Skip to content
July 1, 2016 | 40 Comments

Can A Scientist Believe In Miracles? — Guest Post by Bob Kurland


Visit Kurland’s site for more.

“Miracles always relate to the faith. That is why a belief in miracles is not a vacation from reason, a little holiday from the tedious demands of rational responsibility. Not only is it reasonable to believe that miracles can and do happen, it is unreasonable to think they cannot and do not occur.” –Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles–a Catholic View

“The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern into which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.” –C.S. Lewis, Miracles

Some 22 years ago when I was being catechized, preparing to enter into the Church, I was much troubled by the Eucharistic phenomenon, transubstantiation. As a physicist, I could not understand how the wafer could become the flesh of Christ and the wine His Sacred Blood. The wise old priest who was instructing me asked: “Do you believe in the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection?” I answered, “Yes, of course—that’s why I’m going to become a Catholic.” He then said, “Well, if you believe in one miracle, why not a second, or more?” And that answer made a lot of sense to me.

The first property of a miracle is that it is related to faith in God, as an act or sign from God. Miracles are presumed to be rare events, supernatural—that is, not wrought by natural law. Certainly not all rare events are miracles. Winning the lottery is a rare event. But if you needed to win to pay for cancer medication, then you might consider it a miracle. We’ll see below what evidence the Church needs to certify a rare event—a medical cure or other phenomenon—as a miracle.

Science does not create roadblocks to a belief in miracles–if we assume God exists, is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can, as C.S. Lewis suggests, feed a new event into the pattern of natural law, bring down manna from heaven to feed the Israelites.

The various types and categories of miracles are well covered on the internet:

The Catholic Church has to be very cautious in endorsing miracles. Should a Church-approved miracle turn out to be due to natural, rather than supernatural causes, or—worse yet—to be the product of fakery, the Church will wind up egg on her face. The supposed miracle will be cited by non-believers as additional evidence against the truth of the Church’s theological and moral stance.

A general protocol for approval of “Private Revelations” is given by the Sacred Congregation for Propagation of the Doctrine of the Faith (SCPDF). The first stage is approval by the bishop of the local diocese; he may seek the aid of a committee of experts. Further approval is given by the SCPDF, either using a permanent commission, as in the case of healing miracles required for canonization, or an ad hoc commission.

These agencies can return three verdicts on whether the event is truly miraculous, not to be explained by natural laws: yes, no, can’t decide (translating from the Latin). Whatever this judgment, and the final judgment of the SCPDF, might be, it should be emphasized that other than those miracles which are part of Doctrine or Dogma (e.g. the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), the faithful are not required to believe in miracles, although they are encouraged to do so. The following are some types.

Marian Apparitions (paraphrased from the linked source).

There must be moral certainty, or at least great probability, that something miraculous has occurred, something that cannot be explained by natural causes, or by deliberate fakery. The person or persons who claim to have had the private revelation must be mentally sound, honest, sincere, of upright conduct, and obedient to ecclesiastical authority.

The content of the revelation or message must be theologically acceptable, morally sound and free of error. The apparition must yield positive and continuing spiritual assets: for example, prayer, conversion, increase of charity. Not all Marian apparitions have been approved. The most noteworthy example is that of Medjugorje.

Eucharistic Miracles

Eucharistic miracles occur when the host, previously consecrated, either issues blood or is transformed into human tissue. One of the oldest (8th Century A.D.) occurred at Lanciano, Italy. The host was transformed into cardiac tissue, and subjected in 1970-71 and 1981 to histological analyses. The results corresponded in blood type (AB) to that found for the Shroud of Turin. Remarkably, the tissue remained uncorrupted for the 1100 years after the miracle occurred.

The most recent in Legnicka, Poland occurred in 2013 when a host was dropped and then found to bleed. Examination by pathologists confirmed that it was most likely cardiac tissue.

These results are hotly contested by atheists who claim that they are either the result of fraud or that the internet reports of their occurrence are made up (including several in Buenos Aires when Pope Francis, then Archbishop Bergoglio, supposedly certified the miracle.) Given the reluctance of Church officials to certify miracles which might be revealed as fraudulent or natural (see the section on Healing Miracles below), it seems unlikely that this objection is valid. Whether all internet reports are totally accurate is another question.

Healing Miracles for Canonization

The process of canonization requires that the candidate for sainthood be responsible for at least two miracles. The miracles must be the result of prayer to the saint-to-be and only to him or her. Moreover, the miracle must involve a disease or injury that medical authorities say is totally without hope of cure. A committee of doctors (not all of whom need be Catholic) must examine the medical circumstances of the cure and certify that it is indeed miraculous.

A good example is that given by the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II. Three months after his death a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease (the same affliction that Pope St. John Paul II suffered from) prayed to him and woke up one morning in perfect health, even though she had been unable to move her legs before. The second cure, after his beatification, was that of a Costa Rican woman who had been told by her doctors that her brain aneurysm gave her only a month to live.

