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Does the Scientific Method Preclude the Existence of Miracles?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This is a familiar theme for long-time readers of the blog.  I am deeply interested in where the scientific method can shed light and where its light begins to fade.  For mankind, to know everything is to know all that really exists.  If you think of everything that exists as falling inside a giant circle, the question that fascinates me is, “How much of the area of that circle can the scientific method enlighten?”  Is it the whole circle?  Is it half?  Is it a tiny fraction of the circle?

The question asks us to take a position on the supernatural and spiritual.  If you believe that there is a vast supernatural world out there, a world where God, angels, and demons exist, then you will probably say that the scientific method can only illuminate a small fraction of the circle of all things that exist.  The scientific method can only tell us about things or events that occur inside the four dimensions of space-time.

If, however, you believe that the four dimensions of space-time are all that exists and that the supernatural is imaginary, then the entire circle of all that exists can eventually be filled out by the scientific method.  In my discussions with skeptics over the years, there are those who fall in this latter group, but there are also those who remain open to the existence of the supernatural.

Those who maintain that the scientific method will eventually fill in the entire circle sometimes go on to make the following claim: “The scientific method forces us to conclude that miracles cannot occur.”  To me, this is a deeply confused statement.  It is true that miracles, in their totality, entail a supernatural element.  It is true that science cannot directly observe that which is supernatural, as the supernatural does not exist in space-time where science can operate.  But to say that the scientific method absolutely precludes miracles from existing is false.

The scientific method is one tool we have to fill in the giant circle of all that exists, but there are other tools (e.g., philosophy, logic, mathematics, spiritual disciplines).  Think of the scientific method as analogous to a screwdriver.  The screwdriver is a truly useful tool that we use all the time in construction.  In fact, any time we need to attach two objects with a screw, we use a screwdriver.  But we would find it very odd if screwdriver enthusiasts one day started running an ad campaign with the following slogan: “If you don’t use a screwdriver, you’re not constructing anything!”

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has another way to answer those who say that science precludes miracles.

[This] argument…is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.

Science is tremendously useful and the benefits of modern technology are hard to overstate, but let us never forget the limits.  There may very well be a supernatural world out there (in fact, most of us believe that).  Those who flatly say there is not are making a statement of faith that is not based on the scientific method, but based on their metaphysical worldview.


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Comments

  • http://walttuckerministry.shutterfly.com Walt Tucker

    As one trained in science I recognize that the scientific method is a method of inference based on tests or experiments. It is rarely 100% conclusive, but can reasonably bring good assurance on a number of observable matters. The scientific method can also be used with analysis as the method of inquiry. There are several theories that are based on extension of inference from analyses and tests on a limited data set (evolution, for one). The problem is in being able to falsify a hypothesis that is too broad for the give data set (evolution, again). Falsifying a particular test does not necessarily falsify the overall theory and it is difficult to falsify the overall theory since no test exists to cover it more directly. So, in many cases the scientific method brings strong reasons to believe, but not absolute conclusiveness.

    That said, it is illogical to assume from the get go that there is nothing beyond the natural world. If your goal is to find the natural causes to things, then of course you want to limit yourself within the natural realm, but if there happens to be something beyond the natural that explains the data, faulty inferences can be reached if they are outright rejected a priori. On the flip, assuming supernatural causes where things can be adequately explained by natural explanation can lead to false inferences as well.

    Nevertheless, with caution, hypotheses can be formed and tested by analysis to some level of reasonableness that allow for the possibility of supernatural influence. Tests must be devised to be assured of not allowing that possibility to bias the answer incorrectly. For example, the resurrection. There are historical tests and analyses that can be conducted. Just assuming that it could not have happened because we don’t see resurrections everyday is a bad assumption. Assuming it is unlikely, but still possible, given the context is a better starting point. Then looking at the details could result in a reasonable conclusion that the resurrection did happen. I happen to be working on a paper on that right now. Had a discussion with my epistemology professor just the other day on this. An extension of what Richard Swinburne had done.

