By Professor Ian Hutchinson (adapted by Kaley Payne from Episode 20 ‘Miraculous Physics’ of the Undeceptions Podcast)
There are plenty of smart people in the world, but not many make breakthrough discoveries about the nature of energy. Ian Hutchinson is one of those people. He is Professor of Nuclear Physics at MIT and has authored more than 160 journal articles on plasma phenomena and nuclear fusion. He literally wrote the book on plasmas. He’s a fellow of the American Physics Society, a fellow of the Institute of Physics and of the American Scientific Affiliation. And he believes in miracles, healing, resurrection, all of it. Listen to the full interview with Ian Hutchinson on the Undeceptions Podcast, here.
I take the view that a miracle is an extraordinary act of God. In the New Testament, miracles are referred to by different names. They can be signs; they can be wonders; they can be mighty works. Of course, the word “miracle” doesn’t appear in the Bible – it’s an English word, not a Greek word. But analysing those things that we regard as being miraculous in the New Testament leads me to that definition – a miracle is an extraordinary act of God.
I don’t think God is forbidden from sustaining the world in an extraordinary way for his own purposes, if he wishes.
The reason I phrase it in this way is that Christians believe that God sustains the universe by his Word of power (Hebrews 1:3). So there is a sense in which God is always acting to sustain the world. But a miracle is an event in which God may sustain the world in a unique way – somehow differently from the way he normally does.
As a scientist, when I’m finding out about the laws of nature, I’m finding out about the way that God (in the normal course of things) is upholding the world. And as a scientist, I find that He does so in an incredibly consistent and natural way. That is what I believe we are discovering when we’re discovering the natural sciences. But I don’t think God is forbidden from sustaining the world in an extraordinary way for his own purposes, if he wishes.
Science depends upon reproducibility and miracles are inherently unreproducible
So, while I think that science shows that usually – in fact, almost all of the time – the universe obeys the laws of science as we’ve formulated them over the centuries of modern science, I don’t think that science has proven that absolutely 100% of the time those laws are followed and have to be followed. I don’t think we can establish that on the basis of science, because science depends upon reproducibility and miracles are inherently unreproducible
The famous Scottish atheist philosopher, David Hume famously said that we shouldn’t believe any testimony about a miracle unless the falsehood of that testimony is even more unlikely than the thing that is meant to be miraculous. But I’m not so sure of that.
Hume’s arguments about probability are handicapped by the fact that he didn’t understand probability terribly well. In my book, Can A Scientist Believe in Miracles, I go through a little bit of an analysis of Hume’s probability arguments. The short answer is that Hume believes that there is consistent evidence of universal laws that are never broken. But in order to make that case, he had to simply ignore the fact that there are claims all the time of miracles taking place. He was essentially making an assumption about human experience that rendered miracles infinitesimally probable – or incredibly improbable, if you like. That was the basis of his probability argument.
He made other arguments, too. For example, he defined miracles as violations of universal laws. Since Hume believed universal laws were indeed universal, he was effectively defining miracles as something that cannot happen. And then he concluded that they cannot happen.
Now, I certainly take the view that not all miracle claims are true. It is certainly the case that in early times, when we were less familiar with the laws of nature, or today in underdeveloped countries where there has been very little education, miracle claims have been more widespread. But that simply means that we didn’t have our critical apparatus as finely tuned.
Yet, it’s still the case that in the modern world – and in places where education is higher today – millions of people each year are claiming to have experienced miracles. There is no uniform human experience that rules out miracles.
From a Christian perspective, the fact that we read in the New Testament that there were lots of miraculous events means miracles shouldn’t be a surprise to us. If we believe that God has entered the world in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, it would be perhaps more surprising if there weren’t uniquely significant events that surround that entry.
Quantum physics opens up more space for scientists to think about the miraculous.
In the 19th century, when classical physics ruled, science was reaching the point where it seemed as though the laws of nature could be expressed by deterministic equations. Scientists thought the universe was entirely deterministic, in the sense that you could solve the equations of motion or the equations of science, starting with initial conditions, and project forward in time. Therefore, the future was determined by the past or the present.
In that deterministic view of the universe, there were serious questions about how God could act in that situation, but also how humans could act if life was just clockwork following the laws of nature. That was the situation towards the end of the 1800s.
But in the 20th Century, we discovered that the universe is not, in fact, governed by these deterministic equations.
The equations of quantum mechanics are still classical equations, which you can solve, but we know now that they don’t entirely describe the way the universe works. In other words, there is implicit uncertainty in the outcome of various events and sequences of events, often referred to as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The universe has built-in uncertainty that cannot be described by classical, deterministic equations.
I think that is an interesting fact. It sets aside arguments that puzzled people in the 19th century: How could there be a God acting in the world? If, rather, it follows universal laws, that answer opens up space both for God to act but also for us as, as agents ourselves, to take seriously the idea of free will.
It is worth recognising that, historically, when people first started talking about laws of nature, in the 17th century, they had in mind that those laws were rather similar to the laws of a society, the laws, if you like, in those days of a King. I think that analogy was very important to the development of science. Of course, we regard the laws of science now somewhat differently. We tend to think of them as being abstract principles as opposed to the dictates of a law-giver. Yet it is still the case that if you approach this question from a theistic, or a Christian viewpoint, Christians take the view that the laws of nature are in a sense what God decided to make of his creation. When we are investigating those laws, they are actually the laws of a law-giver.
So, on the issue of miracles, if the laws are more like human laws, or at least somewhat like human laws, we know that those laws can be violated.
In Christianity, the fundamentals of the faith rest on historical events, probably more so than almost any other religion, but in the end, Christians say that evidence is backed up by personal experience – religious experience.
When we approach the universe, we find it is amazingly consistent. The laws of nature are amazingly consistent. But that doesn’t mean that the King doesn’t have the right to do something different or atleast the ability to do something different. It’s just that, if he is a good King, he won’t routinely do this. He will do something different from the normal course of nature only in extreme circumstances, when there’s a very important, or unique situation to be taken account of. I think that addresses part of an understanding of miracles.The scale of the miracle does not matter. Believing in a miracle as grand as the resurrection of a crucified Galilean (Jesus) is not of an entirely different order. It is not a flag in the sand where the scientific self and the religious self have to separate.
There are no scientific proofs of the resurrection of Jesus, just as I don’t think there are scientific proofs of Julius Caesar being assassinated by his fellow senators in the ides of March 44 BC.
I do think there are good intellectual reasons to believe in Julius Caesar’s assassination. And I think there are also very good intellectual reasons – mostly historical reasons – to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t think there’s an issue of intellect, but I think there is a difference in science. Science is obviously not the way we find out about most things in history. We shouldn’t expect there to be scientific proofs of the resurrection. There couldn’t be, because we’re talking about a unique historical event. But I do think there is very strong historical evidence and I find that evidence quite persuasive.
Science is one way of trying to understand the world. History is another way of trying to understand the world. Sociology is another way of trying to understand the world. All of those different disciplines are important. Christians and other religious believers over the centuries have argued that there is a way of understanding the world which goes beyond the visible things around us and is drawn upon spiritual experience. In Christianity, the fundamentals of the faith rest on historical events, probably more so than almost any other religion, but in the end, Christians say that evidence is backed up by personal experience – religious experience.
While I think there are lots and lots of different reasons to believe in God, the two types of reasons that I find most persuasive are the historical evidence surrounding the person of Christ and my own personal religious experience.