Friday, January 8, 2016

Miracles

A recent comment by Enbrethiliel brings up a question that I get asked a lot: How can you not believe, given all those miracles?

I get it -- when you're Catholic, you hear about miracles all the time, and many of them seem very convincing.  Even the less convincing ones (spontaneous remission of cancer, for instance, which could just be a coincidence) seem to build up the case -- like many pieces of circumstantial evidence build up a legal case, even when no one piece of evidence proves the suspect committed the crime.

And this seems like the best avenue for belief for a person like me, who would like to see the evidence.  If God exists and he is interested in our believing in him, one would expect miracles to occur.  I would readily believe on the basis of miracles, provided they are really convincing.  So that would require one or more absolutely inexplicable miracles -- things that could not happen in any natural way -- or else a large number of miracles which appear highly likely to be inexplicable by the laws of nature.

However, in order to use a miracle as even circumstantial evidence, it should still be somewhat inexplicable.  You can't build a circumstantial case out of a bunch of complete coincidences.  Let's use the Catholic Church's standard for miracles: it should be inexplicable by natural means, and it should be directly connected to a spiritual cause.  So spontaneous remissions of diseases in people who didn't pray for healing would not qualify, in the Church's terms.  I also think that we can safely rule out anything that also happens to people who weren't praying or prayed for.  For instance, Fulton Sheen's beatification miracle was a baby who was born not breathing and much later started breathing.  I would have found it much more amazing if I hadn't, the year before, read of a similar case in a non-religious family, which had the doctors puzzled and speculating that babies can survive a lot longer without breathing than we had thought.  We always have to acknowledge the possibility that "unexplained by natural means" might only mean "not yet explained."  If something happens in a number of cases, some of which are spiritually connected in some way and some of which are not, we can postulate that there is a natural mechanism at work that we didn't know about before.

So, let me address the individual miracles which I have researched so far.

The first one was Fatima.  I mean, sun dancing in front of a crowd of viewers, pretty convincing, right?  On the other hand, I didn't want to believe it, because the children say they saw souls falling into hell like snowflakes, and of course no one wants to think that many people go there.  The miracle of the sun is pretty well-attested by eyewitness accounts, but there are no photographs.  It was also a localized phenomenon -- only people in Fatima saw it, and there is no evidence that the earth's rotation was disturbed at the time.  But that's reasonable -- it would be horribly damaging to the earth if the sun or earth actually danced, so it would be some sort of vision given to people who were present at the time.

My first issue with it is that the eyewitness accounts do not agree.  Some people say it lasted a few seconds, for instance, and others say several minutes.  Some people saw the sun advance and recede, others say it spun and changed color.  Some people say a shower of white petals came from the sky, and others didn't see the petals. 

The second issue is that the same thing has happened at other places and times, for instance, in Medjugorje.  Medjugorje acts as a great control sample for miracles -- the local authorities have concluded it is not of supernatural origin, and yet many of the same miracles have happened there as at other "real" apparitions.  Here is Fr. Dwight Longenecker's account of seeing the miracle of the sun at Medjugorje.  There have also been more tests done on this phenomenon at other apparation sites -- video was taken which showed no change in the sun while people claimed to see it dance, for instance.  Also, there have been reports of people permanently damaging their eyes while watching the sun dance, which was not supposed to be possible in the original miracle claim.

There are two natural theories as to how it could have appeared that the sun was dancing.  First, when the sun is partially hidden by cloud (as it was in this case) it can sometimes appear to be moving.  I've seen this phenomenon myself, when I was in college.  John and I were stargazing (he was taking astronomy that semester) and had located the planet Jupiter through a haze of cloud.  After awhile of watching it, we both noticed it seemed to be moving.  It moved in small circles, to the right and left, and closer and further away.  It also seemed to be shifting in color from red to green and back.  We talked for a bit about whether it was a UFO or a helicopter, but eventually the cloud blew away and the light returned to standing completely still, though we watched it for quite awhile longer.  In retrospect, I think the cloud was refracting the light coming from Jupiter and confusing our eyes by its movement relative to the planet.  Presumably this could also happen with the sun.

