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Notes from the Quincy Conference: Does Science Rule Out Miracles?

(admin’s note…this blog was written by Greg yesterday…sorry for the delay in posting!)

Philip Clayton is one of the leading philosophers of science in the world, and today he delivered the lecture that we then discussed in the third session of the science and theology conference I’m attending.

I knew a bit about Philip’s work ahead of time, so nothing he said surprised me terribly. It’s just that I am in such fundamental disagreement with his whole program it was honestly hard for me to stay engaged. (Being ADD, my attention span is viciously tied to my interest level). There were points that caught my interest, as when he presented a philosophical and scientific critique of mutli-verse theory (instead of a uni-verse) and string theory, or when he delved into the anthropic principle. But at the base Clayton’s agenda is driven by a desire to rework Christian theology without in any way violating foundational principles of science, such as the methodological assumption that the laws of nature are never violated. I frankly have trouble taking such a project seriously.

Clayton argued that if we were to allow for “supernatural interventions” (miracles), it would bring the scientific enterprise to a halt. (He called this idea a “science stopper”). With all due respect, I think this is absurd, and many participants in the conference expressed a similar sentiment. Of course science has to LOOK FOR natural explanations to explain natural phenomena, but there’s nothing in science that hinges on believing that every event in history can IN FACT be adequately explained by appealing to natural laws. If the scientific enterprise hung on ruling out miracles at the start, what are we to make of the thousands and thousands of scientists today and in the past who have engaged in their disciplines very well but who nevertheless believed in them?

Clayton also argued against the possibility of miracles on the grounds that it contributes to the problem of evil. That is, if God does a miracle for someone in need at one point, we have to explain why God doesn’t do a miracle for everyone in similar conditions. This is the problem of the apparent arbitrariness of God’s interaction with us, and I agree it requires an explanation.

But I don’t think the way to resolve it is to reject the possibility of any miracles. (Isn’t that a bit like curing a leper by shooting him in the head?) In my books Satan and the Problem of Evil and Is God to Blame? I suggest that at least part of an answer can be found a) when we consider the number of variables that affect God’s interaction with us and b) when we apply chaos theory to our understanding of the world.

That is, given the lasting ripple effects that every decision makes throughout history, and given the innumerable decisions made by innumerable free agents (human, angelic, and perhaps others) throughout history, we shouldn’t expect to understand why ANYTHING happens exactly the way it does. There’s an infinite sea of mystery that surrounds every single contingent event. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we can’t understand why evil happens to one person and not another, or, conversely, why God can miraculously intervene at one moment but not at other moments.

Lots of other things could be said about this and other issues that were discussed, but I just got a phone call that I’m supposed to be at the National Public Radio office for an interview in 15 minutes! (I’m NOT kidding). So I should probably sign off and see what this is all about.




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