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On Miracles

February 6, 2009

So, I was reading a By Common Consent article on the improbability of miracles, and I just saw the best/worst comment ever (depends on your perspective, really.)

I think people can be slow to recognize miracles in their lives. To that end, I’ve developed a six-step program that can help us all be more receptive to the hand of the Lord in our lives.

The six-step program is as follows:

1) Learn as little as possible about statistics and probability.

2) Learn as little as possible about the natural causes of things. Don’t study pathology, epidemiology, physics, engineering, history, or any other field that may promote a scientific, skeptical, or natural world-view. If you don’t know about physics, who’s to say cannonballs don’t float on the wings of angels?

3 ) Whenever you encounter something unusual and for which the cause isn’t clear, make up an explanation that fits your religious worldview (RW) and supports your particular view of God and His doings.

4) Search for secondhand (or thirdhand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand etc.) accounts of miracles that support your RW. Take them at face value, and use them to support your belief without question. Assume that all accounts that appear to describe “miracles” in religious literature are accurately and literally reported, if they support your RW. If they don’t support your RW, ignore or doubt them.

5) If someone does something that is unusual and of mysterious origin, and they offer an explanation that supports your RW, take it at face value. There’s no harm in trusting someone who means well.

6) As you find an increase in miracles in your life, find others who share your RW and share your experience with them. Publish your story in magazines and websites that cater to such people. Remember, they wouldn’t publish it if it weren’t true. When you share the story, be sure to speak slowly, with a low voice. Stare at the person or audience. Try and muster a tear, but don’t sob uncontrollably.

If you can decrease your ability to understand and explain things, and increase your ability to ascribe a religious and/or supernatural origin to these same events, you’re on your way to increasing the frequency of the occurrence of miracles in your life.

Now, obviously this comment caused a massive crapstorm. (Well, I guess not as massive as the crapstorm over at Feminist Mormon Housewives that I’ve written two posts on).

I think it’s cute, because sometimes it seems like people do attribute miracles to these kinds of uninformed things.

I think it’s terrible though, because it trivializes and belittles people. Obviously, if you’ve experienced what you think is a miracle, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ignorant and misinformed. I’ve known enough people who, after studying more in certain fields (such as the ones listed in the above comment), are even surer of themselves in the gospel, in divine order, etc., I’m not really going to say what exactly I think about them.

Personally, I take to a view that miracles are self-defeating. We trust in cause and effect relationship because it’s useful for us. It’s useful if things are stable and somewhat predictable: it’s useful if when people die, they stay dead. It’s useful if natural disasters are due to distinct causes.

Why? (These are some morbid examples, geez). When things are stable and somewhat predictable,we can…well…predict for them. If we know what causes natural disasters, we can plan for them and defend against them. If we know about the nature of death and illnesses, then we can put this in research for life extension and other things. But if things are orderless and there is some being in the universe acting with no regard for order, then this is rather terrible for our prospects. If we can’t be sure that our clocks will be right tomorrow, how are we supposed to go to work?

So, if I could wish something, I wish people, if they want to believe in a god, would give this god the credit of following or working through SOME kind of natural laws. Now, it can be that his natural laws are so far advanced that we don’t know how they work and they seem miraculous…but I kinda grind my teeth at this idea that God can and does just anything in any way.

Heh, I guess my ideal version of heaven is like a super duper graduate school. “And the secret to turning water into wine…the secret to alchemy that you guys just didn’t quite get back then is *this*. And now, you know!”

What I wanted to say though is that I just thought that there might be a reason for such the emphasis in miracles. I think what is admirable about those who recognize miracles in their lives is that these people learn to be appreciative for these events, and I think that that improves the qualities of their lives. Really, the issue isn’t whether the original blog poster’s event was a genuine miracle/”tender mercy of the Lord”/whatever or just randomness…the issue is that this uplifted that poster’s day. I can see negative side effects (massive selectivity/confirmation bias), but from a practical standpoint, if you can see something special from an actually mundane event, what’s the problem? I don’t see how cultivating a thankful attitude is problematic.

