The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “miracle” as “a marvelous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by any human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or some supernatural being.”  (OED, 1989)  This meaning reflects how the word “miracle” has been commonly used in the English language for hundreds of years.

Since a miracle, by definition, involves a suspension of physical laws in nature by some supernatural entity, the question of whether miracles take place, or have ever taken place, is an important one.  Most adherents of religion — any religion — are inclined to believe in miracles; skeptics argue that there is no evidence to support the existence of miracles.

I believe skeptics are correct that the evidence for a supernatural agency occasionally suspending the normal processes and laws of nature is very weak or nonexistent.  Scientists have been studying nature for hundreds of years; when an observed event does not appear to follow physical laws, it usually turns out that the law is imperfectly understood and needs to be modified, or there is some other physical law that needs to be taken into account.  Scientists have not found evidence of a supernatural being behind observational anomalies.  This is not to say that everything in the universe is deterministic and can be reduced to physical laws.  Most scientists agree that there is room for indeterminacy in the universe, with elements of freedom and chance.  But this indeterminacy does not seem to correspond to what people have claimed as miracles.

However, I would like to make the case that the way we think about miracles is all wrong, that our current conception of what counts as a miracle is based on a mistaken prejudice in favor of events that we are unaccustomed to.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “miracle” is derived from the Latin word “miraculum,” which is an “object of wonder.” (OED 1989)  A Latin dictionary similarly defines “miraculum” as “a wonderful, strange, or marvelous thing, a wonder, marvel, miracle.” (Charlton T. Lewis, A Latin Dictionary, 1958)  There is nothing in the original Latin conception of miraculum that requires a belief in the suspension of physical laws.  Miraculum is simply about wonder.

Wonder as an activity is an intellectual exercise, but it is also an emotional disposition.  We wonder about the improbable nature of our existence, we wonder about the vastness of the universe, we wonder about the enormous complexity and diversity of life.  From wonder often comes other emotional dispositions: astonishment, puzzlement, joy, and gratitude.

The problem is that in our humdrum, everyday lives, it is easy to lose wonder.  We become accustomed to existence through repeated exposure to the same events happening over and over, and we no longer wonder.  The satirical newspaper The Onion expresses this disposition well: “Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time,” reads one headline.

Is it really the case, though, that a wondrous event ceases to be wondrous because it occurs frequently, regularly, and appears to be guided by causal laws?  The birth of a human being begins with blueprints provided by an egg cell and sperm cell; over the course of nine months, over 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements gradually come together in the right place at the right time to form the extremely intricate arrangement known as a human being.  If anything is a miraculum, or wonder, it is this event.  But because it happens so often, we stop noticing.  Stories about crying statues, or people seeing the heart of Jesus in a communion wafer, or the face of Jesus in a sock get our attention and are hailed as miracles because these alleged events are unusual.  But if you think about it, these so-called miracles are pretty insignificant in comparison to human birth.  And if crying statues were a frequent event, people would gradually become accustomed to it; after a while, they would stop caring, and start looking around for something new to wonder about it.

What a paradox.  We are surrounded by genuine miracles every day, but we don’t notice them.  So we grasp at the most trivial coincidences and hoaxes in order to restore our sense of wonder, when what we should be doing is not taking so many wonders for granted.

A Universe Half Full?

It has often been said that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that a pessimist sees a half-poured beverage as a glass half empty, whereas an optimist sees the glass as being half full.  I think the decision to adopt or reject atheism may originate from such a perspective — that is, atheists see the universe as half empty, whereas believers see the universe as half full.  We all go through life experiencing events both good and bad, moments of joy, beauty, and wonder, along with moments of despair, ugliness, and boredom.  When we experience the positive, we may be inclined to attribute purpose and benevolence to the universal order; when we experience the negative, we may be more apt to attribute disorder and meaninglessness to the universe.

So, is it all a matter of perspective?  If we are serious thinkers, we have to reject the conclusion that it is merely a matter of perspective.  Either there is a God or there isn’t.  If we are going to explain the universe, we have to explain everything, good and bad, and not neglect facts that don’t fit.

The case for atheism is fairly straightforward: the facts of science indicate a universe that is not very hospitable to either the emergence of life or the protection of life, which greatly undercuts the case for an intelligent designer.  Most planets have no life, except perhaps for the most primitive, insignificant forms of life.  Where life does exist, life is precarious and cruel; on a daily basis, life forms are attacked and destroyed by hostile physical forces and other life forms.  There is not the slightest historical and archeological evidence of a “golden age” or a “Garden of Eden” which once existed but was lost because of man’s sinfulness; life has always been precarious and cruel.  Even where life has developed, it has developed in a process of very gradual evolution, consisting of much randomness, over the course of billions of years.  And even despite progress after billions of years, life on earth has been subject to occasional mass extinction events, from an asteroid or comet striking the planet, to volcanic eruptions, to dramatic climate change.  Even if one granted that God created life very gradually, the notion that God would allow a dumb rock from space to wipe out the accomplishments of several billions of years of evolution seems inexplicable.

