Science, Doubt, and Miracles
By Timothy McGrew
Doubt is a proof of modesty; it has seldom harmed the advance of the sciences. I could not say as much for incredulity. Apart from pure mathematics, whoever pronounces the word “impossible” is wanting in prudence. — FranÃ§ois Arago1
A few years ago my wife and I received an e-mail note from a skeptic. His problem with Christianity, he explained, was that it is “hard to believe in the supernatural when you live in a world that science has explained and shaped so well.” The complaint is not new. In one form or another, the charge that miracles are somehow at odds with science has been pressed by skeptics for the past three centuries. And if miracles really were somehow at odds with modern science and technology, that would be awkward. If it comes down to a simple choice between the truth of the central claims of Christianity, on the one hand, and whether airplanes fly, on the other … well, airplanes do fly, so that would seem to settle the matter.
Of course, this is a false dilemma. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus does not commit a Christian to disbelief in the flightworthiness of 747s. Christians who believed in God’s miraculous intervention in history were the principal architects of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, and from the days of Copernicus and Galileo to the present such Christians can be found working in every branch of science and technology. So what, exactly, is the challenge supposed to be?
The 18th-century philosopher David Hume offers one answer. A miracle, according to Hume, is a violation of the laws of nature; and since those laws have been established by extensive and unvaried experience, they are as certain as any empirical beliefs can be. Miracles, by contrast, are supported only by human testimony; and, as we know from sad experience, human testimony is not unfailingly truthful. Faced with a choice between a belief supported by the strongest possible evidence and a rival belief supported by rather uncertain evidence, Hume urges, we should always choose the stronger. The rational man will always come down on the side of scientific laws and against their miraculous violation.
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On its surface, Hume’s argument has a dazzling simplicity and reasonableness. Who wants to endorse the claim that weak evidence is preferable to strong? But beneath the surface, matters are murkier. At nearly every point — the definition of the term miracle, the concept of a law of nature, the description of the evidence for natural laws, and the description of the evidence of testimony — Hume’s reasoning conceals more than it reveals, confuses more than it clarifies. The problems are so deep and extensive that one recent critic (who has, it should be noted, no personal sympathy for Christianity) has christened the argument against miracles Hume’s Abject Failure.2
Consider the notion that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. As Hume defines them, laws of nature are exceptionless regularities in our experience; a miracle, therefore, is an exception to something that has no exceptions. This move seems like a dubious bit of philosophical judo. Can the question of miracles really be settled so quickly by a couple of definitions?
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