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Thu, 09 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 9: Of Science and Miracles

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will take on one of Dawkins' claims about miracles. This post is not an argument for belief in miracles. I am only trying to show that the topic of miracles is not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem.

The line of thought in The God Delusion is unfriendly to miracles. Dawkins even claims that "miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science" (p. 59). What "definition" does Dawkins have in mind? Is there a hard-and-fast definition, written down somewhere, that dictates the "principles of science"? No, there is not.

Science is a set of methods that have proven extraordinarily useful in understanding and controlling the natural world. Scientists follow certain working rules because those rules have proven useful. However, science does not bow and kneel before any a priori list of inviolable principles. If a miracle ever happened, no so-called principle would bar scientists from studying it! If scientists ever did confirm that there was a miracle (in the sense of an event that violates natural laws), they would not say "Well, we have conclusive evidence for this miracle, but we still can't believe it happened, because believing it would violate The Very Principles of Science Itself." At least scientists who have thought it over would not say that! If scientists ever gained conclusive evidence for a miracle, they would have to accept that some natural laws have occasional exceptions. However, science would not collapse. Science would not even have to change in any fundamental way. A thoughtful scientist might say "Well, there's an exception to one of our known natural laws. Now we know that this particular law isn't invariably true. Instead of holding all the time, it only holds statistically - it's usually reliable but can be violated on occasion." Scientists already know of statistically true natural laws. The law of entropy in thermodynamics is not invariably true, but only statistically true. The allowed violations of the law of entropy are not miracles; instead, these stunningly rare violations have a known physical basis. However, the statistical nature of the law of entropy does show that a natural law doesn't have to be 100 percent right to be useful. In layman's terms, stuff happens!

Science does not resort to miracles to explain puzzling facts. This scientific policy has proven itself useful, and is indispensable as a working rule. (If we explain something odd by assuming it's a miracle, then we might be missing some other, non-miraculous explanation that we haven't thought of yet.) But does science really rule out miracles?

Imagine a miracle that only happens once, with no advance warning and with no closely similar miracles before or after. Such a once-off unrepeatable miracle would be no threat to science at all! As far as science is concerned, such a miracle probably would be undiscoverable. Here's why. If scientists found apparent evidence for such a miracle, they would favor the simplest, least extravagant possible explanation for the evidence. (The working rule of scientific method called Occam's Razor says this is the appropriate thing to do.) However, any non-miraculous explanation would be less extravagant than the hypothesis that a miracle had occurred. Therefore, scientists would not conclude that there was a miracle, even if there was no other apparent explanation for the evidence.

What does this mean? It means that if a single unrepeatable miracle really happened, scientists would have no intellectual obligation to believe that it happened! Scientists would be justified in acting as if there were no miracle. A once-off, unrepeatable miracle would pose no threat to our scientific knowledge. It would not even touch our scientific knowledge. The miracle would not have to be incorporated into our scientific knowledge, even if it really happened. Science can simply ignore the possibility of such a miracle.

It's all too easy to forget that science deals with repeatable phenomena and with hypotheses that are testable through scientific methods. Science does not necessarily encompass all possible phenomena, and ignores hypotheses that cannot be scientifically tested. An unrepeatable event can be of scientific interest, but scientists will try to explain it using laws that have repeatable consequences. Ignoring some phenomena and beliefs may be the correct thing for scientists to do, even if they risk missing something that way.

Science does not trade in miracles. That is as it should be. However, science does not force us to believe dogmatically that there are no miracles. A once-off miracle might not be scientifically confirmable. Note that we cannot say this about a repeatable miracle (for example, if certain prayers were answered dependably). Such a miracle might well be subject to scientific testing. (Dawkins gives an example of this sort of testing in his section on "the Great Prayer Experiment" (pp. 61-66). In that case, the miracle turned out not to be there.) However, an unrepeatable miracle might be impossible to pin down scientifically.

This is not an argument for belief in miracles. As readers of my writings may have noticed, my own view of spirituality does not require miracles, if a "miracle" means a violation of natural law. I only want to point out that the relationship between science and miracles is not as hostile as it seems. Science can operate perfectly well without an absolute assumption that there are no miracles. If you believe in miracles, that doesn't automatically make you an enemy of science. Whether miracles really happen is a separate question.

posted at: 17:03 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry


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