Miracles vs. Impossibilities

When I was very young I used to annoy my older brother with a couple of oft-repeated, awe-inspiring statements:

  1. Just think: You’ll be in heaven FOREVER!
  2. Since there’s a God, anything’s possible!

At least they were awe-inspiring to me. To my brother: not so much. The first statement would invariably cause him to roll his eyes. But he came back with some logical arguments to my second grand statement.

“If anything’s possible because God exists,” he asked, “Is it possible for God to die?”

Without thinking I blurted out “Yes! Anything’s possible.”

“Then, if God died,” he concluded, “not everything would be possible anymore, because you said it was all based on there being a God.”

“Okay,” I replied, “that’s true, but God hasn’t died, so all things are currently possible.”

At that point he just shook his head; our Catholic upbringing restrained us from pursuing this further. However, later in life (after I’d graduated from being a Catholic and from being a Jehovah’s Witness) I read a question that would’ve been a perfect comeback for my brother to use: “Can God create a square-circle, or an object so heavy that he can’t lift it?”

This question points out an apparent distinction between the miraculous and the impossible. Both violate the laws of physics, but impossibilities seem to carry it further by being paradoxical as well. [I am speaking of miracles in the strictest sense; not in the casual usage which merely means that something is amazing.]

The Bible makes this distinction too. We are indeed told that “With God all things are possible.” But we are also told that there are things it is impossible for God to do: He cannot die and he cannot lie. This certainly qualifies the statement regarding all things being possible. It’s plain that all things are not possible (since the Bible just listed two such things.)

So what are we left with? We evidently cannot truthfully say that all things are possible. But then how can we allow room for miracles? Do we revise our statement to: “God can do anything that it is possible to do?” That’s not a very awe-inspiring statement. That wouldn’t have even evoked an eye-roll from my brother.

I think what Christians want is a definition something like this: “God can do things that would be impossible for anyone else to do: as long as these things do not involve an inherent paradox.”

But here’s the thing: miracles always involve an inherent paradox.

Let’s take the following analogy: “Yesterday I was awarded the title of International Chess Grand-Master, though I have lost every game of chess I have ever played.”

The statement contains a paradox because of the definition of the title International Grand Master: one can only earn that title by winning many chess games. So, if someone was awarded that title without having won any games the title would be a misnomer: as meaningless as my pointing to a circle and saying “This is a square.”

Let’s return to biblical miracles. Take a mundane one: Jesus turning water into wine. This is a paradox because water is not wine anymore than a square is a circle. “Wine” defines the juice of grapes which have undergone a chemical change due to the time-consuming process of fermentation. Just as it is a mistake to call someone a Grand Master who has not gone through the lengthy process of winning many high-level chess tournaments, it is a mistake to call something “wine” which has not undergone the slow process of fermentation.

The laws of physics are even more strict than the rules governing chess titles. The laws of physics hold that a quantity of water in a vessel cannot spontaneously change into wine because physical objects do not change their nature without some other physical force acting upon them. If you could violate a physical law you would create a paradox. Such paradoxes are subtler than the ones we’ve discussed (and so typically go unrecognized) but they are there nonetheless.

Let’s take one more biblical example: the “multiplying loaves and fishes.” The definition of bread is, at minimum: flour that has been baked. The minimum definition of a fish includes having parents and being hatched from an egg. Something that has not been hatched cannot be a fish anymore than something that has not been baked can be bread.

If Jesus created some things resembling fish (which for convenience we’ll call fish), were they created alive or dead? It seems very strange to create dead fish, replete with perfectly functioning hearts destined to never beat in beings created for the sole purpose of feeding another species. I wonder if his followers came equipped with knives to kill and “clean” the fish, or if it was the first Middle-Eastern sushi feed in history. This god supposedly cares about every sparrow, but evidently doesn’t spare a thought for fish. Go figure.

Miracles are, by their nature, unbelievable; they contradict the laws of physics, and you can’t do that — even if you’re God.

That last statement is bound to rankle believers, who reason that since their god created everything he can do anything he likes with it. So let me elaborate. Let’s say that I “play god” by creating a two-dimensional world on a piece of paper with my pencil. Okay, I created this world, so I can damn well do what I please with it.

Only, I can’t. I can’t make the characters I draw speak audibly or have them dance into the third dimension [well, maybe with some creative origami and a pair of scissors] I can’t expect them to go out and get jobs, etc. There are limits to what can possibly take place in the two-dimensional world I have created. Even though I possess powers that a two-dimensional being would consider supernatural [if they were capable of thought], when it comes to my dealings with two-dimensional characters on paper I can’t go beyond the restrictions of that world, and it doesn’t matter a jot if I created it or not.

So too, in our universe there are restrictions: they are known as the laws of physics. God itself cannot violate these laws. This is why “miracles” [the violation of the laws of physics] are only reported where scientific scrutiny isn’t available. Either they happened in the distant past, or they are simply unverifiable hearsay where we are asked to take someone’s word that they took place. But what is more likely: that someone is mistaken/fibbing, or that the impossible has occurred?

A miracle, by definition, is a violation of the laws of physics: the very laws that govern our existence in this universe. Violating them would create a paradox. If God can do miraculous things only if they don’t involve a paradox, then God cannot do any miracles.

