Sunday, April 12, 2009

Think it's unthinkable to explain the unexplainable?

Recent years have seen a remarkable rise in the popularity of atheism in the English-speaking world. For example, the proportion of respondents to the U.S. General Social Survey who indicate "no religion" as their religious preference (the green line in the figure to the left) has been steadily climbing for about 15 years.

Along with this rise has come a spate of Does-God-Exist debates. These debates raise plenty of interesting questions, but I wonder if there is more heat than light. Taking an adversarial approach to an omnibus question is a good way to bring up issues, but perhaps a poor way to clarify them.

One thing that does come up in most of these debates is the issue of divine intervention. In a 1995 debate with William Lane Craig, Massimo Pigliucci mentions the kind of God
... that doesn't interfere with the regular everyday life of the world. He may have created the world, but then after that he retired. That kind of God is completely unfalsifiable; science doesn't have anything to do with it, and rationalism doesn't have anything to do with it. There is no way to deny that kind of God.
But, he continues,
On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that not many people here actually believe in that kind of God because it's not particularly satisfying. It doesn't do anything for us.
And he moves on to the idea of a God who does intervene in the world.

Early religions provided explanations of mysterious natural phenomena. While those explanations provided meaning as part of a mythic framework, they lacked predictive power. As science gradually developed, the older religious explanations were displaced. As Pigliucci put it,
The more we understand, the less room there seems to be for God to exist. Now if you extrapolate just a little bit, you'll see that you have no reason for God.
William Lane Craig responded:
... even if it were true that God doesn't often intervene in the universe in miraculous ways, that's not incompatible with Christianity. After all, miracles by their nature are relatively rare, and I don't think that God does frequently go around intervening in the universe in miraculous ways.
Which got me wondering about miracles (from the Latin mirari, to wonder) ...

Mirabile dictu!

Glass painting by Faroese artist, Tróndur Patursson, from The Catholic Church, Tórshavn, Føroyar.

It turns out that it's not so easy to define a miracle. According to an article by Jakub Pawlikowski on The history of thinking about miracles in the West,
... the most general characterization of a miracle is an event that causes wonder. As such, it must also be in some way unusual, extraordinary, or contrary to our expectations.
That seems to fit with the "casual usage" referred to by Wikipedia:
... any statistically unlikely but beneficial event, (such as the survival of a natural disaster) or even which regarded as "wonderful" regardless of its likelihood, such as birth. Other miracles might be: survival of a terminal illness, escaping a life threatening situation or 'beating the odds.'
But Pigliucci and Craig were talking about physical miracles, or as Wikipedia puts it, "a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature, such that can be explained by divine intervention".

Now, as I previously discussed, I'm not too keen on the term "the laws of nature". For one thing, I think it obscures the distinction between the way the physical universe really is and the way we model it scientifically. Our models (sometimes called "laws") are just approximations. But suppose the physical universe really is as depicted below:

The vertical axis represents the three spatial dimensions and the horizontal axis represents time. The light colour filling the box represents the way the universe ordinarily works. The bright coloured areas represent miracles, wherein the universe works differently. The blue miracle is quick and localized (Jesus turning water into wine?). The green miracle takes more time and is also localized. The yellow miracle is fairly spread out in both time and space. Finally, the red miracle is quick but has a wide spatial extent (The parting of the Red Sea?).

For the purposes of illustration, I have depicted several miracles, and together they occupy a substantial part of the diagram. But miracles are generally seen as quite exceptional. For example, in the debate, William Lane Craig stated that
... miracles by their nature are relatively rare, and I don't think that God does frequently go around intervening in the universe in miraculous ways.
Note also that I have shown each miracle in a different colour to represent their uniqueness. As far back as Aristotle, it has been recognized that
there is no science of the individual as such (hê d' epistêmê tôn katholou)
History of Philosophy by William Turner.
where (the Wikipedia page on reproducibility notes):
... the word used for individual in Greek had the connotation of the idiosyncratic, or wholly isolated occurrence.
So if a miracle were to repeat, there could be a pattern, rendering it subject to scientific investigation, i.e. not a miracle at all. Bearing this in mind, the definition I shall use is:
A miracle is a physical event that cannot ever be explained in terms of physical patterns.
Scientists generally assume that the universe has certain uniformity properties. Indeed the validity of inductive inference depends on such properties. A universe with miracles is not credible—as Einstein put it, "the Lord is subtle but not malicious". Furthermore, simplicity is prized in science, and affirmed in the principle of Occam's razor. Many scientists see beauty in the simplicity of scientific models, but as I've noted, these models are just approximations. It is conceivable that the universe does feature intractable complexity—such as miracles would entail—and it's just our models that are simple.

