“A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusion” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Being and Essence, quoting Aristotle).
There has been a popular trend among theologians who are looking for a more scientific bend to their theology to turn to quantum mechanics as a sort of silver-bullet explanation for miracles. The explanation for this basically goes that because there is some imprecision in measuring a pair of conjugate variables (position and momentum, energy and time, number and phase)–the two cannot both be measured exactly–therefore causality itself is overthrown. This is, however, a fallacious bit of reasoning–one which began with Werner Heisenberg himself–which hinges on the equivocation of “exact.”
This equivocation is explained by Fr Stanley Jaki in his Miracles and Physics (among other places):
“It was largely overlooked that Heisenberg’s principle states only the inevitable imprecision of measurements at the atomic level. From that principle one can proceed only by an elementary disregard of logic to the inference that an interaction that cannot be measured exactly, cannot take place exactly. The fallacy of that inference consists in the two different meanings given in it to the word exactly. In the first case it has a purely operational meaning, whereas in the second case the meaning is decidedly ontological. The inference therefore belongs in the class of plain non sequiturs that, as a rule, are severely structured in better-grade courses on introductory logic.”
There is thus an equivocation between the operational and the ontological meanings of “exact,” and this this confusion resulted in the discarding of causality by a great many physicists, beginning with Professor Heisenberg himself. It has in turn percolated into the sphere of the theologian, and in particular of those “edgy” theologians who are more concerned with modern trends than the perennial philosophy of the Church. Here again is Fr Jaki:
“Quite a vast literature has arisen about the alleged support which the other main branch of modern physics, quantum theory, allegedly has for miracles. That literature certainly proves the naivete with which theologians try to cash in on science even when they are not properly trained in it, or appraise it with false philosophical premises. They still have to learn that a wrong starting point can only lead to blind alleys regardless of the subject, be it as lofty as theology or down-to-earth as physics. In following up philosophical blind alleys, theologians who stake their fate and fortunes to on the divinity of the Logos, that alone makes Christian miracles reasonable and meaningful, should view most seriously any misstep in logic, in particular, and philosophy in general. It should seem most un-Christian to espouse mental somersaults or plain verbal tricks that abound in the literature on the philosophy of quantum mechanics as well as the demythologization of miracles.”
Professor Jaki has quite a lot more to say on this subject, too much indeed to treat in a single blog post, even a reasonably long one. Here are three things which stand out to me:
- The attempt to explain miracles as a possibility in the light of quantum mechanics is just another form of attempting to demythologize the power of God, and in particular of Christ.
- It is moreover exactly the sort of mistake at the beginning against which Saint Thomas–and Aristotle–warns us against.
- (Implicitly) There is more to miracles than just how they come to occur.
God’s power is not limited merely to his ability to work within the physical framework of the universe which He created. To be fair, the doctrine of Divine simplicity tells us that He is not made up of parts but rather Is absolutely simple: thus, His knowledge is also His power. But this is not limited to merely knowing the physics of which He Is the Author–nor, by extension, of merely having a greater ability to manipulate that physics, be it on the quantum or the cosmological level. The laws of nature do not place a necessary constraint on the operations of the Divine Will, a limit to His power. God Is, after all, beyond the universe and its laws. Even should quantum mechanics be proven an incorrect (unlikely) or incomplete (more likely), it does not limit the possibility of God’s intervention in nature .
Professor Edward Feser gives perhaps the best analogy I’ve heard of how God “intervenes” in nature. In his analogy, God, is like an orchestra which plays a symphony, and the musics which comes forth is like nature. One the one hand, nature exists only so long as God maintains her existence–just as the symphony only has physical existence for so long as the musicians continue to play–and on the other hand, a miracle (or “divine intervention”) occurs when God alters a part of the symphony, as perhaps when the strings begin an improvisation during a segment originally written only for the wind ensemble . Tolkien apparently imagined a similar conception of God as He acted in the creation of the world , an idea which comes down to him from at least the medieval period (and probably earlier).
With this in mind, I believe that it is a mistake to attempt explaining God’s supernatural miracles in terms of merely natural physics. On the one hand, such explanations eliminate supernature, which is perhaps a part of the intent of those who go about explaining miracles in this way. On the other hand, such explanations lock us into an acceptance of a quantum theory which is just that: a theory.
Theories come and sometimes also go–and though I do not believe that quantum theory is going to “go” anywhere, I suspect that the “scientists” of the Greek and Roman Empire may have thought the same about, for example, Aristotle’s theories about motion. To stake God’s operations to any theory of physics is to make a mistake which is the opposite side of the same coin as the “God of the Gaps” theory: it creates a conception of a God who is ultimately impotent, and whose little power may slowly dissipate as we gain greater and greater understanding of the physics involved. The divine power becomes a sort of physicist’s parlor trick.
Here at last is what I believe to be the crux of the matter, which is that a miracle is not merely reducible to the event itself. This means, among other things, that the process by which a miracle comes to pass is not itself the only important–or indeed even the most important–aspect of that miracle. In the passage I cited above this is only implicit, but elsewhere Fr Jaki is more explicit in stating that miracles have first and foremost a moral nature to them, not to mention an allegorical one. They are “signs,” as we read in St John’s Gospel, meant to reveal to us something about ourselves, something about God–and to call us to repent.
