On the Supernatural and Miracles

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Miracles cannot occur. The supernatural is a broken concept. In this essay, I discuss a few reasons why this is the case, and why science is superior to religion.

Submitted: December 01, 2013

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Submitted: December 01, 2013

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 On the Supernatural and Miracles: is Science Limited in Scope?

Religious people often say, “There are some things that science just cannot answer, and that is why we need religion. There are some things that are beyond evidence, and beyond human reasoning; science cannot assess the supernatural.” They say this, of course, so that they are free to claim, for example, that the institution of marriage is wholly heterosexual in nature, that condoms are abhorrent to god, that the creator condemns blood transfusions, or that their personal deity is watching over only their nation. Despite the evidence to the contrary of such claims it cannot be proven to the satisfaction of the religious person that these things are not true. Still, one must wonder what the religious mean when they say “beyond evidence”, “beyond reasoning” and “supernatural”. Is it plausible for anything to be beyond evidence, beyond reasoning - supernatural? Is science unable to scrutinize such things?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, something supernatural is something that departs “from what is usual or normal, especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature.” The important thing to note about this definition is that something “supernatural” is defined as something that transcends the laws of nature. For something to be called “supernatural” it must exceed the natural, much like someone “superhuman” would be, again according to Merriam-Webster, defined as someone “exceeding normal human power, size, or capability” or someone behaving in a way that illustrates that they are “above the human.” When a religious person argues that science or objective methods of inquiry are not able to address the supernatural, they do so with an agenda to place their beliefs in a metaphysical realm that is unassailable by any natural methodology – a realm that exceeds the natural realm. In order to perform this intellectual sleight of hand, they must first assume, without justification, that it is possible for something to exceed the natural. This assumption is already nonsensical since presumably the supernatural realm is not beyond or exceeding the natural realm, but something different than the natural realm, which is not a sufficient qualifier for saying that it exceeds anything. Putting that aside, let us suppose, hypothetically, that the supernatural realm does in fact exist, and that it is beyond our realm of existence. What then?

Imagine that we could verify the existence of the supernatural realm by way of some satisfactory empirical evidence. Pretend, for example, that we discovered a new type of molecule, and we could some how observe it by way of some machine. Imagine that angels and all things supernatural were discovered to be composed of this molecule. Suppose that, through the lens of our molecule machine, we were able to see angels – undeniable, visible evidence of their existence. What then? If we could confirm the existence of our “angel molecule” by natural means, it would only prove that the phenomenon we were observing was a natural one. We could not call a realm “supernatural” if we had just confirmed its existence by way of a natural methodology. The only possible place that the supernatural realm could exist is nowhere, since it can only exist so long as we cannot provide any material evidence that it exists. Compound this with the fact that there is no evidence of any supernatural realm and that all evidence suggests that everything in the universe is purely material, we can safely assume that places like heaven are merely axioms of belief, and that science is perfectly capable of scrutinizing supernatural claims.

Just as you cannot exceed being human (you are either human, or not human) and just as you cannot exceed power (there are measures of power, but no measure of power beyond power) it is also impossible to exceed something natural. It is likely that, regardless of this fact, the religious person will persist in saying “the supernatural could exist,” but what could they mean by this, if it is impossible to exceed the natural, and the meaning of the word “supernatural” is “to transcend the laws of nature”? Perhaps what the religious mean to claim is, not that it is possible to exceed the natural laws, but that it is possible to alter the natural laws. If they could prove this, the religious might have a case for miracles. This begs the question: can the natural laws be altered? Consider the following.

We know that something cannot both exist and not exist simultaneously. If something exists, then the thing that exists is either a noumenon – independent of perception by the senses – or a phenomenon – perceivable by the sense. If nothing exists, then no noumena or phenomena can exist. Since something exists, what exists must either be noumena or phenomena. Human minds exist, and therefore human sensory perception, and so all things that now exist are likely phenomena, but what existed prior to the human mind existing must have been noumena. Human definitions are derived from sensory perceptions. Without sensory perception, no accurate definition of anything material is possible, since we must perceive the thing by way of sensory perception in order to define it accurately. Since something existed prior to human sensory perception, and since what existed were noumena, noumena must have existed prior to any possible human definition. Since something cannot exist and also not exist simultaneously, what is, is, and what is not is not. Something cannot be and not be simultaneously. If something is then it has some fundamental quality of existence, or essence, that is intrinsic, immutable, indispensable, and independent of any definition. Since noumena existed prior to human sensory perception, they were, and they were not wasn’t, and so it follows that noumena must have an intrinsic, immutable, and indispensable essence that is independent of any definition. Phenomena are merely noumena that can be perceived by the senses. Therefore all phenomena have an intrinsic, immutable, and indispensable essence that is independent of any definition. Any given law of nature is a phenomenon, and so must have an intrinsic, immutable, and indispensable essence that is independent of any definition. Therefore the essence of any natural law is intrinsic, immutable, and indispensable. All natural laws have a terminus in a finite regression of definition; there is always a final is for what is, even if our descriptions for whatever is are infinite. Our definition for a natural law may be mutable, but the essence of the law is not. 

