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Some scattered, quick thoughts about miracles, in passing reflection (all I’ve got time for at the moment) on some recent posts by Damian and Glenn.

  • I, too, am sceptical (US friends, this is the NZ spelling of skeptical) of most miracle reports I hear.  Wait, no, I’m actually sceptical of all miracle reports I hear.  Not because I think ‘miracles just don’t happen’ (naturalism), or ‘miracles just don’t happen any more‘ (cessationalism); but rather because miracles are meant to be pretty amazing things, which don’t happen all the time, and amount to more than looking for your car keys for 30 seconds, then praying and finding them and calling it a ‘miracle’.  ((one wonders: how quickly after praying does the thing have to happen for it to have happened ‘because you/I/we prayed’?))
  • “That’s just hear-say” is just as much a non-reason for something not being a miracle as “But Benny Hinn said so” is for something being one.
  • People disbelieve miracles (in general) of a miracle story (in particular) for two main reasons: impossibility and impropriety.  Not possible or Not proper.  Can’t happen or Surely didn’t happen.  They either rule them out a priori, or they feel that they (in general or in this/that particular case) are ‘unfitting’ invasions/interruptions/etc.
  • ‘Miracles’ by Clive Staples Lewis.  Everyone interested should read it.
  • The very concept of a miracle requires some sense of ‘the way things normally/lawfully/usually/typically happen’, as a miracle is an abnormal/’unlawful’/unusual/non-typical sort of thing.  People don’t say something was a miracle because they don’t know the laws of nature, but because they do.  Without a sense of ‘what normally happens’ (i.e. sex –> fertilisation or stork or something –> baby; or life –> death –> remaining dead), there can be no concept of a miracle (i.e. wow, a virgin is pregnant.  How odd!; or life –> death –> eating breakfast on the beach with friends).
  • Miracles attributed to various kinds/understandings of god/God/gods doesn’t in any way make them (automatically) less/more believable.
  • In an analogous relation to the hopeless task of reading all books that are published, it is impossible to investigate all miracle claims in anywhere near a robust enough way to discredit them all.  Hence the inconvenient situation we have of not having philosophical 100% epistemic certitude regarding whether or not miracles happen.  Having said that, I see no reason to say that someone who genuinely claims that a reasonably verified miracle has happened to them is not justified in claiming 100% certainty?  (or people close to them, for that matter?)
  • There are different kinds of miracles: miracles of ‘timing’ (i.e. an earthquake causing a river-damming landslide just as you approach it); miracles of ‘restoration’ (delayed-decay? – i.e. a death-delaying disappearance of a cancerous tumor); miracles of ‘information’ (i.e. prophetic word of knowledge of future event, etc.); etc.

9 replies on “miracles”

If miracles happen (a scientific claim), then what should the evidence look like?

100% certainty that miracles either happen or do not is a non-starter. No matter how much we may think one way or the other about this claim, we must leave room for doubt. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

As for prayer being efficacious, the data suggests otherwise. Remember, cause and effect can not be shown beyond chance and a lovely double blind study of the efficacy of prayer involving more than a thousand patients recovering from cardiac surgery reveals a slight negative correlation! i.e. prayer yields a slightly more negative result than recovery without any prayer at all. If yuo are going to make a scientific claim (Prayer is efficacious) then you have to back it up with more than personal anecdotes.

Can I make a cynical suggestion?

Some people want to believe in miracles because they need a God who does something. They want a God who is sufficiently interested in them to supernaturally intervene. They want a God who is visibly immanent in their lives.

They are not satisfied with a God who achieves His will through natural causes. Nor with a God who acts providentially rather than supernaturally. Nor with a God who works all things together for good. Nor with a God whose activity is difficult to discern.

They want a God who goes BANG here I am!

They are belong to a class of “superstitious” Christians. Or, am I just a doubter whom God cannot use?

‘the data’ is hardly representative and assumes that only a positive result would make the prayers efficacious – and indeed assumes some kind of mechanistic cause/effect understanding of prayer (but let’s not go into that here). But personal anecdotes, reports, testimonies, stories or ‘hearsay’ can be perfectly acceptable to ‘back up’ a miracle claim – unless one has a presupposition that there is both impossibility and impropriety regarding miracles outside of the .0001% of cases where other kinds of verification are available.

I agree that many ‘superstitious’ Christians do, as you say, have a ‘need’ for a keys-finding God, etc. And I agree that the problem is that the underlying issue is the failure of westerners to see God’s work in/through nature – a kind of seeing nature and supernature as opposed to one another.

If you want to suggest that prayer causes harm, then there is some data to back that up. But I doubt very much you mean to support a negative correlate. Please correct me if I am wrong.

I take issue with your assertion that one must (firstly) believe miracles are impossible or improper to (secondly) understand why anecdotal evidence is inadequate (the weakest kind of evidence).

Of course any claim of a miracle must be ‘improper’ and ‘impossible’ in the sense that the event to be ‘miraculous’ MUST by definition differ strikingly from what is usual and proper. In this sense, in order for an event to be miraculous, it MUST have broken certain naturalistic laws of cause and effect. Without this striking difference and unexplained suspension of normal and natural occurrences, there is no room for an intervention by some other agency… no room for a miracle. But that has nothing to do with understanding why anecdotal evidence is the weakest kind of evidence.

To be honest, if you want reported anecdotes to be categorized properly as evidence, then one’s claims about the efficacy of prayer should honestly reflect that it is supported only by the weakest kind of evidence. You have not done this. Perhaps you do not know that there is no strong evidence to back up the efficacy claim for prayer and that all the testing done reveals no positive correlate beyond chance.