A miracle is not a parlor trick or a divine “stunt” (as Mr Mark Shea notes in his Mary, Mother of the Son ), but rather is a sign which should point us to a deeper reality than the surface reality in which we so often live. They remind us that we do not live in a hollow universe, but rather one with layers and layers of meaning. And though the miracle might be seen as a sort of divine intervention in nature, it is worth noting that such interventions may be a part of God’s own providence from the beginning. The Rev Prof John Polkinghorne, an Anglican clergyman who was formerly professor or mathematical physics and president of Quuen’s College, Cambridge, writes about God’s self-consistency and miracles in his Science and Theology:
“God’s self-consistency is the self-consistency of a ‘person.’ It does not imply a dreary uniformity. In unprecedented circumstances, God may well act in unprecedented ways [hence implying the 'nature' of miracles as 'unique events and not recurrent phenomena']. Theology can burrow from science the concept of a regime, a domain of experience characterized in some intrinsically significant way. It is a familiar fact that a change of regime can produce dramatic changes of behaviour, as in the transition metals from the conducting state to the superconducting state, resulting in the total vanishing of electrical resistance. Physicists call these radical changes ‘phase changes.’ Even the boiling of water, the transition at 100 degrees Celcius from the liquid regime to the gaseous regime, would astonish us if we had not seen it happen several times every day. The laws of nature do not change at these transition points but their consequences do so radically. There is superficial discontinuity (even to the point of apparent irrationality in the vanishing of electrical resistance) but underlying continuity.
The theological attempt to understand a miracle must seek to pursue a similar strategy. Miracles do not need to be interpreted as divine acts against the laws of nature (for those laws are themselves expressions of God’s will) but as more profound revelations of the character of the divine relationship to creation. To be credible, miracles must convey a deeper understanding than could have been obtained without them. Hence the language of ‘signs’ used in the fourth Gospel.”
Supernature–God’s actions, the angels, etc–is in a sense another regime of nature. But the laws of physics govern a specific regime of nature, one outside of which sits the regime of the supernatural. But there are higher laws than those of physics, and so when God intervenes in ‘nature,’ there is underlying this miracle a greater amount of order and continuity than there would appear. Superficially it may look like God is changing or suspending the laws of nature, and if we understand the laws of nature to be limited to physics (or more broadly the physical and biological sciences), then a suspension there might be. But on a deeper level this act of superficial discontinuity is really a coherent act, one which moves according to the true laws of nature–those which include not only the “hard” sciences but also the “soft” sciences, and those things which today are scarcely called sciences at all: philosophy, theology, especially as they touch upon morality and metaphysics.
Miracles are therefore a sort of “phase change” in nature, the moment at which God’s Providence is made sharply visible and tangible to us, if for but a moment. They may represent a point at which the (material) laws of nature change (or pause) their course momentarily, and are not merely limited to some effects buried in a Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (as per Heisenberg, Bohr, etc). “No one,” writes Rev Polkinghorne about the Resurrection of Christ, “could suppose that a dead man came alive, never to die again, through some clever divine exploitation of quantum theory or chaos dynamics.” Nor can this miracle be honestly denied on merely physical ground, as Fr Jaki writes:
“If it is impossible to start a march (mental or physical) with the second step, concern about the laws of nature should give second place to man’s ability to register things and event with certainty. And since without this ability, nothing can be known about the laws of nature, the chief intellectual concern should not be so much about the possible violations of the laws of nature as about the actual violation, if not plain rape, of man’s mind whose natural function is to know reality with immediate certitude.
Such a rape is committed when individuals reporting extraordinary event, and in fact lay[ing] down their lives on behalf of their witness, are declared at the outset as hotheaded enthusiasts, uncritical minds, or just plain fakers. This is done on the patently dogmatic ground that nature cannot change its course.”
Miracles–at least some of them–are phenomena which are ultimately foreign to our normal laws of physics. But this does not imply that we must jettison either the miracles or the laws of physics. Rather, we must not get sucked into thinking that the laws of physics are the totality of the laws of nature.
 I would be remiss if I did not include a most important miracle or “divergence” from a purely mechanical conception of nature: the mind. This includes the intellect, but more importantly also the will. Thee are plenty of attempts to explain free will in terms of quantum mechanics. I believe that these attempts will ultimately fail, but that is grist for another day. However, suffice it to say that the freedom of the will is something which ought to be believed not only because this is a teaching of the Church (reason enough to believe this doctrine!), but also on the basis of observation, both internal and external.
 Note that the improvisation can be–and in the case of God’s miracles, is–an improvement to the “original” piece. Of course, what appears to us as an improvisation may really be a part of God’s original plan.
 See his description of the creation of the world which contains Middle Earth, in The Silmarillion. He was in turn perhaps thinking of Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century German philosopher who wrote that
“In creating the world, God used arithmetic, geometry, music, and likewise astronomy. (We ourselves also use these arts when we investigate the comparative relationships of objects, of elements, and of motions.) For through arithmetic God united things. Through geometry He shaped them, in order that they would thereby attain firmness, stability, and mobility in accordance with their conditions. Through music He proportioned things in such a way that there is not more earth in earth than water in water, air in air, and fire in fire, so that no one element is altogether reducible to another. As a result, it happens that the world-machine cannot perish….And so, God, who created all things in number, weight, and measure, arranged the elements in an admirable order. (Number pertains to arithmetic, weight to music, measure to geometry.)” [Nicholas of Cusa, “On Learned Ignorance,” trans., Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Banning Press, 1981), II, xiii, 175]
Note also the citation of Wisdom 11:21, one of the most popular verses of that time (ca 1440).
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/JC-Sanders-OP-e1313150942177.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]JC Sanders, OP is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He is currently a physics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, where he studies high-intensity laser-plasma interactions and Raman processes. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. He has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?” His websites are Equus Nom Veritas and The Nicene Guys.[/author_info] [/author]