I'm going through old emails today (I have some really old ones) and just came across a not-so-ancient message from November 2021 that a woman sent me after reading a post I'd written about miracles.
The miracle story she shared struck me as so strangely wonderful, it deserved to be made into a blog post. The person who sent it to me called it a boring story, but I heartily disagree. Her story was so honestly told, I didn't find it boring at all.
My wife is hyper-conscious of matching colors, so even though Laurel is an atheist, I can easily see her becoming a believer in Goddess if She were to perform a miracle along the line described below.
I had a sort of insignificant and measureable (but significant to me) miracle. It is a boring and wordy story be forewarned.
Lululemon came out with the perfect workout top design, which is their most copied design (but poorly copied). But this design was discontinued by Lululemon loooong long ago and are unavailable. It's the only top I'm almost perfectly comfortable in and hugged in smoothly all over. Their materials are superb. It is expensive but lasts probably 10+ years if one avoids destroying the 4 way elasticity in high heat drying.
So I bought one or two used ones on ebay since they are very pricey even there, used. Oh LULULEMON has a HUGE used market.
So I'm super invested in this top. I found it several years ago in wine-red straps/trim and overall it is that color but blended ("heather"ed).
On the back there is a small section which is very fine net and it is a lighter unpleasant red, I was sad that it wasn't that deeper red, but ....particularly when I saw someone ELSE with the exact top at my fitness club and that back net section in their top is the deepest cool-toned purpley red.
It just killed me that that top looks so beautifully restful in that color in the back and my top seems garish in the light red on that small back section.
This went on probably for many months of me irking about my top, and more so when that lovely woman would come to my class and my eyes would follow that section of her top, how beautiful it looks, and I'm like why oh why oh why oh why is my top not that deep calm beautiful dark cool color, instead of the garish red color in that section.
Sometimes we"d wear our tops on the same day.
One day after many many months of agonizing about the garish red section in contrast with the rest of the top, I put that top on and the back section was now that deep darker restful tone, the part which used to be the garish red area. I kid you not.
Magically the garish red disappeared in the back and it was a darker cool toned purpley red. I have never told anyone this. Who'd care? Or believe it.
That material couldn't accidentally "get dyed" without the blended parts being affected. It is really hard to dye that kind of material at all. Nothing could have accidentally bled into that section that deep of a color and stayed, contained to that area. I also never mentioned this longing to anyone.
It's a small thing and probably didn't change the course of anything except made me VERY happy. Maybe that's why that miracle could happen. It is concealed and relatively insignificant. It was a shock. Maybe also because that implies someone hears all my inner whining.
For quite a while I've been interested in Bayesian reasoning/statistics, even though I've never understood this subject very well.
Now I'm reading Steven Pinker's new book, "Rationality." It has a chapter on Beliefs and Evidence that focuses on Bayesian reasoning. Which is, basically (this is an introduction to an online tutorial):
Bayes' rule or Bayes' theorem is the law of probability governing the strength of evidence -- the rule saying how much to revise our probabilities (change our minds) when we learn a new fact or observe new evidence.
"Prior probability" in the Bayesian perspective is our credence in an idea before looking at the evidence for something. "Posterior probability" is our credence in an idea after we've examined the evidence.
How this is calculated is kind of complex. But even without knowing anything more about Bayesian reasoning, the following excerpt from the Beliefs and Evidence chapter should be mostly understandable, with the exception of the paragraph in parentheses, which is quite technical.
Pinker explains why believing in miracles doesn't make sense.
Our neglect of base rates is a special case of our neglect of priors: the vital, albeit more nebulous, concept of how much credence we should give a hypothesis before we look at the evidence.
Now, believing in something before you look at the evidence may seem like the epitome of irrationality. Isn't that what we disdain as prejudice, bias, dogma, orthodoxy, preconceived notions? But prior credence is simply the fallible knowledge accumulated from all our experience in the past.
Indeed, the posterior probability from one round of looking at evidence can supply the prior probability for the next round, a cycle called Bayesian updating.
It's simply the mindset of someone who wasn't born yesterday. For fallible knowers in a chancy world, justified belief cannot be equated with the last fact you came across.
