How To Prove a Miracle in Two Easy (and One Impossible) Steps

Catholic outreach website Strange Notions, recently presented the story of a miracle. It asserts that Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Manuel Nevado had stage 3 radiodermetitis which was cancerous and incurable, but within weeks of his obtaining a prayer card related to a sainthood candidate, Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975), the symptoms mostly cleared up.

She was Cloistered.

Ana de los Angeles Monteagudo (1602–1686)

A Rational Basis for Miracles?

The piece suggests that the Catholic process of scrutinizing such claims is rational. It certainly could be, if applied in a thorough and objective fashion, but there is insufficient evidence that this was done in this case.

While I was unconvinced by this story, it led me to think about what evidence I would require to accept that a miracle did occur. I am afraid to say that I do not think any amount of empirical evidence would be convincing. This has to do with my understanding of a miracle requiring “supernatural” causes. I lay out below why I do not think that you can get to establishing a supernatural cause by way of natural evidence and reason. I think you need something other than reason, what I understand theists to call “faith”.

A Framework for Proving Miracles

However,  there are circumstances in which I might accept that a very powerful, even an omnipotent being or beings are affecting our world in unseen ways and that it is reasonable to worship them or it. I just would not call such beings “supernatural”, but here is how to get me there:

1) Establish the empirical facts that lead you to infer a miracle.

2) Clarify the supernatural claim.

3) Rule out natural explanations.

Establish the Empirical Facts

1) There is often difficulty in establishing the physical facts in miracle claims. The best evidence would be to document the event as much as possible before and after. In the case of disease, have an independent medical practitioner asses the condition. Better yet have several. Take pictures, video, perform objective tests to the extent possible. What you want to do is rule our lying, misremembering and so on. You want to be especially careful to establish that the condition is incurable or not subject to spontaneous remission. For example, in the case of Dr Nevado, we would want to make sure that the symptoms on his skin were part of radiodermititis, rather than some other condition with hyperkeratotic plaques and ulcers on the hands.

2) Clarify the Supernatural Claim

This step is up to the claimant, but it would be helpful to know if there any condition precedent to obtaining the miracle? A prayer, a pilgrimage? If so, be as specific as possible so we can try and replicate it later. The idea here is that we want to rule out rare coincidences or anomalies if we can.

3) Exclude Natural Explanations

Step 3 will be the biggest problem for miracle proponents who want to establish a supernatural event as being reasonable. If the conclusion requires an element other than reason, you are making a different claim. Whether you use “faith” or some other term to describe the basis of accepting the claim, if it is more than reason alone, skeptics will rightly ignore it the non-reasonable elemet. We can only scrutinize claims with reason and logic. If we use reason and faith, then any event can be attributed to both physical and supernatural causes. This happens all the time from winning a high school basketball game to successful surgery.

A Best Case Miracle Scenario

So how could I be convinced to worship an omnipotent being? Let us take the case of a miracle claim that is conspicuous by its relative absence: amputees. Let us say that we have documented the case of leg amputee. A team of skeptics including Steven Novella, James Randi, and Penn Gillette observe the man, in person, and videotape the process. The observers and the video relate the leg re-growing at a consistent rate that varies directly to the proximity of a crucifix. Within two hours the leg is back and is functioning fine. Let us say that this experiment is repeated dozens of times and every time it works perfectly. In other words, the physical facts are as well-established as possible.

In this case have we proven a miracle? No. We need to rule out other possibilities. I would agree that such an event would be confounding, but not as confounding as a miracle. We can accept that we do not know how this was accomplished, but the miracle claimant is asserting more than ignorance of the cause. The miracle claimant asserts that he has good reason to believe no natural cause can account for the event.

In our amputee situation, something very, very odd has occurred, and given human biology and the order of nature, it appears physically impossible. There are two possibilities: either something unknown and supernatural caused it, or something unknown and natural caused it.

Likelihood of Supernatural Activity

To prefer an unknown supernatural cause over an unknown natural cause, we would need a method of determining the likelihood of one over the other, and we simply have no way of doing so. There is no mechanism for us to empirically investigate the supernatural. If there were, we would simply call it part of nature.

