Is a Miracle a Violation of the Laws of Nature?

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We sometimes hear—from Christian and atheist alike—that miracles are violations of the laws of nature. But that is to misunderstand what we mean by the “law of nature.”

Today, we understand natural law to serve essentially as description rather than prescription. Though we call them “laws,” they are not so  in a rigid and prescriptive sense. Rather, they are universal inductive generalizations. If so, then it would be a logical impossibility to “violate” a true law of nature.

Philosopher of religion Wiliam Lane Craig offers a popular-level elaboration:

The laws of nature describe what would happen in a particular case assuming that there are no intervening supernatural factors.

They have . . . ceteris paribus clauses implicit in them—namely, all things being equal, this is what will happen in this situation.

But if all things are not equal, the law isn’t violated.

Rather, the law just doesn’t apply to that situation because there are other factors at work.

In the case of a miracle, God doesn’t violate the laws of nature when he does a miracle.

Rather, there will be causal factors at work, namely God, which are supernatural and therefore what the laws of nature predict won’t happen because the laws of nature only make predictions under the assumption that there are no intervening supernatural factors at work.

So a miracle, I think, properly defined, is an event which the natural causes at a time and place cannot produce at that time and place.

Or, more succinctly, a miracle is a naturally impossible event—an event which the natural causes at a certain time and place cannot bring about. It is beyond the productive capacity of nature. . . .

He goes on to address the question of whether science rules out the miraculous:

All that the scientist conceivably has the right to say is that such an event is naturally impossible.

But with that conclusion the defender of miracles may readily agree.

We must not confuse the realms of logical and natural possibility.

Is the occurrence of a miracle logically impossible? No, for such an event involves no logical contradiction.

Is the occurrence naturally impossible? Yes, for it cannot be produced by natural causes; indeed, this is a tautology, since to lie outside the productive capacity of natural causes is to be naturally impossible.

For a more technical explanation from Craig, see this essay.

For a helpful interdisciplinary discussion of miracles from a Christian perspective, see In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. Doug Geivett and Gary Habermans (IVP, 1997).

 

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