Doctrine of Creation (Part 15)

December 16, 2012     Time: 00:23:55

We have been looking at the Doctrine of Creation and particularly the problem of miracles. Last time we looked at the collapse that occurred in Western culture of belief in miracles. We traced this back to a picture of the universe which emerged from Newton’s physics. The picture of the universe as a kind of World Machine governed by the laws of Newton’s physics which seemed to leave no place for God. You will remember Laplace was able to boast that an infinite intelligence endowed with the knowledge of Newton’s Principia and the exact position and momentum of every particle in the universe would be able to predict the exact state of the universe at any other time in the past or future. And when Napoleon asked Laplace what place God had in his system, Laplace famously replied, “Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis.” God seemed to be extraneous – he was the creator of this great mechanism, this clockwork machine, but then he did not interfere with it or its operation by performing miracles in this machine.

The Defense of Miracles

I want to say something about this picture of the world as a Newtonian World Machine before going on to look at the objections of Spinoza and Hume to miracles because it will help us to sharpen our definition and understanding of what a miracle is. You will remember that, according to these post-Newtonians, a miracle could only be regarded as a violation of the laws of nature. God had established these immutable laws of nature and if a miracle occurred then it was a violation of nature’s laws which seemed contrary to God’s intelligence and power. Many people have said that the advent of modern physics subverts this picture of the Newtonian World Machine. We no longer live in a sort of deterministic universe that was described by Newtonian physics. Indeed, in quantum physics, there is an element of indeterminacy in the world, in nature, that is ineliminable and inherent to it. We cannot, in fact, know the exact position and momentum of any particle in the universe. There is always a degree of fuzziness; there is always some indeterminacy. Therefore, it is in principle impossible to predict the exact state of the universe at some point in the past or in the future based on nature’s laws and the knowledge of the present condition of the universe. The universe has this inherent indeterminacy built into it.

Some have suggested that because this picture of a deterministic world is now gone from contemporary physics that this allows room for miracles on God’s part. I think that psychologically the passing away of this deterministic picture of the universe might dispose folks to miracles emotionally but really any event that would be miraculous in Newtonian physics would be so extraordinarily improbable even in quantum physics that it would have to be regarded as miraculous if it actually occurred. In other words, quantum physics could open the door a tiny crack for allowing these anomalous events to occur, but in fact they would be so highly improbable that it really would not allow much scope for the plausibility of identifying some event as a miracle. In fact, by attributing miracles to just quantum indeterminacy, you threaten to turn miracles into freaks of nature, not acts of God, which are just the result of indeterminate random processes in the world and that surely is not what we mean by a miracle. So while it is true that we no longer live in a universe that is governed by these deterministic laws, I don’t think that really goes much distance toward a defense of the possibility and credibility of miracles.

Rather, I think what we need to do is to challenge this idea that miracles are, properly speaking, violations of nature’s laws.[1] This is an extremely prejudicial description of a miracle. It connotes the idea of violating a civil law or, even worse, God violating Mother Nature which makes God look like he is engaged in some sort of criminal activity. So psychologically the idea of God violating the laws of nature is one that we could well be rid of psychologically. When you examine what the laws of nature are, I think that in fact it becomes clear that miracles, properly speaking, are not violations of nature’s laws. Why? Because nature’s laws are statements of what will happen under certain ideal conditions. These are idealizations of what will happen given certain conditions. But very often, those conditions don’t obtain. For example, I am told that, I think it is potassium and chloride, naturally combust. That would be a law of nature that when combined they produce combustion. But we have both of those elements in our body and yet our bodies don’t combust! Why not? Because there are other natural factors interfering with the combustion of these two elements and so they can both safely be in our body. So what the laws of nature describe are highly idealized conditions of what would happen under those conditions. But, if there are other natural factors interfering then the predicted event won’t occur. In other words, the laws of nature have within them certain implicit ceteris paribus conditions. That is to say, they describe what will happen “all things being equal” (ceteris paribus) under these idealized conditions. But if some natural agent or factor is interfering then the conditions are not equal – everything is not equal; the idealized conditions don’t obtain and therefore the predicted event will not occur. The law isn’t violated – it doesn’t break the law – but it just means the law doesn’t apply because the ceteris paribus conditions don’t obtain. Obviously, in the case of a miracle, if a supernatural agent is involved or interfering, then again the law won’t apply. So these ceteris paribus conditions must not only include statements about natural agents not interfering but also that there is no interference on the part of any supernatural agents that there might be as well.