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2 Comments
  1. Heh, I guess my ideal version of heaven is like a super duper graduate school. “And the secret to turning water into wine…the secret to alchemy that you guys just didn’t quite get back then is *this*. And now, you know!”

    That’s a fun way of looking at it, and it actually can kind of fit into Mormons doctrine. For something to be “supernatural” it essentially needs to produce a tangible result through means that can — by definition — never be objectively measured and scientifically studied. But that actually seems kind of sad and uninteresting compared to the idea of Gods who work through a super advanced knowledge of natural laws.

    That said, I can’t comment on any discussion of miracles without linking to my new favorite YouTube video: Give God Some More Credit!. 😉

    And be proud of me that I was tactful enough to hold off on posting that link to the BCC thread you cited. 😉

  2. Jordan G. permalink

    I don’t know if you’re still interested on receiving feedback on a post that was made so long , but my own thoughts on miracle reports are that, like you said, they are ultimately self-defeating. Trying to verify one is like trying to run across an infinitely long football field to score a “touchdown”. By definition, a miracle is a violation or suspension of natural laws by a supernatural cause, usually a divine agent (God, angels) or sometimes by other agents (Satan can supposedly work miracles, because God has granted him that authority to mislead people, just as the beast in Revelation is granted permission to blaspheme God). Therefore, it has to be proven that there can be no natural cause for what people regard as miraculous, otherwise you’re jumping the gun by attributing it to a cause which may or may not exist.

    But are we really in a position where we can say we know how nature works in all of it’s mechanations? To me, to say “Well, we can’t account for such and so event, so it’s a miracle!” seems to be an intellectual cop-out, at least from my vantage point. People may well have thought at one time that magic was the cause for the rising and falling of tides, but we discovered that the moon, being as close as it is to us, exerts a gravitational influence on the water of the Earth. Gottfried Leibniz, who was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, said that gravity was an “occult” force.

    This was all only a few hundred years ago! And we are making discoveries day after day and year after year, some of which, as Kuhn pointed out, completely revolutionize our understanding of how nature works, and force a paradigm shift after much resistance (See Schopenhauer’s quote on the stages of truth). Science qua science, must operate off of a fallibalistic basis, or it becomes ossified dogma over time, not a system of (reasonably established) facts. If we refuse to remain intellectually humble in the face of the grandiosity of nature, then like the Iron Sheik, it will “Break your back and make you humble!”. Knowledge of the whole of reality comes about via the same process as knowledge of the particulars of it come about: through the school of hard kncks.

    And of course, there’s one other issue with miracles , which isn’t touched on near enough, and that is if we accept that miracles occur as genuine suspensions of natural laws, and not as some heretofore mysterious manifestation of an undiscovered natural law/combination of natural laws/etc, then it implies a God who plays favorites. Aside from being a God of Love, Christians portray God as being *very* involved in justice. The whole reason Jesus died and was crucified was to satisfy God’s demand for justice as a Righteous Judge who will not tolerate and cannot tolerate sin.

    Yet they expect us to believe that this God ignores the heartfelt prayers of millions of individuals, while at the same time, answering the appeals of millions of others, some of who are not even Jews or Christians, and thus are under his wrath. I don’t think anybody would deny that God, if he exists, is sovereign over his creatures, but the idea that the same Deity who created nature in all of it’s regularity and intricacy, is himself so inconsistent and unpredictable, seems very counter-intuitive in my mind’s eye. But again, we have to remain humble. Pretending as though any one of us sees the “Big picture”, while everybody else is stumbling in the dark, smacks of arrogance.

    Like you said, if a belief in miracles and God is comforting to some people, more power to them. People should have the freedom to believe whatever helps them live a better life And after all we are not in a position to ridicule them. There are definitely ways in which a theistic belief can be criticized (as can an atheistic belief), but it’s still nonetheless a coherent worldview that has obvious appeal.

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