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Apr 03 2012

Does God show up through miracles?

Today I’d like to look at Mighty Timbo’s claim that he has evidence of God, in the form of a miracle that allegedly happened to his wife. It follows the traditional outline for miracle stories, so we can reasonably call this a typical case. And that’s a good thing because it also gives us at least the beginnings of an approach to understanding “miracles” in general. I’m going to go over a few of the general alternatives, and then (unlike Timbo) I’m going to suggest a way that we can objectively evaluate the evidence to find out which alternative is most consistent with real-world truth.

Let’s let Timbo tell his own version of the story first.

In her early 20′s my wife’s car was hit by a tractor trailer and she suffered a couple spinal breaks. For several years after she was unable to walk without a great deal of pain and the aid of two cains (and not for long at that). She suffered with a great deal of pain. The doctors had no better long term diagnosis for her, and certainly none that wouldn’t require a great deal of rehabilitation.

She went to a church service and someone prayed for her back to be healed. She was instantly (and I mean instantly) able to walk, run, jump, you name it. Since that time there is no trace of injury – no pain. That’s a thoroughly, otherwise unexplainable instance, with a direct connection to God. Medical science has been unable to explain it to her.

Now you can call that what you like, and I’m sure you think you can find your own way to rationalize that away, but at some point, so called “free thought” becomes a blind faith in and of itself – skepticism just for the sake of dis-belief.

Notice, Timbo is aware, at some level, that we’re going to be able to find alternative explanations for his wife’s experiences. His explanation is not the only possible explanation, it’s merely the only explanation he’s willing to consider. And he even admits it, almost, except he puts his own little spin on it: the reason we’re able to look at multiple possible explanations is because we’re too narrow-minded to just take his word for it that God Did It.

I’m not a medical specialist, so I’m not going to delve into the biological specifics. We can, however, explore three broad categories of explanations, which is about the best we can do given the stereotypical lack of information in Timbo’s story—he implies that medical doctors were involved in some way, but their only recorded role was to make gloomy predictions. Did his wife actually receive any care and/or rehabilitation during the “several years” she was unable to walk normally? We may never know.

What we can know is that there are at least three possibilities to consider. (1) It could have been a random fluke. Her body had had several years in which to heal, and perhaps it was just a coincidence that her symptoms disappeared when they did. (2) It could have been psychosomatic/emotional in some way, for example if her body had actually recovered earlier but she continued to experience symptoms due to the emotional stress of her chronic suffering and pessimistic prognosis. And (3) of course is the possibility that God could have healed her.

How can we tell which of those alternatives is most likely to be true? We can use the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Let’s look at each of the three possibilities. If it was a random fluke, then we would expect that such events would be rare and unpredictable, as is the case with random coincidences. One of the other pieces of missing information is whether or not Timbo’s wife went to any other church services and/or healing ministries during the several years she was suffering. If she was, and none of those experiences produced the healing she was after, then that would be consistent with the “random fluke” explanation.

If the emotional/psychosomatic explanation were correct, we would find that “miraculous” healings would be more likely in conditions where people’s emotions had been greatly stirred up e.g. by singing and exhortations and other practices commonly found in religious gatherings. Cures that happen primarily in your mind depend on creating the right mental state, so if we see “healings” that require extensive stimulation of people’s emotions and suggestibility, that would be consistent with the emotional/psychosomatic possibility.

Finally, if healings depended on God, then none of the above constraints would apply. Nor does any specific human need to be involved, since it’s God, and not the minister, who is actually doing the healing. Timbo himself ought to be able to walk into the emergency room at any hospital and, by calling on the power of God, empty it out. Any Christian should. And it shouldn’t take “several years” for the miracle to take effect.

Thus, even with the limited amount of information Timbo is willing to share with us, we can still see that his preferred explanation is actually the least consistent with what we see in the real world. Most likely his wife recovered naturally, after several years of healing, and her remaining symptoms were mostly in her mind up until her “miracle.” (I had my arm run over by a truck once, and it, too, took a very long time to heal, and was painful for a lot longer than I would have liked.) That would be consistent not only with Timbo’s story, bue also with how we see God behave (or rather, fail to behave) every day in the real world.