So the laws of nature are idealizations that describe what will happen if no natural or supernatural factors are interfering with the idealized conditions stated in the law. So when a miracle occurs, it doesn’t violate the law of nature because the law of nature assumes what will happen if there is no supernatural agent interfering with the operation. Miracles should not be considered violations of nature’s laws. So what is a miracle on this understanding? A miracle would be an event which lies outside of the causal powers of nature at that particular time and place. At a particular time and place, the natural causes that are operative at that time and place do not have the productive capacity to produce that event. So if that event occurs then that event would be ascribed to a supernatural agent – it would be a miracle. To put it very simply, a miracle would be a naturally impossible event. It is an event which the natural causes at any time and place would not have the capacity to produce.

That means that miracles are relative to the time and place. For example, rain is not in and of itself miraculous relative to the causal factors – at a certain time and place, rain is to be expected.[2] But on another occasion where the weather conditions are not adequate to produce rain, if someone like Elijah prays for rain and all of a sudden it begins to rain, then that would be a miraculous event. At that time and place, the natural causes that are present are not adequate – do not have the adequate capacity to produce rain – so if rain occurs it would be a miraculous event attributed to a supernatural agent.

So it seems to me that this is the correct way in which we ought to understand miracles. Miracles are not violations of nature’s laws; rather, miracles are events which lie outside the productive capacity of natural causes at any time and place.

If that is right, the next question would be – then what could make miracles possible? What would be the necessary condition for a miracle to occur? The answer to that question seems obvious – God! If God exists then miracles are possible. If there is a transcendent creator and designer of the universe who has brought all matter and energy into being and who has determined the laws of nature then such a transcendent being would obviously have the capacity to produce events within nature which lie beyond the productive capacity of nature itself. Given the existence of God, miracles, it seems to me, are therefore obviously possible. In order to show that miracles are impossible a person would have to show that atheism is true. You would have to have some sort of an argument for atheism because as long as it is possible that God exists then you have got to be open to the possibility that God has acted miraculously in the universe. Of course, orthodox theists do believe in the existence of God – a transcendent creator and designer of the universe – and therefore our belief in the possibility of miracles is perfectly rational.

So, in response to this Newtonian World Machine, I think what we have to do is to define miracles properly – not as violations of nature’s laws but as simply events which are beyond the productive capacity of natural causes at a certain time and place. And if God exists then such events are obviously possible. The question will then be: do we have any good evidence to think that such events have occurred?


Question: I look at it as superseding the natural order to do a miracle. When Christ raised Lazarus he didn’t stop other people from dying or stop the aging process or anything else. But he intervened and superseded the laws of nature to give Lazarus’ life back.

Answer: Yes. Superseded the laws of nature – you are using that sort of language. I think that is alright. You are not saying he violated the law in that case but he did something which the causes described by the law could not themselves do. In that sense you say he superseded it. He did something that the laws of nature themselves would not have predicted because the natural causes could not have brought it about. This brings to mind another point. It is important to understand the laws of nature themselves don’t cause anything. They don’t do anything. The laws of nature are either just mathematical equations or propositional statements. They don’t cause anything. The laws of nature don’t causally interact with the universe. The laws of nature simply describe the operation of the natural causes in the universe. Things like gravitational force, electromagnetic force, mass, energy and so forth. It is those things that are causally related to one another. The laws of nature are simply descriptions in a certain propositional form of what lies within the productive capacity of nature. So when you say he superseded the laws of nature, I think what you are saying, properly, is he is doing something which the causes as described by nature’s laws couldn’t have brought about themselves.[3]

Question: I find it really interesting the difference between the Newtonian machine and quantum physics. Isn’t that a scientific flip-flop?

Answer: Yes, it is a huge difference. Because on certain interpretations of quantum physics, this sort of indeterminacy that I spoke of isn’t just in your mind, it is actually in nature. The particle literally does not have a precise position and momentum. Let me add quickly that there are interpretations of quantum physics which are fully deterministic. There are about ten different physical interpretations of the equations of quantum physics and nobody knows which, if any of these ten, is the correct physical interpretation. They are all empirically equivalent – they all have the same mathematics – but they are different physical interpretations of what is going on. Some of them are thoroughly deterministic. They are just as deterministic as Newton’s physics were.

Followup: I guess my point here is – who decides the laws of nature? Who defines the laws of nature? Because when the scientist says we’re right and you’re wrong, I would like to say, “Well, you were right in 1950 but you are wrong now.” Explain that.