The second theory, which is more credible to me considering the dramatic changes and divergent stories from different witnesses, is that it is a visual effect caused by looking directly at the sun.  When you try to look at the sun (don't do this), your eyes, to protect you, will shift away from it automatically, which can make it look like the sun is moving.  As your cone cells (color-detecting cells in the retina) become exhausted and damaged, you will see shifting colors both on and near the sun.  It is possible that, on Lucia's suggestion to look at the sun, they looked and saw the phenomenon I observed with Jupiter: the sun brightening and dimming (looking like it was moving closer and further away) and dimmed down enough to seem like they could look at it.  But as they continued looking, their eyes started to produce the effects of damage -- shifting colors and further movement.  You can read more about the various issues with Fatima here

(To fact-check any miracle, google the name of the miracle plus the word "skeptic."  You should be able to find naturalistic theories of how the miracle happened -- though whether the natural or supernatural theory seems more credible is a matter for your own judgment.  But reading a positive view of the miracle without ever reading the opinions of those who doubt it is like researching Trump by going to his website.  You want a variety of sources from different points of view.)

Next was the Shroud of Turin.  I'd seen a documentary on it years ago, which had convinced me it was authentic and could not have been created by natural means.  But further research dug up so many problems.  First off, the carbon-dating issue: it dated to the 1300's, despite very rigorous, controlled testing.  Second, it lacks provenance -- that is, there is no record of its existence until the 1300's, at which point our first record of it is an inquiry into its veracity.  The Pope at the time wrote that it was a forgery and the painter had confessed.  Third, it has qualities of a painting of the time period -- the figure is somewhat elongated and stylized.  Jesus' hands are folded over his groin, which is actually impossible to do while lying flat on the ground.  Try it.  If your shoulders touch the ground, you can't cover your crotch.  The front and back images are not the same height.  The bloodstains look painted, whereas real blood soaking into linen would spread out and puddle.  Jesus' hair hangs down as if he were standing, instead of back as if he were lying down.  The fourth issue is that the bloodstains don't check out as blood -- while they contain iron like blood does, they also contain paint ingredients.  The fifth issue is the usual burial method in Jesus' day was to wrap the body in linen strips, with a separate cloth for the head, rather than a single shroud.  And sure enough, the Gospel accounts refer to a separate face cloth.  Why is there no sign of a face cloth on the Shroud?

The best theory I've heard so far is that it is not a painting, but a rubbing.  A relief figure was made and the pigment rubbed on, to create the "3D" effects.  But it seems clear to me that whatever it is, it isn't Jesus' shroud.  Here is the best of the dozens of articles I have read on both sides.

Next up is Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I have always loved both the image and story, so I had high hopes for it.  Unfortunately, there isn't much information about it either way.  Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the image hasn't been subjected to much scientific study.  Worse, the story of where the image came from was written 200 years after the image first appeared -- so it could very well be that the legend was written to explain the image, long after the real story of where the image came from was forgotten.  What information there is, is conflicting.  Some people say it looks like it can't possibly have been painted.  Others say they've seen paint flaking off it.  It certainly doesn't look like a photograph -- it's stylized in a way appropriate to the time period.  Some people say they see images reflected in Mary's eyes; others say it's just irregularities in the weave of the fabric which don't really look that much like people.  I can't nail it down.  I'm not going to say it's not a miracle, but there isn't enough evidence available for it to really build a case for me.

Lourdes is up next.  It's difficult, because it's not just one miracle claim, but thousands.  Many of these, the Church has refused to recognize.  Periodically the standards are raised for recognition -- for instance, adding a requirement that the person healed must have been examined by a doctor before the healing -- and every time the standards are raised, the number of "real" healings drops.  Since 1978, there have been only five healings.... which, considering the millions who travel to Lourdes every year, is not very impressive.  Couldn't even these be coincidental remissions of disease?

Next, consider incorruptibles.  Certainly for a holy person to be dug up and found perfectly preserved would be quite convincing.  (Provided, of course, that this never happens with random, non-holy people.)  But, well ... have you seen in incorrupt corpse?  I mean the real kind, not helped along with embalming fluid or coated in wax ... because many saints are purposefully preserved that way; you have to ask.

Here is the supposedly incorrupt head of Saint Catherine of Siena.  I've seen it in person and assumed at first that it was not incorrupt, only dried out, but they tell me she is particularly well-preserved for an incorrupt.


And here is a bog person, naturally preserved by a high level of tannic acid in the ground:


Not so obvious, really, which is the miracle and which is natural.  Isn't it possible that some saints just happened to be buried in marshy ground?  Especially given that some "incorrupt saints" weren't even considered for sainthood till they were dug up and found fresher than expected.

