Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What Happened to All the Miracles?

It is not uncommon to hear people speak about the miraculous work of their god in their life or in the events in the world. However, it is almost completely unheard of for a scientist to use a god or a supernatural explanation as part of an explanatory hypothesis. It is completely without precedent to find an accepted scientific theory that uses a god or a supernatural explanation.

I remember a time when I was trying so hard to believe in literalistic religion, despite my brain fighting against me every step of the way, that I nearly convinced myself that a miracle happened. Thankfully, wiser friends advised me that I was just lacking sleep and trying to believe too hard.

But, what is a miracle? The site offers various entries for the word. Here is the first:

An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God: "Miracles are spontaneous, they cannot be summoned, but come of themselves" (Katherine Anne Porter).
 WikiPedia offers a lengthy entry about miracles as well. Given that different religions and even the same religion may not agree upon what a miracle is, where can we even begin? Let's just start by thinking about some common miracle stories that come to mind.
  • God parts the red sea to allow the Hebrew slaves flee from the Egyptians, but God causes the waters to flood in on the Egyptians when they attempt to cross.
  • Jesus multiplies small portions of food into many portions for a large crow.
  • Jesus instantly converts water into wine.
  • When Jesus dies on the cross, many holy saints come back to life in their tombs.
  • Three days after Jesus dies, he comes back to life and appears to several people, and eventually to about 500 people.
  • The holy saints who had risen in their tombs when Jesus died leave their tombs and walk around Jerusalem and appear to many people.

These are common stories we hear, especially in religious institutions like churches or in religious literature. I have chosen only Christian and Jewish stories because most in my culture are familiar with these.

How likely are you to believe that something like this happened yesterday? What if I and three or four other people told you we saw several bodies come out of their graves and walk around the town?

Or, to be more modern, what if we told you that we had been kidnapped. blindfolded, and dropped in a desert with just our cellphones? When we tried to use the phone to call for help, there was no signal. But, suddenly a powerful cell tower grew out of the ground and allowed us to make calls. With the help of GPS tracking, eventually rescue teams found us. But, if it were not for that cell tower growing out of the ground, we would have perished.

How would you react to such a tale? You'd say we were pulling your leg. So, why do people want to believe in miracles from  many thousands of years ago? I believe it brings comfort to people. They grew up in church or in a culture that speaks of these things, and they feel safe believing them. They feel like it gives them a history and a tradition.

Oddly, these are the same people who would never in a million years take their vehicle to a car repair shop that promises to fix their car by prayer or magic. They know that some things just don't work that way. Yet, they feel justified in believing in the miracles of Jehovah or Jesus.

Is it impossible for miracles to occur? I cannot say that it is. I can even think of a way to make an analogy that would demonstrate how they could occur. Imagine that you live on a video tape. The person playing the video tape has seen the video before and decides to change things up and have a little bit of fun with you. He presses the pause button, modifies the tape such that you now are wearing a bright pink tank top,  sun glasses, shorts, and sandals. He then presses play again. You would never even feel the pause button or feel any lapse of time. Instead, it would feel to you as if one moment simply moved into the next. Unfortunately, you had just walked into the door of an important business meeting full of people you've never met before. Everyone turns around to see you dressed very inappropriately. You had hoped to gain their business, but now your brain is confused, because you could have sworn you dressed appropriately.

Would there be any scientific test for this miracle? I don't think there could be. Because you exist at the mercy of the tape player, the tape player can modify the  tape reality any way he pleases and you won't be able to do a thing about it, nor will you even be able to predict when it occurs. This could be an analogy to a god or supernatural forces doing something similar in our world.

But, do things like this really happen? Or, have we explained more and more events with less and less doubt as to their physical explanation? I believe it is the latter. Richard Carrier recently said that there has never in the history of science been a situation in which a phenomenon was originally explained as supernatural or the work of God, subsequently was explained by physics, and then later still reverted to explanation by God.


As with all things, I advise you to make your own mind up about this. Maybe the truth is that there is simply one "miracle", existence itself. Everything else is natural and the deeper we  study nature, the more and more we will understand its principles and the principles of existence.

Until such a time, I'm not believing in walking dead men, risen saviors, parted waters, multiplied food, or statues that can drink milk. I spoke only about Christianity in this post, but take a look here for some Hindu "miracles", even caught on live video:

As you can see from that video, no religion has a monopoly on miracle claims, but at least Hinduism now has some video evidence, right? If you're like me, you realize that this phenomena can be created through a simple process called capillary action. You can try it at home. Just put some milk on a spoon and hold it up to a rounded rock or other surface. A good prop to use is one of the small pagoda waterfall fountains you can put in your kitchen to create ambience.

The moral of the story is that we should not let a miracle be an explanation for anything. We should seek the scientific explanation, which is almost always much more intellectually satisfying and stimulating to our curiosity. When something cannot be explained, simply let it be a mystery. Someday, you or someone else may understand it.

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