The case for belief in God rests on a contrary claim, namely that order in the universe is too complex and unusual to be explained merely by reference to purposeless physical laws and random events.  It may appear that physical laws operate without apparent purpose, such as when an asteroid causes mass extinction, and evolution certainly consists of many random events.  But there is too much order to subscribe to the view that the universe is nothing but blind laws and random events.  When one studies the development of the stars and planets and their predictable motions, the vast diversity and complexity of life on earth, and the amount of information contained in a single DNA molecule, randomness is not the first thing one thinks of.  Total randomness implies total disorder and a total lack of pattern, but the randomness we see in the universe takes place within a certain structure.  If you roll a die, there are six possible outcomes; if you flip a coin there are two possible outcomes.  Both actions are random, but a structure of order determines the range of possible outcomes.  Likewise, there is randomness and disorder in the universe, but there is a larger structure of order that provides general stability and restricts outcomes.  Mutations take place in life forms, but these mutations are limited and incremental, restricting the range of possible outcomes and allowing the development of new forms of life on top of old forms of life.

Physicists tend to agree that we appear to live in a universe “fine-tuned” for life, in the sense that many physical constants can only exist with certain values, or life would not be able to evolve.  According to Stephen Hawking, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and electron. . . . The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”  Physicist Paul Davies writes:

 [L]ife as we know it depends very sensitively on the form of the laws of physics, and on some seemingly fortuitous accidents in the actual values that nature has chosen for various particle masses, force strengths, and so on. . . . [I]f we could play God, and select values for these quantities at whim by twiddling a set of knobs, we would find that almost all knob settings would render the universe uninhabitable.  In some cases it seems as if the different knobs have to be fine-tuned to enormous precision if the universe is to be such that life will flourish. (The Mind of God, pp. 199-200).

The counterargument to the “fine-tuned” argument is that there could exist many universes that self-destruct in a short period of time or don’t have life — we just happen to live in a fine-tuned universe because only a fine-tuned universe can allow the existence of life forms that think about how fine-tuned the universe is!  However, this argument rests on the hypothetical belief that many alternative universes have existed or do exist, and until there is evidence for other universes, it must remain highly speculative.

So how do we reconcile the two sets of facts presented by the atheists and the believers?  On the one hand, the universe appears to allow life to develop only extremely gradually under often hostile conditions, with many setbacks along the way.  On the other hand, the universe appears to be fine-tuned to support life, suggesting some sort of cosmic purpose or intelligence.

In my view, the only way to reconcile the two sets of facts is to conceive of God as being very powerful, but not omnipotent.  (See a previous posting on this subject.)  According to process theology, God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, and God acts over long periods of time to create.  Existing things are not subject to total central control, but God can influence outcomes.

An analogy could be made with the human mind and its control over the body.  It is easy to raise one’s right arm by using one’s thoughts, but to pitch a fastball, play a piano, or make a high-quality sculpture requires a level of coordination and skill that most of us do not have — as well as an extraordinary amount of training and practice.  In the course of life, we attempt many things, but are never successful at all we attempt; in fact, the ambitions in our minds usually outpace our physical abilities.  Some people do not even have the ability to raise their right arm.  The relation of a cosmic mind to the “body” of the universe may be similar in principle.

Some would object that the God of process theology is ridiculously weak.  A God that has only the slightest influence over matter and cannot even stop an asteroid from hitting a planet does not seem like a God worth worshiping or even respecting.  In fact, why do we even need the concept of a weak God — wouldn’t we be better off without it?  I will address this topic in a future posting.

Physical Laws and the Mind of God

The American philosopher of science Charles Sanders Peirce once wrote that the physical laws of the universe were the expression of an evolving cosmic mind.  As he put it, physical laws were the outcome of a mind become habitual: “matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws.”  However, he notes that the cosmic mind is not merely habitual, but has a powerful element of indeterminacy and spontaneity, which is why the universe continues to evolve and to produce life.  The evolution of the universe, in Peirce’s view, is the gradual crystallization of mind.

There is much merit to Peirce’s idea — rather than seeing the physical laws of the universe as separate entities that pop out of nowhere and have no unifying foundation, Peirce’s concept expresses the underlying unity and order of the universe, which is still developing even as the human mind itself develops.

One criticism of conceptualizing the physical laws of the universe as being part of a cosmic mind is that physical laws by their nature have an unvarying determinism and regularity that contradicts the notion of a conscious being capable of thinking, planning, and exercising free will in order to shape events.  But the physical laws of the universe are really only part of the universal order.  On the large, astronomical scale certainly, there is determinism and regularity; but on the very small, subatomic scale, there is a high degree of indeterminism and unpredictability; and life forms have the freedom to partially evade or escape the bounds of physical determinism.  In this conception, determinism and regularity provide a foundation of order on which freedom and creativity can flourish.  One can analogize this conception with the human mind, in which many essential functions of the brain (control of breathing, heart rate, sensation) occur mostly or entirely without conscious planning or control in the lower part of the brain (the “brainstem”), while higher thought processes are conducted on top of this primitive foundational order.

Granted, there are limits to employing the metaphor of “mind” to the cosmic order, as there are with any metaphor.  But metaphors are often a necessary tool to describe things that simply can’t be communicated with literal precision.  Even the most rigorous and skeptical of scientists cannot do without metaphors.  The “physical laws” of the universe is itself a metaphor; the “Big Bang” is a metaphor; and the “selfish gene” is a metaphor.