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Does modern science repudiate miracles?
David H. Bailey
Updated 31 March 2019 (c) 2019
One common area of contention in the science-religion arena is the question of miracles. Creationist and intelligent design writers, among others, typically define miracles as contraventions of natural law and thus conclude that modern science is fundamentally at war with Bible-based religion. Kevin Anderson of Answers in Genesis (which operates the Creation Museum near Cincinnati, Ohio), expresses this position in these terms [Anderson2009]:
Scripture records the occurrence of numerous miracles performed by God. By definition, a miracle is an event not explainable by natural processes. Otherwise, it would hardly constitute a miracle. Are these miracles going to be accepted as "scientific?" What do these [non-creationist] theologians propose we do with biblical miracles?
Perhaps one should not blame creationists and religious fundamentalists for this mistaken notion, since it has been taught by some prominent philosophers and theologians, particularly in past centuries. For example, 18th century philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" [Hume1955, pg. 128]. In the context of Hume's writings, Hume may have defined miracles in this way only as a pretext for criticism, but nonetheless many subsequent writers have adopted this same general viewpoint.
Miracles as violations of natural law
There are several difficulties with defining miracles as transgressions of law. On one hand, it is curious that creationists and others insist that modern science is at odds with the notion of a miracle, because if a "miracle" is said to be utterly beyond the realm of natural law as discoverable via the process of empirical investigation, then science, properly speaking, cannot comment one way or the other on such phenomena. But there are serious theological difficulties with the miracle-as-transgression-of-law viewpoint. Over 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine wrote, "God, the Author and Creator of all natures does nothing contrary to nature; for what is done by Him who appoints all natural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every case." [Augustine1887, pg. 321-322]. Contemporary Anglican theologian Keith Ward is even more emphatic: "Why should God make a set of beautiful and elegant laws, only to break them when the Divine Being felt like it? Does this not make God some sort of mathematical criminal?" [Ward2008, pg. 87].
However, most present-day theologians do not regard miracles as utterly beyond the realm of natural processes. For example, contemporary scientist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne argues that miracles, particularly as presented in the New Testament, are "not divine tours de force in which God shows off divine power, but windows into a deeper view of reality than would otherwise be visible" [Polkinghorne2000, pg. 59]. And 20th century LDS theologian James Talmage wrote, "Miracles are commonly regarded as occurrences in opposition to the laws of nature. Such a conception is plainly erroneous, for the laws of nature are inviolable." [Talmage1966, pg. 220]. Such views are hardly new --in Smith's Bible Dictionary, which was compiled in the 19th century, long before the rise of modern "higher criticism," and which has been used by readers of virtually all major Christian denominations, one reads, "A miracle is not a violation of the laws of nature. It is God's acting upon nature in a degree far beyond our powers, but the same kind of act as our wills are continually exerting upon nature." [Smith 1884].
Thus, whether we examine contemporary writings or more traditional sources, the consensus view is that the notion of a "miracle" in Judeo-Christian religion is much more subtle and nuanced than merely a contravention of the laws of nature. Some additional historical background on the notion of miracles through the years may be found in a recent book by Anglican theologian Keith Ward [Ward2008, pg. 83-106].
Scientific explanations of biblical miracles
In any event, it is clear that many of the miracles recorded in the Bible and elsewhere have more prosaic explanations:
The above examples do not establish that all biblical miracles are nothing more than the conventional operation of known natural law. For one thing, it is not clear that all miraculous events actually transpired in biblical times exactly the way they are recorded in present-day translations of the Bible, nor is it clear that a word-for-word reading of the Bible is always the most appropriate way to approach the Bible (see Bible inerrant). Instead, the items above are presented to emphasize that what appears to be a "miracle" at one point in time might not be as "miraculous" at a later time, as scientific knowledge advances.
- The crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 14). The story of the crossing of the Red Sea, as recounted in Exodus 14, has for many years been a source of historical and scientific analysis. For example, in a 2010 scientific study Carl Drews and Weiqing Han of the University of Colorado propose that "wind setdown," namely the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time, may have been the cause of the drying up of the sea where the ancient Hebrews crossed. Drews and Han argue that the most likely spot of the crossing was a small protusion of land between the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and the Lake of Tanis (near the modern Lake Manzala). This location would fit the description of a "Reed Sea," which is often taken to be a more accurate rendition of the biblical sources than "Red Sea." Assuming a sandbar existed at the time, which is a reasonable assumption, their computer simulations affirm that an easterly 100-km/hr wind for eight hours would have driven the water in the Lake of Tanis westward up the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, parting the waters around the peninsula from which Drews and Han assume the crossing may have started [McAlpine2010; Drews2010].
