• Of Miracles

    “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish…” – David Hume, Of Miracles.

    The above statement summarizes David Hume’s essay on miracles. There has been a fierce debate over what exactly Hume meant with his arguments, but I choose not to focus on that debate because I see it as a red herring. Who cares what Hume thought? What we’re really interested in is whether it is ever acceptable to believe a claimed miracle, and if so, how much evidence we should require for such a claim.

    I define a miracle as an event caused by a supernatural agency. What is the probability that miracles occur at all? Without calling on the evidence that they do not occur, there are good arguments for the impossibility of supernatural agents (see argument 1 here), and at least one good argument for the impossibility of a supernatural agent causing anything in the material world even if such a being did exist (The apparent impossibility of an immaterial thing causing a material event without any point of contact between the two; That is, an immaterial entity, since it is not material, would not in anyway whatsover be touching or physically connected to any matter or energy, and without such a point of contact it is quite plausibly not even possible for one to affect the other). Ockham’s razor would suggest that we keep our view of the world simple, and as such we shouldn’t add supernatural beings into our account of how the universe and all of existence works unless proven otherwise. But set all of these arguments aside. Let’s begin by being generous and assuming right out of the gate that there is a fifty percent chance that miracles happen occasionally (that probability will be raised or lowered based upon our examination of the evidence).

    First of all, how do we tell when a miracle has happened? It is not so easy to tell when an invisible and undetectable agent has caused something, after all. We need to look for events that are unlikely to occur unless a supernatural agent was involved. On the other hand, so many events happen in the world that even super-unlikely events will happen every once in a while (for example, lottery winners who won multiple times). How to find our way out of the maze? Well, if seemingly supernatural events happened more often than was likely if there were no miracles, the problem would be solved. It’s hard to say exactly how often such events would need to happen in order to justify a belief in the supernatural, but obviously if these were common and repeatable, no one would doubt that they occurred. Fortunately, I don’t think the real world is ambiguous enough to throw us into debating how much is enough.

    So we know what a miracle is and how to identify it. I haven’t observed such an event myself, but there are people throughout history who have claimed to have observed such an event. How do we treat their testimony?

    Let’s look at this with an analogy I’ve used in my book Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence: Lots of people have claimed to be able to create perpetual motion machines, that is, machines, that work without losing any energy at all. Of course, this violates the second law of thermodynamics (or the first, if it is claimed that the machine creates its own energy for free). We have two possible theories: either the laws of thermodynamics cannot be broken or they can be broken occasionally. If the laws cannot be broken, what should we expect? We ought to expect that the vast majority of human beings will attest that it has been constant in their experience, but we may have a few people who say otherwise because they are liars (we all know people lie sometimes) or just plain mistaken about what they thought they saw. If the laws of thermodynamics are not truly laws, but just general rules which have some exceptions, we ought to expect a similar pattern (most people will say it holds good in their experience, a few will attest to an exception). For believers in perpetual motion, we are already knee-deep in trouble. They cannot trust someone who told them about perpetual motion because the testimony here is not nearly as trustworthy as it would be about an ordinary event: we expect a few people might attest to perpetual motion even if it is a myth, and thus the word of their perpetual-motion-machine-selling uncle provides no good grounds for belief. On the other hand, there might be a key difference in the kind of testimony we would have if the laws of thermodynamics were not constant: exceptions could be found and repeated, hundreds of scientists could investigate and decide the matter. If they were in unanimous (or even near-unanimous) agreement that they had indeed found an exception to the law, and had no reason to lie about the event (their palms weren’t greased by a savvy and well-financed perpetual motion entrepreneur) I would judge such an outcome to be so unlikely on the hypothesis that the law was constant that I would immediately believe in the exception. However, that such a well-recorded exception has never happened strikes me as a pretty good argument that no exception exists. On this evidence, the constant-law hypothesis may not be one hundred or even ninety nine percent likely, but it is a great deal more likely to be true than false.

    But a fan of perpetual motion is in even worse shape than I have let on: a huge number of claimed perpetual motion machines have been investigated, and all of them have turned out to be phonies, and the US Patent Office refuses to even consider them anymore. So, the odds that the next perpetual motion claim is right is pretty slim. So far, such claims have been correct exactly zero percent of the time. Maybe we’ve just never learned out to assemble one properly, maybe on the edge of unseen physics awaits a perfectly workable one, but the track record we have gives solid reason to actively disbelieve any such claims unless and until extremely strong evidence is provided to outweigh the evidence we have from our running tally of failures.

