October 29, 2020

Miracles and Science, Part 1 by Ard Louis

Miracles and Science, Part 1 by Ard Louis

I would like to begin a reflection on a series of blog posts from BioLogos board member and writer Ard Louis on the subject of miracles.  The blog posts can be found on the BioLogos web site archives here.  The blog posts are based on a scholarly essay Louis did for BioLogos in 2007 which can be found here.

Ard Louis

From the BioLogos biographic page: Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads an interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

Louis begins his first blog post with quotes from three acquaintances, Martin a fellow colleague at Oxford, and John and Ruth, a couple he meets at church.  Martin says:

Unbelievable, isn’t it, that there are still students at this university who believe in stories from the Bible, said Martin, an older colleague, at one of the formal dinners around which the traditional life of Oxford University revolves. But Martin, I answered, their faith probably doesn’t differ much from mine. I can still see his face go pale while he nearly choked on his glass of St. Emilion Grand Cru Classé: How can you believe in such things nowadays – Walking on water, a resurrection from the dead? Those are miracles, and aren’t you a scientist?

While John and Ruth say:

Oh, how interesting, say John and Ruth, a couple that I have just met at the end of a church service. You are a scientist. They look a bit unsure of what to say next and John blurts out, I read recently that we still don’t understand how birds can fly so many miles to the south and yet return to exactly the same place each summer. Scientists can’t explain this; it is a miracle, don’t you think?

These vignettes illustrate the typical dilemma that a scientist who is a Christian is often faced with.  Professional colleagues who are not Christians (or theists) cannot believe that someone with a modern science education (and degree) still accepts the myths and fairy tales of the pre-scientific ancient authors of the Bible.  Ard’s colleague and BioLogos founder, Francis Collins, as he became well known through his leadership on the Human Genome project and later appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was regularly raked over the coals by the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins.  Collins was regularly accused of “compartmentalization” and “cognitive dissonance”.  Atheist commenters occasionally show up here at Internetmonk to chide me that I don’t go far enough by believing in evolution but not chucking all the rest of the unscientific nonsense like the resurrection in the Bible.  I just cling to my religious fantasies because I can’t face the truth that science has proven there is no God.  Science = Atheism, doncha know, yada, yada, blah, blah, rinse repeat.

Louis quotes his Oxford colleague Alister McGrath:

The debate between atheism and religious belief has gone on for centuries, and just about every aspect of it has been explored to the point where even philosophers seem bored with it. The outcome is stalemate. [Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, (Blackwell, Oxford 2005) p 92.]

I regularly run into the attitude expressed by John and Ruth from many evangelicals in the churches I still frequent.  They have this unquiet anxiety that science has, or is trying to, render their faith irrelevant.  The reactions run from the mild response of John and Ruth; that science can’t explain some aspect of nature—so it must be a miracle, to scientists are often wrong about stuff (yes, that’s how it works, some scientist is wrong and some other scientist discovers the wrongness and tries to correct it), to secular scientists are in a conspiracy to cover up the truth about evolution and Darwin is going to be overturned any minute now, or Noah’s Ark has been discovered on Mt. Ararat.

Louis points out that everybody brings a set of pre-suppositions to the table in these type of discussions, but there is a common one that Martin shares with John and Ruth. Both are in fact influenced by a similar perspective on science and miracles; first laid down by the great skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume.  Hume wrote:

David “Snazzy-D” Hume

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. [David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, (1748).]

Louis says the language of “miracles as violations of the laws of nature” has framed the debate ever since. Martin, John and Ruth, perhaps without realizing it, are living under the long shadow of David Hume.  Martin thinks that science is the only reliable means to knowledge.  John and Ruth have the same tension between science and miracles, and therefore encourage themselves when they see any natural process that seems inexplicable. They see the debunking of the power of science as strengthening the case for God acting in the world.  If we know that today God miraculously steers a bird back to its original habitat after a long return flight to the south, then it is easier to believe that 2000 years ago he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana.

