On Miracles, Hubris, and Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law

Today in chapel I preached on resurrection. And in speaking of the miracle of the resurrection, I invoked Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Technology to talk about the events which we describe as miracles. Clarke's Law states:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (or miracle)."

I went on to talk about how the miracle of the resurrection perfects nature, not by working against nature, but by working through the "laws" of physics. I used the analogy of all the technology we use today, that works WITH the "laws" of nature, which would seem like magic or miracle to earlier humans. I continued by saying:

"If there is a Ultimate Source of Intelligence, Love and Life, who is in harmony with the laws of the universe and wants to show this Love to us, why would it be impossible that this Source might enter a human life and rise from the dead?"

A friend of mine who teaches math got into a conversation with me later about this part of the sermon. He said, very politely, that this argument seemed to smack of hubris: A sort of over-estimate of human ability in comparing our technology to God. Furthermore, he said, that it seemed to fall right into the trap of the empiricist David Hume in talking about miracles in an empirical way. So I wrote to him:

I am very sensitive to the aesthetics of an argument, when the aesthetic observation is done by someone like yourself who is good at identifying arguments. And an aesthetic feeling of hubris intrigues me.

I don't think you need to feel like you have to be "armed" to discuss this with me. I'm much friendlier than that! And in all honesty, your observation does not threaten me in the least. I view it more as a striving for the common good rather than a competition.

I think the main aesthetic problem with that part of the sermon was that I hit on it, and went on to a more important point. And in retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have even broached the argument. It was probably both too "big" and too "controversial" to hit-and-run. And, like you said, probably better suited to a classroom.

As far as the substance of the argument, to tag off of your last comment, I think I am actually trying to avoid Hume rather than fall into Hume's trap. Hume, at least in my reading of him several years ago, seems to hold two important points about reality: (a) The most real events- or only real events- in the universe are empirical events subject to predictable laws of nature (i.e. Hume's Principle of Uniformity in Nature); (b) Miracles are defined as violations of the laws of nature, and thus literally impossible events (cf. Hume's "On Miracles" - "But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country").

I may be wrong on Hume, but that is the read I remember of him.

However, if one changes the definition of miracle, then Hume's criticism is undermined.

For instance, I would want to re-frame the whole idea of miracle- or to use Biblical terms "signs, wonders, and powerful deeds" (cf. John 4.48; Acts 2.19, 22, 43; 4.30; 5.12; 6.8; 7.36; 14.3; 15.12; Rom 15.19; 2 Cor 12.12; 2 Th 2.9; Heb 2.4).

A sign (Greek seemion) is some event that points beyond itself to a Signifier or Purpose or Meaning that transcends the deed itself.

A wonder (Greek teras) is some event that triggers a sense of awe or "the Numinous", a sense that something from another dimension of Reality has entered our reality.

A powerful deed (Greek dunamis - often translated as "miracle") simply means a deed that shows great power or ability.

These three terms really get at the heart of what we mean by "miracle" in a Christian sense. If I were to combine these three into a single definition, while keeping Hume's critique in mind, I might say this:

A Miracle is an event in which an Transcendent Intelligence works within the "laws" and dimensions of Reality to produce an event which would be infinitely improbable without conscious, intelligent design and ability (cf. dunamis); This event signifies, or points to, this source of Transcendent Intelligence in such a way as to communicate its will to us (cf. seemion), thereby causing an aesthetic response of awe and wonder at being in the presence of such a Transcendent Reality (cf. teras).

I think the finite awe we experience in the presence of new technology is thus an analogue of the infinite awe we experience when we encounter a "miracle" from the Infinite Source of Reality. It's kind of a sliding scale of awe that increases exponentially as we encounter greater and greater intelligence and power.

So, we feel a little bit of awe the first time we see a drone strike on a suspected terrorist, or encounter a gizmo like an iPhone or a Computer than can play chess.

We feel moderate awe when we realize that satellites can see into our buildings, or when we finally create nanobots that can kill cancer cells, and we cure someone of cancer by just injecting them with nanobots.

We feel a great amount of awe when a nuclear bomb obliterates a city, or when we achieve faster than light speed transport (or teleportation).

And we feel infinite awe when the Transcendent reaches into our lives in unexpected ways to do highly improbable things, such as raise someone from the dead in such a way that he is both physical, and yet is able to make a more full use of the dimensions of reality than we are currently able to do (cf. Jesus' appearance in locked rooms in a couple of the resurrection narratives).