As Francis Crick liked to say, "Any theory that can account for all the facts is wrong, because some of the facts are wrong." This is why it is reasonable to be skeptical of claims for miracles, astrology, homeopathy, telepathy, and other paranormal phenomena, even when some eyewitness or laboratory study claims to show it.
Why isn't that dogmatic and pigheaded?
The reasons were laid out by that hero of reason, David Hume. Hume and Bayes were contemporaries, and though neither read the other, word of the other's ideas may have passed between them through a mutual colleague, and Hume's famous argument against miracles is thoroughly Bayesian.
Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or country.
In other words, miracles such as resurrection must be given a low prior probability. Here is the zinger:
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 endeavors to establish.
In Bayesian terms, we are interested in the posterior probability that miracles exist, given the testimony. Let's contrast it with the posterior probability that no miracles exist given the testimony.
(In Bayesian reasoning, it's often handy to look at the odds, that is, the ratio of the credence of a hypothesis to the credence of the alternative, because it spares us the tedium of calculating the marginal probability of the data in the denominator, which is the same for both posteriors and conveniently cancels out.)
The "fact which it endeavors to establish" is the miracle, with its low prior, dragging down the posterior. The testimony "of such a kind" is the likelihood of the data given the miracle, and it's "falsehood" is the likelihood of the data given no miracle: the possibility that the witness lied, misperceived, misremembered, embellished, or passed along a tale tale he heard from someone else.
Given everything we know about human behavior, that's far from miraculous! Which is to say, its likelihood is higher than the prior probability of a miracle.
That moderately high likelihood boosts the posterior probability of no miracle, and lowers the overall odds of a miracle compared to no miracle.
Another way of putting it is this: Which is more likely -- that the laws of the universe as we understand them are false, or that some guy got something wrong?
After thirty-five years of believing in weird mystical stuff, I've become a naturalist.
I'm still open to the possibility that there's more to reality than what's evident in the natural world, but lacking solid evidence of that possibility, my bet is that it doesn't exist.
Yet in no way do I feel a diminishment of cosmic awe. There's plenty to be amazed at without imagining a realm beyond the physical.
A story by Kathryn Schulz in the April 5, 2021 issue of The New Yorker provides a good example of this. My mind was blown by "Where the Wild Things Go: How animals navigate the world."
(The online version has a different title.)
Consider how we humans would look upon a member of our species who could do what a rock lobster is capable of.
You can cover a rock lobster’s eyes, put it in an opaque container filled with seawater from its native environment, line the container with magnets suspended from strings so they swing in all directions, put the container in a truck, drive the truck in circles on the way to a boat, steer the boat in circles on the way to a distant location, drop the lobster back in the water, and—voilà—it will strike off confidently in the direction of home.
Scientists have done these things to rock lobsters in order to eliminate the most obvious mechanisms a lobster could use to navigate, such as using the earth's magnetic field to track its location.
We'd be amazed if a person could do what a rock lobster does, as the New Yorker story says in the next paragraph.
Needless to say, you and I cannot do this. If you blindfold human subjects, take them on a disorienting bus ride, let them off in a field, remove the blindfolds, and ask them to head back toward where they started, they will promptly wander off in all directions. If you forgo the bus and the blindfolds, ask them to walk across a field toward a target, and then conceal the target after they start moving, they will stray off course in approximately eight seconds.
Of course, humans also are capable of amazing navigation feats. But we've done this largely through learning, not instinct.
The Polynesians were able to move from island to island in vast reaches of the south Pacific through careful observation of currents, clouds, birds, and such, then pass on that knowledge to another generation.
Some animals also learn from members of their species -- geese learn a migration route from their elders -- but much of animal navigation is based on talents we're mostly clueless about.
Cats, bats, elephant seals, red-tailed hawks, wildebeests, gypsy moths, cuttlefish, slime mold, emperor penguins: to one degree or another, every animal on earth knows how to navigate—and, to one degree or another, scientists remain perplexed by how they do so.
Yet even though what animals are capable of seems miraculous, no reputable scientist claims that animals possess some supernatural power. We don't know how they navigate, but almost certainly some day we will.