We could imagine that the essence of a phenomenon that appears immutable could somehow be proven to be mutable. If we could show in some way that a natural law’s essence had been altered, we would call that “unnatural”, and we might have a case for miracles. But what would happen if a natural law’s essence were in fact mutable? Much like it is impossible to exceed the natural, it is also impossible to alter the immutable, and if the immutable could be altered, it would merely be revealed to be mutable. If we managed to alter the essence of a natural law, we would be forced to admit that the law had never really existed – since all things that exist must have an intrinsic, immutable, and indispensible essence. If we could change that essence, nothing could be anything. Try as we might, we can never prove that a miracle has violated the laws of nature; we can only imagine revealing false laws and nonexistence. In light of all this, it becomes clear that there is simply no case for the supernatural, or for miracles. The concept of a miracle further proves this point, since miracles are necessarily dependent upon the immutability of the laws of nature.

In Joshua 10:13-14, the bible claims that the sun and moon “stood still” for Joshua, providing him with the light he needed to finish a battle. If this miracle were to occur as the bible claims, what would be the result?  For one thing, the earth’s rotation would have to cease, in order to make the sun appear to “stand still”. To stop earth’s rotation would require the suspension of several natural laws. The essence of one of those laws, the principle of conservation of angular momentum of rotating bodies, would have to be altered. Several environmental disasters would result from this. The earth’s oceans would overflow. Winds with speeds of hundreds of miles per hour would ravage the land. Every living creature on earth would be obliterated. These effects would be sure to result from their cause, the miracle. These very predictable and measurable effects have never occurred. What does this say about Joshua’s claim? Does Joshua’s miracle lend any credibility to the idea that miracles occur, or that the laws of nature can be altered?

Like all miraculous claims, Joshua’s story does not suggest that the laws of nature are mutable, but instead reaffirms their immutability. If the essence of the laws of nature were really mutable (and thus no natural laws existed, no law can exist without an immutable essence) then a miracle would not be possible, since the laws must have an immutable essence (laws must exist) in order for them to be suspended. If the essence of the laws is indeed immutability, (the only way they can exist) then a suspension of them is impossible by definition. So a miracle cannot occur, since it is only possible for a miracle to occur if the laws are neither immutable nor mutable, which is logically impossible. Moreover, scientists observe in everything they examine that the laws are in fact immutable. Their unwavering consistency allows us to predict their behavior with high accuracy. Any alteration of a natural law would be obvious; the predicted effects that would result from the alteration would prove that it had been altered. Moreover, there has never been any evidence of any natural law having ever been altered. In light of all this, we have no choice but to conclude that Joshua’s miracle could not have taken place; since the predicted effects that would undoubtedly result from an alteration of natural laws – laws that his miracle would necessarily be dependent on - did not occur.

Following the philosopher David Hume’s logic, we wouldn’t have believed the book of Joshua to begin with, since “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” Obviously the book that details Joshua’s miraculous claim is far harder to believe than the idea that whoever wrote it might have been lying. We might ask, as Hume would: what is more likely, that the author was deceiving others or had himself been deceived, or that a miracle had occurred? The answer is obvious: whereas the laws of nature have been repeatedly confirmed to be consistent and reliable, Joshua’s tale offers no such reliability. It is not at all likely that the laws of nature should be suspended in his favor, and much more likely that whoever wrote the book of Joshua was either mistaken or lying. In answer to the question, “Is Joshua’s miracle true,” logic and science answer, “No.”

The reason science is so incredibly successful at answering questions such as the one above is because of the nature of its methodology. It relies upon testing and observation, and empirical evidences. It is objectively based. It forms a hypothesis, makes predictions, performs tests, and reaches conclusions. With each discovery, it adds to a body of knowledge that helps to fuel future research, and it has an excellent track record of success. It has provided us with countless conveniences and discoveries, and it has accomplished all that it has without the need of a witch doctor, shaman, priest, human sacrifice, or prayer. It does not require faith or any other subjective emotion, insight, or revelation. It avoids such things, since they would inevitably contaminate the processes of inquiry. The material universe and science are interdependent; each confirms the other. Science helps us to understand that the universe is material, and the universe teaches us about the unlimited scope of science.

If everything has an immutable essence, and thus the laws of nature are immutable, and thus miracles have not occurred, and if everything is natural since nothing can exceed the natural, then the conclusion that science is unlimited is inescapable. The religious person denies this only so that they might confirm their presuppositions and place their unsupported beliefs in a mythical realm where they are protected from scrutiny. Regardless, the evidence is clear: all things are natural, and science is able to scrutinize all natural things, including evidence related to religious claims. When science conflicts with faith, it is the faithful who are, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens “… left holding an empty sack” and who “have all their work still ahead of them”. Their faith-based conclusions leave any rational person left wanting. Science, on the other hand, has revealed and will continue to reveal to us all that we care to know, no matter what our question might be; it satisfies even the most inquisitive mind, and indeed, anyone who cares to wonder about the universe.

 

Author: Philip C. Gregory 

References

“Faith” “Supernatural” “Superhuman” Mirriam-Webster.com Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 2 July 2012.

Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist. Da Capo Press. Philadelphia, PA. 2007. Print.

Hume, David. An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Project Gutenburg Kindle

Edition. Jan., 2006.

 

 

 


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