Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?

Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, is an expert in plasma physics. So of course we wanted to ask him, “Plasma physics? What’s that?”

But we also wanted to talk to Hutchinson because he’s one of a growing number of scientists who have no trouble reconciling science and faith. Hutchinson has been holding forums with students for about 30 years about that relationship, and he recently compiled their most popular questions into a book, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? (IVP Books).

So we talked to him about the book. But first, about those plasma physics . . .

Can you explain plasma physics?

Plasma physics is the study of the fourth state of matter, which is an ionized gas. Matter goes through stages as we raise its temperature—solid, liquid, gas, and then plasma. Plasma is a gas in which the electrons are stripped away from the nuclei, and therefore, it has all sorts of interesting electrical properties.

I study plasma physics because we are interested in making fusion energy available at a human scale. Fusion is a kind of nuclear energy. It’s the energy source of the sun and stars; it’s what keeps the sun burning and shining. It has certain potentially attractive properties in comparison with existing nuclear energy. If we’re successful, fusion will be used to put electricity on the grid, and that can power our entire infrastructure in ways that will not emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But fusion energy is quite difficult to achieve, and we’ve been working on it for many decades. So it’s not yet available.

Tell me how your book came about.

Through the Veritas Forum, I’ve been giving talks to mostly university audiences for 30 years about the relationship between science and Christianity. The book is based on the questions I’ve been asked, questions that are being asked by young people today about science and religion.

There are 223 questions in the book, and one of them is, “Can a scientist believe in miracles?”, which became the book title. It’s an important question because, after all, Christians, more so than virtually any other religion, base their faith on a miracle—namely, the resurrection of Jesus. Some people think erroneously that science proves that miracles can’t happen; I address that in the book.

Science can’t explain everything. Do those inexplicable things necessarily point to a god?

Science can’t explain everything because there are lots of things which don’t possess the characteristics upon which science insists in order to pursue its methods. Science is based on the possibility of obtaining reproducible measurements or observations. But there are many things that we humans think and know that aren’t capable of being explored by reproducible experiments. Take human history, for example. The events of history are basically unique events, so you can’t do reproducible experiments to establish, for example, that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or was assassinated on the steps on the Roman senate.

So, there are realities that science cannot explore and cannot therefore explain. But I don’t think those necessarily lead you to belief in the supernatural. I’m not claiming that God’s action is proved by things that we can’t explain in science. I think it’s actually rather the opposite. I think God’s action in the world is revealed in what we discover about the creation through science. I don’t subscribe to a “God of the gaps” attitude. I find God’s actions and his steadfast love in the things we can explain through science, as well as the things that science really can’t explain.

You talk about something called “scientism” in your book. What do you mean?

Society has been strongly influenced by what I call “scientism”—the belief that science has all the real knowledge there is. I don’t subscribe to that; I think scientism is a terrible intellectual mistake. But it’s been extremely important and influential, particularly in the academy, but also in the whole of society, for the past 150 years or more. And that’s important for the question of the relationship between science and religion, because scientism is one of the things that pollutes that discussion and that exploration . . . and it pollutes it on both sides.

There are the anti-theist activists of today, sometimes called the new atheists, many of whom are scientists, who want to say that science disproves religion. And that is based on their perhaps correct opinion that you can’t scientifically prove that there is a God.

How does scientism “pollute” the discussion?

Because many of the more fundamentalist strands of Christianity have also bought into scientism, in that they also believe we need some kind of scientific proof of God; otherwise, faith is somehow intellectually disreputable. That’s also a mistake. But because they’ve taken that view, that causes them to repudiate the findings of the natural sciences and to cleave in a kind of loyalistic way to a more literalistic interpretation of our faith, which is inconsistent with science.

The scientists behind the scientific revolution were predominantly Christians. They believed in miracles. And they did not adopt this confrontational model of the relationship between science and religious faith, in part because they hadn’t adopted this viewpoint that science is really all the worthwhile knowledge there is. Having religious faith isn’t disreputable or anti-intellectual simply because it doesn’t depend on scientific proofs. Faith depends on other kinds of evidences and arguments. So I regard the Christian faith as being perfectly reasonable, in that it is an opinion and a commitment with evidence in God’s favor. But most of that evidence is not scientific evidence, because science isn’t really competent to study God. God doesn’t make himself available to us in the way that nature is available to us for repeatable experimentation.

Your book says you welcome doubts in your faith journey. Why?

Because that’s the way we think. Thinking deeply about important questions is to wrestle with them and compare the possible solutions, trying to decide what is true. Although doubt has perhaps a bad reputation within Christian circles, is not at all condemned in the Bible. There are plenty of people with whom Jesus himself interacted who expressed their doubts, and Jesus treated them encouragingly. So I don’t think God disapproves of the fact that we might question what is the basis for our faith.