There’s another huge, huge problem with Timbo’s explanation, but I’m out of time for today, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.

 

26 comments

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  1. 1
    Aliasalpha

    You don’t think that there’s a 4th option that could be summarised as “bullshit”? Or is that one the explanation you’re doing in tomorrows post?

    Also it strikes me they can’t be particularly good christians if his wife could only walk with 2 cains. I mean not only are they associating with one of the first people cursed by god but they also cloned him!

    1. 1.1
      N. Nescio

      I concur. Given the tendency of apologists of all religions to disregard honesty in favor of perpetuating their particular flavor of deistic belief, I would include the 4th category of “Timbo is Lying for Jesus”.

      I thought you agreed to link back to his website when discussing his material? :-p

      1. Jeffy Joe

        Don’t rule out the possibility that Timbo and/or wife are honestly reporting how they remember the events in question, but their memories have been seriously distorted by their powerful belief in miracles and their powerful desire to be part of a miracle story. Life memory is more about sculpting a past that suits our identity and less about “storing” information from past events.

  2. 2
    unbound

    It is indeed very common that the faithful tend to disregard all the medical support (as Duncan mentions). There were undoubtedly doctors who worked to repair what damage they could with various levels of physical therapy, but that part of the story is suspiciously missing.

    I also find it highly unlikely that someone of faith went for several years without any prayers being directed her way. Very likely there has been a lot of prayers that happened during those years, and, at one point, those near constant prayers happened at a time when she was feeling well and her body had finished repairing and rebuilding itself due to the work on the physical therapists and doctors. If the faithful pray for rain every day, and finally it rains, it is amazing how all the faithful can remember is that they prayed the day it rained, but conveniently forget that rain didn’t happen far more often when they were praying all those previous days.

    I agree with Duncan that we are missing far too much of the story to determine whether a miracle occurred at all. Why are these stories always missing so many details?

    And, why does god hate amputees (nod to that site)? I haven’t heard a single tale about someone going to one of these prayer services and a limb spontaneously regrows in front of everyone’s eyes. And limbs are substantially less complex, so those should be fixed far more frequently.

    1. 2.1
      Sunny Day

      “And, why does god hate amputees (nod to that site)?”

      I had this out with him on his site. Its the fault of the amputee, they don’t have enough faith; don’t really want their limbs back; they’re being told to adapt and live with it; they are not humble enough to beg god for healing.

      It’s also the fault of the Amputee’s friends and family for not praying hard enough for all of the above same reasons.

  3. 3
    Yellow Thursday

    I was in a bad car accident about ten years ago. I broke 4 vertebrae and it was uncertain whether I’d ever walk again. But through a combination of luck and diligent health care providers, I recovered almost completely (I still experience some back pain when I overdo it). If I was still a believer, I easily could have attributed my recover to prayer, since many family members told me they were praying for me during my recovery. But I see no reason to believe that. I’d rather give credit where it’s due: to the emergency responders who cut the door off my car to pull me out of it, to the doctors who performed the emergency laminectomy, to the nurses and staff who handled the MRI and administered steroids to reduce spinal swelling, to the technician who fitted me with a “turtle shell” to hold my back straight while it healed, and to the therapists who helped me learn to walk again.

  4. 4
    sailor1031

    I’ll start to believe in miracles when they start finding artificial legs hanging up alongside all those crutches at Holy Joe’s in Montreal and at Lourdes…

    1. 4.1
      Cafeeine

      Montreal? Do we have a Lourdes analog here that I don’t know about?

  5. 5
    Hunt

    “(2) It could have been psychosomatic/emotional in some way, for example if her body had actually recovered earlier but she continued to experience symptoms due to the emotional stress of her chronic suffering and pessimistic prognosis.”