  • Karla

    In my opinion there are areas of science and some scientists,typically the most in the public eye,which have become so political they would not admit to the supernatural realm even if they found evidence of it.In fact,it seems to me they operate with preconceived notions and have closed themselves off from anything that suggests anything to the contrary no matter how plausible.It’s sad that science is reduced to disproving Christianity.

  • David

    @ Walt…great post. Are you sort of poking around the concept also, that simply because we cannot readily see (measure) something does not imply necessarily that it does not exist. In science, we then redirect our thinking, if we are honest and “agendaless” scientists. The whole concept of (and controversy) of the quantum world comes to mind. Orignially proposed, it made no sense to many (still makes little sense to most), but once we begain to explore it philosophically and scientifically, whole new vistas of science and knowledge made themselves known to us.

    @Karla, I personally agree with you, there often seem to be in the halls of academia, scientists who have agendas (sometimes clearly so). In truth, the pursuit of scientific knowledge should be as pure as the pursuit of theological understanding.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    Disclosure up front: I am an atheist and a scientist.

    I understand where you are coming from in this post, I think, and I agree that we can’t totally rule out events that religious people would classify as “miracles.” However, I think we need to be careful with our definitions if we are to talk about this issue in a way that makes sense. What does it mean for something to be “supernatural”? In my understanding, the “natural” world is the “real” world. If a “supernatural” being actually exists and its actions impact the world we live in, we should revise our formulations of physical laws, etc., but I don’t see why we should put this in a separate box called “supernatural.”

    Similarly, what is a “miracle”? If it is “an occurrence for which we know no natural explanation,” miracles obviously exist. Every scientist out there is working on investigating “miracles” like this every day; that’s what science is about, finding explanations for things we don’t currently understand. But I think you mean something more like “an occurrence for which there is only a supernatural explanation.” But as I said above, if the “supernatural” is real, it would seem to be “natural” after all.

    We haven’t found anything so far that is explainable only by “supernatural” claims and defies “natural” explanation. On the other hand, we have discarded a lot of old supernatural beliefs (e.g. about why there is lightning, where rainbows come from, etc.) because we learned more about the world and discovered evidence that our old beliefs were wrong. I don’t completely rule out the possibility of something that fits in the category most people refer to as “supernatural,” the same way that I don’t completely rule out the possibility of mermaids or leprechauns. I can’t prove they’re not out there; we haven’t looked everywhere in the universe yet. But based on past experience, I do think it’s unlikely.

  • David

    NFQ@ Well stated and honest. Very much appreciated. Full disclosure, I am a theist.

  • Karla

    @David,purity in the pursuit of knowledge would lead to possibly finding truths that would otherwise be hidden.
    @ NFQ,I enjoyed your comment. If the supernatural is real,and I believe it is,it would indeed be natural. Perhaps ultra-natural would be a better word,something beyond what we experience normally.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I agree that the scientific method does not preclude the occurrence of miracles. However, I think that a ruler makes for a better analogy than a screwdriver. A ruler is used to determine the length of an object and the scientific method is used to determine the natural causes of a thing or phenomenon. The fact that a ruler measures length doesn’t preclude the object from having other properties like mass and temperature. By the same token, the fact that the scientific method assesses natural causes doesn’t preclude the possibility of supernatural causes.

    Nevertheless, even though rulers don’t preclude the possibility of objects having mass and temperature, we still want to have reasons to believe that these are real properties. Happily we have scales and thermometers as well as rulers. If someone insisted that objects also have a property called “flavulum” which could not be detected or measured in any objective way, we would probably be justified in concluding that no such property exists. By the same token, if there is no objective way to determine the supernatural causes of things or phenomena, that may provide sufficient basis for concluding that probably such causes don’t exist.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I don’t think that “an occurrence for which we know no natural explanation” is a miracle. I think that would simply be an occurrence whose cause is unknown. A miracle is an occurrence which is believed not to be subject to the regular and natural processes of cause and effect that we observe in the world around us. It’s not only that we don’t know the natural explanation; it’s that there is no natural explanation because the causal agent is not subject to or limited by the observed laws of nature.

