This Physicist Believes in Miracles

When I converted to Catholicism some 26 years ago, my Catholic wife rejoiced.  But I could imagine my friends from graduate school saying, “Kurland has finally gone around the bend.”  It was strictly a top-down-to-Jesus process, head not heart – no visions, no voices. After several years in a 12-Step program, the term “Higher Power” as a substitute for “God” had begun to annoy me – Orwellian doublespeak, a device to enable atheists to do the 12 Steps.

I suppose it was the Holy Spirit that led me to Frank Morison’s book Who Moved the Stone?, which convinced me that the Resurrection really did happen. But there were other miracles, acts not explained by science, about which I had to learn to believe.  The most difficult was that of the Eucharist, the change from bread and wine to the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wise old priest who was instructing me asked: “If you can believe in one miraculous event, the Resurrection, why not others?” And he explained the philosophical categories of substance, accidents, and transubstantiation. But it didn’t work.  What did was my experience at a 40-Hours Adoration liturgy, attendance required for catechumens.

As the procession carrying the monstrance moved down the center aisle, the choir and congregation were singing Pange Lingua.  I remembered enough high-school Latin to translate “Praestet fides supplementum Sensuum defectui” as “Let faith replace the defects of our senses.” And my eyes filled with tears as I realized, deep down, that the little wafer in the Monstrance was indeed the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace was given and accepted.

And so began a process of learning to believe in other miracles, to transform the line from the hymn into “Praestet fides supplementum scientiae defectui.”  Rather than give a detailed map of this educational trip, I’ll set forth below some principles that I learned subsequently, not miracles per se. A simple web search will provide evidence for those.  Moreover, there are excellent books on why we should believe in miracles (see these by C.S. Lewis and Ralph McInerny).

My aim here is not to justify the existence of miracles, but to explain why science has nothing to say about their existence and, in this explanation, to emphasize the limits of science.   Given those limits, there can be no war between science and Catholic teaching.  Their truth domains do not intersect.  Which is to say that though science is a gift from God – as are music, language, etc. – it’s not an arbiter of how we should live and believe.

Let me establish some credentials.  I’m a minor league player in the science game (AA or maybe AAA – web search “Kurland-McGarvey Equation for details).  I didn’t begin to think about how or why science works until after my retirement.  But I’ve read quite a bit since then in order to reconcile my faith with my prior belief that science could explain everything one needed to know about the world.  )

Here, in short, is my model for how science works (adapted from Lakatos – see my web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, Essay 2,” for a fuller account.)   We can think of the scientific enterprise as concentric spherical layers.  At the center is a core of assumed principles: symmetry, conservation, uniformity.  The next layer is that of fundamental theory:  for example, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, and so forth. The next layer is that of auxiliary theories: for example, MRI, chemical kinetics, genetic code. The outermost layer is data and observations.

The spherical layers interact:  auxiliary theories are derived from fundamental theories and principles; data confirm or deny theories;  new theories may supersede older ones or even modify fundamental principles. (See model below.)

Here’s what’s important: science is neither purely theory nor purely a collection of facts.  The facts have to be interpreted in terms of theory, and not just a particular theory, but a theory that is consistent with other theories and doesn’t violate fundamental principles.   Moreover, even the fundamental principles can be modified.  Newton’s principle of absolute space, absolute time, was shown not to hold if special relativity is correct.

So the operative theories change with time as new data and new theories come into play.  Heat as a substance is disproved by Count Rumford’s cannon-boring experiments.  The ether as a medium for electromagnetic waves is negated by the Michelson-Morley experiments.  Mach and the Germans who didn’t believe in the reality of atoms and molecules can’t contest Perrin’s account of the evidence.  The truths of science are NOT eternal, but temporal, unlike the truths of the Catholic Faith.

Even more importantly, here’s another set of questions to put to the advocates of “scientism” (science explains everything worth explaining).  What can science tell you about ethics, beauty, what is good, what is true?

Science may answer “how” questions, but can never answer “why” questions:

Why is there anything?
Why do I exist?
Why does science work?

Eugene Wigner put it well in The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Why do we believe in God?
Why do we seek the beautiful, the good?
Why does music affect us?

The best answers to such questions are given in the Baltimore Catechism and in Holy Scripture:Why did God make you?

God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven
Question 6, Lesson the First, Baltimore Catechism #1

and in Psalm 19A:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.—Psalm 19 (KJV)

So there is where I look for answers.


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Robert Royal’s From the First Three Minutes to Us

Stacy Trasancos’ Doing the Calculus: A Love Story

Bob Kurland is an old retired physicist (BS Caltech--with honors, 1951; MA, PhD Harvard, 1953, 1956). In 1995 he became a Catholic. He writes “not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” (St. Augustine, "The Trinity" 1,8).