Answer: It is part of the progress of science is that nature’s secrets are disclosed gradually. Nature doesn’t wear on her sleeve her structure. It has to be ferreted out. This is especially true on the subatomic level. Newton’s physics continues today to be an adequate description of the macroscopic realm for most practical purposes. But it is when you get to the quantum realm, the subatomic realm, that this physics is no longer adequate and needs to be revised. It is true that these quantum effects can be amplified so as to produce differences on the macroscopic scale, that is absolutely correct and I don’t want to be misunderstood. So it is a huge flip-flop. The laws of physics that were thought to govern the world from the late 1600s up until the early 1900s are now regarded as obsolete. They are regarded as literally false and a new set of physical laws has replaced them; not only in quantum physics but also in relativity theory. Because in relativity theory you have a different theory of time and space than Newton had. So, yes, there has been a huge, huge revolution in physics that occurred during the early years of the 20th century that overthrew over 200 years of Newtonian physics. Now, the laws of natures themselves didn’t change – they are independent of our apprehension of them. But what changed was our correct understanding of nature’s laws. What we came to see was that Newton’s laws hold within certain parameters – low speeds and macroscopic objects. But when you get it to very high velocities and subatomic proportions, then those laws are revealed, in fact, to be inaccurate and you see that in fact we need a new physics. So there has been quite definitely a huge flip-flop, a huge revolution of physics, in the 20th century. But what I am suggesting is that, in terms of the problem of miracles, I don’t see that it is all that important. I think it gives the defender of miracles some psychological advantage because the World Machine is gone. We no longer live in this deterministic, clocklike universe where you can predict everything as Laplace thought. But, as I say, events that would be regarded as miraculous under Newtonian physics (like walking on water or feeding five thousand people with a couple of crusts of bread) would also be so extraordinarily improbable under quantum physics that their credibility would not be increased under this new physics that exists. So I don’t think that the advent of this new physics is of much significance for the defenders of miracles. Rather what I think is significant is what I tried to explain here about a proper understanding of nature’s laws and how miracles should not be thought of as violations of those laws.[4]

Question: Have you seen the double-slit experiment in quantum physics?

Answer: I have not actually seen it done but I am familiar with it.

Followup: If you watch it done, it is kind of hard to disprove that as you are looking at it the observer influences the action that happens in the quantum physics world. So we are part and parcel to what is going on.

Answer: That idea of observer dependent reality is one of the physical interpretations in quantum theory. It is what Heisenberg thought.

Followup: And things can be in two places at once and in no places at once.

Answer: That is the idea of indeterminacy that I am talking about. But what I suggested in response to a previous question is that is only one possible interpretation of the physics. I know that that is often presented in popular literature as “the” way modern physics has shown the world to be, but there are interpretations of quantum physics that are not like that – some are fully deterministic. For example, the quantum mechanics of David Bohm are thoroughly deterministic and there is no indeterminism in nature. It is only in our minds that we cannot measure the exact position and momentum of a particle.

Followup: But aren’t our minds influencing what we are seeing and what we are watching? And perhaps lots of minds have a greater influence?

Answer: Not independently – it is not as though our minds casually impact nature and cause, say, the particle to be here rather than there.

Followup: How can you say that with any certainty?

Answer: Well, as I said, nobody knows which of these ten interpretations is correct. So, we don’t know what is going on on that quantum level and that is why we need to maintain a good deal of agnosticism.

Followup: So the things that are happening could be ascribed as miracles when they weren’t since we don’t know what is going on in those ten. Is that at least a possibility?

Answer: As I said, it is possible under quantum physics to say that events occur which, under Newtonian physics, would not have occurred. For example, I could suddenly disappear and all of my particles would quantum tunnel and reassemble on the surface of the moon. And there I would be on the mood in the next instant. That is possible. But even under quantum physics that is so unbelievably incomprehensively improbable that no one would take that seriously as an explanation of why something happened. Nobody in a court of law would say, for example, that the way the money got in the bank manager’s suitcase is that it all quantum tunneled out of the vault and appeared in his suitcase as he was leaving the bank. It is just too highly improbable. That is why I say that, while quantum physics gives some psychological solace to the defender of miracles, it really isn’t going to do much in helping us to defend the probability or the credibility of miracle reports. For that, I think we need to have a different understanding of miracles that are not violations of nature’s laws but events that are beyond the causal productive capacity of nature.

Next time we will look at Spinoza’s objections and Hume’s objections and how one might respond to them.[5]

[1] 5:04

[2] 9:56

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:00

[5] Total Running Time: 23:34 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)