(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History.)
Taking on “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D’Souza explains that he wants to strip away a kind of pose: atheists, he says, present themselves as men of data and evidence, merely following where it leads, when in reality they are faith-filled dogmatists who only assume that there are no gods and that miracles are not possible. In his debate with Hitchens, he drove this home by asking his opponent to name just one scientific law which he knows has no exceptions. Hitchens admitted he couldn’t and had to stand there sheepishly while D’Souza crowed that he was leaving room for miracles even while denying them without investigation—that the atheist stance for science and against miracles is only based on faith in certain “metaphysical assumptions.” In his view, the real difference between scientists and theologians is that religious people have enough integrity to admit their beliefs are rooted in faith.
D’Souza’s effectiveness in exposing confusion and sowing skepticism illustrates how the New Atheists and most scientists lack an objective philosophical foundation. With a little training in the actual relationship between philosophy and science, they could explain how science is not perched atop blind faith in “metaphysical assumptions,” and they could articulate exactly why miracles should not be dismissed as merely improbable, or even as inherently unverifiable, but as outright incoherent. In fact, they would know the issue is as stark as this: if miracles are possible, then science isn’t.
To see why, let’s begin by looking at what a miracle has to be. We are not talking about just any improbable happening, and not even something which violates our current understanding of the world as expressed in scientific laws, like D’Souza tries to argue. The entire point of miracles is to provide evidence of divine intervention, and surprises which may only reveal a current lack of understanding can’t accomplish that: by that measure, even the tricks of magicians would count as miracles. Indeed, much of what we enjoy in our modern world would have been considered miraculous in previous times, from vaccines and medications, to cars, and the Internet and on and on. Yet none of these prove or even suggest a possibility that there is a God. No, a meaningful miracle is not merely something which would violate the laws of nature as we currently understand them, but something which would be a violation of any such law we could ever discover. That is, it would have to be a violation of lawfulness itself. That’s a tall order.
Causality and Identity
When we talk about how things act and what they do and why, we are talking about causality. As Aristotle observed some 2500 years ago, things act according to their natures (their identities). They act the way they do because of what they are—balls roll when pushed, and piles of dirt don’t. Eggs break when dropped because that is an expression of their identity as things with a brittle shell and goo inside, crashing against a hard floor. Action is an expression of identity, and to understand why and how things act the way they do, we seek to understand what those things are. We seek to understand their identities. So if an egg broke into song instead of a messy puddle, it wouldn’t be a normal egg—it would have to be something else. Because identities include capacities for action, we know and classify things by what they do, too.
The crucial thing to keep in mind about action being an expression of identity is that everything has identity merely in virtue of existing, not because of any dictate. Think of this as a law of existence, something true of Being itself. As Ayn Rand observed some 50 years ago: to be, is to be something—to be something particular, to be this and not that, to be capable of these actions and reactions and transformations, and not those. Or from the opposite perspective: to not be anything particular, is to simply not be. And this is not any article of faith or merely a “metaphysical assumption.” This is a philosophical axiom reaching below any will to the bedrock of existence itself, a self-evident truth that lies at the base of all truths and all thinking, a fact so absolute and inescapable that it is actually reaffirmed by any attempt to deny it.
It is this ironclad law of existence that tells us there are scientific laws to pursue in the first place. It is how we can have absolute confidence that we are in a position to plumb the depths of the world, that we can seek to understand the identities of the things which are acting and interacting in nature, and that it is worth working to understand it all in terms of ever broader and deeper principles. The fruitfulness of this pursuit can’t be denied: just look around and marvel at how our striving for a rational, scientific understanding of the world has improved our lives in countless ways.
And it is this very same law of existence that also guarantees there can be no miracles for us to pursue. If we were to somehow experience an “egg miracle,” it isn’t that we would have found something we thought was a regular egg that surprised us and needs more study. No, the very idea of miracles requires violating causality. It requires that a normal egg break into song. Or picking something from the Christian tradition: it requires a normal loaf of bread to break into 1000 servings. In short, a genuine miracle requires a thing to act against its own identity—to have a contradictory identity—to literally not be what it is, which is incoherent. Everything is what it is, and contradictions can only exist inside peoples’ confused thinking.
That is why it is one or the other, science or miracles. Accepting the possibility of miracles means rejecting the very basis of science; accepting the basis of science means rejecting any possibility of miracles. Indeed, to the degree that scientists entertain the possibility of miracles, they tragically undercut their own psychological motive and ability to pursue such knowledge: there is no point in looking for the laws of nature when existence isn’t actually lawful and there is no real understanding to be found. Even if scientists think they can be “practical” and approach the world as being “almost always lawful,” they are still fatally compromised because every surprise they meet could be a clue that an idea is in need of refinement or correction—or it could be an inexplicable miracle from the arbitrary will of God. The harder and more important the puzzle, the harder it will be to resist that nihilistic pull to simply throw up their hands and give up being a scientist to blindly assert that it must be an arbitrary intervention.
All of those potential advances lost to scientists giving up on science are a tragedy—and any effort spent repelling that call to give up is a waste. At the dawn of science, Francis Bacon said that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Knowledge is power precisely because existence is in fact lawful, and every advance we’ve achieved up through the wonders of modern civilization is a brilliant testament to this simple truth.