Clipping an Angel’s Wings

So, are miracles real or not? All sorts of scriptures make truth-claims about the world that are falsifiable under the scientific method. I’ll argue that philosopher David Hume figured this problem out a few hundred years ago.

On Miracles

The “Law of Truly Large Numbers” states that with a sample size large enough, any unlikely event is likely to happen. “One in a million” becomes pretty common when spread across a population of nearly 7 billion people experiencing life at the rate of one second per second. These experiences, however improbable, never transgress the laws of nature. This post is about miracles, because they are examples par excellence of human folly. The crux of my argument depends on the devastatingly huge difference between the improbability of something happening and the impossibility of something happening.

If we were to commune through time and see who else has dealt with the problem of miracles by applying the scientific method, we’d encounter Aristotle and his school of Athenian counterparts. We’d run into Al-Biruni and be overwhelmed by his multi-disciplinary writings that cover every kind of –osophy and –ology imaginable. We’d see Roger Bacon demystifying the celestial bodies of the night sky. And we’d also bump into David Hume and his British Empiricists, thoughts bustling to and fro trying to objectify the nature of man.

These are some of the most influential figures in the history of deductive reasoning and of the scientific method. We’ll focus on Hume, as his writings incorporate Aristotle’s empiricism, Al-Biruni’s logic, and Bacon’s experimental format. If brevity truly is the soul of wit, then this post is a witless account of the likelihood of miracles from Hume’s point of view — indeed, from any scientist’s point of view.

Christopher Hitchens summarizes Hume’s views beautifully by throwing an intellectual banana peel to those who believe in miracles. “What is more likely,” asks Hitchens, “that the laws of nature have been suspended in your favor, or that you made a mistake?” This is exactly the same point that Hume raises in his essay “On Miracles.”

Nature is Consistant — No Exception

In particular, according to Hume, the evidence offered by any testimony depends both on the reliability of the testifier and on the credibility of the topic. Can we trust their testimony, and is the topic worth considering? His argument assumes only one condition: the natural world exhibits consistency, a regularity that allows nature to be seen as a giant causal branch from which truths can be plucked.

But how exactly do we go about defining a miracle? According to Hume, miracles are not a part of nature, but are apart from nature. “A miracle violates a constant but necessary causal connection, a law of nature.” The test for truth, then, consists of asking whether or not a claim is concordant with the common course of nature.

Reaching a reliable conclusion means judging between two empirical claims by weighing the evidence (not unlike the court of law). Here, Hume waters the seeds of the scientific method that Aristotle first planted. In other words, the degree to which one claim is convincing over another is proportional to the degree to which the evidence for one outweighs the evidence for the other. One of the greatest boons that the scientific method offers us is that when we ask and test a question properly, only one hypothesis remains standing in the end.

And from the standpoint of modern science, the weight of evidence is a function of such factors as reliability, credibility, repeatability, and properly controlled variables. Since the evidence for a miracle is always in short supply, as miracles are by definition rare instances, then the evidence for the miracle will always be outweighed by the evidence against it—namely, the evidence that nature provides as an immutable web of cause and effect that evades transgression. The laws of thermodynamics, of gravity, of relativity, and so on, simply can’t be broken. They are the ultimate speed limits on our ability to cruise through reality.

He said She said…

On the other hand, the evidence in favor of a miracle comes from the testimony of witnesses—supposed proof which Hume highlights as dismissible, since the evidence against miracles comes from their putting nature’s laws on pause. As Neil Tyson reminds us, eye-witness testimony is the lowest form of evidence in the court of scientific law. “Show me data that’s independent of your emotional state and then we’ll talk,” he quips. For the philosophically astute, since the laws of nature are constant, a miracle can only be credible to the extent to which the testimony in its favor is more believable than the laws of nature that contradict it.

Thus, when Hume plugs the testimonies in favor of miracles into the scientific method, the output is that miracles are not just highly improbable, but hopelessly impossible, and therefore sustained by faith. Self-interest, dishonesty, impressionability, and wishful thinking are sufficient explanations that discredit any proposed occurrence of a suspension of nature’s laws.

In addition, feelings of awe and wonderment often lead people to unreasonable, albeit appealing, beliefs—”with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause.”  Examples abound that illustrate these false beliefs—”[p]rodigies, omens, oracles, judgments”—all which are grounded on enticing claims as opposed to carefully examined evidence. By questioning the credibility and validity of eye-witness accounts, of recorded testimonies, and of supposed claims, much, if not all, of the evidence gathered in favor of miracles is dismissible.

And no — if someone has a one-in-a-million chance of surviving a particular disease, or a fall from a rooftop, or a surgery, and indeed does, then keep in mind that hundreds, if not thousands, of others have not been so successful in their one-in-a-million attempt. Statistically improbable can happen as blind chance and dumb luck; statistically impossible is just that. Put another way, winning the lottery is one thing, being a virgin-birth is another.

Conquering All Mysteries by Rule and Line

Let’s look at one more example. Hume asks us to consider the possibility that a dead man should rise back to life; rather, he concludes, it is more probable that the person claiming such an event should either deceive or be deceived. Or the event just never happened. Where is the proof? Is there any? Or is it based on He said She said (ill)logic? The scientific method is not just a means of discovering truth but it is the very method necessary to dismantle improbable claims that have no bearing on reality.

A more likely explanation is that all miracles — especially those found in scripture — are the fabrications of their authors, man-made creations stemming from superstition or confusion. These creations do not require a spark of the divine or an opening in nature’s canvas through which a miracle can materialize. Interestingly, since every religion maintains the reality of its own miracles, which often are in opposition to other religion’s claims on miracles, then it follows that the evidence of all other religions outweighs the evidence of any single religion’s claim. Hmm?

By extension, the same argument can be applied to prophecy and other characteristics of religion. Said briefly, Hume’s argument ultimately likens faith to superstition in that faith sustains a person’s religiosity, which itself requires a sort of miracle—a willing suspension of reason even in the face of opposing evidence.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence — and physical law is the only metric system against which we can measure reality. Part of being human means having a really big and highly evolved brain, folded neatly into a lump of jello capable of picking apart and objectifying the world, from the macrocosm around to the microcosm within. What the English poet John Keats said about philosophy is true about science:

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.


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