William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Miracles And Possible Explanations

From Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory:

‘And I dare say the first time you saw a man raised from the dead you might think so too.’ He giggled unconvincingly behind the smiling mask. ‘Oh, it’s funny, isn’t it? It isn’t a case of miracles not happening—it’s just a case of people calling them something else. Can’t you see the doctors round the dead man? He isn’t breathing any more, his pulse has stopped, his heart’s not beating: he’s dead. The somebody gives him back his life, and they all—what’s the expression?—reserve their opinion. They won’t say it’s a miracle, because that’s a word they don’t like. Then it happens again and again perhaps—because God’s about on earth—and they say: these aren’t miracles, it is simply that we have enlarged our conception of what life is. Now we know you can be alive without pulse, breath, heart-beats. And they invent a new word to describe that state of life, and they say science has disproved a miracle.’ He giggled again. ‘You can’t get round them.’

We’ve talked before about how some dismiss miracles and prodigies by positing an alternate explanation for the happenstance. Alternate besides God, I mean. Water turns to wine, a miracle. Yet that could have happened if the water didn’t turn to wine but instead was substituted for wine by wily servants. Or the water was always wine, but weak, and, when no one was looking, this weak wine was fortified by the good stuff.

Or people in the enthusiasm of the feast, and already well fortified themselves, imagine the whole thing, which was started by a rumor from the kitchen. After all, nobody really saw the water undergo its transmogrification.

The sun danced in the sky in front of tens of thousands, and then the sun fell to the wet ground drying it without burning any soul.

Yet it could be that starting at the sun only made it seem to dance, even though none were blinded by staring. Somehow, maybe because of the moisture in the air, blindness was prevented. And because the sun only “danced” due to jangled optic nerves, it only seemed to fall to the ground, which anyway couldn’t have been that wet. People forget these kind of details all to easily. Even tens of thousands of people.

Well, you can always do this. Any event, any observational contingent event, always has lots of possible explanations, and at least one of these will exclude God from having performed the event. Of course, there may be no other corroborative evidence for any alternate explanations proffered. But that never seems to matter. For instance, no servants who pulled the water-wine swamp were ever discovered to have confided in friends, friends who later wrote the matter down. The joke, if it was a joke, is pure conjecture, made up whole cloth, fiction from start to finish.

Yet that the fiction could be thought of is taken as proof of the mundane, it is taken as a certain demonstration that the miracle did not happen. It is not that the fiction casts doubt on the miracle, which might make sense if the alleged miracle is suspicious in some way. That the alternate explanation might create agnosticism is fair enough, and in most cases more than fair enough. But no: the fictions makes it such that miracle is itself thought to be the fiction. And that is still not the strangest thing. The folks who discard eyewitness testimony and substitute it for fictions call themselves “rational” for this.

But since anything short of actual demonstration of the alternate explanation is not proof, then substituting fictions as proof is an irrational act. Again what is strange, is that this irrationalism is often accompanied by cries like, “Where is the evidence! Bring us the evidence!” It always does no good to say, “But you have discarded the evidence in favor of a fiction.” Why? Because the evidence is thought not to be persuasive because it was used in proving the miraculous. And the miraculous is ruled out of bounds as a matter of empiricist metaphysics. You can’t dent the thick wall of empiricism with evidence.

23 Comments

  1. The tendency to discount miracles, at least by those with no compelling axe to grind, may be rooted in the overwhelming blur of mundane daily occurrences they experience. The miraculous event has little context while explanations for why it may be suspected have a million friends. The tyranny of the familiar can dull the mind’s ability to comprehend beyond the familiar.

    Aggressive partisans looking for loopholes are another case altogether.

  2. Well, if a miracle is just something happily surprising, call it what you will. But when see an angel come down from the sky, that’s not a miracle. You need psychiatric help.

    The one that always bothered me was the “miracle of birth.” I mean, what the heck is so miraculous about birth? That one bugs me, in that even bugs are born. And just how many times can a miracle happen and still be called a miracle? By that standard, what the heck is not a miracle?

    But really, what the religious mean by miracle is something that defies scientific explanation, which is one of two things: as yet explained, or magic, and they mean magic. There is no such a thing as magic.

    Now, if the Jets win the Super Bowl, then yes, that would be an actual miracle.

    JMJ

  3. JMJ–In the whole, I agree with you in that birth itself is a relatively mundane event, in that it happens everyday. To that family, to the mom and dad and grandparents, aunts and uncles, “miracle” is not the right word, but it seems to sum up their anticipation fulfilled, happiness, and relief. “Miracle” suggests a supernatural force, and if there were indeed a miracle, depending on your interpretation of the Nicene creed, it would have been 9 months prior.

