Thursday, February 02, 2006

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

I had written:
"The laws of nature tell us what happens when nothing outside the system interferes."
Randy said:
How do you know that? Why are you assuming there is something outside of the world that can interfere with it? And even if that assumption should be correct, why are you then assuming that this interference wouldn't have to act in accordance with natural laws?

The laws of nature help to explain the phenomena we experience in the world. I see no justification for adding the qualifier "when nothing outside the system interferes".


Suppose I were to get up on the Leaning Tower of Pisa and propose a theory about what would happen if balls were dropped from the tower. However, someone on a floor below me reaches out with a net and catches the balls, and then pronounces my theory refuted, because what I predicted was supposed to happen did not happen. This would clearly not be a legitimate argument because, in dropping the balls off the tower, I am trying to determine what will happen if no outside force interferes.

I don't have to assume that something exists outside nature in order to insist that laws of nature not be question-beggingly described in such a way as to presuppose naturalism, and be false if naturalism is false. Remember that many of the great scientists of history, and some in the present day, are orthodox Christians who believe in the possibility and actuality of the miraculous.

What could science tell us about the properties of water that could possibly prove that not even God, or God's Son, could turn it into wine?

4 comments:

Matthew Heaney said...

It is wrong to say "...if naturalism is false." Naturalism is not a proposition; that is, it does not have a value that is either "true" or "false." Rather, it is a working set of assumptions, that allows one to propose questions that can be answered true or false. This is what is meant by the phrase "methodological naturalism." You seem to be conflating it with "ontological naturalism," roughly the same as "strong" atheism.

Note that within a naturalist epistemological framework it's not quite correct to say that "there are no miracles." The reason is we don't stand in the privilaged epistomological position to tell whether an observed phenomenon is caused by a direct intervention by God (which is the definition of "miracle") or without God's intervention. To us as non-privileged observers all we can do is observe the phenomenon, and then conservatively assume that it has an explaination is terms of "natural" causes, and then go looking for the cause.

Of course, the phenomenon in question might very well be caused by God. Or it might not. We don't know and can't know. Indeed, *every* observed phenomenon might be "caused" by God (that is, be a miracle), in which case "natural" laws are merely a description of God's actions (and lucky for us God does the same thing every time, or life would be very chaotic, as God acts with capricious whim).

We make the assumption that observed phenomena occur because of other natural phenomena for pragmatic reasons, since if we assumed every cause was miraculous then there'd be little point in seeking out any other explaination. We don't make this assumption because we have an apriori commitment to ontological naturalism, but rather because it works (this is the "weak" atheist position). If I'm having a heart attack, neither theist nor atheist is likely to say "Oh well, God is stopping my heart now, how great is He for delivering this miracle." We get our ass to the nearest hospital because they have techniques for getting my heart going again, techniques that were derived from the assumption that natural phenomena have natural causes.

Steven Carr said...

H2O into C2H5OH?


The fine-tuning argument shows that you cannnot produce carbon except in stars.

Because of the difficulty of producing carbon, Sir Fred Hoyle used the anthropic principle to propose that a carbon-producing reaction was possible in stars.

And he was proved right.

Fine-tuning is one of those many arguments for God that contradict their own premises.

The premises are :-

1) The universe is so fine-tuned that carbon cannot be produced except under very specific conditions only found in stars

2) Carbon can be produced in stone jars at weddings.


Conclusion, there is a God - although premise 2 contradicts premise 1.

Of course, I'm sure Victor will point out flaws in this.

This is because there are flaws.

premise 2 does not really contradict 1 because God does not use natural mechanisms.


This means that no amount of looking at natural processes will tell us there is a God who need not use natural processes to produce things.

So declaring the universe fine-tuned proves nothing, as the fine-tuned laws are natural mechanisms and say nothing about a God, who does not use natural mechanisms.

To use Victor's analogy, no amount of dropping balls from the Tower of Pisa will prove there is somebody on the floor below who could interfere with them, if we only observe the balls behaving according to the rules of Mother Nature.

Randy said...

I don't have to assume that something exists outside nature in order to insist that laws of nature not be question-beggingly described in such a way as to presuppose naturalism, and be false if naturalism is false.

I find this puzzling. How is this description question-begging: "The laws of nature help to explain the phenomena we experience in the world."?
I see nothing pro- or anti-naturalism in that description. It doesn't assume or deny any possible interference from "outside the system."

It seemed to be a good correction of your statement, which does appear to me to have that question-beggingly element you wish to avoid: "The laws of nature tell us what happens when nothing outside the system interferes"
To add " when nothing outside the system interferes" implies that there is something outside that can interfere. Even if there is something outside the system, how do you know it can interfere?
It also assumes that this interference can't happen in accordance with natural law. I asked you before how can you know this? I'm sorry but your Tower of Pisa example didn't seem to me to adddress this at all.

Tom Gilson said...

Steven, please, now. There is perhaps a contradiction between the propositions as you have stated them, but you have not stated them properly, and it's all about what Victor was saying. It's about whether nature is a closed system.

You wrote,

1) The universe is so fine-tuned that carbon cannot be produced except under very specific conditions only found in stars

That's not a good statement of the case, to start with. It is not because of the fine tuning of the universe that carbon can only be produced in stars. It's more accurate to say that it is only because of fine-tuning that we have stars capable of producing carbon.

So let's give you the benefit of the doubt and suppose that was what you meant to say. If so, you still left out an important qualifier, which is that we know that if nature is a closed system with no outside intervention carbon can only be produced in stars.

So the relevant question is still whether nature is a closed system. There's no contradiction here if we suppose that it's an open system, and that God intervened at the time of creation to build the initial laws of nature and their fine-tuned correspondence to one another, and also intervened at the wedding in Cana to turn water into wine.