The Meaning of Miracles

Miracles

None of this is miraculous (and one part of it isn’t even correct).  If you’re trying to convince me that miracles are real, this is not the best way to go about it.

In bygone days, a miracle was a true wonder – an event so contrary to natural laws that it could only be the work of a divine hand.  Miracles were seen as signs that the gods existed and took an interest in human affairs.  If you believe the holy texts, the ancient world was frequently the site of soul-changing, attention-grabbing miracles.  Now, not so much.  For whatever reason, the kind of miracles depicted in old scrolls – the kind that would instantly turn a skeptic into a believer – no longer happen.  It seems that as humanity has become a more scientifically literate species (on average, mind you), the inexplicable occurrences to which we used to afford miracle status – and which we later embellished and recorded in religious texts – suddenly became much more explicable.  As we shone the light of scientific advancement into the dark corners of our former ignorance, there were fewer places for gods and miracles to hide.

Perhaps because of the dearth of real miracles, the faithful are compelled to seek the miraculous in the mundane.  Therefore, the definition of miracle has evolved.  In modern, common parlance, a miracle is any unlikely but fortunate event, regardless of whether or not it defies scientific explanation.  For example, if a woman and her young child survive a horrific airplane crash, some might call that a miracle (although one might question why the miraculous power that saved them could not have prevented the crash in the first place and therefore spared the lives of the other passengers; I suppose it is not our place to ask, right?)  This type of miracle always seems to benefit one person or group of people while ignoring another group, who are presumably equally deserving.

Some people, skirting the criterion of scientific implausibility altogether, think that anything grandiose and beautiful qualifies as a miracle.  So now, every sunrise, every healthy birth, every rainbow is a miracle.  And apparently, celestial physics should also convince you of the reality of miracles.

Don’t get me wrong; the cosmos is awe-inspiring in every facet.  The Universe is full of fury and brilliance, and its scale is mind-blowing.  But we now know – in fact, we have known for a long time – that the Universe does not run contrary to the laws of physics, and that there is nothing miraculous about it.  The Universe runs in perfect concordance with physical laws, and it is this perfect agreement between laws and reality that allows us to probe ever deeper into the inner workings of the cosmos.

Let’s consider the statements made by this meme one-by-one:

We live on a blue planet

And here it is.

The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17

 

This is the famous “Blue Marble” photograph, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission.  You’d have to be some kind of heartless grinch not to be inspired by this picture; it’s your home, and it contains every human then alive (except for the three people who were traveling to the Moon at the time).

As you can see, the world isn’t completely blue, although you get an instant impression of blueness when you look at it.  Earth’s blueness comes from its oceans, and there’s a very simple explanation about why the oceans are blue…because water is blue, and the oceans are made of water.

There’s another explanation that has to do with the fact that water preferentially absorbs red light and scatters and reflects blue light, but why make things more complicated than they have to be?  Oh sure, you don’t notice the blue color of water when you pour yourself a glass from the tap, but that’s because the color is exceedingly faint.  It takes a lot of water in one place for its color to become apparent, but that’s what oceans are: lots of water in one place.  There’s nothing miraculous about it.

Aha, the believer might say, the fact that Earth even has a large volume of liquid water is itself miraculous, for without liquid water, life as we know it could not exist.  But I contend that this too is a matter of physics, and not of divine providence.  Water is an exceedingly common molecule in the Universe, but in most cases it exists as either a solid (ice) or as a gas (water vapor or steam).  Earth’s oceans must stay within a fairly narrow range of air pressure and temperature, or else they would freeze or boil away.  All life on Earth requires liquid water; if the oceans go, so do we.

Earth’s oceans exist in liquid form because of two major factors: first, Earth orbits the Sun in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”.  The effectiveness of the Sun’s heat decreases with distance; too close and Earth’s oceans would boil away; too far and they would freeze.  The Goldilocks zone is just right – neither too hot nor too cold – for water to exist as a liquid on Earth’s surface.

But even in the Goldilocks zone, Earth could be a barren, dry husk – like our Moon – without a protective atmosphere.  Water’s boiling temperature varies directly with the overlying air pressure; if Earth were to lose its atmosphere, the boiling point of water would drop below the average temperature of Earth’s surface, and our oceans would quickly boil away.  So Earth depends not only on its distance from the Sun, but also on its protective atmosphere to maintain its life-giving oceans.

