Saturday, December 29, 2007

Miracles

This past fall, a two-story house in our Massachusetts village exploded with a bang -- a gas leak in the basement. The walls blew out and the roof fell onto the foundations. Four Stonehill College students who were asleep in the house managed to crawl out of the wreckage just before the whole pile of debris became a roaring inferno. Except for some bumps and scratches, they were unharmed.

I must have heard a hundred people say, "It is a miracle they are alive." I probably said it a dozen times myself. Some of the people who used the expression meant it quite literally. "God was watching out for them," they added. Or "God surely helped them escape." Well, yes it's not impossible that the Big Guy intervened, but then one wonders why he let the house blow up in the first place.

Improbable events are not miracles. For every person who walks away from Lourdes cured, a hundred petitioners leave unsatisfied. I have heard that the walls of the shrine are hung with crutches, each presumably representing a "miracle." When an amputee walks away with a new limb it will be time to take notice. The creator of one hundred billion galaxies should have no trouble with an arm or leg.

I don't mean to sound cynical, and I certainly wish every pilgrim well. The mind/body connection is mysterious and powerful, and the placebo effect is well recognized by science. But in seventy years of pondering the world, I've yet to see non-anecdotal evidence for a miracle of any sort.

Some years ago I wrote an essay on petitionary prayer for Commonweal magazine, an excellent lay Catholic journal. As balance, the editors asked
John Wright
, a Jesuit theologian, and Phillip Johnson, the anti-Darwinist crusader, to respond. Johnson quoted the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin: "We have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Start with the assumption that miracles don't occur, says Johnson, and of course you'll not find evidence of miracles.

Science cannot prove that miracles don't occur. Science can examine the evidence for purported miracles, and ask if that evidence is compelling. Science can show that the escape of the Stonehill students from the exploded house is not inconsistent with natural causes. But to admit a Divine Foot into the door of science is to bring the roof of reliable explanation crashing down on our heads. Scientists can choose to believe in miracles, and many do, but they don't invoke miracles when they are doing science.

Improbability and personal incredulity are not evidence for the absence of law. We are all thankful the students survived the blast. Whether we thank an interventionist God or lucky chance is a matter of personal preference.

(If it doesn't work above, check brome grass's comment for the Johnson link.)