Friday, October 25, 2013

Miracles and Applying the Hume Test : Hint - Accept the Improbable Over the Impossible!

For the ardent supernaturalist, Philosopher David Hume’s test for accepting miracles often proves a “bridge too far.” According to 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 endeavours to establish."

As one example of its application, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, chose the Fatima miracle of 1917, where 70,000 people reportedly saw the sun move. 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."

As an additional example, consider the miracle claim of Jesus “walking on water”. Prof. Hugh Schonfeld has a simple explanation for this: a mistranslation of the Hebrew word “al” which can mean “by” or “on”. So, when some scribe originally wrote: “walking by the water” it was later mistranslated as “walking on the water”, on account of the ambiguous meaning of the word 'al'.

Applying the Hume test: Is the Schonfeld claim of mistranslation MORE or LESS miraculous 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 supposed 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.

I bring this up to show that ascertaining whether a “miracle” occurred in such and such an event is not that difficult provided one adheres to a consistent principle. This came to the forefront recently in an encounter with a person (on the All Experts Atheist-Agnostic forum) who continually pressed me with assorted questions to accept that his odd citations of events, including: a baby found alive 11 days after an earthquake in Haiti, and another person surviving a plane crash, constituted “miracles”. As I pointed out to him or her:

Note the secular definition of "miracle" is:

“A claimed or perceived pathological event that overturns one or more laws of nature or physical principles.”

So any miracle report must be based on this,

Observe that none of your cited examples, or "incidents" do so, because none of them are technically in violation of a scientific law. A baby emerging from the rubble of an earthquake after a day or two (I've never seen any reports for 10 days - but I'd be interested to hear the exact event and source) may be improbable but it isn't scientifically impossible. Neither is surviving a plane crash when everyone else dies. The survivor may merely have had the good luck to be seated in the best place on the plane to survive!

So, no, none of the cited examples is truly an "extraordinary event" - say that overturns a law of nature- they are merely rare events, with improbable (but not impossible) outcomes,

Not satisfied with this, the respondent went on to cite an actual case of a Haitian infant surviving 11 days after the quake, and two incidents involving survivors of air crashes. S/he then asked: “Can you scientifically prove that a human can survive after falling from thousands of feet height. Also, scientists are convinced that they have understood less than 5% of physical laws governing the universe and the rest is still dark with concepts such as dark energy, dark matter and so on. How can we say with confidence that certain events/things are against physical laws which assumes that we have fully understood complete set of physical laws governing the universe which is wrong..

To which I replied the infant surviving 11 days after a quake still didn't qualify it for "sainthood" (given unknown plausible mitigating natural circumstances, i.e. hidden air flows, dripping water pipes, etc.) and I cited Milton Rothman’s ‘A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism’ – Chapter Five, 'Laws of Permission and Laws of Denial'. Here, Rothman does an excellent job of laying out – based on existing physical laws (from which one need not extraordinarily extrapolate)- what constitutes impossible events and what does not. Also, merely because something “hasn’t happened yet” doesn’t mean it will or must at any future time. Once the basic laws are locked into place, and they are, those options are out. Above all, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence at the time, not hypotheticals or unconfirmed reports, anecdotes.

I pointed out that all impossibility statements actually have far more generality and validity than possibility statements. But one must understand what this means. In science the actual, technical terms are "laws of permission" and "laws of denial". The first details all the actions that are allowed based on the existing laws of physics; the latter details all the actions disallowed.

According to Rothman (p. 129):

"The function of the laws of permission is to predict how objects will move through space or how a system will change with time under known forces. These laws are known with great precision. We can calculate with exquisite exactitude how a single charged particle will move in a known electromagnetic field. We know just how a pendulum will oscillate in a known gravitational field."

It also means that given a person falling freely with the acceleration of g = 9.8 m/s^2, and over some distance (height h) what the time will take him to fall, and the impacting resultant force when he lands. Also the extent to which that will break bones.

But one had to also note his cautionary point (p. 130) that: "it is usually impossible to make precise predictions of exactly what will happen in any real situation". This isn't because the laws are "wrong" but because extraneous, or previously unaccounted for random factors can enter including greater air resistance, say from an unforeseen updraft, or variable winds, or whatever.

Hence, a human body constructed as it is from fragile skeletal structure and organs that can rupture cannot normally fall freely thousands of feet and survive. That is, unless unusual mitigating circumstances are present, say that somehow the fall braked or the person lands on a massive hay stack or whatever.

I then went on to point out that the existence of dark energy doesn't mean a physical law has been violated, or that one emerged which we didn't already know. Hence, can't be placed in the same category as exceptional human events, or claimed "miracles". Dark energy is indeed an extrapolation of Einstein's general relativity law.

