Sunday, December 9, 2007

Top Ten Suggestions For Performing Better Miracles:

If God was interested in proving something with miracles here are 10 things he needs to do better:

1) The claim that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred should not be evaluated or investigated by committed, zealous believers. Humans have an uncanny knack for finding what they are looking for. The virtue of double blind testing procedures in science is that they help us prevent undue influence by wishful thinking, conflicts of interest, hedging, confirmation bias, and sloppy thinking. Many people claim that there are miracles happening on a regular basis now. It would be a relatively easy matter to have an independent panel of objective evaluators, doctors in the case of a healing miracle, examine just the evidence before and after an alleged healing without any leading or suggestive information about what they are looking for. Just show them the X rays, or the diagnoses, or the CAT scans before and after someone is alleged to have been healed of a brain tumor, for example.

2) In general, small samples of information are less trustworthy. The more evidence that can be gathered the better. If a miracle were to occur, all other things being equal, we would have better evidence if there are more people who attest to it. A few emotional believers with a great deal of investment in the cause of the miracle claim are not as reliable (or not reliable at all) as a large group of diverse, autonomous people. If God has the goal of proving his existence through miracles, he’d need to make them evident to a great many, well-educated, skeptical minded people who do not already believe.

3) The larger scale a miracle is, the greater the possibility that it can be corroborated, confirmed, cross-checked, and witnessed. A small miracle—a spiritual leader making a golden ring appear in his palm (which is an old magician’s trick)—is going to be more difficult to confirm, more likely to be faked, and less indicative of some real violation of the laws of nature than a large one. With small miracles, the rest of us are morely likely to get hearsay, anecdotal evidence, conflicting stories, and poor transmission of the information. A miracle that appears to everyone could be vastly more effective. And surely an omnipotent God, or even just a very powerful God would be up to the bigger task.

4) The power of suggestion, social pressure, and peer expectation can be very influential in getting people to believe that something special or extraordinary has happened. Countless psychological studies have shown that it takes very little prompting and only slight suggestions to get people to fabricate stories, deny what they have seen with their own eyes, and come to genuinely believe something a mistake. Any miracle claim is going to be up against this psychological background that will create challenges to its authenticity.

5) Stage magicians have devised ways, through entirely natural means of trickery, to perform feats that are stunning for what they appear to be. They make large objects like cars disappear and reappear. They make people disappear and reappear. They appear to be able to levitate, walk on water, and transport from one location to another instantly. The ability of con artists and performers to do these tricks casts substantial doubts on any alleged miracle that resembles them. Wouldn’t it be perverse of God to bring about a real miracle, but it was the sort of thing that is easily duplicated by a teenager with a magic kit or a magic how-to book, and thereby completely obscure its significance and occurrence?

6) For the miracles we have been confronted with in religious history, having all power and all knowledge might be sufficient conditions for performing them, but they are not necessary. That is, for alleged miracles like healings, levitations, resurrections, making objects appear and reappear, and so on, it would appear that an all-powerful and an all-knowing being could be capable of doing them. But having those properties are not necessary. All that would be necessary to resurrect someone from the dead, for instance, would be just enough power to perform that act (provided it wasn’t faked or mistaken altogether). The occurrence of a miracle by itself, therefore, isn’t evidence for an all-powerful, all-knowing being. It would merely be consistent with such a being’s existence. You wouldn’t want to convict a murder suspect on the grounds that he was in town the night of the murder, would you, since that evidence is consistent with his committing the murder. You were in town that night too. So God’s got a big challenge trying to convince anyone of his existence with miracles. It looks like miracles simply aren’t up to the task.

7) Events that are merely fortuitous for the person considering them, like having a baby, or surviving a car wreck (while many babies are still born, and many other people die in car wrecks), even if they really are the result of God’s violating the laws of nature, just aren’t going to be convincing to anyone who thinks about it very much. These sorts of events don’t look special at all when viewed from a distance. In fact, they appear to be completely predictable and ordinary—every day there will be some people who will survive car wrecks, especially with seatbelts and airbags, and every day there are babies born, especially when people have unprotected sex. Couldn’t I throw a ball up into the air and just as well claim that its coming down is a result of my divine powers and is evidence of my miraculous powers? If it was going to happen anyway, can’t everyone equally claim credit for it, and doesn’t that show that no one gets credit for it as a miracle?

