Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Miracles? Why not? (revised 25 March 2014)

Three miracles of St Zenobius
Recently a friend directed me to a BBC web article  by Prof Jacalyn Duffin, who had investigated 1400 miracles documented by the church over 400 years. She was impressed by the thoroughness of the evidence gathering and the rigorous assessments of the tribunals. She recently published this book:

Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World.

Initially I was surprised to find a strong case for the reality of miracles being provided by an atheist. Her particular faith is philosophical materialism, the main form of atheism of which I'm aware.

 But should I be surprised?  She believes that all phenomena are governed by natural laws and that miracles will one day be explained by yet to be discovered natural laws. There is no reality outside the realm of science. So this exclusively naturalistic reality must have created itself, existed before it existed.  In this scenario anything could happen because the scenario is intrinsically irrational. A fried egg could appear in front of a group of atheists at any time without an eyebrow being raised. In fact there would be a lot of surprise and denial; but the surprise would be entirely illogical  since in a reality where a universe creates itself before it exists and all phenomena are meaningless chance events, anything can happen at any time.
Atheists in effect share this view with pagans, who believe in multiple gods who compete with each other but who do not operate within a rational system. Within the Christian worldview miracles would be expected to occur less frequently and only when they serve some purpose. For example, Jesus cured a blind man to teach that the spiritually blind can be made spiritually aware by faith.

God would work through natural laws known and as yet unknown, leaving open the possibility of laws that exist outside the realm of logical investigation. In fact the medical miracles performed by Christ were all based on accelerating or reversing entirely natural processes, rather than bizarre ones such as causing a human limb to regrow. Restoring sight, for instance, meant reversing the process which led to blindness and this is repeatedly recorded in the New Testament; whereas limb regrowth would require a mechanism that exists only in certain reptiles and amphibians. No miracles of this nature are recorded in the manuscripts of the New Testament.

What about the non-medical miracles of Jesus, such as walking on water or calming the storm? This is where anyone up to date with physics and mathematics is in a better position to see how such things could happen than a 19th century scientist, providing we make the assumption that the universe was created not by itself before it existed but by an all powerful rational Creator.

Superstring theory, for instance, which looks like having a good chance of integrating the 4 forces of nature (electromagnetism, gravity, strong nuclear and weak nuclear) , invokes 10 dimensions – 9 of space, 1 of time. This compares with our 3 space dimensions (length, breadth and depth) plus 1 of time (along which cause and effect proceed).  God would be able to use any number of dimensions to perform a miracle. It can be shown mathematically that a basketball can be turned inside out without tearing it by transferring it temporarily into 5 dimensions (4 of space, 1 of time). 

In cosmology there is a theory which appears in the mainstream academic literature that our ‘reality’ is simply an illusory manifestation of a 2 dimensional hologram.  What else could happen in such a reality I would not like to guess.

https://www2.ucar.edu/sites/default/files/news/2010/redsea_a_UCAR-final.jpgThe parting of the Red Sea has been 'explained' as due to a 63 mph easterly wind creating a dry corridor or as a tsunami where the water recedes prior to the arrival of the wave. These interpretations do not even need to invoke the latest concepts in physics. The miracle is in the timing. Had  it not happened history would have been very different, or, more likely in my view, there would be nothingness - no past, no present, no future, no universe, no human beings - because such an event was in God's mind before the universe was brought into being, an essential part of the whole of creation, a creation that would be meaningless without it.

  Since the Enlightenment, up to the beginning of the 20th century, there had been an increasingly reductionist, left-brain centered view of our world which had made miraculous phenomena seem increasingly improbable . Now it is accepted that things are immeasurably stranger than was imagined at, say, the time of Darwin, when most people thought that a cell was no more complex than a blob of jelly and that the universe was just a great clockwork machine. 

Our worldview has progressed a lot since then. The philosophy of David Hume (the no.1 anti-miracle man)  has also been superseded and Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, together with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, show indisputably that there are built-in limits to what can be investigated scientifically or even logically.

 Now we accept, as standard, miraculous quantum events, such as the experimentally proven instantaneous propagation of a signal independent of distance (quantum entanglement), the Big Bang and cosmic fine tuning for the genesis  of self-conscious beings. And time reversal is a common concept used  in discussing elementary particles  and the concept of a multidimensional reality is part of the currency of theoretical physics.

The Incarnation and the Resurrection are entirely plausible, albeit beyond our power to visualize, given the physics and the  evidence written down in Koine Greek within a few decades of the events and 300 years before the Roman church was established. The numerous witnesses to the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus presented human beings with an awareness of a totally new state of being - neither purely physical nor purely spiritual, both solid to the touch and able to appear instantaneously in an empty room.

History from ancient man up to about 100 years ago  can be viewed as a progression (via the Enlightenment) from a pre-rational age to a rational one. Now we are moving into a trans-rational age in which reason will be a powerful servant but not the master.

See also
The doctrine of chance (Psalm 151 for atheists)