Sunday, April 1, 2018

Are Miracles Unscientific? Part 1

The question of whether or not miracles are scientific is a multifaceted question having to do with the definition of miracles, the definition of science, and the characteristics of God. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a miracle as an "extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs" such as "the healing miracles described in the Gospels." The second definition listed is "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment" such as "the bridge is a miracle of engineering." Of course any controversy over miracles involves only the first definition, not the second. We can assume that the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” was not a miracle, though it was certainly an exciting and unexpected sporting outcome. I would define a miracle as an exceptional action of God within the natural world, distinct from the usual processes of nature, for some specific purpose of God, which can have detectable consequences.

The definition of science is more controversial than the definition of a miracle. Probably the most common popular definition of science is given in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary listed as its third definition, "a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method, b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena: natural science." A more direct and succinct question about the definition of science is whether or not the explanations provided by science must be limited to natural phenomena. This question is, in and of itself, a philosophical question and not a scientific question. If science is defined as only able to deal with natural phenomena and provide natural explanations, then miracles are, by definition, unscientific. However, it is illogical and inconsistent to dismiss something as non-scientific based only on a philosophical proposition. If science is defined by its etymology of being "knowledge", then of course miracles are scientific and can be investigated. (The first definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary reflects this broader definition of science, "the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.") I tend to give science a broad definition and define it as a search for truth through a study of the natural world. Since we are studying the natural world which is both reproducible and ordered, most of the conclusions and explanations will be natural. But when the observational evidence from the natural world is best explained by other means, we need to carefully consider those other means.

Finally, the question of whether or not miracles are possible is not very controversial if there is a transcendent being who created the universe. Many of the posts in this blog have provided evidence for such a being because of the origin and design in the universe and on our planet. If such a being exists then he can certainly interact with his creation in various ways and miracles are not only possible, they are trivial, as discussed in this post on a transcendent God. In his latest book, The Case for Miracles (shown in the opening figure) that was just released in March 2018, Lee Strobel has interviewed me about the evidence for God from the origin and design in the universe, and how that points to a transcendent Creator. Chapters 9 and 10 in that book relate the contents of our interview and discuss "The Astonishing Miracle of Creation" and "Our Miraculous Universe and Planet."  For a God who brought the universe into existence, other miracles must be effortless.

In their book The Grand Design, (also discussed in this post), Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow claim that miracles are not a part of science, and not even permissible if there are to be any natural laws at all. They state, "A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene."1 But their statement is logically flawed. A law that can be superseded by a larger principle does not invalidate the general law. Newton's laws work in most everyday circumstances but are not applicable at very small distances or very fast speeds, yet they can be used to make valid calculations and predictions. Consider another example. Most cars are legally required to stop at red traffic lights, but the fact that an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing and siren wailing can occasionally drive through a red light does not invalidate the general principle or law about red lights.

Although I would contend that miracles are not unscientific, I would agree that miracles cannot be tested with the traditional scientific method because the scientific method requires repeatable experiments with control of variables to test a hypothesis. As such, the scientific method can strictly speaking be used only for natural, repeatable, phenomena. Therefore, no historical event that occurred only once can be investigated with a strict scientific method. However, we can come to reliable conclusions about singular events that happened by applying scientific principles using a historical/legal approach, which is done regularly by lawyers, historians, and scientists who investigate past events. The researcher will compile an objective observation of all relevant facts and evidence, develop a formulation of a hypothesis to explain those facts, test the logical implications of the hypothesis, and reformulate the hypothesis until it adequately fits all relevant facts or phenomena.

Even using such an approach, miracles cannot be incontrovertibly established, for no singular past event can be 100% confirmed. Of course even the strict scientific method is not able to 100% verify any principle because we cannot test every scientific hypothesis under every possible scenario. Nothing, then, can be 100% proven in the strictest sense of the word except possibly within mathematics and logic. However, both the scientific method and the historical/legal method can give reliable conclusions about the most probable cause based on the evidence. When it comes to past events in history, it may be that supernatural involvement is the best and most plausible explanation, and only conclusion that adequately explains all of the known facts. In such a case, it is perfectly reasonable to infer a supernatural cause from the observable evidence.

Of course the idea that a miracle may be the best and most plausible explanation of a past event would be rejected by many including the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. In the next upcoming post I will explore some of the philosophical and logical opposition to miracles and discuss why I believe such arguments against miracles are not very convincing. In the meantime, you may want to consider reading The Case for Miracles in one of its three forms, including the hardback book, the student edition, and the kid's edition (shown below). In that book, you'll not only be able to read the contents of Lee Strobel's interview with me, but you'll also read through his discussion of many challenging questions about miracles, including the hard question of why God often chooses not to intervene in a miraculous way.

1 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Books, New York, 2010, p. 30.


  1. Atoms have no intellect, neither do molecules..both follow certain laws and the same atoms under the same repeatable conditions will form the same molecule and select molecules mixed together under specified conditions will follow strict chemical rules and form the same products repeatedly. There is no intelligence or influx of new information required.

    So at what point and from what source did intellect enter the process leading up to intelligent life such as our own. Where did the active information come from and when did it enter. The processes of life, consciousness, the mammalian brain all consist of dumb atoms and dumb molecules. As WilderSmith said decades ago time plus matter + INFORMATION impressed from outside time and space = life and intellect. Now that's a miracle.

    1. In all of our experience information comes from an intelligent being. I think that is the best explanation for the information content in the universe.