Since the Bible is chock-full of miracles, it follows that the Bible is false.

Since the Bible is false, then the Watchtower (which claims to be based on the Bible) is also false.

Since the Watchtower is false, then you are all free to go and live your lives! Thanks for listening, and have fun!

One thought on “Miracles vs. Impossibilities

  1. Jaymes Payten Head Heathen • 3 years ago
    I always wondered about the fish and the loaves miracle. If you take a closer look at the logistics, it’s clearly an impossibility. So we’re told by Mark (the guy that wasn’t there to witness this act) that Jesus fed 5,000 people by using 5 loaves and two fish.

    An elder in my former congregation in London, England, explained to me just how Jesus managed to feed 5,000 people.

    “Jaymes, it certainly was possible for Jesus to have done this. You see, the bible makes no mention of the size of the loaves or the fish. If the 5 loaves were big enough, say 100 or so metres in length each, that would feed 5,000 people. Each person would be given a piece of bred that was around 10 centimetres in length.”

    “And the fish?”, I asked.

    “Jehovah created Whale Sharks Jaymes. They can grow to around 15 metres in length. Now imagine having 2 of them! You could easily feed over 5,000 people.”

    So you see people, when you want to believe in something, you can literally come up with any explanation. But please always remember this:

    “You can have your own opinions, but you can’t make up your own facts.”
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    Gareth Jaymes Payten • 3 years ago
    LOL! I can’t remember any whales or sharks being drawn in the pictures related to that miracle though! Hahahaha!
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    Gareth • 3 years ago
    I’m going to do a little nitpicking here, so bear with me…

    I think your chess analogy doesn’t really work because that’s a paradox in the definition sense. There could be many kinds of paradoxes; the create-an-object-so-heavy-God-can’t-lift it is another kind of paradox (the “physical” sense, let’s say).

    I also don’t agree with your minimum definition of a fish having fishy parents and being hatched from an egg. I don’t care about the history of an animal (as I can hardly check it anyway) so I can’t define an animal on the basis of it having a certain history or not. I just assume it has that history because I haven’t seen any other. E.g. google “define: fish” gives me “a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water.” The “living” part is a bit problematic in Jesus’ example of course, but that’s also due to the fact we humans mostly eat dead animals. Even after having been caught and died, people will still buy fish, and call it “fish” (usually by its species name, however, but that’s details). Point is, that something is defined by how it looks, its structure, its major contents. Bled chicken is also still called chicken e.g.

    It doesn’t follow that violating laws of physics necessarily creates a paradox. A paradox is defined as “a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently
    sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that
    seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.” In the context of laws of physics I think this translates to a “logically unacceptable” conclusion when a certain “state” (of an object, or relation between objects) is reached which is impossible to reach ever (from the “Big Bang” onwards, let’s say). It’s definitely possible to violate laws of physics and end up in a state which could have been reached with a different history. I agree this is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. With the wine, Jesus could have created an alternate universe which was very much like that one, but just with the wine being present in those vessels (he brought it along and put it there or whatever history would be consistent with all the facts).

    Your analogy with the 2D world and its cartoon character is also very limited. You didn’t define any rules for this 2D world or its cartoon character, and cartoon characters are also not sentient (AFAIK, haha!) so the cartoon character itself cannot “detect” a logical impossibility. OTOH, if you draw a tree, and the cartoon character could see it; the very next moment you take your eraser and erase the tree, and the character would go like: “Huh?!? WTF just happened here?!?” As the cartoon character cannot detect 3D (assumption) and cannot “see” your eraser (assumption, because the eraser is a 3D object), but the character can only see the tree being suddenly wiped from its “world”.

    To make another analogy, in the computer programming world it’s definitely possible to write a software program, let it run and suddenly stop or freeze it. It has a certain state at that moment. I can then modify its state (the variables/registers within it) even changing them such that there wouldn’t have been a path from the start to the current state, but still the program could go on running properly when I resume/unfreeze it. This whole process (when automated within code) is called a “workaround” haha! Or… when I modify the variables in a wrong way, then it may “crash”. A paradox of sorts. In a sense, I am “God” in this computer world.
    see more

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    Steve McRoberts Gareth • 3 years ago
    Valid nit-picking, Gareth.

    In reply, I would just like to say that: granted, I am [purposely] stretching the common meaning of “paradox” to include things that violate the laws of physics (my justification being that such violations are in fact senseless in this universe.)

    Secondly, I am arguing that the history of a fish or a jug of wine is part of what makes it what it is today. If it lacks that history, then it is artificial.

    Lastly, my point about the 2D drawing is that even if I am its creator I still am bound by the rules of a 2D world. (This is in answer to the believers’ oft-heard defense that since their god is the “creator” it can violate the laws of the universe.) Erasing is not a violation of the rules of drawing in the 2D world. So, perhaps the cartoon character would not be surprised by it.
    I understand your programming example (having been a programmer for 33 years.) But work-arounds are still obeying the rules of coding. An analogy to a miracle would be if I could make the program do something entirely different without changing the code or the data (simply by “willing it” to be so, for example.)

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