On miracles

Melissa asked:

I have a good friend whom I’ve known since she was born. She grew up in a really religious family, I had no problem with her telling me some things about her belief and God until she met an old friend, who also is from an religious family.

This girl has told me some stories which gave me goosebumps. Things like she had screws in her leg because of a car accident and when they had to operate her leg to get those screws out the doctors said that the screws mysteriously disappeared. Another story was that she ran away from someone and climbed on an old garage roof. The roof collapsed under her feet but with the power of god she was able to jump 2 meters back on the roof.

My friend unfortunately does believe all those stories of her and I feel like she is getting to deep into those things. I hope that you can give me advice or a second opinion on this.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Let’s get this straight, Melissa. A friend of a friend of yours is one of many people around the world — millions, in fact — who believe in miracles. You are very unlikely to find anyone here (on a web site devoted to philosophy) who believes in miracles, so you would not be totally surprised if we said, ‘We don’t believe, etc.’

However, that is not in the least bit helpful to you. To anyone belonging to the large group of ‘believers in miracles’, philosophers are miserable sceptics who wouldn’t recognize ‘the truth’ even if it slapped them in the face. You can imagine the response if you said to your friend that a philosopher had said to you, etc., and your friend said to her friend that a philosopher had told her friend, etc.

A long line of Popes (to quote just one example) have presided over canonizations based on reports of miracles, which they presumably believed. Catholicism (to name just one religion) has given the seal of approval to the belief in miracles. — Well, I’m not going to tell you my politically incorrect opinion about this!

David Hume, in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) gives a concise and persuasive account of why we should not believe in miracles. I will summarize Hume’s central argument, which is about probability, using an up-to-date example.

Probability is involved everywhere, when we form beliefs. Take the news, for example. You read or hear a news report and you think, ‘I just don’t believe that. It couldn’t possibly happen.’ A tiger is loose in the Florida Keys and is attacking local residents. The report could turn out to be true (recently a tiger escaped from a nearby zoo) or false (the ‘tiger’ is just an unusually large wild cat). But without more information you have to make a judgement call.

That’s all scientists do. They look for the best theory. Sometimes it turns out that the ‘best theory’ is false. Theories are in a constant process of testing and appraisal. However, one assumption of the scientific enterprise is that the universe is law governed. If that assumption turned out to be wrong (which it could conceivably be) then everything we had so far found out about how the universe works would be trashed. If miracles of the kind you describe do actually happen, then we can say good bye to science. As Hume says, it would be ‘a greater miracle’ if that turned out to be the case. It is more probable that reports of miracles are false, than that the universe is not law governed.

Improbable, but not impossible. There is a hypothesis that is taken seriously, ‘Simulation Theory’, according to which the entire universe is a computer simulation, like ‘the Matrix’. In the Matrix ‘laws can be bent’. Anyone who has played a 3D computer game is familiar with this. Monsters can appear from nowhere, and then disappear without a trace. If Simulation Theory were true, there could be vampires, zombies, werewolves, screws could disappear from broken legs, and girls could do a standing jump of two meters. (Women athletes have jumped higher than two meters, using the ‘Fosbury Flop’ technique but that requires a short run-up.)

There is to date, so far as I am aware, no evidence in favour of Simulation Theory, which is why I called it a ‘hypothesis’. It’s something we can imagine, like Descartes’ ‘evil demon’. Which is not to rule out the possibility at some time in the future evidence might turn up that points to the possibility that the hypothesis may be true, after all.

Don’t even bother to try to tell your friend this, because it won’t make any impression. Your friend’s friend is in no danger, however. She doesn’t need to be ‘saved’. There are millions like her, as I have indicated, who are perfectly happy with their beliefs and their world view. She is ‘crazy’ by my lights — the lights of a trained philosopher — but safely so. If she starts doing crazy things, then that’s another matter, in which case a call to social services might be needed.

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