by David Geelan  |  10 May 2019  |  

Queen sang about them, C S Lewis wrote about them—I think there’s even a “Miracle” brand of margarine. What do we mean when we talk about miracles, and how can understanding them better inform our thinking about faith and science?

C.S. Lewis, in his excellent little book, Miracles (which I recommend reading if you have the chance), defined miracles as events where the supernatural world directly influences the natural. They are interventions on the part of entities that are in some sense above or beyond the natural world, but they have consequences that can be observed in the natural world.

The question of the relationship between God (and angels and demons) and the natural world is a complex one, and probably not one I will have space to address here, but in the sense of “natural” that is outlined below, it is reasonable to say that spiritual beings are not part of the natural world.

When, in the story in the Gospels, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, it would have been possible to observe that the water was water, based on its appearance, taste and smell. If we had a time machine to take modern scientific equipment back to the first century, we could also put it into a mass spectrometer or subject it to electrolysis to produce oxygen and hydrogen, producing further evidence that indeed it was water. Similarly, after the miracle occurred, it would be possible to conduct the same tests on the wine to confirm that it was, in fact, wine. (Maybe we could even run a titration to test the alcohol content, if any, and answer some of the questions raised by the late Dr Bacchiochi!)

But the miraculous event itself—the transformation—would not be amenable to scientific study. It is a supernatural event: a miracle.

That statement makes certain assumptions about the domain of science that need further discussion. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould tried to resolve tensions between science and religion by proposing that they are “non-overlapping magisteria.” That is, science and religion are in circles of a Venn diagram that do not overlap at all. They are different domains of human knowledge and experience that are both valid and cannot be used to critique or challenge one another.

Gould’s scheme is not completely satisfying, partly because religion makes claims about things in the natural world, such as creation and resurrection… and water turning into wine. There are ways in which the two “magisteria” do indeed overlap. Some suggest that they shouldn’t—that religion should withdraw the claims it makes about the natural world—but that perspective is unlikely to convince many religious people.

The approach to science that was implicit in my statement that miracles themselves are not amenable to scientific study is called “methodological naturalism.” It is the assumption, in the activities and for the purposes of scientific investigation, that miracles do not occur: that the phenomena we observe and measure all have naturalistic explanations. Explaining phenomena in terms of supernatural entities and their actions is not considered to be a valid move in science, from the perspective of methodological naturalism. Natural effects must be explained in terms of natural causes.

It is important to distinguish between “metaphysical naturalism” and “methodological naturalism.” Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy devoted to the study of reality and what is real. Metaphysical realism is the belief that supernatural entities do not exist at all: that the natural world is all that exists.

It is possible to use methodological naturalism as an approach when “doing science” while rejecting metaphysical naturalism (i.e., believing that supernatural entities do exist). This is an uncontroversial statement, easy to support with evidence: religious people by definition believe that a supernatural world exists, and a huge number of religious people are successful scientists. Indeed, a majority of scientists are religious.

The reason methodological naturalism is essential to science is that science builds its theories and laws (as discussed in my previous piece for Adventist Today) on the basis of repeated experiments. But supernatural events are not predictable: doing all the exact same things today as yesterday will not necessarily and inevitably lead to the same miraculous result. Miracles occur, if they occur at all, for spiritual reasons, and their causes lie in the spiritual realm. Repeatable behavior, governed by theories with descriptive, predictive and explanatory power, is not something that is within the domain of supernatural occurrences.

The understanding that science necessarily uses methodological naturalism does not logically imply that science itself or scientists subscribe to metaphysical naturalism. Science and scientists are not godless.

The overlaps between the magisteria are complex and challenging, and will no doubt keep us thinking—and arguing—for a long time yet. I hope these brief articles can help to lead to mutual understanding and goodwill in those conversations.


David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College and has ended up (so far) as an Associate Professor of Science Education at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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