Before Ard can answer Martin, John, and Ruth, he says he needs to take a step back and answer two critical questions:

  1. What do we mean by science?
  2. What does the Bible say about miracles?

The problem of defining what is science has vexed philosophers for generations.  The question is known as “the demarcation problem”.  Louis says:

Although one can determine with some degree of consensus what the extremes of the science/non-science continuum are, exactly where the boundary lies is fuzzy. This doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot recognize science when we see it, but rather that a watertight definition is difficult to create. The old fashioned idea (still taught in many schools) that scientific practice follows a well-defined linear process—first make an observation, then state a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis—is certainly far too simple.

Stephen J. Gould (on right)

In the next post, Louis will attempt to give a more nuanced answer to the question of defining science.  I have been in basic agreement with Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and his NOMA.  Non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is the view advocated by Gould that science and religion each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the “nets” over which they have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and the two domains do not overlap.  Here is a link to the essay in which Gould develops his view.

Although it seems an easy and simple answer to separate the “realms” of science and religion into two separate spheres, it doesn’t seem to fully fit the picture.  Though the Bible and religion in general are more concerned about the “who” and the “why” rather than the “how”, any time the Bible maintains that miracles occurred, it steps into the realm of science.  Christopher R. Smith puts it this way:

If the spiritual world is real and not merely philosophic speculation, then there should be empirical consequences and “facts” that can be observed in our ordinary material reality by our senses.  I would say that there is indeed some overlap between the otherwise separate domains of religion and science, in that science (the discipline of drawing reasoned conclusions from empirical observations) can disprove the claim of a miracle by providing contradictory evidence.  In other words, when science investigates a miracle, the most that can be said on the side of the miracle is that there is no scientific proof that it didn’t happen.  But by definition (since science properly limits itself to the non-miraculous), there is also no scientific proof that a miracle did happen.

I think that is well said.


  1. Rick Ro. says

    Good stuff!

  2. Iain Lovejoy says

    Hume’s definition of a miracle seems to have been formulated with a view to denying their possibility. I think it stacks poorly with previous understandings of what a miracle is. I would define a miracle as something which includes amongst its causes the direct and unmediated action of God. (I say “direct and unmediated” because in a sense everything is an action of God, and a miracle: God’s first miracle is creating and operating a sustainable creation that can operate within the logic of its own internal and consistent rules and create and sustain life and independent consciousness within it.)
    If a miraculous cure of a cancer is claimed, science can investigate whether there ever was a cancer in the first place, whether it has gone and, importantly, what “non-God” causes for it going can be identified. By its own self-limitation it can’t investigate whether there are “God” causes also in the mix.
    If there is truth in the Biblical account of the battle of Jericho, but e.g. archeological finds demonstrated that the collapse of the walls was due to a flaw in their construction and a conveniently-timed earthquake, and even if the earthquake itself were shown as arising naturally out of the seismic activity of the area, it would still be difficult to say that it was not a “miracle”. The events would still make no sense without including in their causal matrix the action of God: God sends the Israelites to Jericho, he instructs them what to do and what will happen and all occurs within his plan. We do not need to know the “how”, or indeed to include a “violation of the laws of nature” to assert the events as the direct intervention of God.

    • Hume is arguing (at least in the quote) from experience. We do experience orderly laws of nature. Science is by necessity predicated on Methodological Naturalism because if you really believe that at any moment these “laws” can be altered or suspended then science becomes impossible. Science simply has no methodology available to investigate “miracles”. Consequently, for Hume, a miracle is always the least likely explanation for any phenomenon.

      As for the Battle of Jericho the situation is much worse than your example. There is no archeological evidence whatsoever that such a battle ever took place at all. It’s not a case of interpreting the evidence. There is no evidence. I’m afraid this is the situation we find ourselves in for the most part when we talk about “miracles” in the Bible.

      Take the Resurrection. Did this really happen or not? If it didn’t and the stories are legendary then you’re still left with explaining why the early church was convinced it happened and were motivated to spread the gospel. If it happened then you’re forced to define what “happened” means. Was it an event in the consciousness of the disciples (visions etc) or was it an event in space-time? (I’m not assuming these are the only two options.)

      I think the definition of a miracle is much more philosophically complicated than the definition of science. How do you distinguish between a supernatural event and a natural event for which we currently have no explanation? If God uses the mechanism of evolution to create life which works through repeatable processes (i.e., natural selection) is that a miracle?