Okay, what about Eucharistic miracles?  Bleeding host stories are plentiful enough that I couldn't research every one of them, but there is a common explanation that could apply to many of them.  So-called "red mold," which is actually a kind of bacteria, grows on bread in damp conditions (in fact, it grew on my sourdough starter one time) and in the right conditions it can give the appearance of blood.  This Protestant source explains some of the history and biology of the bacterium, Serratia marescens.

I have read the atheist claim that God never heals amputees.  If he were really out there, they claim, he could regrow limbs as easily as heal lesions or cancer, and yet he never has.  That's not entirely true.  There is one miracle claim, the Miracle of Calanda, of a person having regained a lost limb.  However, it disappointed me.  In the account, a beggar is well-known by everyone to have only one leg.  One morning, his parents came in while he was still sleeping and saw both of his feet sticking out from under the covers.  They woke him up and told him,  whereupon he announced that it was a miracle.  The counter-argument is obvious: perhaps he had been binding up his leg to further his begging career, and the claim of a miracle was his only way to avoid getting shown up as a liar.  I am not sure about this one.  There's a surprising amount of documentary evidence, though it was before the era of medical records.  And yet, people do lie at times.  And there is a disagreement in my sources as to whether the doctors who performed the amputation were interviewed or not.

What it comes down to is your prior belief in miracles.  When you see a magician perform tricks, you attend to assume there is a natural explanation.  Either you guess what it might be, or you have no idea, but you still don't jump to the conclusion that it's magic because you don't believe in it.  But a person from the Harry Potter universe might say, "Why do you automatically discount magic as a cause?  It's the simplest explanation."  So when thinking of how incredulous people are about miracles, you should consider their prior beliefs.  What sort of proof would be necessary to convince you of the existence of magic, having previously disbelieved in it?  You would need much stronger evidence than a believer in magic would need to believe that a certain trick was magical.

The second global issue with miracles is that they also occur in other religions.  There are Protestant faith healers, New Age faith healers, yogis able to perform marvels, claims of Buddhist gurus who could teleport, and classical stories about Greek and Roman wonder-workers who could heal and raise people form the dead.  And, of course, Medjugorje.  Of course, the answer to this is usually, "God is not confined to only performing miracles for Catholics."  But think about it.  The way the actions of a conscious being can be distinguished from the actions of a scientific law or random chance is that a person's actions have a teleology -- they are performed toward a certain end.  So, just as in the post about theodicy a few days ago, we have to ask, What does God want?  Does he just want to heal people because he loves them?  No, or he would heal everyone, because he loves everyone.  The other possibility is that he does miracles so that people will believe in him -- in which case it would be absolutely counterproductive for him to do miracles for non-Catholics.  The obvious effect would be to cause people to believe in falsehood.  Of course you can claim these supernatural or paranormal events did not happen, but the same issues with them (insufficient documentary evidence, alternate natural explanations) may apply equally well to Catholic miracles.

So, that's why I haven't been convinced by miracles.  I have no objection to them on principle, but I haven't found any that was really inexplicable by natural means, nor do I find the evidence for the ones we do have to be great enough to generate belief in God in someone who didn't already possess it.  Still, it's certainly possible that there could be such a miracle that would convince me.  Feel free to comment with your favorite miracles -- I'll look into them.

13 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Don't kill me now, but when I asked you about miracles, I didn't intend to make you devote a whole morning to writing a post! I really was just wondering what weight they carried (or didn't carry) with you. Well, this definitely answers my general question and you also told me what you thought of the bomb in the other combox. So thanks! But I hope you don't mind if I don't go over your painstakingly-written points one by one. I've already explained in the other combox why I think a natural explanation doesn't automatically rule out a supernatural one. And while I see that this doesn't apply to everything you've laid out, well, I also need to sleep. =P I'm sorry if this is a cop out!

As for your question at the end of this post . . . I don't know if this is what you're looking for, but how about the conversions of Claude Newman and James Hughes? Lots of "eerie coincidences" there that LTG would love!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Killing my body clock to say: I looked up Claude's story myself and it might not have been true. LOL! So about the Jesuits who survived the atom bomb instead?

Sheila said...

Weren't they situated just behind a ridge? Radiation travels in a straight line.

