Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wonder of wonders

Nine-year-old Preston Stevens of Boston claims he's alive because of a miracle.  (Source)

Last Tuesday afternoon, Stevens and his mother, Sharon Jackson, heard some popping noises, and Preston felt a "push."  He was narrowly missed by a bullet that had come right through the wall - in fact, it left a smoking hole in the Boston Celtics jersey he was wearing.  Preston was quoted as saying that "it was like God pushed me."

Well, first and foremost I want to express my happiness that Preston is safe and sound, and nothing I'm about to say should be construed as diminishing that.  The fundamental thing here is that a child could have been injured or killed, and any amount of philosophical meandering should take back seat to that consideration.

That said, however, the whole thing does bring up a troubling question; how could you tell the difference between a miracle and simple good luck?

I have had times when I've had near misses from disaster -- like the time that my car hit a patch of black ice, went into a spin, and I slid right off the road -- onto a twenty-by-twenty patch of flat gravel that is the only place along that road that I could have landed without flipping my car, slamming into a tree, or landing in a creek.  After a moment to restart my heart, I slowly pulled back out onto the road, and drove the rest of the way to work without incident, and without so much as a scratch or dent on my car.

But was it a miracle?  Even if I believed in a deity, I think I'd be distinctly uneasy calling it that, because that implies that something different happened in that circumstance (there was direct intervention by god) than if it had just been dumb luck.  Does the fact that I saw no giant translucent hand shoving me in the direction of the gravel patch mean that I was simply fortunate?  (I have to admit that if god does exist, he missed a good opportunity to get rid of me that day -- and given how much time I've spent disbelieving in his existence, I couldn't have argued with his motives.)

I think the whole thing hinges on an unknowable; something is classifiable as a miracle only if it would have happened otherwise without direct intervention by a higher power.  And how could we possibly know that?  C. S. Lewis makes as strong a case for the occurrence of the miraculous as any I've ever read (in his book, appropriately titled Miracles).   He claims that the "naturalist" position is self-contradictory:
What the Naturalist believes is the ultimate Fact, the thing you can't go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord. Inside that total system every particular event (such as your sitting reading this book) happens because some other event has happened. All things and events are so completely interlocked that no one of them can claim can claim the slightest independence from 'the whole show.'
He goes on to state that since a "naturalist" claims that we are all created, and driven, by random motions of molecules and so on, that there's no reason to believe that the conclusions reached by our brains are correct; how, he argues, could a brain made of randomly-moving particles ever be more than a generator of random statements, which may or may not be true?  If there is no external truth (i.e. god), we have no touchstone by which to determine the truth of naturalism itself, and the whole thing swallows its own tail.

I don't intend to analyze Lewis' whole argument -- perhaps that is the topic for another post -- but I think part of what Lewis misses is that supernaturalism has its own fundamental self-contradiction, which is in its claim that there are events that are "super-natural" -- that would not have happened, or would have happened differently, without a divine hand driving the action.  Lewis himself has Aslan say (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), "My child, no one is ever told what might have been."  So the declaration of an event as being a miracle presupposes a knowledge of what would have happened without the divine intervention occurring -- something that even Lewis says is impossible!

Of course, that's not the only problem with the assumption of the miraculous.  It also brings up the far more troubling question of why some people deserve miracles and others don't -- if god intervened to save Preston Stevens' life (I'm assuming that we're accepting that a miracle was unlikely in the case of my near-miss automobile accident), why doesn't he intervene to save the lives of the thousands of other children who die tragically every day?  To me, stating that it was "god's plan" that Preston survived leads you into the distinctly awkward suggestion that it was also god's plan that other children (and other adults) die, sometimes in agony, many because of senseless violence.  I suppose that if you believe in an afterlife you could quibble that the victims of such tragedies got their rewards after death -- but considering that the majority of the world (and therefore the majority of these unfortunate individuals) are not Christian, this isn't a very satisfying answer, either.

Of course, since I don't believe in a deity, my answer is that bad stuff happens, people die, sometimes people escape unscathed in amazing ways, and that's just the way of things.  But I have to admit to some curiosity about how the religious deal with this issue, because it seems to me on the one hand presumptuous ("we know the intentions of god"), or on the other hand to open up more questions than it answers.

In any case, I'll end by reiterating that I'm glad that Preston Stevens was unhurt, be it a miracle or not.  And I have to note, in the interest of honesty, that despite the fact that his mother fully supports Preston's claims that his survival was a miracle, she did move his bed to the other side of the room.


  1. Pulp Fiction, anyone?

  2. The matter is also complicated by the fact that people's memories are much less reliable than they feel from inside. Human brains don't remember everything that happens; they remember bits and invent a story that makes those bits hang together. Sometimes the story is reasonably accurate; sometimes not. This is why eyewitness accounts of the same event tend to vary so widely -- people have retained different details, and filled in the rest in different ways, and the part they actually remember, and the parts they're filling in, feel the same to them. We can't tell what's reality and what's fantasy unless we've got some independent evidence.

    So a boy who's been raised religious, expecting God to intervene in times of trouble, is primed to make sense of any narrow escapes he might have by 'remembering' God as having taken some action. After all, one might ask, if there was a shove, why assume God did it? Maybe Satan wanted him to live. Maybe it was the aliens, with a tractor beam from their shielded saucer. Why not, "It was like the dog shoved me?" Lassie, you saved me!

  3. If we are talking about the same god that asked a man to kill his own son, only to get indignant when the man was actually gonna do it... getting presumptuous about whether a person received assistance from the cosmic mischief maker could actually backfire.