Miracles and Science, Part 1

| By Ard Louis

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.).


About the Author

Ard Louis

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.