Talking about science and religion – or really anything controversial – requires careful listening. Often we want to react to an argument we remember, rather than the one we are hearing. That can slow things down or completely prevent communication. As I’ve been studying the history of definitions of life, I’ve come across two very different perspectives on science, perspectives that lead to two very different kinds of arguments against miracles. They lead to two very different kinds of arguments all together, and the difference ranges across science and religion. So let’s take a closer look at the two appeals. For myself, I’ll try to be clearer about which is which.
One type of argument draws on observations or scientific data, what we have come to call Empiricism. Pierre Gassendi, in laying the foundations for the Mechanical Philosophy (necessary for modern science), believed that God was fundamentally unpredictable. Good science meant always seeing for yourself. Science records the regularities in our observations. It can mark when a claim in inconsistent with experience, but cannot rule out extraordinary events. Thus science might say that a miracle report is implausible based on what we have observed; there would, however, be no point in observing unless we’re willing to see new things.
Gassendi believed miracles do occur, but thought we should be cautious in accepting them. Not all reports are accurate. We will be more comfortable with reports of things similar to things we see regularly. A scientific argument against miracles would be one that shows reports of miracles are irregular and unverified.
A second type of argument draws on our axioms, beliefs about the universe generated prior to observation (a priori). Rene Descartes, in his perspective on the Mechanical Philosophy, believed that God was fundamentally constrained by rational necessity. Some things can be known simply by thinking about them. Among the most common axioms are self-existence (“I think; therefore, I am”) and non-contradiction (A and not-A cannot both be true). Good science builds on the set of axioms that may be deduced by a rational mind. Observations will always be secondary. Science explores the necessary relationships and identities present in the world and connects abstract truths to specific instances. It can say when a miracle report is false because it is inconsistent with the laws of nature.
Descartes did not believe that miracles could occur, because he saw them as contrary to the rational order imposed by God’s intellect on the world. Not all reports are accurate. We can definitively rule out reports of irrational events. A scientific argument against miracles reflects the application of rules scientists have discerned about nature; it does not require observation.
We must note that you cannot have it both ways. Either observational evidence supports your claim – and could conceivably work against it – or you possess rational certainty. Gassendi (and the “Empiricists”) felt arguments based on a priori claims were baseless. Descartes (and the “Rationalists”) felt observation was unreliable. I do not doubt we all make both types of arguments. I simply want to point out that an argument has to be one or the other. It cannot hold together as both.
Miracles and Physicalism
Many modern “atheists” (really anti-theists, not just disbelievers in a personal God) wish to make “scientific” arguments against miracles. They are really making two different kinds of arguments, to which I would offer two very different responses.
Let us start with the observation-based claim. “I see no evidence of miracles and they seem contrary to the regularities I do see in the world.” I have great sympathy for this and most Empirical arguments. Personally, I see evidence of the Holy Spirit working through communities to bring about reconciliation that seemed impossible. I see evidence of God providing me with information and commentary that I don’t think I would or could provide myself. I see evidence that Jesus had an impact on the world. And, personally, I see how those statements don’t meet the standards of evidence of many of my friends. The question becomes one of how we count evidence. I need personal, emotional, and abstract grist for the decision mill on a regular basis, but science does not provide it. So I admit of multiple ways of knowing and different standards of evidence. I love this debate because it helps me refine my reasoning process. In that light, I like having the observation based-discussion with atheist friends.
Now we move to the axiom-based claim. “Miracles are inconsistent with the laws of nature.” (And, likewise, “Only physical things exist.”) I have little sympathy for this argument – largely because I don’t share the axioms and don’t know how to move from the initial conflict. In the observation-based argument, “science shows” means that the scientific method of observation and hypothesis provides evidence for… In the axiom-based argument, “science shows” means that the predominant philosophy among scientists is committed to the axiom that… This latter argument is not necessarily bad. I’m somewhat sympathetic with the idea that physicalism has proven useful, giving us reasons to stick with our axiom. Still, I have other reasons that trump that one. Namely I have work that requires me to deal with non-physical concepts, concepts I cannot (at least at present) reduce to physical bases.
I’ll even go a step farther “Science shows…” as an axiom-based claim offends against my scientific sensibilities – severely. I’m committed to science as an Empirical endeavor and anything, no matter how well intentioned, that cuts off openness to new observations harms science as science.
Reading about Gassendi and Descartes has convinced me that this divide between axiom and observation goes back to the beginnings of modern science. I should not judge people when they do science by different rules than I do. I can, however, work for observation-based science and clear articulations about when we are using the products of the scientific method (Empiricism) and when we are using the rational foundations of science (Rationalism) to make a