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Jan 03 2012

Documenting miracles

Following up on yesterday’s post, I thought I’d take some time to explore further the question of how we can observe that miracles do not happen in real life. Some believers like to think that ignorance is their ally, that nobody knows everything, so they’re safe (they hope) in assuming that no skeptic can know for sure that miracles do not happen. Somewhere out in the vast body of things people don’t know—i.e. somewhere out in the great expanse of human ignorance—they can surely find a place to hide some undetectable and unverifiable miracle that is still somehow real.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. If we apply the principle that truth is consistent with itself, we can see that even given the vast number of things we don’t know, we can still establish beyond a reasonable doubt that, for example, we do not see the dead being brought back to life after 3 days or more with no vital signs. We can observe the fact that miracles do not happen. It’s simply a matter of thinking things through.

The first observation we need to make is that in order for Bible-caliber miracles to occur in real life, there cannot be any necessary and compelling reasons why God cannot or should not perform such miracles. Thus, for example, if working a genuine Biblical miracle would somehow doom us to hell, or corrupt our free will, or otherwise screw everything up, then God’s not going to work any miracles, and therefore we’re not going to observe any. The first prerequisite for observing real-life miracles is the absence of any overriding factors making miracles impossible or undesirable.

The expected rate of miraculous interventions, therefore, ought to be fairly high. God is actively interested and involved in our day-to-day lives (or so men tell us anyway) and there’s no good reason for Him not to do the things that will save souls and fulfill Biblical prophecies about how He heals the sick and comforts the afflicted and so on. Likewise the extent of these miraculous manifestations ought to be universal, i.e. they should not be limited to remote regions where superstition is high and education is low. This whole show is (allegedly) God’s idea in the first place, and He’s supposed to be the prime driver behind it all, so real-world miracles ought to be fairly common and easy to observe.

But let’s say that, for reasons of—I dunno, union contract or something, God was limited to performing only a very few genuine supernatural miracles. What observations would be possible under those circumstances? Consider the purpose of miracles, as given in the Bible. The whole point of the miracle is to glorify God (and incidentally to edify believers). Obviously, a miracle that happens out where no one will ever know about it is a miracle that won’t glorify Him very much, or edify anyone. It has to be a miracle that people see and report. So which glorifies God more: a genuine miracle, or a fraud? Obviously the former, right? A fraud not only fails to glorify God, it actually dishonors Him and casts doubts on the Gospel.

So let’s suppose that Christians have a number of stories to offer in support of the idea of genuine miracles. Suppose that some of them are merely hearsay and urban legends, and others are outright lies, and a very few are genuine miracles. We know that at least some of these stories are fraudulent because they’ve been investigated. But suppose they’re not all frauds. Which ones should Christians use to glorify God and edify one another? Would they not reject the frauds and preach only the genuine, verifiable, supernatural interventions? The real miracles, being genuine, would crowd out the frauds and myths which only embarrass the church. Certain stories would stand out as genuine, leaving the rumors and deceits to pale and wither by comparison.

That’s what would happen IF the real miracles actually existed. But we don’t see this happening among believers. When Jayman goes looking for evidence of real-world miracles, he doesn’t find a few stories that really stand out because of their uniquely genuine and verifiable supernatural character. He finds hearsay, rumors of a guy who once met a man who saw something he could not explain. And that’s pretty much true across the board. There’s tons of the kind of stories you get when people are free to say whatever sounds good to people who aren’t too picky about what they accept as proof of their faith. The phenomenon of a few rare, genuine stories rising like lighthouses amid the sea of hearsay and bluster, just does not happen. If it did, you can bet the believers would be waving it in skeptics’ faces every chance they got.

Thus, we can observe not only that WE personally do not see genuine Biblical miracles, but that believers don’t either. They’re trapped in a swamp of gullibility and contradiction, hoping against all evidence that Ignorance might shelter some kind of genuine miracle too common to stand out by its rarity yet too rare to be observed commonly. Meanwhile, if you strip away all the hearsay and rumor and extravagant claims made in fund-raising letters, and say, “Ok, but what have you really got?” the answer is “Nothing.” Believers are biased in favor of miracles existing somewhere out where we cannot see them, but by that very fact, they’re conceding that we do not observe genuine, verifiable miracles in real life.

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  1. 1
    sqlrob

    The expected rate of miraculous interventions, therefore, ought to be fairly high

    Of COURSE it’s high, I mean look at all the hurricanes sent because people are gay or all the appearances in grilled cheese.

    </sarcasm>

  2. 2
    Reginald Selkirk

    Thus, for example, if working a genuine Biblical miracle would somehow doom us to hell, or corrupt our free will, or otherwise screw everything up, then God’s not going to work any miracles, and therefore we’re not going to observe any.

    Free will is not a valid objection to Bible-grade miracles. In the book of Exodus, Yahweh hardens the Pharoah’s heart so that he could show off by causing plagues, etc. Yahweh states this explicitly:
    Exodus 10:1
    And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him…

    And many other similar verses from Exodus 4 onward.

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    Bachmann: ‘We are going to see a miracle’
    Tonight. In the state of Iowa. You have been warned. Repent and be saved.

