Miracles and Einstein, Part 1

Albert Einstein’s official portrait on award of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Miracles are often mocked by skeptics as impossible, but I would like to suggest here that the skeptic is not seeing the big picture, and is, ironically, being somewhat close-minded.

Now, it’s always good to define our terms, so first, what is a miracle? Nelson’s Bible Dictionary defines it as “A sign, a special manifestation of God. Miracles set forth God’s character, and are used to accredit His messengers” [1]. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work, Miracles, gave a good working definition as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power” [2]. We can gather from this two key points: a) miracles are the exception to the norm, and b) miracles have specific purposes. Indeed, the rarity works to highlight their significance and the purpose behind them. But can miracles “fit” into any modern view of the world? We live in a science-loving society, and our world is often (but not always) made better by scientific advances. Yet science is the study of the natural world around us, and miracles are supernatural, by definition. So where can miracles fit in our model of reality? Let’s work through that today.

Albert Einstein actually made some comments in his 1920 book, Relativity, that can shed some light here.  In it, he attempted to explain to the layman his theories of special and general relativity. Classical, or Newtonian physics had been an excellent framework for scientific inquiry since the time of… Newton. But some phenomena appear to break the laws of physics in a purely Newtonian framework. They are rare, but when they are observed, accounting for those puzzling phenomena requires more and more complicated, ad-hoc theories. The beauty of Einstein’s special and general relativity were that they explained the cases where Newtonian physics was deficient, but then both  simplified to Newtonian mechanics under the vast majority of conditions (namely weak gravitational fields and travel speeds much slower than the speed of light) [3]. As the speed of an object approaches the speed of light, or gravitational fields get very strong,  observations framed in classical terms tend to make less sense and physics appears to “break down”. Not breaking down in those cases, Einstein’s theories therefore had more explanatory power than Newton’s. And in fact, we’d already seen this subsuming of previous theories by more comprehensive theories with an example Einstein himself used: the laws of electrostatics were thought to be the laws of electricity until electrodynamics was developed by Einstein’s hero, James Clerk Maxwell. Said Einstein:

“Should we be justified in saying that for this reason electrostatics is overthrown by the field-equations of Maxwell in electrodynamics? Not in the least. Electrostatics is contained in electrodynamics as a limiting case; the laws of the latter lead directly to those of the former for the case in which the fields are invariable with regard to time.  No fairer destiny could be allotted to any physical theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.” [4]

What does any of this have to do with miracles? Well, a naturalistic methodology can explain our observations of the world the vast majority of the time. But we have to recognize that there are times it may not explain things. These cases of miracles, where we get intervention from outside the natural world for a specific purpose, won’t make sense to us until we enlarge our frame of reference to include the possibility of that. We are often reminded that methodological naturalism is the mandate of science, and there is no room for God in that. But then the skeptic making this response often proceeds not to a stance of methodological naturalism, but philosophical naturalism. The first is a method of investigation that assumes an event happened without supernatural intervention; the second assumes such intervention is not even possible. The distinction is significant. We cannot recognize effects from outside the system if we don’t recognize even the possibility of there being anything outside the system. It would be like coming home from work to find my grass wet, and puzzling over such an extremely isolated rain shower that didn’t get the house or driveway wet, and never acknowledging the neighbor’s sprinkler as a potential cause. An assumption of rain may be correct most of the time, but if don’t allow for the actions of free agents outside the “system” of my property lines, some explanations will forever elude me.

Despite the claims by atheists of being freethinkers, the Christian is actually in the more open-minded position here. The Christian acknowledges the validity of searching for natural causes to events (for God created an orderly and comprehensible universe governed by uniform, rational laws), but also acknowledges the possibility in rare situations (lest they become meaningless) of intervention by God when He deems appropriate and has a specific purpose in mind. In this way, the Christian actually has the more general theory of the world that can encompass the atheist’s smaller view of the world just as electrodynamics encompasses electrostatics, or relativity encompasses Newtonian physics. Maybe you’re a skeptic reading this right now. Understand, I’m not expecting you to instantly believe the miracles recorded in the Bible now, but in the final analysis, Christianity is a more comprehensive worldview than atheism. Now look at the big picture and follow the evidence where it leads. Till next week, S.D.G.


[1] “Miracle”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).
[2] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: How God Intervenes in Nature and Human Affairs, (NY: Macmillan, 1978), p. 5.
[3] For those interested , the kinetic energy formula according to special relativity would be the series mc² + mv²/2 + 3/8mv^4/c²+… where v equals the velocity of the particle considered. At velocities << c, mv²/2 becomes the dominant velocity-dependent term, while mc² is a constant of the particle. Therefore, the relativistic kinetic energy reduces to the classical KE=½mv² formula. Regarding his general relativity, Einstein said, “If we confine the application of the theory to the case where the gravitational fields can be regarded as being weak, and in which all masses move… with velocities which are small compared with the velocity of light, we then obtain as a first approximation the Newtonian theory. ” –  Relativity, p.39, 87.
[4] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special & The General Theory (NY: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 65.

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