Unbelievable Project: Miracles and healing – is it evidence for the truth of Christianity?

Unbelievable? 17 Nov 2007 – Are miracles evidence for God? – 17 November 2007 — Miracles and healing – is it evidence for the truth of Christianity?

As part of the Unbelievable Project, I am taking notes and “arm-chair” responding to each of the Unbelievable podcast episodes satisfying a set of simple rules.

For a full RSS Feed of the podcasts see here.

Description of Episode

  • Full Title: Unbelievable? 17 Nov 2007 – Are miracles evidence for God? – 17 November 2007 — Miracles and healing – is it evidence for the truth of Christianity?

    Agnostic sceptic Stephen Pilcher believes that Christian claims to healing are tricks of the mind.  Can John Ryeland of the Christian Healing Mission persuade him differently?  Also features personal stories from people who claim to have been miraculously healed.

Download mp3.

  • Justin Brierley – Christian Moderator
  • John Ryeland – Christian
  • Heather Riley – Christian
  • Stephen Pilcher – Agnostic


Stephen – “I’m a church-going, Bible-reading agnostic”

Me – That’s pretty funny, because it is very close to what I am. I am a church-going, Bible-reading atheist. Although I have read the Bible at least once cover-to-cover a few years ago, I have lost patience with reading it now. There is so much repetitious and tedious material, both Old and New Testament, that I find it hard to read for long without thinking I have better things to do with my time.

Stephen – There are a large number of “miracles” that aren’t miracles at all, and non-Christians can have healings as well.

Heather – Her story is at 24:40, in case you want to listen to the original. Here is a quick summary. She pursued a psychology degree, studied the paranormal. About 3 or 4 months ago, she went to a chiropodist (aka podiatrist) who told her that one leg was longer than another (by an inch). She then went, unplanned, to a religious gathering. During the meeting the preacher gave her some very specific information about he from several years ago, some comforting words, and a moving message. And then he healed the asymmetric leg. She said she felt like she was “on show” and that “God’s really got to do something”. She also said that she didn’t feel any different, but a friend of hers observing saw the leg lengthening. So then she went back to the chiropodist. She determined he was Christian, told the entire story, he repeated the measurement and then did some more robust measurements, and found no difference in leg length. And since then, her shoes are no longer asymmetric.

Stephen – People have done studies of faith healings and always come up short.

Me – When I first heard that story, a year or so ago when I first listened to this episode, I recall being pretty impressed with the healing. Since then, after much reading, and hearing this again I am not. (It is interesting that I recall it being more impressive, and if I never heard the story again, might have started to spread a more impressive story if I told it again. This is a nice reminder of how these stories, working with the limitations of memory, can grow in the telling and quickly become unfactual).

Anyway, why am I not impressed? There are a number of little details that she dropped in that I find curious. Consider two models (there are probably more!):

  1. There is a God, and he decides to heal this leg, but not other ailments, and not her husbands problems. This is hard to reconcile even on the face of it, and later in the show she talks about this somewhat.
  2. There is no God, these things don’t happen, and there are other mundane explanations

Turns out that leg-lengthening is a very common form of “healing” in these sorts of situations (see “The Faith Healers” by James Randi), because it looks impressive and is a straightforward trick. That’s why it is important to have magicians as well as scientists investigate such claims, because scientists are terrible at detecting dishonesty and trickery. The fact that she had no idea that one leg was longer, until a few days before, that she did not feel the healing, and only went on the word of the friend because she was expecting something to happen, that she was impressed with the “prophecy” that the preacher said, referring to things he would have no idea about. James Randi speaks about this at length, and shows how preachers will use planted people, microphones, and other techniques to appear to know things they wouldn’t already know. Even if they aren’t being deceptive, they may hear in conversations with the friends ahead of time about Heather’s problems, and then work it into the “prophecy”. When she goes back to the chiropodist she finds out he is a Christian, and before he redoes the measurement she tells the story. Now, this chiropodist has a vested interest in confirming the healing, because it will confirm his worldview. This is why we have double-blind measurements, because we know people bias the measurement, the reporting, the memory of it because of their worldview. In fact, she tells that the chiropodist had to do more robust measurements to confirm the equal leg length. Perhaps there was an error in the first measurement. Perhaps the first measurement was overestimated. Perhaps it wasn’t, and she reported it rounding up (i.e. he says a bit more than 1/2 inch, she tells her friends around an inch, and then remembers it as such, etc…). Perhaps the equipment for the first test has a bias, which might have motivated him to make the more robust measurements. There are many possibilities that do not require dishonesty, deliberate deception, incompetence, and are completely mundane.

So which model can explain each of these? It seems clear to me that there are perfectly good mundane explanations for nearly every detail of the story, that the story is inconsistent even with a “real” healing, and that model 2 is definitely better. What about her asymmetric shoes, and the pain that occured and went away after a while after the “healing”? My shoes tend to get asymmetric over time (not with each other, but each pushed off to the outside) and when I get new shoes, and they are flat, I have a little pain walking and running that goes away as I adjust. Notice that these events happened 3 or 4 months ago. There is no way that her new shoes would have become asymmetric in that time anyway.

John – “There is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence, and I don’t want to be skeptical of it simply because it is not documented. What else….is she not telling the truth? Of course she’s telling the truth!”

Me – All we need is a slightly overzealous preacher, a slightly sloppy chiropodist, and a small amount of congitive bias. It really is that simple, and it doesn’t require us to disparage the character of anyone in the story.

John – “How high should we set the bar to know that this is a proper healing story?”

John – “For some people they want to make it so hard to call it a miracle that nothing could ever satisfy that. I want to take Heather’s story, listen to it, and ask ‘How did it change her’? If it is a story, told with integrety, seems to have a lasting effect, of course it would be better if it were documented, but we don’t have the ability to get the documentation.”

Me – I listen to this talk about documentation, and about how it’s “so hard“, some people are “so skeptical” and I have to think “cry baby, cry baby, cry baby”. I even hear the little whining voice in my head.
“People should be more believing of my miracle claims”, “You’re being too skeptical”, etc… Of course, when it comes to other people’s miracle claims, they are just as skeptical! It’s only the ones that support their worldview that they consider for special treatment. Sorry, that’s not good enough. Even Heather points this out, saying that she feels that people are more skeptical of religious claims than claims of the paranormal (which she saw in her studies of the paranormal). She’s noting, in others, the same thing she is doing with her worldview. I’ve posted specifically about this problem here.

In science, say you are trying to publish a paper, and the editor or reviewer returns it saying that they are not convinced of your conclusions, you don’t go “Oh, you’re being too hard on me, too skeptical. Getting the documentation for this effect I am claiming exists is just too hard.” That is just ridiculous. You find a way to document it, with careful measurements, and you convince the skeptics if it is true, or not if it is false. Truth should convince even the skeptics, especially if you’re claiming a large effect.

Take the Higgs boson, as an example of an unseen entity for which we only can get indirect inference of its existence. It was proposed 50 years ago, and although people may have thought it was likely to be there, they didn’t believe it was there until the proper measurements were done. Measurements which took decades to set up, required hundreds of people as a team, and has cost billions of dollars, just to get the documentation for the existence of something which doesn’t even seem to violate physical law. Think about that next time you hear someone claim that getting documentation for healing is hard, or that the effect seems to disappear whenever you look into it carefully, and that is the reason there isn’t any evidence for it.

If the claimed effects of so-called faith-healings are real, they should be trivial to demonstrate, document, and convince the skeptics.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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