Thursday, August 29, 2013

Law and miracle

Debates about the scientific status of miracles have been going on for a long time, and often involve competing paradigms of natural law. For instance:

In his classic Adventures of Ideas (140-59), A. N. Whitehead describes two contrasting views of nature's laws as they obtained in much of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries:  
(1) Theological voluntarism is the metaphysical idea that an omnipotent God endowed matter and nature with principles of motion that are passive and therefore completely dependent on God's volition; that since the properties of matter (atoms) are extension, impenetrability, and inertia, the motion of matter originates in God, the prime mover; that an active principle sustains motion and activity in nature by counteracting resistance; that this active principle is the source of gravity; finally, that the causes or laws of nature are therefore superimposed from the outside and are completely dependent on an omnipotent deity, who can abrogate or suspend these natural laws at will (miracles) to modify their course. 
(2) Immanence is the view that activity and motion are inherent principles in matter and nature, that all movement in nature is governed by autonomous laws that constitute the interdependence of all activity in nature; that these immanent laws are so embedded in the structure of nature that they cannot be disrupted, that any disruption of the laws of nature (miracles) is impossible because it contradicts the principles of reason, order, and perfection–the attributes of God. Essentially voluntaristic, Newtonianism gave way in the eighteeth century to the view of immanent activity in nature that was essentially mechanistic, which is to say Cartesian. For according to Rene Decartes, the laws of nature were decreed by God and are–like his volition–immutable and universally efficient. That is why miracles contradicted God's immutable will–unless (perhaps) they were embedded in God's grand scheme from the beginning. 
Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana: America’s First Bible Commentary, A Synoptic Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 1: Genesis. Edited with an Introduction and Annotations by Reiner Smolinski (Mohr Siebeck and Baker Academic, 2010), 85-86n22.

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