William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Epistemology Of Miracles: Fulton J. Sheen Edition, Part I

Almost a saint.

Let’s you and me see if we can figure out what caused little Jimmy Engstrom to crawl back from the brink of death. I’m not a physician and I’m assuming you’re not, either. But so what. This used to be a free country. Let’s talk anyway.

In 2012, little Jimmy was being pushed out of his mother when his umbilical cord knotted, cutting off his oxygen supply. He was born at home and those gathered performed CPR until the ambulance arrived twenty minutes later. According to one story, “At the hospital, James was described as ‘PEA,’ for ‘pulseless electrical activity.’ Medics tried two injections of epinephrine. Neither worked.”

More than an hour after he was born, just as the docs were about to “call it”, Jimmy’s engine sputtered to life. He’s fine now.

So what caused the dramatic reversal?

Heck if I know. It can’t have been nothing. Nothing can’t cause anything. It can’t have been chance or randomness. Chance and randomness aren’t real things, merely states of information, and states of information can’t cause anything. So it must have been something. I don’t see any indication that it was something biological, so it must have been a miracle.

“Listen, Briggs. You’re no doctor, so how do know it wasn’t a clot clearing, or some other thing?”

What’s a clot?

Skip that. Isn’t the definition of a miracle the absence of a known cause in the presence of a known effect? If it is, then because I don’t know of a cause, and we surely witnessed the effect, then little Jimmy’s cure must be a miracle.

Or maybe the definition is wrong. A miracle isn’t just the absence of a known cause in the presence of a witnessed effect, it’s that in conjunction with a known prayer for intercession. In this case, there is such a prayer. Jimmy’s mother prayed. “I just kept repeating his name over and over in my head: Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen.”

So prayer plus unknown cause equals miracle. In this case put down an intercession in the charming Archbishop’s column.

“Wait! I’ve already said you’re no doctor, Briggs. Must you be so stubborn? Your opinion of medical causes is worthless. The definition should be the absence of a known cause given the best information we have, plus a known prayer.”

Right. I forgot that I’m not a doctor. Good thing, then, that a team of real doctors—a “seven-member panel of medical experts”—reviewed the case and couldn’t discover a cause. A miracle still.

“Seven whole doctors couldn’t discover any cause? You’re beginning to win me over, Briggs.”

That so? I shouldn’t be, at least not yet. Because imagine those seven doctors were transported to our time from the year of our Lord 1800 via a time machine. And suppose those doctors couldn’t discover a cause. They probably couldn’t, either. In those days physicians still reached for the fleam. So conditioned on their knowledge, Jimmy’s cure is still a miracle.

But why settle for the past when we can reach into the future? Let’s gather seven docs from 2400, a year which we imagine will be full of technological delights and burgeoning medical knowledge. Could those doctors discover a cause?

Maybe they could. If they do, no miracle.

If this definition of miracle stands, then the observed increased knowledge in medicine and physics might account for some of the decrease in notable miracles over the last few hundred years. The more physics we know, the fewer causes can be attributed to God.

Smells like there is something not quite right with the definition. Let’s pick two other miracles to see what it might be. Jesus walking on water and the time he turned water into wine. If you already don’t, then accept them arguendo (if you are able). This means, just like in Jimmy’s case, we’re accepting these events happened as reported. Now something caused that water to turn into liquid truth, and something different, but still something, caused Jesus not to slip under the waves.

Nobody (so far as I have heard) knows how either of these events occurred. There are plenty of alternate, fanciful histories that turn the deep waters into a puddle and the water into wine before it was turned into wine, if you take my meaning, but we are believing or assuming here that these alternate reports are false. The events happened. We can assume that Jesus prayed, therefore by our working definition these events are miracles.

So what’s the difference (besides the intercessors) between Jimmy’s case and Jesus’s?

Part II: The anticlimax!

12 Comments

  1. Smells like there is something not quite right with the definition./

    It’s like seeing a horse almost getting there to the water and then…. nothing happens… you still wait to see him drink it… but it doesn’t and lo and behold the horse just moves back and goes away.

    Guess he wasn’t really interested in the water at all.

  2. RE: “I don’t see any indication that it was something biological, so it must have been a miracle.”

    Great logic there: ‘If you don’t see…it must be…a miracle.’

    There’s an arrogant underlying presumption there (arguably it’s pride, one of the “7DeadlySins’–that one/or “we”–know enough to conclude that if we can’t figure out an answer then there just ain’t one there to be found (why not, “It’s mystery–we need to keep looking for the cause(s)!”?).

    That kind of jumping to conclusions is on par with the [in]famous: remark by Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth in his 1843 report to Congress where he stated, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.” (Disclosure: In complete context the remark is not so ridiculous as it is making a larger point)

    We haven’t stopped inventing.

