Atheism/Miracles - followup



Please see the below link.

I feel that your explanation of lone survivor in plane crash is not adequate. Can you scientifically prove that a human can survive after falling from thousands of feet height. Also scientists are convinced that they have understood less than 5% of physical laws governing the universe and the rest is still dark with concepts such as dark energy, dark matter and so on. How can we say with confidence that certain events/things are against physical laws which assumes that we have fully understood complete set of physical laws governing the universe which is wrong.


Okay, hold strain. If we’re going to discuss actual physical laws being “violated” you need to reference and cite actual, specific cases to back it up.  Exactly WHO “fell thousands of feet” and lived? WHERE was it reported? What date? Source?  We’re not going to engage in nebulous hypotheticals here. There have to be real cases with real humans involved to advance the discussion.

A good book for reference is Milton Rothman’s ‘A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism’ – Chapter Five, Laws of Permission and Laws of Denial, Here, Rothman does an excellent job of laying out – based on existing physical laws (from which one need not extraordinarily extrapolate) what constitutes impossible events and what does not. Also, merely because something “hasn’t happened yet” doesn’t mean it will or must at any future time. Once the basic laws are locked into place, and they are, those options are out.  Above all, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence at the time, not hypotheticals or unconfirmed reports, anecdotes.

If we did not expect these laws to hold everywhere and at all times then anything could happen!  One minute this keyboard could be here on my desk, and the next it could rise up and vanish!  Or, one day my car stops working on gasoline and requires water instead! This is the sort of haphazard universe one gets when physical laws are treated frivolously and with total disdain for their inherent predictability and repeatability. This repeatability is why we have so much confidence in the existing laws, and they will not be haphazardly violated.

Enter now, Rothman. The word 'impossibility' is actually amongst the most scientific terms. All impossibility statements actually have far more generality and validity than possibility statements. But one must understand what this means. In science the actual, technical terms are "laws of permission" and "laws of denial". The first details all the actions that are allowed based on the existing laws of physics; the latter details all the actions disallowed.

According to Rothman (p. 129):

"The function of the laws of permission is to predict how objects will move through space or how a system will change with time under known forces. These laws are known with great precision. We can calculate with exquisite exactitude how a single charged particle will move in a known electromagnetic field. We know just how a pendulum will oscillate in a known gravitational field."

It also means that given a person falling freely with the acceleration of g = 9.8 m/s^2, and over some distance (height h) what the time will take him to fall, and the impacting resultant force when he lands. Also the extent to which that will break bones.

But also note his cautionary point (p. 130) that: "it is usually impossible to make precise predictions of exactly what will happen in any real situation". This isn't because the laws are "wrong" but because extraneous, not previously accounted for random factors can enter including greater air resistance, say from an unforeseen updraft, or variable winds, or whatever.

Meanwhile, the laws of denial are "already embedded in the laws of permission" and so basically set limits on the extent to which the 'permissions' can operate within closed systems. They are predicated on such foundational physical laws as: the conservation of mass-energy, and the conservation of momentum and electric charge. These assure us that NO action can take place in a closed system, leading to a result in which the total energy, momentum and electric charge are not conserved.

I cannot take a 2 oz. bite out of an 8 oz. apple and come back and find it weighs 10 oz.!
I cannot put 8 gal. of gas into my tank, and know my car only gets a max. of 20 miles/gallon - drive one hundred miles and find 7 gallons of gas left!

I can't put an electric charge of 5 Coulombs on a conductor's surface, then come back two minutes later and find 10 Coulombs - assuming the system was closed to external influences.
Thus, certain things really are impossible! There is no getting round it, and it's definitely scientific!

Thus, "perpetual motion machines" are also denied - or "impossible" - since they not only violate conservation of energy, but also specific laws of thermodynamics, e.g. the entropy law. All events in the cosmos also obey Lorentz invariance, meaning that NO object, energy or mass or information can propagate faster than the speed of light (c = 300,000 km/s)
There are also detailed biologic - genetic laws that prescribe what can and can't develop - and in conjunction with physical laws, detail what can be allowed.