Now in a universe like the one in the diagram, people would report miraculous events from time to time. Many of them would simply be unexplained observations from the light-coloured part of the diagram, i.e. where the universe is working as it ordinarily does, but we don't understand it. (As Goethe put it, "Mysteries are not necessarily miracles.") But a very few of them would be observations from the bright-coloured parts of the diagram, i.e. the true miracles. Science would likely progress as in our world, with developing scientific knowledge of the ordinary functioning of the universe. Scientists would treat reports of miraculous events as unexplained anecdotal observations, as they do in our world. The faithful would treat some of the reports of miraculous events as true miracles. Of course they might fail to identify some miracles and falsely identify some ordinary events as miracles.

Consider, however, a case of apparent divine intervention: solar eclipses. The book of Amos (8:9) apparently refers to one:
And on that day,' says the Lord God, `I will make the Sun go down at noon, and darken the Earth in broad daylight.'
This is suspected to be the near-total Assyrian eclipse, dated to 763 BCE. But between 600 and 200 BCE, Babylonian astronomers discovered that these mysterious events could be predicted. Eclipses began to move from the realm of miracles to that of natural patterns.

So the eclipse of Amos may have been a misidentified miracle. But is there a good way to identify miracles? William Lane Craig provides a method for retrospectively identifying a miracle:
You should believe in a miracle, I think, when (1) No naturalistic explanation of the facts is available that plausibly explains the facts, and (2) There is a supernatural explanation suggested in the religio-historical context in which the event occurred.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that by Craig's criteria the eclipse of Amos was not a genuine miracle. However, with reference to the miraculous event at the heart of Christianity, Craig states:
... I certainly think a Christian is within his rights to say, "You know, it looks to me like those men were telling the truth," that the best explanation is that Jesus did rise from the dead. So you can remain agnostic if you want to, but it seems to me that as a historian I'm certainly within my rational rights to say the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.
Reasons to believe in miracles

It seems to me that there are two main reasons to believe in physical miracles. The first is that one's religious faith leads one to do so. The second is that one believes that the evidence is overwhelming that a given event is not just unexplained but unexplainable. Here one would need to have complete trust in any eyewitness reports, and be sure that the eyewitnesses were not deluding themselves, or halucinating.

Reasons not to believe in miracles

I think that there are also two main reasons to not believe in miracles. The first is that science has been tremendously successful. Ancient peoples were surrounded by mysterious natural phenomena whose patterns were difficult to discern. It is not surprising that divine intervention seemed ubiquitous. Today we understand and have learned to manipulate many aspects of our world. Paraphrasing Pigliucci, "The more we understand, the less room there seems to be for miracles."

The second reason to not believe in miracles is the belief that the universe is fundamentally simple. Einstein wrote that "Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas." Indeed the successes of science—based as it is on inductive inference and principles like Occam's razor—seem to support this. Miracles seem neither simple nor elegant, but more like a kludge.

Regardless of those reasons not to believe in miracles, I believe that we're evolutionarily programmed to look for patterns. In a world full of physical patterns, the capacity for sophisticated pattern recognition is highly adaptive. It's a no-brainer (as it were).

More meaningful miracles?

While the idea of physical miracles poses some challenges to a scientific view of the world, I think that in the end there may be more meaningful miracles to consider. English writer Margaret Storm Jameson wrote that
The only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle, which is exactly what it is: a miracle and unrepeatable.
I'd be very interested in other thoughts on the subject of miracles.

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