In an article Salon mistitled “About that ‘immaculate’ conception“1—the immaculate conception speaks of St Mary’s entry into the world, not Jesus’s—Daniel Engber, a developmental neuroscientist at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, gives us a few facts on parthenogenesis, which is to say on “virgin” births, or at least births without assistance of the other sex. ‘Tis the season.
Not too common, “virgin” births, and not seen in any of the mammals with the possible exception (if I understand Engber) of the platypus, Australia’s whimsical contribution to cladistics. And with one notable exception, not seen in people-mammals, either.
Reasons against mammalian parthenogenesis are given (go and read these), with the gist that, conditioned on all this biological knowledge, the probability of an actual human virgin birth is astonishingly low; so low that it isn’t worth figuring a number. The closest quantification we have is “Next to impossible.”
A miracle, then, for our one observation. What’s a miracle? Excellent question, but one which will not be entirely answered in this short article.
First, note that God, Big Chief of miracles, and one-third of what happened on a Christmas day minus nine months some two thousand years ago, cannot do the impossible. What’s impossible? That which cannot happen. God cannot make a triangle of four sides, nor one with interior angles different than 180 degrees. I speak of Euclidean triangles, in which it is known beyond all doubt, that triangles are three-sided etc. I do not mean some odd measurement on curved surfaces, which might come to anything. God cannot make that which is true false. Therefore, that which God does is possible.
There is no sound, valid argument, leading from indisputable first principles through an unbreakable chain of reasoning which proves mammalian parthenogenesis is impossible. There are plenty of good arguments showing that it is unlikely. But unlikely is not impossible. Many have great difficulty with this point. Consider that embedded in these “it’s unlikely” arguments are something close to an argument proving that mammalian parthenogenesis is just plain possible (though improbable). That which is possible can happen and can be caused to happen.
A miracle, then, loosely defined, is that which God directly causes to happen, as in the virgin birth.
Proof of our example? Eye-witness reports and the like, all that business in the Bible (both testaments) and subsequent historical events.
“I don’t buy it,” some say. “Sure looks like Jesus the man existed, therefore he was born of a woman. But since mammalian parthenogenesis is practically impossible, Jesus must have been fathered the old-fashioned way. All the sources in the Bible lied, were mistaken, or engaged in wishful thinking.”
This reasoning convinces many, though curiously there is no direct evidence for this view—the case is entirely circumstantial, relying solely on potential, not actual, observations. There is, as said, plenty of direct evidence supporting Jesus’s virgin birth. But even the “pro” side accepts much that is implicit: the texts which announce the event were transmitted accurately, and so forth.
The real point to notice is that whichever side you take rests on faith. For neither group is there a conclusive argument, which begins with indubitable premises and marches forward to an unshakably true conclusion. Thus one result is that everybody must gave faith. If you say Jesus’s birth was miraculous, you ultimately rest this opinion of faith. And if you believe it was “normal”, again, you rely on faith, on that which was unseen.
There is a final position which we can dispense with easily, but which gives insight (this is close to Hume’s view). Goes like this: miracles are impossible, therefore any report of a miracle must be the result of deception, error, and the like. Jesus’s birth was reported as a miracle. Therefore this report is false: Jesus’s birth was not a miracle.
Now the conclusion follows from the premises, but the argument is circular and dogmatic. Miracles are impossible? Who said so? What proof is offered that God cannot do what is possible for Him to do? None is offered because none exists, and none can. Accepting God’s existence, then it follows He can do the possible. Accepting God’s non-existence, it follows miracles (as we defined them) are impossible.
Therefore, we are back to the age-old question, Does God exist? Plenty of arguments for that position, which have various disputes, it’s true. But there are no sound arguments against God’s existence, therefore it is possible (as even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges) God exists. Thus, miracles are also possible. So it was possible for Jesus’s birth to by miraculous. Merry Christmas.
Update I did not and do not mean to imply that Jesus’s birth was caused by parthenogenesis. My main point, which I see everybody so far agrees with, is that since there is no proof that God could not cause a virgin birth, that therefore virgins births (in human beings) is possible. Naturally, I agree that Jesus’s birth was this way. I hope all realize it is not an argument against this proposition that others claimed to be born similarly: each claim has to be separately assessed.
1Salon has subsequently changed the name of the article to “About that virgin birth.”