Recently I have been writing about miracles and the idea that a materialistic understanding of nature eliminates the possibility of belief in miracles. The points I have made are not new or original to me. The root issue I have discussed is whether events which contradict “scientific laws” ought to be disbelieved entirely on principle, namely the principle that such a contradiction is impossible and so therefore the miracle cannot happen.
I have begun reading Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which is a book about the unintended social and philosophical consequences of the Protestant Reformation. The first chapter describes how a shift in the conception of God beginning with Occam and Scotus in the high middle ages eventually led to the conflict between science and religion. The author describes this shift as “univocal metaphysics” combined with “Occam’s razor.” I will explain what he means by univocal metaphysics, how it interacts with Occam’s razor, and why this leads to the view that miracles ought to be disbelieved on the basis that they contradict scientific laws. I will begin by considering the concept of “the God of the gaps.”
The God of the gaps is the way that God is invoked to explain a phenomena which cannot be explained given known scientific understanding. Some series of events occurs, A-B-C, whose causal relationship is understood. Then some event occurs, X, whose causal relationship to A-B-C is not understood. This is then followed by another understood causal series of events, E-F-G. The “gap” is the X in the series A-B-C-X-E-F-G. Since we don’t understand how X could occur, we explain the “gap” by saying that X was caused by God.
This understanding of God says that the series A-B-C and E-F-G are the result of natural processes, nature working “on its own,” and only X, which is not understood to be a part of nature, is the result of God’s activity. So A-B-C and E-F-G are not caused by God, but X is caused by God. As many atheists and materialists will observe, this is unnecessary because it is more likely that X simply represents some lacuna in our scientific understanding of the natural world. Since science tends to uncover explanations for these things as it moves through history, it makes more sense to simply wait for that explanation. In other words, the power of science justifies our decision to postulate an unknown natural cause for X rather than attribute X to God.
The book refers to this as a univocal understanding of God. “Univocal” means that there is one meaning for a word so that every time the word is used it means just that one thing. This is as opposed to “equivocal” in which a world has multiple distinct meanings determined by context, such as “bat” referring to a baseball bat or the animal. The God of the gaps is a univocal understanding of God because it uses the word “cause” in the same sense when talking about nature and God, which turns God into a being acting in the natural world in the same way that everything else is a being acting in the natural world. When trying to understand A-B-C-X-E-F-G, the God of the gaps explanation presupposes that God’s causal powers are the same as nature’s, and that therefore determining the cause of X is simply a matter of determining whether or not X can be explaining according to natural causes (even if those causes are extraordinary or highly unusual). In other words, if a natural cause for X can be found, then God did not cause X.
The idea of Occam’s razor interacts with this univocal understanding of God in the way I described earlier: Occam’s razor says we ought not to postulate unnecessary metaphysical entities. If an event is explained by ten causal factors interacting in a highly complex way but could also be explained by two causal factors interacting in an ordinary way, then the latter explanation should be preferred.
This turns God into a hypothesis which can be tested and falsified. It is falsified in the same way any other natural explanation is falsified, namely, by finding some other explanation. Colonel Mustard is dead; if the cook did it, then the butler didn’t do it. A person was miraculously healed through prayer; if they were healed by a freak confluence of natural causes that coincided with the prayer, then it was the natural causes and not God. Therefore the God hypothesis would be falsified.
Those familiar at all with the Biblical understanding of God will know that God is not merely described in the Bible as a powerful being which causes miracles. Rather, God is described as the powerful being that causes the existence of everything. The Bible attributes ordinary natural processes to God’s activity, such as rain and sun, the seasons, animals finding their food, and so on. While God does cause miracles, he also presides over the ordinary course of natural events. In fact, we would still talk about God’s activity in the world and him bringing things about even if there were never any miracles.
God’s presence in the world is somewhat like the presence of the government in society: it helps create an orderly, peaceful environment by establishing and enforcing laws. In most cases it is the mere presence of the government, the mere potential of the enforcement, that brings order. The government is not constantly intervening in the daily lives of its citizens to bring about that order (well, at least it didn’t use to). However, the government can and sometimes does directly intervene in our lives, as the covid outbreak and the 2020 riots demonstrate. But the ordinary, day-to-day order of society and the occasional, direct, extraordinary interventions of the government do not negate each other.
Libertarians often make a “government of the gaps” mistake: since people are ordinarily carry out their business without constant intervention, it is therefore assumed that the government should simply be “Occam’s razor-ed” away as an unnecessary being. If it was the market, then it wasn’t the government. Now obviously the government didn’t build your business, you built it. But on the other hand, you built it in an environment created by peace and stability wrought by the government, even if that government is not as well-managed as it could be, the removal of which would not simply entail “business as usual” but chaos.
So the objection to miracles presupposes an understanding of God as a being “out there” somewhere perhaps made of ectoplasm or some kind of spiritual goo that is everywhere all at once, like air. But God is not everywhere all at once in the same way as air, because air is part of the created world, a feature of nature, whereas God is totally transcendent and other. This means that we reason about God’s interaction with the world not univocally but analogically. These analogies, like the government analogy above, or the Biblical analogy of God as father, help us understand through images and likenesses what God is like. But because God is totally other and beyond nature, we cannot actually “grasp” or “apprehend” God in any complete way.
To falsify a miracle because it can be explained through natural causes is to misunderstand how God relates to the world by creating a dichotomy between things in the world which happen “on their own,” apart from any activity God does, and those things which God himself actually does. This view seems to make God truly other, but it ends up placing him on the same level as another created being. God is present in the ordinary workings of nature just as much as in the miraculous.