By now, many of you know I believe there is a conflict between religion and science. It’s not simply the case they have different methods and different bodies of knowledge; it’s that this difference exists while they try to answer questions in the same field. There is a scientific way of distinguishing life from death and it has to do with the brain and physiological function, and the absence of such function. Religious talk of the soul and of resurrection is in direct conflict with both the methods of science and what is scientifically known about science.
(I am responding to this blog post.)
There’s more than one type of ‘it’s a miracle’ claim. The most pedestrian of these―“I found my keys! Hallelujah”―need not concern us. However, ‘it’s so rare/unlikely an event and it conforms to my religious narrative’ miracle (unlikely miracles) and ‘I believe it happened even though I understand all rational enquiry suggests not just that it did not happen, but that it could not happen’ miracles (impossible miracles). Just to add some flesh to the bones of those two, I’ll offer some examples. Religions are rife with impossible miracles: the virgin birth, the resurrection, the great flood, flying to Heaven on a winged horse. Unlikely miracles are more likely to arise in people’s daily lives: a baby survivor in a terrible tragedy, for example; or the face of Jesus appearing in breakfast foods.
More than once I have had religious people try to explain the impossible miracle of the flood to me in terms of an unlikely miracle. This means they acknowledge that the impossible flood narratives remove their religion―or those claims, at the very least―from the domain of “reasonable faith”. Kent Hovind, for example, argues that the flood was caused by a massive store of water above the Earth (which answers the question of where the water came from, but not where it went). I’ve also been told that the water all came from underground at such an immense pressure that it fired up and hit the moon (which explains where it went, but not how it ever hung around to be considered a flood instead of a geyser). I use the word “explains” here more loosely than is advisable.
Despite this translation of impossible miracles into unlikely miracles, there are still proponents who advocate impossible miracles happen. As so they should, I believe. There’s not much point reducing the Bible to a list of unlikely miracles, confusions and tricks and still claiming they stand as evidence for a God. It does great damage to God’s reputations to claim Moses actually crossed the Reed Sea or that the Red Sea separated because of tectonic movements. It does little to encourage one of the majesty of Jesus if his resurrection were actually just a case of being mistaken for dead after being tortured and given a suspect bitter wine to drink. For religious realities to actually make sense, some of these must actually be impossible miracles.
Let’s look at the resurrection and ask ourselves this: does science have a position on the resurrection? Afterall, no scientist was there. There is no repeatable experiment we could carry out to tell us directly whether Jesus was resurrected or not. There’s no video to review and no interview with God to conduct. Just like the pair of pants I was wearing when I wrote this (15/12/2015), the resurrection of Jesus is just a fact lost to time. You can’t even be sure I was wearing pants when I wrote this, or that I wrote this on the date I just claimed I did.
Except, it is a crippled caricature of science of imagine that every single detail must be directly observed. None of you have ever met me (except Kataryna, if she still reads this). Yet, if I claim I am a kangaroo and by way of an impossible miracle I operate technology and think at the same level as human being, you will be unconvinced. This is because you have some sort of understanding of how things operate. Perhaps you have seen the research into measuring the relative intelligence levels of various animals. That understanding has reach and the research has a little more reach again: kangaroos aren’t discursive operators of technology. Humans are, and various types of non-human primates can be taught to do it to varying levels (but never the level I am currently demonstrating), but certainly not kangaroos. Your understanding has sufficient reach for you to not need to investigate whether I am a kangaroo, even if―by way of “explanation”―I tell you it is a case of me being an impossible miracle.
(I expect to see comments emerge below that denigrate me for the ‘Kangaroo analogy’ and berate the comparison. I expect these comments to be lacking in actual substance but for the commenter to feel they have presented a cogent reason they can distinguish between the miracles of the intelligent kangaroo those of the resurrection. Keep an eye out for such comments (as well as coherent comments) because if there is a complete absence of comments with good explanations and a few really bad explanations, that stands as evidence (although, not the best evidence) that the distinction between impossible miracles one believes and ones one does not believe is preference.)
That a body of knowledge that allows us to make claims about a presented miracles exists can be said of the resurrection. We have examples of people being dead for three days. What happens in all these cases is they go on to be dead for four days, and then five days, and it goes on like this. They do not come back. It is not merely a case of induction (i.e. it’s what always happens, thus it always will): there exists sufficient understanding of biology to explain reasons why no one ever comes back from the dead, but also of a good explanatory crane. Enough biopsies and autopsies and dissections and surgeries and research has been done as to create this understanding of biology. The scientific understanding of biology is such that we can have a robust stance on the resurrection of Jesus: it didn’t happen.
The ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ argument states that this is a case of science attempting to operate outside of its purview; that there is a domain in which science has the answers and a domain in which religion has its answers (and, presumably, other domains where other lines of enquiry have their answers). It’s akin to attempting to use your chemistry textbook to answer English literature questions. For certain genres of question this distinction is very clear. The question “how do we secure a supply of sufficient clean water?” and the question “what is the nature of God?” clearly belong to different camps, and as a result one can answer the questions to different levels of certainty, using different methods. But on the question of impossible miracles, both seem to be invading in each other’s territory. Does this claim of an impossible miracle really supersede the scientific enquiry? If one could demonstrate that miracles were necessarily outside the purview of science I would concede they are ‘non science’ and trying to apply science to them is irrational. However, it seems this is a case of overlapping magisteria. It is therefore either scientific or unscientific to claim miracles happened.
The argument then goes that God did and science can’t prove that God didn’t do it. Therefore it is non-science. The problem is that this offers no good explanation. It is as valid to argue that Jesus was resurrected as it is to argue that I am a kangaroo. Because: miracle. This argument could be applied to anything and thus remove it from the purview of science. Watch as I “explain” why germ theory is non-science: you can’t prove God didn’t do it. Evaporate away, Boyle’s Law: you can’t prove God didn’t do it. Computers? God. Such a vague statement is by no means a rational explanation. The defence makes the schoolboy error of confusing “you can’t disprove…” with “… is a reasonable idea”. You can’t disprove I am God, therefore that I am God is a reasonable idea.
It’s difficult to dismiss out-of-hand the fact that miracles implicitly request to be excused from scientific enquiry, by claiming to belong exclusively to the religious magesteria. And Stephen Jay Gould didn’t give us any indication of what to do when his “nonoverlapping magisteria” seemed very much to overlap. We could evaluate the credibility of miracle claims. For example, we could look at the parting of the Red Sea. That may be a miracle the facts of which are lost to time (like my pants), but it’s an element in the story of Exodus. Evidence for Exodus doesn’t support the parting of the Red Sea, but no evidence for Exodus is a serious problem for the parting of the Red Sea. And, despite looking, there is no evidence for the story of Exodus; there’s no archaeological evidence for the mass migration of thousands and thousands of people; no settlements, no homes, no property. Nothing. The credibility of the Bible as a source of knowledge for impossibly miraculous things is poor.
One rebuttal is that science deals with that which ‘normally’ happens and that miracles are a very different type of claim. Although all the words are different, this is actually just a restating of the assertion that impossible miracles happen; that they aren’t normal and don’t belong to the science magisterium. It doesn’t support or explain the assertion, it simply says it again in different language. But it does call for a slightly different response. See, science does occasionally make probabilistic or likelihood based claims. Take, for example the average height of different genders: men are generally taller than women. That is the statistically ‘normal’ situation. However, that claim is steeped in statistics, tendencies, trends and uncertainty. If certainly doesn’t tell you all men are taller than all women. But not all science talks in probabilistic or likelihood terms. It is the case that the best understandings and explanations we have in biology do not allow for ‘normal tendencies’ and ‘occasional exceptions’ on the question of death: the resurrection is not a bell-curve anomalie. To assert there is this other domain of physical events that are not just unknown or unknowable, but actively violate the knowable in unpredictable ways disarms one of the ability to tell nonsense from sensible claims. Anything could just be, by way of miracles.
To take the claims of impossible miracles seriously, we have to ignore the normal types of thinking we do in all other cases and ignore the science on every related concern. Our normal types of thinking exclude impossible miracles, like me being a kangaroo. We must abandon all enquiry and choose to accept the presented miracle regardless of its credibility or coherence, but you won’t make such a decision for my claim that I am a kangaroo despite the fact I am indeed a kangaroo. This distinction is not one of reasoned enquiry but of convenience. By contrast, the applicability of science to the issue of Jesus’ resurrection and my taxonomy can be established by reasonable enquiry. Just like the fact seas don’t part and humans don’t perform pathenogenesis, people don’t come back after being dead for three days. These are not probabilistic statements that deal with what ‘normally’ happens, but a statement of our best understanding.