Why Science Can't Accept Miracles (Even if They Really Exist)

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use"Back" to return here.

A Thought Experiment

Consider a banker, a devout Baptist and complete believer in miracles. Duringan audit he finds $100,000 missing. All the employees' books balance. Is hegoing to accept that the $100,000 just miraculously disappeared? Is he going toexpect the police and banking regulators to accept it? Not very likely. Even ifall attempts to find fraud fail, he's going to assume that somehow, somebodypulled off a theft.

Now let's assume there is a witness. A long-time, highly trusted employee whois a member of the same church as the banker, and whose character is abovereproach. He tells the banker he was in the vault and saw the money simplyvanish before his eyes. The banker is certainly not going to expect the policeto believe this story or blame them because they suspect theft. If all attemptsto crack the employee's story or find the money fail, we have a lot of optionsto consider. Maybe the employee blacked out or hallucinated momentarily, or hada small seizure. Maybe someone hypnotized, drugged, or distracted the employeemomentarily and grabbed the money.

Suppose the vault has a video camera that shows the money sitting in plainview one frame and gone the next. Our hapless employee is in the clear. Or ishe? Could someone have interrupted the video feed for a second or two andsimultaneously have paused the recorder? Could someone have doctored thesecurity tape? Could someone have fed a false signal to the camera system? Or, ala the old Mission Impossible TV series, used trick photography tofool the security system?

I can't imagine anyone in banking, no matter how devoutly religious, notexploring every one of these avenues before concluding a miracle had happened.Even after accepting a miracle as the only logical explanation, I think thisbanker would always be prepared for the possibility of a natural explanation.The methodology here is pretty close to that of David Hume 250 years ago, whoheld that no evidence would be sufficiently ironclad to demonstrate amiracle. The banker wouldn't go that far, but he'd explore every other avenuefirst.

So why do so many people have a problem when science rejects miracles? Whywould people expect the police to dismiss claims that money miraculouslyvanished from a bank and angrily label scientists "skeptics" fordrawing the same conclusion about a tumor gone from a cancer patient? Partlyit's a prejudice that scientific theories, unlike $100,000 missing from a bankand possible prison terms for the bank employees, are really not of anypractical importance, so what's the harm? Actually, scientific theories are alot more important than $100,000 missing from a bank vault - in literalmoney terms, let alone the whole issue of truth. At $100 a foot, a 20,000 footoil well will run $2,000,000. That's one well. It makes a difference whether thefossils that turn up in the cuttings from the well were deposited according tothe conventional view of geologic time or as the result of a miraculous flood.It makes a big difference in money and lives whether we conclude someone'srecovery in a $100 million clinical trial was due to the drug, the placeboeffect, or a miracle.

Science rejects miracles for exactly the same reasons that accountants do when conducting audits, the police do when conducting forensics, and mechanics do when trouble-shooting cars.

The idea that we always seek natural explanations for phenomena is called methodological naturalism. It must be sharply distinguished from philosophical naturalism, which is the a priori assumption that only natural phenomena exist. It is perfectly possible to be a religious believer and still practice methodological naturalism.

From the discussion above we can draw two important conclusions about accepting miracles as explanations.

  1. All theologies that accept miracles admit they are exceptional events. That's what "miracle" means. So if there's a possible natural explanation of an phenomenon, we go with the natural explanation.
  2. If you stand to gain from explaining something away as a miracle, you don't get to play.
    • If you're from Enron, you don't get to claim your documents disappeared miraculously. It only happened if the FBI and the SEC said it did.
    • If you're a defendant, you don't get to claim your fingerprints miraculously appeared at a crime scene. Only the DA is allowed to say that.
    • If you're a bookkeeper, you don't get to say money miraculously disappeared from your company. If the auditors conclude that's what happened, all right, but not you.
    • If your religion needs to postulate a miracle to keep some doctrine from going south, guess what? You don't get to do that. Only someone with nothing to gain from claiming a miracle can say that.

Why Some Scientific Statements About Miracles areWrong

Instead of a paltry sum missing from a bank, let's think big. Imagine that tomorrow, precisely at noon Central Standard Time, Chicagosimply disappears. Everything inside a sharply-defined circle 20 kilometers inradius simply vanishes. Planes inbound to O'Hare airport see the airport simply vanish.Pavement is truncated as if by a razor. Inside the circle, there are nobasements or foundations. Countless people witness the event, and it is caught onvideo. In many videos, the frame where the event happens shows the change inmid-frame. As nearly as anyone can measure, it is instantaneous.