    Miracle claims are in a similar category: only a few people ever attest to anything that could definitely count as a miracle (in my experience, most people who make such claims tell stories of seemingly unlikely events or vague phenomenon, neither of which is conclusive because the improbable will happen occasionally regardless of whether the supernatural exists) which is just what we would expect if no miracles ever occurred (after all, a few will lie, hallucinate, be mistaken, and so on). Just like perpetual motion machines, most claimed miracles that have been investigated have been found false or of questionable veracity. J. C. Tierney of the International Marian Research institute says that “Out of the 386 apparitions, the Church has decided that ‘yes’ there is a supernatural character only in eight cases.” Even the eight cases deemed genuine by the church are probably not real, in my opinion. Or, as philosopher Matt McCormick once wrote: “[Lourdes, France recieves] over 80,000 pilgrims a year for over a century… Suppose, charitably, that half experienced something they took to be supernatural. [Sixty-six] miracles have been declared real by the official investigating body of the Catholic church.” (Update: see addendum for further discussion of this point). Doing the math, it works out that only about one miracle claim in every hundred thousand is genuine, and again, the church’s judgement is probably not to be accepted so uncritically and thus more realistically we ought to deem accurate miracle claims even less frequent than one per hundred thousand.

    Hence, if you agree with my conclusion about perpetual motion machines, you must agree with my conclusion about miracles, because the two are exactly the same, and therefore any particular miracle claim must be backed by strong, powerful, airtight evidence to be believed. The vast majority of human testimony, even testimony by more than one person, just isn’t enough. Still, what follows from this? Will we never be justified in believing that a miracle has occurred? I think not. All this means is that testimony of average (or even a little above average) credibility cannot prove a miracle even if several other people corroborate the testimony. But there are theoretical circumstances in which we could judge a miracle likely. As Hume himself put it: “[S]uppose all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose…that all travelers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition…it is evident, that our present philosophers…ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.” I agree with Hume, though I don’t think the analogy to the decay and corruption of nature makes much difference either way. The scenario Hume describes would be super-improbable unless a miracle had occurred, regardless of what that miracle was (even if it was of the Buddha going around the world and healing people of all nations). I think it’d be fair to say that this type of testimony would have less than one chance in a million of existing if no miracle had occurred, and the miracle itself would arguably have a prior probability of one in a million, which would arguably make the miracle believable or would at least put it within the realm of rational debate (if you have trouble understanding the stuff about prior probability please learn about Bayes’ theorem with this blog post or, even better, this video.)

    The same reasoning would apply to other alleged supernatural events. For example, many people have claimed that they have continued to have experiences after their heart has stopped. I believe them. Not because of the sheer number (in a world of six billion people, we surely have thousands and thousands of liars) but the percentage. Though I don’t have an official estimate, it’s my understanding that a fairly significant percentage of those who have flatlined have claimed to have had experiences during that time. It’s improbable that a large fraction of people would report this unless it were true, and without smuggling in any double-standard for judging these claims, it would be the height of irrational to disbelieve these people. Of course, I believe that these “near death experiences” are not glimpses of an afterlife but are generated by the mind of the patient (See Keith Augustine’s article on the subject or The NDE Delusion by PZ Myers). However, if we actually had a huge fraction (better yet, 100%) of people who not only testified to having an NDE but testified to it when we could confirm that their brain and nervous system had stopped functioning, then I would take this as powerful evidence of the supernatural. Further investigation (i.e. ruling out alternative hypotheses such as false memory creation) could even convince me this was real, as sure as stars are real. Why? Because unless we think the prior probability of a supernatural world is uber-tiny, that sort of evidence would be so unlikely on any other hypothesis that we’d have to believe it was true. But we don’t have that evidence, and my guess is we never will. What do you think the correct explanation for that is?

    Addendum: On the Lourdes Cures.

    Jayman has posted a critical commentary on McCormick’s argument from Lourdes. Though Jayman’s points merit consideration, I still feel that Lourdes examples aren’t very supportive of miraculous occurrences. See my comments and discussion with him here.