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        I picked the battle of Jericho as an example of how a miracle could have naturalistic causes, rather than with any particular agenda as to whether it actually occurred.
        I would say that the fact we have an ongoing orderly functional universe at all, as well as evolution being part of it, is undoubtedly a “miracle” by my definition. It is perhaps then wrong to say science cannot study miracles, rather it is in fact the specialist study of just one specific miracle only.

      • –> “How do you distinguish between a supernatural event and a natural event for which we currently have no explanation?”

        Yes. Exactly. For example, something I’ve come to believe is that we Christians probably over-spiritualize things that have minimal spirituality to them, then under-spiritualize those that might have a significant spiritual element than we realize. Sometimes it’s God acting supernaturally, sometimes it’s just life happening, and for the life of me I have no proof which it is, nor do I know when we get it right or get it wrong. And my conclusion is, we are probably usually wrong.

        Another semi-analogous case in point… When a spiritual works/mission/effort begins having problems, some are quick to accuse Satan for mucking it up, while others are willing to say, “God has another plan, or is delaying it for a reason only He knows.” Okay… It seems like a pretty significant difference between Satan screwing it up vs. God’s will for it to be having problems, but… How do we know which it is? Again, we can’t really prove it one way or the other, leaving our belief as to the force behind the said problems up to our flawed interpretations.

        • Ronald Avra says

          “When a spiritual works/mission/effort begins having problems, some are quick to accuse Satan for mucking it up, while others are willing to say, “God has another plan, or is delaying it for a reason only He knows.” Okay… It seems like a pretty significant difference between Satan screwing it up vs. God’s will for it to be having problems, but… How do we know which it is?” I have heard this tossed around for many years and have seen both explanations used to excuse poor planning, unwillingness to persevere, and the inability or unwillingness to anticipate the development of adverse circumstances or events. Those who over time have repeatedly witnessed the use of such rationales tend to stay in their seats and keep their mouths shut.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            “This was none of the good Lord’s pleasure,
            For the Spirit He breathed in Man is free;
            But what comes after is measure for measure,
            And not a God that afflicteth thee.
            As was the sowing so the reaping
            Is now and evermore shall be.
            Thou art delivered to thine own keeping.
            Only Thyself hath afflicted thee!”
            — Rudyard Kipling, “Natural Theology”


        • One might also legitimately enquire about the fundamental reasons when a spiritual works/mission/effort begins: do miraculous callings to far-flung mission fields seem to disproportionately happen to people who are maybe not doing great in their current circumstances?

          • Rick Ro. says

            –> “…who are maybe not doing great in their current circumstances.”

            I haven’t personally witnessed that as a reason from the several overseas mission folks I know.

    • I would define a miracle as something which includes amongst its causes the direct and unmediated action of God.

      Plus recorded decades after it’s occurence and viewed through the lens of hindsight. Less “it was a miracle” and more “it must have been a miracle”.

      I love Mike the Geologist’s posts, Biologos is awesome, but hopefully we don’t silo them away from similar posts by Peter Enns and others.

  3. It’s a category problem.

    One can’t very well say that the borders of science are not well-defined, and then that science and religion don’t overlap, so I agree with your reserves about NOMA. It seems like NOMA is a sort of truce: “given that the question has been done to death, and even the philosophers are bored with it, let’s just stop arguing and let each side get on with their thing” 🙂

    But… life is one. The universe is one. We are one. So though categories are useful for enabling us to “get on with our thing”, if you push too hard at the edges, they will break down. As your last quote hints, science is a deliberately chosen category of (roughly) things we can quantify, explain, reproduce. And within that perimeter it has given us extraordinary power. But it is still a kind of wilful – though practical – blindness. And the problem is that we ourselves don’t experience life in a ‘scientific’ way. In our experience we are primarily conscious, autonomous beings. And yet we can’t even start to define what consciousness is, let alone explain how it works.

    There’s a library’s worth of things to say about this debate, though I suspect most of it has already been written 🙂

    • –> “There’s a library’s worth of things to say about this debate, though I suspect most of it has already been written.”

      And most people have already made up their minds on both sides anyway. Echo chamber!