8) Powerful feelings of awe, religious significance, excitement, and enthusiasm themselves are not indicators that something special has happened in the world. We have too many examples of cases where people got very worked up over things that turned out to be mistakes, deceptions, or just insignificant events. Recall that eclipses have been treated in history as indicators of profound supernatural significance. Presumably, God would have the ability to do something more than induce such feelings in people, and he’d know how much those feelings cloud the truth.

9) As the people living in the Iron Age saw it, the world was infused with magical and supernatural events. Their minds and lives must have been overrun with spooks, spirits, supernatural forces, mysteries, and frightening possibilities. Virtually none of the facts about nature that you take for granted were a part of their knowledge base. They didn’t know that such a thing as oxygen exists, they didn’t know that infections are caused by viruses, they didn’t know that it gets dark at night because the earth is turning, they didn’t know what made water boil, and they didn’t know that there are no evil demons. The vast majority of them did not know how to read or write. The average life expectancy was 20-30 years because of their staggering ignorance of medical science and basic hygiene and public sanitation.

If you were God and you were going to pick an audience with the intention of proving your existence and communicating your desires, you almost could not find a more gullible, easily impressed, and more ignorant group. It would take surprisingly little to completely stun them—a toaster would appear to be a wondrous, and miraculous artifact from heaven.

10) The placebo effect is well-documented in human beings. When they have the expectation that they are getting treated for a medical problem, the expectation itself has a substantial effect on their state and their reporting of their state. A minimum requirement for even the most modest over-the-counter cold medicine is that it must demonstrate effectiveness significantly beyond the placebo effect level. If it does not, the FDA will not allow manufacturers to claim any real capacity to treat illness. The effects felt in many putative spiritual cures, alternative medical therapies, faith healings, and alleged miracles are undoubtedly the placebo effect. If you’re God and you’re performing miracles, you need to do better than that. And presumably, you’d have the power, the knowledge, and the will to do so.

Conclusion: As far as I know, not a single religious miracle in all of recorded human history satisfies even a single one of these modest, reasonable, and obvious suggestions. Yet they are the sort of requirements that even 14 year-old high school science student understands and learns how to investigate empirically. How can it be that the most powerful, most knowing, and morally perfect supernatural being in the universe can’t seem to do any better? Answer: there isn’t one.


Mojoey said...

Well done - I'm going to cross post on this at Deep Thoughts when I get home tonight!

paulv said...

In spite of the perjorative references to the iron age in your blog, you seem to stick to a classical (Newtonian?) view of miracles as "violation of the laws of nature". Quantum physics seems to say that almost any outcome has a finite probability amplitude. It is as if a mechanism for miracles is built right into the structure of our universe, without breaking any laws.

Central Content Publisher said...

If no law has been broken, then no miracle has happened.

The real head twister is to wonder why, when presented with a miracle, believers tend to believe they have stumbled on something outside the laws of nature (a miracle) rather than evidence that nature was previously misunderstood.

J. said...

Have you considered the ethical ramifications of such religious-based proselytizing by a college professor? One would certainly hope your views are omitted during class lectures and discussions.

Central Content Publisher said...

What religion-based proselytizing?

Anonymous said...

To: J.
From: The 192a Class


s d owen said...

Hey J,

Why should theists be allowed to proselytize but not college professors or atheists?

And, why is it "proselytizing" to argue for your view in a rational manner -- that is certainly not the "recruiting" or "begging" one sees in our most wide-eyed slobbering Christians.

By the way, is Easter "proselytizing?" Is CHRISTmas?

And you know, we wouldn't even have to worry about "proselytizin'" if theists hadn't been so needy.


paulv said...

I stumbled across Scott Atran (whom I had not heard before ( another sign of my ignorance))

We need to apply the same scientific rigor to proofs that religion (and belief in miracles) is harmful, that we apply to the examination of miracles.

Jon said...

Scott Atran: Believes that soccer buddies in ghettos cause terrorism and not Jihad in Islamic Culture. He needs to re-evaluate his theories.

paulv said...

My reading of him is different.

If religion is to be ridiculed for believing what it does not bother to prove, then we need to be sure that we bother to prove our charges against religion.

If we want to hold that all X ("Jews or blacks or WASPS or religions etc"} are bad then we should have clear proofs that are more than just anecdotal evidence that some X are bad. We need to show what constitutes an X, how some X are able to avoid turning bad, and how X is different from Y ("eco-activists, nationalism, soccer (and other movements, or races that share much with X but are not considered bad)"

The other possibility is to show that X is so dangerous, that it is better to rid the world of X, than worry about a few innocent victims along the way.

If we have eco-terrorists, PETA terrorists, Liberation terrorists, then clearly removing religion is not likely to free the world of terrorists.

