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the trouble with miracles

The trouble with miracles
Why ‘magical thinking’ explains nothing

By George A. Ricker

On the last weekend of February, a fishing trip went tragically wrong in the Gulf of Mexico. A boat manned by four friends capsized in rough seas. Three of the four, two of them NFL players, could not be found and are presumed dead. The fourth, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler was rescued after being in the 63-degree water for about 46 hours. His survival, said one of the doctors who attended him, was a “miracle.”

I should make it clear that I have not interviewed the doctor myself and am relying on the attribution of these remarks to him in various press reports. One story I saw had him saying he thought “divine providence” must have been involved. It’s entirely possible the doctor was simply using such language to describe an outcome he thought was surprising or unexpected. It is equally possible that he meant Schuyler’s survival was made possible only through the intervention of a deity.

My Webster’s defines a “miracle” as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs; an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing or accomplishment; or, according to Christian Science: a divine natural phenomenon experienced humanly as the fulfillment of spiritual law.” So two of the three definitions offered involve the working of some sort of deity. And those are the uses of the word I want to discuss. Unexpected or surprising events may be rare, but they do happen. If that is all one means, then miracles may be regarded as commonplace events with no particular significance in the grand scheme of things. If, on the other hand, a miracle involves the “hand of God,” so to speak, it becomes a matter of great importance because it suggests a disruption in the natural order by a deity who wants to impose an outcome that would not otherwise occur.

In the interest of clarity, I have always thought it would be better to reserve the use of the word “miracle” for those times when the speaker (or writer, as the case may be) wants to indicate his or her belief that divine intervention is at work. We hear and read about such claims all the time. They always seem very problematic. Now you may say, and quite rightly, that it is hardly surprising for an atheist who does not believe in deities of any description to view claims of divine intervention as spurious pretensions. However, even if I believed in some sort of god, I think the idea of miracles would be troublesome.

Here is why.

While listening to the late news on television a while back, I heard a woman declare that “God was watching out for me.” She had driven her car into a lake. Miraculously, she said, she was able to escape from the inside of the car and wait for her rescuers on the roof. A man who had been driving by and had witnessed the accident, called 9-1-1 and rescued the woman, bringing her safely to shore. It was a fairly typical miracle story, and I have no reason to doubt the woman sincerely believed what she was saying. I found it maddening.

First of all, does it occur to you, as it did to me, that a god who was looking out for the woman would not have allowed her to drive her car into the lake in the first place. It seems incredibly shortsighted for a god to wait until the woman’s life was already in peril (and her car damaged) before intervening. Secondly, and this is true in most of these situations, there is nothing about this particular case that suggests the outcome would have been any different without the claimed divine intervention. Lastly, how are we to distinguish between miracles and events that are simply out of the ordinary if there is no discernible difference between the two?

Yet, it is commonplace to hear such claims made. Apparently, the deity worshiped by many among the faithful doesn’t pay much attention most of the time. Otherwise, all these last-minute rescues would not be necessary. A god who watches every sparrow fall ought to have no difficulty keeping track of the doings of human beings. Yet, time and time again, believers find it necessary to pray for help. It sounds as though prayer is the original instant messaging system. However, there is a question that no one asks. Why should it be necessary? A deity who really cares about its creation should not need to be cajoled into preventing disasters from befalling individuals or groups of individuals. Even if one accepts the notion that some of the evils that befall human beings are the result of their own actions, there remains a host of circumstances beyond the control of individuals. After any natural disaster, the claim a miracle happened usually accompanies a tale of individual survival in the face of massive catastrophe. And we are left to wonder at the fickle nature of a deity who is so indifferent to human suffering that it intervenes on behalf of some individuals while ignoring the plight of many others.

There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason in these events. Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. If miracles happened because of divine intervention, then one would expect some sort of consistency in the pattern. But there is not. The random nature of such occurrences is compatible with the random nature of a random universe. It is totally inconsistent with the workings of any sort of benign agent or omniscient deity.

