It’s a miracle!

Posted by on May 2, 2011 in Thoughts | 5 comments

Well no it’s probably not. Just because an event is unlikely does not make it impossible, and when given enough people in enough places who are all in contact with each other via one means or another, the probability of an even skyrockets. Michael Shermer is a person who has tackled this topic before. In a blog piece entitled “A Miracle on Probability Street“, originally published in 2004 in Scientific American, Shermer writes this:

“I cannot always explain such specific incidents, but a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America.”

Before I go on, let’s define “miracle” first. I’ll go with this definition from

“an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.”

So a miracle is an event which is beyond the unlikely event of bumping into someone you know in a foriegn city, or calling your mum at the same time she calls you, in order to be a miracle, it needs to be beyond that, wouldn’t you say? As you know, I don;t believe in the supernatural, and it’s interesting that the definition leaves room for new knowledge to debunk miracles, don’t you think?

Assuming that any event ascribed as a miracle were to occur, in order for it to be inexplicable the event would first have to take place under testable conditions, surpassing all known human and natural powers. OK I’ll grant this. If somethign were to happen, under reasonable test conditions, that remained completely inexplicable to the tests being performed on it, assuming of course the right tests were being performed and by people with the right amount of expertise, then yes I would grant that as a miracle. But does this ever happen? To my knowledge it hasn’t.

The problem with miracles is complex. There are always factors not being put into consideration by those who see or experience it.  Many who report miracles are people who are actively seeking for something to happen to them or a loved one. For example, in a miracle ascribed to Mary McKillop some 50 years after she had died, a woman from Sydney recovered from a particularly vicious form of blood cancer called myeloblastic leukaemia. The reason given in the SMH article was this:

It was her complete recovery, without scientific explanation, combined with the prayers of Catholic sisters through MacKillop that prompted the Vatican to accept Mrs Hopson’s cure was a ”miracle” – the reason for MacKillop’s beatification in 1995.

This is a nice story, and relevant to me as I have a close relative who has outlived, and happily, her prognosis for a brain tumor by 3 times. It is just as unlikely that her tumor is outlived than it is to survive myeloblastic leukaemia, and yet she has. Highly unlikely, but not impossible. But I have a few questions for you.

We know that the lady with leukaemia was religious, and was seeking desperately for a cure to her condition. So when her “prayers were answered” is this a miracle because she prayed? If wasn’t prayed for by the McKillop sisters and survived, would you still call it a miracle? Unlikely things happen to non religious people too, so to whom do you ascribe these unlikely events? Confirmation Bias, when events fit into your pre prescribed belief system, so you then attribute these events to your beliefs, can be very powerful, especially when something inexplicable happens in a time of need. I have no doubt in my mind that this lady has no longer got leukaemia, but I would fall short of calling it a miracle.

Brian Dunning wrote an interesting piece about the so called Miracle of Calanda, the story of a man who apparently grew both of his legs back in a miracle from God. I suggest you read it, carefully, with a skeptical eye and you can identify a few places where the story’s evidence falls short. I suggest to you that the story, as it would appear was concocted by the man to cover his own pride, and he was forced to play along with the claim so that he didn’t embarrass his family or the Church. You be the judge. I wonder, if stories that are only 400 years old can get this mixed up in what people call truth, then what of the stories from the bible? Stories can be fabricated, exaggerated and built upon so much over time that the original event, if it ever took place, scarcely resembles the legend it has become.

I feel like I’ve raised more questions than given answers here, but think about it. Is an unlikely occurance a miracle because it of its effects on people, or is every unlikely event a miracle? If every unlikely event is a miracle, then why are miracles special? Some would say that everything is a miracle, which makes miracles very run-of-the-mill. If unlikely events happen to American people, with odds of a million-to-one 295 times a year, then the chances of having an unlikely event happen to you is much higher odds than winning the lottery, and that happens once a week. Is winning the lottery a miracle? Well, no, I think most of us would agree that it’s simply a matter of chance, and one person has to win eventually.

