For a guy who claims to not care much for labels I've picked up quite a few. I refer to myself, among other things, as a freethinker, an atheist, a metaphysical naturalist . . .

Wait. A meta-who-whatsit?

Metaphysical Naturalist. Metaphysical naturalism, quickly, is the position that the universe began in natural ways and works only in natural ways, ways that we can possibly observe, predict and understand.

There is no reason to think that supernatural realms, entities or events exist.

Metaphysical naturalism: no heavens or hells, no gods or devils — and no miracles.

A miracle is an event that couldn't have happened naturally and is ascribed a supernatural cause or causes.

A miracle then is an event which shouldn't happen in our natural universe.

One of my favorite takes on the concept of miracles is from David Hume (apologies for the long quote):

“The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”

How often do people make mistakes? How often are people deceived? How often do people “stretch the truth”?

Countless times, every day.

How often do dead people (real, honest to…well whatever…dead people), return to life?

Reliably? Not counting George Romero movies? Never.

I think Hume dispensed with miracles pretty effectively. What makes a miracle is its impossibility, and or its incoherence. The fact that miracles are impossible events, and that human mistakes and deceptions are common, everyday events, is pretty damning evidence against miracle claims.

Hume weighs two possible miracles from the same source against each other to see which one is the least likely. I also think it’s worth noting that there are many sources of miracle claims, and this fact points to a problem for all of them.

Different traditions and faith leaders promote specific miracle stories and ignore others. Many who believe that crackers and wine are turned into the “actual” body of a god when a particular functionary performs a specific ritual would be skeptical of the claim that a statue of a god drinks milk. One who believes that a holy man can live for years without eating may balk at the idea that one man fed thousands with just a bit of bread and fish. One can believe that the moon was once split into pieces and not buy the tale of an enlightened one simultaneously emitting flames from one part of his body, water from another, and alternating the pattern.

If one is open to one set of miracle stories, why not be open to other traditions playing fast and loose with nature? Why draw seemingly arbitrary lines?

One claims something impossible happened, and claims it is evidence for a particular supernatural belief. Someone else claims something else impossible happened, and THAT event is evidence for a contrasting supernatural belief. These events may be truly beautiful, life changing things for these individuals, but there is no evidence other than assertion and attribution for either event. If one or the other must be true how do we decide?

I don't think there is a way to look at different miracle traditions objectively and choose one over the other.

I think this all points to a “higher truth:” that there is no reason to buy claims of supernatural happenings. Yes, there are things we don't understand, there will quite possibly always be things we don't understand. That doesn't mean we can fill the unknown with the fantastic.

In light of the sheer lack of natural evidence, and all too common human mistakes and deceptions…

In light of different traditions and different showmen and individuals claiming different achievements and events . . .

I don't think there is justification for belief in miracle stories.

Unless.

Unless we really, really, WANT to? Unless we feel we really NEED to?

We just gotta have faith, right?

That's a different essay.

13 Comments

  1. Well said Greg,
    I think you made a good point about those that experience miracles…we aren’t saying that the person didn’t experience something, just that there is no way for us to reliably believe it happened the way they said.

  2. Love your stuff, Greg.

    I have always had a problem with the prefix “meta.” It could mean a change, alteration, or alternation, beyond, after, behind… This list goes on. Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/metaphysical defines metaphysical as “supernatural.”

    However, in the sense you are using it , as “Metaphysical Naturalist,” the secondary definition is used – “along with,” “the idea of,” or the “concept of.”

    As Metaphysical Naturalists, we have a vision that is different then those who believe in the mythologies – If we witness and it is explainable now, that does not mean it will not be explained, without the use of magic, later. We know that there is a natural reason for everything, we just have to be patient enough to discover the real truth.

    I believe that those who lean on their god or gods to explain the world’s happenings are lacking a sense of critical thinking and listening. Nature and science do call something “right” or “wrong,” but “it is and here is why.”

  3. William R. Dickson

    Right — key word there being “something”. Even if you try and fail to explain what that “something” was, that in no way implies that it is unexplainable — only that it is so far unexplained.

  4. “Yes, there are things we don’t understand, there will quite possibly always be things we don’t understand. That doesn’t mean we can fill the unknown with the fantastic.” <– Best bit of the whole essay IMO. I’ve never quite gotten why it’s so hard to say, “I don’t know,” but so easy to say, “The sentient celestial teapot wants it that way.” Saying, “I don’t know,” leaves you the opportunity to figure out new ways of learning so you can eventually, if all goes well, say, “I now understand.” Making up a theory and clinging to it as fact (or worse, just accepting someone else’s) slams the brakes on discovery and relegates you to just defending your theory.

