Skeptics argue that miracles are impossible because the laws of nature are necessary. A miracle, they argue, involves a violation of a law of nature. But the laws of nature cannot be violated. Therefore, miracles must be impossible.
One modern skeptic of repute who argues this is Richard Dawkins. In his book The God Delusion, he says, “[M]iracles, by definition, violate the principles of science” (83).
Dawkins and other modern skeptics derive this argument from philosophers of note in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher, argued:
[I]f miracles are, strictly speaking, all above nature, then you must admit a break in the necessary and immutable course of nature; which is absurd (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, c. 6).
In the eighteenth century, Scottish skeptic philosopher David Hume wrote:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is an entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sec. X).
How are we to respond to such an objection?
Response 1: Miracles are not violations of nature’s laws
One response is to challenge the understanding of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. In order to understand why miracles do not violate the natural order God created, it is necessary to understand what laws of nature are.
Laws of nature are not mere descriptions of causal regularities (e.g., When A, then B) that a miracle would disprove. The laws of nature express what things are capable of exhibiting by virtue of their inherent causal tendencies or dispositions. In other words, the laws of nature are descriptive of what objects are capable of producing given the powers they have by virtue of their nature.
So, for example, the law of nature that tells us water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit is simply a description of the nature of water having a tendency or disposition to freeze when the temperature reaches 32 degrees. The law of nature that tells us fire burns is a description of the inherent power fire possesses given its nature.
The laws of nature, therefore, describe laws of natures—essences with inherent dispositional properties that manifest themselves when certain conditions are met. One could say the phrase “laws of nature” is shorthand for speaking about causal powers inherent in the nature of things.
It is this understanding of the laws of nature that allows one to see how miracles are not violations of the laws of nature (proving a law to be false) and thus not a violation of the natural order set by God.
Miracles are extraordinary sensible effects wrought by God that surpass the power and order of created nature. Miracles are occurrences that can be brought about only by God’s direct causal activity and not by natural forces operative in created objects. As such, a miracle does not prove a law of nature to be false but simply indicates a cause beyond the natural causal powers of a thing is at work, and such causal power is divine.
For example, the natural forces operative in a human body cannot produce the effect of the body rising anew in living health after it has died. But God can produce such an effect by directly giving life to a dead body. When he does this, as he did in the case of Jesus, it does not disprove the law of nature that states that dead bodies stay dead. It still remains true that dead bodies have no inherent power to come back to life.
God can also suspend an inherent power from manifesting itself without proving a law of nature to be false. Consider, for example, the miracle involving Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. The fire into which they were thrown did not burn them.
Does this disprove the law of nature that states fire burns? No. God simply willed that the inherent power of fire not manifest itself in this particular situation. Fire still retains its natural tendency or disposition to burn, and thus the law of nature involving fire remains valid.
God has not only the power to suspend an object’s inherent disposition from manifesting itself but also the power to give an object a new property it doesn’t have by nature. Jesus’ miracle of walking on water is an example of this (Matthew 14:22-23).
Water does not have power within its nature to allow a human being to walk on it. But Jesus, being God, can give water such a property in a particular circumstance. This doesn’t disprove the law of nature that states you will sink if you try to walk on water, because water still lacks within its nature a property that would suffice to hold up a human being.
So miracles do not violate the natural order created by God because they do not violate the laws of nature—they are not contrary to nature but above or beyond nature.
Response 2: laws of nature are not absolutely necessary
The second response is that the objection confuses hypothetical necessity with absolute necessity.
The skeptic assumes the laws of nature are absolutely necessary—that is to say, the phenomena they describe must always occur no matter what. Just as God cannot make a square-circle or make a triangle with four sides, God, even if he did exist, could not suspend the laws of nature.
But this is simply not true. The laws of nature have what philosophers call hypothetical necessity, which means they will hold on condition no external cause intervenes. As the prominent Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, writes:
[N]atural laws are assumed to have implicit in them the assumption “all things being equal.” That is to say, the law states what is the case under the assumption that no other natural factors are interfering (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 263).
For example, the law of gravity tells us a rock will fall to the ground every time when I drop it. But it is not an intrinsic contradiction to imagine someone quickly catching the rock before it hits the ground. The law of gravity will hold provided nothing else happens, i.e., all things being equal.
As with the law of gravity, all laws of nature are hypothetically necessary and not absolutely necessary. They are not inviolable in the sense their violation—or, more properly speaking, their suspension—implies a contradiction.
Since the laws of nature are merely hypothetical, it follows the laws of nature cannot preclude God’s causal activity in miracles. Any denial of miracles based on the laws of nature, therefore, is unjustified.
This understanding of miracles and their relation to the laws of nature dispels the myth that one has to abandon science in order to accept miracles. Skeptics often pit miracles and science against each other, claiming you have to choose one or the other. But this is a false dichotomy.
There is no need for a scientist to give up his own research that shows water has no surface tension to support a human body because, as shown above, a miracle doesn’t prove water has such an inherent property. The scientist’s scientific knowledge remains secure. As such, there is no need to abandon science in order to believe in the miraculous.