Can science be used to evaluate the occurrence of miracles? Would accepting that miracles are real impede scientific progress? What criteria can be used to evaluate miracles?
If miracles are to be considered divine singularities, is the scientific method appropriate for evaluating the occurrence of miracles? Does recognizing the occurrence of miracles halt scientific progress since doing so would require recognizing the miracle as a divine singularity instead of a repeatable regularity, and also result in the scientist’s giving up being a scientist by the traditional definition of the title? Does the recognition of miracles beg-the-question or require special pleading, if naturalistic means are not employable to recognize them? Lastly, if miracles are to have any apologetic value, what criteria external of Scripture can be employed to evaluate them, if any?
Great question! First, a technicality. I would prefer to call a miracle a divine intervention. I am not sure about using the word singularity, as it has a pretty specific meaning in mathematics and physics. Is a miracle a “singularity”? I am not sure how to answer that question. I call it an intervention.
Is the scientific method appropriate for evaluating the occurrence of miracles? That depends on what you mean by evaluating. For example, some say that because of science, with its natural laws, this proves that miracles cannot happen. Of course, this statement is nonsense. All science can do is tell us what is “natural” which would be defined as an event which occurs which can be explained by the laws of nature. Can a supernatural event occur? Science is literally completely unable to answer this question. The question of the supernatural (that which violates the natural) is simply outside the range of questions science can answer. An honest scientist will declare themselves agnostic with regard to the existence of supernatural events, at least as far as their scientific knowledge goes.
Still, I believe that science CAN be used to evaluate the occurrence of miracles. What I mean by this is that science could be used to decide if a given event is “natural.” In other words, let us say that event X happened. We could use science to decide whether there is a conceivable “natural” explanation of event X. If there is no reasonable natural explanation of event X we can conclude that event X is a miracle. By this criteria the resurrection of Jesus, if it did in fact happen, would be a miracle. Jesus walking on water would be a miracle. Jesus turning water to wine would be a miracle. The parting of the Red Sea would probably be a miracle, although some have proposed possible natural explanations such as the blowing of a unique and very powerful wind to explain the parting of the water. Science would leave this in the probably a miracle category.
If we conclude that miracles happen, does that impede science? The answer to this is simple. Definitely not. There is no conceivable reason that the existence of the supernatural could make science ineffective. Here is the simple fact. Scientists accept as a given that natural laws exist and that these can be used to predict events in the natural world. The fact is that this assumption works either all the time (assuming no miracles) or virtually all the time (assuming miracles). What I say to my students in my philosophy of science classes is that the assumption of natural laws works “for all practical purposes.” Science works for all practical purposes and therefore the existence of miracles or even the question of whether miracles happen is irrelevant to science. I am a scientist. My belief in the supernatural has literally absolutely no impact in my work as a scientist. It does affect how I look at scientific information in small but significant ways (for example, I believe evolution is an a natural process, but I believe that there may be interventions in that process), but it has literally zero impact on my understanding of chemistry and the laws governing the interactions of matter.
Does the existence of miracles require special pleading? Absolutely not. It is the denial of miracles which requires special pleading. The committed philosophical materialist assumes that there is no supernatural. They then tend to use this assumption to “prove” that there is no supernatural. The believer in miracles does not need to resort to such logical fallacies. The evidence for miracles is the actual occurrence of miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus. The evidence for miracles comes from history, not from science. Like I already said, “naturalistic means” cannot be used to rule out miracles but they can be used to evaluate whether a particular event, if it occurred, would require supernatural explanation.
Your last question is the hardest. What criteria external to Scripture can we use to evaluate whether or not miracles are real? I believe that the best approach to this question is to look at specific examples. We ought to study all the available information to establish what the most reasonable interpretation of what actually happened is. Then we should apply the “most reasonable explanation” criteria to establish whether in fact a miracle happened. The best example of how to apply this criteria that I know of is with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. Let me supply a list of potential “facts,” which I would define as something established by history beyond a reasonable doubt:
- Jesus was in fact crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.
- The tomb where his body was laid was empty on the third day from his death (despite attempts to prevent it).
- The resurrection of Jesus was claimed by the eye-witnesses to this supposed resurrection by many of people in Jerusalem almost immediately after the supposed event occurred.
I will not discuss for now how I reach the conclusion that these are “facts” beyond a reasonable doubt. Let me reserve that discussion for another time. However, if we can accept these as “facts” we could then seek for the most reasonable explanation. In this analysis, we should assume that any reasonable “natural” explanation of the fact is vastly to be preferred to a miraculous explanation, as the assumption that nearly all events which happen are natural is obviously true.
With this analysis, I believe that the most reasonable conclusion is that the resurrection did in fact happen and that it was a miracle, by definition. I believe this because all other explanations I have heard are absurd and not at all reasonable. The explanation that the disciples stole the body is absurd. The explanation that Jesus did not in fact die is also absurd. My conclusion is that a reasonable analysis of the historical evidence, and in consideration of the scientific laws which apply, the most reasonable explanation is that a miracle occurred. Is this “proof?” I say no. I say it is the most reasonable conclusion unless we take as a presupposition that miracles cannot happen. Of course, in the present discussion such a presupposition is not allowed, as we are asking whether miracles happen. Therefore I believe that we have given reasonable evidence to conclude that miracles are real. Most reasonable conclusion? Yes. Proved? No.
If we have established that a single miracle has occurred, then we have established that miracles can in fact happen and that they have in fact (at least provisionally) happened. This makes the standard of “proof” for other miracles somewhat less difficult to meet. We can proceed from there.
That is how I would approach your rather difficult last question.