    I’ve experienced something similar. Once I underwent a six month period of very low energy, night sweats and chronic fatigue that abruptly stopped and didn’t return except for a few lingering symptoms, which convince me it wasn’t a miracle. My best guess is that I was infected by some unidentified virus for a period of months, but after a half year of debility I had grown so dejected that I didn’t realize that I had cleared most of the virus. I distinctly remember the moment when I realized that I felt substantially better, right down to the minute and hour. I was sitting at my computer. It was a truly bizarre experience, but quite understandable only from the scientific/materialist perspective.

  6. 6
    Nick Gotts

    Aliasalpha is quite right. Until we have something more than Mighty Timbo’s uncorroborated word to go on, there’s simply nothing to explain. We know that the eyewitness reports people give – even honest people, if we make the bold assumption that Mighty Timbo is being honest – are thoroughly unreliable, because memories are not like some cerebral videotape, but are invariably reconstructions, in which the subject’s prior beliefs play an important role.

  7. 7
    andrea

    the most likely explanation is Timbo is lying like so many theists have. I have seen many theists make up the same things and when asked for medical records, the testimony of a independent observer, they simply refuse, usually by running away from the questioner. One I remember quite vividly is a claim that the theist had kidney problems, that their kidneys were dessicated hunks of flesh and miraculously they healed. They claimed that their doctor was famous and had written a report for a journal about it. When I asked for the doctors name and the journal, not so strangely the lying Christian vanished.

  8. 8
    Nathair

    Aliasalpha an KG have the right idea, this post would be better entitled “Does God shows up by doing miracles in the stories people like Mighty Timbo make up to support their theism?

  9. 9
    kraut

    A miracle that it takes a god several years to perform?

    And he claimed to have created the universe only in six days? Or was it just the creation of earth, the universe having been created by someone else?

    1. 9.1
      Len

      “The impossible we do at once. Miracles take a little longer.”

      He’s just out of practice – he used to do miracles at the drop of a hat in OT times. Now not so much.

  10. 10
    Artor

    My ex-wife, while practicing aikido, took a bad fall and completely destroyed the rotator ligaments of her shoulder. After x-rays & MRI’s, the doctors told her she’d never do martial arts again, and would only ever regain 50% usage of that arm. She and her sensei thought this was an unacceptable result, and he tailored her training to accommodate her shoulder and gradually strengthen it. Over the course of the next two years, she regained 95% or better usage, and today has her black belt and can’t remember which shoulder she hurt. It’s a miracle! Or maybe it would be if any of the involved parties had prayed or believed in a god. In the absence of that, maybe we can just accept that the human body is more resilient than we often credit it for.

    1. 10.1
      Thorne

      I’d be willing to bet that your wife’s recovery involved a lot of pain and discomfort before she reached her current state. There are a lot of people who would find that kind of pain unacceptable. Far too often, doctors see patients who want heavy duty pain killers at the first sign of discomfort, and who refuse to properly perform physical therapy because it hurts! Those kinds of people would rather have only 50% mobility in that shoulder than to endure the pain of recovery.

      As for “miracles”, we have to remember the notorious bad aim of their god. The same being who could bring the universe into existence with a thought, can’t seem to eliminate only the sinners without drowning the entire world at the same time. He cannot seem to strike the man who is committing adultery in the small town without sending a tornado to wipe out half of the town. Usually the WRONG half of the town. So perhaps their god IS trying to heal amputees. He just keeps missing and striking atheists with his healing powers instead.

  11. 11
    Tony Hoffman

    Unless Mighty Timbo is willing to allow his beliefs to be examined in a scientific way there is no point in discussion with him on these matters. Special pleaders don’t want dialogue, they want privilege.

    His framing of the issue appears deliberately designed to forego examination. And a claim that cannot be examined is worthless.

    If anyone gets the chance, please ask Mighty Timbo why his God would choose to arm him with only claims that are worthless.

    (I’ll bet God’s testing Mighty Timbo. Because to be tested makes one even more special.)

  12. 12
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    I was turned into a newt once. I got better.

    1. 12.1
      Aliasalpha

      It wasn’t by that woman who weighs the same as a duck was it? She’s a shifty one

  13. 13
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    If god showed up, it would be a miracle. This would be highly unusual, has never happened before, and would be inexplicable trough the laws of nature.

