April 03, 2014

Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of nature?

"Feeding the Multitudes" by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon
April 3, 2014 

Do Jesus' miracles violate the laws of nature? 

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. 

The bringing 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. 

Philosophers 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. 

Philosopher 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.” 

At this 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? 

Larmer 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 change.” 

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. 

The second 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 non-physical. 

Thus, a miracle does not violate the laws of nature. 

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. For further discussion of the notion of miracle, see Hendrik’s PhD dissertation, “MiracleReports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science”.)

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