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Journal Article

Acts of God? Miracles and Scientific Explanation

Tor Egil Førland
History and Theory
Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 2008), pp. 483-494
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478791
Page Count: 12
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Acts of God? Miracles and Scientific Explanation
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Abstract

God, at least as an active agent, is excluded from today's scientific worldview - including the worldview of the humanities. This creates a gulf between a godless science and believers in God's active presence in the world, a gulf that I argue is unbridgeable. I discuss the general methodological question from the starting point of a 1652 episode in a Norwegian valley, where God reportedly saved two brothers stranded on an islet by providing just enough fresh, edible plants each day for them to survive until they were found by a search team after twelve days. I resist four temptations to take easy ways out of a real dilemma: whether to accept or dismiss this and similar miracle accounts. The first is to explain evidence and refuse to consider the events about which the evidence reports; the second, to deny that reports of miracles represent a problem since biblical actors and authors lacked Hume's concept of inviolable laws of nature; the third, to become resigned to a putative epistemological gap that renders impossible any dialogue on religion with actors from the early modern period; the fourth, to restrict our studies to asking what the events meant to the historical actors without passing judgment on the truth value of their beliefs. I suggest that when doing historical research, historians are part of a scientific community; consequently, historiographical explanations must be compatible with accepted scientific beliefs. Whereas many historians and natural scientists in private believe in supernatural entities, qua professional members of the scientific community they must subscribe to metaphysical naturalism, which is a basic working hypothesis in the empirical quest of science. As long as the supernatural realm is excluded from the scientific worldview, however, historians' explanations of miracles will differ fundamentally from the explanations proffered by believers.

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