Miracles and science: friends after all?
- Published on 01 October 2010
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Can science verify a miracle? At first glance, this seems impossible by definition: miracles are events that defy natural law, while science is the systematization of natural law. How can the field that categorizes natural law verify an event that purports to flaunt that law? As counterintuitive as it appears, a recent study purports to have uncovered the mechanism that divided the sea for Moses: a 63-mph wind.
Scientist Carl Drews (the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.) used computer simulations to determine that wind blowing 63 miles per hour could part the waters at the intersection of the Nile and the Lake of Tanis. Wait, wasn’t Moses supposed to have crossed the Red Sea, not some lake in Egypt? In fact, modern Biblical scholars believe that the Hebrew yam suf is best translated not as "Red Sea" but as "Sea of Reeds." Drews’s hypothesized location would fit this description quite nicely.
Through simulations, Drews has found that a wind blowing at 63 miles per hour for twelve hours could have "split" the waters by blowing them backwards. His idea is not so far-fetched. In 1882, a British general reported a similar phenomenon at Lake Menzaleh, also in Egypt: strong winds blew the waters back, creating a land bridge. Drews believes the wind strength in the case of the Exodus to be 63 mph because it would be strong enough to blow back the waters but weak enough to allow people to pass through it. As such, Drews concludes that the parting of the waters has a basis in science.
Creationists such as Ken Ham (president of the creation museum in Petersburg, Ky.) see no need for a scientific explanation for a miracle; for religious thinkers like him, it was divine intervention plain and simple. Drews doesn’t indicate whether or not he believes in divine intervention, but simply notes that if the Jews had to choose between being slaughtered by the Egyptians or taking a chance crossing parted waters, they’d choose the latter. In other words, Drews hints that the "parting of the sea" was more of a coincidence than a direct act of God.
In either case, are miracles compatible with science if the only options are either divine intervention (interference with natural law) or great coincidence? The former seems to override science, while the latter seems not so miraculous. This is no false dichotomy: there can be no miracle in a weak sense.
To use the parting of the Sea of Reeds as an example, suppose God in fact summoned a wind to part the sea. Isn’t that innocuous? Actually, no, because since wind would not have blown there without intervention, God still had to intervene in the strong sense to change something so that wind would blow there. That is, at some point in the chain of cause and effect, God had to interfere with the normal flow of events; in which case why not simply change what needs to change rather than go through unnecessary hurdles and change more than necessary? In other words, why not simply part the Sea of Reeds directly, without the aid of wind? Of course, if wind would have blown there anyway, it’s a coincidence. So it really does seem that the only two options are between divine intervention and great coincidence.
Religious thinkers of all stripes will likely come down on different sides of this issue. Which side to choose? Are miracles and science friends or foes? That’s for you to decide.
For more on Drews's research, see the USA Today’s "Study seeks to explain the parting of the Red Sea."