So in the realm of animal navigation there's agreement that natural causes are producing amazing effects. Why would the mystery of human consciousness be any different? Just because something is astonishing doesn't mean it stems from a supernatural source.
More generally, the astonishment is that any physiology can contain a navigational system capable of such journeys. A bird that migrates over long distances must maintain its trajectory by day and by night, in every kind of weather, often with no landmarks in sight.
If its travels take more than a few days, it must compensate for the fact that virtually everything it could use to stay oriented will change, from the elevation of the sun to the length of the day and the constellations overhead at night.
Most bewildering of all, it must know where it is going—even the first time, when it has never been there before—and it must know where that destination lies compared with its current position.
Other species making other journeys face additional difficulties: how to navigate entirely underground, or how to navigate beneath the waters of a vast and seemingly undifferentiated ocean.
The New Yorker story describes various mechanisms animals use to find their way around. I don't want to give the impression that scientists are clueless about how animal navigation works.
My point is that astounding capabilities require careful research to understand what is going on. This applies to exceptional human feats, whether mental or physical. There's a huge amount to learn about the natural world.
None of that learning needs to be based on supernatural fantasies.
We humans love to believe in strange stuff. We're the only animal, most likely, with the ability to conjure up stories about what doesn't physically exist.
Sure, my dog does seem to dream, moving her paws and making noises while asleep, but I strongly suspect her mind is fantasizing about chasing a squirrel or cat, not about God, heaven, angels, or some other supernatural entity.
Because religious stories are so deeply embedded in human culture, it's difficult for believers to find a detached vantage point to assess claims of miracles, extrasensory perception, mystical visions, and such in an objective manner.
This has been evident in comments on three previous blog posts about Faqir Chand, an Indian guru who ended up being deeply skeptical of gurus.
This blog has been fortunate, though, to have David C. Lane leaving his own comments on those posts. Lane had a lot of contact with Faqir Chand before Chand's death in 1981. He also is responsible for books about Chand's life and teachings being published, in line with Lane's academic interest in gurus.
Way back in my college days, 1968 probably, I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead because I was a philosophically-inclined imbiber of psychedelics: LSD, mescaline, psilocybin. Once I took mescaline with a guy who said he had seen a Clear Light while high, but was afraid to enter into it.
In his essay, Lane does a good job of using the Tibetan Book of the Dead to help explain key aspects of what Faqir Chand came to believe near the end of his life, which was an evolution from his earlier acceptance of traditional Sant Mat/Radha Soami mystical teachings. Lane writes:
What strikes the reader almost immediately after reading both the Bardo Thotrol and The Unknowing Sage is the remarkable similarity between both texts.
Whereas the Bardo Thotrol is written mostly in second person and third person, listing instructions for the departing soul, The Unknowing Sage is in first person, presenting the reader with Faqir Chand's frank autobiographical admissions about his meditative life.
Yet, in both texts the respective philosophies coincide: 1) the illusory nature of religious visions; 2) the limitations of knowledge, both rational and transmundane; and 3) the principle that the ego/self/soul is the real cause of man's unenlightened state.
Chand lost interest in inner sights and sounds after he realized that these can't be the ultimate truth that he searched for his entire life, yet failed to find.
Why? Not for me to say, but my impression is that in line with Buddhist teachings, Chand realized that behind every perception is a perceiver. Until one knows the knower, so to speak, all knowledge is open to question. Lane writes:
Thus, it was through a series of remarkable events that Faqir began to question the authenticity of his inner visions. Instead of accepting whatever appeared to him during his voyages out of the body Faqir doubted them and attempted to find the source from which all such visions arise.
Faqir's adventures began to dovetail at this point with the underlying philosophy of the Bardo Thotrol: "That all phenomena are transitory, are illusionary, are unreal, and non-existent save in the sangsaric mind perceiving them. . . That in reality there are no such beings anywhere as gods, or demons, or spirits, or sentient creatures -- all alike being phenomena dependent upon a cause. . . That this cause is a yearning or a thirsting after sensation, after the unstable sangsaric existence."
