Laws of nature are there to be broken

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Do you believe in miracles? I don't mean miracles such as will Man City win the Cup or will the sun shine during a British summer. No, I mean miracles in the old-fashioned biblical sense, such as a man walking on water.

Miracles aren't just a peripheral part of religious belief: all religions that subscribe to a deity have them embedded within their constitution.

The provocative Scottish agnostic philosopher David Hume suggested the correct technical description of a miracle is an event which violates the laws of nature.

Yet if laws of nature, by their very meaning, cannot be violated, then miracles cannot exist. An interesting implication of Hume's thesis is that the only people who can report miracles, or true violations of the laws of nature, are those who deeply understand them - scientists. It therefore could also be argued that miracles could not be properly reported before an age of science.

Yet miracles were rampant in ancient times. It is interesting to look at how stories of miracles are transmitted across populations so easily and, as a result, spread religions so contagiously. After all, how can accounts of miracles know what a new tribe or culture's understanding of the laws of natures are? One answer is that perhaps, from a psychological standpoint, they are designed to so obviously violate any commonsense view of nature that no matter what era you're in, happenings such as a man walking on water or rising from the dead will be immediately accepted as miracles.

Psychologists would press the point further and say it may be there is something deep within us which prefers to believe that we are not trapped by the laws of physics. If you're ensnared by catastrophe - perhaps terminal cancer or an earthquake - violations of the laws of nature open the possibility of a miracle which can save your life. This resistance to subscribe to the laws of nature may be a reason why many children may not want to gain a true education - I have long argued that it's this motivational side of things education at present neglects. Then again, maybe it's only when you fully grasp the wonder of the laws of nature that you can appreciate some truly awe inspiring miracles. Such as the fact we exist at all.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email:

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