Review of Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? by Ian Hutchinson

I first met Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, when I was a graduate student. Hutchinson, along with some other Christian professors such as Rosalind Picard and Daniel Hastings, took a keen interest in the students who participated in the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, and attended many of the meetings. At the time, I think I was guilty of taking their presence for granted, and it is only over time that I have gained a deeper appreciation of how much effort and commitment they put in to mentoring Christian graduate students, on top of all their many other responsibilities.

I had the pleasure of re-connecting with Ian recently, when our church invited him to speak about science and faith. At his talk, I obtained a copy of his most recent book, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? This book grew out of the Veritas Forum, a Christian nonprofit organization that promotes talks at universities by leading intellectuals about the “big questions” in life. How can we mend a broken world? How should we seek justice? What is the good life? Hutchinson has spoken at numerous Veritas Forums and has fielded a huge number of questions from the audience. In the preface to Miracles, Hutchinson writes:

A large fraction of my Forums have been video recorded; so I transcribed all the (220-plus) questions I could access on these recordings, keeping the wording as near verbatim as is consistent with tolerable grammar. I sorted the questions, some of which are very similar in topic and even wording, into logical groups that belong to the book’s sections. But I did not change questions or omit them, except for a very few that were totally incomprehensible. I have not cherry-picked the questions I like.

In other words, Hutchinson’s book is a concerted attempt to answer all the questions that he encountered at Veritas Forums over the course of twenty-five years. As a result, the book’s scope is enormous, ranging over almost any topic that you can imagine that a student or faculty member might ask of a scientist who is also a professing Christian. A lesser intellect might very well botch such an ambitious project, and produce a rambling stream of disconnected thoughts, but Hutchinson is up to the task, and he masterfully organizes the material into a coherent whole. His answers strike an excellent balance, remaining concise without being so terse as to dodge the question being asked. In fact he does such a good job that when I recently had the opportunity to give a book to a scientifically-minded atheist friend of mine, I chose Hutchinson’s book over several other books that I could have picked. Compared to, say, Francis Collins, Hutchinson is better educated in philosophy and theology. On the other hand, writers such as John Polkinghorne or Ian Barbour, whose theological credentials are impeccable, write in a style that in my opinion is somewhat dry and technical. While Hutchinson does not hesitate to introduce technicalities from science or philosophy when appropriate, he always does so in a way that remains accessible to the lay reader.

Given how broad the scope of the book is, it is impossible to summarize all of it in a review, but there are certain themes that Hutchinson repeatedly returns to, and that form the backbone of his general approach. For example, Hutchinson repeatedly attacks a point of view called scientism. He opens Chapter 6 (“What is Scientism?”) with the following words.

In 2011 I published a book examining and criticizing the prevalence of scientism. The same year, Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg published his book titled An Atheist’s Guide to Reality. In it he explicitly advocates scientism, which he defines just as I do: “The conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.” He says, for example, “Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about,” and “Once you adopt science, you’ll also be able to cease treating the humanities as knowledge.” Rosenberg’s beliefs were a perfect example of what I was criticizing.

By science, Hutchinson means the study of nature, by which he means the settled course of things—the normal course of events. The methods of science therefore rely crucially on reproducibility. Hutchinson is careful to point out that science’s reliance on reproducibility does not automatically mean that science cannot say anything about past events.

Although we cannot literally do repeatable experiments on the past, since experiments always happen in the present, we can make what are effectively repeateable observations. Observational science, of which astronomy is the earliest and best example, is based on observations that are reproducible, but not reproducible at will. The configurations of the stars do reproduce, but on their own calendar, not whenever we wish. The reproducibility science requires may be constrained in observational science by the availability of examples, but it still works when there are (eventually) many repeatable examples.

On the other hand, the restriction to phenomena that can be studied by reproducible methods does mean that science is restricted to only certain domains, and is silent about other domains. Hutchinson emphasizes that just because science has nothing to say about certain irreproducible facts does not mean that those facts are unknowable. For example, he explains that historical knowledge is possible even though it is not scientific in the sense just described.

Historians try to understand which of the possible hypotheses is most likely to be the true explanation. Science also does this kind of reasoning. There are, then, some similarities between the investigative methods of history and those of science. But the predictions of historians are not “just like” those of scientists. Historical hypotheses are generally about higher-level influences like politics, ambition, jealousy, revenge, fear, public opinion, riots, tribalism, greed, and love. Applying similar types of logical discussion to these higher-level descriptions does not reduce them to the sorts of lower-level descriptions that appear in the laws of nature.

Specific historical individuals and events, and the motives and causes of those individuals and events, are not subject to the reproducibility demanded by science, but are not thereby disqualified from being labeled as knowledge just because they are not scientific. Hutchinson frequently talks about “higher levels of description” and he strongly resists what he has called “nothing-buttery” or reductionism, that denies the meaningfulness of higher-level explanations.

Hutchinson’s rejection of scientism thus allows for the possibility (if not the actuality) of miracles. In the section where he addresses the question in the title of the book, he writes:

The presumption that the laws of nature are inviolable is just not a doctrine of science. Science’s method, and program, is to describe the universe insofar as it is reproducible and follows universal laws. But science has not the slightest need to extrapolate that method and program into a presumption that everything that happens must be so describable. Science sets out to explain nature naturally. It need not insist there are no other true explanations.

Hutchinson further explains that it is misguided to think of the universe as an autonomous sequence of events that are caused by physical laws, with miracles being occasional violations of the laws of nature by God.