I think you're missing my point a bit here. All of these MAY be supernatural. But none of them are PROOF that the supernatural exists, in the absence of other explanations. Just like UFO sightings might really be alien ships, but as long as they could also be weather balloons or something, they're not going to make you believe in aliens unless you already do. In the same way, if you already believe in God, miracles aren't that unlikely so any eerie coincidence might be one. But if you don't, a miracle is no proof of God as long as it *could* be explained naturally. If something is already explained by your existing beliefs, why add a new belief to explain it?

And ... a whole morning? Try a whole DAY! But I was interrupted a lot. ;) But it isn't entirely for you; you brought the question up but it's something I discussed with someone else just the other day and I think it's worth addressing. When I realized the evidence for Jesus isn't what I would call "sound historical evidence," miracles were the first thing I moved on to, because I would think that, if God is real and wanted us to know about him, he'd intervene in obvious, undeniable ways. No such luck.

love the girls said...

Sheila writes : "I would think that, if God is real and wanted us to know about him, he'd intervene in obvious, undeniable ways." Which means an intervention that is obvious and undeniable to you.

But God does not, so where does that leave you?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Based on the photos of the church, I don't think it was behind a ridge. I also know that the windows all shattered . . . and if I remember correctly, one of the Jesuits (the famed Father Arrupe himself?) had a wall fall on top of him . . . so the wave did hit them.

But if that honestly fails to impress, what about Therese Neumann living on only the Eucharist?

Sheila said...

I had not heard of her before, but Wikipedia tells me that the Church never confirmed or denied any of her miracles. And that seems logical, since for all of them she herself is the only witness. There have been lots of claims of Catholic mystics and Hindu yogis and New Agers surviving without eating, but you would have to watch them 24/7 to actually prove it, and I don't believe that's ever been done.

Re: HIroshima, there's this: http://www.asktheatheists.com/questions/180-how-can-an-atheist-explain-a-building-surviving-an-atomic-bomb/

LTG, you know where it leaves me!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I must have her confused with someone who was watched very closely, though not by investigators from the Church. It won't be much help if I don't remember who that person is, though!

Believe it or not, LTG sent me that link before you did! LOL! So it wasn't Father Arrupe under that wall, after all . . . Anyway, I remain nonplussed. In the other cases presented by the site, the survivors seem to be the only ones in their buildings or even in their radius from ground zero to live. All eight Jesuits in one area surviving together should still, I humbly propose, give one pause. Heck, it gives me pause, for a whole other reason. I think (Father Arrupe was the worst Father General the Society of Jesus ever had. That God seems to have gone out of His way to save Arrupe from something that would have neatly taken him out makes my judgment of Arrupe something close to hubris.)

In any case, it would be nice to have the scientific documents that supposedly exist.

love the girls said...

Sheila,

My question was how do you intend to proceed because God does not present signs in the manner you do want them. But he does present them such as the boy raised from the dead by St. John Bosco was witnessed by many.

You did not witness the miracle yourself, but neither was it in that long ago, and it was witnessed by many.

And even if you had seen it yourself, would Luke 16:31 apply because you would dig for reasons why that too was not true?

My question was, where do you want to go, because your disposition to disprove miracles is a choice you are making.
'

Sheila said...

Took me awhile to rustle up the Don Bosco miracle -- the first several sites about Don Bosco omitted it. Here is the only account of it I was able to find: http://www.saintmichaelusa.org/st.bosco5.php Later I found the book it was extracted from on Google Books.

And here's the issue: we have to look, not just at the story itself, but the source for the story. The book does not appear to have footnotes. Where did the author get the story? Not from the boy, since he died again. From a witness of it? What are the witnesses' names, and did they put their accounts in writing? The source is never given, unless you count this at the end: "Don Bosco himself told of this event several times during his life. He usually spoke of the priest involved in the third person, using the word “he.” But in 1882, not noticing it, he told the story using the first person, 'I.'"

Hey, I myself have occasionally told an anecdote heard from someone else and accidentally put "I" in it, because I was so into the story I forgot that it didn't happen to me. Maybe Don Bosco did the same. If that's the ONLY proof we have for this story, I'm sorry, it's just not convincing evidence!