      • Ronald Avra says

        I live in city with a population of 120,000, surrounded by large rural areas. Almost daily I’m amazed by the diversity and number of social and intellectual silos that I encounter. It’s almost impossible to make a statement of any kind. The best that can be done is to ask thoughtful, careful questions to create a conversation and not be seen as overly eager to draw people into revealing their inclinations and opinions. Exchanges are limited to the safe, trivial, and insipid. I’m in the midst of deep red political territory, but social intercourse has been neutered in this environment for some time.

        • john barry says

          Ronald Avra, I believe social intercourse should be taught and explained at home by loving parents. I am also trying to stem the anti social intercourse that is becoming rampant in society.

          I live in a territory of deep blue political views , some would say not just blue but pinko , some say the area is purple but I believe that is mostly varicose veins so I am wary of starting a political discussion. I will not judge people by the color of their politics but by the content of their character,
          It is not just a clear cut black or white issue but mostly a gray, grey? issue with many hues. I do think that if you adopt a political issue you must agree to have the idea neutered otherwise there will be too many unwanted ideas.
          I asked my wife if my political exchanges and views were safe, trivial and insipid and she said they are not that good, color me red. Of course my wife sill not agree with me that plaid is a color but it is my favorite.
          I recently had a guy at McDonalds tell me he was born a Democrat and will die one. I told him we are all born Democrats as we demand free food, housing, clothes, education and expect it for free with no work. He thought I was trying to paint all Democrats with a broad brush but really I was just trying to make him laugh. I guess I should have told him they id me to get a senior coffee but I do not think he had sense of humor .

          Was Red Skelton a communist or a conservative, I am confused. How about Red Buttons, was he really a pinko?

  4. “Stephen J. Gould (on right)” — thanks for specifying 😀

  5. john barry says

    Love the bio of Professor Louis , born in the ” Netherlands,” raised in Gabon, and educated at Utrecht, sounds like the beginning of a Game of Thrones promo. I never could find the “nether” lands on a map but never mind.

    I have recently become interested in molecular gastronomy. I am currently continuing my research on chili hotdogs and their effects on the digestive system. I have sacrificed my body for this research, like Madame Curie, and at times eaten 3 chili dogs just to advance the research. I am also continuing my research into the secret sauce on the Big Mac, one day I will break the code. I have no beef with any of the 2 patties provided they are covered by the “secret” sauce. My wife thinks chili dogs are unhealthy but I am going with my gut instinct on this.

    Getting back to the topic, I studied and was a early advocate of theoretical business math during my studies under Coach French, my teacher for 2 hard years. Many times all my answers were theoretical and beyond understanding. By some miracle, I did pass Business Math (BM). I have since learned not to refer to business math as BM as many people did not believe I had to take a BM class, many people were self taught.

    I think it is a miracle that I have enjoyed another article that actually made me think as I read it and I actually read it all. I am from the monkey see, monkey do school of learning and rarely venture into abstract thoughts but I welcome it. Mike the G Man, thanks again for posting . Loved the Snappy D handle given to my homeboy Hume, see I am relevant.

  6. John blurts out, I read recently that we still don’t understand how birds can fly so many miles to the south and yet return to exactly the same place each summer. Scientists can’t explain this; it is a miracle, don’t you think?

    Be careful what you read, John.

    When people choose not to go discover and learn for themselves and instead just throw up their hands and say “must be God/miracle”, that’s when you lose me. And that’s when you lost your childlike wonder. And faith.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    How can you believe in such things nowadays – Walking on water, a resurrection from the dead? Those are miracles, and aren’t you a scientist?

    I have a hobbyist’s interest in “Weird Stuff” — Fortean Phenomena, Paranormal Anecdotes, and other Anomalous Phenomena — and miracles are a sub-type of Anomalous Phenomena.

    And Skubalon Happens.

  8. Christiane says

    From Gaudium et Spes, a pastoral letter:

    “…methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.
    The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

    “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth”.

    • “Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.” – Desiderius Erasmus

  9. Patriciamc says

    I’m not a professor, but I do work in a science department of a university where evolution is naturally taught. I’m a big believer in science because it helps us see this wonderful universe that God created. But, God is too big to be put under a microscope, so yes, I believe in science and I believe that God being God can do the miraculous, that which simply can’t be explained.

  10. Norma Cenva says

    I think that science suffers from the same two ills as the Bible.
    Not giving it the credence it deserves at one extreme, and making way too much of it at the other.