In my last post, I addressed a common excuse atheists use to avoid dealing with testimony of God’s interactions with history: misuse of prior probability. Just because a particular event does not have precedent doesn’t mean it can be handwaved; a prior probability that is undefined cannot be treated as a prior probability of zero. Before July 16, 1945, there had never been such thing as a nuclear bomb, but that didn’t stop Trinity from going off.
As an example, I suggested a botched alien landing, evidenced for archeologists in the testimonies of a prehistoric people and a handful of complex mathematical engravings. Now, whether that is sufficient evidence doesn’t matter; the point is that we’d theoretically be willing to evaluate this evidence despite having no prior experience with alien landings and no reasonable way to estimate the prior probability of an alien landing.
However, several commenters responded by arguing that the analogy of an alien landing was improper, that these hypothetical aliens would necessarily be part of nature. An alien landing, while unprecedented, wouldn’t break any of the laws of physics, and so it’s not on the same level with a miracle. Allallt commented as follows:
An alien landing has never ever been confirmed. But if aliens were to land it wouldn’t be a violation of anything we know. Like alien landings, a resurrection has never ever been confirmed. But it does violate what we know about biology.
Now, this is missing the point, really. I wasn’t talking about standards of evidence (e.g., what evidence we would need to show that natural laws were violated); I was showing why you can’t dismiss an event simply because it has no precedent. However, the “breaking the laws of physics” argument is a common one, and so I decided to address it.
The history of the industrial revolution (and, indeed, the history of science preceding it) is rife with claims of perpetual motion. Invariably, none of them have proven successful. But there are a few anomalies, like Johann Bessler’s “Orffyreus Wheel”. In 1717, the 12′ wheel was spun up and left in a sealed room for fifty-three days, after which it was found to still be revolving at the same rate as when it was left. A panel of acclaimed skeptical scientists examined it and found no evidence of fraud.
But I’m not convinced. Nor should anyone be. Perpetual motion of any substantive sort would violate everything we know about machines and energy and thermodynamics; we would indeed need extraordinary evidence to substantiate such a claim. It’s far more likely that Bessler’s demonstrations involved some sort of fraud or deception.
It’s important to specify exactly what it means for such a claim to violate the laws of physics. A purported perpetual motion device constitutes a claim that physical objects can be arranged so as to function in a manner contrary to how they are observed to function. It requires belief that tens of thousands of rigorous experiments have all been fundamentally flawed.
That’s important because a miracle claim is completely different. A miracle claim may involve events which are not physically possible, but that’s the point; the appeal is not to physical causes. A miracle does not require that nature operate in a manner contrary to observations, because nature is not what’s doing the operation. Miracles do not challenge our observations about the world. Physical laws describe what we know about physical reality; by definition, a nonphysical cause cannot break physical laws because it is not described by them.
. . . . . . . .
A few commenters objected to my alien landing analogy because it describes something which could in principle happen without requiring any alterations to our understanding of reality. So here’s another analogy, one which does involve alterations to our understanding of reality but (like a supernatural cause) doesn’t break any physical laws.
Suppose, if you will, that we discover time travel at some point in the next few decades. You get to decide what era of history you will first visit. Where—or, shall we say, when—will you go?
To start with, you don’t want to be caught, so you should go far enough back in time that no one will expect papers or identification. Photography became widespread in the first decade of the twentieth century, so you’ll want to head to a point earlier than that.
However, you don’t want to go too far back in time. Not only will your accent give you away immediately, but you’ll be in deep trouble if any accidents happen. You want enough modern medicine that a stubbed toe won’t result in amputation above the knee. The biggest leaps toward modern medical practices took place during the American Civil War; that’s when doctors began using anesthesia and triage and antiseptics. These practices really got the most momentum after Reconstruction ended in 1877.
So the ideal period for an inaugural time traveling jaunt would be between 1880 and 1900, give or take a few years. And that’s quite interesting. Because, between 1882 and 1895, we find the first novels ever written about time travel:
- The Fortunate Island (1882) by Charles Heber Clark
- The Chronic Argonauts (1888) by H. G. Wells
- Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain
- The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells
It’s all very interesting to think about. But it’s not half as interesting as our next discovery.
In 1898, Morgan Robertson wrote a novella titled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. This novella described a massive passenger ocean liner christened Titan. At over 800 feet long, the triple-screw-propelled Titan was one of the largest ships ever built and was considered “practically unsinkable”.
In the novella, the Titan is making a voyage across the Atlantic, trying to break a speed record. It’s traveling at 25 knots when it strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its starboard side on an April night, 400 nautical miles away from Newfoundland. Because it carried less than half the lifeboats necessary (having a passenger and crew capacity of 3000), more than half of its 2500 passengers and crew drown when it sinks.
Fourteen years after Robertson’s book was published, the triple-screw-propelled Titanic, one of the largest ocean liners ever built up to that point at over 800 feet long, is built and deemed “virtually unsinkable”. In its maiden voyage through the North Atlantic on an April night, traveling just over 22 knots, it strikes an iceberg on the starboard side. It is carrying less than half the necessary lifeboats for its capacity of 3000, and more than half of its 2200 passengers and crew drown when it sinks 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.
It’s a string of coincidences long enough to make most skeptics blush. But that’s all they are: coincidences. Though it certainly makes a fascinating topic of conversation over a few glasses of scotch, it’s not quite enough to evidence anything.
But how many coincidences would be enough?
What if there were four or five or a dozen other books like Futility published by three or four other authors, all of which were written close to the end of the 19th century and closely matched events from the 20th century? Would that be enough to make you start to wonder?
Suppose it was discovered that all of these authors privately and independently wrote about a mysterious stranger with an odd accent and a dry sense of humor who gave them ideas for their novels? What if it was mentioned that this individual first appeared in Great Britain (where H. G. Wells lived) before moving to Massachusetts (the home of Edward Bellamy), then Connecticut (the home of Mark Twain)? What if some of H. G. Wells’s memoirs described a mysterious acquaintance with an odd accent who talked about “quantum mechanisms” and “nucleus bombs” before moving to the United States?
Maybe this would be enough to convince you that time travel actually happened, and maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe you’d need more evidence.
But here’s my point. Whether this evidence would convince you or not, no one is going to refuse to examine the evidence simply because “time travel violates the laws of physics”. Time travel would certainly be outside our realm of experience, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Most importantly, it doesn’t (in principle) contradict any body of observations we’ve made. Time travel could be quite possible and simply outside the realm of our present understanding.
Perpetual motion breaks the laws of physics. Time travel doesn’t, and neither do miracles.