Liquid water has played a critical role in the existence of life, probably since its very beginning.  If Earth had no oceans – if it weren’t blue – it’s doubtful that any of us would be here to discuss it.  So you may call it a miracle that Earth is blue, but that only works if you assume that the Universe has some agency that wants us to exist.  In the absence of such an agency, we only exist because we can.  Conditions were right, so we evolved.  No miracle is needed to explain our existence.

that circles around a ball of fire

Hoo boy.  Besides the over-arching logical fallacy expressed by this meme, this is the single most egregious error.  The Sun is not made of fire.

Fire is generally the result of a chemical reaction called combustion.  During combustion, a fuel source combines with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, water vapor, and lots of thermal energy (heat).  Depending on the fuel source and the conditions of the fire, a fire may also release soot, ash, and other by-products.  The glow of a fire is due to the fact that the combustion products are extremely hot – so hot they give off visible light.  This phenomenon is called incandescence.

Somebody living in a less-enlightened age could be forgiven for thinking that the Sun was made of fire; after all, it glows with fierce warmth, just like the Earthly fires with which our ancestors were so familiar.  We now know (well, we should know) that the Sun’s heat and light come from quite a different process: nuclear fusion.  The Sun is mostly made of two elements: hydrogen and helium.  In the hellish inferno of the Sun’s core, hydrogen atoms are squeezed together under tremendous pressure until they combine to form helium atoms.  This is the same process that happens in a thermonuclear bomb, but on a scale zillions of times larger.  Each fusion reaction releases a burst of energy in the form of heat, light, and particles.  In essence, the Sun is a giant H-bomb that is constantly exploding,  yet is held in shape by the immense pull of its own gravity.

As fantastic as the Sun’s power is, there’s still nothing miraculous about it.  In fact, on a universal scale, the ferocious fusion reactions that sustain the Sun are positively mundane.  Just look up at the night sky; each star you can see is sustained by the same process as our Sun.  And there are many, many stars you cannot see – probably infinitely many – and most of them are busy churning hydrogen into helium within their cores (older stars tend to fuse heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, and so on).  No, the Sun is not a miracle.  It appears to be a certainty; a guarantee made by the laws that govern the cosmos.

next to a Moon that moves the sea

This only comes across as miraculous if you don’t understand how gravity works.  (To be fair, gravity is a pretty complex topic, but still one that operates according to physical laws.)  Gravity is an interaction between any two objects that have mass (or energy, which is another side of the same coin as mass).  The gravitational interaction between two bodies depends on how much mass those bodies have, but also on the distance between them.  The farther apart two objects get, the less gravitational attraction they feel for each other.

Gravity is a two-way street.  Just as Earth tugs on the Moon, the Moon tugs on Earth.  Earth is roughly 12,800 kilometers across, so one side of Earth is 12,800 kilometers closer to the Moon than the other side is.  The Moonward side of Earth experiences a stronger tug from the Moon than the anti-Moonward side does.  This gravitational gradient across the bulk of Earth is what gives rise to the tides.

Due to a complex web of forces that are beyond the scope of this already-lengthy post, there are two high tide bulges; one that roughly faces the Moon, and one that faces roughly away from the Moon.  As Earth rotates once a day, each point on its surface sweeps through these high tide bulges.  When your beach rotates into one of Earth’s high tide bulges, you see the water level slowly rise up.  When your beach rotates out of a high tide bulge, you watch the water level slowly sink.

It’s probably worth mentioning that local factors such as wind, ocean currents, seafloor geography, and so on, can have a great effect on how a region experiences tides.  Regardless, tides are not miraculous; they are well-understood phenomena that do not require divine intervention to work.

I often wonder why some people need for miracles to exist.  Furthermore, why do they clutch at impressive but nevertheless non-miraculous phenomena?  Is it because they find comfort in the idea that a deity can still interfere with the clockwork machinations of nature for their particular benefit?  Does their faith in the divine reside in unexplained mysteries?  Are they afraid that if everything is explained by science, there will be no room left for their gods?  Do they think that if their gods disappear in a puff of logic, they will be forced to undertake the always-uncomfortable task of rewriting their belief system?

I personally think that even if I were religious – if I believed in supernatural beings – I would find the idea of miracles unsettling.  A miracle – a real miracle – would be a clear sign that there is a god who is willing to sidestep his (or her; let’s not be sexist) natural laws, but any deity who is willing to interfere with the game could suddenly decide to end it.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think any being should have all that power.

 

 

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