Are miracles ruled out by science?

Our recent Christmas celebration of the Incarnation and, in a few months time, the Easter Resurrection, remind us of the importance of miracles to the Christian faith.
Natural order
But for some people the miracles themselves seem to present a stumbling block to faith, particularly in a scientific age. After all, they say, belief in the uniformity of nature is required by science, and miracles would go against that belief.
Others maintain ‘miracles can’t happen because they would be breaking scientific laws’. The first of these statements is true enough; there are beliefs without which science would be impossible. These beliefs include ones about the orderliness, intelligibility and uniformity of nature. Christians who are scientists have, for hundreds of years, seen these beliefs as reflecting the orderly nature of the God who creates and upholds all things.
If there were no order in the creation, scientists could not construct scientific laws to describe the regular patterns of behaviour of the natural world. Neither could they make predictions from these laws about what is likely to happen if certain courses of action are followed.
Rational beings
Einstein once said ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible’. We rarely stop to think about this mystery of why we can comprehend so much about how the universe works. Does this reflect our being made in God’s image, creatures who, like their Maker, are rational beings?
Rationality is an even more basic belief than orderliness, intelligibility or uniformity: it is the belief that our thought processes make sense. It is basic to every aspect of life, not simply to science, because you cannot even debate whether we are rational creatures without assuming, by debating, that we are!
Normal behaviour
Uniformity is closely allied to orderliness and indicates the non-capricious nature of God. God doesn’t make gravity act downwards one
day and upwards or sideways the next! The fact that there is a uniformity of behaviour in the way the physical world functions is a mark of the faithfulness of God. This makes it possible for scientists to construct scientific laws which, in turn, make predictions possible.
But that does not mean that God cannot act differently, to perform a miracle for particular purposes, if he so wishes. Such actions would be unique and not the normal run of things. Miracles only have meaning against a background of regular behaviour. But it does mean that scientific laws, which concisely describe the normal behaviour of the world, do not dictate what is possible in God’s purposes but simply what are the ways in which he chooses to act normally.
Two kinds of laws
It is misleading that the word ‘law’ ever came to be used to refer to the regular patterns of events that we term ‘scientific laws’. It came about from a comparison between judicial laws which were enacted to bring order to societies and the apparent order of the behaviour of the natural world.
But the difference between the two kinds of laws is roughly this: The laws of the land are prescriptive, — prescribing what should happen — and can therefore be 'obeyed' or 'broken'.
Scientific laws are descriptive — stating what normally does happen — so they are not there to be ‘obeyed’, but in the light of what does happen they may have to be changed; although this would not be done for a miracle since it is not 'normal' behaviour.
Signs from God
There are two features of a miracle; something wonderful attracts the attention and the wonder has religious significance — it is as John’s gospel says, a sign from God which call for a response from us. It may take the form of something apparently inexplicable, or an event whose significance lies in the timing, such as the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21) or the river Jordan (Joshua 3:15-17).
A final thought
If God can create a universe of some 100,000,000,000 galaxies, each of which contains about 100,000,000,000 stars, are miracles likely to present him with difficulties? It might be that our view of God reflects the book title, Your God Is Too Small.
                                             Michael Poole
I have developed the above thoughts in more detail in:
Miracles: Science, the Bible and Experience, (1992) now available through Christians in Science or from the author
User’s Guide to Science and Belief, pp 56-64, Oxford: Lion Hudson, (2007) ISBN 978-0-7459-5274-1

Michael Poole is Visiting Research Fellow in Science & Religion in the Department of Education & Professional Studies at King's College London.

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