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I used to blog at Answers in Genesis BUSTED! I took the creationist organization Answers in Genesis to pieces. I am the author of Atheism and Naturalism and Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus. I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, and Skepticism in general.

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    16 comments

    1. I’d object to the phrasing “either the laws of thermodynamics cannot be broken or they can be broken occasionally”, though not the basic idea. This is because there’s a fairly common equivocation made, due to two senses of the word “law” in the context of science: the rules which have been inferred for the universe, versus the rules as they actually are. An awful lot of theological BS seems to result from confusing the two. A more careful phrasing would seem to be “either the laws of thermodynamics are an exact description of the rules, or they are only an imperfectly approximate description”.

      I’d also suggest relatedly that the term “paranormal” is more apt than “supernatural”. The universe is assumed to have some pattern. (Or not; but that leads to a dead end.) The pattern is described by rules. If one approximate rule has “exceptions”, a composite actual rule results from the approximation composited with the pattern of exceptions. Paranormal refers to things outside the accustomed approximations to the rules; supernatural, to things violating the actual rules. The concept of a “supernatural experience” is thus internally inconsistent: the rules of experience are defined by experience.

      Finally, I think your view of NDEs seems too generous, relying on an implicit assumption of the persistent self. (You might find SMBC comic 2705 relevant.) An alternate explanation would remain, that the brain was scrambling to try and account for the discontinuity.

    2. “a fairly significant percentage of those who have flatlined have claimed to have had experiences during that time.”

      I guess my quibble would be with the phrase “during that time.” How do we know WHEN the thoughts representing the experience(s) occurred? For example, the “bright light” at the end of the tunnel might have occurred AT the time the heart stopped or in the few minutes between the heart stopping and the brain activity declining to below detectable levels. Amazingly complex and real-seeming dreams can seem to occur in just a few seconds of sleep.

    3. Hi Rizdek,

      No, the universe is not a perpetual motion machine. I’m not sure why you’ve suggested that, but the energy within the universe goes to entropy and does not come back (at least statistically) nor is energy being created from nothing. So no, it isn’t.

      “How do we know WHEN the thoughts representing the experience(s) occurred? For example, the “bright light” at the end of the tunnel might have occurred AT the time the heart stopped or in the few minutes between the heart stopping and the brain activity declining to below detectable levels. Amazingly complex and real-seeming dreams can seem to occur in just a few seconds of sleep.”

      That’s a good point, we’d have a damn hard time knowing when that occurred. Here’s one possible way of confirmation: there are people who, when under anesthesia, can still feel what is going on, what the doctors are doing to their body. Suppose that when the patient flatlined, the doctor yelled or there was some event that the patient could sense occurring at the time of death. Suppose the patient remembers experiences happening after the point in time. That’d be a good way to verify it. It might be very impractical, but it could happen, especially given that thousands of such things happen every year.

    4. “Paranormal refers to things outside the accustomed approximations to the rules; supernatural, to things violating the actual rules.”

      I disagree on how you define paranormal and supernatural. Google “Richard Carrier Defining the Supernatural” to see my position on the issue.

      “An alternate explanation would remain, that the brain was scrambling to try and account for the discontinuity.”

      That’s true, which is why I said in my post that if we some way of ruling out that hypothesis (which I referred to as “false memory creation”) then we’d be fully justified in believing that NDE’s were glimpses of an afterlife. I’m not quite sure *how* we could do that, but if someone thought of a way to falsify it and showed that it was falsified, then I’d be convinced. Maybe if we learn enough about false memory creation to be able to associate it with certain patterns of brain activity, and if someone’s brain were monitored from the time they died until they reported their story, if we didn’t observe any of the said patterns we could be reasonably certain that no false memory creation had occurred. None of this practical right now, but fifty years into the future we could well have this happen (or not).

      1. Let’s see how much formatting is turned on. (A preview function would be nice….)

        Nicholas Covington:

        Google “Richard Carrier Defining the Supernatural” to see my position on the issue.

        I can somewhat parse those definitions. I don’t see where “the domain of currently plausible science” is substantively different from “the accustomed approximations to the rules” for objection. Po-TAY-to, Po-TAH-to….

