Sat 30 Jun 2007
Further to my first post about miracles (wow that was almost a year ago) the following thoughts came to mind today as I was reading In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Actions in History, which examines the concept of the miraculous in light of Hume's essay "Of Miracles" (and later works which expanded upon that essay).
The idea that science disproves the possibility of miracles is, IMHO, extremely misguided. Science is able to confirm that certain things are testable and repeatable, that is, empirically verifiable in the present. Miracles, by nature, are none of these things. For example, today as I rode home on the bus I glanced out the window as the bus came to a stop. To my surprise I saw a rabbit sitting on the grass beside the road. I had never seen a rabbit here before (a fairly built-up area along a heavily trafficked road). This event is still not testable (you'll have to take my word for it that I observed a rabbit earlier today) and not repeatable (even if we were to get on the same bus, drive along the same road, etc, the circumstances could never be exactly the same) and yet the event really did occur. There is no reason to claim that this was a miraculous event, but even here science cannot test whether this mundane event occurred.
Therefore it's no surprise that science has not (cannot) confirm (or disprove) the miraculous. Richard R. Purtill notes in his essay "Defining Miracles" (also part of the aforementioned book) that scientists "tend to confine their investigations to the ordinary course of nature and to ignore such exceptions as might be made to the course of nature by God, since exceptions brought about by personal agency cannot be predicted from a study of what normally happens".
Trying to test whether a supposed miraculous event occurred in history using the scientific method is sort of like trying to determine whether a banana is tasty by sticking it in your ear and listening to it. It's inappropriate methodology. There's nothing wrong with the scientific method for testing natural phenomenon. However a miracle is not natural, and therefore it is misguided to dismiss, say, the resurrection by appealing to science that shows that people rising from the dead is impossible. Of course we observe that dead people stay dead, and that's entirely the point. This wasn't lost on first century people either: Jesus' resurrection was a big deal because people knew that dead people are supposed to stay dead.
This does not mean that science has no part in examining the truth claims of miracles, but only that as unique events in history, a miracle claim is more properly investigated as history rather than science.
Further reading: The Facts Concerning the Resurrection: Don't believe the New Testament is a reliable historical source? I'd argue that the NT is historically reliable, but try let's throwing out most of what it contains, and only focus on facts agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars, Christian or not. What we find might surprise you!