Along this line, many have questioned whether 600,000 men, plus women and children (i.e., roughly three million total persons), as claimed in Exod. 12:37, 38:26 and Num. 1:46, could have joined the exodus from Egypt without leaving extensive historical and archaeological evidence along their journey. However, there are indications from other passages within the Old Testament itself that this number was much smaller. For example, counting Levi's male descendants through Moses, based on Exod. 6:16-20, gives just 21 men. Multiplying by 12 to estimate for the 12 sons of Jacob gives just 252 men through Moses' generation at the Exodus (even assuming they were all still alive at the Exodus). Also, Exod. 1:15-17 says there were only two midwives for the Israelites; this places an upper limit of about 5,000 on the size of the Hebrew nation at the time of the birth of Moses. Exodus 18:21 describes the organization of the Hebrew host with rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens; there is no mention of groupings larger than thousands. Exodus 15:27 mentions that after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites camped at Elim, where there were 12 wells and 70 palm trees; this is hardly sufficient to provide water and shelter for 2-3 million persons. Similarly, Num. 20:17-19 describes Moses' attempt to negotiate a safe passage for the Israelites through Edom. He proposed to the Edomite king that they would walk strictly on the king's highway (a narrow one-lane dirt road by today's standards) while traveling through his land: "we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left." If the children of Israel numbered in the millions, this procession would have taken weeks or even months to complete, and Moses' offer would have made no sense. In short, numerous other passages within the Old Testament itself clearly suggest much lower numbers for the Israelite host than the 2-3 million figure given in Exo. 12:37, 38:26 and Num. 1:46.
- Cleansing lepers (Mark 1:40-45; Matt. 8:1-4; Luke 5:12-16; Luke 17:11-19). Although leprosy was widespread in the ancient world, it was not then and is not now highly communicable. Workers have ministered with persons who have contracted leprosy for long periods of time without contracting it themselves. For these and other reasons, biblical scholars believe the term "leprosy" (or at least its Greek equivalent) was used in the Bible to cover a large array of skin afflictions, including eczema, a family of skin conditions that causes the skin to become swollen, irritated and itchy. In any event, both leprosy (now known as Hansen's disease) and most types of eczema are now treatable [PubMed2011a; Leprosy2016].
- Healing a woman's hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34; Matt. 9:19-22; Luke 8:43-48). In these passages, Jesus heals a woman who had been afflicted with "an issue of blood" for 12 years. Because women undergoing menstruation were considered "unclean" and thus barred from the public, this woman had long been shut out from social contact. Nowadays, this is a medical condition known as menorrhagia and can be treated by a combination of drugs and, if necessary, surgery [Mayo2011].
- Restoring vision to the blind (Matt. 9:27-30, 20:30-34; Mark 8:22-25, 10:46-51; Luke 18:35-43; John 9:1-25). Restoring vision to the blind has long been considered a quintessential biblical miracle, utterly beyond the capability of medical science. Yet even now many people are wearing eyeglasses and/or contact lenses, an invention that a recent analysis listed as the fifth most significant invention of all time, one that has "dramatically raised the collective human IQ" [Fallows2013]. A more recent development is laser corrective eye surgery (lasik). Both eyeglasses and lasik treatments have cured many millions of persons who otherwise would be blind by any reasonable definition of the term. What's more, numerous research projects are in the works to restore sight to other blind persons, such as those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, wherein photoreceptors are damaged. For example, in 2011 a team of researchers at the Institute of Genetic Medicine at UCLA succeeded in transferring a gene that makes a photosensitive protein into mice. The treated mice were able to navigate through a maze 2.5 times faster than untreated blind mice. Ten months later, the treated mice were still showing improvements. Human tests could begin in two years [Hooper2011a]. Even more dramatic advances are certain to be seen in the future.
- Resurrection and immortality. Many regard Jesus' resurrection as the ultimate in miraculous. There is no space here to thoroughly analyze this topic, either scripturally or otherwise, but it is intriguing to note that emerging futuristic technology may make this possible without any recourse to supernatural effects. As Ray Kurzweil has noted, when computer technology is powerful enough, not only will we be able to capture the complete details of a living person's brain, but we will also be able to "resurrect" this person after death in the form of a faithful copy of his/her mind [Kurzweil2007]. Physicist Frank Tipler describes analogous scenarios to "resurrect" everyone who has ever lived [Tipler1994]. Along this line, Marc Geddes has observed that the quest for immortality is one of the most enduring dreams of humanity and the very foundation of morality: "Rational people understand that actions have consequences. A life of crime may help a person in the short term, but in the long run it may get you killed or imprisoned. ... People are more likely to be moral when they understand they will have to face the consequences of their actions in the future. It follows that the further into the future one plans for, the more moral one's behavior should become." [Geddes2004].
