In 2010 a Pew study on Religion showed that 80% of Americans believe in miracles (a Harris poll said 72% in 2005). That is not far from the percentage that believe in God.
Is such a belief justified?
In his short book, Miracles, C. S. Lewis points out that the existence of miracles is not a scientific question but a philosophical one:
[W]hether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles
A rationalist philosophy holds doubt as one its fundamental principles and this is the very basis of science. This is why miracles or the supernatural can never be excluded entirely, only doubted, and disproved in specific cases. (The late James Randi made it his mission to disprove these specific cases, but could never disprove the general case.) The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell explained it this way:
I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian god may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them.
Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
Two opposing philosophies, on the one hand the Christian viewpoint of Lewis holds that human beings who doubt are victims of their philosophy, on the other Russell holds that probability or likelihood must be the arbiter between different beliefs or there is no reason to hold one over the other.
Yet, each has a common ground. Russell does not discount the existence of the supernatural nor does Lewis say that all tales of miracles and the supernatural are valid. In fact, both come together in this: we cannot disprove that miracles and the supernatural exist.
As a scientist, I tend to look for rational, physical explanations for phenomena yet I too would never discount the possibility that, to paraphrase Horatio from Hamlet, there is more in heaven and Earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy. Indeed, some of the natural laws we have discovered in the last century are more fantastical than any miracle.
Quantum physics suggests that matter is made of particles and waves (wave particle duality), that a cat can be dead and alive at the same time until we look (Schroedinger’s cat thought experiment), that distant particles of matter can influence one another instantaneously (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox or nonlocality). If you think interpretations of the Holy Trinity don’t make sense, you will find interpretations of quantum physics even more confusing.
Special and General relativity, Einstein’s signature contributions to physics, tell us that mass and energy are equivalent (E equals m c squared), intervals of time and space are different between different observers (special relativity), gravity is the result of space and time itself being curved (equivalence principle and geodesics), stars can be so dense that nothing, not even light can escape (black holes), the universe began as a single point of space and time that exploded everywhere, containing all the matter and energy that exists in the universe we see today (Big Bang cosmology). Compared to this, tales of miraculous healing, levitation and the like are small potatoes.
What distinguishes these, however, from the miraculous is the scientific method. We know these things, not because we heard about them from somebody and believed or even because we witnessed them with our own eyes, but because we not only have data from repeated, controlled experiments to prove these theories, but, if anyone doubts, they can simply go out and check for themselves. There is nothing stopping them from demanding evidence just as St. Thomas “doubting Thomas” the apostle demanded evidence for Christ’s resurrection (and got it along with some chastisement).
These days and the last 200 years or so however we have gotten it into our heads that these theories are part of the “natural” world and anything that doesn’t have the sense of obeying a repeatable physical, mathematical law is “supernatural”.
Yet, the term supernatural is a misnomer for if miracles do occur they are part of the natural order of things, just a higher order than purely physical. Hence I prefer the term superphysical, that is, separate from the physical world but intersecting and influencing it.
While it is commonly believed that miracles are never subjected to the scientific method, this is far from the true. They can and have been subjected to laboratory tests. For example, an 8th century Eucharistic miracle, in which a doubting priest, upon saying mass, found the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood was studied in the 1970s and the flesh found to contain human cardiac tissue type AB and the blood was ordinary human blood. There was no trace of preservatives.
While natural explanations abound because the miracle is an historical and not a repeatable event, all we have to go on are the results of tests that can be performed now.
The miraculous explanation was certainly a falsifiable hypothesis meeting the criteria as a scientific theory. If the relics were not human tissue, then perhaps the issue of a miracle would be resolved. Because they are, the scientific method has shrugged its shoulders, and it is up to philosophy to decide what the reality is unless more evidence can be obtained.
That a superphysical explanation of any phenomenon is even admissible in the court of science may seem like a step into the Dark Ages but there are philosophical arguments in favor of not rejecting them out of hand.
I plan to answer a few objections to the idea of superphysical phenomena in the following: these are arguments from common sense, multiplicity of explanations, history, and psychology.
The first objection comes from one who wants to believe that everything has a rational, sensible explanation. It seems as though our experience with the world and the fact that events generally have physical explanations should lend weight to miracles also having a physical explanation. These are the same people who like science documentaries that give sensible explanations for events in the Bible.
A counter-objection to this argument comes from Russell’s own statement. We must base acceptance or doubt on probabilities. What is the more likely explanation for the results? It turns out that common sense is based on an illusion of confidence.
Perhaps it is that a charlatan somehow obtained human flesh and blood and presented them as having transformed from the Eucharist. Certainly charlatans abound. Yet it is fallacious to say that this is more likely than a miracle having occurred. This is the Black Swan flaw in arguments for the non-existence of things. If you have never seen a black swan, it doesn’t prove that one doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even make it less likely. We could say a charlatan is the likely culprit if there were some evidence pointing in that direction, but that evidence does not exist. That is why James Randi disproved charlatans not by scoffing at their unscientific explanations, but actually using the scientific method to disprove their claims. The evidence is key to tipping the balance of probability.
Thus, we cannot use probability to discount the superphysical explanation without falling into a logical fallacy.
Multiplicity of Superphysical Explanations
Yet, Russell’s objection comes back to haunt us if we start down the road of believing in this and other similar miracles as true. If we believe that bread and wine can transform into flesh and blood, what is to stop us from believing in anything? It is a slippery slope argument.
This objection is that once we open the door to theories beyond the physical, we are outside the realm of science and can make up anything we want.
