Miracles, Science, and Deception
|The Healing of the Paralytic|
Experience has to do with the past; it can tell me nothing with absolute certainty about the future, but at best only establish a probability. It can tell me what has taken place, but it does not assure me that the opposite can't take place. Universal experience tells me that water quenches fire, but it can tell me nothing as to whether on some particular occasion water will not fail to quench fire. Experience is the besetting idea of the whole school of philosophy of which Hume may be regarded as the progenitor; but here the idea actually fails. As I hope to demonstrate, a special experience may report a class of facts beyond the range of ordinary experience.
Definition of a Miracle
What is a miracle? It is an effect that can't have been produced by any natural agency and must be attributed to the direct power of God. It is produced in nature but not by nature. The definition as thus understood excludes the act of creation, as creation didn't work in nature, but gives nature its origin. In a less strict sense of the word, the power exercised by an angel over matter may be called miraculous. The moral effect produced by either kind of miracle may be the same, as in either case intervention from God is manifest. A miraculous event always produces wonder in Man; hence its name, which is from the Latin miraculum, ''a wonderful occurrence.' Wonder is aroused by the striking contrast between what is witnessed and what happens in the ordinary course of nature. In reference to natural laws miracles may be divided into three classes. Some are above natural laws, as when a dead man is restored to life. Others are contrary to natural laws, as when a stone remains suspended in the air without any support. Others, again, are simply apart from, or independent of, natural laws, as when a brain tumor that might be healed by a physician is healed instead by the touch of a holy person. In all these classes of miracles either the substance of what occurs or the manner in which it occurs makes it impossible to attribute it to any natural agency.
Are Miracles Possible?
If we accept the existence of an omnipotent God who is the author and preserver of all finite things, it is inconceivable that He wouldn't be sovereign master and controller of that which is the work of His hands. If a human inventor can modify or interfere with the working of any given technology which is the product of his own brain, much more easily can God interfere with the mechanism of the universe. This simple fact must be convincing to any one who believes in an omnipotent God; and, as to the Atheist, he must at least admit that if there is a God He can interfere in His own creation. One can object to this reasoning on the grounds that, while God could interfere with the action of natural laws, nevertheless it would be inconsistent with His infinite wisdom to do so. Nature's laws are of God's own making and are sufficient for the purposes of His creation. Why, then, should He interfere with their working? Good question. Here's the answer: Nature's laws are sufficient for the ordinary purposes of creation, but higher purposes may be served by miracles. By means of miracles God impresses upon us the truth that nature's laws proceed from Him and are subject to Him. By miracles He can put the seal of His approval on the words and deeds of those whom He has commissioned to preach His Gospel. By miracles He can show forth the merits of chosen disciples whom He has set up as examples in the Church. By miracles He can give a striking proof that He still abides with His Church and is exercising a continual providence over it. We are more impressed by what is unusual and exceptional than by what is ordinary and commonplace; and hence it is by extraordinary supernatural events that God accomplishes the higher and more special purposes of His will.
Miracles vs. Science
The stock objection against miracles in the Post-Modern era is made in the name of Science, but we must distinguish between science and Scientism. Science is viewed by certain radical elements in the scientific community as the only repository of truth, and is, therefore, alone worthy of faith. Taking this radical Materialist/Naturalist approach, a belief in miracles is regarded by them as backward, primitive superstition. They argue against miracles chiefly by repeating one and the same argument. They tell us that nature's laws are constant and uniform in their operation; that water quenches fire and stones fall to the ground by virtue of fixed and unchangeable laws; and that miracles are a contradiction of this principle. An answer has long since been given to the objection, which is that the laws in question are uniform and constant in their action so far as the purely natural order is concerned, but that we have no warrant for concluding that the natural order may not be subject to interference from a higher order. To this they might say that if exceptions to natural laws are permitted, science can never be sure of its conclusions. To some extent that is true. Science can never be sure of its conclusions if there is no means of distinguishing exceptions from the rule; but a miracle, of its very nature, points to and emphasizes an exception, as such, to natural laws. Its very name, in fact, arises from the astonishment felt at a departure from natural law. Here, first and foremost, the exception proves the rule. The rule remains intact and science is unfazed.