Yet, to those 2000 years ago- or even 200 years ago- all of these things would seem like magic or miracle. All of these things would seem like they violate the laws of physics. None of these things would have been reduplicable in whole or even in part with earlier levels of technology (cf. Clarke's third law).

And speaking from sheer probability, none of the things I have listed above could happen if nature was simply left to its own entropy. It takes intelligent beings creatively working within the possibilities provided by the laws of physics to create events and technologies that can't exist any other way. And our finite abilities provide analogy to what an infinite, transcendent Intelligence could be able to do.

I understand that this can be interpreted as hubris- Icarus flying too close to the sun and so forth. But I think this analogy between human "technology" and divine "miracle" is invited by the idea that humans are made "in the image of God" and "after the likeness" of God (the Hebrew of Genesis 1:26-30 could even be read "as an analogy to God"). We mirror God in our creativity. In our ability to grasp the ideal world of mathematics, for instance, and apply that ideal world to the empirical world in discovering the physical "laws" of the universe (note: I KNOW that these are not actual laws, but more like observed constants and ratios that tend to be universal in observation, but if I had to say that every time, it would take forever... so I stick with "laws" in quotes).

So I'm not sure it is hubris to see an analogy between finite human technology and infinite divine ability. I think it is invited.

Where I would locate hubris is in human MOTIVATION for how we use technology. If you note what I said above on the "sliding scale" of awe, I intentionally listed a life-taking, and a life-giving, use of human technology at every point. While the divine use of "miracle" seems to be always for the virtuous purpose of giving life, sharing compassion, and in some cases preventing evil, this is not the case with human technology.

Human technology at this point in our development is often plagued by (a) moral malevolence and (b) systemic short-sightedness. First of all, we tend to use technology to selfishly increase our own pleasure, power or pride, often at the expense of harming or oppressing others. Thus, to compare our moral use of technology with divine ability, as if we are always acting from the Good for the Good, is the height of hubris.

Second of all, we are only beginning to grasp the systemic effects of our technology. We are only at the beginnings of understanding how the unintended pollution and collateral damage of our technology- even when that technology is used for virtuous intentions- can impact whole systems. It is not God that tends to do "miracles" against the best interests of the systems of nature. It is us. And unless we progress in our ability to use technology "with the grain of nature" instead of "against the grain", it could put our race and our ecosystems in jeopardy. Correction: IS putting us in danger.

Thus, to compare our current level of finite systemic understanding to infinite divine understanding is also hubris.

So, I think ultimately technological progress will have to be wedded to moral progress- empiricism wedded to spirituality- for humans to attain our true potential. And I think that the shorthand term for moral progress would be to say that we increase in Christlikeness- the ability to selflessly love other sentient beings and give ourselves so that we all attain to our full inherent God-given potential for life, wisdom, and beauty.

I actually have another essay about evolution and Christian spirituality in which I talk a bit about what "moral progress" might look like given an "evolutionary Christian theology". But, back to the point: I think this understanding of "miracle" using the analogy of finite human technology actually gets us out of the trap of Hume and later empiricists.

We know Reality is made of more than the standard "four" dimensions we typically think of as "empirical" or rather "Newtonian" (length, height, width, space/time). I've heard Quantum thought talk of 11 to 27 dimensions (or "pocket dimensions"). I can easily see that whatever dimensionality or realm that pure maths (and logics) fit into is something that transcends the empirical, yet inhabits the empirical.

You have talked about how we are not at all sure that the physical "laws" we have in this part of the universe hold true across the entire fabric of space-time. So already, given the implications of Relativistic and Quantum thought, we understand that what Hume would count as "going against" the "laws" of nature is on wobbly ground.

And with all the wobble room that space-time dimensionality and quantum fuzziness opens up, it simply does not make sense to me to think that a divine "miracle" (even a resurrection!) is ultimately a violation of nature. It seems to me that it is more of a intelligent fulfillment of nature. Thus a miracle is not something that works against nature or destroys nature (contra Hume). Rather a miracle is an act of grace that works through and with nature, intelligently, to bring about the perfection of nature (vis a vis Augustine and Aquinas "Grace perfects Nature").

And as humans grow in both technical ability and moral virtue, I think that we will learn to model Christ in giving sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, healing to the sick, and even life to the dead (cf. Luke 4.18-19; John 14.12). And increasingly, our technical ability to do these things would appear as unfathomable magic to those who lived in ages past (cf. Clarke's 3rd law).

Either that, or we will increase in technical ability and devolve morally, which will surely destroy us all. Because power to heal is also power to kill, depending on how we use it. I guess it is our corporate choice.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.