Monday, June 13, 2011

Miracles? In Your Dreams!

Incredibly in the 21st century, jabberwocky about "miracles" continues unabated, the absence of critical thinking and logic being the most pronounced manifestation about the claims. None of these pro-miraclists appears to understand THEY are the ones making the extraordinary claims and hence THEY have the obligation to shoulder the burden of proof.

Let’s examine some specious claims in a certain “pastor’s” blog :

“it would be basically illogical to state that miracles cannot occur. This is because in order to logically state that miracles cannot occur, a person must either know all things in the universe so that he can rightfully state miracles cannot occur, or he must have some logical proof why miracles cannot occur, or possess a sufficiently sophisticated knowledgebase to conclude the miraculous cannot occur, etc.”

Of course, this is nonsense. First, it makes little sense to argue about the validity of miracles unless they are first defined. Otherwise, all manner of loopholes can be devised. When I refer to a "miracle" I mean an explicit demonstration that a natural law has been violated. Proven occurrences such as: changing water into wine, walking on water, raising the dead, and curing "incurable" diseases. Each one of these constitutes a basic violation of a law of nature. A violation in the sense that the event under scrutiny is not regarded as normally or naturally occurring, or even possible within any conceivable natural milieu. Nor does the event - if it can be called such - admit of a naturalistic explanation (in terms of recognized science).

Now, while one cannot simply or definitely say "miracles occur" one might be able to say that there are miracle reports, much like one can say there exist UFO reports that have historically been submitted for scrutiny. Thus, I define a miracle report as the verifiable report of a perceived event which seemingly contradicts one or more fundamental laws or principles of science, and which - after exhaustive research - cannot be accounted for in terms of any known physical or scientific model or hypothesis. But it is not classified as a "miracle" until and unless the report is replicated in entirety! (Or another group that investigates it arrives at the same conclusion).

Next, a genuine miracle report pertaining to an object or substance should be characterized by persistence or at least repeatability. In other words, all reports made should clearly disclose consistent violations of a natural law, not a sometime, "maybe" or partial violation. The pattern of variability of most miracle claims is what makes most scientists skeptical that anything objectively real is occurring.

All the preceding is critical because apologists for miracles often confuse a super-physical with a supernatural explanation. I recall one letter-to-the Editor in which the writer claimed that today's lasers would be regarded as a "miracle" by a 19th century physicist. He reasoned that the 19th century physicist "would have derided the laser as impossible or foolish because it would have appeared to violate one or more physical principles". In fact, this would not be so. The working laws of light, as a form of electromagnetic radiation, were governed by Maxwell's laws from about 1850 onwards. It is an interesting fact that the laser principle is not in violation of any of Maxwell's laws. This would be empirically verifiable even for a 19th century physicist.

In short, it is extremely unlikely that any 19th century physicist conversant with Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, would find the laser "magical" or "a miracle". He would no doubt find it a bit baffling, but only because he was not familiar with all its principles. I concede the exact same thing today when specialists in "quantum dots" inform me of how these atomic-sized entities will replace silicon chips in the next generation of computers. It is admittedly baffling to me - because I do not comprehend all the principles as applied to computing, but I would not say it is "miraculous" on that account!

Given the above insights, one need not know “all things in the universe” only that the observed universe conforms to the physical principles and natural laws known (e.g. law of conservation of mass-energy, Lorentz invariance, 2nd law of thermodynamics etc.) . Once that obtains, we may conclude it is naturalistic in foundation and we need not go forth to every nook and cranny to seek exceptions in order to fully verify it. In this way, the cosmological principle is perhaps the most important we have in modern science. It states the same exact natural-physical laws seen on Earth (e.g. in physical interactions and in labs) also apply to the most distant regions of the cosmos.

Stellar spectroscopy confirms this. Thus, the same hydrogen spectral lines visible in Earth labs (say by heating hydrogen gas and viewing the excited plasma with a spectroscope or via a diffraction grating) can also be observed in the most distant stars – as well as galaxies. Further, the same atomic transitions,, say between two atomic states observed in Earth labs, can also be observed in distant stars, and in the astrophysical events we detect –whether colliding galaxies, explosive jet emitted from quasars, or Type I and II supernovae. Thus, physics is the same throughout the universe! If this is so, it means that those who claim otherwise are the ones who must cough up the exceptions as he is making the extraordinary claim.

Thus, if someone asserts “pigs can fly” (a miracle if ever there was one!) the claimant is obliged to produce a pig that flies. It isn’t the naturalist’s job to go all around the universe looking for pigs able to fly. But these bible bangers repeat these kind of errors over and over, whether to do with biblical contradictions (saying they must be read in context, yet claiming the bible can be read literally) or in their claims for supernatural entities – whether God, souls, Satan or Hell – never ever providing the evidence for the claim.

Thus it is the one who advances the extraordinary claim who is illogical since he is the one committing the logical fallacies: e.g. affirming the consequent or claiming ab initio that which one must prove. In the meantime, the skeptic is only obligated to concede "miracle reports" may appear from time to time, but not miracles as outright violations of natural law, at least until such time the apologists can produce the evidence. In a similar fashion, those who investigate UFO reports are only obligated to admit that UFO "reports" occur, not that whatever is reported in those materials is a real spaceship (with aliens) from another world.

He goes on:

“Furthermore, it is not enough to state that there is no evidence for the miraculous since a person's experiential base is limited. It may very well be that miracles have occurred and this person is simply not aware of it”

But this begs the question, one of the paramount logical fallacies. IF "miracles HAVE occurred" then what are they? WHERE is the record for them, that proves they: a) really occurred - not merely confected in an ancient book, and b) have been scientifically validated? For example, if water was changed into wine at some point why has no one yet been able to duplicate it? Saying "Because God did it" is not valid answer and again, begs the question over one time further because this God must be shown to exist!

