Is it Stupid to Believe in Miracles?

In my previous blog I defended the notion that it’s not stupid to believe in the creation of the universe by God. It seems fitting in this Christmas season to also look at another claim derided by skeptics – the possibility of miracles. Here is how Richard Dawkins puts it:

“The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know that it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked.[1]”

There certainly are educated, intelligent, science-respecting modern-day Christians who unashamedly believe in these miracles[2]. There is nothing irrational or anti-scientific about the possibility of miracles unless one can disprove the existence of anything supernatural which certainly has not been done. Contra Hume, I don’t see a non-question-begging in-principle argument against the mere possibility of miracles[3]. In previous blogs, I’ve argued that the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of nature to support life constitute evidence for God. There are many other philosophical arguments for a transcendent God capable of acting on nature – which is all I take a miracle to be. Miracles don’t break the laws of nature[4] but merely represent God acting in the universe. If we have evidence of intervention at such fundamental levels as creating a universe, setting up its initial conditions, and setting fundamental parameters to precise life-permitting values, then why think it irrational that God could create a sperm to fertilize Mary’s egg? The skeptic needs to interact with these and other arguments and should not merely dismiss the possibility of miracles by ridiculing believers – as Dawkins advocated when he said “Mock them. Ridicule them. In public.”

I’m not complaining about considering a miracle claim a priori unlikely – I actually encourage that since miracles should be expected to be rare if they occur at all. Rather, I argue against a dismissive attitude characterized by ridiculing the possibility of miracles without interacting with the evidence or arguments for God’s existence. Merely scoffing at the potential implications that miracles are possible if God exists does not disprove the hypothesis that God exists.

Even leading scientists and philosophers who are skeptical about God propose a number of speculative theories with some rather surprising implications. I likewise argue we should not dismiss the possibility that these theories are true merely because of even bizarre consequences, which in some cases are more radical than the possibility of God acting in the world. Consider the following theories:

Aliens seeded life on earth

  • Dawkins mentions this possibility in the movie Expelled.
  • Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick wrote a book that proposes this scenario to explain life’s origins on Earth.[5]
  • Implications: if this hypothesis were true, a form of Intelligent Design (ID) would be true – to some skeptics that is about as bizarre as you can get![6]

Our universe originated from a quantum fluctuation

  • Edward Tryon first proposed this and Lawrence Krauss has proposed a more recent version of this theory.
  • Implications: the entire universe would have originated from what appears to be “empty” spacetime – at least as empty as it can be made. Note that it’s more likely for a single sperm to fluctuate into existence to impregnate a virgin than it is for a huge, long-lived universe such as ours to fluctuate into existence.
  • Why I’m skeptical? I’m not skeptical because the emergence of matter from spacetime in its lowest energy state may be counterintuitive for this certainly does happen! Although virtual particles are known to emerge from rearrangements of the energy in the quantum vacuum, large fluctuations are exponentially less likely than small fluctuations – and we have quite a large universe! Likewise the emergence of long-lasting fluctuations are exponentially less likely than short-lived fluctuations where the emergent matter is converted back to energy – and we have quite a long-lived universe! Thus this theory makes predictions inconsistent with our universe (even after applying a selection effect based on the universe permitting life). Here is my critique of Krauss’s proposal in more detail.

It is probable that we’re living in a simulation

  • Nick Bostrom proposed this argument in 2001.
  • Implications: everything is an illusion and The Matrix movie tells us more about reality than all science textbooks combined.
  • The Wikipedia article linked to above has some decent critiques of this proposal but here is a nice critique of this argument by a Stanford prof.

Eternal inflation

  • Eternal inflation is probably the leading multiverse theory. We have decent reasons for believing that there was an early rapid expansion phase in our universe which is dubbed cosmic inflation (although no physical mechanism has of yet been identified that could produce this inflaton field and only certain types of inflation would result in other universes). Certain theories for mechanisms of inflation could possibly create “bubble universes” with enormous fecundity – by some estimates about 12 million billion universes created per second. Many consider these implications to be absurd but I think we need to evaluate such proposals on the basis of the evidence for this flavor of inflation rather than on the implications of the theory.
  • Implications:
    • Vilenkin summarizes the radical implications by stating that “there are infinitely many O-regions where Al Gore is president and – yes! – Elvis is still alive.[7]”
    • There are identical copies of you (and everyone else) in other universes because there are more universes than there are possible events at the quantum level and thus materialist assumptions everything is repeated an infinite number of times in an infinite multiverse.
    • There are universes in which everything is identical except that you wrote this article and I’m reading it now.

Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

There are many possible interpretations of quantum mechanics that are consistent with the math but in this radical interpretation reality branches out like a tree where every possible quantum outcome happens in one branch of the tree which constitutes a sort of parallel universe. The implications of this theory are basically just as radical as those described above for eternal inflation.

