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Miracles

September 21, 2010

Why Are Religious Claims a Target for the Extraordinary Claims Campaign?
Some comments on Supernatural Claims, Evidence, and the Burden of Proof

The Claims:

A miracle is defined as an uncommon event, usually beneficial, that is not explainable through natural causes. Miracles are attributed to supernatural beings (God or gods, angels, spirits) or to special people (holy men or women, gurus, wizards). Earthly remains of such people, for example relics of saints, or icons and statues representing them are said to be capable of performing miracles for the living. According to religious texts, the Devil is also capable of performing miracles.

The Evidence:

Many miracle claims are incompatible with what science tells us about the world. For example, the bible recounts how God answered Joshua’s prayer and stopped the Sun in the sky. Given that a day is not the result of the motion of the Sun around the Earth but the result of Earth’s rotation around its axis, stopping the Sun in the sky would in fact mean stopping the Earth from its rotation. Such an event would have had dramatic consequences for the Earth: it would have caused major geological events such as devastating earthquakes and the readjustment of the Earth’s crust and oceans. Moreover, if the Sun were to stand still over the region where the battle is said to have taken place, people living in other places of the Earth at that time would have experienced similarly lengthy nights, sunrises or sunsets.

Other alleged miracles, such as recoveries from terminal illnesses also fail to resist to rational scrutiny. If the recovery occurs, it is more likely that it was caused by medication rather than a supernatural cause. In some cases, the initial diagnosis is mistaken, and the patient “recovers” from an illness that he never had. Also, the human body possesses natural healing mechanisms that are not fully understood. For example, medical studies (Hobohm 2001, Hobohm et al., 2008) have found that a great number, if not the majority, of spontaneous cancer regressions occurred after a feverish infection.

Claims of miracles face philosophical problems as well. If a miracle were to occur, nature would not follow its normal course; the laws of nature would be breached or violated. Thus miracles are incompatible with the existence of natural laws understood as universal.

Although miracles have been interpreted as proof for the existence of an all-powerful and wise God, they may actually be incompatible with it. An all-powerful and wise God who creates a universe and its laws only to subsequently breach them would be a contradiction in terms. No universe created by a being who has divine foreknowledge and power would need subsequent touch-ups.

From a philosophical point of view, any kind of a breach of natural law ‒ no matter how small or great ‒ would be equally miraculous. This prompts the following question: why was a miracle expended to eradicate X’s illness, for example, and not to eradicate much greater sources of suffering such as Stalin or viruses that kill children?

Conclusion:

The proposition that some events are unexplainable through natural causes ‒ and therefore they require a supernatural explanation ‒ is a leap that is logically unwarranted.

Links:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on Miracles

Wikipedia Page on Miracles

The Skeptic’s Dictionary Entry on Miracles

Hobohm, U. (2001) “Fever and cancer in perspective”, Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy 50: 391-396

Hobohm U, Grange J, Stanford J (2008) “Pathogen associated molecular pattern in cancer immunotherapy”, Critical Reviews Immunology Vol 28, 95-107

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