        Contrariwise, the definition for supernatural (from the joint statement of the Carrier-Wanchick Debate) is clearly different from the sense that I’d use. It would appear to refer to “mental” phenomena not product of mass-energy in space-time. However, I prefer taking “experience” as the primary concept (corresponding to what Carrier calls “everything everyone has observed or claimed to observe”), and the concepts of mind/mental, mass-energy, and space-time as types of pattern inferred rather than primary concepts (as Carrier seems to). Carrier’s approach appears to cede too much ground to dualism from the start; I prefer to head it off back at the territory of the Recognition problem. That may be merely a question of taste.

        Nohow, the Carrier sense of “supernatural” would appear to be a subcase of “paranormal”.

        As such, much of your account seems to focus more on accounts of events that are merely paranormal, rather than also requiring the non-material mental element of the supernatural. It’s only at the particular issue of the NDE that your example explicitly involves a mind; Hume’s darkness would be a mirabile dictu, and paranormal, but there remains open the question of whether involvement of mind (immaterial or not) also needs to be inferred. This, in turn, heads back to the territory of the general Recognition problem, as applied to the specific case of minds.

        Thus, I still think “paranormal” is more apt in much of your discussion.

        I missed the point about “false memory creation” in the original post, which does seem well-covered.

    5. “As such, much of your account seems to focus more on accounts of events that are merely paranormal, rather than also requiring the non-material mental element of the supernatural.”

      Yes, I guess that’s true. I mostly wanted to focus on the epistemology of claims which are themselves highly infrequent and report a highly improbable type of event. These have a heavy burden of proof whether they are supernatural in nature or not, but the arguments we have against the supernatural only make the burden of proof even heavier than it already is if one is claiming an improbable type of event with little supporting testimony involving a cause which may be impossible.

    6. “Let’s begin by being generous and assuming right out of the gate that there is a fifty percent chance that miracles happen occasionally”

      I realise that this is a rhetorical ploy, but why be so generous?

      Probability models only make sense when we have some way of determining, analytically, or estimating empirically, statistically, probability values we can use.

      Miracles, as you define them being supernatural, require a supernatural entity with supposed powers of universe creation, interest in human affairs, and so on. What do we know about the requirements and possibilities of events relating to the business of universe creation, deities, miracles? Nothing.

      If I tell you I have a bag with 100 marbles, well mixed, all identical except that 50 are white and 50 are black, and I asked you to estimate the chance of picking a white ball, you’d say 50%.

      If I tell you I have a bag of undisclosed size that contains an undisclosed number of balls, possibly zero, but if there are any balls some may or may not be white, and I then ask you to estimate the chance of picking out a white ball, would you still be generous enough to say 50%? Or would you say: I haven’t the foggiest?

      In the God delusion Dawkins was equally rhetorically generous about the chance of there being a God. The problem is that the religious will be quite happy to run with this. But,

      Haven’t got the foggiest 100% (note to theists)

      Haven’t got the foggiest 50% (note to agnostics)

      Haven’t got the foggiest 0% (note to atheists)

      Haven’t got the foggiest = I Don’t know, so stop using probabilistic models.

      This difficulty also causes a problem with regard to this too:

      “(that probability will be raised or lowered based upon our examination of the evidence)”

      How exactly?

      To pick up and run with abb3w’s point that ‘supernatural experience’ is thus internally inconsistent, if something is ‘super’-natural how would we experience it? We define the natural as that which is, that which we can experience (directly or indirectly), and we already include in the natural that which we may never be able to experience for practical reasons. Any ‘super’-natural entity we experience or any effects such an entity introduces into the natural world become, by definition, natural. Our models of the natural world will be changed to encompass them. So really all we can to is examine these ‘miracles’ as unusual natural events and try to explain them. Faith healing, response to prayer, Jesus on toast, etc., tend to be explained naturally or remain unexplained. Remaining unexplained means they still remain classified under “Haven’t the foggiest”, and so cannot be claimed to be what theists think of as miracles.

      The basic and simple God hypothesis, that the creation of universes requires some entity that has something similar to what we consider to be agency, is a reasonable speculative hypothesis. But the speculation has to stop there, because no further productive speculation, about His interest in humans, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, can be reasonable considered anything but wishful thinking. And without the deity there are no miracles, in the theological sense.

      Game over. Not ‘Game Won’ by atheists, but simply ‘Haven’t the foggiest’.

      Of course theists introduce revelation and other nonsense. The problem then is, given the above, how would you distinguish a miracle from a natural unexplained event? You haven’t the foggiest. How do you distinguish a revelation in your head from a natural mental aberration? You haven’t the foggiest.

