on this topic I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment where he talks about viewing science as a ‘tapestry’ of ideas, theories, test data etc. etc.  He says this to emphasize the interrelationships of scientific facts.

I agree with him.

But I’m interested to understand how truthful we can expect these tapestries to be in a fallen world.  One thing I cannot get my head around is the implications of the fall for modern science.  In my view there are likely to be many fibres in the tapestry which are simply false - possibly due to out and out falsehood on the part of some with their own evil (can I use that word here?) agenda, but probably more likely due to the fact that we are not perfect, therefore our understanding falls short.

Therefore, how much of our weight can we lean on a science which is likely to be flawed so deeply, especially when it can sometimes appear to conflict with some elements of the bible?

Maybe I should wait until part 2…

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