After all, the superphysical explanation that the church accepts is that God or Christ of the Bible transformed the Eucharist as a miraculous sign. Yet, Russell would object and say, how do you know it wasn’t Zeus or the spirits of your ancestors or any multiplicity of other superphysical explanations? Your superphysical explanation, having no evidence for it, is no better than mine, surely.
The flaw in Russell’s argument comes from science itself which has the exact same problem with its physical hypotheses. Science relies on Ockham’s razor to distinguish good explanations from bad ones. Ockham’s razor is not a tested scientific fact but a philosophical position that the simplest explanation is best. When many different theories can explain the same phenomenon, Ockham’s razor can help sort out what the best explanation is given a lack of additional data.
For example, in providing physical explanations for a miracle, you could say that rather than a charlatan it could be pure accident that some human flesh was somehow substituted for the Eucharist. While this is within the realm of physical possibility, how human flesh got from point A to point B without some intentional action seems far fetched to the point of being humorous. Ockham’s razor is telling us that other physical explanations are poor ones despite the lack of data against them.
Ockham’s razor can be applied to superphysical as well as physical explanations for events when a lack of additional evidence exists. Indeed, you can come up with as many fantastical physical arguments as you can superphysical ones for any phenomenon. You don’t really need to make a distinction between the two kinds here. And the only thing that stands between you and an explosion of explanations is Ockham’s razor.
Thus, since the context of this miracle is the Lord’s Supper, Ockham’s razor suggests that if you are going to propose a superphysical origin for the miracle, without additional data, a Christian one is the simplest one that raises the fewest questions.
This is not to dismiss Russell’s (or Lewis’s) position that it is appropriate scientifically to doubt any and all explanations in these cases. But to say that the physical explanation is preferred is a philosophical, not a scientific, position. It effectively means that you prefer a naturalist, materialist, or physicalist philosophy that excludes anything outside the physical from the get-go.
Somebody who holds such a philosophy would interpret anything miraculous, no matter how improbable, as an illusion, even something as all encompassing as the apocalypse.
Those who believe that there must exist things beyond the material (even abstract things like truth, beauty, right, and wrong) must also admit at least the possibility of the superphysical since they have already admitted to an extra-physical reality.
Another common objection to the superphysical comes from our beliefs about history. This was a favorite of Carl Sagan. We can feel good that we don’t need to worry about appeasing gods like people in ages past did. In the modern world we have science to explain phenomena, but ancient people did not have science so they turned to the superphysical to explain anything they could not explain otherwise. We know, for example, that a person experiences mental illness when in the past people may have said the person was possessed by demons.
Ancient Jewish and Christian faith communities saw miracles as part of a larger narrative of God overcoming evil and not at all separate from the natural world. In the middle ages, however, pagan superstition invaded the Christian church and a rise in all kinds of miraculous sightings occurred, not all of Christian origin. These were all seen as part of the natural order of things but largely deviated from the purpose of the miracles of the Biblical Christ.
The idea of a miracle as being a violation of natural law is a product of the 18th c. enlightenment. This was also the point where a miracle’s factual validity eclipsed its theological meaning in importance. To the early Christians, the point of the miracles described in the Bible was not that they broke the “laws of nature” for they had no conception of the laws of nature. Rather, they were signs of God’s power over nature, including life and death, a fact that most theists today would readily acknowledge. Miracles were in this sense mere demonstrations of a power that, as expressed in the book of Job, the Almighty continually exercises.
Of course, people in ancient times had a good understanding of what was common and what was uncommon. That is why they had a concept of miracles at all. A baby seeing a miracle would not see it as miraculous because they would have no context of how the world normally works to recognize it as one.
Nevertheless, it is true that the ancient worldview included miracles and superphysical events while ours largely does not. Having replaced the superphysical with physical explanations, we do not need to attribute anything to the superphysical, so the argument goes.
The problem with this argument is twofold: (1) just because a person is predisposed to claim something is beyond the physical does not mean they did not witness something superphysical and likewise just because a person is predisposed to claim something is material does not mean they did not witness something superphysical as well. (2) Our ability to explain most phenomena as physical does not mean we can explain all phenomena as physical (this is from our objection based on common sense above). After all, miracles are supposed to be exceptions and hence must be very rare.
Another objection to believing in miracles comes from psychology. Of course, many miracles, if experienced by only one person, can be attributed to hallucinations, but I am talking about people with more ordinary psychological experience.
A Baylor study showed that people whose lives are uncertain and unstable are more likely to report miracles. This went mostly across educational and income level lines although people in abject poverty were, of course, more likely to have unstable lives and report miracles.
Thus, the psychological objection is that seeing or believing in miracles is a psychological coping mechanism, a way for people to bring stability to their lives by a superphysical helping hand.
I find this argument pretty weak. One could just as easily argue that these are the people who need miracles more than anyone. Thus, if some being wanted to help people in need, surely they would help those suffering the most.
Many scientists see a need to study miracles and understand what they are and why they happen. This is something that I think religions should embrace. If science is done honestly, they have a lot to gain in terms of scientific evidence to support their claims and, if science disproves a miracle, it was never a miracle in the first place. Some miracles are easier to study than others of course. Single historical events can only be studied so much. Claims of on going miracles exist, however. Marthe Robin, for example, was bedridden for her adult life and witnesses claimed she only ate communion bread. Such a miracle has the advantage that it can be observed for a long time.
At the end of the day, we cannot say that miracles never happen. Probably most miracles that have been claimed are false, but only one miracle needs to have happened for us to say that miracles do happen. To find that to be the case through the scientific method would be itself miraculous.
Research in general relativity and quantum field theory. Principal Research Scientist at Georgia Tech. Book The Infinite Universe (2020) on Amazon.
Dedicated to exploring the philosophy and science of time, space, and matter.