That X or Satan, is to blame for many or most of our problems is a simple theory that purports to explain much of our history.
If religion (or Jewishness) was the cause of something, then all religions should exhibit the behaviour to some degree, and no non-religions (or Germans) should carry the same trait. If that is not the case, then more work is required to identify the real cause of the problem.

I think religion can have a role in fostering terrorism. But I don't think all religion does, or that it is useful to fight terrorism by attacking all religion as its source.

I don't think Atran is saying soccer buddies cause terrorism, but would be correct in concluding that soccer hooliganism is not something caused by soccer.

Jon said...

I see your point, now I will clarify and explain my position:

1. The written doctrines and tennets of Islam are very specific.
2. Some people within Islam take them more seriously than others.
3. There are the particular doctrines of Islamic Jihad.
4. Many in Islam who are serious about their religion also take Jihad seriously.
5. Scott Atran does not take Islamic Jihad and the tennets of Islam seriously as a causal factor for terrorism and Islamic relations with the rest of the world.
6. It is a fact that the borders of Islam are global hot spots due to Islam's doctrines vs. other doctrines.
7. It is a fact that the tennets of Islam are anti-enlightenment.
8. Therefore, for those that take the tennets of Islam seriously, they will have much difficulty with enlightenment thinking and acting/not-acting.
9. Christianity and Judaism in the West has been molded and pounded into modernity, unlike much of Islam.
10. Islam needs to reform somehow.

Anonymous said...

I have tried replacing Islam with Marxism or Democracy in your points below to see if any apply.
The ones I found interesting I include below.

3. There are the particular doctrines of how Marxist/democracies should encourage the same in neighbouring states.

Some democrats see it as their duty to support democratic movements in un-democratic states, even when this activity is illegal (as it usually is in un-democratic states).
Marxism is even clearer, that any capitalist state is an injustice to workers and a threat to Marxist states everywhere. (Marxism is permanently at war in an Hegelian dielectic)

6. It is a fact that the borders of Marxism/democracy are or have been hot spots due to Marxism/democracy's doctrines vs. other doctrines.
Democracy was also feared for its ability to incite the peasants to overthrow their rulers.

7. It is a fact that the tennets of Marxism are anti-democratic.
Certainly most instances of marxism have been anti-democratic, but is Marxism inherently so. The issue is that Islam/Marxism/Democracy don't exist independant of actual manifestations. So it may be that no Islamist regimes are pro-enlightenment, does that mean that a pro-enlightenment islam, or pro-democratic Marxism could not arise.
I would prefer to phrase this as regime X is anti-democratic, or X's interpretation of Islam is anti-enlightenment. In the same way should some anti-enlightenment
group win popular support, we could say that that democratic regime was anti-enlightenment, while still allowing that deocratic regimes can be pro-enlightenment (enlightenment is not defined, but presumed to be good) Turkey has managed to stay secular, democratic and islam for some time now, and while that may be in peril, it is still a significant achievement.

Could their be a religion/or ideology that is incompatible with democracy and enlightenment? Yes. Should we fight it? Yes. Could Islam or Christianity be such a thing (assuming one can get a difinative spokesmen as to what constitues Islam/Christianity)?
Yes (Depending on which spokesman).

Anyways I will need to read more of Mr. Atran. I haven't seen him discount ideology entirely, but then I haven't read that much of his work yet.

paulv said...

Jon, the above is mine.

paulv said...

Soott Atran in 2003 Discover interview.

So what's your strategy for combating suicide terrorism?
A: I think it has to be a multilayered strategy. You've got to be able to--and this I'm all for--go after the guys who operate the cells. Take them out. Get rid of them. Jail them or kill them, because they are not willing to compromise. What do you do with somebody who says, "All Americans and Jews have got to die"? The point of talking to such people has passed. Whatever the grievances were that caused such people to have such ideas, if they show that they're willing to implement them, then you've just got to make a decision whether you want to see this guy survive or you and your people survive.

Jon said...

Good stuff. Now, here's my reply:

My point #10 is that "Islam has to reform", so an unserious, less religiously fervent (less religious/more secular) version of it can survive and be somewhat peaceful like modern Turkey (although their not quite there yet).

I'm not a Marxist, so I will not defend Marxism.

The modern Democracies of Europe are not hot spots at their borders, i.e. Spain is not at war with France, or Norway with Russia (well Russia is not really on my list), or Germany with Britain, ect...

Therefore I believe that Pro-Enlightenment Democracies are better and also necessary compared to just Democracies, and Turkey is not as Islamic as Saudi Arabia.