  • http://walttuckerministry.shutterfly.com Walt Tucker

    @NFQ, miracles are not normally thought of as being something for which we have no natural explanation. Sometimes the god of the gaps argument is used incorrectly in that way, but in a theistic sense, at least as I understand it, a miracle is something that would not occur within the confines of any laws of nature, whether known or unknown, and has a supernatural context. So rather than not having an explanation, it really comes down to not having a natural cause – meaning a cause that could be completely explained by predictable laws. For example, with regard to the resurrection. People who have been dead for several days do not come back to life under known natural laws. It might be possible there is some unknown quirk in the natural laws where one might be able to come back to life, but the resurrection of Jesus fits a religious context – he predicted it. Even the parting of the Red Sea, while there is a natural explanation for it, even if rare to actually happen, it was the timing of the parting that is attributed to a miracle. Miracles need to have a religious context to be classified as a true miracle.

    I could see how you might extend the supernatural as just being the natural beyond what we know, but we understand nature to work in a prescribed way and I understand the supernatural to not be within the confines of prescription. If there is a God that is like the Force of Star Wars, an underlying force of nature, that would be a prescriptive type thing and could fit within your extension. However, the theistic God had His own will and purposes which would seem to defy any prescriptive model. How could you predict that God would do such and such, even in a probabilistic sense? This very idea is what makes it difficult to examine a miracle scientifically. How do you cause it to happen if the cause is outside of nature? The best you can do is infer it and it takes a lot to do that and not be using the god of the gaps. Thus I think it takes looking at a lot of evidences on a holistic scale and testing all of the possible hypotheses against the larger picture – difficult to do, but I don’t think impossible.

    @David, it is by the results of quantum theory that we know it is correct. I subscribe to an interpretation that it is ultimately deterministic and not as bizarre as it seems, but that any attempt to make a measure has so many independent variables involved that we cannot predict the outcome of an experiment except through probability (we don’t know all the initial conditions and we don’t understand yet the exact mechanism of collapse of a superposition of states into a single state at the point of measurement). This is key because probability and multiple universes are typically invoked by some cosmologists in theory to cause a universe to “pop” into existence and say there is no need for God. Yet, if there are no particles, or some influence, to interact with an initial quantum entity that has some probability of “popping” into existence, the “popping” can’t happen. If such particles already existed, then you already have matter/energy and it didn’t come about in a bang.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    Thanks for your kind responses, all. I think we agree that something we don’t know an explanation for (yet) is not rightly classified as a miracle. That leaves us with things that do have supernatural explanations. I don’t know of any of these things.

    Seriously. I know of things for which religious people have posited supernatural explanations, but I don’t know of anything where a supernatural explanation has been put forward and then confirmed to be correct. Actually, that’s another issue with the idea of the supernatural. If you define it as outside the “realm of science” (whatever that is) then it is impossible to examine or test it. I notice that most religious teachings are not very specific on what their god/s will and will not do, so there is no way to check and see if they’re actually doing it. I think we could reformulate our “laws” of physics, etc., to say things like “E=mc^2, except when God decides to make it otherwise” or “Radiation and chemotherapy treat cancerous growths, except when God’s mind is changed by fervent prayers of believers to magically cure the person” … but I haven’t heard of anyone who can outline their supernatural beliefs to such an extent that they can be tested in this way. (And the tests we can do, for example on intercessory prayer, have failed over and over again.) A god that can answer prayers with “yes,” “no,” or “wait” ultimately looks suspiciously like there is nothing there answering prayers at all — so why suppose there is a god listening to your prayers in the first place?