Clearly, we would have to conclude that something extraordinary had happened,something outside the known laws of science. The abrupt disappearance of a cityas important as Chicago would have global impact. The effects would be sointertwined that it would be impossible to counterfeit the totality of theevidence. Assuming the evidence were preserved in sufficient detail, even themost skeptical observer a thousand years from now would have to conclude thatsomething singular had happened, even if the nature of the event was unknown.

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Humeformulated what has come to be called "the principle of minimumastonishment:" He basically argued that no amount of testimony couldsuffice as proof of a miracle, because the possibility of fakery or fraud wouldbe so much more likely. Hume used the example of a claim, supported by manyreliable witnesses, of the King of England dying and being restored to life. Ifthe alleged interval were short, it would be more likely that the king hadreally not been dead but merely in a deep coma. If the interval were longer, saya month, he would conclude that fraud was at work. It would be far more likelythat the king and his courtiers would fake the death and hide the king for amonth than that he could really come to life.

A more commonplace example is claims of a perfect bridge hand; a playergetting cards of only one suit. Lots of people have claimed to have seen orplayed such a hand, but there haven't been enough bridge hands dealt in historyto make even one case remotely possible. It's far more sensible to concludethe witnesses are mistaken or the cards weren't shuffled well.

Hume's position is sometimes summarized by saying that to prove a miracle, itwould have to be an even greater miracle for the evidence to be faulty. Since wecan never achieve that level of certainty, goes the argument, therefore therecan never be evidence capable of proving a miracle.

Or can there? As my thought experiment shows, Hume simply didn't think on alarge enough scale. You could hide the King of England and fake a funeral. Whatif London itself simply vanished? A more or less mundane event that is claimedto be a miracle could be faked. But what if the event itself is so far beyondthe scale of normal experience that no imaginable explanation of fakery would work, perhaps even no imaginable method could produce the effect?

Right off the bat, then, we see that one often-made statement about miraclesis flatly wrong. It is possible, indeed easy, to imagine a singular event forwhich fraud is out of the question. But what about less extraordinary events?Although fraud or error is a possible explanation, being a possible explanation doesn'tprove it is the explanation.

Also, Hume committed a fundamental fallacy of confusing the evidencefor a phenomenon with the phenomenon itself. Suppose in 2100 someoneexamines the claim that two successive golfers in the 2004 Masters hit holes inone on the same hole. The odds of a hole in one in the Masters are about 4,000 to one. Figure100 golfers per tournament and 4 rounds each, and an average of ten years betweenholes in one (there were 7 holes in one on that hole in 68 years.)The odds of two successive holes in one at that tournament and hole is one in 16,000,000, or one successivepair every 40,000 years.

Our future analyst watches the videotapes, but video can be faked. He readseyewitness accounts, but eyewitnesses are notorious for describing famous eventsthey never actually witnessed. There are the newspaper stories, but once a newshoax gets rolling, it has a life of its own. The Masters official statistics aremaybe the most compelling evidence, but given a choice between the records beingdoctored and believing something happened that shouldn't happen before the nextIce Age, he concludes the story is a myth.

The reasoning is perfectly sound. It only has one tiny flaw. The eventactually happened

Hume is probably right in saying that no alleged miracle could ever be documented well enough to rule out fakery for all time. However, as the example above shows, charges of fakery can be used to rule out real phenomena as well. Although fraud or error is a possible explanation, being a possible explanation doesn't prove it is the explanation.

A Historical Example

Writing off all alleged miracles as fraud is not only logically dubious (andlazy), but ithas proven to be historically wrong as well. The classic example is the case ofmeteorites, which were once dismissed by almost all scientists as fakes or folktales. When a meteorite fell in New England around 1800 and was described in thescientific literature, the normally scientifically astute Thomas Jefferson said(classic Hume reasoning here) that he could more easily believe that two Yankeeprofessors could lie than that stones could fall from heaven.

Not long afterward, a large meteor broke up in the atmosphere and showered avillage in France with fragments. The evidence was on a scale that eliminatedfakery once and for all as an explanation. And meteorites went from being folktales and frauds to real phenomena.