We emphasize that the evaluation process for such miracles and for other miracles at shrines, such as Lourdes, is extremely rigorous. A group of doctors have to certify that there has been no previous medical treatment that could give a cure–that is, 0 % chance according to conservative diagnosis for a cure. There is no way to argue that fraud is involved in these cases or that something outside of “natural law” has not occurred.

Can a scientist believe in miracles?

Very briefly, the answer to that question is YES! It should be evident that the Church applies rigorous and scrupulous standards in evaluating miracles. Mother Church does not want to be embarrassed when fraud or natural causes are proven to be the cause of what are supposed to be miraculous events.

If the answer were no, I would have to assume that science explains everything, that “Naturalism” (or materialism or scientism) is the only explanation for all things and processes; in other words, I would accept that the so called laws of nature are just that, prescriptive, rather than descriptive attempts to give a mathematical picture of some aspects of our world. I would have to assume there is no “veiled reality” in quantum mechanics, and that a physicist who told me “I understand quantum mechanics” is neither a liar nor a fool.

If I believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, I also would have to wonder why God could not, as C.S. Lewis proposed, feed new events into nature to create what seems to us to be a miracle. The so-called laws of nature, to repeat, are descriptive not prescriptive. God can’t make 2 + 2 = 5, but he can curve space so that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.

Accordingly, my faith in miracles does not contradict my belief that science is a wonderful tool to understand the world, to help us appreciate the beauty described in Psalm 19A:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.

Indeed, to take this a step further, to realize that the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in science is itself a sort of miracle,

June 30, 2016 | 16 Comments

Another Drake Equation Paper Shows Why Drake Always Fails


We’ve seen the Drake equation in many forms, none of them very impressive. They all share the same failing, as we’ll see.

Two fellows, Frank and Sullivan, have another go. The lite version is (appropriately) in the New York Times with the title “Yes, There Have Been Aliens“. The full version is the peer-reviewed paper “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe” in Astrobiology. From the Times:

Instead of asking how many civilizations currently exist, we asked what the probability is that ours is the only technological civilization that has ever appeared. By asking this question, we could bypass the factor about the average lifetime of a civilization. This left us with only three unknown factors, which we combined into one “biotechnical” probability: the likelihood of the creation of life, intelligent life and technological capacity.

You might assume this probability is low, and thus the chances remain small that another technological civilization arose. But what our calculation revealed is that even if this probability is assumed to be extremely low, the odds that we are not the first technological civilization are actually high. Specifically, unless the probability for evolving a civilization on a habitable-zone planet is less than one in 10 billion trillion, then we are not the first.

You can already see that abuses of probability are coming up. From the paper:

We define the “A-form” of the Drake equation, which describes the total number of technological species that have ever evolved anywhere in the currently observable Universe:

A = [N* fp np][fl fi ft]

…where N* is the total number of stars, fp is the fraction of those stars that form planets, np is the average number of planets in the habitable zone of a star with planets, fl is the probability that a habitable zone planet develops life, fi is the probability that a planet with life develops intelligence, and ft is the probability that a planet with intelligent life develops technology (of the “energy intensive” kind such as that of our own civilization).

After this comes manipulations of the equation which aren’t especially interesting. There are no insurmountable problems in the leading elements of this or the modified equation. But there is a universe of trouble in the second terms in the brackets, [fl fi ft].

All of these elements are said to be probabilities. Skip whether we can discover unique numbers for each probability and instead focus on probability’s Golden Rule: All probabilities are conditional. From that simple and honest truth flows everything, including the proof that the Drake equation, modified or no, is meaningless.

To prove that, pick the element ft, “the probability that a planet with intelligent life develops technology (of the ‘energy intensive’ kind such as that of our own civilization).” That probability does not exist—no probability does—without premises, assumptions, givens, or conditions. And what might these premises be?

The point of the Drake equation is to count on or, in the modified form, to put a probability to the proposition “Rational creatures on other planets exist”. Yet a main element, fi, is very nearly that same probability. You might argue that it isn’t precisely the same, in an attempt to save Drake from circularity, but fi surely smacks of assuming what it set out to prove.

Even if circularity is missing, fi has no meaning. None. No probability in that equation is sensible. All probabilities need evidence, and these have none. The best we can do is infer the propositions of fi and so on are contingent, and therefore have any number between 0 and 1, which means, thus the final result (in the modified Drake) is itself between 0 and 1, and which is nothing more than knowledge that “Creatures exist” is itself contingent. Nothing has been gained.

In order to calculate fi, we need a list of accepted premises that unambiguously lead to a unique number, or at least to a tight interval. None exist: none that are acceptable and agreed to by all, I mean. Plentiful premises exist that might be used, of course. You might say, “7 out of 10 planets with life develop rational creatures” and thus fi = 0.7. But who would agree to these premises?

Since nobody has any idea of how life began (on Earth) nor do any know of rationality arose, premises which can fix fi just don’t exist. And that same is true for the other probabilities. The Drake equation leads nowhere.