    I realize that there are some things that we might rightly say “science can’t answer.” I can’t do an experiment to find out which musical group is objectively the best, or which pizza toppings are objectively more delicious — it’s a matter of opinion. We can use science to tell us about humans’ determinations of aesthetic preferences, or about how taste buds work, etc., but you can’t get certain absolute answers like these. But the scientific method, more generally, is how we make almost every decision in our lives. By the scientific method I mean making careful observations about the world and drawing conclusions via inference from those observations. I don’t see why the question of whether there is an omnipotent being or beings controlling our existence is inherently outside the realm of scientific investigation. Whenever I hear someone claim that it is, it just sounds to me like an admission that they have no basis whatsoever for their beliefs.

  • Todd

    @NFQ – well stated. I might add that the testable predictions that science can make generally reflect reality. When explaining the supernatural, I find that the apologist does not provide a hypothesis or prediction, but rather a deducted conclusion against what science might not be able to predict. For example, science is near %100 certainty that resurrection after 3 days of being dead is not possible because it has never been tested, only proposed. The rebuttal to that is never, “Resurrection is possible because of ‘X’ “, but rather the rationality is “its not impossible because science cannot perfectly explain X.” Once someone provides a testable explanation of the supernatural, the world (including science and myself) will pay attention because it has basis in reality.

  • Boz

    Does the Scientific Method Preclude the Existence of Miracles?

    No.

    (Bill Pratt, you could have written that post with 565 less words!) :p

    ———

    That is an interesting point that NFQ brings up. If a deity is detected to exist, for example by discovering its actions, is the deity a ‘natural’ or a ‘supernatural’ entity?

  • Nate

    @NFQ

    While it sounded somewhat respectful and well written it seems that either your response is superficial, or you didn’t understand the post. You state:

    “What does it mean for something to be “supernatural”? In my understanding, the “natural” world is the “real” world.”
    To say that the “natural” holds exclusive rights to being “real” is just an unsupported assertion. The commonly used definition of “natural” is “being a part of the space-time universe,” I see no reason to create confusion by trying to redefine the term.

    “If a “supernatural” being actually exists and its actions impact the world we live in, we should revise our formulations of physical laws, etc.,”

    This would only be true if the actions in question can be described by physical laws, I don’t know a single theist who believes this is the case but for those theists who do think it is the case I’m sure you’ve made a strong point.

    “but I don’t see why we should put this in a separate box called “supernatural.””

    We should put it in a box called “supernatural” because the impact that is made on the hypothetical natural situation does not causally originate in the space-time universe and thus comes from a non-natural source that is supervening on the space-time universe.

    you then say: “but I don’t know of anything where a supernatural explanation has been put forward and then confirmed to be correct.”

    Well of course you haven’t because to be confirmed according to the scientific method it would have to be repeatable which it cannot be by definition.

  • Mary

    NFQ wrote: “I don’t see why the question of whether there is an omnipotent being or beings controlling our existence is inherently outside the realm of scientific investigation. Whenever I hear someone claim that it is, it just sounds to me like an admission that they have no basis whatsoever for their beliefs.”

    You started off your paragraph saying that there are things that science can’t answer. But you end the paragraph with the above statement which seems contradictory to me, as if you are presupposing that, if there is no evidence for something’s existence arrived at using scientific methodology, then you can’t believe that something exists. But if you accept that science can’t determine the truth about everything, why is hard to accept that its limitations don’t allow it to measure and record and recreate that which is spiritual?

    And what about other realities that exist which lay beyond science’s ability to deal with them? What about human consciousness, for example? It’s invisible. It can’t be weighed or measured or put in a test tube for examination. It can’t be recreated. But it’s real nonetheless. The same can be said of God.

    NQF wrote: “If a “supernatural” being actually exists and its actions impact the world we live in, we should revise our formulations of physical laws, etc..”

