Are Miracles Possible? [Science & Faith, part 2 of 3]

by Andrew Forrest

Jefferson Bible

 

My fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson liked Jesus but wasn’t sold on all the miracles in the Gospels.  So, he cut them out, leaving his Bible full of holes.

Was he right?  Are miracles impossible?

Option 2

In answering the question, “Can Science and Faith Be Reconciled?,” some people take option #2 and reply, “No, because faith is based on the miraculous, and we know that miracles cannot happen.”

 

Circular Reasoning

The problem, if you’re not careful, in stating categorically that miracles cannot happen is that it can lead you into a circular argument.  When pressed, many of us would have to say that miracles cannot happen because we know that they don’t happen.  But, that’s not really much of an argument.

Before we can be certain that miracles cannot happen, we have to do the hard work of investigating claims of the miraculous.  For example, before we can be sure that the Resurrection–the most famous miracle in history–did not happen, we need to examine it.

What About David Hume?

Allan_Ramsay_-_David_Hume,_1711_-_1776._Historian_and_philosopher_-_Google_Art_Project

The great 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume made some very effective arguments against the possibility of the miraculous, and his critique effectively kept generations of free-thinking Westerners from accepting the miraculous.  But, although much of Hume’s work has held up well, his argument against miracles has been discredited by modern philosophers.  For example, the philosopher John Earman even wrote a book called Hume’s Abject Failure: the Argument Against Miracles.

There are many reasons not to believe in a particular miracle, or even in all miracles, but categorically declaring that the miraculous cannot happen goes too far.

 

Blind Faith

Many religious people have gone in another direction.  Admitting rationally that miracles don’t happen–accepting the Enlightenment bias against the miraculous–they have white-knuckled-forced themselves to believe.  Along this route, faith is what you are supposed to believe even though you know the things you are supposed to believe are impossible.  This version of blind faith is dangerous and is one reason many people raised in rigidly fundamentalist churches and homes often completely reject their faith when they leave home: they encounter intelligent arguments against what they previously held in blind faith, and, at a loss, everything they once believed unravels.

 

Summary

We can’t categorically reject miracles, and we also shouldn’t accept some version of faith that is completely irrational and unthinking.  When it comes to the question, “Can science and faith be reconciled,” we need another option….

 

 

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2 comments

Jarrod Neal January 29, 2014 - 3:12 pm

What exactly does it mean to believe that “miracles” are possible. When I say that miracles are possible, I mean that the Creator maintains a causal relationship with the creation (e.g. God can “act” in the Universe). I readily understand how this belief may offend the territorial claims of rational materialists who have staked out the Universe as their own inalienable stomping ground. But what would a miracle actually “look” like to the empirical observer? Every effect caused by a Being who transcends the physical universe would appear to have no (physical) cause, and would therefore seem to be (physically) impossible. But the effects may not be so obvious. Who among us hasn’t experienced a “happy coincidence,” when a host unconnected people and random events seemingly conspired together to make a moment in time poignantly meaningful, wonderful, even miraculous to us. To my way of thinking, the extreme rarity of obvious miracles only points to the gentleness of God, who doesn’t make a habit of charging into our lives like a bull through a china shop. I like the way Blaise Pascal put it: “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition”

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Andrew Forrest January 30, 2014 - 1:48 pm

Great stuff, Jarrod. You should have written the post! Love the Pascal quotation. I agree with you: how would one ever accurately measure a miracle?

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