While I admit there’s a lot we don’t yet understand about medicine and the human body, things like people getting better from terminal illnesses does happen, and with relative regularity. While some people ascribe it to dumb luck, so many are jumping at the chance to call the unknown a miracle and use it as proof that there is an all loving interventionist God. if you think, at any given moment, with all the particles in the universe (there are a LOT) moving around on their courses, with all the different ways these particles interact, and with all the space in between the particles, the likelihood of one person being born a human on earth at any time in human history is FAR less likely than someone surviving cancer.

When theists claim “You can’t explain miracles!” I simply say that had I been there, with the right equipment and knowhow, watching the right thing at the right time, I probably could have. But since I wasn’t (and neither were you I might add) I’m going to have to dismiss the miracle to chance.

So put things ins some sort of perspective. Sure, miraculous things happen (read highly unlikely) but the weight given to one person surviving cancer as opposed to the likelihood of any of us ever having being born is off kilter. You should be revelling in the life that you have, trying to have the best life you can, rather than worrying about the whims of chance and probability.

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  1. It’s a miracle my head hasn’t exploded because I have to listen to all the religious jibberish that comes out of the mouths of fundies. Thank goodness for rationality; that’s the only miracle I count on.

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  2. I’m confused, Marty. You spend most of the blog post trying to debunk miracles, and then in the last paragraph you say “miraculous things happen.” But since your definition of “miracle” posits the supernatural as the cause, wouldn’t you then have to at least allow for the reasonable possibility of the supernatural based on your statement? This seems very contradictory to your worldview, because on atheism miracles can’t and don’t happen. How do you reconcile the two?

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    • Read again mate:
      “So put things ins some sort of perspective. Sure, miraculous things happen (read highly unlikely) but the weight given to one person surviving cancer as opposed to the likelihood of any of us ever having being born is off kilter. You should be revelling in the life that you have, trying to have the best life you can, rather than worrying about the whims of chance and probability.”

      What I am saying is highly unlikely things happen (which people call “miraculous”). What I am doing here is simply pointing out that just because something is highly unlikely does not mean, by the laws of chance and probability, that it is “divine” or “supernatural”.

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  3. I’m still a bit confused though. You said in the post that if a supposed miracle happened and you were around to test it, it would be shown as not a miracle. But aren’t miracles by definition untestable? I mean, a miracle is ascribed to the supernatural, which is not limited to natural law, so how could you test an actual miracle if it occurred?

    Secondly, miracles are singular events, and by definition are not repeatable, which makes it rather difficult to test them. Here I agree with you–a miracle is a highly unlikely event, but a highly unlikely event is not necessarily a miracle. However, an unrepeatable event that defies testability and natural explanation, how is that reconciled? Is it, “Oh blast, we missed the boat and it came and went. Oh well. If we had been able to catch it as it was happening we would have been able to prove it wasn’t supernatural”? That seems rather hollow, and makes the science touted as so strong on this blog look absolutely pitiful.

    I know that the hypothetical quote I used above was sort of in jest, but if you look at something like the origin of the universe, isn’t that exactly the sort of tack that secular cosmologists are taking with its explanation? And by doing so, aren’t they just inserting “nature of the gaps” in such miraculous events by saying, “We don’t know, but not God so therefore nature”?

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  4. Study Rober J.Fogelin’s ” A Defense of Hume on Miracles.”
    Hume’s account is a corollary to the presumption of naturalism and likewise demands evidence; thus it begs no questions!
    Google the presumption of naturalism, the presumption of rationalism, the presumption of skepticism and covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism. Also Google Morgan Lamberth’s blogs and skeptic griggsy, amongt other names.
    We gnus mean business!

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  1. WPS | Web Picks Sceptique for May 7, 2011 « The Call of Troythulu – Musings of a Skeptophrenic - [...] byMarty Pribble… It’s a Miracle! (maybe not)… [...]

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