Miracles and the Laws of Nature
Many non-theists object to the concept of miracles on the grounds that miracles would require a violation of the laws of nature. They reason as follows:
P1 The laws of nature cannot be violated
P2 A miracle would violate the laws of nature
C Miracles are not possible
Both premises of this argument are flawed, and for the same reason: the laws of nature are construed as mind-independent, physical realities possessing causal properties. I think this conception of natural laws is mistaken.
Natural laws are not physical entities. They pertain to the natural world, but the laws themselves are not physical. Want proof? Try collecting an ounce of the law of gravity, or try weighing the second law of thermodynamics. Such endeavors are absurd, because physical laws lack physical properties. And if they lack physical properties, they cannot be physical entities. One might object that we see physical laws all the time. For example, when an apple falls to the ground, we see the law of gravity. Not so fast. All we see is an apple falling to the ground, and from this we infer some law behind the event, but we do not see the law of gravity itself.
Not only are natural laws not physical entities; they are not entities at all. They have no positive ontological status; i.e. they do not exist in a mind-independent way. Natural laws are merely labels we attach to our inductive observations about how physical things normally behave. They describe regularities and patterns of behavior we observe in the physical world. We observe that B follows A once, B follows A again, and again, and again, etc., and from this we infer a law that whenever B, then A. While we may call such regularities “laws,” we commit the error of reification if we assume that our generalizations (referred to as “laws”) have any correspondence to the real world. Clearly, natural laws exist as mental concepts, but there is no reason to assume that they have mind-independent existence.
Even if natural laws had a positive ontological status, it would be a mistake to think they exert causal influence on physical reality. Physical laws are merely descriptive, describing what does happen; not prescriptive, prescribing what must happen. As Nancy Cartwright explains, “A regularity is just a collection of paired events and a collection does not make any of its members happen.” We might call an observed regularity “the law of gravity,” but that is just a description of how matter regularly behaves, and descriptions are not causes. In principle, physical laws cannot cause anything to happen in the physical world; they can only describe what does happen. They explain the what, not the why. It is a mistake, then, to appeal to natural laws to explain physical effects, whether it be a falling apple or the origin of the universe. Natural laws cannot cause anything.
The observation that regularities exist in nature tells us nothing about why they exist, or what causes such regularities. So if natural laws are not causing the regularities we observe in nature, then what is? It can’t be chance, because chance produces irregularities, not regularities. But that exhausts the materialist’s options. Theism provides the best explanation for the regularities in nature by positing an intelligent agent who is actively involved in sustaining His creation moment-by-moment. The regularities we observe are not caused by a set of impersonal laws, but by the direct involvement of a conscious, intelligent being. What we call “natural laws” are really just linguistic labels describing the way God normally sustains His creation. On this account of natural laws, miracles are not violations of some law external to God to which He is subject, but episodes in which God sustains the universe in a different manner than He normally does.
How does all of this relate to the non-theists’ objection against miracles? If the laws of nature are not physical, have no positive ontological status, and no causal powers, then it is an error to dismiss the possibility of miracles on the grounds that the laws of nature are inviolable. Not only is there nothing to be violated, but the laws of nature are not making anything happen, and thus miracles cannot conflict with their supposed causal activity.
Even if physical laws are real, physical, inviolable causal entities, there is no reason to think the manifestation of supernatural agency in our universe is impossible. After all, natural laws do not say if X, then Y. They say if X and not some Q, then Y. In other words, if there are no intervening factors, X will produce Y. So the laws of nature only tell us how things will operate if there is no outside intervention, not that there cannot be any outside intervention. We know intervention is possible because intelligent agents like ourselves regularly act in ways that interfere with the normal working of natural laws, and yet clearly we are not violating those laws. For example, when we arrange letters on a magnetic board to create information, we are not violating the laws of electromagnetism. We are simply altering the conditions on which the laws act. While we are physical beings, I see no reason to think mental events couldn’t be another type of intervening factor capable of altering the conditions on which the laws act. And if mental events can alter the conditions on which the laws act, there is no reason to think God could not intervene in the natural world even if natural laws were real, physical entities with causal powers.
In conclusion, no matter how you understand natural laws, the manifestation of supernatural agency in our universe is a rational possibility. Whether miracles have happened is a separate question. To determine the answer one must examine the evidence for each miracle claim. What we cannot do is dismiss the claims out-of-hand due to a philosophical bias against the existence of the supernatural.
1. Nancy Cartwright, “No God no Laws,” page 7; available from http://www.lastseminary.com/laws-of-nature/No%20God%20No%20Laws.pdf; Internet; accessed 08 September 2010.
2. Angus Menue, “Is Downward Causation Possible?: How the Mind Can Make a Physical Difference,” in Philosophia Christi, Vol 11, Number 1, 2009, p. 101.
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