Modern Science and Miracles: An Epistemological Chill Pill

Recently I was given a rare opportunity to give a small 20 minute lecture on the New Testament Gospels as Reliable History in a secular setting. For the purposes of the lecture I was not trying to prove the Gospels as true, but only as historical. Obviously, I believe them to be true, yet, I try to be careful with how much ground my arguments actually take, and as I was navigating a workplace setting I felt the historical defense to be the best route. 

I had to cover a lot of ground in just 20 minutes! But I ended up touching on a variety of issues such as the “other gospels,” textual transmission, dating, the ancient concept of historical writing, and others, but there was one aspect surrounding the topic that I knew that I simply could not ignore, however much I wanted to! Miracles. 

At the heart of so much skepticism and ridicule that permeates secular views of not only the Gospels, but the entire collection of the Christian Scriptures, is the often shallow perception that miracles have been disproven by modern science. Typically, this is not even a deeply thought out conviction, despite the dogmatism of many of those who hold to it, but more often it is merely a view that inundates the philosophically materialistic air we breath. Commenting on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith observes that:

Thus Taylor suggests that our basic motivations or orientations… are not necessarily ratiocinative conclusions that we’ve thought through. How you inhabit the immanent frame is less a fruit of deduction and more of a “vibe.” It is less a reasoned position or articulated worldview and more of a Wittgensteinian “picture” that holds us captive precisely because it’s not conscious…1

This deeply held conviction that the post-Enlightenment West has somehow grown up from it’s childish beliefs in the supernatural is, for a large majority of people today, merely the vibe of the hour rather than a robustly reasoned and consistent argument. For starters, this type of attitude, even when supported by some form of argumentation, displays Lewis’ “chronologically snobbery,” an attitude that assumes the superiority of the anything modern and looks down on those of the past for their pitiable gullibility and ignorance. As if those of the biblical age did not know that dead bodies typically stay dead, why else would the Apostle Paul have to state, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8) The objections aren’t novel. The understanding of the basic principles of the way things work is nothing new, we aren’t that enlightened. Writing on this C.S. Lewis observes,

No doubt a modern gynecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that.2 

But what about modern science? That great barrier to belief, has our increased knowledge of the physical workings of this universe proven that miraculous events cannot occur? Although there are many ways to approach this, for the purposes of the lecture that I gave (and of this blog post), the only ground I want to take is to give those who hold this view dogmatically a “chill pill” to chew on. 

I respect science, anyone familiar with my blog will be well aware of that. I would go so far as to say that I even respect scientific authority. Not as my ultimate authority, but as a legitimate form of authority. Sola Scriptura was never designed to mean nuda Sciputura. Scripture alone was never meant to mean Scripture in isolation.3 Therefore, I do believe that it is important to look at the science, and the scientists, to understand just what nature is revealing. This does not mean setting aside faith, but it means setting apart Jesus Christ as Lord in our hearts and then having the confidence (literally “with faith,” con = with, fide = faith) that our faith is the Truth and that it will be able to give a defense for itself (I Peter 3:15). 

So, what do the scientists of the most prestigious scientific university in the United States of America actually believe about miracles and science? In her book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Rebecca McGlaughlin, writing in 2019, points out that there are eleven current MIT professors that not only believe that miracles can happen, but actually believe that they have happened in time and space history. It is important to note that many of these individuals were not raised as religious believers, but several were even committed atheists. The list is quite impressive:

  • Ian Hutchinson – Nuclear Science and Engineering 
  • Daniel Hastings – Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • Jing Kong – Electrical Engineering
  • Rosalind Picard – Artificial Intelligence
  • Troy Van Voorhis – Chemistry 
  • Linda Griffith – Biological and Mechanical Engineering
  • Dick Yue – Mechanical and Ocean Engineering
  • Chris Love – Chemical Engineering 
  • Doug Lauffenburger – Biological & Chemical Engineering 
  • Anne McCants – History
  • Susan Hockfield – Neuroscience and former MIT President4

Now, does this prove miracles can or have happened? Of course not. That’s a post for another day, but if a significant number of the leading science professors at one of the top scientific universities in the world have no problem believing in miracles, should such a fact not, at the very least, temper one’s dogmatism in holding rigidly to the objection that science has disproven the possibility of miraculous activity? Plasma physicist and MIT professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering succulently summaries his conclusions,

It might have seemed a good argument in the 19th century to say that science had shown the universe to be governed by inviolable physical laws, so how could there possibly be such a thing as a miracle. Today, that argument is naïve and untrue even to our scientific understanding. Nature is far more mysterious than the Victorians thought.5  

All of this should make us wonder at the popularity and persistence of the miracle objection. How often it, along with vague statements about science and evolution, are given as a reason for unbelief; not only by those who never come to faith in Christ, but even by those who are walking away from him. James Smith, along with Taylor, once again summarize this not so convincing deconversion story,

The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion; if someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science… Indeed, “the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance… Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories. And the belief such persons have converted from has usually been an immature, Sunday-schoolish faith that could be easily toppled… their “testimony” betrays the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned.6  

The objection that science has disproven miracles, or Christianity for that matter, is not convincing some of the top scientists in our nation, so why has it captured so many in our day? Once more we see that there is nothing new under the sun as Lewis brings us to a close, 

How many of the freshmen who come to Oxford from religious homes and lose their Christianity in the first year have been honestly argued out of it? How many of our own sudden temporary losses of faith have a rational basis which would stand examination for a moment?… I find that a mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first — God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College. The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless.7

Notes:

  1. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 94-95
  2. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillian, 1960) 46-47; sourced from: C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 274
  3. Todd Wilson, although writing on a different issue, is helpful here: “Far too many good Bible believers are committed to Scripture but skeptical of tradition. As a result they operate with a bastardized view of the classic Protestant doctrine of Scripture— not sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) but nuda Scriptura (“Scripture in isolation”). But this emaciated approach can’t stand its ground in the face of the twin challenges of pervasive interpretive pluralism, on the one hand, and the widespread refashioning of moral intuitions, on the other.” Todd Wilson, “Mere Sexuality,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality, ed. Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 16
  4. Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 117-118
  5. Ian Hutchinson, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?: An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science, (Downer Groves, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), 151  
  6. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 76-77
  7. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 50-51

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: