A Metaphysical Framework for the Possibility of Miracles

In this short paper, I want to provide a metaphysical framework for the possibility of miracles advocated and defended by Alvin Plantinga [1]. C.S Lewis spoke of miracles as an event when “that which is outside [the universe] wishes to invade her” [2]; particularly, when God decides to ‘invade’ into the universe, the term ‘miracle’ applies because nature, in and of itself, would not have brought about the event. Indeed, the question of ‘miracles’ infringes on understanding what is meant by ‘law of nature’. Without going into long and strenuous debates regarding ‘laws of nature’, I will simply assume that a ‘law of nature’ is a “pattern to which events conform.” [3] The laws of nature do not have causal powers; rather, they explain what, under normal conditions, events follow (a designated pattern). So, in this paper I will begin by providing a metaphysical framework for the possibility of miracles provided by Alvin Plantinga; I then want to provide an objection by Daniel Dennett and a further response by Alvin Plantinga. In the end, I will suggest that the logical and metaphysical possibility of miracles allows for the possible actuality of miracles (which a natural theological argument would suffice in proving, as I will explain later) and raises the question of God’s existence. As an afterthought, it also raises important questions concerning the relationship between theology and science.

In his Where the Conflict Really Lies (2011), Alvin Plantinga devises an account of laws of nature as follows:

“(LN) When the universe is causally closed (when God is not acting specially in the world), P.

For example, Newton’s law of gravity would go as follows:

(G) When the universe is causally closed, any two material objects attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.” [4]

Plantinga’s metaphysical framework states that a law of nature (LN) does not preclude miracles; miracles are implicitly possible in what a ‘law of nature’ means; to say that Newton’s law of gravity works is to say that, under standard conditions (that is, when God is not acting specially in the world), then Newton’s law holds. While one might be skeptical as to this definition, any attempt to ground laws of nature in a causally closed system, that is, a system of strictly logically necessary causal connections between events, begs the question in favor of methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism is the view according to which science (or some other knowledge enterprise), must proceed with the presupposition of naturalism [5]. So, any objection relying on methodological naturalism is begging the question, ad hoc and requires independent justification. However, supposing that methodological naturalism is at best irrelevant, if God does causally interact in the universe, then a miracle has occurred.

The framework Plantinga has constructed allows for the logical and metaphysical possibility of miracles. This does not imply that miracles do occur, but it shows that it is logically possible for a miracle to actually occur. In their 2009 debate at the American Philosophical Association Central Division conference, Plantinga and Daniel Dennett debated on the topic of ‘Science and Religion’ to which Dennett presents the following objection to Plantinga’s metaphysical framework for the possibility of miracles: “When a physicist “proves” that a stone dropped from a height will fall within acceleration 9.8 meters/sec, does this not tacitly assume that no person (e.g., God) will intervene to adjust the rate? Physicists don’t routinely add an escape clause, “unless God chooses to intervene,” because it is tacitly assumed that no such “possibilities” are taken seriously.” [6]. Plantinga responds to this objection by suggesting that naturalism is not assumed in science nor courts of law: “in science, we assume that God won’t capriciously interfere with our experiments. The same goes in everyday life: I’m rock climbing and reach for a hold; I take it for granted that God won’t turn that hold into Jell-O just as I touch it.” [7]. Plantinga continues and makes a historical and theological note.

The historical note is as follows: “one of the ways in which Christian theism is hospitable to science, one of the reasons modern empirical science came to be and flourished in the Christian West, is this assumption that God is in control of nature and does not act arbitrarily.” [8]. Further than that, if one thinks that God created human beings in His image, and part of that image involves “our ability to have worthwhile and important knowledge about ourselves and our world”, then “our ability to do science is an extremely important part of the divine image” and therefore “God would not arbitrarily stand in the way of our coming to such knowledge—by, for example, capriciously spoiling our experiments.” [9]. There is, in the end, no methodological arbitrariness between asserting that the laws of nature are constant and that God can causally interact with the physical universe.