  14. 14
    kraut

    Halleluja brethren, let me report a true miracle. For four years my knees were arthritic, with pieces of bone or whatever floating in the capsule. The pain was sometimes so bad that after eight hours of work I thought about ending it.

    But my pleas were answered and I was healed…no more pain, and I can hike and hunt and fish again, halleluja and thank….no, not a fucking lord or his daddy, I thank my orthopedic surgeon who redid both knees in beautiful titanium and ceramics.

    That is a rational miracle my friends, and not that crap that religion peddles to “prove” its supernatural Daddy.

  15. 15
    AJS

    The overwhelmingly most likely explanation is that Timbo is talking bollocks, because he labours under the misapprehension that other people are as easily impressed as he is.

  16. 16
    Leo Buzalsky

    Well, I put out a challenge to Christians on my Facebook timeline back on Sunday for some good evidence that the god they believe in actually performs miracle healings. That challenge is in regards to New York Knicks’ point guard Jeremy Lin, who is apparently a devout Christian. He currently has a knee injury (and I think he had surgery on it yesterday). What I challenged Christians to do is pray for his recovery and if he’s back playing again in a weeks time (which leaves 4 days to go), I said I would be impressed (not convinced, though) as the article I had read at the time said the most optimistic outlook was a two week recovery time. My thought is that this situation is great for Christians like Timbo. As opposed to Timbo’s wife, many of us have likely heard of Lin and there is quite a bit of documentation in the form of news articles on his injury. (It may not be official medical documentation, but I still suspect that the reports do reflect well what doctors are telling Lin, trainers, and coaches.)

    1. 16.1
      Leo Buzalsky

      “for some good evidence”

      Correction: That should just say “for some good evidence”…shouldn’t necessarily call it “good.”

  17. 17
    Kevin

    Timbo’s god is a psychotic monster if he:

    1. Does not prevent an accident that created the problem for this woman in the first place.
    2. Does not prevent the woman from being injured despite the accident.
    3. Allows her to suffer for many years, likely at great expense to the family.
    4. Finally “cures” her only after she offers a sufficient display of subservience.

    Alternately, it could be confirmation bias. She was feeling better, and the combination of the placebo effect and emotional frenzy of a healing ceremony “got” to her.

    Research into pain and pain control is still in its infancy, but the placebo effect is quite strong. Maybe 30% of the overall efficacy of any treatment (from morphine to Tylenol) can be attributed to the belief that the treatment will work.

    In short…no miracle. Not even close. It’s a fairly mundane placebo-effect-fueled confirmation-bias-confirmed anecdote.

    Oh and by the way, Tim. That’s not “evidence”. That’s a personal anecdote that isn’t backed with data, cannot be reliably repeated by a third party, can’t even be confirmed on its own merits, and does not rule out alternative explanations (as noted above).

    Please try not to use the word “evidence” when you mean something entirely different, OK?

  18. 18
    longstreet63

    I think a lot of people don’t ‘believe’ in psychosomatic illnesses and symptoms, since they’ve never experienced them, or at least, never realized that they had. After all, how can pain not be real?

    But, once upon a time, about a year after a severe head injury, the tip of the little finger of my right hand went numb.
    The next day, the whole finger was numb. After that, the whole hand, arm, and shoulder, and finally to all the shoulder muscles attached, all completely numb.

    After extensive testing, my neurologist confessed that he could find no cause and speculated that it might in fact be psychosomatic.

    “Really?” I thought.

    Next morning, I had full feeling in my arm again.

    If I was religious, I’d have called it a miracle.
    Actually, I was still nominally religious at the time, but it simply never occurred to me to invoke God. My doctor told me what it was, and I believed him. He should know, after all.

    So, yeah, I’m voting for that. I’ve lived it.
    Yet somehow, the idea that ‘it’s all in your head’ is resisted and feels offensive to many people.
    Had I felt that way, I’d be stuck with a numb arm to this day, I expect.

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