The Scientific Method

The scientific method is based on the premise that there are a set of natural and physical laws that act the same no matter where or when they are exercised. It could be argued that the main aim of science is to identify and quantify these immutable laws, and then seek to understand their complex interactions within the natural world. The principle technique used to identify this immutability is to have many different scientists conduct the same experiments under the same conditions, all around the world and at different times, and carefully observe and document the effects. Hypothesis are then proved or disproved based on the results of these observations, and scientific knowledge gained only when experiments can be robustly replicated and the same cause-and-effect relationships clearly identified.

From this flows a further premise that the natural world is a complex system in which energy and matter are constantly interacting and affecting each other, based on the laws of conservation of energy, mass, momentum, etc. Thus, nothing can happen in complete isolation. Whenever anything happens that involves energy, mass, forces, light or whatever, it all must come from somewhere and then end up somewhere else after the event, all of which have observable and quantifiable ramifications within the local environment.

Whilst immutability and cause-and-effect have so far withstood some pretty deep scrutiny, I fully accept that they are both principally just assumptions. However, these two assumptions are pretty fundamental to the scientific method and the pursuit of scientific research. Without at least buying into these assumptions, I would imagine it would be quite difficult to be a scientist and conduct useful research.

Miracles and the Laws of Physics

To believe Christian religious teaching means also believing in miracles - the ability of a deity, saint or devout person to circumvent the laws of nature and physics through sheer force of will to bring about a desired outcome that should not or could not have happened by cause-and-effect alone. There are many miracles described in the bible, many of which are used as proof of Jesus’s divine nature. Also, substantiated miracles are a prerequisite for being deemed a saint within the Catholic Church. Thus, as I understand it, miracles are fundamental to the very concept of divinity.

However, belief in miracles effectively means that the laws of nature and physics are not immutable but are subject to manipulation at the will of some people and divine entities. It is not immediately obvious how many people at any one time have this capacity or how often miracles that may not be recognised as such are occurring all around us. If some devout Christians are capable of performing miracles, then it is difficult to discount the possibility that members of other religions and their deities are also similarly capable, or their long dead ancestors, etc.

Thus, if miracles are possible and we don’t know how often they occur, then wouldn’t it be impossible for a devout scientist to trust the results of any experimental observation, or even any number of them? For a non-scientist it is sufficient to say that God is powerful enough to have created the universe, so if God wills it then it just happens. However, for a scientist, the premise of immutability and cause-and-effect means that any miracle within the natural world couldn’t just happen in complete isolation, but would have measurable ramifications within their local environment.

It should therefore be impossible to discount the potential that any phenomena being observed in an experiment was not being influenced in some way by a coincident miracle, if not directly then perhaps as a result of the fulfillment of one entirely unrelated. For example, if a particular miracle required some temporary changes to a natural process in order for it to occur, and your experiment just happened to be undertaken close-by and at the same time, and involved that same natural process, then the results of that experiment would be different to those of another researcher performing the same experiment outside the range of influence.

Given that the number and type of potential miracles occurring is not known, it would be very difficult to establish exactly which natural processes were being effected or the area, nature and duration of the effect. The duration is a real problem as the effect of a miracle could potentially be anywhere from seconds to centuries, meaning that previously established immutable laws might suddenly begin acting entirely differently at some point in the future. We simply couldn’t know.

Prayers for Divine Intervention

Prayers for divine guidance or insight are absolutely fine. It would seem to be the role of religion and faith to influence and guide human behaviour. However, prayers for divine intervention in the natural world are not. As I understand it, the aim of many prayers is to implore a deity or specific saint to intervene on your or another’s behalf to help achieve a goal, cure the sick or keep someone safe from harm that may otherwise befall them. Thus, to believe in the power of this type of prayer is to believe that natural events all around us are being influenced all of the time and in all sorts of ways according to the hopes and desires of devout religious believers.

This creates very similar problems to the belief in miracles. For example, who is to say that the recovery of patients in a drugs trial was not due entirely to the prayers of loved ones rather than the drugs being tested. Would it not then make sense for scientists who believed in the power of prayer to contact all the relatives of subjects in a trial to ask that they not be prayed for throughout the experiment? Alternatively, wouldn’t control groups both inside and outside of devout communities make sense? Without these steps, it would be impossible for such a scientist to trust experimental data due to the potential influence of one or more prayers being answered in the same vicinity and at the same time.

Where are the Studies?

To reiterate, I see no conflict between science and religious belief in a divine presence or creator. My issue is only with the belief in miracles and prayers for divine intervention.

To me, being a scientist means seeing God in the beauty and elegance of the fundamental laws of nature and physics, and believing that these laws were effectively perfect when the universe came into existence or was created, and that any changes are gradual and explicable based on other immutable laws that govern their behaviour. Belief in miracles and divine intervention would suggest that the laws that govern nature and physics are/were imperfect and need regular modification and correction in order to achieve what the deity actually intended or now intends because, without the miracle or prayer occurring, the outcome would have been different.

Thus, regardless of which world view is right or wrong, a belief in miracles and interventionist prayer would seem to fundamentally conflict with the assumptions underpinning the scientific method. Surely holding both world views simultaneously would mean that you could not simply discount the potential effects of miracles and divine intervention on the natural world, and therefore on your own experiments/observations and those of others.

If, as they profess, some scientists do hold deep religious beliefs in miracles and the power of interventionist prayer, then where are the scientific studies that seek to identify and quantify their effects? Without such studies, the entire established scientific knowledge base is surely rendered unreliable in their eyes, so no prior work by them or anyone else would be sufficiently trustworthy to base their current work on unless it fully accounted for localised divine influences. Is that not a fundamental conflict?

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