The possibility of miracles raises one important consideration and one important question: (1) The possibility of miracles does not imply that there is something to perform the miracle i.e., God and (2) is it possible that miracles have actually occurred? To consider the first important consideration (1), I want to share my agreeance. Indeed, I am committed to the view that the logical and metaphysical possibility of miracles does not imply that God exists. However, the logical and metaphysical possibility of miracles implies the possibility of the following subjunctive conditional: If God exists, it is possible that He (has) and can performed a miracle. So, the question becomes: Does God exist? This is a question of natural theology, a sub-discipline of theology which explores non-authoritative arguments and evidences for the existence of God. If God exists, though, the second question (2) becomes essential since it is possible that God actually has acted in the world specially. For instance, the claim of Christians is that Jesus Christ was the second Person of the Trinity who came to earth to save human beings from their sins and offer eternal life. So, Jesus, if He was God, rose from the dead; this implies that God has acted specially in the world and thus (1) God exists (and that Jesus was God if Christianity is true—which I believe), and that (2) at least one miracle has occurred.

The metaphysical and logical possibility of miracles allows for the question of ‘miracles’ to be meaningful; further, though, this possibility allows for the question ‘Does God exist?’ to become an important, metaphysical question to which natural theology can helpfully respond [10]. If God does exist, it is possible that He has performed a miracle; if Christianity is true, there is at least one miracle [11].

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 80.

[2] C.S Lewis, “Miracles” in The Complete C.S Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), p. 360.

[3] C.S Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 73.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 80.

[5] There have been problems with Alvin Plantinga’s definition of ‘naturalism’ which Tyler Journeaux identifies. So, I shall use the term ‘naturalism’ as Plantinga does (as the belief that there is no such person as God, or anything like Him) and refer interested readers to Tyler’s website: “Naturalism and Supernaturalism”, Tyler Journeaux: https://tylerjourneauxgraham.wordpress.com/ Accessed May 17, 2016.

[6] Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, Science and Religion: Are they compatible? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 48.

[7] Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, Science and Religion, 63.

[8] Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, Science and Religion, 64.

[9] Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett, Science and Religion, 65.

[10] I say this tentatively. I am not a theological rationalist who affirms the proposition that belief in God is justified if and only if there is evidence for His existence; rather, I say that natural theology can help adjudicate whether or not God exists since there are good arguments for God’s existence i.e., the cosmological argument, teleological argument, axiological argument, argument from mathematics, argument from intentional states of consciousness, argument from beauty, argument from consciousness, argument from the gradation of being, argument from the resurrection of Jesus and so on. This in no way means that there are other ways of knowing that there is such a person as God i.e., personal experience. Also, I am aware that I have skipped many epistemological and metaphysical debates over miracles; however, I hope that the framework Plantinga has provided serves as grounds for thinking that miracles are not mere ‘violations’ of the laws of nature and that science is very hospitable to theistic understandings of the world. Mathematician John Lennox makes this point nicely as he says “God does not conflict or compete with the laws of physics as an explanation. God is actually the ground of all explanation, in the sense that he is the cause in the first place of there being a world for the laws of physics to describe” in his God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it anyway? (Oxford, England: Lion Books, 2011), 37.

[11] This paper has caused me to consider a deep question regarding theology and science: What is their relationship? William Lane Craig and J.P Moreland sketch six ways in which science and theology can be integrated which I will share here and leave for future work and consideration. (Perhaps it will serve, too, as a method of availing those who worry that science and theology do conflict of their worry):

“A. Science and theology focus on two distinct, nonoverlapping areas of investigation, viz. the natural and the supernatural.

B. Science and theology involve two different, complementary approaches to and descriptions of the same reality from different perspectives. Each involves a different level of description, tells us different kinds of things, and uses different vocabulary. Each level of description is complete at its own level without having gaps in its perspective. Nevertheless, each is only a partial description of the whole reality described. Science and theology do not directly interact with each other in epistemically positive or negative ways, but are complementary views of the total reality described. Science and theology only conflict if one field illicitly encroaches into the territory of the other field.

C. Science can fill out details in theology or help to apply theological principles and vice versa.

D. Theology provides the metaphysical and epistemological foundation for science by justifying or, at least, helping to justify the necessary presuppositions of science.

E. Science provides the boundaries within which theology must work. Theology can do its work only after consulting science. Thus science can inform theology but not vice versa.

F. Science and theology involve descriptions that can directly interact with each other in mutually reinforcing or competing ways.” This model of integration was retrieved and quotes from William Lane Craig and J.P Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 350-351.

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