February 16, 2009
In the past few months, via several discussions with a variety of learned skeptics and religious people, I've come to better understand the disparities in our concepts of miracles, and specifically, I've been thinking about how falsifiability and confounders diminish the extent to which an alleged miracle can be considered authentic. It may very well be that proving a miracle is impossible, and on this matter I haven't quite decided yet, but I've certainly concluded that there is a wide range of skeptical positions one might take concerning the concept of miracles, and what we can justifiedly say about them, if and when they do occur.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome regarding alleged healing miracles is developing a reliable method for excluding confounders of spontaneous remission and the placebo effect. Hitherto unexplained, either of these mysterious phenomena would provide good confounding cover for a genuine miracle, and that's not to say that all instances of spontaneous remission and placebo effect are intrinsically miraculous, either. Some skeptics are fond of claiming that only repeatable, observable, systematic instances of miracles would be sufficient to convince them that they were unjustified in their skepticism. This is sounds more like magic than miracle.
Miracles as described in the Bible are best defined as disparate and discontinuous acts of God, not predictable acts of cause and effect. The definition of a miracle is an event that purportedly breaches the natural order of things, so how can we reasonably expect such events to be repeatable, let alone to the degree needed to draw an affirmative conclusion from reliable, systematic and consistent data? The person who demands that miracles be repeated asks for something that did not even occur amongst the original apostles. There were times when for some reason or another even they couldn't affect the desired phenomena, and to demand that God work miracles on our terms for our purposes was certainly not the way it went down in scripture. Nowhere in the Bible is God alleged to be a magic genie.
On EvangelicalRealism, when asking for particular definitions and criteria that would constitute a miracle, the best I could get was a series of vague criteria that were difficult to accurately quantify. For example, the word "unambiguous" certainly implies something eminently clear, of course, but just how out of the ordinary does something have to be before somebody is justified in assuming it to be a miracle? The same goes for the word "extraordinary" sans further precision. Another criteria given was that the alleged miracle be "stringently verified," and my objection that such terms were insufficient and subjective was met with scorn.
I assure you I proceeded in earnest. I offered what I thought were reasonable preliminary definitions of those words. I said I would classify something as "stringently verified" when three or more independent sources have corroborated the story, and these sources do not always necessarily have to be eye-witnesses. By "independent sources" I said I meant disparate sources with no discernible conflicts of interest or questionable corporate, scientific, religious or political agendas or lobbies. These sources can be described as more or most independent if they share conflicting world views, and they can be described as less or least independent if they share the same world views.
I said I would classify something as "unambiguous" when standard naturalist explanation cannot account for the evidence, but even that is totally shaky, because the range of evidence that naturalist explanations can account for is always increasing. We might say today, “Oh, that girl was healed in a way naturalist explanations cannot account for,” then a year later science may in fact turn that stone over. We can seemingly always wave potentially miraculous healing away as spontaneous remission or the placebo effect.
As for "extraordinary" well, I said I would take this word at face value – not ordinary – but would you consider spontaneous remission and/or the placebo effect to be ordinary, or extraordinary? Why? What types of healing will you accept as ordinary vs. extraordinary, or potentially miraculous? Why?
Other proposed criteria included, "something that doesn’t easily fall onto the skeptic’s side of Occam’s razor," but again, the fulfillment of this is to a large degree in the eye of the beholder, no?
What about our particular definition of God? Is God falsifiable or not? If so, can we reasonably demand that God perform miracles on our terms for our purposes, for example, the repeatable and testable miracles? And if we say God is not falsifiable, what of the difficulty in excluding the potential action of an unfalsifiable God?
On the other hand, an isolated yet unambiguous and extraordinary instance of the miraculous might be much easier to stringently, objectively verify. Are any skeptics or atheists willing to accept one or more isolated events as sufficient? There are at least two positions, those who would accept even one sufficiently corroborated miracle, and those who would only accept repeatable miracles. Do you fall into either one of these positions? Something else? How would you specifically define a miracle, and would an isolated instance persuade you to recant or at least honestly doubt your atheism, or would you need something more?