A Sandwalk reader, Mike Sherlock, took some exception to my talk on Friday night and sent me this email message. He has given me permission to post it. I don't agree with his position. What do the rest of you think about miracles?
In the course of your talk you asserted that there was no evidence to support miracles, thereby implying that a belief in miracles was a superstitious belief. During the question period I suggested that it might be a good thing if we could concede that our philosophical opponents have a plausible case, notwithstanding the fact that we're bound to believe the case for our own position is stronger. Such a concession would imply that arguments and evidence require interpretation, and that the weight one gives to an argument or piece of evidence may legitimately vary according to a wide range of factors such as temperament, upbringing, what we already believe, what we would like to believe, etc., etc. Insisting, however, that the contest between naturalism and supernaturalism is nothing more than a contest between cold white truth and stark unreason, while it may simplify one's argument, immensely complicates the problem of human communication. The tendency will be to talk about the opposition rather than to the opposition--after all, what's the point of talking to self-deluding fools. Their arguments are only going to irritate.
At the risk of irritating, I will quickly present the case for miracles as a theist might make it:
Hume famously remarked, "A miracle is a violation of the laws of Nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can be." But we only know that the "experience" against miracles is "firm and unalterable" if we already know that all reports of miracles are false. And we only know that all reports of miracles are false if we already know that miracles never occur. Both naturalists and supernaturalists accept that it is a logical fallacy to argue in a circle, that you must not assume in your argument what your argument purports to show.
Moreover, the theist claims that so far from the case against miracles resting on "firm and unalterable experience," there is a vast amount of unimpeachable evidence in favour of miracles. The question, as John Stuart Mill rightly said, "can only be stated fairly as depending on a balance of evidence: a certain amount of positive evidence in favour of miracles, and a negative presumption from the general course of human experience against them."
Now if it were purely a question of volume of evidence, then the volume is overwhelming. Every century, every race, every culture, every kind of person has contributed to the ocean of testimony bearing witness to the possibility of interference with nature by supernatural power--in other words, we have a situation here that is very different from that of mere logical possibility, like Russell's orbiting teapot. If the explanation of this evidence be in dispute, the naturalist has to provide a series of ad hoc explanations. He explains one incident by hallucination, another by fraud, a third by faulty observation, a fourth by forged documents, a fifth by inaccurate diagnosis and so on. The supernaturalist advances one explanation which covers all the alleged facts. He claims that the supernatural exists and that supernatural beings intervene from time to time in the natural order. He cuts through a tangle of assorted explanations with the sharp edge of Occam's razor: "Explanations must not be multiplied without a reason."
Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, as you may know, is a hematologist and an atheist. Some 20 years ago she was asked to provide expert testimony--she analyzed blood samples from a leukemia patient--that was used to advance the canonization of Canada's first saint, Marie-Marguerite d'Youville. She says the Vatican's forensic work in establishing miracles is rigorous. Duffin is also a Queen's University professor and author of the 2009 book "Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World." It was only after the research for her book, which chronicles her investigation into 1,400 supposed miracles, that she concluded that there are things that happen--cures, for instance--that cannot be explained scientifically. Her view differs from the Vatican's in one important area: "I disagree, because I am an atheist, that God did it." Scientists believe there must always be an explanation, she adds. "Even if we don't have an explanation, we're confident it must exist. That is a belief--it is like religion."
Dr. Duffin admits that her rejection of miracles is based on the fourth definition of faith (in my desktop dictionary): "a strongly held belief or theory." Her belief, which she says is "like religion," is that all phenomena are material in origin, and therefore any alleged miracle has a naturalistic explanation, irrespective of whether science can discover it or not. I think that position is honest and unassailable. Note, however, how her position differs from that of Hume, who tells his readers that they needn't worry their minds about any evidence for miracles because he can give them general reasons why they should reject ALL evidence in favour of miracles IN ADVANCE. Not only are there obvious philosophical objections to Hume's attitude, but it is sharply at odds with the scientific method as famously laid down by Francis Bacon. That method requires theory to emerge from the evidence, unguided by preconceived notions--especially metaphysical notions.
It seems to me that all of Hume's arguments only carry weight if you are a convinced naturalist to begin with--usually for reasons that have nothing to do with miracles, such as the conviction that no omnipotent, benevolent Being would create the sort of world that we live in. In other words, Hume's whole argument is underwritten by the sceptic's answer (solution?) to the problem of evil. Fair enough. The problem of evil has always been the main reason given by philosophers and non-philosophers alike for why they can't believe in a personal God. Though not a disproof of supernaturalism, the fact of evil (and tragedy) will always be a powerful suasion for naturalism.
Obviously, not everybody who prays for miraculous healing can expect to be healed. If everybody who prayed was healed then miracles would be accepted as one of the stranger facts of life--such as the evolution of the first cell from inanimate matter. Everybody would believe because everyone would know someone whose prayer had been answered--in many cases their own. If, on the other hand, miracles were exceedingly rare, then they would lose their evidential value even for supernaturalists. The Gospels make it clear that miracles were meant to have evidential value. Here's my favourite passage, but there are a number of others: "Now John had heard in his prison of Christ's doings, and he sent two of his disciples to him; Is it your coming that was foretold, he asked, or are we yet waiting for some other? Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what your own ears and eyes have witnessed; how the blind see, and the lame walk, how the lepers are made clean, and the deaf hear, how the dead are raised to life, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is the man who does not lose confidence in me." (Matt 11: 2-6) There are also Gospel passages to indicate that Jesus did not claim a monopoly on healing, and that miracles could be expected in the future.
To me, the incidence of miracles seems just about right--except, of course, when one could use a miracle oneself. But the naturalist is bound to think otherwise. An interesting example is Emile Zola, self-proclaimed father of French naturalism (in literature). He wrote a novel, entitled "Lourdes", during the research for which he had a chance to meet Marie Lebranchu (Miracle #16, 1892) at the Medical Bureau of Verifications. In his novel he altered the facts. Having depicted Marie Lebranchu as a hopelessly ill person, using the name of La Grivotte, he made her die on the train home! Yet, she lived in perfect health until 1920. Zola, unable to explain the cure at Lourdes which he had investigated, stated, "I do not believe in miracles: even if all the sick in Lourdes were cured in one instant I would not believe in them." Interestingly however, after witnessing several healings he no longer dismissed the evidence: "No, I do not, or, better, I cannot believe in the Lourdes miracles. What I have seen is amazing, grandiose and moving to the utmost degree, but ultimately explainable by the natural laws."
Interesting too is Jacalyn Duffin's response at the end of an interview on CBC's "The Current" (Oct 15/10 - Pt 1: Brother Andre; 13:50 minutes in). The interviewerconcludes by saying, "It does shake your faith as an atheist, I'm guessing?"
"Oh yes it does. And it makes me very happy."
She's not contemptuous of miraculous healings, whatever the explanation, and I'm betting that she's not contemptuous of those who believe their cause is supernatural--despite the fact she remains a naturalist.
I realize that anybody who wants to remain a naturalist must steadfastly resist the idea that "miracles" ever have a supernatural cause, however impressive the evidence. I respect that attitude, and think it can be justified by one's personal response to the problem of evil, by the fact that we don't know everything about nature, and by the fact that many strange things happen. But the conviction that miracles don't happen is not one that is rationally binding on everyone.