Still unsatisfied with my answers, the person provided more links to astounding cases of survivors purportedly dropping “from thousands of feet” up and living, while also dragging in other issues, such as when askling:

“Can't we assume that event which has a remote probability of occurring, say 1 in 100 million chances as miracle. How could a random big bang (disorderly event) lead to a orderly universe. Why are not there many meteorites, asteroid attacking our earth everyday if the universe evolved by chance? So many miracles I see everyday, how could I see with my eyes, how internal organs built in my body, external world and many things. I am surprised you don't consider any of these as miracles!”

My reply, of course, didn’t diverge as I disclaimed the further examples, noted that even in the source skepticism was expressed, i.e. in the Chinese case, “further investigation after the fall of communism has cast doubt on the official story”. In the other case, the survivor suffered a fractured skull, a broken leg and collarbone and third-degree burns covering much of her body so she didn't end up unscathed. The point was that neither example trumped the use of the Hume test – to accept an improbable natural event over a supernatural “miracle”. I then rebutted the other arguments or issues raised:

- I did not "assume" objects cannot travel faster than light, only pointed out the existing evidence - including Einstein's special relativity - shows they do not. Many scientists being "hopeful" ( you don't say who) doesn't mean diddly. Hopeful doesn't cut it in terms of hard evidence. Show me the compelling data (and also if it's independently confirmed), then I might accept it.

- Assuming Weinberg did say what you claimed (you again give no source) that doesn't mean he's in favor of miracles. Obviously, on account of ever iimproving methods, technology 'gaps' can exist in assorted scientific domains, but that doesn't mean "anything goes". I will still be fairly sure (99.999999%) that my car won't stop working one day on gasoline and will use water instead.

- No, we can't "answer everything by science" (yet) but that doesn't mean such answers are perpetually foreclosed. It means we patiently allow the scientific process in any given area to play out before we try to trump it by balderdash or unsubstantiated nonsense.

- NO, we can't assume an event which has a "remote probability of occurring, say 1 in 100 million" is a "miracle". As per my previous extensive response. We adopt the HUME Miracle criterion and take an improbable natural cause before any supernatural one. If the supernaturalist doesn't like that, too bad. He needs then to come up with a coherent supernatural "theory" to account for what occurred. Naturalists- Materialists are under no obligation to do so.

- WHO says we have an "orderly" universe?

In cosmological terms, the whole concept of "order" has been relegated to a minor and tiny niche of the extant cosmos. For example, the recent balloon-borne Boomerang and MAXIMA UV measurements to do with Type Ia supernovae, have disclosed a cosmic content:

7% - ordinary visible matter

93% - dark component, of which:

- 70% is DARK (vacuum) energy and

- 23% is dark matter

In effect, 93% of the universe can’t even be assessed for “order” since it isn’t visible. In the case of dark matter, one can only discern its presence indirectly by the visible effects on neighboring matter. In the case of dark energy, the underlying physical basis isn’t even known – though we know the result is an increase in the acceleration of the universe (arising from a cosmic repulsion attributed to dark energy.

The actual "orderly" systems to which you refer (gravitationally bound clusters, galaxies etc.) are really only a tiny percent (0.001) of the 7% ordinary matter total, the rest is undifferentiated plasma. Also these systems' formation can be accounted for by ordinary physical processes, i.e. aggregation under the influence of electrostatic fores (binding dust particles together initially) then the larger scale action of gravity to accrete larger mass into orbiting dynamic systems.

- Many meteorites DO "attack" our Earth every day - up to 10 million kg worth. But most are so tiny they burn up in our atmosphere owing to friction with the atmosphere. Also, Earth hasn't been immune from large meteroid or asteroid strikes. Such as asteroid DA 14 2012, which made a close pass to Earth on Feb. 15 this year. On the same date, an 11 ton (2.2. x 10^ 4 kg) meteoroid exploded over the Russian Urals - caught on video, causing much damage.

-The point is that these major hits -strikes are rare,

-first, because our planet is usually not in the path of any large asteroids or meteroids, and second, because the ones most likely to clobber us are the smaller sort (such as the meteroid that struck Russia) but they only occur once ever hundred years.

Again, there's absolutely no reason to reach for extravagant or unusual explanations.

As per the "internal organs" of humans, only a person that doesn't grasp evolution would accord them any special significance.

In this sense, if you are open minded enough it would help to get Francis Crick’s book: ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’, (Touchstone Books, 1995) in which he goes into exceptional detail to explain how natural selection forged the eye and the human vision system (Chapter 3, ‘Seeing’ ; Chapter 4, ‘The Psychology of Vision’; Chapter 10, ‘The Primate Visual System – Initial Stages’, Chapter 11, ‘The Visual Cortex of Primates’)

In the end, "miracles" only exist to those who don't fuilly understand the extent to which the natural world and its assorted objects, including people, can already be explained.

Will the persistent questioner finally appreciate and accept that? Highly unlikely, but we will see!

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