    1. 3.1
      Reginald Selkirk

      Bachmann’s miracle failed to materialise. More evidence against.

  4. 4
    Jim

    “we can observe not only that WE personally do not see genuine Biblical miracles, but that believers don’t either.”

    I want to (politely) disagree with your analysis. Consider the Catholic Church. It goes to great lengths to study, document and then verify (to its standards) that certain events are miracles. You and I might not accept their evidence or methodology, but to the Catholic Church these (supposed) miracles do stand out from the great mass of false claims.

    I can see what you are saying might apply to a great majority of evangelicals, who claim miracles happen on every TV episode. One can poke all kinds of logical holes in these claims, and a number of studies have shown that intercessory prayer works no better than random chance. So the great mass of miracle claims can be dismissed. But I don’t see how that allows one to dismiss all miracle claims, especially the great ‘one of a kind’ claims of miracles.

    I would like to see you state some objective criteria for classifying an event as a miracle or not. I read of many skeptics and atheists dismissing all miracle claims, but without some generally acceptable criteria for judging miracles, then saying miracles aren’t observed seems to just be an opinion.

    1. 4.1
      Shawn

      seems the point is, why invoke miracle in the first place. If you find a body stabbed, why on earth blame the horn of a unicorn. Would you have any reason at all? And if you think so, wouldn’t the horn of a narwhal be a more likely candidate than that of a unicorn? there is absolutely no reason to accept miracles, except some religions require them.

  5. 5
    Owlmirror

    Whenever the topic of miracles comes up, I like to link to Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chiang. The world of the story is one where miracles happen on a fairly regular basis. People are healed — or are deformed — as a sign from God, when angels appear (another miracle, of course). Heaven can be glimpsed, and seeing heaven has a permanent physical and mental effect on the viewer. When people die, their souls can be seen to rise to heaven, or descend to hell. The dead sometimes visit from heaven. Hell is sometimes made visible.

    And yet, free will (assuming that even means anything) is not absent or over-ridden. People still either love God, or don’t, and go to heaven or hell respectively, usually.

    Why isn’t God in our world as explicit with miracles as God in the story?

    1. 5.1
      papango

      You might also like Borislav Pekic’s Time of Miracles. It’s a re-working of the bible where the miracles have consequences and the recipients are not happy about it. Pekic was in prison for years in Soviet Yugoslavia with only the bible to read (terrible punishment for a writer), and this book is the result of that. It’s really good.

  6. 6
    Russell

    Would they not reject the frauds and preach only the genuine, verifiable, supernatural interventions? The real miracles, being genuine, would crowd out the frauds and myths which only embarrass the church. Certain stories would stand out as genuine, leaving the rumors and deceits to pale and wither by comparison.

    I think you have this backwards. The religious don’t propagate stories because they have been well investigated and fact-checked. They propagate stories that inspire, cajole, comfort, and buttress the narrative frameworks that they so much desire. Those are the stories that will crowd out the rest.

    If there were a handful of provable miracles among the myriad that the religious claim, they either would be forgotten, for lacking adequate narrative impact, or would get so wrapped in ancillary fable that the ability to validate them would be lost. In short, the nature of how the religious tell their tales makes it virtually impossible for them to identify and preserve evidence.

  7. 7
    David Evans

    I don’t disagree with your general argument here, but I don’t like your use of “truth is consistent with itself”. Of course that’s true in a logical sense, but it can too easily be used to argue that “the truth we don’t (yet) know must be consistent with the truth we do know”.

    Imagine an isolated tribe of Polynesian islanders. One of them comes back from a long solo journey and reports something amazing – a big boat with no sails, moving faster than any sailing boat directly into the wind. To the best knowledge of his tribe this has never happened and is physically impossible – they might even argue, logically impossible. It is inconsistent with every truth that they know. But that doesn’t make it impossible, does it?

    1. 7.1
      Rich Woods

      I’m not sure about the application of that “truth is consistent with itself” principle either, but I have even less comprehension of why you then talk about truth not yet known and truth already known.

      If I toss a coin into the air such that it will land on a large table, I might expect there to be a small chance of the coin rolling completely off the table or of it getting caught in a crack in the wood and standing on its edge (or maybe even of it standing upright entirely on its own!), but most probably I would expect that it will end up flat on the table, facing either heads up or tails up.

      What I wouldn’t expect is that upon first striking the table the coin would change into a leprechaun, dance a jig, hand me a sack of gold and then ride off into the sunset on the back of my neighbour’s cat. This experience would be somewhat different to seeing a sail-less boat making a good rate of knots into the wind, because even if I didn’t know about the existence of diesel engines I’d first check to see whether that boat was being towed by another vessel (such as a tea clipper: it would suit the situation quite well, being a sailing vessel able to make good headway close to the wind).

  8. 7.1
    had3

    I know! It’s like when all those amputee’s refuse to believe in miracles too. Why can’t they just open their eyes (even the blind ones) and see what’s obviously a xian god’s performance of miracles???

  1. 8
    Response to Selective Sources 3 | Biblical Scholarship

    [...] Duncan (DD) continues trying to show that his belief that miracles do not occur is justified after I criticized him for [...]

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