Again, the miracles apologist cynically reverses the obligations for burden of proof, and confuses experiential bases of nominal natural claims with those required for the extraordinary claim (which demand much greater orders of magnitude of verification). Again, since we (naturalists) make no extraordinary claim, then the most conservative naturalistic position is the most logical in the absence of controverting evidence (e.g. exceptions) from miracle claimants.

In the same way, the “pigs can fly” claimant is logically barred from asserting the skeptic’s “experiential base is limited” because he can’t find a pig able to fly. No, this puts the shoe on the wrong foot! It is the one who claims “pigs can fly” who must bring it to our awareness as an exception, not ours to go all around the universe fruitlessly looking for such!

In debates I've had over 3 decades, priests and ministers have typically insisted I am "unreasonable" to demand evidence for miracles. They ask why I have no faith or humility, and why I cannot quietly accept the scriptural passages as presented, while allowing the authors the benefit of the doubt. "After all", they insist, "human reason is a very fallible tool in understanding the mysteries of the universe". In fact, though reason may sometimes be fallible, it is the only relatively reliable tool humans have for unravelling the mysteries of the universe. Reason has guided the scientific enterprise and endowed humans with an enormous competitive advantage over other animals. To abandon it, for whatever purpose, would be folly.

Basically, the issue is not about faith or humility, or belief or the lack thereof. It is, rather, whether the concept of "miracle" has validity in the physical world. A serious claim has been made about the nature of the universe and how it is alleged to behave. This claim implies that physical laws can be repealed haphazardly. It further implies that all scientific predictions rest on a wholly uncertain foundation, and that they cannot be trusted to yield reliable information from one era to the next, or one day to the next. (Since at any time, a supernatural intrusion can neutralize the law.)If accepted, the premise of variable physical laws introduces a horrendous set of consequences. For example, it allows for the possibility that all cars on the planet work on gasoline today, but may require water tomorrow. Or, one minute my word processor may be here on the table and the next it may rise up and dissipate into atoms. Or this year I may be able to predict lunar and solar eclipses - or asteroid close approaches - but not next year!

This is not an attempt to be facetious, or to necessarily ridicule religious beliefs. I am illustrating the sort of haphazard universe that results when physical laws are treated frivolously and with disdain for their predictability and repeatability. Hundreds of years of painstaking effort and research have gone into the discovery of these laws. Precisely for this reason it is incumbent on the miracle claimer to shoulder the burden of proof, or at least provide substantial evidence in proportion to the claim made.

Physicist Paul Davies captures the innate aversion of all scientists to miracle claims, and indicates why thorough documentation is needed to overcome scientific skepticism :

"The scientist, who prefers to think the world is operating according to natural laws, would regard a miracle as 'misbehavior' - a pathological event that mars the elegance of nature.

Basically when all is said and done, the optimal test for a bona fide miracle remains that provided by philosopher David Hume:

"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."

In his essay collection Unweaving the Rainbow, biologist Richard Dawkins, Britain's most prominent atheist, chose the Fatima miracle of 1917, where 70,000 people reportedly saw the Sun move back anf forth, to apply Hume's principle: As Dawkins observed:

"On the one hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is LESS improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move...If the sun had moved in truth, but the event was seen only by the people of Fatima, an even greater miracle would have been perpetrated: an illusion of NON-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima."

In other words, the aim of the Hume miracle test is - given two equally improbable choices- one always elects the LESS improbable one as the most likely description. For example, as a last example consider the past claim of a miracle: Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld (The Passover Plot) offers a much simpler and sensible explanation for this: a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when a scribe really wrote “walking by the water” it was translated as “walking on the water”.

Now let us apply the Hume miracle test. Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous (i.e. improbable) than a man actually violating the law of gravity and walking on water? It doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort to see that the mistranslation of a passage of the New Testament is LESS miraculous (or if you prefer, less improbable) than that a man actually, literally walked on water.

Hence, we dismiss the claim of "walking on water" and replace it with the sensible and prosaic explanation, of passage mistranslation of the Hebrew word, al.

What about?:

Can miracles occur? Yes, they can because God IS in the universe that HE CREATED!

Of course, this commits the worst logical fallacy: affirming the consequent or basing a premise, e.g. miracle occurrence (treated as valid) by simply recycling it in another form (God's existence in the universe he "created"), without any separate proof that any of the sub-claims, including a created universe, holds.

Indeed, the evidence is overwhelming the universe wasn't created, merely by the fact so much of it exists as dark energy (73%) and dark matter (23%). Surely, a created entity (especially by design) wouldn't have so much of itself in dark, disordered form! If I recruited an architect to design and build a new home, you can bet your sweet bippy I'd be very displeased if I found the finished product with no orderly structures - no bedrooms, no bathrooms, no living rooms, only schlock (and DARK schlock) scattered hither, thither and yon. I might estimate or surmise that a gaggle of wild monkeys or chimps did the work, but not a true human architect!

Thus, the cosmos' mere existence can't be invoked to claim either: a) there are miracles, or b) a God exists. Both those must be independently proven.

Of course, none of this will sit with the biblical literalists who like their inerrancy served up as red meat with other humbug. But until they can trot out an example of a modern day miracle, or replicate one claimed from the past (e.g. raising the dead, walking on water etc.)the ball is in THEIR court, not ours.

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