Many people believe miracles are impossible—based on our scientific knowledge. Our wealth of empirical data, gathered through the sciences, bring forth evidence against certain conclusions.
Our observations of our world indicate that life does not spontaneously appear, but cells always require a process involving pre-existing cells to replicate. This was a large part of Louis Pasteur's experiments (in the 1800s) as well as earlier researchers.
However, while this work provides strong empirical evidence against the spontaneous generation of life, setting up one of the major laws of biology, evidence of this kind is never able to prove against an event occurring—especially outside of the normal realm of the observable.
A multitude of possibilities
All of our empirical observations are contingent on many other possibilities, and while some are not ones we often think of, they are pertinent to proofs. Theoretically, sceptical arguments reduce our ability to make conclusive proofs from empirical data.
A good example comes from a modification of Descartes' famous meditations. There is a possibility that we are merely dreaming about this entire world, perhaps as bodies in vats receiving stimulus, a scenario imagined in the film The Matrix.
In a sense, because we cannot prove we are not in the matrix, we cannot prove that cells come only from other cells. This is because if we are in the matrix, the cells themselves may not exist in the first place. We do not often consider this type of evidence, however, because we may come to the conclusion that there are a great multitude of possibilities.
Many believe that the only things we can prove do not exist are things that are logically incoherent. Objects such as square-circles and flat-bumps fit into this category, but these kinds of limitations to possibility do not rule out much at all.
Where there are multiple possibilities, the possibility of miracles is not very controversial at all. For example, the statement 'if God were real and had the power to change the universe, then miracles would be possible' does not include logical contradictions.
While this may be enough to accept the mere possibility of miracles—to a similar degree to the possibility of us being in the matrix—this is not the claim Christians make.
More than possible
Christians believe miracles are not only possible, but have happened in our actual world. Centrally, they believe Jesus came back to life. Within the biblical account there are others too, such as Jesus calming a storm by his word and his followers curing the sick by his command.
Because Christians believe this to be true in the actual world, they argue that miracles are possible in the indicative conditional. That is, the form 'if Q is true, then P is true'. Christians argue something with potential to grate against the laws of the universe we ordinarily take to be true, such as the laws of physics.
While this may appear intolerable, there are several ways that such a proposition may become acceptable. Firstly the physical universe can be an open system. This is to say that the physical universe is not the only 'existence' and that the non-physically bound can affect the physical.
One illustration for this is a chessboard. The game of chess is bound by rules, pieces can only move according to set ways. However, the chess set's pieces can actually move in different ways, perhaps a person may cheat and move a pawn backwards. This move is not impossible, because the person is not bound by the rules of the game—indeed they have the power to break the game.
Because of this natural laws are not the only possible contributing factor. Causation can come from a source from outside of the system.
A philosophical possibility
What constitutes something's impossibility must be tackled from a philosophical perspective. Because of this, the possibility of miracles is not refuted by our other empirical knowledge, including our scientific knowledge.
In addition, since miracles are not logically contradictory, they are philosophically possible. At least one possible explanation exists for why miracles may exist in our actual world and so we cannot preclude the possibility of miracles.
Alex Gillespie is an undergraduate student from Wollongong now based in Sydney.
Alex Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/alex-gillespie.html