Aren’t Miracles Scientifically Impossible?

(system) #1

Note: There is exciting news for the BioLogos website: we have a major revision planned to roll out later this month. Designers and programmers have been hard at work for several months updating our look, organizing the resources, and making the entire site mobile-friendly. Much of the BioLogos staff will be engaged in testing the new site for the next couple of weeks, hoping to work out all the kinks before we go live. So we’re taking a bit of a blog hiatus—at least from new content. We’re going to run some excerpts from a couple of books that we think you’ll find interesting. The first excerpt is from Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. Each chapter of the book deals with a common objection to biblical Christianity by skeptics. This week, we will be reprinting is the chapter entitled, “Science has Disproved Christianity". This gives a good, basic explanation of one of the fundamental commitments of BioLogos, namely that science and Christianity need not conflict with each other. In today’s selection, Keller teases out the assumptions at work when people claim that science has disproved miracles.

“My scientific training makes it difficult if not impossible to accept the teachings of Christianity,” said Thomas, a young Asian medical resident. “As a believer in evolution, I can’t accept the Bible’s prescientific accounts of the origin of life.”

“And the Bible is filled with accounts of miracles,” added Michelle, a med student. “They simply could not have happened.”

The bestselling books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris assume that science in general, and evolutionary science in particular, has made belief in God unnecessary and obsolete. Dawkins said very famously that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In The God Delusion he goes much further. He argues that you cannot be an intelligent scientific thinker and still hold religious beliefs. It is one or the other. To support his thesis he points out that a study in 1998 showed that only about 7 percent of American scientists in the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God. This is proof that the more intelligent, rational, and scientifically minded you are, the less you will be able to believe in God.

Is Dawkins right? Has science essentially disproved Christian beliefs? Must we choose between thinking scientifically and belief in God?

Aren’t Miracles Scientifically Impossible?

The first reason that many people think science has disproved traditional religion is that most of the major faiths believe in miracles, the intervention of God into the natural order. The miraculous is particularly important for Christian belief. Christians annually celebrate the miracle of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, each Christmas, and the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead each Easter. The New Testament is filled with accounts of miracles that Jesus performed during the course of his ministry. Scientific mistrust of the Bible began with the Enlightenment belief that miracles cannot be reconciled to a modern, rational view of the world. Armed with this presupposition, scholars turned to the Bible and said, “The Biblical accounts can’t be reliable because they contain descriptions of miracles.” The premise behind such a claim is “Science has proven that there is no such thing as miracles.” But embedded in such a statement is a leap of faith.

It is one thing to say that science is only equipped to test for natural causes and cannot speak to any others. It is quite another to insist that science proves that no other causes could possibly exist. John Macquarrie writes: “Science proceeds on the assumption that whatever events occur in the world can be accounted for in terms of other events . . . just as immanent and this-worldly. [So] . . . Miracle is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history.”

Macquarrie is quite right to assert that, when studying a phenomenon, the scientist must always assume there is a natural cause. That is because natural causes are the only kind its methodology can address. It is another thing to insist that science has proven there can’t be any other kind. There would be no experimental model for testing the statement: “No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible.” It is therefore a philosophical presupposition and not a scientific finding. Macquarrie’s argument is ultimately circular. He says that science, by its nature, can’t discern or test for supernatural causes, and therefore, those causes can’t exist.

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga responds:

Macquarrie perhaps means to suggest that the very practice of science requires that one reject the idea (e.g.) of God raising someone from the dead. . . . [This] argument . . . is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.

The other hidden premise in the statement “miracles cannot happen” is “there can’t be a God who does miracles.” If there is a Creator God, there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles. After all, if he created everything out of nothing, it would hardly be a problem for him to rearrange parts of it as and when he wishes. To be sure that miracles cannot occur you would have to be sure beyond a doubt that God didn’t exist, and that is an article of faith. The existence of God can be neither demonstrably proven or disproven.

Excerpt from The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2008 by Timothy Keller


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Brad Kramer) #3

As the intro indicated, we’re working hard on the website revision at the moment and will not be available to engage in conversation. Pastor Keller is also not available to comment. However, you are welcome to discuss Keller’s ideas below.

(Dcscccc) #4

actually a lot more then 7% of the scientists believe in some form of deity or higher power:

“According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power”

(Patrick ) #6

7% in 2009. What percentage today? Do you think it is less or more in 2015? Also what percentage is needed to show that some form of diety exists? Does believing in something make it true?

(Patrick ) #7

Is Keller saying that just Christian miracles may be true? How about the miracles believed by other faiths? Can they be true also?