Now you can attribute that lack of good evidence to whatever fancy you wish, but if you want your claim to stand up to critical skepticism like all science must (and you ARE making a scientific claim, let us not forget), then you must back that up that claim with more than anecdotal evidence if you wish to inform it with knowledge rather than sheer speculation.

The point I am making here is that the evidence so far suggests very strongly that miracles occur only in our attribution. If the miracle, revealing an interventionist agency of some kind, occurred in double blind studies that directly linked cause (prayer) and effect (cure or rain or whatever) then that would be highly meaningful evidence subject to the scientific method of something else at work because it avoids personal attribution (something other than my attribution can be shown to cause effect). Hence, anecdotal evidence that relies on attribution is untrustworthy (There was a drought. I prayed. It rained. It was a miracle.). Anecdotal evidence is untrustworthy not because people believe miracles are impossible or improper but because anecdotal evidence is dependent on attribution that may or may not be correct. And that’s why anecdotal evidence does not ‘back up’ extraordinary claims; it only backs up the attribution of cause.

In addition, a miracle also relies on establishing a supernatural interventionist agency. Not only can no other mechanism can be detected, but evidence FOR a supernatural agency must be provided to be strong evidence. In this sense, it is easy to understand why in earlier times misunderstood or unknown mechanisms (like germs, for example) allowed people to attribute events like disease to be ‘evidence’ for a supernatural interventionist attribution. This still goes on where knowledge is lacking. We call it superstition. And this raises a key point: when attribution provides us with what we think is an answer, are we stopping ourselves from further inquiry too soon? If we don’t even bother to look for a mechanism between cause and effect, are we being intellectually honest? Imagine if we all attributed disease to god’s will and were satisfied with that answer without ever looking for a mechanism that linked disease cause with disease effect. Would we really be better off being pious and respectful to the anecdotal claims by priests and believers rather than continuing to find answers than are consistently testable, measurable, repeatable, and falsifiable that creates a reasonable foundation of knowledge that works in the real world? More importantly, should we ever stop inquiry in the name of faith?

As the post said, a miracle need not interrupt natural law. A miracle of timing can be ‘attributed’ to luck or providence.
And belief in miracles is only a science-stopper when it held by a person or group which sees nature as opposed to supernature and/or feels they have to choose between one or the other. I.e. the tragic cases of people who believe that going to the doctor shows a ‘lack of faith’.
And please try to be concise? you can do it. :)

No, belief is an inquiry stopper because it substitutes an immediate answer simply by attribution. Imagine if every time someone died tragically or was injured by accident those closest immediately called out “It’s a miracle!” The negative connotation to link chance and coincidence to the supernatural is rejected by believers because it’s negative…not because it’s any less true!

(conciseness appreciated)
First of all, many believers actually do attribute a ‘negative’ event to a supernatural providential cause. Second, I’m failing to see how belief is necessarily an ‘inquiry’/science-stopper. ‘Belief’ in an ordered/intelligible world underlies all experimentation, so I think it’s more accurate to say that certain kinds of belief are ‘inquiry stoppers’ (i.e. the unfortunate anti-natural variety of belief I refer to just above).

The problem, I think, is how the term ‘believe’ is used in two ways: the first refers to something similar to ‘think’ or ‘suspect’ whereas the second way refers to religious belief, namely, a statement of ‘faith’ – meaning belief requiring no natural evidence. These are not the same meanings.

My criticism for belief as an inquiry stopper refers to the second meaning, where faith is used to uphold a truth statement without any need for any other kind of justification other than the assertion that something is true because it is believed to be true. Claims for the supernatural rely on this kind of belief, one exempt from having to provide any means for informing and justifying this kind of belief. In other words, religious belief is really an answer without any means to establish its truth value, whereas inquiry (to be intellectually honest) must start with a question and some natural means to justify the proposed answer. Without that natural means to justify an answer, we have no need for knowledge because religious belief that pulls justification from the supernatural – the realm beyond which we can examine – has already provided us with an answer; if we accept the validity for religious belief to require only faith to be justified, then all we need for ANY religious belief to be justified is the assertion itself.

The second major problem arises when answers provided by religious belief cross over from the supernatural to supposedly explain the natural world. We now have conflict in methodology between the two kinds of belief and what informs them.

Truth claims about the supernatural are exempt from ascertainable knowledge: these explanations are attributed to forces and entities beyond our ability to know. Truth claims about the natural world are subject to ascertainable knowledge: these explanations are subject to testing, measuring, consistency, falsifying, not only here but there, today and tomorrow, and so on, for all to know. So when answers attributed to the supernatural are used to explain questions about the natural, we have made a methodological mistake. Methodological naturalism, then, is the underlying concept to ascertain all human knowledge about the natural universe and everything in it. Theology can cover the rest.

So when we use the word ‘believe’ in a statement about, let’s say, evolution, we are talking about ascertainable truth value we call knowledge about biology. What informs it is available to all everywhere. When we use the word ‘believe’ to talk about god, we are talking about an attribution not subject to any kind of ascertainment of its truth value other than the statement of faith that backs it up. The former yields knowledge; the latter dogma. The former seeks answers, the latter provides them. Belief in a religious sense is an inquiry stopper because it provides us with answers, raising the question: Why look any further?

When we attribute supernatural causation to an event – a miracle – and allow no means to justify the claim, then there’s our answer… for what it’s worth. But if we want to know about cause and effect and what mechanism is involved between the two, then we have to leave the whole notion of supernatural intervention aside. Those who are unwilling to do so because they already have their answer are not aiding the acquisition of knowledge; those who attempt to replace inquiry with the answers provided by faith are actually impeding the acquisition of knowledge, and that’s certainly what we find every time religious belief conflicts with the findings of scientific inquiry.

Hope that helps.

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