Thursday, September 27, 2018

What does science say about miracles?

Victor Hugo

In his work Quatrevingt-Treize, a title usually translated as “Ninety-three” (it refers to 1793, the year of the Reign of Terror and the Vendée), Victor Hugo introduces a character named Cimourdain, a former priest who has lost his faith because of science:
Science had demolished his faith; the dogma had vanished in him... He knew everything about science and he knew nothing about life.
Apart from the fact that the second sentence is quite debatable (no one can know everything about science), the first raises the confrontation between science and faith, which began with the Enlightenment and reached its maximum philosophical effect in the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo‘s time. He is probably projecting his prejudices into a historical anachronism.
Let us look at the question: What scientific discovery had demolished Cimourdain’s faith? Darwin? But Darwin had not been born in 1793. Copernicus? But the theory of Copernicus was not proved experimentally until 1838, when Bessel first measured the parallax of a star (61 Cygnus), thus proving that the Earth revolves around the sun. On the other hand, the assertion that the Earth is at the center of the universe never was a Catholic dogma, and the reservations of the Church toward the Copernican theory were not due to its possible opposition to the Scriptures, but to the fact that it ruined the cosmology of the Greek philosophers (especially that of Aristotle).
But let us go to the heart of the matter: what is the fundamental Catholic dogma, the one that Victor Hugo supposed that science had thrown down? I will dare to summarize it in a few words:
God exists, created the universe and became man in the person of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose again.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross is undoubtedly the basis of the central dogma of Christianity. This resurrection is not a scientific fact, but a historical fact, attested by the testimony of several hundred people, who claimed to have seen the risen Christ. Many of those people gave their lives to bear witness.
As I said elsewhere, science has nothing to say about the existence (or non-existence) of God. At most, it can provide inklings, and in fact, during the twentieth century, they have leant clearly in favor of his existence. Does science have something to say about the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
The following is a dictionary definition of the word miracle:
An extraordinary event, not explicable by natural or scientific laws and therefore attributed to a divine agency.
In other words: a miracle is an event beyond the reach of the scientific method. Therefore, to say that science has shown that miracles do not exist is the same as saying that science shows that there are no inexplicable facts for science: a self-contradictory statement.
Historical facts are not subject to the experimental scientific method, which is based on induction. Their veracity depends on the available documentation and on the human testimonies that support it (the abductive method is used). Who could take the following phrase seriously?
Science has discovered that the murder of Julio César is not credible.
However, Victor Hugo seems to have taken this other statement seriously:
Science has discovered that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not credible.
In the face of a concrete historical event, such as the resurrection of Christ, which is attested by hundreds of eyewitnesses and the corresponding documents (essentially the New Testament), we can take the following three attitudes, which closely resemble the famous C.S.Lewis trilemma:
  1. Either that concrete event really happened. That is, Christ rose from the dead and the several hundred witnesses who saw him were telling the truth.
  2. Or the event did not take place, and the witnesses lied deliberately.
  3. Or the event did not take place, but the witnesses did not lie, they were simply wrong, prey to a collective hallucination, or some equivalent explanation.
What can science say about this? Nothing at all.
C.S.Lewis
The three options above do not have the same weight. Most of those who face this trilemma exclude the second option, because it is not reasonable to believe that several hundred people would agree to affirm something that they knew was a lie, and that many of them would later give their lives to defend their testimony. Perhaps in a specific case, with just one person, this could have happened, but with such a large group of witnesses, it is not a reasonable option.
There are two options left: the first and the third. It is evident that atheists prefer the third, and believers prefer the former. But this preference has nothing to do with science. We could say that it is a philosophical preference.

The same happens whenever the truth (or untruth) of any miracle is discussed. Without going further, consider the miracle of Fatima, which took place on October 13, 1917, just over 100 years ago. According to the calculations made at that time, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 witnesses of the miracle. With such a number, the second option must be excluded, because it is impossible for so many people to agree to a falsehood. Again we are reduced to the first and the third option: the atheists assert that the miracle was a collective hallucination, or an optical effect due to the contemplation of the sun. Believers continue to prefer the first option.
Witnesses of the miracle of the Sun,
October 13 1917
Basically, the atheistic reasoning about miracles is circular and can be summarized as follows:
  1. Miracles are impossible.
  2. In any reference to a miracle, such as the resurrection of Christ or Fatima, we must always exclude that it actually happened, for that would go against the first premise of this reasoning (usually unspecified), so there is only the option that it was a collective hallucination or an equivalent explanation.
  3. Therefore miracles are impossible.

This is a book case of the fallacy of affirming the consequent, which Aristotle already knew, and which consists in proving an assertion by assuming that this assertion is true. As to what Victor Hugo says (that science has disproved dogma) it is clearly false.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science and Atheism: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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