(Brad Kramer) #8

I’m breaking my own self-imposed silence to comment on this question. I read this interesting statistic yesterday:

A recent survey by the American sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund showed that both faith and spirituality are still thriving in the scientific world. Between 2005 and 2007, Ecklund and her team carried out nearly 1,700 surveys and 275 in-depth interviews with senior scientists in 21 elite US universities. Their goal was to paint a more accurate and up to date picture of how scientists approach religion, and the results make interesting reading. About 50% of all the people interviewed were members of a specific religious group, and 30% were atheists. The remaining 20% did not believe in God, but valued something beyond science that they chose to call spiritual.

It’s very important to pay attention to the details in survey results. Depending on how surveys are done, you get different results. This is not to say that the survey cited by Pastor Keller is wrong, but it limits itself to belief in a “personal God”, whereas if you broaden it to a belief in a higher power or guiding intelligence in the universe, the numbers are much higher than that (as @dcscccc indicated).

No matter how you slice it, the amount of atheists among scientists (especially in secular research institutions) is significantly higher than the amount in the general population (at least in the U.S. context).

Now I’m really recusing myself from the conversation. Be gracious to each other, please. It saves me from having to officiate.

(James Stump) #9

@dcscccc @BradKramer @Patrick The 7% figure is for scientists who belong to the National Academy of Sciences, which is not representative of all scientists. The research was conducted by Edward Larson and Larry Witham in 1996 and 1998 in an attempt to repeat the survey done in 1914 by James Leuba. Leuba used a category he called “Eminent Scientists” as determined by the editors of American Men of Science. He found 31.6% of these scientists (compared with 41.8% of all scientists) indicated belief in a personal God. When Larson and Witham repeated the survey in 1996 and 1998, they found about 40% of all scientists saying they believe in a personal God. But there was no longer a category of “eminent scientists” in American Men and Women of Science, so they used scientists from the elite National Academy of Sciences as a comparison. That is where the 7% figure comes from.

Dawkins (where Keller got the statistic) interpreted that to mean that belief in God among the really good scientists has fallen. But that is a bit of apples and oranges. The study @BradKramer cites gives a closer comparison.

  • Leuba, James H. 1916. The Belief in God and Immortality: A Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study. Boston:
    Sherman, French, and Co.
  • Larson, Edward J. and Witham, Larry. 1999. “Scientists and Religion in America.” Scientific American 281 (September): 88-93.

(Merv Bitikofer) #10


what percentage is needed to show that some form of diety exists?

I would be more interested in why people (scientists or otherwise) believe in some form of Deity. Percentages may be interesting, but they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody here is claiming to show anything with these figures other than that being a good professional scientist does not inevitably lead a person to turn away from Christian faith or many other forms of faith either.

Does believing in something make it true?

No. For example, your (100% faith-based) belief that miracles cannot happen does not make your belief true.

How about the miracles believed by other faiths? Can they be true also?


(Dcscccc) #11

hi guys. the main reason why there is more atheists in the science fields is because of the fact that no one in the academy teach the problems with the evolution theory. and the main reason for this situation can be find in this movie:

(Patrick ) #12

Still trying to find problems in evolution theory? Good luck. Must be hard to get funding to do such research as understanding of how evolution works grows greatly year by year as more and more people work in fields that has Darwinian evolution at its base - evolutionary biology, evolutionary genetics, evolutionary psychology …



I can’t understand some of your questions unless they are not really intended as questions.

For example; “…what percentage is needed to show that some form of deity exists?” is obviously not a real question, it is a disguised statement that you can’t vote truth into office. This is trivial and obvious and more importantly, it seems to be missing the point completely. The point in observing that a large number of scientists are theists is simply to respond to the idea that science and rationality inevitably lead to atheistic conclusions as Dawkins would have it. As a response to Dawkins’ assertion, even given that his assertion is problematic to begin with, it works just fine. Maybe you missed the original point in the article.

“Does believing in something make it true” is also not a real question and does not need any response given that there are no obvious post-modernists around. Could you possibly be asking that question in earnest? And if not, could you possibly think that this is necessary to point out that this doesn’t follow? Yes, I get that some people have bizarre views on truth, but I haven’t hear a peep in this blog to give the impression that anyone here endorses this idea. In your defense, maybe dcscccc does think this, but I doubt it.

