Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Miracles and modern science

JD Walters has a new post on miracles over at the CADRE. He outlines “two approaches seem to be the most promising for an understanding of special divine action that respects the integrity of science but also allows for genuine miracles…”

Keeping in mind the disclaimer at the outset of his post, I’d venture the following comments:

1.I don’t have much to say about the second approach because I can’t tell, from his terse summary, what it really amounts to. We have a little snatch of Pannenberg, a little snatch of Peirce, and a colorful illustration by Chesterton. What that all adds up to is hard to say. I will say that his remarks about Peirce sound similar to Rupert Sheldrake’s view of nature.

Instead I’ll focus on the first approach, which comes through more clearly. And I’ll begin with JD’s introductory remarks:

“As a person who takes the current scientific consensus very seriously in the way I understand the world, one of the most challenging issues I face in theological reflection is how to understand God's action in the world, not primarily his creating and conserving the world in existence but those 'special' acts we ordinarily call miracles. The problem is that the narrative of modern science-certain controversies over the implications of quantum mechanics notwithstanding-is one of finding ever more precise regularities in the goings-on of the natural world, which many scientists are tempted to summarize as laws which govern the behavior of all objects in the natural world. On one account of physical laws, called necessitarian, physical laws tell us what must happen in any given situation. Many scientists are probably intuitive necessitarians. If we accept this account, and if the necessary laws we discover do not leave room for events we would call miracles to occur, God would either have to suspend the order of nature to perform a miracle, or limit himself to working only through these laws once he has created and set the world in motion. Both conclusions are theologically unpalatable, the former because it would seem imprudent of God to create a world which he has to override in order to accomplish his purposes, the latter because the current inventory of natural laws does not allow for most events usually understood as miracles.”

i) One issue is what is meant by “necessary” laws. Is this equivalent to causes or sufficient conditions where, given the cause or sufficient condition, there will be a corresponding effect?

If so, I don’t think that presents a prima facie problem for Christian theism. That’s just a doctrine of secondary causes or ordinary providence, where some physical things make other physical things happen. These are genuine agencies, with genuine potencies. "Natural forces." They are necessary, all things being equal.

ii) Within this framework, I don’t see the problem with God “overriding” that mechanism as the occasion demands. Perhaps JD’s objection is that this seems ad hoc. Similar to Spinoza’s objection that miracles are midcourse corrections, which reflect a design flaw. (And, of course, Spinoza rejected miracles on that account.)

a) However, there’s no reason to cast the issue in such invidious terms. In general, nature operates much like a machine. And this mechanical quality is useful. It introduces a crucial element of stability and predictability into human existence. Seedtime and harvest.

b) But for God to miraculously override this regime is not ad hoc or corrective, per se. It would simply mean that while second causes serve an important purpose, they have their limitations–like any creaturely medium. They are well-adapted to their intended purpose, but there are other purposes which they cannot serve.

It’s like a tool. A tool which is useful for one job may be useless for another. While a certain amount of order is needful in human experience, there are also occasions when personal discretion is called for. It’s fine to run the system on autopilot most of the time, but there are other times when manual override is called for. That’s not a defect, just a limitation. Impersonal agencies can only do so much. Although intelligence designed them, they are not in themselves intelligent. There are situations in which there’s no substitute for rational discrimination.

c) In addition, this is not merely a created order, but a fallen order. For instance, you wouldn’t have the dominical healings and exorcisms in a sinless world.

Moving along:

“The first takes its cue from the history of science. Time and time again we have seen laws which were originally assumed to be universally valid subsumed as special cases of more general laws, which apply under special conditions (usually called 'limit' conditions), or as approximations to more general laws which are 'valid' enough in those conditions. For example, Newton's laws of motion, once thought to be universally valid, are now seen merely as a 'good enough' approximation of the more general relativistic laws of motion, valid only when the objects being studied are moving slowly enough and are not too massive. Once the limit conditions are transcended, however, general relativity predicts (and experiments confirm) strange behavior never anticipated by Newton's laws, and in fact quite unintelligible within that framework. By analogy, we can think of divine action, not in terms of God violating the laws of nature, but of his taking advantage of a limit condition, in which events occur that are not covered by our current understanding of the laws of nature, but which are still lawful according to the most general laws of nature, which by definition we have not discovered yet.”

i) I think this fails to draw a fundamental distinction between personal agents and impersonal agencies. Miracles are not analogous to law-like regularities precisely because miracles involve personal discretion. They aren’t cyclical, like the phases of a comet. Miracles involve the principle of “counterflow” (to borrow a term from Del Ratzsch). It’s akin to human interventions in nature, such as irrigation.

ii) On a related note, this theory falters by failing to begin with the concrete phenomena it presumes to systematize. Just consider some of the miracles of Scripture, like Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and nature-miracles (e.g. turning water into wine, or the multiplication of fish), and ask yourself if that can be properly subsumed under a general “law.”

The answer is “no.” These events are too pointed, too particular, too discrete, and too discriminate. That’s the antithesis of uniformity. The antithesis of a machine, with its standardized “products.”

Put another way, this approach suffers from a methodological error. It tries to take a top-down approach when it needs to take a bottom-up approach. You can’t start with an abstract model, and then superimpose that on the angular data, to make the data fit the theory.

Rather, you have to begin with a representative sampling of miracles, look for commonalities, then come up with a theory that generalizes on the basis of the particulars which feed into the theory. Instead of trying to squeeze miracles into some preconceived scientific paradigm, we should consider miracles on their own terms, and proceed from there.

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