I know you'll see this as proof of my hardened skepticism, but I think in any other situation you too would be skeptical. If I said "There are certain yogis in India who can levitate," you likely wouldn't believe me, and if I added on, "There have been scientists who have seen it, and pictures," you'd ask to see the pictures and get the names of the scientists. Because you know I can just write whatever, and though you would hope I wouldn't lie to you, you don't know me personally and you don't know I'm not that sort of person. (I'm not, though of course you have no reason to believe me. And I don't know anything about levitating yogis.) You also don't know if I'm the sort of suspicious person who would follow up and make sure my story was accurate, or the sort who would hear it, confuse a detail or two, and pass it on without checking up at all. There are PLENTY of people in the world who do the latter; good people, who just aren't too careful about checking the sources of things. It happens. So unless I have a clear reliable chain of evidence between the miracle claim and the present -- where every step is someone trustworthy and hopefully put in writing -- I do continue to feel suspicious. Heck, Enbrethiliel did the same in her previous comment -- unless she sees the scientific documentation of other Hiroshima survivors, she will not believe!

Your conclusion, though, is that I am *choosing* to disbelieve. And in some sense that is true -- I could try to be a more credulous person. But would this be a good thing? Can you prove that lowering my standards of evidence, only where Catholic miracles are concerned, is the morally right choice? If a person is going to seek the truth, shouldn't they be rigorous and demanding about it to make sure what they end up with is actually the truth?

love the girls said...

Sheila,

Yogis levitating seems perfectly reasonable to me. I have never seen a ghost, but my daughter has, it was right where I am currently sitting. And others I know have also seen ghosts. The number of encounters are rather common, but yet many persist in saying ghosts do not exist.

Do you think ghosts exist? My daughter said the ghosts were all over the place at Christendom and the surrounding land.

What is your standard of evidence for ghosts?


Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Just a quick clarification! I do believe there were other Hiroshima survivors, some of whom were even closer to the blast than the Jesuits. I just don't think it takes anything away from the Jesuits' surviving. What I meant was that it would be nice to have the documents of the investigation into the miracle, just so we can stop saying we don't have enough information. I'm sorry I wasn't clear the first time.

If I still lived in my family's old house, I'd extend an open invitation to everyone involved in this discussion (including Bat, who is so transparently reading in silence) to spend the night there, in the room with the poltergeist. I'd provide the exorcised water and salt, like a good host.

Sheila said...

E, I would love that! It would make a great scary movie, wouldn't it? As the skeptic I'd probably the first to die.

I have never seen a ghost. Well, except one time, when my husband and I were recently married. He'd been telling me there was a ghost in his apartment, it was the middle of the night, I was asleep, and then opened my eyes and someone was standing by the bed! Then I came fully awake and he wasn't there after all. It was a hallucination ... which I've had in other circumstances (like when falling asleep in class) and didn't call a "ghost." I never saw a ghost at Christendom or heard any stories of them either.

I suspect most ghost sightings are hallucinations, aided by suggestion. Others might be noisy old houses with rattling pipes and settling walls. Exposed wiring can cause eerie feelings in some people (definitely experienced that one). But I've never seen anything that I thought was definitely a ghost, so I don't really believe in them. I mean, who knows, there may be some mechanism by which those phenomena appear that we just haven't learned yet. But why jump to "dead people" as the explanation? Why not just say "unexplained"? (I feel the same about UFO's. Just because you can't identify it doesn't make it aliens!) And I watched Ghost Hunters for several seasons, too -- in all that time, visiting all those haunted houses, they never found much. John thinks I'm nuts not to believe in ghosts, but I never have. I also don't think it makes theological sense. In Catholic teaching, the souls of the departed can go to heaven, hell, or purgatory, not to earth. And since they're disembodied souls, they couldn't be visible or throw stuff around anyway.

I guess my standard of evidence would be the same as with other extraordinary claims: I would want something that couldn't be plausibly explained by the laws of nature we already have! Once that has been met, you could admit it was paranormal or supernatural -- but that still doesn't prove it's your dead great-granduncle or whatever. It could be Cybermen, right? ;)

Anonymous said...

Obviously Cybermen :)

I don't remember ever seeing or hearing of people seeing any "ghosts" at Christendom, and I tend to be highly, highly skeptical of accounts of possession, ghosts, and visitations.

Which isn't to say I haven't heard some freaky stories, which, when I was younger, kept me awake at night for months. I have had a good many close friends and family who have claimed to be visited by demons, angels, and the spirits of people they've known who've died. But in most cases these stories have occurred when people are tired, most have been second hand, and none have had any proof other than eyewitness accounts, which are among the least reliable sources of evidence.

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