“Is Keller saying that just Christian miracles may be true?” at first blush seems to be a real question, but the very obvious answer to this question is no, so I’m doubtful. The overall point seems to be that science does not make miracles impossible, and it would be odd if the examples he used to discuss this point were miracles that he didn’t accept from a religion that he doesn’t believe. This seems so clear that again, I’m not sure that you’re posing a real question. You seem to be saying that if we are open to Christian miracles, we should also be theoretically open to miracles from other religions, assuming that we have reason to find them credible. Since you don’t say this, it is difficult to assume you meant it, but this seems the most likely interpretation. Even if you are saying this, it remains unclear what overall point this is supposed to contribute to. Although I’m not averse to somebody asking leading questions, and I think it can be pretty effective sometimes, I’m thinking it may help if you made your points a bit more clearly here.

(Patrick ) #16

Yes, they are really questions mostly to dcscccc. But I am glad you were saw right through me rhetorically. I will do my best to respond to your comments.

I think the surveys as have been done are kind of pointless. Scientists work in large groups. I was just reading the Planck results 2015 papers. Each paper had up to 1500 authors. If we surveyed each one of those authors most would tell you the religion that were born into. My point being that the results of the paper would be the same if they were all believers or non-believers. The measurement of the fine structure of the Cosmic Background Radiation is what it is. Take those numbers put them into the models and there you have it - the universe is 13.813 billion years old ± 21 million years. Amazingly precise results. Does this result confirm to or is different than the 1500 authors beliefs? If your a YECist, it would be hard to keep that view, if you were a TEist not so much. But in any case the results are the results. It is your Faith that has to move towards the new science not the other way around. If you believe in miracles and somehow a scientific results comes out that show the miracles improbability, well you need to restructure your beliefs in your own mind. You are the judge and jury of your own beliefs. If you don’t believe them well then they aren’t true.

I hope this is clearer than before. I type slower than I think so sometimes I convey less than I think it do.


Well… I admit that I was being a little facetious, but thanks for coming clean about your use of rhetoric all the same. I appreciate your helpful tone and your clarifications. What you seem to be saying here is very different from what you seemed to be insinuating by your questions. This is probably a good thing, since I was obviously having trouble pinning down the purpose of your insinuations. If these can be dismissed and your real point is in the not-obviously-connected follow-up, well and good.

From what I can see, your revised point is that if faith needs to keep adjusting to scientific findings, then the faith is redundant. I would entirely agree if the object of your faith falls within the purview of scientific investigation. Obviously, if you make the uninformed decision to read an ancient collection of books like the Bible without any eye to its context and without any awareness of the ancient categories through which it should be interpreted, further making your uninformed interpretation the object of your faith, then yes, your faith will need to retreat before scientific findings, and it will likely start to look obsolete. If, on the the other hand, the creator and the message of salvation is the object of your faith, then it is not at all obvious that it has needed to retreat an inch in thousands of years or in the face of dozens of scientific revolutions. As you put it, this is bad news for a YEC, but maybe such bad news is needed to wake them up to the absurdity of applying modernist categories and pop theology to ancient texts.
I suspect that you view the measurable progress and payoff of science as being an informative counterpoint to the more sluggish activity of theology. A similar counterpoint exists between the progress of logic and the progress of science, but the get rid of logic movement is not making headway. The object of faith is the interpretive framework of science, not the competing hypothesis for some scientific TOE. Your point about a hypothetical discovery that miracles aren’t possible in principle is a very unfortunate example, since such a discovery would be impossible in principle. If you see another example with the same force, I’d be interested in hearing it.

I guess my point is that your argument is marginally valid in that it successfully points out the problem for YEC proponents (who would disagree with you all the same) and with any like-minded modernist hermeneutics that shows no interest in more plausible interpretations of religious texts. Otherwise, I am not clear as to its force.

(Patrick ) #18

I see faith as an impediment to understanding how the world (universe) works. It is a bias that shouldn’t even be part of the discussion.


Faith is not a substitute for theories that explain how the world works and it is not a filter for deciding which theories we should accept, it is a full acceptance of the grounds for why the world works. I can’t see how a carefully-considered belief in God could bias your investigation aside from providing you with confidence that your investigation can be relied upon in the first place. I guess I still don’t follow your reasoning unless I take the faith of YECs as paradigmatic for all believers, which I quite obviously do not. I would like to think that you have an argument that does not involve consigning all people of faith to such an impossibly narrow and irrational category.

(Patrick ) #20

But what is Faith other than pretending you know something you really don’t know?

