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Naturalism—the idea or belief that only natural laws and forces operate in the world, as opposed to supernatural or spiritual laws—has a strong hold on our imaginations.
Given this understanding, we usually categorize answered prayers and miracles as violations of the laws of nature, or even as complete impossibilities.
In fact, many contemporary scientists as well as atheists believe that the progress of modern science has advanced to such a degree that it can explain universal events and thereby eliminate the need for a supernatural creator.
Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution added fuel to the fire. Those theories say that natural selection, involving gradual change through survival-of-the-fittest mutations over millions of years, solely explains why a rich diversity of life exists in the world today. Because this evolutionary process can be verified in the fossil records, many see no need for a Creator when natural selection can explain the natural process by which life, including humanity, came into existence. If evolution is true, the logic goes, then the first chapters of Genesis must be either wrong, a fable or a myth.
Contemporary scientists have painted a picture of the natural world strongly associated with and governed by the laws of nature. They argue that any divine intervention regarding these laws would undermine the integrity of God. Divine action is largely confirmed in scripture, tradition, and personal prayer—but the increasingly specific explanation of these laws and our deeper understanding of modern science make it difficult to find the necessary “wiggle room” for God to exist.
Also, the idea of God sustaining nature and its law-like regularities, while miraculously intervening and ignoring those regularities from time to time, seems an outright contradiction. The picture presented in the Bible depicts God, The Creator, establishing a world with fixed rules, and then occasionally acting contrary to those rules to perform miracles and answer prayers. This inconsistency implies that God doesn’t always act in the same way and bends those laws in an arbitrary manner.
The Baha’i Faith, with its primary principle of the essential harmony of science and religion, supports the concept that God created a world governed by perfect law and order from which it does not deviate:
… nature is subject to a sound organization, to inviolable laws, to a perfect order, and to a consummate design, from which it never departs. – Abdu’l‑Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 3.
So, how can we possibly reconcile a Creator Who, on the one hand, fashions a universe of perfect order, one that obeys inviolable laws from which it never departs—yet, on the other hand, directly intervenes in His creation by answering prayers and performing miracles?
The Baha’i teachings explain:
When you consider nature itself, however, you see that it has neither awareness nor will. … Now, can such organization, order, and laws as you observe in existence be attributed merely to the effect of nature, notwithstanding that nature itself has neither consciousness nor understanding? It is therefore evident that this nature, which has neither consciousness nor understanding, is in the grasp of the omnipotent Lord, Who is the Ruler of the world of nature and Who causes it to manifest whatsoever He desires… Hence it is clear that nature, in its very essence, is in the grasp of God’s might, and that it is that Eternal and Almighty One Who subjects nature to ideal laws and organizing principles, and Who rules over it. – Ibid., pp. 3-4.
Those who promote the view that the universe is governed solely by naturalism take it for granted that all the laws of nature can be examined and are subject to investigation through the methodology of the sciences.
Abdu’l-Baha, however, indicated that not all of God’s fixed instructions for the universe are susceptible to investigation through scientific methods—that certain aspects of nature and natural causality cannot be investigated by repeatable laboratory procedures.
… human knowledge is of two kinds.
One is the knowledge acquired through the senses. That which the eye, the ear, or the senses of smell, taste, or touch can perceive is called “sensible”…
The other kind of human knowledge is that of intelligible things; that is, it consists of intelligible realities which have no outward form or place and which are not sensible. For example, the power of the mind is not sensible, nor are any of the human attributes: These are intelligible realities. Love, likewise, is an intelligible and not a sensible reality. For the ear does not hear these realities, the eye does not see them, the smell does not sense them, the taste does not detect them, the touch does not perceive them. – Ibid., p. 93.
This “intelligible reality” Abdu’l-Baha refers to regularly evades detection by our physical senses. As such, none of our finite, physical human attempts at knowing will capture all of reality as it really is. Even the most successful scientific explanations will ultimately be incomplete when relying solely on physical measurements and observations. So explanations that appear to be scientifically complete, at least in theory, still may not tell the whole story.
In this context, miracles and prayer may be simply reflections of the true nature of the world that usually hides from us—that part of reality not subject to our senses. An Almighty God must have some way of responding directly to events in the world, either temporarily superseding a law of nature or acting on a plane of reality hidden from our physical senses. The laws of nature that support these seemingly supernatural events must include not only the lower kind that scientists study, but also the higher ones, identified by the Baha’i teachings, that we haven’t yet found a way to investigate through the use of scientific methodology.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore what modern physics and the laws of nature have to say about miracles and answers to individual prayers. Does such divine intervention seem scientifically possible, or completely outside the realm of science and physics?