On miracles: how religious people don’t understand their own concept

Nov 22, 2011 Comments Off by

In September 2011 neutrinos were apparently spotted exceeding the speed of light. This week we received confirmation a second experiment had apparently spotted the same thing. We’re far from having enough evidence to confidently say whether or not neutrinos really have broken the light speed limit, though physicists highly doubt they have because so much of what we know about the universe, confirmed in experiment after experiment, falls apart if FTL neutrinos are possible. (Even if you can make sense of FTL travel, “tachyons” should form in pairs, which would preclude the neutrino being an example of them.) What we can say, however, is theists don’t seem to have made the fuss about this they could have if they thought straight about at least their own doctrines.

A miracle is meant to be an event that evidences a deity by requiring the intervention of a divine, or at least a supernatural, agency to explain it because it contradicts the laws of nature. Therefore, an event is a miracle if and only if it is physically impossible. There are thus two ways an event can be falsely identified as a miracle, by not noticing it is compatible with the physical laws we think are right or by our laws being wrong in the first place. So why is it theists regularly pretend a person surviving in circumstances where their medical fate was uncertain counts? It doesn’t.

Scientists have occasionally had to revise the list of laws because that’s the reasonable response to a genuine example of an event contradicting the present list. It has often been observed that a cancer going into remission (a process we actually now understand very well) is one thing, while a human amputee regrowing a lost limb is another. Imagine, similarly, the surprise Alexander Fleming had when a then incomprehensible cessation of bacterial growth occurred in the presence of penicillin. Had he been a religious apologist, he might have thought this a unique, miraculous event only a god could cause. Instead he realised it would be part of nature’s pattern, and was eventually able to make that pattern work for us – and medicine benefited enormously. This illustrates why the reasonable approach is to be unconvinced of a miracle.

A physical example is to be found in the negative result of the Michelson–Morley experiment. This was a major turning point in physics, paving the way to the end of pre–Einsteinian models. Einstein showed Galilean relativity had to give way to special relativity and, indeed, general relativity. The light–speed limit is to be found in both special and general relativity. But what if the neutrino result really does hold up? What if special relativity goes the way of Galilean relativity? Well, some new theory will arise that will advance science. This is why “miracles” are a dangerous concept, which in turn means theism is too. But theism would have slightly more credibility if theists used things like the neutrino anomaly, rather than someone surviving an almost universally fatal plane crash, as the case for their deity. Why don’t they? Because the point of miracle stories isn’t to make a good case for a god (no–one can do that); it’s to make people feel God is on their side with emotionally pleasing alleged examples of His intervention.

One more point: Frank Tipler, a Christian physicist, has tried to explain how the miracles of Jesus could be physically possible after all. This is a rare phenomenon – a theist debunking supernatural claims. In fact, Tipler may not have intended it that way. Doesn’t he see he’s shooting himself in the foot? If Tipler really can play Jonathan Creek to the New Testament, doesn’t that mean we have no case for thinking him the Son of God? That in turn makes Christianity irrational. This is supremely ironic, because no doubt Tipler’s aim was to make Christianity more rational by removing a case for why it contradicts science. But this example illustrates why miracles place theists in a catch–22 they never acknowledge.

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About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on richarddawkins.net under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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