Fatima: can a scientist take the miracle of the sun seriously?

The question in the headline implies that the expected answer is “no”, but as a former particle physicist, my response is “Why not?”

Contrary to a common prejudice, a scientific perspective does not rule out miracles, and the event at Fatima is, in the view of many, particularly credible.

As regards miracles in general, the usual prejudice against them takes one of two forms. The first is to claim that a scientific worldview excludes miracles, wrongly defined as breaking the laws of nature or, specifically, physics.

This prejudice rests on a misunderstanding of the scope of scientific laws, which describe how simple, idealised systems behave in isolation.

Such laws enable us to perform extraordinary feats, such as the final voyage of the Cassini spacecraft now taking place through the rings of Saturn.

But such laws say nothing about what happens when a system is not isolated, especially when a free personal agent intervenes.

To give an example, if I throw an apple in the air, its trajectory will approximate a parabola that can be predicted from its initial position and momentum, but that prediction says nothing about whether or not I choose to catch the apple.

And if I can intervene to change the trajectory of an apple then presumably God, who is all-powerful, can do the same and much more.

Hence there is no real problem with miracles from the perspective of scientific laws, since to describe how a system behaves in the absence of intervention says nothing about whether an intervention can or does take place.

A second form of the prejudice is to claim that a combination of natural causes can and should be found to explain what appears to be miraculous, reducing the miraculous to the providential.

To give one of many examples, it is not uncommon for clerics and teachers of a certain age, who find the miraculous mildly embarrassing, to claim that Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000 was simply a matter of people being shamed into sharing the food they already had. Continue reading

  • Fr Andrew Pinsent is research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University and a priest of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton

News category: Opinion.

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