Book Excerpt: Miracles

Here’s a part of my book, for free. I write it up this afternoon, when I should have been doing more constructive things. Nevertheless, for your cerebral entertainment, here is a subchapter on miracles. (The last paragraph, in bold; I didn’t do that. Somewhere between Google Docs and WordPress it did it all by itself. Miracle? You decide.)

“Another ‘experience’ an apologist may have is a “miracle”. Defining a miracle isn’t easy; once we have admitted uncertainty in the exact function of the universe, all things seem possible. We cannot certainly call anything “impossible”, and if all things are possible we need a way of evaluating a miracle. A miracle is an event which breaks the known laws of physics, where study of the event offers no details or information we can assimilate into natural laws. Anything even that breaks the known laws of physics isn’t necessarily a miracle; it may be that when the event is studied that repeatable and predictable results emerge, or that considered explanations can be given. For example, the motion of the planets around the sun defied the known laws of physics; in fact, you may recall that Newton referred to them as a miracle. But Einstein’s theory of General Relativity did away with it: study of the orbit of Mercury (and other planets) eventually lead to an explanation that was assimilated into the known laws of physics. General Relativity even includes its own explanation as to why the planets behaved in a way seemingly distinct from the rest of physics known at the time: in low energy systems, like a bouncing ball, General Relativity and Newton’s laws of motion are not perceptibly different. As you enter high-energy, high mass, high velocity or high gravity environments the difference becomes more apparent; General Relativity is only a necessary level of accuracy in extreme circumstances, Newton’s laws of motion describe terrestrial events adequately.

A miracle will not behave like General Relativity. General Relativity was absorbed into physics because it was a good explanation and had utility. Miracles will not admit themselves to study; there will be nothing to learn or to absorb into the physical understanding of our universe. Highly unlikely things are not miracles. Consider faith healing, which is the belief that one can pray to be well or that particular people can channel the healing power of God to cure people of potentially terminal illnesses (in exchange for money). The times that the patients of faith healers get better is, of course, a cause for celebration; health and happiness is valuable. But the question of whether these events are miracles is pretty simple; things are not miracles just because they are unlikely. There are no diseases with a 100% fatality rate over five years; this means  there is always a possibility that a person with a disease will see another five years of life, no matter how heinous the disease. There are exceptionally few diseases that are fatal and will not recede. There is nearly always a chance a person will recover. I’m not trying to give anyone false hope, some diseases have phenomenally small recovery rates, the point is how seldom a disease has no recovery rate. The only exception I can find reference to is prions disease. I can’t find a reference to a faith healer curing prions disease either. (That really should give us pause for thought. Faith healers can’t heal the thing that the body and medicine can’t heal either; if it hasn’t been cured in a hospital, it hasn’t been cured by faith healers. That is the reason it more reasonable to believe there is something medical going on in every “success story” from a faith healer). Everything else, there is a probability of recovery. Sometimes it is slight, but being improbable is not the same as a miracle.

However, belief in these highly improbable medical events, or other fortuitous events like succeeding on a loan application or getting the promotion one sought, are seen as direct evidence of God. The reasoning is that highly improbable events are miracles―events they defy physics and don’t permit themselves to study and assimilation as knowledge―and that miracles must be the work of God. Perhaps I would give claims of this nature more time if they could be verified; if Noah’s flood could be confirmed, if there was evidence a man lived inside a whale, if an amputated limb grew back on a human. But even giving these claims more time, it may be that we discover the universe occasionally has systematic errors in its running. Unless the miracles started to form some kind of narrative, I don’t see that there is a personal instigator at the heart of these events. For now, all outlandish hypotheses can be put on hold: there is yet to be any evidence for these extraordinary claims.”

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2 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: Miracles”

  1. What you are trying to deal with is impacted by one of Clarke’s Laws (Arthur C.), namely: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Consequently what I would accept as a miracle today (say a book appearing out of thin air and hovering there, could be the result of a transporter being used with a tractor beam from a Star Trek-like future and hence not be a miracle.

    Do I believe that things can occur that seem to violate the laws of physics? Well, yes, because we do not know all of the laws of physics, for one, and for two “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Keep plugging away, my friend, and writing is never a nonproductive activity (tsk, tsk).

    1. My point (I think) is study of the event of a materialising and hovering book may reveal the mechanisms of teleportation and tractor beams. Therefore it would not be a miracle, I don’t think. You are right, and arthur c clarke is right, fat there is the intellectual issue of whether we can fully identify a miracle. I never thought i’d say arthur c clarke was correct.

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