In church today the pastor discussed the story of Jesus rebuking the storm and calming the sea. He brought up earlier miracles that Jesus had performed, such as turning water into wine and healing a congenitally blind man. Then he said something like, “So already Jesus has broken the laws of physics and biology.”
I disagree, on two fronts. First, strictly speaking this is nonsense, and misconstrues the character of physical law. If the H2O molecules didn’t obey “the laws of physics” when they were turned into wine, then those aren’t really the laws of physics are they? We don’t say that the behavior of clocks at high velocities violates the laws of physics. No, we say the Newtonian understanding of matter, space, and time was wrong.
Second, and more relevant to the theist reader, I think this typical view of God–where the religious person believes he is puffing up God’s strength by saying He can violate the “laws” of physics–is actually much less flattering to God than my own conception of His genius. It’s a bit weird to say that God setup a clockwork universe, running on autopilot, but then He has to come in every once in a while and break the rules because the physical machine He built was going down a path He didn’t like.
In contrast to that (typical) view, I prefer to view every event in the natural world as being equally willed by God. Everything is a miracle in that sense, and everything is natural–in accordance with the true laws of physics.
Now the really interesting thing–and here is why God is so brilliant–is that God figured out a way to tell His grand story (full of love, hate, honor, sin, faith, betrayal, redemption, heroes and villains, etc.), using (to a first approximation) little bundles of something we’ll call “energy” that obeys a very parsimonious set of rules. It would be like Shakespeare writing all his plays not in the original English, but in a series of 0s and 1s upon which you could do very mechanical operations involving the prime numbers, and BAM out pops Romeo and Juliet. Would that make Shakespeare more or less clever, in your estimation?
So don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that I think the true laws of physics (and biology, etc.) are necessarily completely foreign to our current understanding. What I’m saying is that it is sheer sloppiness to say, “A guy turning water into wine is violating the laws of physics.” It most certainly is not. Two hundred years from now, we might have Star Trek (TNG) type replicators, so a guy can say, “Make me a glass of water,” then his lady friend walks in and he says, “Scratch that, turn it into a glass of wine.” Don’t tell me that this would violate the laws of physics; you don’t know that.
Now of course, the obvious reply will be, “Oh my gosh Bob, fine, let’s stipulate Jesus didn’t have a little device from the future that was sent back in time by an android with huge biceps and an Austrian accent. Now do you agree it would be violating the laws of physics for a regular man to somehow turn water into wine?”
No, I still don’t agree. We have only the most miniscule ability to take our knowledge of the microscopic “laws of physics” and turn them into statements about the macro world. Consider this:
No fooling, I can use my mind to control matter. There can be a physical object (weighing more than a pound) resting on my kitchen table. I can control it with my mind, making it go up in the air and putting it back down. I can do it in any pattern you want. E.g. you can say, “Make it go up and down, rapping on the table to count out the first 7 prime numbers” or whatever you want. This way we can be sure it’s not a coincidence (like me saying every morning I’m going to use my mind to make the sun rise in the east). Really, I’m not kidding, I can do this experiment right before your eyes. The one catch is, the physical object I’ll be controlling is my right hand.
Of course, our apparent ability to control a small subset of nature directly with our “mind powers” is so commonplace that nobody even notices it. You think I’m just being goofy with that observation.
I don’t think so. It is absolutely astonishing that we seem to be intangible essences who yet can derive information from our bodies and somehow seem capable of influencing the course of events.
Mind you, I actually don’t think anything in the human nervous system violates the laws of physics or biology, even as we currently understand them. What I think is that we have only the dimmest understanding of the complexity and emergent phenomena that those simple laws are capable of generating.
So in conclusion, I would ask theists to reconsider their view of God’s relationship to physical law, and I would ask atheists to stop speaking such nonsense as, “The stories of the Bible violate the laws of physics.”