Eventually, Faqir dismissed his visionary encounters as nothing but subtle obstructions of maya. It was at this point that Faqir's meditation took a new turn: instead of enjoying the bliss of inner sights and sounds, Faqir turned his attention to the source from which these manifestations arose. And in so doing, Faqir no longer became attracted to visions of Krishna, Rama, or even his guru, Shiv Brat Lal.
The placebo effect helps to explain what is going on with inner visions, supposed miracles, and other phenomena so beloved by believers in mysticism.
We know that pharmaceutical drugs and medical procedures have physical effects. It also is well known that placebos lacking direct physical effects also can lead to bodily changes. This shows the power of the mind/brain -- which isn't all that surprising, since the mind is the brain in action, and the brain is a physical entity, along with the rest of the body.
So arguably religions and mystic philosophies are akin to placebos. Gurus, God, holy people, incarnations, and so on are the "sugar pills" that believers wrongly believe possess supernatural powers.
Their effects on people don't stem from religion/mysticism being objectively true, but rather on the fact that people believe they are true. This seems to be in line with most of Faqir Chand's observations about miracles, which David Lane has shared in a recent document.
Someone tells a doctor, "The medicine worked." The doctor replies, "Yes, but that was an illusion. The pills you took were a placebo. Your own mind is responsible for the positive effects you got from the pills." But in the spheres of religion and mysticism, few leaders have the courage or discernment to tell people that it's all in their own mind.
However, Faqir Chand did. In fact, he went even further. Not only did Chand reveal that inner visions were the result of a devotee's faith and desires, he apparently came to a Buddhist-like conclusion that the self which has those visions also is an illusion.
Thus Chand evolved into a "clear light" perspective described by Lane in this fashion:
What exactly this emptiness or luminosity is cannot, by definition, be described. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead the emphasis is on recognizing one's true nature, that which is no-thing in particular but rather the field in which all things arise -- itself being visionless, though producing visions; itself being structureless, though exhibiting structure; itself being non-existent, though producing existence. The clear void light is absolutely paradoxical, since the "I" cannot grasp it, nor can the mind by its subject/object dualism conceive it.
This is at odds with the traditional Radha Soami philosophy that Faqir Chand had earlier espoused, which led to him being seen as a heretic by those who believed in the inherent reality of mystic visions.
Thus Faqir, following his Tibetan counterparts, eschewed even the pure light and sound which was beyond form, and attached himself to no-thing, allowing himself, as he so astutely put it, to "hang on the gallows."
But in so doing, Faqir broke with Radhasoami tradition, which advocates surat shabd yoga (lit., "uniting the soul with the divine inner sound"), and eventually became regarded as a "heretic."
Near the end of his life, Faqir grew closer to the philosophical principles of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana, as outlined in the Bardo Thotrol. Indeed, if one were only to look at his later writings, one would come away with the impression that Faqir came from a lineage of Tibetan lamas.
Getting back to miracles, almost certainly they don't exist. But this doesn't take away from the everyday "miracle" of existence. We are. The world is. That's miracle enough for me -- and also for David Hume. See the first part of this video:
Sometimes people claim even crazier shit than, “OJ is innocent.” What could possibly be crazier than that?
Fucking miracles. Occasionally someone insists that somewhere, for some period of time, the laws of nature stopped working and something absolutely batshit insane happened, like the sun danced in the sky or a bro rose from the dead, and he expects you to take him at his word.
“No, seriously, bro, I swear. It fucking happened. I saw it!” as if you don’t have the right to be incredulous at such a fucking outlandish claim. And then he gets pissed off at you for not believing him - “How could you know? You weren’t there! You didn’t see it!”
So then you have to put on the patient gloves and kindly explain why he should get the fuck out of your face. “Okay dipshit, look. There’s a ton of shit I haven’t seen. In fact, there’s a ton of shit *no one* has seen, like a man coming back from the dead. So you’ll excuse me if I look for alternate causes when everyone in the world has, for thousands of years, reported with just about 100% accuracy - ‘dead people: still fucking dead’ and then suddenly you claim that maybe a hundred of you saw something different.”
After all, I only know that everyone everywhere has stayed dead because we all agree that’s true. I only know the sun doesn’t fucking dance because I’ve seen it do the exact same thing every day of my life: not fucking dance. So has every single person in the world.