But have we not ruled out any natural causes? Is there is a way that it could plausibly be a natural situation? Yes there is – that we are in some kind of Matrix-like simulation for one. Such a claim is potentially unfalsifiable, but so is asserting a supernatural cause, the difference is that the supernatural claim involves an unnecessary and confusing extra component: that there are inviolable laws of nature that are not really inviolable. A simulated reality is incredibly outlandish and there may be no proof of it, but if we apply Occam’s razor we should probably accept that we are in the Matrix over any supernatural explanation.

Why I Would Probably Believe Anyway

All of this notwithstanding, this is where I would start to worship. If such a scenario as related above were to occur, given the additional information of historical claims of theism and miracles, I would at least probably accept that even if I was in the Matrix, the designers wanted me to believe and I think I would.

But…!

But we never see anything remotely like this scenario. The claims of miracles are never predictable or repeatable. We have scores of bogus faith-healing accounts (some beliefs in which lead to tragic consequences) and efficacy of  prayer studies that never yield  significant results. We have holy healing sites that don’t even claim to cure more than a statistically insignificant number of pilgrims. The claims are always in the past, often dozens, or even thousands of years ago. The evidence to establish the facts getting us to the unexplained spiritual phenomena are generally anecdote, hearsay or flat out lies.

To be fair to theists claiming miracles can be established by reason, you should know the extent of the case you will need to make. It is a huge task, but it is also a huge claim. At minimum you should take care to establish the empirical facts first, in the most thorough and objective fashion available to you.

The Miracle of Dr Nevado

In the case of Dr Nevado, the claimants did not pass step 1 in my opinion. I did research the case and found a number of troubling elements. The Vatican concluded that he had stage 3 cancerous radiodermitis, but that he had not sought any treatment for this. He says he never “got round” to it. He also said in 1993 that “all the damage caused by the disease disappeared and my hands were perfectly healed, as they are now.” However, nine years later we are told that “[t]here are some remaining marks, but these are merely the scars left by a disease that has been cured.” (Think about why the Holy Spirit would not clear up the marks.) Dr Nevado, who is not a dermatologist but an orthopedic surgeon, self-diagnosed himself. There was no independent diagnosis of the disease before it was “cured”. Although both he and the Vatican were convinced it was cancerous, Dr Nevado never had a biopsy done during the three decades that the disease developed. And yet it was so bad in 1992 (stage 3 means marked atrophy,  gross telangiectasia, total hair loss, but not the ulcers Dr Nevado claimed, these are stage 4) that he sought the intercession of the now long dead Josemaria Escriva  “straight away”. One wonders why he didn’t seek divine intervention in the 1960’s when the symptoms first appeared? I should also mention that the only source of information I have consulted is from the Vatican and the website of Opus Dei, the institution founded by the now canonized saint. I wonder what an independent investigation would show?

So, a man developed ulcers and marks on his skin, and most of this disappeared after someone gave him a prayer card. This is a mundane claim compared to the claim of Dr Albert Mason who managed to seemingly cure a case of congenital ichthyosiform erythrodermia, on an arm covered with what looked like warts, with a few sessions of hypnosis. He photographed and documented it before and after. He could never do it again and how this happened remains a mystery. From what I can tell no one claims this to be a miracle, certainly not Dr Mason.

I would think that the universe-creating deity who has raised the dead and parted the Red Sea, could do better than a hypnotist, and actually remove the scars for Dr Nevado’s hands.

Here are some great videos blogs and podcasts related to this topic:

Radiolab on Placebo and  Mentalism

Counter Apologist on Naturalism, Falsifiability, and Hiddenness

KnownNoMore on The Futility of Religious Apologetics

And just for fun: Penn & Teller on Miracles

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About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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2 Responses to How To Prove a Miracle in Two Easy (and One Impossible) Steps

  1. Nina says:

    And this sort of stuff is where the Catholic Church and I part ways every single time. The worst thing about this particular canonization process is that Escriva was a notoriously abusive, mentally unbalanced figure, and his organization, Opus Dei, has been accused (and found guilty, in some cases) of egregiously coercive recruitment tactics and of abuses within the organization. He happened to be a favorite of JPII, who placed Escriva’s canonization on fast track, loosened the usual requirements for canonization and pretty much made it known he wanted this dude to be canonized. The whole thing stinks from start to finish.

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