Everything that is mathematically possible is realized somewhere in the universe

  • MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who has done some important research validating various fine-tuning claims, adopts this radical viewpoint.
  • Implications: this is even more radical than the previous theories because it would entail not just that all physical possibilities but that all metaphysical possibilities are realized somewhere. There would be uncountable infinities of infinite multiverses of infinitely different types! Unicorns, fire-breathing dragons, and all science-fiction characters would certainly exist somewhere in this multiverse!
  • Why I’m skeptical: In this case perhaps the implications do lead to a reductio ad absurdum but one can also argue strongly against the theory itself. The overwhelming number of life-permitting universes within this overall universe would not have concise physical laws with minimal parameters since there are vastly more ways to have much more complex laws of nature that could still permit life – Occam ’s razor would not be a fruitful heuristic! You wouldn’t have Nobel Prize winning physicists waxing eloquent about the beauty and simplicity of physics and how that is a guide to true theories.[8]

I am skeptical of all of these theories but I don’t think we should dismiss any of them merely because their radical implications seem implausible. In the same way, one shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of God even if miracles seem too implausible to you. One should examine evidence for these theories relative to their predictions and relative to alternate theories – i.e. by employing abductive reasoning (an inference to the best explanation). I think that many of these speculative proposals are inferior alternatives to the hypothesis that God created the universe and finely-tuned the physics to support life and are actually posited to some degree as alternatives to evidence for design. Naturalistic presuppositions seem to play some role in motivating many of these speculative theories, with the probable exception of the Many Worlds Interpretation (which I think is by far the most likely of any of these to actually be true – which isn’t saying much though).

By unjustifiably endowing what is created with god-like powers, perhaps some skeptics are falling into a modern-day version of the trap that the apostle Paul warned about in Romans 1:25 where he talks about people who “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

Agnostic physicist Paul Davies also warns about “the most general multiverse theories … At least some of these universes will feature miraculous events – water turning into wine, etc. They will contain thoroughly convincing religious experiences … [that would look like] … direct revelation of a transcendent God. It follows that a general multiverse set must contain a subset that conforms to traditional religious notions of God and design.[9]” In trying to deny evidence for God, some skeptics have had to so broaden their ontology as to enable the possibility of miracles after all!

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[1] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 187.

[2] Francis Collins, John Lennox, John Polkinghorne, Mike Strauss, Don Page, Henry Schaefer, James Tour, etc.

[3] I think Hume’s arguments failed, if you disagree consider agnostic John Earman’s book entitled Hume’s Abject Failure.

[4] “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles

[5] I think he later backed away from this proposal but at one time he thought it was plausible enough to make a focal point for a book he wrote.

[6] Parenthetically, note that this possibility also shows an example of what ID advocates point out – that intelligent design (at least in biology) doesn’t necessarily even require the supernatural and thus should not be precluded from scientific consideration.

[7] Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One, p. 113. This is actually a quote from an article Vilenkin wrote for a physics journal.

[8] See Eugene Wigner’s famous essay on The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html. Also, see how Weinberg regards beauty as a guide to finding the correct physical theories: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-weinberg.html. Or refer to this essay for a historical review: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/why-mathematics-matters_b_4794617.html

[9] Bernard Carr (ed.), Universe or Multiverse, p. 495.

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5 replies
  1. John Moore says:

    You write that “miracles should be expected to be rare if they occur at all,” but why should miracles be rare? How often can miracles occur before they aren’t counted as miracles anymore?

    I think there’s a “common course of nature” where things happen mechanistically due to causes that are possible for us to see. Miracles are happenings that disrupt this common course of nature. So one could argue as follows: If miracles happened too often, there wouldn’t be a “common course of nature” anymore, because it would be disrupted continually.

    My question is: What if the typical person saw something he thought was a miracle about once a week. Like objects hovering in mid air, or objects appearing or disappearing in a puff of smoke, or someone shooting lightning from their bare hands. That kind of thing. Just once a week or so, and the rest of the time everything happens predictably. I think we’d still be able to talk about a “common course of nature” in addition to the obvious existence of miracles.

    And my point is, if we all saw miracles as often as once a week, then it would be clear common sense that miracles happened and that the world was not entirely mechanistic and predictable. And in that case, we would have pretty good evidence that God existed.

    Reply
  2. Terry L says:

    I’m a little skeptical about your conclusion. I think it’s far more likely that one would simply view “objects appearing or disappearing in a puff of smoke” every week or so (or some other similar event inexplicable to us) as a natural phenomena that we have not yet fully explained. After all… that’s the common explanation given for miracles today!

    How frequently or infrequently do miracles have to happen before they are miracles? Is it a miracle if one doesn’t see it with their own eyes? Can you determine whether a miracle has occurred by the reports of witnesses?

    In actuality, one single miracle is “pretty good evidence” for the existence of God. In a fully-naturalistic, atheistic universe, miracles are impossible; there is no one outside our universe to reach in and “disrupt [the] common course of nature”, as you put it. ANY deviation from that common course requires an explanation outside of nature itself. When you hear a knock at the door, you don’t ask the people inside of the house if they’re knocking… it takes someone outside of the house to knock on the door. Likewise, a natural cause cannot be the cause of an un-natural deviation from the common course of nature.

    Reply
  3. rejnrejn says:

    Allen, this is a terrific article. It’s the first of yours that I have read, and I’m very impressed. As Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin have proven, an expanding universe requires a beginning. A universe with a beginning requires a beginner outside of the universe, time, and space. (and therefore outside of quantum mechanics I believe). This metaphysical beginning seems to be a miracle, even before we take into account the cosmological constant and many other examples of extreme fine-tuning. Greetings from one of your sister Reasonable Faith Chapters.

    Reply

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