Some Christians are so intimidated by the authority of science that they do their best to explain away the miracles reported in the Bible. In getting rid of miracles, these people are getting rid of Christianity. Some religions, such as Islam, do not rely on miracles. Others, such as Judaism, report miracles but are not dependent on them. Christianity, however, is based on miracles, from the virgin birth to the resurrection. Without the resurrection, Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
I intend to show that miracles are possible by refuting the strongest argument against them, that of the philosopher David Hume. Hume’s argument is widely cited by atheists; Dawkins and Hitchens both invoke it to justify their wholesale rejection of miracles. I am not trying to defend the veracity of any particular miracle. And of course miracles are improbable—that’s why we use the term “miracle.” I will, however, show that the possibility of miracles is completely consistent with modern science and modern knowledge.
In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume argued: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature, 2) We know these laws through repeated and constant experience, 3) The testimony of those who report miracles contradicts the operation of known scientific laws, 4) Consequently no one can rationally believe in miracles. My refutation will show that: 1) A miracle is a violation of the known laws of nature, 2) Scientific laws are on Hume’s own account empirically unverifiable, 3) Thus violations of the known laws of nature are quite possible, 4) Therefore, miracles are possible.
Why are scientific laws unverifiable? Hume’s answer was that no finite number of observations, however large, can be used to derive an unrestricted general conclusion that is logically defensible. If I say all swans are white and posit that as a scientific hypothesis, how would I go about verifying it? By checking out swans. A million swans. Or ten million. Based on this I can say confidently that all swans are white. Hume’s point is that I don’t really know this. Tomorrow I might see a black swan, and there goes my scientific law.
This is not a frivolous example. For thousands of years before Australia was discovered, the only swans people in the West had seen had been white. Consequently, the entire Western world took it for granted that all swans were white, and expressions like “white as a swan” abound in Western literature. It was only when Europeans landed in Australia that they saw, for the first time, a black swan. What was previously considered a scientifically inviolable truth had to be retired.
At this point one might expect today’s champions of science to start patting themselves on the back and saying, “Yes, and this is the wonderful thing about science. It is always open to correction and revision. It learns from its mistakes.” The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett writes, “The methods of science aren’t foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible….There is a tradition of criticism that enforces improvement whenever and wherever flaws are discovered.”
To say this is to miss the force of Hume’s argument, which is that science was not justified in positing these rules in the first place. All scientific laws are empirically unverifiable. How do we know that light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per second? We measure it. But just because we measure it at that speed one time, or ten times, or a billion times, doesn’t mean that light always and everywhere travels at that speed. We are simply assuming this, but we don’t know it to be so. Tomorrow we might find a situation in which light travels at a different speed, and then we will be reminded of black swans.
But can’t scientific laws be derived from the logical connection between cause and effect? No, Hume argued, because there is no logical connection between cause and effect. We may see event A and then event B, and we may assume that event A caused event B, but we cannot know this for sure. All we have observed is a correlation, and no number of observed correlations can add up to a necessary connection.
Consider a simple illustration. A child drops a ball on the ground for the first time. To his surprise it bounces. Then the child’s uncle, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains to the child that dropping a round object like a ball causes it to bounce. The uncle might explain this by employing general terms like “property” and “causation.” If these are not meaningless terms, they must refer to something in experience.
But now let us consider a deep question that Hume raises: what experience has the uncle had that the child has not had? The difference, Hume notes, is that the uncle has seen a lot of balls bounce. Every time he dropped a ball it has bounced. And every time he has seen someone else do it, the result was the same. This is the basis—and the sole basis—of the uncle’s superior knowledge.
Hume now draws his arresting conclusion: the uncle has no experience fundamentally different from the child’s. He has merely repeated the experiment more times. So it is custom or habit that makes him think, “Because I have seen this happen many times before, therefore it must happen again.” But the uncle has not established a necessary connection, merely an expectation derived from past experience. How does he know that past experience will repeat itself every time in the future? In truth, he does not know. In this way Hume concluded that the laws of cause and effect cannot be validated. Hume is not denying that nature has laws but he is denying that we know what those laws are. When we posit laws, Hume suggests this is simply a grandiose way of saying “here is our best guess based on previous tries.”
At this point we should pause to consider astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson’s exasperated outburst. Tyson believes it is simply ridiculous to say that scientific laws are not reliable: “Science’s big-time success rests on the fact that it works.” If science did not accurately describe the world, then airplanes would not fly and people who undergo medical treatments would not be cured. Airplanes do fly and sick people are healed in the hospital, and on that basis science must be taken as true. Better to fly in an airplane constructed by the laws of physics, Tyson scornfully says, than to board one “constructed by the rules of Vedic astrology.”
I agree that science works—and you won’t get any argument from me about the limits of Vedic astrology—but it doesn’t follow that scientific laws are known to be true in all cases. Consider this dismaying realization. Newton’s laws were for nearly two centuries regarded as absolutely true. They worked incredibly well. Indeed no body of general statements had ever been subjected to so much empirical verification. Every machine incorporated its principles, and the entire Industrial Revolution was based on Newtonian physics and Newtonian mechanics. Newton was vindicated millions of times a day, and his theories led to unprecedented material success.
Yet Einstein’s theories of relativity contradicted Newton, and despite their incalculable quantity of empirical verification, Newton’s laws were proven in important ways to be wrong or at least inadequate. This does not mean that Einstein’s laws are absolutely true: in the future they too might be shown to be erroneous in certain respects.
From such examples, philosopher Karl Popper concluded that no scientific law can, in a positive sense, claim to prove anything at all. Science cannot verify theories, it can merely falsify them. When we have subjected a theory to expansive testing, and it has not been falsified, we can provisionally believe it to be true. This is not, however, because the theory has been proven, or even because it is likely to be true. Rather, we proceed in this way because, practically speaking, we don’t have a better way to proceed. We give a theory the benefit of the doubt until we find out otherwise.
There is nothing wrong in all this, as long as we realize that scientific laws are not “laws of nature.” They are human laws, and they represent a form of best-guessing about the world. What we call laws are nothing more than observed patterns and sequences. We think the world works in this way until future experience proves the contrary.
I am laying out the skeptical case here not because I want to endorse without reservations Hume’s (or Popper’s) philosophy. Rather, my goal is to overthrow Hume’s argument against miracles using his own empirical and skeptical philosophy. Hume insists that miracles violate the known laws of nature, but I say that Hume’s own skeptical philosophy has shown that there are no known laws of nature.
Miracles can be dismissed only if scientific laws are necessarily true—if they admit of no exceptions. But Hume has demonstrated that for no empirical proposition whatsoever do we know this to be the case. Miracles can be deemed unscientific only if our knowledge of causation is so extensive that we can confidently dismiss supernatural causation. From Hume we learn how limited is our knowledge of causation, and therefore we cannot write off the prospect of divine causation in exceptional cases.
So the atheist case against miracles fails, and by the very standards of reason and evidence advocated by the great skeptic, David Hume. The case against miracles in the name of reason is shown to be unreasonable. Faith is vindicated, not in any particular miracle, but at least in their possibility. Miracles can indeed happen, and nothing in modern science or modern knowledge shows they can’t.