    We haven’t stopped learning about everything…

    …including occasionally “unlearning” things we thought we knew…

    And, the more we learn about anything the more we learn how much we still don’t know.

    So to presume so readily that if we can’t, now, figure something out that it must be a miracle is silly. Jumping to the conclusion that some unknown factor(s) must be a miracle presumes we lack ignorance…yep, that IS a manifestation of the “DeadlySin” of Pride. Reinforced, of course, by attacking science and other methods of maintaining blissful ignorance.

    Adam’s, and humanity’s, fall is traced to eating of the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ after all; no such flora exists, to a ‘knowledge tree’ there is a clearly a metaphor/allegory for something else. Of all the things one could have picked to represent the sin afflicting all of humanity to come it was ‘knowledge’…think about that…why is knowledge so bad?

    Con artists, cult leaders, etc. are consistent on one way: They keep their marks in ignorance. E.G., in investing, such tactics are described in http://www.smell-a-rat.com/ “How to Smell a Rat; the Five Signs of Financial Fraud.”

    When one sees the very same tactics in financial fraud as in other areas, the logical conclusion is the tactics are an indication of toxic manipulation. Imposed & then self-reinforced ignorance is one of those tactics.

  3. So what’s the difference (besides the intercessors) between Jimmy’s case and Jesus’s?

    None at all, except for your assumption that the latter is true, just true, and that we should just accept it “arguendo”, that is, “if we are able” (what a sleazy manipulation there did you think no one would notice it?).

    Why should I accept it at all? I don’t think “Jesus’ miracles” ever occurred. A myriad of possibilities exist here, either some “incredible” feats were made, in which case if someone like Houdini was present he would “debunk” them easily and show how they were made, perhaps it was just some ordinary things that were experienced in a profound manner and later transformed themselves into writing in a poetic mode (and later people literalized it into reality, as if metaphors did actually happen, etc.), perhaps someone just lied in order to get more believers (no no no, my god is amazing he even walked on water! ooooh really? omg! talk more please!), and so on and so on.

    Why should I take your interpretation anywhere near serious? I wonder how some people have two brains here. On one hand, they write books telling us how sometimes it’s so difficult (but possible) not to fool ourselves, how rigorous we must be with the evidence provided, how many “psychics” are just playing math tricks or other con things unto you, and so on and so on, and yet, if you ask them if a certain incredulous event happened two thousand years ago with nothing but the book written by those who preached it, they will believe in them with all their hearts as if it’s the most important event of the universe.

    This is a psychological event that is indeed important to understand better.

  4. Sure, miracles do happen, also in Hindu families. It just proves that Jesus resurrection wasn’t that extraordinary after all.

  5. Thanks for the memory, Dr. Briggs. When I was a little kid in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood (Our Lady of Grace Parish) we used to watch a program on TV called “Life Is Worth Living” featuring Bishop Sheen. He used to talk to us in simple language and used a chalkboard to illustrate his points. We loved it. He was (is) definitely a saintly man. One day right on the air, he announced that Joseph Stalin would soon be punished for his acts and guess what…a week later Stalin had a stroke and died. You can bet that we sat up straighter when watching his program from then on. He was a soft spoken kindly man and the people loved him. Pope Francis reminds me of Bishop Sheen. I don’t know if they are saints but I definitely consider both to be “saintly” and I do believe in Divine Intervention.

  6. An interesting observation of Jesus’ miracles made by C.S. Lewis IIRC is that they are essentially manipulations of time and existing matter rather than de novo creations. Water can be made into wine by passing it through grapevines and wine presses; walking on water can be accomplished when the water is frozen naturally in winter. So too at the feeding of the 5000, the grain in the loaves and the accompanying fishes would have naturally reproduced under other circumstances. The healing of the lame and blind is restoration of incorrectly operating physiology.

  7. Water into wine?

    Obvious scientific explanation: Time traveler carrying packs of grape kool-aid.

  8. Can’t wait for the rabbit Briggs. You are a tad too predictable.

  9. The panel could not find a biological or clinical cause. But just because they could not, does not mean there is no clinical cause; there likely is. So a clinical or biological cause is likely to be the best candidate as a cause in Jimmy’s case, because everytime we find a cause for an illness, it is always a biological or clinical cause. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Maybe there are miracles, but no proof of one yet.

  10. “Maybe there are miracles, but no proof of one yet.”

    If there was proof, it wouldn’t be a miracle. Such is the nature of faith.

  11. Or Fulton Sheen and Ganesh are both avatars of the Roman goddess Fortuna.

  12. It’s a miracle the world warmed from 1910 to 1940. It’s a miracle the world cooled from 1940 to 1980. It’s a miracle the world warmed from 1980 to 2000.

    Do I have the gist of it?

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