  5. This all reminds me of the way I explained atheism to a friend once. He was trying to make the common claim that atheism requires a positive belief in the nonexistence of deities, rather than simply the absence of belief in the existence of deities. In explaining the difference between “hard” and “soft” atheism, I said something like:

    At its most basic level, atheism is simply an understanding that not knowing an answer is not a license to make $&!£ up.

  6. Thanks Sam. Yeah, there are frauds and cons out there, but there are also people who sincerely believe something miraculous happened to them or someone else. We can acknowledge that they are sincere and still doubt their reports. Sincerity of belief doesn’t equal evidence for the truth of that belief.

  7. Thanks William R. and Carla for reading and commenting.

    I think you both hit on an important point. Just because humans haven’t discovered the answer to something, doesn’t mean gods win by default. Theologies can squat in the gaps but that doesn’t justify their claims.

  8. Nabihah Maqbool

    Hey Greg, thanks for the piece.

    Just wanted to throw out there that I definitely believe in the existence and occurrence of miracles that exist outside of my faith tradition. For example, Muslims believe that Jesus’s crucifixion and rise from the dead was actually God sending another in his place, and sending Jesus back afterwards. Another example would be holy men in India who go without eating and drinking. Obviously Hindu traditions have an alternative explanation that a Muslim view would, however I don’t deny that this is happening:
    http://blogs.alternet.org/grantlawrence/2010/04/29/scientists-baffled-indian-holy-man-eats-and-drinks-nothing/

    I generally like to look at things objectively and I am a critical thinker, however clearly this phenomena isn’t explained by any scientific mechanisms we have yet. And where you would say don’t make s&% up, I am just leaving this area for the possibility that there is another dimension of reality at play. Where you would call that miraculous thus nonsensical, I think I would call that the current limits of human knowledge. There have always been those limits and I believe there will always be. Obviously this is part of a larger discussion, so I look forward to your next piece.
    (disclaimer, I don’t speak for my faith or people of faith at large, I’m only offering some of my personal thoughts).

  9. William R. Dickson

    There are good reasons to doubt that Prahlad Jani is genuinely going without food and water:

    http://skepdic.com/skeptimedia/skeptimedia90.html

    (Not the least of which is that it’s far more likely that he’s successfully duping people than that he’s defying the laws of physics and biology.)

    Certainly, there are limits to human knowledge. It may well be that there will always be such limits. What we mean by “don’t make $&!£ up” is that when we encounter such limits, we don’t leap to supernatural explanations or theories about other dimensions of reality. Instead, we accept that we don’t yet understand what’s going on, and revisit the question later when somebody thinks of a new hypothesis and ways to test it. That last part is important: if there’s no way to test the hypothesis to support or falsify it, then it isn’t useful and doesn’t explain anything.

    “Gods of the gaps” are ultimately doomed, because the gaps keep shrinking and becoming fewer in number.

  10. William R. Dickson

    I’ll go ahead and deny that the fakir is living without food and water. In the past, this trick has repeatedly been revealed to involve some very clever tricks for sneaking food and water to the fakir. And this one in particular, if you google around a bit, has a strange tendency to insist upon always using the same hospital and same team of doctors for his tests.

    It seems far more plausible to me that he is successfully duping people than that he is doing what he claims.

    Certainly, there are limits to human knowledge — and there probably always will be. The question is whether when, upon encountering those limits, you say: “Well, we don’t understand this; let’s keep trying, even though it may take lifetimes or we may even never figure it out.”

    Or you say: “Well, we don’t understand this; it must be supernatural/otherdimensional/bigfoot/fairies.”

    Can we definitively rule out the supernatural/otherdimensional/bigfoot/fairies hypotheses? No, but we can’t confirm them, either, so they’re not really fruitful avenues of investigation. It seems more productive to pursue the possibilities that we CAN test, and not resort to the supernatural explanations until all natural explanations have been exhausted. Which will take a very, very, very long time, since over the centuries, we’ll think up more possible natural explanations to test.

  11. Thanks Nabihah for reading and commenting.

    I’ll echo William that there is some heavy skepticism of the studies of Prahlad Jani. Here’s a piece at the Guardian by Sanal Edamaruku, a tireless Indian skeptic, who, incidentally left India just last year in the face of Catholic efforts to have him imprisoned for “hurting religious sentiment” (he exposed a “miracle” of a dripping statue):

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/may/18/prahlad-jani-india-sunshine

    If a miracle is explained, and doesn’t turn out to be a trick, then the explanation will most likely be, like every provable explanation we have so far, a natural explanation. The explanation may even involve some process we hadn’t observed before or a process we hadn’t seen work in a particular manner.

    As you pointed out, there are also multiple interpretations. We can pile logically possible, supernatural explanations on an event ad infinitum, and be no closer to what might’ve actually happened. Each supernatural interpretation will be just as (in)valid and meaningful as the next.

    Finally, like you I only speak for myself, and since you’ll be reading I’ll try to make my next piece worth it. :)

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