  4. All miracles, thus far, have been local but the purveyors of those miracles put them forth as harbingers of miracles that will not be local; e.g., the global return of Christ. Egyptian record keeping seems remarkably blasé about the Red Sea parting and the loss of their troops, Chinese astronomers seemed unmoved by the antics of the Sun and Moon at Jericho during Joshua’s time.
    In a secular age “other people’s miracles” elicit indifference from outsiders and belief from insiders. A quick illustration via Mormonism (I bear no animosity towards Mormons but they arose during a period of trains, telegraphs, and court records so this is pertinent).
    In the early 1800’s the US was swept by a wave of people digging holes looking for Indian gold. In the 20’s a young man was convicted and fined for defrauding a farmer by promising to find gold in exchange for money. Fortunately for him, Joseph Smith, he was able to find gold plates left by the angel Moroni, decipher them with provided miraculous tools and found the Mormon religion. The plates and tools were later reclaimed by miraculous means.
    These events have totally different meanings depending on whether you are a member of the Mormons or not.
    Finally, of official religions in the U.S. (those recognized by the IRS) the only one I’m aware of that does not include the claims of miracles at its birth is Scientology. (Although it may count as a miracle that it is believed in :).)

  5. Again, about the most common and mundane thing one could consider a miracle!

    JMJ

  6. Sander van der Wal

    February 20, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary proofs.

    Secondly, why is turning water into wine not the same kind of event as the universe being created in seven days? The first one is supposed to be a description of an event and the second one is not? How do I tell the difference?

  7. Sander van der Wal asks: “why is turning water into wine not the same kind of event as the universe being created in seven days?”

    The first requires transmutation; the elements of wine (sugars, for instance) are not found in water. Water has only hydrogen and oxygen; wine adds carbon (but otherwise is still mostly oxygen and hydrogen). Transmutation is possible but requires enormous energy.

    I assume for the sake of argument that “water” and “wine” as used in scripture had then the meanings they have now; a thing which is not certain.

    Saying that the EARTH was created in seven days is a claim rather than a process. I would call it an observation except no human scribe was there to observe it.

    “How do I tell the difference?”

    First you decide whether it matters. If not, there is no need to proceed to the How. If you decide that it matters, then you study the information or claim as carefully as possible, and you rely on the power of an omnipotent God to tell you the answer. If not, then either it is not important or there is on omnipotent God or maybe there is and he just doesn’t care that much what you believe about this particular topic.

    My understanding is that “day” does not exist in Hebrew; what exists is a word that denotes the separation of one possibly enormous length of time (an epoch for instance) from the next. This is hinted even in English; “the evening and the morning were the first day” if I remember right. Without clocks the only “moments” were sunset and sunrise.

    Inasmuch as the Sun wasn’t created until the third day, we clearly are not speaking of 24 hour solar days as viewed from Earth.

    There’s a lot more on a similar theme but I’ll answer JMJ and you can read that too.

  8. For JMJ:

    I am mostly libertarian, which means I expect you will assign your own meanings to the words you use. I do the same for me. I am also pedantic, which means I probably won’t like or agree with your choices of meanings for the words you use.

    I treat “miracle” as something that you cannot do all by yourself because you want to. The miracle of life is so called because somehow life arose from non-life; I’d really like to see you create life in your garage. Perhaps you would create a YouTube video of the procedure.

    I have had in my life several miracles. Some are decidedly metaphysical miracles; others may be remarkably timed coincidences. I am very comfortable crediting God with all miracles even the coincidences; there is no harm in doing so but considerable lack of continuation of such coincidences could follow failing to show gratitude where it is due.

    I don’t even need to define this God; that’s a discussion for a different day and a different blog.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    February 20, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    Re: seven days of creation.

    Preliterate societies used myth as a way of categorizing, not as way of marking time. In West Africa, the Kuba folk had the creation story of the Nine Woots. It seems there were once nine brothers, all named Woot. Woot the Digger dug the channels for the rivers, Woot the Planter put all the plants in place. Another Woot made the Spear, and so forth. This does not mean that they thought creation took nine days, each featuring a different Woot. It means that the Kuba cultural world had nine important facets to it. The story was a parts catalog for the Kuba world. By the time it gets written down, the story has become traditional, always to be told the same way.

    In a similar way, when Esdras the Scribe wrote a prologue poem to introduce the collection of scrolls the the Jews had saved from burning Jerusalem when they went into exile, his intention seems to have been to justify the Sabbath whose celebration had helped the Jews maintain their identity when so many other transported peoples had lost theirs. This is Gen.1 plus a few verses from Gen.2. In this intro, God is envisioned as a workman, perhaps a carpenter, who builds the World. This World consists of two parts: the heavens and the earth; i.e., the whole kit and kaboodle. (Rather than three, like “lock, stock, and barrel.”) What other construction project would be worth God’s effort, right? So…
    1. Turn on the light in the workshop.
    2. Rough carpentry on the heavens.
    3. Rough carpentry on the earth.
    4. Fine carpentry on the heavens.
    5. Fine carpentry on the earth.
    6. Finishing touches.
    7. Kick back, have some brewskies, and catch the big game on TV.
    Between each verse is a chorus: God saw that it was good; eve and morn the nth day.

