From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 3

Part 2 of this series is here. This post covers the last section of Chapter Two, which is on miracles. I offer some comments of my own at the end.

p. 71 – Miracles

Building on this reading of uniformity, the scientific naturalists thought they had one attack for which there was no counter. Miracles, they said, were the essence of Christianity. And a miracle, it seemed, must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore a violation of uniformity, and thus cannot be consonant with science. Taking a position on miracles, then, forced one into either the theistic or naturalistic camp. This was a maneuver emphasized repeatedly by Victorian scientific naturalists, many of whom were directly inspired by David Hume.

During and after the Reformation, the general Protestant view was that miracles had been limited to biblical times, and could no longer be found. This was a strategic move to differentiate them from superstitious Catholics calling for their saints’ protection, and also to anchor the Bible’s authority over ecclesiastical tradition–only it had true miracles. This position came under scrutiny for theological reasons from, among others, John Henry Newman and Horace Bushnell, who wanted to abandon the limitation of miracles to biblical times and accept modern ones.

Huxley chose miracles as the subject for some of his famous battles with Gladstone, and developed his ideas further in his book on Hume. He argued that an observation of an apparently miraculous event (say, the unsupported floating of lead in midair) would be no evidence that the laws of nature had been suspended. A man of science would then simply investigate to find the hitherto-concealed laws that allowed such a a thing to happen. Humanity’s limited experience with the world would inevitably lead to gaps, but those gaps could not be used to show divine intervention…

p. 72 – Usually even a small amount of thought could provide naturalistic explanations for otherwise mysterious events, such as miraculous healings. He warned against anyone declaring an event to be impossible on the grounds of natural law, as that would play into the hands of “ecclesiastical apologists” and their worship of absolute statements. One could say an event was improbable, but even the most extraordinary events did not threaten the laws of nature.

Huxley’s typical approach to addressing miracles was distinctly Humean–instead of questioning whether the miracle occurred, or could have occurred, he questioned the witnesses and the reliability of their account. … Only an expert committed to naturalism could be a reliable witness.

The next move was a brilliant use by Huxley of the social context of his listeners. Of course, he said, everyone in his audience was a good Protestant who would never believe Catholic medieval miracles. And yet, “if you do not believe in these miracles recounted by a witness whose character and competency are firmly established, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, and who appeals to his sovereign and other contemporaries as witnesses of the truth of what he says, in a document of which a MS. copy exists, probably dating within a century of the author’s death, why do you profess to believe in stories of a like character, which are found in documents of the dates and the authorship of which nothing is certainly determined, and no known copies of which come within two or three centuries of the events they record?”

These “stories of a like character” were, of course, the Gospels. Huxley stressed that knowledge of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was essentially zero when compared to knowledge of Eginhard. He thus trapped his audience into either siding with Catholic superstition or admitting the unreliability of the New Testament.

p. 75 – There was widespread agreement among theistic scientists that (as with Huxley) apparent violations of natural law were illusory. Many other Christians agreed–Frederick Temple declared, “There may be instances where this Order is apparently broken, but really maintained, because one physical is absorbed in a higher.” That is, an event that appeared to be outside the laws of nature actually was lawful, but it simply obeyed a law of which humans were not yet aware.

What, then, of the supernatural? Would not religious believers need violations of natural law to be assured of the existence of supernatural forces? One of the prices of this strategy was that, in an important sense, the category of the supernatural faded away (or was at least redefined).

p. 76 – So far, these theists were in almost complete agreement with Huxley and Tyndall. Did that not hem them into precisely the dilemma of choosing between uniformity and divine action? They replied strongly in the negative: God could still watch over his creation and enact his plans, but through natural laws, not with interruptions of the natural order. … The deity could manipulate natural laws in a variety of ways without violating their essence, and could produce any of the fantastic events recorded in scripture. This idea had a long genealogy in Christianity going back to Augustine.

p. 77 – Frederick Temple argued that even if science were to someday give an explanation of all the miracles in the Bible, it would not at all change their role in revelation. The miracle could be in their timing, or intent, or effect, rather than in the breach of uniformity. This fit well with a traditional Protestant distinction between miracles, which required an objective witness to provide proof of supernaturalism, and special providence, which appeared to be normal events–excepts when viewed through the eyes of faith. So this move would essentially eliminate the category of formal miracles and subsume all divine actions under special providence.

Discussion: The theists lost the debate on miracles by either (1) accepting Hume’s definition of miracles as violations of the laws of nature, or (2) accepting that God’s laws for creation were all “natural” with no supernatural laws or no supernatural laws that could affect the natural world. I think the solution for theists is to reject Hume’s definition of a miracle, and emphasize that God has laws for all of creation, which includes both natural and supernatural/spiritual worlds.

Miracles should be defined as of two types: (a) transcendent miracles, such as the creation of something from nothing, which exhibit the transcendence of God, and (b) the operation of supernatural laws that affect the natural world. We divide creation into natural and supernatural worlds but there is one reality, and what happens in one can affect what happens in the other. These supernatural laws are beyond the purview of empirical science, but empirical science can and should recognize that theology based on revelation provides legitimate knowledge of supernatural reality.

Part 4 is here.