(GJDS) #21

As a practicing scientist, I am startled to hear that I know everything and do not require faith - but than again, dark matter/energy, those quirky particles, and this thing about time and space, and the eternity of matter (or many endless universes) speak of a faith that transcends anything a human may know - but who am I to suggest scientists may be ignorant even of their beliefs? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Please tell me that you have, even for just a moment, considered the possibility that the only reason you view faith as a silly concept is because you have forced it to have a silly definition(?) This is actually what you think it means? If I defined the word “love” as; “a relationship of sycophantic and hypocritical codependency”, would you be able to view it as a virtuous and positive concept? Of course not, but the fault would be an idiotic definition on my part, not a skewed moral compass on your part. I would strongly suggest you do yourself credit by taking a minute to rethink or research that definition, but if you choose not to, it would probably make sense not to discuss the subject too often, since you might come across people who think you are twisting meanings to arrive at preset conclusions. I don’t think this is the case, but I do think you have been very thoroughly misinformed on this one.

(Patrick ) #23

I have considered it, in fact all my life I considered the possibilities that you speak of. And I don’t think it is silly thinking about it. I admit I don’t understand it. I never understood it. I don’t understand a lot of things. I could be totally misinformed on this. If you can help understand what you mean by Faith maybe we can figure it out.


I’m not sure that I really outlined any other possibilities, but I am glad to hear that you have considered other views. That being the case, I am still rather surprised that the idea that you may have an inappropriate definition was not seriously considered in that time (or did I misunderstand this?). I would be in the same situation when it came to understanding the concept of faith if I stuck with your definition, but then, I think I would also be fairly quick to suspect that I had been misinformed and needed to do a little digging since the irrationality of this concept is fairly in your face.

In support of your view, I think there are a large number of people, both religious and non-religious, who seem to think that the word faith refers to any position that is unsupported by evidence but adhered to all the same. This is even viewed as a virtue in some circles, a perspective that I understand no more than you do. But this definition is not supported by the Bible. If you look at the semantic range of the Hebrew terms for faith in the Old Testament and the Greek terms for faith in the new testament, they have no such connotation. The Hebrew noun “amanah” (giving us our word “Amen”), carries with it a sense of confidence in and adherence to a pre-established covenant or agreement based on a personal confidence in the fidelity of the other party (God), but this certainly doesn’t imply that you should have no reason for such confidence. The Hebrew noun “Batach” gives the sense of confidence and reliability, but does not insinuate absence of evidence. In the Greek, the primary word for faith (pistis or pisteo for the verb form) originally refered in Homeric times to interpersonal trust, trustworthiness and confidence (not in reference to objects or concepts but usually only to other individuals or to treaties established between individuals). It came to have a wider range, but it remained largely a term that denoted or included justified personal confidence in another, and it never included the idea of confidence in something or someone that we have no good reason to trust.

In other words, the idea that it alludes to “lack of evidence” at all is simply not Biblical and appears to be based at least partially on a fairly obvious layman’s misreading of a single passage in the new testament (which we can discuss if you are really interested). A reasonable interpretation of the use of “faith” in contexts where “what is not seen” or “what has not yet come to pass” are the subjects of discussion is that it there denotes (as a more restricted meaning based on context) confidence and trust that God will fulfill his promises, and “faith” is there to be understood as being based on a personal and trusting relationship with God rather than on the thing that we can’t yet see, just as we would trust the unfulfilled promise, even when we don’t yet see it, of a faithful parent who has always fulfilled his promises in the past. If you replace the word with “trust”, “trustworthiness” or “confidence in God”, you will get a better grasp of the meaning intended.

Faith does not exist without a pre-established relationship that contributes to the investing of confidence and trust. If you have good reasons for confidence in God and an ongoing relationship with him, this would lead you naturally to have faith in God, as faith is understood Biblically, just as you would with any other trustworthy friend. It also often involves the concept of commitment, but never unjustifiable commitment. The biblical and Christian concept is largely relational and as such, it is reasonable in the same way that your having faith in the conduct or in the factual assertion of someone who you fully trust would be reasonable. If you do not have a relationship with God and you have not relied upon him through thick and thin, then you are unlikely to have what Christians call faith, no matter how hard you grit your teeth and pretend. Mark Twain’s definition is therefore still funny, but wrong. The semantic range is somewhat wider than this in a few instances, but in no case is it suggested that you shouldn’t have very good reason to invest trust or confidence.

I hope that helps to clarify that why I view your definition as indefensible when compared with actual Biblical usage. I consider it to be irrelevant (but unfortunate) that some modern Christians have a strange understanding of faith, just as it would be irrelevant to a discussion on Biblical authority if I was confused enough to think that the Bible was actually a best-selling BBQ cookbook. My being wrong and unwilling to investigate my own error would be my own fault and no one else’s, just as your own definition of faith, if it fails to reflect the religion to which you attribute it, would be your own mistake and responsibility at the end of the day.