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A Physicist Tries To Understand Miracles

Andersen helpfully dismisses foolish arguments against the possibility of miracles

In a longish and very interesting article, physicist Tim Andersen tries to understand miracles.

From a religious perspective, miracles are direct actions by God. They need not involve violations of laws of nature. There is no “law of nature” that says your mom couldn’t get a remission from cancer—though friends who pray for it might say it’s a miracle if she does.

Similarly, we are told in the Book of Daniel (6:22) that the mouths of the lions, to whom Daniel was thrown, were shut by an angel. But it’s not clear that any violation of the laws of nature was involved. All we know is that the lions did not attack Daniel.

Andersen helpfully dismisses foolish arguments against the possibility of miracles, for example, the psychological argument that only desperate people experience them:

Another objection to believing in miracles comes from psychology. Of course, many miracles, if experienced by only one person, can be attributed to hallucinations, but I am talking about people with more ordinary psychological experience.

A Baylor study showed that people whose lives are uncertain and unstable are more likely to report miracles. This went mostly across educational and income level lines although people in abject poverty were, of course, more likely to have unstable lives and report miracles. Thus, the psychological objection is that seeing or believing in miracles is a psychological coping mechanism, a way for people to bring stability to their lives by a superphysical helping hand.

I find this argument pretty weak. One could just as easily argue that these are the people who need miracles more than anyone. Thus, if some being wanted to help people in need, surely they would help those suffering the most.

Tim Andersen, “Miracles may be superphysical phenomena” at Medium

Andersen proposes a concept of the “superphysical” to explain miracles:

Yet, the term supernatural is a misnomer for if miracles do occur they are part of the natural order of things, just a higher order than purely physical. Hence I prefer the term superphysical, that is, separate from the physical world but intersecting and influencing it. While it is commonly believed that miracles are never subjected to the scientific method, this is far from the true. They can and have been subjected to laboratory tests. For example, an 8th century Eucharistic miracle, in which a doubting priest, upon saying mass, found the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood was studied in the 1970s and the flesh found to contain human cardiac tissue type AB and the blood was ordinary human blood. There was no trace of preservatives.

Tim Andersen, “Miracles may be superphysical phenomena” at Medium

Perhaps that’s a bit like the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud lacks any conventional explanation. But, no matter what you may think of it, it is evidence that the world is not as dull normal as we might think.

It’s not clear why Andersen’s term “superphysical” is better than “supernatural”—except insofar as it would rid us of nonsense about witches and Friday the Thirteenth. So if we want to talk about something serious, we can at least avoid the ridiculous.

You may also enjoy: Common reasons for dismissing miracles are mistaken, study shows. Religious people are more likely to say they’ve experience a miracle but they aren’t the only ones who do.

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A Physicist Tries To Understand Miracles