    Why would you have to necessarily revise formulations about the laws of physics? A law is simply the name given to an observable event. An observation about any given event may be correct. The question is what’s behind that event? Why couldn’t it be God? After all, what is science but people figuring out how God has done things? Certainly, there have been scientists who have made mistakes in their figuring and revisions in beliefs and understanding have had to be made, but they have also gotten some things right about how God made and maintains this universe. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the laws of physics have to be changed should you discover that God is real.

    As for testable miracles, what does it take? At one point in time, an endoscope and biopsy revealed that I had a raw and bleeding stomach, infected with bacteria. Being allergic to antibiotics, I could not take the pills the gasterenterologist told me I needed to get rid of the bacteria. I suffered with the pain, the indigestion, the discomfort for over a year.

    Then I went to a pastor with a healing ministry. He prayed and immediately all of my symptoms went away. I was to have another endoscope later that week. I had it done and the doctor was surprised to see that my stomach lining had healed, that it was pink and healthy, and a sample showed there was no more bacteria in my stomach. I asked how that was possible, given how long I had suffered with it, how raw and how rife with bacteria my stomach had been and how I hadn’t been able to do anything to change that medically. He said he had no idea. He was baffled, but I wasn’t. God had healed my stomach.

    I have a friend who had a lump in her breast. The doctor could feel it. The mammogram showed it. She had a number of people pray for her and, immediately after, when alone, she felt for the lump, but could not find it. She was to have it removed within the week. But the doctor could not find it when he felt for it. They took another mammogram and it was gone. Again, the doctor was baffled.

    My question is: Is that enough scientific evidence to encourage those who NEED scientific evidence to believe or not? I can give you more stories of such healings with lab results and MRIs, etc., as well as examples of God working in people’s lives re: finances, answered prayer, etc.. I have seen too many examples of God actively moving in this world to dismiss them all as mere coincidences. I recall one event in which a woman was undergoing an MRI for a brain tumour. Her pastor and church friends stood out in the hallway praying for her and the doctor saw the tumour literally shrink before his eyes. And they had the MRI pictures that captured it.

    So I ask again, what would it take for you to believe? Given the fact that the Pharisees saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and they still refused to accept him as God, I am not under the illusion that seeing and providing evidence for miracles will make a believer out of every atheist. It isn’t a matter of God not making himself known. It’s a matter of some people supressing their knowledge of him as Paul rightly pointed out in the first chapter of the Book of Romans.

    I leave you with a definition of miracles from William Lloyd Craig’s Reasonable Faith: “A miracle is an event which results from causal interference with a natural propensity which is so strong that only a supernatural agent could impede it.” To my mind, that explains what happened with my stomach infection, my friend’s lump in the breast and the shrinking brain tumour.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    Does your god have preferences that you understand, or act in general ways that can be predicted? From what I hear, he is supposed to. He lays down laws and promises certain consequences; he grants anything you ask for in prayer in his name; he talks to politicians and advises them on their careers. If your god interacts with the world we live in, we should be able to observe it. (This is not a matter of opinion, as in the examples of things outside the realm of science that I mentioned in my earlier comment.) If your god does not interact with the world we live in in any way, what basis do you have for supposing he is there? And where does that leave all of your scriptures’ claims about the ways in which he does?

  • http://thatfresnoblog.com Benjamin Baxter

    Lewis wrote a book on the subject. Miracles represent a break in nature only in an instant — i.e., the virgin birth is, presumably, when the miraculous spermatozoon implanted itself in the egg. From there, the existing lower, physical laws of God took over, and nine months later came Jesus. Nature is, as Lewis says, “an accomplished hostess.”

    I find it startling that we’re fifteen posts into a discussion of miracles on an apologetics blog and nobody has yet to refer to the wonderfully lucid explanations of a book whose title is, simply, “Miracles.”

  • Bill Pratt

    Benjamin,
    Thanks for reminding us of Lewis’ Miracles. Well worth reading for those who have not.

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