    Moderns are so into the whole scientific narrative that they tend to see everything in terms of engineering procedures, specification, and scientific descriptions. Even poetic and mythic accounts.

  10. Oh, hello Michael 2!

    I think by miracle of life, he was referring to the “miracle of conception.” That’s not life-from-not-life, that’s actual little living things going about their business. Now, the miracle of life starting in the very first place is another matter, and I can certainly understand why so many believe only God could have done such a thing, though I do not agree at all. It’s just so very amazing to them. It’s amazing to me too, but I realize that’s just me appreciating being alive.

    JMJ

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    February 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Re miracles
    The word translated as “miracle” is “mirabilium,” meaning marvel. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

    “We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not.” — Contra gentiles

    And Bishop Nicholas of Oresme wrote a whole book on the subject:

    I propose here… to show the causes of some effects which seem to be marvels and to show that the effects occur naturally… There is no reason to take recourse to the heavens [astrology], the last refuge of the weak, or to demons, or to our glorious God, as if he would produce these effects directly… De causa mirabilium

    A more extended discussion of mirabilium is here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10338a.htm

  12. Jersey McJones wrote “I think by miracle of life, he was referring to the miracle of conception. That’s not life-from-not-life, that’s actual little living things going about their business.”

    Maybe so; but amazingly complex. That’s not proof of whatever you think the word “God” means, but for many people “miracle” is more or less synonymous with “amazing”. Perhaps serendipitous is another word for it.

    A problem in this sort of argument is the anthropic principle; or at least what I think that word means. Here we are. That’s the only certain thing relevant in this context. In theory you could throw a box of type faces into the air and have it come down as Shakespearean poetry. It is extremely unlikely. Do it ten times in a row and it just becomes more unlikely but still isn’t proof of something.

    Conversely, I can have proof of God sufficient for my needs almost any time I wish it. It is how I interpret what I sense, and it is how I interpret the meaning of the word “God”.

    You do likewise of course; define the word in such a way that it cannot exist. Thus, your god does not exist because you wish it that way, and my god exists because I wish it my way. I wish for a god that knows I exist and values that existence; and I know it is so for he has told me that it is so. More than that I have to work out for myself most of the time. It might not even be “God” as you use the word. But whatever it is, it is, and I know it to be so.

  13. Ye Olde Statistician

    February 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Egyptian record keeping seems remarkably blasé about the Red Sea parting and the loss of their troops,

    Moderns seem remarkably blasé about the extent, detail and purpose of Egyptian record-keeping. From the reign believed to cover the relevant time frame, a total of three “records” survive: two inscriptions and a monument. It’s not like they ran a Modern scientific/bureaucratic State. The purpose of these “records” is to praise the king, not to dispassionately record all the great events. The great battle at Megiddo between the Hittite empire and the Egyptian New Kingdom for control of Syria-Palestine was recorded as a great slaughtering victory by both kingdoms. Folks back then did not record their failures.

  14. Agnostic Frank wrote “All miracles, thus far, have been local but the purveyors of those miracles put them forth as harbingers of miracles that will not be local; e.g., the global return of Christ.”

    Some do, some don’t. The difficult part will be noticing Christ’s return and that it is actually him. For all I know he’s a regular visitor.

    People do regularly extrapolate from small events such as a hurricane here and a drought there to New York City being under water in 80 years BUT for a carbon tithing that disaster can be averted!

    “Egyptian record keeping seems remarkably blasé about the Red Sea parting and the loss of their troops”

    More importantly they also lost the only scribe in 200 miles that could have reported it. I lean toward (1) lower sea level 3,000 or so years ago combined with (2) a unique geological feature at the mouth of the Gulf of Aquaba. Look at it on Googly Earth; it is remarkably shallow, a barely-submerged land bridge from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to what is now Saudi Arabia. There be many shipwrecks on those shoals.

    It remains barely possible the whole thing is fiction but I see no utility in that belief.

    “Chinese astronomers seemed unmoved by the antics of the Sun and Moon at Jericho during Joshua’s time.”

    As I have very little information on Chinese astronomers I’ll take your word for it.

    But if you are the king and you say the sun turned back on itself, I will faithfully scribe that the sun did indeed turn back on itself if the alternative is to have my head chopped off.

    “In a secular age other people’s miracles elicit indifference from outsiders and belief from insiders.”