The scientists with whom we are dealing, however, don't believe in a supernatural order. In that case, let them spend their time and energy disproving its existence; in which task they find no support from science itself. Yet that is the crucial issue; for, once a supernatural order is admitted, the possibility of its interfering with the natural order must be evident. Science, after all, has added nothing to ordinary knowledge that tends to make a miracle more astonishing or, at first sight, less credible. From the days of Adam it has been known that a stone released from the hands falls to the ground. If by a miracle the stone should be suspended in the air, the fact isn't more astonishing today because science has given a name to the law by which the stone falls, or has discovered more about the extent of its empire, or has defined the mode of its behavior. And even where science has discovered a previously unknown law, exceptions to the law are no more astonishing than if the law had been known from the beginning of time. Why, then, invoke with all the reverence of faith the name of science against a belief in miracles, as though science had imported a new element into the controversy? It is this religion that has been called Scientism that truly keeps them from recognizing the reality of the supernatural realm.
How Are Miracles Recognized?
First, they can be known and recognized simply as extraordinary events, whether their true cause is known or not. As they commonly appeal to the senses, it is only necessary that the senses be in a healthy condition. In fact, in the history of Christianity, many such events have been observed by numerous witnesses, by sober minded, unimaginative, and sometimes even skeptical observers, and their wonderful character has been acknowledged. It is a profound mistake in our opponents to assume that all reports of miracles are myth, ignorance, lies, etc. Second, miracles may be known and recognized precisely as miracles, and not merely as wonderful events brought about by some unknown cause. To be able to pronounce an event miraculous I must be sure that no natural cause has produced it and that it has been caused supernaturally. It does not follow, however, that I must be acquainted with every law of nature. It is sufficient to know that one law has been contravened and that, at least, the circumstances connected with the event exclude the action of all other natural laws. Skeptics will undoubtedly object to this by asking how it is possible by a consideration of any circumstances to eliminate all the unknown laws of nature? Our knowledge of nature is limited; and when we see a thing happen that is contrary to all the known laws of nature, isn't it reasonable to suppose that if we knew more we would have no difficulty in explaining the event by purely natural causation? Another good question, and my answer is as follows: The scientific approach necessarily prompts one to seek a natural cause for any interference with a known law of nature; and it is understandable that a non-believing scientist, though dumbfounded at the sight of a miracle, would have a hard time accepting a supernatural event had occurred. The problem is, these Atheistic activist scientists take the approach that science is absolute knowledge, and that if an event cannot be measured, repeated, tested, etc., it simply didn't occur as described, or can't exist. This is essentially a claim to absolute knowledge. Physical science simply isn't such that it can witness to all the facets of spiritual reality. Those whose expertise qualifies them to determine the genuineness of alleged miracles are the people to be consulted. The criteria for proving a miracle is as strictly logical as any that physical science can boast of. Within the pale of physical science, when attempting to determine the cause of a given mysterious phenomenon, the process of elimination is one of the first steps taken; the next is the seeking of positive evidence in favor of one cause in particular, of whose action and presence there are prima facie indications. A brilliant example was witnessed in the series of experiments made by Pasteur to test the conclusions of another distinguished scientist in favor of spontaneous generation. The one alleged cause was eliminated and the true cause positively demonstrated. Such experiments bespeak the true scientist; and we mention them because an analogous method of inquiry, and one no less thorough, is used by any thinking clergyman in investigating the genuineness of miracles. The first stage of the process results in the establishment of the fact that the cure, if it be a case of that kind, can't be accounted for by any known natural agency; and this conclusion is based on the testimony of medical experts. The next step is to determine whether the circumstances of the case are of a kind to warrant the elimination of all natural causation from the inquiry and the attributing of the effect to a supernatural cause. Only when natural factors have been eliminated can we say there has been a genuine miracle. Now, this isn't to suggest that there are no other characteristics looked for, as there very much are. Christians understand that events can occur that are mistaken for miracles, when in fact they are diabolic deceptions. Some examples of these would be the apparitions at Medjugorje and Bayside. It is necessary that the perceived miracle conflict in no way with the entire witness of Sacred Scripture, but rather confirms it in all it teaches. It can't be the harbinger of any new doctrine or practice. The ability to distinguish one from another is, yet again, outside the scope of the physical sciences to achieve, and is best left to those clergymen trained to do so.