Monday, June 27, 2005

Do you believe in miracles?

I haven't mentioned it here yet, but I've been hosting The Atheist Experience for almost a month now, and I am really enjoying it. If you haven't heard it before, I invite you to follow the link and listen to the audio archive. I have been involved with the show in many different capacities, and I thought I'd really like to see what hosting is like. I expect to stick around for about six months, at which time I'll pass the torch on to Matt Dillahunty. (Those of you who checked out based on my recent post might already be familiar with things that Matt has written.)

On the show yesterday, my sister Keryn was co-hosting, and we got into a discussion with a woman who wanted to prove that God exists based on her unusual experiences. This is an abridged transcript that I copied by listening to the show's audio.

Denise (caller): I had a couple of brain surgeries and I had to be on hydrocortisol , and my brain was on like 0.2 mg of cortisol, and the doctor gave me a year's prescription and said you're gonna need it, and if it was gonna change or there was any evidence of that we would have seen it by now, and...
Russell (me): So your doctor was wrong. He made a mistake, he was human. That doesn't prove the existence of...
Denise: No, when you need hydrocortisol you know you need it. Because you have symptoms of being low on that hormone. I went and visited my sister when I got into town that night, and... [begins telling story about how sister took her to a faith healer]
Russell (interrupting): One of the things I'd like to ask is if you've researched the condition you had to the point where you can confidently say that nobody else who has ever had that condition has ever simply stopped having it before. Even if it's like 1% that is still pretty significant.
Denise: Yeah. There is actually no percentage.
Russell: So you have been through all the medical journals and stuff.
Denise: That's right. I have.
Russell: I'm sorry, but I don't believe you.
Denise: Well when I went back, the doctor said my levels were totally normal... and they said I wouldn't be able to have any kids, and if I did they'd be abnormal... I have four healthy children, and I know for a fact that God was there. [blah blah statement of faith.]

[Skipping some good input from my sister Keryn, basically pointing out that some people survive terrible diseases and credit God, but many more people don't survive, but we don't talk about them or their faith. Picking up again later...]

Denise: I was probably born with that tumor, until I was 27 that was my whole life. I couldn't work, I couldn't do many things. I honestly thought I was going to die. And I thought if I AM gonna die, I should probably better be sure about this thing.
Russell: What it really comes down to though is, even if you are the only person who has ever survived this kind of disease, it doesn't point to the existence of a god. As Keryn said, if you ARE the only person who ever survived this, that means everyone else didn't survive. And I'd be surprised if some of them didn't have as much faith as you.
Denise: It's not they didn't survive, they survived but they have to take hydrocortisol for their whole life.
Russell: Wait, so it wasn't deadly, it just meant that you would have had to take a lot of medicine?
Denise: That's right.
Russell: As miracles go, that's pretty small potatoes.
I shouldn't have made light of her condition, I think. I understand from her description that her problem (which I, as a non-doctor, do not understand) must have been very stressful, and it was a relief to get over it. But I feel pretty confident that it wasn't a miracle.

Sometimes it seems like the worse an event is, the more likely it is that people will chalk one up for God, as long as it could have been even worse. You read a story saying "20 people died in a bus crash, but one survived. A miracle!" Wait a minute. Wouldn't the miracle have been if there was no bus crash?

The reason it's so easy to get away with this is that "miracle" is just not well defined. Responding to this story, a Christian told me that a miracle is, by definition, something so rare it as to be statistically impossible. Well in the first place, to be pedantic, there is no such thing as "so rare as to be statistically impossible". If something happens, then by definition it's not impossible. In the second place, if a miracle is just something really, really rare, then those happen all the time. The classical example is a shuffled deck of cards. The odds of the cards being in EXACTLY THE ORDER that they are in, is 1 in 10^(a lot), but they are in that order anyway.

One problem with calling something a miracle is that we are already very aware that human knowledge is not perfect, so considering something unexplainable isn't really all that unusual. Say there are 999,999 recorded cases of disease X, and no one has ever recovered from it, and they all died from it. Then that disease is guaranteed lethal, as far as we know. But now suppose one person survives it, what do we make of that? Well then the evidence has just changed. Now the chance of survival is one in a million.

Is it a miracle? I argue that you just can't tell, because there's no defined way of distinguishing a miracle from a garden variety "very unlikely event". If a person who has faith goes through something unusual, they'll call it a miracle, and their story will go out all over the internet within days. If the same person doesn't have faith, they'll just think they're lucky, and the story will quietly go away except in medical journals.

Then, of course, some people go to the other extreme. When my son was born, some of my religious in-laws said that that was a miracle. Well, it was a deeply moving event for me. But is it really proper to put that label on an event that happens all over the world, about three times every second? If something that happens all the time is a miracle, then what does the word really mean anyway?

Getting back to rare events. I'm not saying that natural explanations are all that I'll ever accept, but I will say I think that pretty heroic measures should be taken to rule out all natural causes before jumping to call something a miracle. That should be common sense even if you really believe in miracles. If miracles are supposed to be incredibly rare, then why make the miracle explanation the FIRST thing you turn to? You might belittle the true miracles of other people, or if you're Catholic, maybe even canonize someone who didn't deserve it.


  1. Anonymous10:09 PM

    Maybe miracles should be defined as something that has never happened before, but happens and has no scientific explanation. For example, what if the ocean caught on fire - would that be a miracle? Hmm - I think so.


  2. Yet somehow, the miracles that people talk about never actually happen that way. That kind of miracle could be witnessed by multiple people, videotaped, and corroborated by a bunch of independent reports. That would be great. Of course, there's still a chance that there could be a scientific explanation, such as a fire on an oil spill or something. But still, the ocean catching fire is a good one.

    However, the kind of miracles we always hear about always seem to be subjective and personal, often easily explained by probability, and if they're large scale then they never seem to be reported by more than one person.

  3. James Bonnd 00711:21 PM


    (Recognize the style ?)

    A very interesting book was published years ago, with the telling title: Remarkable Recovery, What extraordinary healins tell us about getting well and staying well. Authors Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch.1995 isbn 1-57322-000-0 Riverhead books.

    The books tells many stories that others would label 'miracles'. The authors point out that medicine, the pharmaceutical research industry and academia have a poor interest in what the statistically minded people call the 3 sigma and up tail end . The really low probability freaky stuff.

    They (main stream medicine etc) dismiss the results and concentrate on the main stream people who continue to suffer and eventually die. It is good business to sell paliative drugs versus exploring why did Ms Jeanie Doubtfire survive and can anything be learned from this?

    You may want to have a look at this book and then use some of its findings in replying to people like Denise, who for various reasons, had a remarkable recovery, but is a far cry from a bona fide Lourdes Miracle.