    Some do, some don’t. It depends in part on your personal character, your tendency to belief or skepticism, your knowlege of the testator, and your belief system that might include elements of exclusivity.

    I am a nuanced individual with modest belief of exclusivity as to certain kinds of miracle; but accept that God can and will do whatever he wants (that he is actually capable of doing), whenever, and where ever including any planet or star in the universe. As I know with certainty there is one (at least), I conclude rationally that he is choosing NOT to reveal himself dramatically.

    “These events have totally different meanings depending on whether you are a member of the Mormons or not.”

    It’s a bit more complicated than that, but generally yes. There’s actually three categories: Believers, anti-believers, and non-believers (a fourth category which is HUGE is “never heard of it”).

    Referring to my previous comment, Mormonism has a pretty good explanation of why an omnipotent God isn’t believed by everyone all the time. He doesn’t want it that way because it is important for each person to make choices relatively uninfluenced by spectacles, not that it would make a difference I think. If raising the dead was common there would be no dead and we’d be arguing about some other kind of proof.

    “Finally, of official religions in the U.S. (those recognized by the IRS) the only one I’m aware of that does not include the claims of miracles at its birth is Scientology. (Although it may count as a miracle that it is believed in :).)”

    Well, actually they do have their miraculous founding more or less, the galactic warlord Xenu imprisoned the losers in a volcano in Hawaii 65 million years ago (more or less) and their ghosts, called thetans, inhabit humans and cause disease and distress.

  15. Michael 2, I can’t figure out what you’re saying I’m defining as “not God.”

    JMJ

  16. Jersey McJones “I can’t figure out what you’re saying I’m defining as not God.”

    Nobody can 😉

    “Not god” is infinite in its possibilities therefore has no definition. Or more precisely, you can make it anything you wish.

  17. Make what anything I wish?

    JMJ

  18. When you get back, be sure to say something Glenn Reynolds will notice.

  19. YOS,
    But the Sabbath is justified everywhere in the OT on the basis of Genesis 1. So,how could Genesis 1 be later than rest of the OT?
    Where did the custom of Sabbath came from and does the OT mislead when it says that it came by the remembrance of God’s rest after six days of work.

  20. Jersey McJones asks: “Make what anything I wish?”

    Yes, exactly. Or in other words, #define

    Which is to say, you are perfectly free and unconstrained, at least in the USA, to take a word that has no universal definition and give it any definition you like. It still won’t be universal of course.

    A side effect of that process is that there is no “what” to define, because to explain the “what” is to define already the thing you wish to define. Consequently, you must choose your “what” and then you can define it.

    Since the topic of this page is “miracle” that would be the “what”, but only from William Briggs’ point of view. As other writers point out, from a different point of view it might not be “miracle” but some other word for the same observation.

  21. Ye Olde Statistician

    February 21, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    ,how could Genesis 1 be later than rest of the OT?

    1. The introduction to an anthology is usually written after the anthology has been assembled, especially if it attempts to summarize the main thrust of the other books.

    2. The text of the OT was heavily redacted during the Exile in order to emphasize the important of Sabbath-keeping, so they are roughly of the same period.

  22. YOS,
    I see your points but I fail to see where does the sabbath-keeping by the ancient Jews came from. Did it come by divine revelation or was it a human convention that was given divine sanction later?
    And what does that say about the integrity of the OT?

  23. Ye Olde Statistician

    February 23, 2017 at 1:45 am

    You seem to regard the OT as a sort of Koran, but it isn’t that way at all. The orthodox stance is that the scriptures were inspired by God, not directly dictated. So there is no problem with different people writing different books for different purposes and editors redacting the texts to combine separate books (say an Israelite account with a parallel Judaic account), to create thematic unity, and to assemble them into an anthology.

    Every society on the planet afaik used seven days as an intermediate time interval between the day and the month. The week was due to there being seven visible planets, so seven days in a week. They were named after the planets, which were thought of as gods. Jewish scripture demystified the heavens: sun, moon, stars were all “just another created thing.” This was a finger in the eye to their Babylonian rulers. (You think your gods are so tough? Well, our God created your gods! We don’t hold any other gods before Him.)

    What made the Jews unique was the enforcement of the day off work. No one else seems to have had a weekend.

    The center of Old Judaism was animal sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem, but during the Exile this was no longer possible. The Temple was destroyed. But during the Exile, unlike other peoples shifted off their god-given lands and transported elsewhere, the Jews managed to retain their self-identity. The key to this seems to have been ritual Sabbath-keeping. It helped mark them, and so in post-Exile Judaism, Sabbath-keeping replaced animal sacrifice as the center of Judaism. Gen 1 seems to have been written during or shortly after the Exile to tie everything together. “Look, bubbies, if God Himself observed the Sabbath, then so should you.”

    So the answer to your question is “yes.” Human convention and divine sanction.

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