July 27, 2009
What in the world do people mean when they use the word miracle?
The answer is essentially something out of this world.
The problem is, how in this world do we test for that?
Over at SI's, Modusoperandi recently described a miracle as "something that doesn't happen." Okay, well… I had to assume he meant something that rarely happens, but is that really any more helpful as a parameter? I'm no probability whiz, but it seems to me that given enough rolls of the dice, any combination can eventually result.
Another problem with this view is that it just simply assumes miracles rarely happen. Granted, nobody I know has been resurrected, but who's to say any of the countless everyday occurrences where lives are being saved weren't miraculous? Who's to say any of the countless everyday occurrences where lives are being lost weren't malevolent expressions of the phenomenon? Who's to say there's not a supernatural or spiritual component to things like UFO phenomena, astral projection, clairsentience or any of the other strange phenomena human beings experience? If we have no idea what miracles are, how can we move forward and say they happen rarely?
A while back, Lifeguard offered the following definition, "from the hip" as he described it:
Miracles, if they exist, are observable phenomena whose cause cannot be sufficiently explained in purely scientific terms (materialistic and naturalistic causes).
That sounds fine, and I don't have a quibble with the "observable" part, but when we take a deeper look isn't this what atheists typically refer to as God of the Gaps reasoning? As Lifeguard also points out, "..today's miracles are killed by tomorrow's scientific discoveries." Unless we allow believers to use something's inability to be explained scientifically as evidence for their claims, it doesn't seem helpful to ask them to offer something's inability to be explained scientifically as evidence for their claims.
In that thread, John Morales offered the following:
What would make an event miraculous is if (a) it’s clearly contrary to the “laws of nature” (in practice that it contradicts current scientific theories [which would make such a theory wrong]) and (b) the most parsimonious reason for that is divine intervention.
Still, I see the same problem. Like Lifeguard's, John's (a) also forces the believer to formulate their argument in a manner the atheist is already pre-disposed to reject. That something is "clearly contrary to the laws of nature" doesn't help, even if it does contradict the current scientific paradigm, because this is essentially God of the Gaps reasoning. John's (b) prompts one to wonder, how do we decide that divine intervention is the most parsimonious reason for something? Arbitrarily? Isn't that what the ID camp receives harsh criticism for?
How do we reasonably discern between the natural and the supernatural? It's something we've talked about here before, and I believe we need to trash both terms and start again. Remember, we used to think lightning and fire were supernatural. Maybe some instances of them were, and maybe some still are, but we all know anyone with money and means can buy lighters and build Tesla coils.
An angel may have cradled that baby to make sure it landed in that dresser drawer full of socks after a tornado blew that house apart, but even though we find the baby in the drawer as such, we can never confirm our hypothesis with any sort of methodology that could even loosely be called scientific. A demon may have really manifested psychically to that kid who took his own life, but what empirical evidence are we justified in expecting from entities who are alleged to operate in the realm of intuition? A genuine miracle may have occurred in the case of Kayla Knight, but on what grounds could we prove such? If God's hand did heal Kayla, what would we expect to see that was any different than what we see? What could we expect besides an anecdote?
I believe these questions suggest that the type of evidence most skeptics demand cannot exist, and I'm only a few more posts from declaring MiracleQuest an irredeemable failure. Although supernatural events or miracles would interact with the natural world, unfortunately, they represent temporary intrusions into the natural world from entities whose very nature forbids them to leave hard evidence, because they themselves are said to come and go from outside our parameters of space-time.
To continue the Waldo analogy, atheists and believers can agree as to what Waldo looks like such that we can identify him in a crowd. What we need is a definition of miracle that shares this luxury.
Is it possible to offer a definition that begins with no assumptions? Probably not, but can we at least reduce the definition as much as possible? Also, preferably into something that doesn't require the believer to make to make an argument from ignorance?