Miracles of modern technology
We mentioned above the little-appreciated miracle of eyeglasses, which has restored clear vision to hundreds of millions of otherwise blind persons, and ongoing research that promises to restore vision to millions more. Yet this is just one small detail in a tidal wave of scientific and technological advances of our modern era. It is easy to be complacent and dismissive about this progress, but consider just for a moment what has been accomplished:
Several other examples are given at Progress.
- Life expectancy. Life expectancy in Europe and America hovered around 35 for over two centuries, before soaring, starting about 1880, to over 80 at the present time. Worldwide, life expectancy has soared from 29 in 1880 to 71 today. Along this line, infant mortality has plunged from 25% in much of Europe as recently as the late 1800s, to a fraction of a percent today. Similar precipitous declines have recently been seen in numerous other nations, including the poor regions in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa [Pinker2018, Chap. 5].
- Disease. As recently as the early 1900s, epidemics repeatedly ravaged populations around the world, striking down hundreds of millions, both rich and poor. But within the past century disease after disease has been either eradicated or enormously reduced, thanks to research, vaccines and better medical care. These include smallpox (eradicated in 1977), polio (only 37 cases remain) and Guinea worm (only 25 cases remain). Others likely to be eradicated in the next decade include elephantiasis, river blindness, blinding trachoma, measles, rubella, sleeping sickness and hookworm. Deaths by malaria have fallen 60% since 2000, and WHO workers hope to reduce this by another 90% by 2030 [Pinker2018, Chap. 6].
- Malnutrition. Throughout history, waves of famine have decimated societies worldwide, with hundreds of millions of victims, and hundreds of millions more have suffered from malnourishment. As recently as 1870, the number of worldwide famine deaths per 100,000 was 1400; today it is virtually zero. Similarly, in spite of widespread dire predictions by writers such as Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s that the world would soon face mass starvation, the percentage of people in the developing world who are undernourished has declined from 35% in 1970 to 15% today, and further reductions are all but certain in the decades ahead as scientific agriculture continues to advance [Pinker2018, Chap. 7].
- Poverty. China and India, each with over one billion persons, have now achieved the same per-capita income that Sweden had in the mid-20th century, thanks in part to the "great convergence," namely the phenomenon of poorer countries advancing faster than richer ones. More importantly, the number of persons worldwide living in extreme poverty ($1.90 income per person per day or less in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars) has dropped from 90% a century or two ago to just 10% today, and every day the number of persons in that category drops by a whopping 137,000 [Pinker2018, Chap. 8].
- Transportation. Today's transportation technology would surely astound someone from a previous century. There is a worldwide rail network serving a large fraction of humanity, growing from a few miles in England, Europe and the U.S. in 1830 to millions of miles today. Even more amazing is the growth, beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in highways and automobiles, with over one billion in use today [Motor2019]. Finally, a whopping 3.5 billion persons, nearly half of the world's population, has taken at least one airplane trip [Negroni2016]. Yet the miracles do not end here. Very likely within 25 years or so, human passengers (not just a handful of astronauts) will be able to travel to the Moon and Mars, an achievement that only a few years ago was the realm of fantasy [Drake2017].
- Moore's Law and computer technology. No other statistic of technological progress is as widely known as Moore's Law, namely the observation that beginning in 1965, when Intel pioneer Gordon Moore first noted it [Moore1965], the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a single integrated circuit roughly doubles every 18-24 months. Moore's Law has now continued unabated for over years, and the end is not yet in sight. As of 2019, state-of-the-art devices typically have more than 20 billion transistors, an increase by a factor of 80 million over the best 1965-era devices [Transistor2019]. This staggering number of on-chip transistors translates directly into memory capacity and processing speed, endowing a broad range of high-tech devices with capabilities unthinkable even as recently as ten years ago.