And lest I be accused of creating a straw man by suggesting there are many believers who apparently do believe in miracles (i.e. acts of divine intervention on behalf of themselves or others), I refer you to the archives of any sizable newspaper or the World Wide Web itself. On the Internet you will not only find numerous news stories in which people claim miracles have occurred, but also numerous sites inviting you to “request,” “ask for” or “expect” a miracle. On the “Request A Miracle” web site, for example, you can order a “Miracle Journal & Workbook” for $14.95. The “It’s A Miracle Center” offers “A Course in Miracles”—yes, that is the name—that may be purchased, according to the site, at any bookstore. I checked Amazon.com and, sure enough, you can purchase the new hardcover containing the course for $28.00. These are just two of many web sites offering to facilitate the acquisition of miracles. Apparently, there is considerable interest in what these folks are peddling.

Now before someone accosts me with that hoary quote from Shakespeare (you know, the one from Hamlet—”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”) let me state quite clearly and for the record that I make no claim of absolute knowledge about any of this. I cannot “prove” miracles never happen. I do, however, regard them as highly improbable. I need to be presented with solid evidence, clear and cogent documentation, and so on. There is nothing in the real world that suggests miracles can happen. Anyone who claims they do needs to go beyond mere assertion and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that claim. More is required than statements like “How else can you explain it?” or “I just know it happened that way.” or “Well, if you don’t believe i t, I can’t explain it to you.” and so on. “Prove me wrong” is not an argument.

It is not a lack of imagination that causes me to doubt the reality of miracles. Rather it is the total absence of credible evidence. Neither the sincerity nor the vehemence with which people claim such things have happened to them constitute evidence they actually have happened. People get fooled—and fool themselves—all the time. Although there is much we do not understand about the way the universe operates, we do know enough to recognize when a claim runs counter to the knowledge we have. Miracles defy common sense. They claim supernatural intervention as a given. They assert a mystery where none exists.

Philosopher David Hume had it exactly right when he opined, “…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

The tragedy that befell Nick Schuyler and his friends was real. His survival in such harrowing conditions was remarkable. However, describing it as a “miracle” does everyone a disservice. The notion of supernatural intervention on behalf of one of the four friends raises far more questions than it answers. Why pick that one? Why pick only one? Why not save them all? Why not intervene before they left the dock so that no one’s life would have been put in peril? The possibilities are mind-boggling and nonsensical. But once we introduce this sort of magical thinking into the mix, the possibilities become endless.

Suggesting a “miracle” does not give us any more information than we had before the inference was made. That’s because miracles are not explanations. Invoking a miracle simply begs the question. It answers nothing. “God did it,” which is what invoking the miraculous is really claiming, has no explanatory power whatever. It injects an incoherent concept—god—and makes it the answer. But you cannot legitimately explain the unexplainable by appealing to the unexplained. Events may be surprising, remarkable, unexpected, unusual and so on. All of those are perfectly acceptable descriptions. Describing something as a miracle is not.

So as to avoid confusion, I suggest everyone boycott the use of the word “miracle” unless it is meant to refer to divine intervention on behalf of one or more people. And when people do use the word that way, they should be called on it. Folks who use the word should be asked why they call something a miracle, instead of a coincidence or a happenstance or plain, old dumb luck.

Then again, we human beings are natural storytellers. We love to tell tales, and the more wondrous the tale, the greater our enjoyment in the telling. We create our own internal realities out of the narratives we weave as we go through life. It is very human and very necessary for us to do so. However, it is necessary for us also to cultivate our understanding of the real world (i.e. the one that exists outside of and independent of our own selves) so as to counterbalance that storytelling ability and keep it in check. While our understanding of the real world is itself a narrative, the sort of magical thinking represented by miracles can lead us far astray and sabotage our efforts to make sense of it all.

The natural, material universe is wondrous enough without miracles. With them, it becomes incomprehensible.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

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