Obviously the English word miracle doesn’t occur in the original Greek of the New Testament. Instead there are three Greek words that on different occasions express the events we commonly call miraculous. One is “sign” (Greek semeion); a second is “wonder” or “marvel” (Greek teras); and the third is “mighty work” or “work of power” (just power in Greek, dynamis). The Bible, therefore, does not define a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature. The idea of laws of nature got started in the scientific revolution and became commonplace only in the nineteenth century. So it is actually a strange anachronism to regard biblical miracles as violations of the laws of nature.

He offers a theologically more satisfactory way of viewing the relationship between the relationship between the normal course of events and extraordinary events that we call miracles.

Hebrews 1:3 says that God the Son is “upholding the universe by his word of power.” The picture we are presented with is not that God set the world going like a clock and left it to its own workings. It is rather that he continuously holds the universe in the palm of his hand, that it exists because of his continuous creative power and will: if he were to stop exerting that upholding power, stop paying attention to every part of the universe, it would instantly cease to exist. In other words, for a Christian, the primary principle of reality is the personal character and will of God, not the impersonal laws of nature. Christian theology regards the laws of nature, which describe the normal course of events, as the normal way that God upholds and orders the universe. Every single thing that happens is dependent on God’s upholding power. But God is not arbitrary; he has principles. And the laws of nature are the principles he applies to ensure a universe in which his creatures, including the sentient ones like humans, can live within a coherent environment that supports what he intends for them. A miracle, an extraordinary act of God, is an event in which, for some other overriding principle of his character and will, God upholds a part of the universe in a manner different from the normal.

Of course, even if we accept Hutchinson’s contention that a commitment to the validity of science does not preclude the possibility of miracles, it does not automatically follow that miracles actually do happen. The specific miracle that Hutchinson discusses in the greatest detail is, not surprisingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here, Hutchinson follows a line of argument that will be familiar to any student of Christian apologetics: “[W]e are left with three possibilities. The apostles might have been mistaken or deceived, telling what they thought to be true, or they might themselves be deliberate deceivers, telling lies they knew to be lies, or the resurrection might be true.”

In a book about science and Christianity, Hutchinson obviously cannot avoid taking some kind of stand about creation and evolution. Young-earth creationists will be disappointed that Hutchinson accepts most of the standard scientific account of the history of the physical universe without complaint: “Modern science gives us a great deal of reliable, simple, and relatively uncontroversial information about the beginning of the universe and about its subsequent development.” Hutchinson gives the intelligent design (ID) movement a fairer hearing, and is sympathetic to the argument from the apparent fine-tuning of physical constants, but for the most part he ultimately rejects the ID point of view.

Therefore, when I say that I am unpersuaded by the arguments of the ID movement, I am not in the least saying I reject all natural theology. I am saying I am not persuaded by claims that there are clearly identifiable irreducibly complex biological mechanisms that can never be explained as the result of natural selection. And I am not persuaded that specified complexity is something that can be identified in such a way as to allow one to invoke mathematical conservation of information to prove that it could not have come into existence naturally, without the action of an intelligent designer.

Similarly, Hutchinson largely accepts the standard scientific account of evolution, even of human beings.

I lean toward a view that when “the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7 NIV), this was a two-stage process referring to biological formation (of dust from the ground) and followed by the implanting of spiritual (breath of) life, giving a direct relationship with God.

As for death, Hutchinson says, “Spiritual death entering the world through sin seems to me fully compatible with an evolutionary scientific account of the natural origin of humans.”

While I have already said that there is much material in the book that I cannot touch upon within the confines of a brief review, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the book begins and ends on a personal note. The first chapter of Miracles describes Hutchinson’s personal spiritual journey. He did not grow up a Christian and his family did not go to church. It was only when he went to Cambridge University that he began to consider Christianity seriously. In part it was because “it seemed pretty obvious that, despite the material benefits of science and technology, the secular society and academy was, if anything, doing a worse job [than Christianity] at developing and sustaining the virtues that I valued: truth, integrity, rationality, compassion.” However, personal relationships also played a vital role.

What in the end brought me to take Christianity seriously was that two of my closest friends in college were serious Christians, and I found their lives and friendships attractive. … At my friends’ invitation, I attended some lectures that explained basic Christianity. What struck me then as completely new thoughts were that there is good historical evidence fo Christianity’s claims, that Christian theology makes deep sense of the world and of human experience, and that Jesus invites each of us into a personal relationship with him. … I was not sure of its truth, but I realized that it was not reasonable to demand abstract intellectual certainty about the personal relationship with the deity that Christians say is at the heart of Christianity. … I accepted the idea that Christian assurance comes from a life lived in fellowship with Christ as much as in intellectual conviction. So, one evening, I yielded my life to his lordship in prayer; and I began to follow him.

In the final chapter of the book (“Personal Consequences: So What?”), Hutchinson urges non-Christians not to procrastinate but to investigate further, in the context of other seekers of the truth. Interestingly, his concluding remarks are addressed to Christians, especially Christians who are pursuing a career in the sciences; he cautions against a simplistic view of biblical literalism that he regards as almost as harmful as its polar opposite of scientism. Let me conclude this review by quoting the final two paragraphs of the book.

To explain every intellectual puzzle or challenge that the relationship between Christianity and science raises is an impossible task for any book—or for any lifetime. Here we have tackled specific questions raised by believers and unbelievers today, and discussed specific explanations. There are good, thoughtful, coherent answers to the hard questions about God and science. I find that the Christian answers make much more intellectual sense overall than the alternative answers offered by unbelief.

Beyond that intellectual coherence and integrity stand also wisdom, faithfulness, and love: true realities reflecting the personality of the One who is before all things and whose Word upholds the universe.

Posted June 2019

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