      This lack of information places all this philosophy and theology into the realm of speculation on speculation, fantasy, wishful thinking. When philosophers engage in detailed consideration of what miracles might be they are playing theological games by theological rules, whereby if you can think it and it fits your pre-conceived theology then it is probably true, or at least debatable.

    7. Angled brackets for NOT EQUAL TO were not encoded in the comment. Using != for NOT EQUAL TO:

      Haven’t got the foggiest != 100% (note to theists)

      Haven’t got the foggiest != 50% (note to agnostics)

      Haven’t got the foggiest != 0% (note to atheists)

    8. “Probability models only make sense when we have some way of determining, analytically, or estimating empirically, statistically, probability values we can use.”

      I think the principle of indifference would set this at 50%. The principle of indifference prescribes that when we don’t have observational information to inform a probability estimate, we ought to assume equal probability for each logical possibility. (note that when I did this I’m not including observational evidence that miracles seem not to occur in this estimate, I’m using that observation as my Bayesian “e” evidence).

      I reckon you’ll probably question the principle of indifference. Though the replies for and against that are too difficult to lay out here, I think its sound. I might make a post on the PoI at some point in the future.

    9. Hi Nicholas,

      I’m fine with the principle of indifference, if applied to an appropriate problem. I don’t think this is one. I’d be interested to see a post on it.

    10. “I’m fine with the principle of indifference, if applied to an appropriate problem. I don’t think this is one. I’d be interested to see a post on it.”

      Basically, I was going with a 50% prior probability as a generous overestimate favorable to miracle believers. However, I figure that once we look at the evidential probability (are there any supernatural aspects of the world like Hindu prayers constantly working against all odds, Post-Mortem Experiences that can’t be scientifically explained, any obvious or irrefutable miraculous events, etc.) and see that the world we observe looks like it ought to if miracles don’t happen, then that makes a pretty solid case that they probability don’t.

      Btw, I’m not in favor of assuming a 50% prior when looking at any *particular* miracle claim. I just took that as a reasonable estimate for the hypothesis that even one had happened somewhere in the history of the universe.

    11. Of course you believe in miracles, after all nothing created the universe from nothing by the hand of nothing and time is the magic wand that change a frog into a Prince. No miralces of religion can even come close to that, why a virgin birth and turning water into wine are as nothing compared to that. What faith you must have in the religion of evolution.

      1. Seriously? Sometimes I can’t tell if things like this are Poes (of course, that’s the definition of a Poe, isn’t it?)

        Anyway, first, I guess we need to correct the problem with confusing evolution, origins of life, and origins of the universe. Evolution happens. It is happening, it has happened. That’s a fact. Evolution is also a theory (not a guess, a scientific theory) about the processes that change organisms over time. In that regard it is (unlike miracles) predictive and has resulted in hundred, if not thousands, of new products, processes and advancements.

        Origins of life is a fairly young field, really only getting ramped up in the mid 50s, yet there are dozens of papers published each year showing experimental evidence that supports not one, but a variety of origins of life scenarios. Because of all these experiments, not only has it been shown that there is no chemical or physical processes that would not allow life to be chemical created from non-life. All it would take is a single experiment to show, with no doubt, that chemistry can’t result in self reproducing systems. So far (60+years) that proof has never happened. In fact, there are multiple chemical paths to the chemicals needed for life, depending on the environment.

        Finally, the origin of the universe is completely separate animal. However, unlike religion, scientists have a variety of testable, falsifiable, and discriminatory hypotheses about the origin of the universe. Many of these are actively being tested as we speak. I will say, that my understanding is that the universe is actually nothing. The energy content of the universe is zero (or so close to zero it makes almost no difference). While this statement is counter-intuitive, that just serves to show how fallible common sense is when dealing with science. In effect, nothing came from nothing. In fact, there have been several popular science books written that explore the physics behind this. I would suggest Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing which will explain it much more effectively than I can.

        This is how science does things. Unlike religion which says “poof”.

        Finally, I would like to correct your final statement. There is no ‘faith’ in science. By definition, faith is belief without evidence. Science, by definition only concerns itself with evidence.

        One short paragraph of three sentences and no less than five fundamental errors. It’s not a record, but it is impressive.

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