APOLOGIA is a column in which I address issues having to do with faith, science, and ethics, and in which I try to use careful reasoning and evidence to seek what's true. Undoubtedly I will end up disagreeing with at least a few people. And probably I will make a mistake here and there. My hope is that I will show respect to those with whom I disagree, that I (and others) will learn from my mistakes, and that we'll get closer to what's true, good, and beautiful. - Hendrik van der Breggen
April 03, 2014
Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of nature?
"Feeding the Multitudes" by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644)
APOLOGIA By Hendrik van
April 3, 2014
Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of
Some say that a
miracle, such as Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes, is a violation of
the laws of nature, and thus should be dismissed. I disagree.
about of something physical out of the non-physical does not violate nature's
laws. Why not? Because such a bringing about is merely a change to the material
conditions to which the laws of nature apply.
David and Randall Basinger explain: “Natural laws…are conditional propositions
[i.e., if-then statements]. They do not describe what will or will not occur,
given any set of preconditions. Natural laws tell us that, given a
specific set of natural conditions and given that there are no other relevant
forces present, certain natural phenomena will or will not always occur.”
In other words,
a natural law says this: If X is a so-and-so, then X does such-and-such, given
no interference. For example, if X is a sugar cube, then X dissolves in water,
if there are no other influences present.
This means that
if there are some other relevant
forces or interferences or influences present—let's say the sugar cube has been
wrapped in clear plastic—then the law concerning the solubility of sugar will
not be violated when the sugar cube does not dissolve in water. Yes, our
predictions might be off, but the law remains intact.
Robert Larmer helpfully clarifies with another example: “We do not…violate the
laws of motion if we toss an extra billiard ball into a group of billiard balls
in motion on a billiard table. There is no moment at which the laws of motion
are contravened. What we do by introducing the extra billiard ball is change
the material conditions to which the laws of motion apply and hence change the
result which would otherwise be expected.”
juncture, one might object that Jesus’ many loaves and fish, unlike the
billiard ball, were supposedly brought into physical existence out of nothing,
that is, from the non-physical realm. (Jesus had a few loaves and fish to begin
with, but not enough to feed thousands plus have baskets full of leftovers.)
Wouldn't a violation of a law of nature occur here?
That is to ask:
Wouldn't the creation of matter/energy violate the First Law of Thermodynamics—i.e.,
the Principle of the Conservation of Energy?
anticipates this objection. Larmer points out that the Principle of the
Conservation of Energy has two formulations: (1) “Energy can neither be created
nor destroyed, although its form may change"; and (2) "In an isolated
system (that is, a system not causally influenced by something other than
itself) the total amount of energy remains constant, although its form may
Larmer also points
out that the first formulation is stronger than the second, and that the actual
evidence only supports the second. In addition, it is only the first
formulation that the creation of matter/ energy would violate.
Now, because the
first formulation is not only much stronger than the second but also much
stronger than the evidence warrants, and because the first formulation is the
only formulation of the two that a miracle would violate, the first can be
reasonably seen to be not a law of nature but an assumed metaphysical principle
which unjustifiably rules out miracles.
formulation, on the other hand, is a legitimately expressed law of nature. And
on the second formulation it is possible for a transcendent agent to intervene
in the physical universe by bringing about something physical out of the
Thus, a miracle
does not violate the laws of nature.