In fact, I think developing a deep conviction about our faith calls upon us to examine it in critically and ask ourselves, “Is it reasonable to think this?” “Is there evidence for these claims?” “Why do we accept these kinds of beliefs?” I think Christianity stands up very well to that kind of intellectual questioning.

Let’s talk about what you mean by the word “miracle.” One might say the fact that I’m talking to you, a thousand miles away, on a gadget the size of a deck of cards is a kind of “miracle.”

Well, that’s just “a wonder of modern science.” That’s not what we’re talking about regarding the relationship between science and faith. What we’re mostly talking about are the kinds of things we read in the New Testament that are associated with the life and the actions of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, the New Testament doesn’t use the word “miracle.” It uses three different words to refer to the things that we usually think of as miracles—they’re “signs,” or they’re “wonders,” or they’re “mighty works.” Those are the three expressions the New Testament uses to describe things like changing water into wine, stilling the storm, healing a leper, or rising from the dead.

It’s very important, when we’re talking about the relationship between science and faith, to recognize that actually the Bible does not define “miracle” as a violation of the laws of nature. In the first century, people didn’t think in terms of “laws of nature,” so it would be impossible for the Bible writers to mean that. I think there are miracles which may be inconsistent with the normal laws of physics, but I think there are also miracles that don’t violate any of those laws.

Millions of people in the world today claim they’ve witnessed a miracle. I don’t believe all of them; I’m as skeptical as the next person. Miracles must be relatively rare. Because if they weren’t, science wouldn’t work. If the world were completely unpredictable, if it didn’t follow the normal course of events all the time, then there wouldn’t be a normal course of events. But I’ve also seen events that appear to have no scientific explanation, events which have functioned as pointers to God. I’m perfectly comfortable thinking of those as being extraordinary acts of God that point to his love and his care.

Can you give an example of a miracle you’ve seen?

When I was living in England, my daughter had a friend who was about 7 years old. This girl contracted meningitis and fell into a coma, and the prognosis was very bad. The doctors thought that, if she survived, she’d likely have brain damage. Her parents were Christians, and they called together the elders of their church to pray for the girl. Within days, she was awake, and within a week or two, she was back on our street, playing with my daughter, with no apparent ill effects.

So, what are we to say about that? It’s perfectly reasonable for the doctors to express it cautiously and say, “Well, you know, there are things about meningitis that we don’t understand,” or “This is an unusual event, but sometimes people recover spontaneously.” It’s perfectly reasonable for a scientist to adopt that position. But it’s also perfectly reasonable for the girl’s parents to believe this was an extraordinary intervention of God. Science is actually very limited in the extent to which it can “prove” a miracle. In fact, I would say scientists and science as a whole cannot prove the presence of a miracle. It can investigate a miracle, and in some cases, find natural explanations for things that people might have thought had no natural explanation. But science is not in a position to be able to decide whether an extraordinary act of God happened.

What’s it like to be a man of faith in the world of science? Is it a lonely place to be?

I’m not lonely, but as an active Christian, I’m probably in the minority of the faculty at a place like MIT. But there are plenty of other Christian faculty at MIT. Portraying MIT as if it was some godless place where there are just a couple of embattled Christians would be a complete misrepresentation.

It’s true that academics as a whole are less likely to be theists, to believe in God, than the general public. But not that much less likely, so that, for example, a recent survey showed that, of U.S. academics as a whole, something like 41 percent of them believed in God. So it’s not as if I’m a tiny minority in American academia.

I’ve been a professor here at MIT for 35 years. People sometimes ask me if I’ve been discriminated against. I usually answer by saying, “Not that I know of.” Certainly not by the academic administration. I know of other faculty members who have talked me down behind my back, but that that’s a very rare occurrence. In general, I’ve experienced cordiality from my faculty colleagues, and they know that I’m a Christian and don’t hold it against me. And in my field of plasma physics and fusion research, there are lots of Christians. They do their science, and if their science is good, then it’s respected.

What’s next for you?

I’m teaching on plasma physics and fusion energy. I will keep participating in Veritas Forums. And I’ll continue trying to tell people that I don’t think that there’s an inherent warfare or contradiction between science and Christianity. That, to me, is nonsense. It just doesn’t hold water.

I’ll also try to help Christians come to peace with science and recognize that there doesn’t need to be nervousness or opposition to science. We can take seriously what science is showing us about the natural world. We can rejoice at it. We can find God in it, as our forebears in both science and the Christian faith thought, that God has expressed himself both in the book of his word, which is the Bible, but also in the book of his works, which is nature. Both speak of him and of his creative and redeeming power.


Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine