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A Miracle Debate

December 22, 2014

They recognized that a universe in which miracles are possible
is a world in which science, strictly understood, is impossible.

You may wish to read Why I believe in miracles by Matt K. Lewis (pictured second) in The Week for December 9th, and the reaction a week later by Damon Linker (pictured first), The age of miracles is over — even for the religious.

Linker writes:

imageMiracles have traditionally been understood as temporary transgressions by God of the natural order. You know, like Moses parting the Red Sea, or a virgin giving birth to a child, or the resurrection of a man three days after his death. All three events and many others recounted in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are inexplicable in natural terms. They are divine incursions into the order of things, a suspension of the necessities that govern that order — like the necessity that tells us, for example, that only a female who has been impregnated by the sperm of a male of the same species can give birth to offspring. That necessity reigns supreme, without exception, in nature. But Christians believe — or are supposed to believe — that God overrode that necessity in impregnating Mary, a woman who had never had sexual relations with her husband Joseph or any other man.

imageLewis, like many contemporary believers, uses the term "miracle" to mean something very different and far less, well, miraculous. Instead of referring to a divine intervention that overturns natural necessity, Lewis maintains that a miracle is any event within the world that appears to have personally beneficial consequences. As something taking place within the natural world, the event will always be explicable in scientific terms. But the believer is also free to interpret the event otherwise — as having been mysteriously authored or brought about by the hidden hand of God. That is the kind of miracle that Lewis believes in.

Linker argues:

The great early modern defenders of science (men like Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume) understood that the belief in miracles was an obstacle to the advance of human knowledge, keeping alive the possibility that the findings of scientific investigation are at most provisionally true — true only so long as God doesn’t act within the world in a way that contravenes natural necessity. That’s why these and other partisans of the Enlightenment actively sought to explain (or rather, to explain away) miracles and undermine popular belief in them. They recognized that a universe in which miracles are possible is a world in which science, strictly understood, is impossible.

Centuries later, the philosophical critique of miracles has been so successful that many of the faithful are more comfortable affirming the truth of soft providentialism, which is perfectly compatible with science because it makes no empirically verifiable (or refutable) truth-claims about the world at all. It’s even compatible with Darwinian evolution, which posits the radically non-theistic view that species evolve through a process of random mutation and adaptation, since it’s always possible that God plays a crucial and hidden (but scientifically undemonstrable) role in the process. Perhaps God causes evolution’s seemingly random mutations, or controls the environment to which these mutated organisms adapt themselves.

The good news for religion is that it has survived the philosophical-scientific assault on miracles. But the bad news for religion is that it now lingers on in a profoundly weakened state. Where faith once confidently ventured truth-claims about the whole of creation and its metaphysical underpinnings, now it often offers mere expressions of subjective feeling about a world that science exclusively reveals and explains. That represents a remarkable retreat.

Oh? Really? I find that we have proponents of both views in the world of the shroud and, interestingly, they are not self-segregated into pro- or not-pro- authenticity stances.

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  1. Thomas
    December 22, 2014 at 5:50 am

    There’s a good piece in there too on the liberal groupthink bias in academia. Some may recall a rant of mine on this a few weeks ago.

  2. Nabber
    December 22, 2014 at 8:47 am

    We’re so sure of what we know, aren’t we? ” like the necessity that tells us, for example, that only a female who has been impregnated by the sperm of a male of the same species can give birth to offspring. That necessity reigns supreme, without exception, in nature.” Mr. Linker, a female shark not too long ago underwent parthenogenesis, and had never been in the same tank as a male shark — marking the highest-order form of life to ever have this happen. There’s one exception for you. Has occurred often in various types of reptiles and fish.

  3. Julian Stroh
    December 22, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    I found C.S. Lewis’s book, Miracles; a Preliminary Study, very helpful when considering the philosophical problems of miracles. I think he succeeded in showing that there really aren’t any serious philosophical objections to miracles, despite Mr. Linker’s assertions to the contrary.

  4. Louis
    December 22, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    His mistake is to rest his claims on the so-called Enlightenment, which is being challenged today. That makes his way of thinking outmoded.

    • aljones909
      December 23, 2014 at 11:04 am

      “His mistake is to rest his claims on the so-called Enlightenment, which is being challenged today.”
      The “so-called Enlightenment” – described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
      “characterized by dramatic revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics; these revolutions swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world.”
      It’s understandable that some of those gripped by religious fervour wish for a return to a medieval world of geocentrism, enormously high infant mortality, boils, pestilence, starvation and ineffective medicine.

      If only we had the example of an abrahamic religion that has not had to confront an Enlightenment.

      • Louis
        December 23, 2014 at 7:01 pm

        This talk about “Abrahamic religions” emerged in India, the results of which are in the news this week. Just read what the Dalai Lama has been saying about about his successor lately and also what Nehru wrote about Hinduism.

  5. Julian Stroh
    December 23, 2014 at 10:53 am

    But the Enlightenment never had any good arguments against miracles to begin with. The birth of modern science occurred in Christian Europe, after centuries of conditioning people to believe that the world was created and sustained by a rational, all-powerful God, who may occasionally intervene in His creation, but never capriciously. And we were conditioned to believe that we were created in the image of this God, enabling us to understand and explore His creation. It was this match between a rational God and our sharing in His rationality that provided the groundwork for science. As Kepler put it, he was merely “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”

  6. Louis
    December 23, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    That’s right.

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