Creationist Wisdom #877: Science and Miracles

Today’s letter-to-the-editor appears in the Caledonian Record of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, population 7,603. The title is Miracles, and the newspaper has a comments section.

Because the writer isn’t a politician, preacher, or other public figure, we won’t embarrass or promote him by using his full name. His first name is Pierre. Excerpts from his letter will be enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary, some bold font for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]. Here we go!

We find by observation that the Creator, in his dealings with his creation, customarily observes certain regu-larities [sic]. These regularities we call the Laws of Nature, and the process of elucidating them we call Science.

That’s a peculiar definition of science, but let’s keep going. Pierre says:

Science is a noble activity, giving glory to God and honor to man. It gratifies man’s esthetic sense, as well as being immensely useful. Nevertheless it must be remembered that science deals with nature, and so can explain only natural events. A miracle by definition is a supernatural event.

He’s right! Science is limited because it can’t deal with miracles. Pierre tells us:

It is often said that miracles are impossible because they violate the laws of nature. This is like saying that train wrecks cannot happen because they violate the railroad timetable. [Huh?] The train wreck happens because the timetable is not being obeyed. The miracle happens because the laws of nature are not being obeyed.

A train conductor can ignore the timetable, but who — or what? — can ignore the laws of nature? Pierre explains:

For one particular occasion, God chooses to act upon his creation directly, instead of by the agency of natural law. The resulting miracle does not negate the law of nature, any more than a gubernatorial pardon negates a criminal statute. The miracle merely transcends the law of nature.

Oh. A miracle transcends the laws of nature. Yes, that explains it. He continues:

It is of course open to anyone to say, ‘miracles do not happen’. But notice that this is not a scientific state-ment [sic]. It is a theological statement. If it were a scientific statement it would be verifiable by experiment.

This is getting good! Let’s read on:

You would have to examine every event that has ever happened, classify each event as being either natural or super-natural [sic], and tabulate the results. This is obviously not possible. People who believe that miracles do not happen hold their doctrine by faith, not by reason.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! In other words, you can’t prove that miracles don’t happen, therefore they do happen. This is a classic example of shifting the Burden of proof. Wikipedia says:

When two parties are in a discussion and one makes a claim that the other disputes, the one who makes the claim typically has a burden of proof to justify or substantiate that claim especially when it challenges a perceived status quo. This is also stated in Hitchens’s razor. Carl Sagan proposed a related criteria, the Sagan standard, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

And now we come to the end:

One person believes in a theology that admits of miracles. Another person believes in a theology that ex-cludes [sic] miracles. Both are equally eligible to teach science classes. What matters is how well they understand their subject and how competent they are as teachers. What religion they profess is irrelevant.

Right — a miracle believer is perfectly qualified to teach science. Great letter, Pierre!

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31 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #877: Science and Miracles

  1. Pee-air likes his hyphens!!

  2. “That’s a peculiar definition of science”
    It’s an outdated definition of science, typical of Europe in the 15th and 16th Century.

    “a miracle believer is perfectly qualified to teach science.”
    Indeed – as long as the believer doesn’t talk about miracles in science class. Like lots of christian teachers who believe in the miracle called the Resurrection of Jesus. Or muslim teachers who believe that Mohammed rode his horse Buraq across the sky from Mecca to Jerusalem and back.
    Pierre can wake me up as soon as he has developed a reliable method that separates correct claims about the supernatural from incorrect ones.

  3. Michael Fugate

    What is the methodology for explaining non-natural events?

  4. And what is the methodology for non-natural explanations for natural events?

  5. These Laws of Nature, Pierre: are they fixed, or alterable?

    If they’re fixed, then they should rule out miracles, by definition; and if they’re alterable- if your god, acting on goddy whims, or for some higher, unknown purpose- decides to reverse them, then I fail to see how they can be called natural laws at all.

    We live, clearly, in a universe in which certain things happen according to the laws of physics; and certain other things- such as bodily resurrections and winged horses- can’t happen at all.

    As a duplicitous theist, Pierre wants to have it both ways.

  6. Pierre avoids important questions such as whether sasquatch was responsible for some of the miracles.

  7. About the hyphens — likely the fault of the newspaper, not Pierre. They probably just pasted his rectified letter into their column format, and didn’t bother taking the hyphens out. Lazy-ass editor!

  8. @ChrisS asks a hard question: “These Laws of Nature, Pierre: are they fixed, or alterable?”
    These Laws are fixed unless they are altered. Pierre has it both ways indeed.

  9. I have some sympathy for Chris, but would put it rather differently. For most of us the laws of nature say that water can’t turn into wine. For those of us who think John 2:7-10 gospel is true, the laws merely state that water doesn’t turn into wine except when Jesus tells it to.

    Chris is right to claim that we cannot rule out such rare exceptions on the basis of our experience, because such exceptions are rare and our experience may not be sufficiently detailed.

    I do not think that John 2:7-10 is true, not because I rule out such exceptions to the general scheme of things a priori, but because the evidence for it being true is so woefuly inadequate for such an extraordinary claim.

    What I am advocating here, not for the first time, is pragmatic rather than intrinsic methodological naturalism. To rule out deviations from the regular natural order a priori is indeed an arbitrary metaphysical assumption. To demand evidence adequate to such claims is a much sounder procedure. Nor do we even need to investigate such claims without strong proffered evidence from those making them. Chris is not being illogical; merely gullible.

  10. Everyone agrees that there is no firmament, despite the clear statement of the Bible. So the only question is when evidence overrides clear statements of the Bible. Sometimes it does.

