Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The problem of miracles ...

... is one that is entirely a consequence of presuppositions.

Let's define a miracle first of all as an event which lies outside the bounds of normal cause and effect. This isn't something which is just a little improbable - somebody with cancer going into remission, for example, or somebody winning the lottery. It is something which is so improbable as to be considered impossible by any sensible person - for example, the sun standing still, or somebody who has been dead for three days coming back to life, or feeding 5000 and more people from a child's packed lunch. I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who pointed out that had the sun genuinely stopped moving in the sky, everybody on the planet would have slid across the surface for a thousand miles or so. In scientific terms, then, these miracles are preposterous.

Traditionally, alternative explanations are found, and the most hard-boiled miracles - the ones where it really becomes impossible to explain the narrative in terms of anything else - end up being discounted as myth. Why is that? Because such events lie outside our concept of how cause and effect work - we don't see how that can have been brought about. What has happened is that we have asserted, in effect, that all events must be confined to material cause and effect. Miracles don't happen, basically, because miracles don't happen.

Incidentally, a kind of reverse process happens for some aspects of myth. I remember in secondary school, some aspects of the account of Jason's travels in the Argo sound scientifically preposterous. But set against the background of the explosion of Santorini, all of a sudden some of the events become somewhat more explicable. That's another post, though ....

If you don't believe in God, or you believe in a God who is constrained to act in accordance with the laws of the universe, or you believe in a God who is detached from the universe, then it's inevitable that you will end up having to find an alternative explanation for miracles. But from a Christian point of view, there is no such problem. In Christian epistemological terms, the universe is God's universe. He created it; he has the ability to define the nature of reality. If he chooses to make the sun stand still over Gibeon - to suspend the laws of nature for some period of time, in one locality - then he can do that. The fact that there is no scientific way of explaining how it happened and no evidence for it is neither here nor there. That doesn't mean it didn't take place - simply that our scientific framework gives us no ability to determine how it took place.

Of course, this itself will rankle with people brought up on anything close to a materialistic worldview. "If we can't explain it, and there is no evidence for it, then how can we know it happened?" The thing is that materialism doesn't provide a worldview for explaining everything we see anyway. Aside from the fact that we can't really escape definitively from the solipsistic perspective that everything is in fact a dream, we then have to wrestle with the fact that materialism doesn't actually provide anything like a proper explanation of why there should be anything rather than nothing. In other words, rejecting accounts of miracles because they aren't consistent with a materialistic explanation of an event begs the issue that materialism fails to provide an adequate explanation of phenomena which are observed, and which we are unable to reject.

This is, I think, the heart of one of Berlinski's arguments against "atheism and its scientific pretentions" in "The Devil's Delusion".

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