Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why are Miracles Impossible?

What's the problem with miracles? Why are so many so sure they can't happen?

I'm not talking about those who say they don't happen. If you haven't seen one, I can understand being doubtful. But some people are so sure miracles can't happen. Why?

Picture a mouse. You put it in terrarium and close the lid. Inside is a platform raised six inches off the floor and at the bottom a large rock, say ten pounds. Getting the rock to the top of the platform would require exerting more than ten pounds of force against the force of gravity. But the terrarium is a closed system, and nothing inside it is capable of generating that kind of force.

There is no way the mouse could get that rock to the top of the raised area. As long as that lid stays closed, that rock isn't moving.

To skeptics, our universe is that closed terrarium. The rock is anything the laws of nature say can't happen — water turning into wine, a donkey talking, the dead rising, whatever. These things simply can't happen because it would violate every rule by which the universe operates. Miracles are impossible because our universe is a closed system. Nothing inside it can do these things, and nothing outside it can affect anything inside it.

Back to the mouse: You come in and find the rock on top of the platform. You know the mouse couldn't have moved the rock. You know the rock didn't move by itself. Therefore, someone opened the lid and moved the rock.

In our world, when something happens (or is reported to have happened) that violates the natural laws, we know it didn't, because we live in a close system and nothing inside it can overcome those natural laws (therefore there must be a natural explanation).

But that assumes, in reference to our analogy, that someone built a terrarium that he couldn't open.

(It also assumes that we know everything about our universe such as who is in it — meaning, not God — and what the rules are — as in, there are no exceptions built into the laws we've observed, but that's really beside the point at the moment.)

I've never seen an out-and-out, no-other-possible-explanation miracle that I know of. But I believe, for many good reasons, that this universe was created. And I believe that anyone capable of building his own universe is probably capable of doing pretty much whatever he wants to in it. So even if miracles aren't common (which they shouldn't be, by definition), they are certainly possible.


dobson said...

Chris, when people say that something is impossible - that's usually a sort of shorthand for saying that a claim is seems implausible given what we know about the way the universe works.

As you correctly observe we do not know everything. Within the gaps in our knowledge might lurk the mechanism for a so-called miracle. It might have happened exactly as described - if it did cannot explain it with today's science.

However, it's also possible that our ignorance is really that we do not know exactly what happened that day. Did water get turned into wine or was this a fanciful story concocted to serve some kind of literary or theological purpose.

It's really not a question of did these things happen or not, we might better ask what explains these stories. Why is it that stories often have their protagonists perform miracles.

Here's a question that I'm posing in all seriousness:

How would you explain the fact that Luke Skywalker was able to grab his light-sabre and free himself despite having been tied upside-down by a ravenous ice-creature a considerable distance above the weapon. It is a well-known fact that heavy objects such as light-sabres do not simply float upwards!

Unknown said...

The problem with your mouse analogy is that the act of lifting the lid on the container and moving the rock is an easy action to perform. It does not involve a violation of natural laws to do so.

However, a miracle, by its nature, does involve a suspension of these laws. Firstly, you have to operate on the assumption that we are in a container of sorts, put here by a creator. You have all your work still to do to establish that fact. Once you have done this, you then have to accept that the natural laws are in fact suspendable and changeable. As David Hume said (and I'm paraphrasing a bit here) "What is more likely? That the natural laws have been suspended, usually in your favour, or that you are under a misapprehension"? As I have not heard of any supposed miracle that didn't have a scientific explanation, I would have to side with the latter explanation.

I cannot say that a miracle will never happen, as much as I can't say that a god does not exist, but I think the likelihood that either of these are the case to be so slim that I operate as if they impossible.

dobson said...

John - interesting point.

The correct word to describe Chris B's mouse/rock scenario is Anomaly rather than Miracle.

We observe something unexpected: According to our understanding it should not have happened. What can we conclude from this surprise?

Not much initially: It would be foolish to presume any single explanation given the little information we have. The only rational thing to say is that we do not know what caused the thing we just observed.


Speaking of turning water into wine: Turning stuff into other stuff is a genre marker of myth and fairy tale.

It's not uncommon to read about children turning into swans, pumpkins turning into chariots - in fanciful fiction. The fact that we also have this sort of event in the bible tells us that this book might be partly myth.

The idea that one substance could be transmuted into another is a pre-scientific notion - which suggests that the author believed that both water and wine had some kind of essential nature.

We know enough about how matter works to know that this is implausible. Perhaps not utterly impossible but implausible enough to make it unbelievable.

ChrisB said...

fake dobson, I'm not going to argue with you about what people who aren't you meant in conversations you weren't party to.

The issue at hand is whether we should approach the evidence that the miracles in the Bible are true with an open mind or the a priori conviction that they are necessarily false.

John, the thing about the mouse's cage is that, in the system that was set up, the rock could not be moved. Yes, it's a somewhat unnatural scenario, but the point is that arguing against miracles because they violate our understanding of the natural laws of the universe makes assumptions that are not necessarily sound.

Ugo said...

"The issue at hand is whether we should approach the evidence that the miracles in the Bible are true with an open mind or the a priori conviction that they are necessarily false. "

Right. The problem is that the evidence for the miracles in the Bible does not exist.

Alan Bell said...

to continue the analogy, we have been popping in and out of the room every few minutes for 2000 and more years and every single time without exception the rock is right where we left it. If the rock was on the platform we could start doing some thinking about how this might have happened. There are some folk tales that have been handed down about a cheese or possibly a flower being on the platform that the dragon sneezed up a ladder before it turned into a mouse.
It really is that level of sureal nonsense that you are trying to put forward as evidence.

ChrisB said...

Ugo, I'm not saying people should start from the position that a miracle happened. I'm saying if you start from the assumption that miracles are a priori impossible, no conversation is even possible.

"Unknown," I'm sorry but your comment makes no sense to me. Please feel free to restate it.

dobson said...

Ugo, I'm not saying people should start from the position that a miracle happened. I'm saying if you start from the assumption that miracles are a priori impossible, no conversation is even possible.

I think this a good point: To say that something is impossible is a conversation killer. Those of us who have studied any science know the folly of declaring that anything is impossible. That's not actually an argument but a conclusion.

If we admit that Christian miracles are possible, you'd also have to admit that the miracles of other religions are possible. Just about anything might be possible. Saying that something is possible does not add up to much more than an admission of incomplete knowledge.

Instead of asking whether something is possible or not we might ask which explanation is best supported by the available evidence. I think that's a much more interesting question.