June 29, 2016 | 7 Comments

You—Yes, You—Are Doing Probability & Statistics Wrong — Podcast

Download MP3

Fellow users of probability, statistics, and computer “learning” algorithms, physics and social science modelers, big data wranglers, philosophers of science, epistemologists; other respected citizens. We’re doing it wrong.

Not completely wrong; not everywhere; not all the time; but far more often, far more pervasively, and in far more areas than you’d imagine.

What are we doing wrong? Probability, statistics, causality, modeling, deciding, communicating, uncertainty. Everything to do with evidence.

Buy my book!

June 28, 2016 | 21 Comments

The Gambler’s Fallacy Proves Classical Statistics (Frequentist & Bayes) Fails


Everybody who’s anybody—which makes, as we’ll see, a lot of nobodies—knows the gambler’s fallacy. Gambler watches the roulette wheel come up red six times running and says to himself, “Black is due.”

It happens, too, these musings. Real people make real bets on black convinced that the Law of Averages will restore the black-red balance of the Roulette Wheel of the Universe. Somehow, fallaciers (yes, fallaciers) believe Fortuna herself, or anyway some occult power, reaches in and causes the wheel to adjust itself to maintain Balance.

We call these people frequentists. Bayesians, too.

And not just those people, but anybody who believes in physical probability embraces the Gambler’s Fallacy; frequentists are just their most visible representatives. Physical probability must be causative to make observed frequencies work out in balance. But since probability is only a state of mind, unless one is staunch Idealist, probability-as-cause makes no sense.

Now no frequentist, or at least none I’ve ever met, actually believes in the theory they espouse, which is limiting relative frequency. Probabilities are only defined, in that theory, at the limit: no probability can be known until infinite time has elapsed, and since we, sitting here in 2016, are well short of the mark of Infinity, yet we still see finite relative frequencies, and these observations are everywhere thought to be “well behaved”, it must be that, according to the theory, the Gambler’s Fallacy is operative. What is happening now is either being influenced by what has not yet occurred, or probability is physically real in the same way that mass or charge is. Yet there is, of course, zero evidence, and anyway its absurd, to think probability is material. Saying so is the Deadly Sin of Reification, and would be the same mistake a mathematician makes who thinks his equations are real.

(There is much, much more to be said about the absurdities that obtain in LRF: this wonderful exciting must-read #1 new best seller book has all the sober details.)

But like I said, no frequentist believes in limiting relative frequency in real life. In actual situations, frequentists behave like we pure probabilists do and believe probabilities are defined on evidence in the form of an argument: these premises imply the probability of this proposition. We know this is so because, again, of the Gambler’s Fallacy. How?

Merely state the fallacy. Every student is taught to chuckle at the foolishness of the gambler who believes numbers are “due”—yet numbers being “due” is exactly what LRF teaches. Still, the frequentist is right! We should pity the poor deluded gambler who believes probability is causative. And in that pity is the proof that probability is argument, that it is cause and essence which are of essence, and that probability is not subjective (as in Bayes) or physical (as in LRF).

Incidentally, as is clear, if probability is subjective, as Bayesians teach, then there is no Gambler’s Fallacy: it cannot exist. If probability is subjective, we should instead laugh at the theoreticians who don’t understand that everybody is free to believe whatever probability they like for any situation. Subjectivism makes the gambler right by default. The probability is his subjective belief! That we recognize the gambler is wrong is proof that subjectivism is false. So once more we have a theory that is touted but which nobody actually believes (consistently, anyway).

Why is it the Gambler’s Fallacy a fallacy? There are two points, both of which are of the utmost importance.

Point (1): we have the proposition of interest, “This ball lands black”, which has a probability m/n, a fixed, deduced number based on the evidence, “This ball must land in one of n slots, m of which are black”. This is probability-as-argument, which produces a number that all, frequentist and Bayesian alike, agree upon (look in any textbook for proof). In the fallacy, the gambler states some number (perhaps not strictly quantified) greater than m/n. But this departure alone is not the full fallacy.

Point (2): The evidence from which the probability is deduced is recognized as (observationally) true, because why? Because we know it is due to the essence, or nature, of the wheel to be this way. We know the causes which are operative have not fundamentally changed between spins of the wheel. This tells us the essence of the wheel is unchanged. It is in particular this second point which is held more strongly and which causes (!) us to recognize the fallacy; indeed, knowledge of the essential properties of the wheel and of cause is deeper and more fundamental than knowledge of probability; probability is a routine deduction, a deduction conditional on the knowledge of the essence and cause.

And there it is. Knowledge of cause and essence is at the base of every probability.

What’s that you say? “What if the wheel has gone bonkers or is worn? What of your fancy theory then?”

A Smiley Face to the reader who identifies the flaw behind this question.

There is more on the Gambler’s Fallacy in this book, which I know you’ve already pre-ordered.