Geology, naturalism, and the problem of miracles

My blog posts have become rather rare events over the last year, while I work on a book project on the ‘rare event’ in science (especially geology) and its implications for the prevailing view of naturalism in philosophy and theology, and especially for the problem of how to define miracle. In order to work through my argument, I gave a seminar paper on this to our Theology and Ethics seminar at New College in Edinburgh. Here’s the text of my paper (warning: it’s over 6,000 words).

Title: ‘The Stone the Builders Rejected’: Geology, Naturalism, and the Problem of Miracles

I should warn you at the outset that this paper contains very little theology, and even less ethics. I want to explore how the natural sciences can be used to explore the theology of miracle, so starting from the science end of the science-theology conversation. I should emphasise that I’m condensing an ongoing book project into one paper here, hoping to get a sense of whether the argument holds together. It means that I’ll need to apply a very broad brush, and skip over the interesting details and debates. So I’d be interested in your comments afterwards.

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Thera, Egypt, and the Exodus

I wrote about this topic last summer here and here, when I gave a conference paper on the much-hypothesised effect of the Bronze Age volcano Thera (now called Santorini) on ancient Egypt and the Exodus. The reason I’m returning to it again is because of some challenges I received recently, which prompted me to return to the evidence. I was accused of promoting a religious agenda over science. My response is that quite the opposite is true. Some of the mythology surrounding Thera has taken on the status of a near-religious belief, a belief that is, by and large, not borne out by the scientific evidence, as I try to explain here.

Many books, scientific articles, TV documentaries, etc, have appeared over the last few decades claiming that the C17 BCE eruption of this volcano created all of the conditions necessary to explain the miraculous events of the Exodus naturalistically. For instance, the ash cloud from the eruption is said to have completely engulfed Egypt, and provided the sequence of events that we know as the Plagues of Egypt (e.g. the Plague of Darkness). Most spectacular of all, a gigantic tsunami from the eruption is said to have been what enabled the Israelites to cross a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast (the “Sea of Reeds”), while it drowned the pursuing Egyptians. That’s the well-known idea, which has been recycled many times with variations to take account of changing attitudes towards the date of the eruption (which has been refined from the C15 BCE back to the late C17). I call these ideas the “Thera theories”.

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