God, miracles and the laws of physics.

If something is consistent with the laws of physics, can it be a miracle?  If something behaves inconsistently with the laws of physics, does it prove that there is a God? Does a scientific explanation of an event say anything about the existence or non-existence of God? 

Consider the statement, “The earthquake was caused by the contraction of the crust of the earth”.  The statement in itself clearly says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God.  Yet people have often read meaning into disastrous events, considering them to be ‘acts of God’.

Whilst they may be right, just over 2000 years ago a tower fell on eighteen people and killed them.  At the time an investigation might have concluded that the tower fell due to subsidence of the foundations, or poor workmanship – there might have been a completely explainable ‘natural’ cause.  Yet there were probably a number of people who thought that this was God’s judgement on those eighteen people. The event is referred to in the Bible, and we hear that Jesus spoke to the crowd saying, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”  Clearly Jesus didn’t consider this event to have been an act of God.

Let’s consider another sequence of events that was also described in the Bible.  Jesus tells one of his followers to:

 “go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.” (Ref Matthew 17:27)

Clearly this might be explained by the following ‘natural’ sequence of events:  A merchant on a quayside dropped some coins and one fell into the water.  A fish happened to be attracted to the large shiny silver coin, and tried to eat it (we use such ‘lures’ to catch fish today).  The coin got stuck in the fish’s mouth.  The fish was rather hungry and particularly attracted to the bait on the disciple’s fishing line.  The fish was caught on the disciple’s line and he found the coin.  This explanation is fully consistent with the laws of science and our experience of the sorts of things that happen every day. But that’s not enough to satisfy us.  We can’t believe that it just happened by chance.

So why do we find the event so surprising?  Is it because we know that the particular chain of events is very unlikely?  We know that people drop money. We know that fish are attracted to shiny objects and swallow them. We know that people catch fish. So to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth does not seem so very unlikely.  Each event by itself is possible, although the complete chain of events becomes increasingly unlikely – I don’t personally recall hearing of anyone else who has caught a fish with a coin in its mouth. What makes the story special is that Jesus predicted that the first fish to be caught would have a coin in its mouth, and that he instructed the disciple to do such a strange thing in order to get the coin.  We recognise that there must be a ‘fix’ going on somewhere.

Derren Brown has been filmed tossing coins.  The film shows him tossing ten ‘heads’ in a row.  The probability of that happening by chance is (0.5)10 = 1 in 1024.  When we see something happening that has only a one in a thousand chance we know that there must be some fix, especially when we know the man is a conjurer – and yet we’ve seen it with our own eyes.  The explanation is that he spent days being filmed tossing coins until the unlikely event actually came up.  The difference in the story above is that Jesus only had one shot at getting it right.

Almost every week someone wins the lottery.  The chance of there being a winner of the lottery is extremely high.  Yet if a friend gave you a ticket in advance of the lottery and said “This ticket will win”, and then you did win you would know that the friend had fixed it in some way.  If you knew that your friend was not a crook, but had your best interests in mind it might make you pay somewhat more attention to what he said in future.

The conclusion from all these examples is that it is quite possible for something to be fully consistent with the known behaviour of the matter in the universe and yet still require some explaining.  Is there some sort of ‘fixing’ going on that we don’t know about?

Examples of ‘fixing’ are taken by many to be indication of there being a God; scientific evidence for God. And such examples may not contravene the laws of physics, but just be very unlikely events.  As we look at the discoveries of science there is no point doubting the validity, but (depending on your starting point) some things seem to be incredibly unlikely.  It is worth wondering, is there some sort of ‘fixing’ needed?

furry dice


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About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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8 Responses to God, miracles and the laws of physics.

  1. ryan59479 says:

    That’s an interesting question you pose, one which I suppose is unanswerable at this point. I like to think that if I witness something that only happens 1/1,000,000 times, that just means that I’m really fortunate and that said event won’t statistically happen again for quite awhile. I’d like to think that the law of averages applies to everything, even on a larger scale. But ultimately I guess what keeps me from believing that something may be “fixed” is the idea of the fixing itself. Why fix things in such a way? It seems really obscure and like more work than necessary to chain a bunch of random events together in an improbable way; sure, it might get someone’s attention mathematically. But why not simply state a message? That’s one thing I’ve never understood about the notion of a creator: why doesn’t he/she/it simply appear to us and talk to us regularly? That would be the simplest, clearest, and easiest way to convey information/instructions/etc.


    • Hi Ryan, Thanks for the comment. Why doesn’t a creator God simply state a message? Christians would claim that he did, in the form of Jesus, and that he had to come in human form for us to be able to understand him, and that he had to do some miracles because otherwise we’d think he was a nutter. There are others who claim that they do indeed converse with God. And others will suggest that one’s conscience is a means of God communicating with us. It’s a good question, and I’d be interested if you could think of some examples of how he might communicate with us in a way that we would actually listen, and in a way which doesn’t compromise our free will.


      • ryan59479 says:

        Well I guess I’m just confused about why God has to appear in human form. I’ve never really understood the concept that God is something incomprehensible to human beings. To my understanding, that’s a uniquely human concept. After all, weren’t we created in God’s image? Why doesn’t God just appear to us in whatever form he/she/it naturally exists in? If it really were something totally incomprehensible, I would think that would just lend credence to the idea that it truly IS God.


        • What does good look like? Have you read my post https://philhemsley.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/the-god-of-science/ If God is not material, then we can’t see him – but he can appear to us in immaterial ways. It is written that God is love, we can’t see love as a ‘thing’ but we can understand love. Anywhere we see love, we are seeing God. When we look at the complexity of a cell, we are seeing God. We mustn’t make God in man’s image. I think that when we are described as being in his image it means, in his spiritual image – we can love, think, design stuff etc… Perhaps we need to be open to new ideas of God?


  2. unkleE says:

    Phil, I agree with your analysis. Somewhere, once in a blue moon, someone will get a Royal Flush in Poker. But if I went to a casino and got three Royal Flushes in a row, the casino management might reasonably suspect I’d done a fix somehow, and they would like investigate the croupier and ask the bouncers to show me the door! Yet the odds (for example) of the universe having the laws and values needed to sustain it and sustain solar systems, planets and life are way longer than 3 Royal Flushes. I think a similar analysis could be done of healing miracles, but of course we don’t have accurate assessments of probabilities.


  3. Pingback: Brian Cox’s “Wonders of life – what is life?” .. a review | Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

  4. Pingback: Fear of science | Thoughts from a Minimalist Christian

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