Some Conclusions

Is The Chicago Thought Experiment Definitely a Miracle?

No. One scientifically conceivable explanation that comes to mind is thatthere might exist physical processes that allow sudden translocations acrossspace and time. Maybe pre-event Chicago reappeared in the Precambrian, or inouter space, or will reappear a billion years from now. There are theories,taken quite seriously, that space and time have extra dimensions, most of whichare invisible to us because they close up on extremely short scales. Maybe spaceand time can close up on larger scales very rarely, and we just happened towitness one such event. Maybe it happens all the time, but if one patch of emptyspace-time gets translocated to a different point in empty space-time, how would we know?Maybe it is only noticeable when the event impinges on the earth.

Maybe we conclude, from the fact that the circle is so incredibly perfect andsharp edged, that the event was the work of some incredibly powerful intelligententity. A miracle? Or is the entity natural but merely extremely powerful? Oneneed only recall the cargo cults of the Pacific, where tribespeople thought thatAmerican World War II technology was supernatural.

Maybe this event is a real miracle, triggered by some conscious entitytotally outside the laws of nature. But even if it is, even if a scientistpersonally believes it to be one, he will still be open to the possibility thathe might be wrong, and that an explanation within the laws of nature might justbe discovered.

Another Historical Example

Isaac Asimov once pinpointed the year 1752 as an overlooked turning point inhistory. Since earliest times, people had regarded lightning as supernatural.Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning was electricity and furthermore deviseda way to control it. For the first time, a phenomenon went from supernaturalnot just to natural, but to something controllable by humans.

The device Franklin invented, of course, was the lightning rod. Contrary towidespread popular misconception, a lightning rod doesn't channel lightningharmlessly down a wire into the ground. If a lightning rod gets hit, it hasfailed, and there's a good chance the current down the ground cable will heat itred hot if not melt it, causing a fire. Also, a lightning strike anywhere withina hundred meters of a house will very likely fry electronic devices. I know fromexperience.

No, a lightning rod prevents lightning strikes. Franklin found thatpointed wires could bleed off electrical charges into the atmosphere, aphenomenon called corona discharge. Since like charges repel, a wire from acharged object will collect charges because the charges will migrate down thewire away from the charge excess. If the wire has a sharp point, the chargesat the end get crowded together so tightly that the repulsive force can actuallypush electrons off the wire (or attract them if the object is positivelycharged). The point of a lightning rod (pun intended) is to bleed off electricalcharge before it gets strong enough to attract lightning.

There were, of course, people who denounced this interference with what had once been divine. But as Asimov noted, people soon noticed that the local church kept getting hit if it didn't have lightning rods, and the local brothel, if it had lightning rods, didn't. For Americans, utility trumps ideology.

Joseph Smith: An American Miracle?

One of my favorite test cases for beliefs in the supernatural is the tale ofJoseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Smith claimed to have been given gold platesby an angel, which he translated to become the Book of Mormon. Theinteresting thing is that he showed the plates to witnesses, who swore innotarized statements that they had seen them. Here we have an alleged miracle,not 2,000 years ago in Biblical times, but right here in the United States,recorded in American legal documents. The interesting thing here is that, apartfrom Mormons, most devout believers in miracles reject this account. And they doso for precisely the same reasons that most skeptics reject miracles in general. 

So it's not skepticism per se that annoys believers in miracles. It'sskepticism directed against their miracle claims.

And here we get down to the real reason most scientists rejectmiracles. The vast majority of alleged miracle accounts are untrustworthy. Ifyou're inclined to take offense at that remark, go look at any magazine put outby a religious denomination that accepts miracles, say Pentecostal Evangel.Almost invariably, the magazine will require that an alleged account of amiracle be certified by a minister. Out of thousands of alleged cures atLourdes, the Catholic Church accepts only a few dozen as meeting its criteriafor miracles. Why this skepticism on the part of religious bodies thatbelieve in miracles? Because they themselves have found out the hard waythat the vast majority of alleged miracle accounts are untrustworthy, even thoseclaimed by their own adherents.