Further examples can be given based on the fact that biological organisms ultimately must also conform to physics. Thus, NO flying elephants can ever develop since there is NO basis in the genome for the species to acquire the ability of flight via "wings". Nor does physics permit any kind of enormous wings that would support a 2 ton creature!

By the same token, a human body constructed as it is from fragile skeletal structure and organs that can rupture cannot just fall freely thousands of feet and survive. That is, unless unusual mitigating circumstances are present, say that somehow the fall braked or the person lands on a massive hay stack or whatever.

Once one understands what constitutes the laws of permission and denial then one can argue on the basis of what is impossible or not. When one doesn't understand these limits - or perhaps isn't even familiar with physical laws on the whole, then "anything goes".

Note also that the existence of dark energy doesn't mean a physical law has been violated, or that one emerged which we didn't already know. Hence, can't be placed in the same category as exceptional human events, or claimed "miracles". Dark energy is indeed an extrapolation of Einstein's general relativity law.

As noted from one of my responses on the 'Astrophysics' forum: (

"Dark energy obeys a particular  equation of state that may be expressed:

w = (p / rho) = -1

That is, w is the ratio of pressure to the energy density(rho). Specifically the term (rho + 3p) acts as a *source of gravity* in general relativity, (where rho = energy density).

If we set:  0 = (rho + 3p) then:

p =  -rho /3   (or  rho  = - 3p)

and if:  p <  (rho /3) we have gravity that repels.

This is consistent with Einstein's general theory of relativity - which one could say approaches the status of a 'basic law of physics'.  In this case,  a *negative pressure* p  meshes with general relativity's allowance for a "repulsive gravity" - since any negative pressure has associated with it gravity that repels rather than attracts."

Now, apart from the preceding physical example, if you insist that water can be changed into wine, any proper scientist will demand to see your evidence for such a feat. The same applies to the claim of a man "walking on water", or "brought back to life" or "falling thousands of feet" and surviving.  In each case, the evidence by which a natural law is violated must be thoroughly scrutinized.  In this process, all alternative natural explanations must be considered-- including outright trickery or fraud, before the violation of a physical law is conceded.

Again, the (David) Hume test remains the best and most rational approach to any extraordinary “miracle” claim. That is, one always accepts the improbable natural or rational explanation before grabbing any supernatural one, or one that violates established physical laws.

Sorry, to hear that you object to my explanation of the lone survivor making it through a plane crash, but there it is! According to the basis of the Hume test, the improbable ordinary and rational explanation (pure dumb luck in having a location in the plane sustaining the least damage etc) trumps any extraordinary one. You are free to object, but then you are the one that needs to substantiate the extraordinary claim for the person's survival, i.e. as a "miracle". I don't since I am not the one making it!  


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Philip A. Stahl


I specialize in the areas of scientific materialism and consciousness described as a materialist epiphenomenon. Also can answer questions pertaining to general atheism, atheist-agnostic differences etc.


I have been an atheist for over 36 yrs. and have written four books on the subject: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), and 'Atheism" A Beginner's Handbook', 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Intertel, Mensa, American Mathematical Society, American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union

Atheist articles: 'The American Atheist' magazine, assorted U.S. newspapers (e.g. Baltimore Sun, Denver Post); papers-articles published in Intertel's Journal: Integra. Books: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' (2007), 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Master of Philosophy in Physics. Also took more than 3 yrs. of theology and metaphysics courses at a Catholic University (1964-67) - before I became an atheist. Thus, I have much more religious familiarity & background than many atheists.

Awards and Honors
Writers' Digest Award for the essay 'The Atheist in America' (2000), Government of Barbados research in solar physics award (1980-84), AAS Solar Physics Award (1984)

Past/Present Clients
American Atheists, Barbados Philosophical Society, Harrison College- Barbados, Colorado Springs Freethinkers

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