  11. @TomS; well put. I will try this on some Facebook pages where I discuss things with biblical literalists

  12. @PaulB: “To rule out deviations from the regular natural order a priori”
    Ruling out anything a priori is never sensible. But two facts remain, besides woefully inadequate evidence.
    1. According to scientific consensus (there is a Bertrand Russell quote on this I can’t refind now, even if I read it very recently) mankind wasn’t capable of turning water into wine 2000 years ago.
    2. Like I and others already mentioned there is no reliable methodology to test supernatural explanations.

    So it’s clear what I expect from Pierre and co before I accept their views. They remain invited no matter how often they fail, but I won’t put my money on their success.

  13. Jesus may or (more probably) may not have turned water into wine, but I seem to have accomplished the greater miracle of turning Pierre into Chris. if WordPress allowed you to edit your own comments, I would of course act to restore the regular nature of things.

  14. @FrankB
    there is no reliable methodology to test supernatural explanations
    Does anyone have an example of a supernatural explanation of a natural phenomenon?
    An explanation, I think, must conform to rules.If there is no rule-like behavior, it is just one of a kind. ad hoc. Does anyone have an example of a rule that the supernatural would confrm to in acting on the natural?

  15. The question should not be “Is this (alleged?) miracle possible?”, but “Is it the most plausible explanation of all our data?” – including our data about eyewitness faults, confirmation bias, growth of a story “in the telling” (fama crescit eundo!) etc.

  16. @HRG, exactly. And backing up to @TomS’s last comment, it is extremely difficult even to define the supernatural. When we find something that might have been considered beyond the range of the natural (from force fields to quantum entanglement) we just expand our definition of nature to include it.

  17. What I am saying is about explanations – explanations involve rules. Someting which is one of a kind doesn’t explain anything. Someting wich is one of a kind could just as well be either this or that. Why not? What rule is there which applies to the unique event? Whatever the suernatural is, does anyone have heard of a suggestion which applies to a regularity which applies to the supernatural?

    I have heard that such-and-such cannot be a miracle if it involves a denial of a rule of faith or practice of the infallible Church. If one receives a miraculous message which tells us that Bible is false, then we know that it does not come from God. But it may be supernatural, coming from Satan.

  18. Michael Fugate

    What strikes me as odd is the arguments used for a belief in miracles and specifically one like Jesus’ resurrection is that the belief in the event changed an individual’s behavior in dramatic ways. An individual would only be willing to face death if the event had actually happened. That same standard is never applied to all such events. Believing that something is true – no matter how strong the belief – is not the same as something being true.

  19. The pragmatic theory of truth differs from the correspondance theory of truth: what works for one as what is the case.

  20. @TomS, As promised, I tried the “firmament” on creationist threads. The anti-creationists, Christian or otherwise, placed it as a feature of Babylonian cosmology; the creationists equated it with space, and one compared biblical references to the firmament being rolled up with General Relativity’s description of the distortion of space-time (I didn’t ask how come there were waters above it).

    Pragmatic vs correspondence theories of truth; pointed out long ago by Bertrand Russell that unless you take some things as established by correspondence, you can’t know what really is useful, or even useful to regard as useful. Moreover, as he also poi ted out, it may be very useful to believe a dictator. An example that occurs to me; Lysenko found his beliefs extremely useful, as does Ken Ham t that doesn’t make their beliefs true.

    The “pragmatic” in “pragmatic methodological naturalism” does not invoke a pragmatist theory of truth,but merely the observation that far-fetched claims are unlikely to be worth the effort of pursuing

  21. Yes, one can say that the references to the firmament are not what anyone in the Ancient Near East would think that they were, but are really what a person of the 21st century who accepts the findings of consensus cosmology. And that no one before the 20th century would have any idea about what it was talking about.
    Why would one say that? Obviously, the only reason that someone in the 21st century would think of that interpretation would be that one accepts the scientific consensus of cosmology. I rather doubt whether a deep study of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary would come to a formulation of the General Theory of Relativity. (Is there any hint of even elementary algebraic geometry, let alone non-Euclidean geometry and calculus?)
    And if one were inclined to accept contemporary consensus of science to inform one’s intepretation of the Bible, what is there to stop one from finding the scientific consensus of biological evolution iin the Bible?

  22. Indeed. The “firmament” ploy proved useless. Should I try the bit in Deuteronomy about death by stoning for stroppy teenagers?

  23. I’m not sure they’re being held up as a role model. On the contrary, though the rabbis did point out in mitigation that they thought they were the only peole left alive, and may have thought they had a duty to have children and repopulate the Earth.

  24. Michael Fugate

    Would you do that to your daughters? Only old men could come up with that justification.

  25. It’s the daughters who are being excused, not Lot, who was drunk at the time. The whole story is of course a sneer at Ammon and Moab, whose names are twisted into admissions of incest (Am, people ie family, Ab father). But it still doesnt add up to a recommendation and literalists could reasonably (!) argue whether or not those young women did the right thing.

  26. Is anyone so bold as to claim that their interpretation of the firmament as something with a meaning only in the General Theory of Relativity is not influenced by their knowledge about the General Theory of Relativity?
    My argument is not that their interpretation is wrong. My argument is that their interpretation is a consequence of paying attention to scientific evidence.

  27. @TomS, by presenting an interpretation of “firmament” that is consistent with current knowledge, they consider that they have rebutted the argument that the non-existence of the firmament refutes biblical literalism. Absurd of course, but logically coherent, and one could get into trench warfare over little things like “the waters above the firmament”, but I don’t think anyone would really learn much from this

  28. God was going to intervene to cause a miracle but I intervened, therefore I’m more powerful than God. Prove me wrong.

  29. And I am taking them at their word. It is, they are telling us, to read the Bible lierally, if one uses our current knowledge of science to understand the meaning of the Bible.