Certainly these groups don't dismiss all dubious claims of miracles asfrauds, nor should anyone else. A large fraction are probably ambiguous. Ifsomeone in a storm cellar prays to be spared from a tornado, his survival mayhave been due to divine intervention, but may also have been due to the factthat tornadoes have narrow paths, and a specific house is a small target. Whether the tornado followed the path itdid because of supernatural intervention is not something that can be tested byany known means. There are certain classes of miraclesthat never seem to happen. People have been alleged to be revived fromthe dead, but no decapitation victim ever has. Nor are there any reliableaccounts of severed limbs regenerating. The fact that some types of miraculouscures are cited fairly frequently while others never seem to happen suggestsstrongly that other explanations are at work.

(C. S. Lewis, in Miracles, makes a rather similar point. He observes that Biblical miracles are generally amplifications or reversals of natural phenomena and that miracles of the sort found in classical mythology, such as people turning into animals or inanimate objects, are absent. In Lewis' theology, miracles are rational events that are perturbations of normal causality, not wholesale exceptions to it.)

Apart from alleged miracles that could also reasonably be interpreted asnatural events, there are less innocent cases: attention seekers, people whowant to advance their own splinter doctrines or attract a following, and finallyoutright fakes. Some of the hoaxes are pious frauds, some are cynical attemptsto fleece the gullible, and yet others are designed to discredit belief inmiracles.

What Can Miracles Tell Us?

Suppose, through some as-yet unknown line of reasoning, we come to acceptthat the disappearance of Chicago was a genuine miracle, performed by someextra-physical entity by means completely inexplicable in terms of the laws ofnature. What have we proven?

Surprisingly little. So far we have proven only that there is asupernatural realm that occasionally impinges on our own. We still knownothing about the entity that caused it. Was it God? Satan? Or something totallyoutside of any existing belief system? Does this entity communicate with humans, or make demands of them? The Joseph Smith example showsclearly that an alleged miracle has to be interpreted within some religiousframework to have meaning. Without that framework, a miracle remains an isolatedanomaly.

In order for science to interpret something as a miracle, it would have tohave some unambiguous criterion for distinguishing miracles from natural events,even those produced by yet unknown physical phenomena. This criterion would haveto be objective and independent of any religious preconceptions. One way toachieve this goal would be to have a lot of data on miracles, but if miracleshappened that often and showed that much regularity, would they really bemiracles? Or would they be phenomena that obeyed laws of their own, and thus insome sense "natural?"

The "No Overlap" Theory

Some writers attempt to defuse the tension between science and religion by claiming that they apply to non-overlapping domains. As conciliatory as that approach sounds, it can at best offer a truce. Either there is, or there is not, some entity in the universe that can operate beyond the laws of nature. If there is, then there can be occasional interventions not explainable in terms of physical laws, possibly even in contradiction to them. If there is not, then there are no omnipotent entities in the universe. In addition, all religions view their dogmas as factually correct, not merely morally binding. Inevitably, religions will make claims that are susceptible to objective testing.

Defining mutually exclusive spheres of subject matter seems unworkable. Instead it seems far more sensible to define domains of methodology.

Science deals with phenomena that can be explored using the error-correcting methods of science. Replication and refutation are probably the most broadly applicable of these. Science deals with phenomena that can be repeated or otherwise verified, and which are potentially capable of being refuted.
Religion has no right to expect science to accept a religious doctrine unless it can be subjected to scientific testing, and unless religion is willing to accept that the doctrine can be refuted. Religion is perfectly free to believe that an event is a miracle, but it has no right to impose its assumptions on science.
Religion deals with phenomena that may be autonomous, beyond human control, intelligently directed, and volitional, that is, at the discretion of some conscious entity. Phenomena may or may not be manifested for reasons not connected to any physical constraints. Information about the phenomena and the entity producing it might be communicated in unique and non-replicable events.
Science has no authority to decree categorically that those phenomena accessible to scientific testing are the only ones that exist. Science cannot legitimately deal with religious claims unless it is prepared to admit the potential existence of autonomous and non-replicable phenomena.
So Where Does This Leave Paranormal Research? No place, I'm afraid. Paranormalists want to claim the paranormal is an objective part of physical reality but don't want to be held accountable to the normal rules of scientific evidence. In particular, they don't want to be held to replicability.

Why Science Can't Accept Miracles (Even If They Happen)

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 8 December, 2001, Last Update 24 May, 2020

Not an official UW Green Bay site