Atran's views are myopic, he believes that surgical strikes are necessary, but not that the tennets of Islam are a blanket problem that need to be de-tennetized somehow.

The people of Islam need to get, well less Islamic, just like the Christians in the west have done (not enough however).

Scott Atran does not see this as feaseable or has a solution to stopping the flow of Islamic Fundamentalism, or at least making it less Fundamental. His surgical strike approach will fail if that is the only thing we can do. We need more of a blanket solution. Not necessarily all out war with those countries, but something that will and can steer them into a more enlightenment direction. If not the Islam problem will be with us untill the end of humanity (which it probably will be).

Shaun 192A said...

In paulv's first comment he made a point of saying that quantum mechanics works with probabilities and thus violations of the laws of nature aren't really violations but very uncommon occurrences.

I have read Quinton Smith deal with this point as offered by William Alston in a paper he wrote titled “Why Stephan Hawking's Cosmology Precludes a Creator”. In this article Smith shows how this point cannot be true.

To quote from the article, “[...] if theism is true, the conditions mentioned in the [particular quantum] law are probabilistically irrelevant to the outcome, and the law is false. If the [particular quantum] law is true, then the conditions are probabilistically relevant; but in that case, God cannot intervene since his intervention, being omnipotent, makes any other conditions probabilistically irrelevant.”

paulv said...

I believe I found the essay

But I can't say I understood much of it.

"The moral of this story is that quantum cosmology and classical theism cannot both be true. One has two choices: become an atheist or else argue that science, in the form of quantum cosmology, is false. However, since Copernicus and Galileo, any time that religion has opposed science, religion has lost." He concludes.

I thought that religion lost, on Copernicus and Gallileo (if not initially).

And while science has been wrong before, the real question is how can we be assured that these untestable probabliities confirm the theory. Science cannot even say its best theories are true, only that they have not been proven false.

"the probability that a Hartle-Hawking universe exists follows directly from the natural-mathematical properties of possible finite universes; there is no need for a cause, probabilistic or otherwise, for there to be a 99 percent probability that a Hartle-Hawking universe will exist".

I can imagine many things, and I can assign them probabilities of existance, but no matter how high I assign probabilities of existance, none of them necessarily exists. How can you be sure about the properties of finite universes with a sample size of only one.

I maintain that it is pointless to try to prove the existance or non-existance of gods.

Jon said...

I maintain that the probability of the mythical character Athena being a god is zero.

I maintain that the probability of one of the egyptian pharoes bieng a god is zero.

I maintain that the probability of paulv being a god is zero.

Therefore, proving that gods or God does not exist is not pointless, but a good exercise of the mind and logic that the thourough-going agnostic might not see.

After reading more Atran I find that there is nothing wrong with his methods for middle east peace, but they are not enough. He proposes a sort of RealPolitik for religious communities and their elites that might work for them for given particular situations. He maintains that we change their "popular support" for terrorists and terrorism by addressing religious grievances. That sounds more like what we did to the Chec's and slovac's in WWII for the sake of Pacifying a menace(although he will not admit to this). Also his surgical practical methods do not address the problem at large, nor does it address turning off the fossit in any meaningful way, or at least trying.

If it is possible for the middle east to be more like modern Japan, South Korea, Norway, France, or Hong Kong, then why not try? Would it not be a cop out to just say: "well that's just the way they are and we have to be sensitive to their needs".

paulv said...

I have nothing against maintaining that things that exist are not gods.

Proving that we know all that exists, or that a god with specific characteristics exists I maintain (but do not attempt to prove) is pointless.

On the subject of Quinton Smith, I can't help thinking of a line in the PBS series on string theory, where a physicist says something to the effect "if string theory makes no testable predictions, then it is not science, it is philosophy and no one should believe it".

That Hartle-Hawking universes arise without cause is not really a testable prediction, and as such is not really science (the rest of the theory may still be science). So the choice is really between two philosophies and can be stated more simply as [The theory that universes arise uncaused is incompatible with the theory that they arise caused]. said...

"As far as I know, not a single religious miracle in all of recorded human history satisfies even a single one of these modest, reasonable, and obvious suggestions."

Christianity hit them all except 6, 8,9 and 10. 6,8 and 9 aren't really suggestions just some of your commentary. 10 was missed I agree.

"As the people living in the Iron Age saw it, the world was infused with magical and supernatural events. Their minds and lives must have been overrun with spooks, spirits, supernatural forces, mysteries, and frightening possibilities."

Do you have a source for this belief or are you making this up?