- Communication. Human society leaped forward in the 15th century with the printing press, which provided public access to the many literary, scriptural and scientific works, and directly contributed to the birth of modern science. Similarly, the development of the telegraph and telephone facilitated the huge technological boom of the 19th and 20th century. Now we are seeing the effects of an even more far-reaching communication revolution, namely the Internet, which quite literally brings the entire world's cumulative knowledge to one's computer or smartphone. Some of the older generation may recall when telephone service was first provided to individual homes, via "party lines," back in the 1940s and 1950s. Long-distance calls were possible, but only at very high rates -- typically 50 cents or more per minute within first-world countries, and $3.00 to $5.00 per minute to foreign countries. Nowadays, via the Internet and services such as Apple's FaceTime and Microsoft's Skype, one can communicate by high-resolution color video, for free, to virtually anywhere worldwide.
- Smartphones. No first-world teenager needs to be lectured about the miracle of a smartphone, which quite literally connects nearly the entire world's population in a communications network, provides full access to Internet resources and includes a GPS mapping facility that by itself would astound anyone of an earlier era. As of 2019, over five billion persons, or roughly 70% of the entire world population, own at least a cell phone, and 2.71 billion, or nearly half the world's population, own a smartphone [Smartphone2019]. As of 2019, state-of-the-art smartphones typically include touchscreens with over three million pixel resolution, at least two cameras with over ten million pixel resolution, and up to 512 Gbyte storage. Beginning with the 2018-2019 models, Apple smartphones also include special hardware and software that enables 3-D facial recognition. Today's leading-edge smartphones can perform more than five trillion operations per second, a speed faster than that of the most powerful supercomputers of twenty years earlier. Now many of these same smartphone capabilities are being delivered in smartwatches, with built-in wireless facilities, GPS mapping and features for monitoring health and fitness. For example, beginning with the 2018-2019 models, Apple watches can produce a clinical-quality electrocardiogram and can automatically call emergency services if it detects that the wearer has fallen and was not able to get up.
By definition, science cannot comment one way or the other on miracles or other phenomena outside the realm of what can be studied by reproducible experimental methods. But the issue is moot in any event, because most biblical scholars and theologians have moved away from the notion that miracles are necessarily contraventions of natural law. Along this line, it should be kept in mind that placing one's belief in God in the recesses of present-day scientific ignorance is a well-known theological fallacy, namely the "God of the gaps" (see
God of the gaps).
With regards to faith and miracles, it should be noted that the Bible does not advocate blind faith. Paul urged readers to "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5:21). In a similar vein, Jesus taught that faith by itself is not sufficient: "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." (Matt. 7:20-27). In any event, the common experience of many religious practitioners is that miracles cannot serve as "proofs" for God or as a basis for an enduring faith. Recall that Jesus characterized those who seek after a "sign" as a "wicked and adulterous generation" (Matt. 16:4; Luke 11:29) and on numerous occasions declined to advertise his acts (Matt. 8:4; Mark 7:36; Luke 5:14, 8:56, 11:29).
Similar advice could be offered at the present day. An obsession with miracles, no matter what their actual nature, is not likely even to lead to real spirituality, much less to useful insight into how science and religion might be harmonized. As Anglican theologian Keith Ward has explained [Ward2008, pg. 223]:
The basis of biblical faith is not inferential reason. It is personal encounter. God is the one who liberates us from evil (from slavery in Egypt) and who fills the heart with joy. To have faith is to entrust your life to God. But neither faith nor abstract argument establishes that God exists. Reason tries, often rather feebly, to make belief in God rational -- self-consistent, coherent with other knowledge, and fruitful for understanding. Faith tries, equally feebly, to make the religious way of life a positive, personally and morally fulfilling relationship to God. But belief in the actuality of God, like belief in the actuality of anything real and vital, is rooted in encounter with a personal, moral, liberating, and transforming power and presence.
Furthermore, a moment's reflection shows that we live in an age of miracles. Certainly if someone from biblical times, or even from, say, 100 years ago, were teleported to our world, they would be astounded by the technologies of everyday life that we take for granted. As science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke observed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." [Clarke1984]. So why worry about whether this or that biblical event was a true "miracle," when awe-inspiring miracles surround us on every side? As Gordon B. Hinckley, former President of the LDS faith, observed in 1999 [Hinckley1999]:
But in a larger sense [the twentieth century] has been the best of all centuries. In the long history of the earth there has been nothing like it. The life expectancy of man has been extended by more than 25 years. Think of it. It is a miracle. The fruits of science have been manifest everywhere. By and large, we live longer, we live better. This is an age of greater understanding and knowledge. We live in a world of great diversity. As we learn more of one another, our appreciation grows. This has been an age of enlightenment. The miracles of modern medicine, of travel, of communication are almost beyond belief.
For additional discussion, see
Natural law and