A little about miracles

I listened to a recent interview (Part 2) with Matthew Ferguson on the Don Johnson show, which I found pretty impressive. Matthew Ferguson has a very interesting blog that I just found, and have been enjoying reading.

Initial Comments

However, I did find several points in the informal debate that I thought could be handled better (from my armchair, of course!). Just to note that although I think that if I were there, I might have been able to deal with some of the questions better, I also think that nearly all of the debate was handled much better than I could have done. What struck me at one point, in Part 2, was Don’s zeal for the miracles collection by Craig Keener (review of Keener’s book here). He seemed to think that because there were hundreds of thousands of miracle reports, that that was evidence for their truth. He was, however, quick to dismiss any comparison with other pseudosciences. Ferguson admits on his blog that the "debate came off as a little ambushy" on this point, because he hadn’t read this book, and clearly couldn’t respond to all of them, but I think that misses the point. I think one can address the miracle claims without being entirely dismissive (and sounding closed minded) but putting them in their proper context.

Evaluating Miracle Claims – Some Lessons from UFOs

So in Keener’s book, there is a huge collection of claims of miracles. We could find an equally large collection of UFO sightings. Now, Don and other Christians would be quick to dismiss UFO sightings as irrelevant, but I would raise the questions:

  • Given a set of claims, how do we determine whether they are true?
  • Are any of them true?
  • Do the number of claims contribute to their truth value?

I believe that the methods we use to determine the veracity of UFO claims can be used to investigate any claims, remarkable or not, including miracle claims. To start, we clearly we can’t personally investigate every single claim, and thus cannot comment on ones we haven’t investigated except to note where it seems similar to ones that we have. I have a friend who I managed (over several years) to break of his UFO enthusiasm – he was convinced by all of these television shows claiming evidence for alien spacecraft observations and visitations. He invited me over to his house periodically to watch these shows to get my reaction. This is the process that I would use:

  1. I would write down each specific claim – what was actually being claimed, and what details were there? (names of places, time, who saw what, etc…)
  2. I would note any initial inconsistencies (for example, there was once where, in the interview process, the different witnesses actually described different things! this seemed to go unnoticed by the reporter)
  3. I would go home, and try to find out as much about the original details of the events. It would take me probably at least an hour for each case, and some I couldn’t track down. However, many of them I could. I would read the claims again, and the skeptical accounts, and the responses to the skeptics. I would try to see what the actual data was, how it was collected, when it was reported, etc…

What I found for every case that I personally investigated was the following:

  1. Most of the actual, original claims were mundane. Lights in the sky, marks on the ground, etc…. No hard evidence of anything remarkable.
  2. Misinterpretation of a known object, or objects, in the sky or on the ground.
  3. The reporting of the claims grew more and more remarkable. A particularly good example was the Rendelsham Forest UFO case where the initial reports were just lights, and the later reports involved spacecraft, alien code-books, etc…
  4. There were serious inconsistencies between reports, or anomalous non-reports (i.e. people who should have seen something but didn’t). A good example of this was a Chicago airport sighting where a small group of people, in a localized area of the airport, saw something yet the large number of other people in the nearby areas of the airport reported nothing.

I repeat – in every single case that I personally investigated, these points were in evidence. Then I look through something like the Condon report where they go through something like 30 years of data in the height of the UFO craze and don’t come up with even a single item that is not mundane in its nature. After that, new UFO claims I see with suspicion even if I don’t check them out. If something seems straightforward to check out, I might do it, but I don’t feel it is my job to investigate every claim. If there had been even a single case which pointed to something probably remarkable, I’d have a different attitude.

Lesson: if the claims made shrink and disappear at critical and skeptical investigation, the claim is not likely to be true.

Miracles

The Catholic Church has a division to investigate miracles, and has determined that some of them are genuine. However, the Catholic Church often has significant blinders, and definitely takes a long time to adjust to obvious mistakes (Galileo anyone?).

Take, for example, this site on top 10 miracles. I’ve personally researched about 3 or 4 of these, and it is quite clear that those are definitely frauds (#1, 2, 3, and 5 I’ve checked). Yet, do we get any retraction from the Catholic Church? Do we get any hint of skepticism? None at all.

Again, I follow the same steps as above. I do not take someone else’s word, necessarily, and I don’t discount them out of hand. The miracles of Fatima are a great example. First, we have "visions" from highly impressionable children, one of whom was known to have made up fanciful stories in the recent past. These children are the only ones who "see" it, until the last vision where hundreds claimed to see the "Miracle of the Sun". The problem? The initial stories did not agree, and we only get a semi-consistent story after the various witnesses spoke with each other and to a priest collecting the reports. Check out The Real Secrets of Fatima for the details. All of the elements spoken about above can be seen – initial mundane experiences, misinterpretation of known objects (i.e. the sun, and clouds), the exaggeration of stories in later recollection, serious inconsistencies in reports and notable non-reports.

The same goes for every faith-healer I’ve read about. A little digging, and a little skepticism, and the entire enterprise come crashing down. Many times it doesn’t take much digging!

If the truth is there, then it shouldn’t retreat under investigation.

This is not a matter of being too skeptical. It is a matter of not being credulous.

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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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3 Responses to A little about miracles

  1. Tim says:

    Uhoh, is your proofreader on vacation? 🙂 There are a few typos in this post. Most notably, I think you meant to say “If the truth is out there, then it SHOULDN’T retreat…”.

    • brianblais says:

      I figured that you were my proofreader, Tim, and you’re not on vacation! 🙂

      That’s what happens when I am distracted, but feel like I want to get a post out there. oops! good catch!

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