It’s like we’ve repeated this experiment billions of times, and now you’re telling me that one bro saw something different? It’s you against every single person in history. Is it possible you were deceived or mistaken? Doesn’t that seem more likely? The evidence doesn’t look good, champ.
But what if it’s true? What if it really did happen? What would it take to render a miracle probable?
Look, I’m all about the possibility that the future won’t be exactly like the past - I’ve built my entire career on the idea - but again, it doesn’t look good. So far, no miracle has even close to enough people testifying for it, much less trustworthy people.
You say a hundred people witnessed the miracle? Funny how that miracle would entirely confirm the religious beliefs of all hundred of them - what a strange coincidence!
Besides, people want to be fooled. They love believing in the supernatural, in shit that seems impossible. Maybe it’s not a miracle that Jesus appeared in your ham sandwich - maybe it’s just that, given all the ham sandwiches made in history, one of them was bound to look sort of like a guy in flowing robes with long hair eventually.
Some people refuse to accept reason and leave their superstitions behind, but that doesn’t mean I should have to believe their bullshit.
We are still, in the twenty-first century, grappling with issues that are at least two and a half millennia old... Disbelief in the supernatural is as old as the hills.
...Too often religious practice is imagined to be the regular state of affairs, needing no explanation, whereas any kind of deviation is seen as weird and remarkable.
This view underpins the modernist mythology: the post-Enlightenment West is seen as exceptional, completely unlike anything else that has preceded it and unlike anything elsewhere in the world.
...Religious universalism -- the idea that belief in gods is the default setting for human beings -- is everywhere in the modern world.
...The notion that a human is an essentially religious being, however, is no more cogent that the notion that apples are essentially red.
...And indeed it is true enough that many apples are tinctured with red. But it would be ludicrous to see a Golden Delicious as less than "appley" just because it is pure green.
Yet this is in effect what we do to atheists in acquiescing to the modernist mythology: we treat them as human beings who are not somehow complete in their humanity, even though they are genetically indistinct from their peers.
...It is not strange or exceptional to adopt a skeptical approach toward the supernatural: anyone in any culture at any time can do so.
...If religious belief is treated as deep and ancient and disbelief as recent, then atheism can readily be dismissed as faddish and inconsequential. Perhaps, even, the persecution of atheists can be seen as a less serious problem than the persecution of religious minorities.
The deep history of atheism is then in part a human rights issue: it is about recognizing atheists as real people deserving of respect, tolerance, and the opportunity to live their lives unmolested.
...This book thus represents a kind of archaeology of religious skepticism. It is in part an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium [harsh criticism or censure].
The introduction contains a story about Diogenes, who died in 323 BCE. Most people just know that he walked around with a lantern in daylight looking for an honest man. Or, a human, depending on the translation.
But there's a lot more to Diogenes. Whitmarsh writes:
It does not require a post-Enlightenment mentality to come up with the idea that miraculous stories of divine salvation are open to suspicion. Miracles, by their very nature, test the limits of plausibility. Greeks could see that just as well as Evans-Pritchard's Azande.
There is a comparable story told of Diogenes the Cynic, Greek philosophy's most subversive wit.
It is said that while another man was marveling at a series of temple dedications put up by survivors of sea storms, Diogenes retorted that there would have been many more if the nonsurvivors had also left dedications.
The one-liner's subtext is that "miraculous" experiences have nothing to do with divine intervention and the power of prayer and everything to do with the normal laws of statistical probability. Like Apistos (before his dream), Diogenes disbelieves the miracle stories.
Indeed, Diogenes's central point is in effect the same as mine: that officially sanctioned religious records only tell you when worship seems to work and excise all evidence to the contrary.
Giving up religiosity doesn't happen all at once. At least, not in my case. I wasn't able to go cold turkey, so to speak, and give up my addiction to unfounded faith-based beliefs all at once.
They just have gradually lessened, weakened, become much less powerful.
Yet in subtler forms, my previous attachment to feeling that I'm being watched over by an all-knowing, all-loving transcendental presence still is evident from time to time.
Like, last Thursday.
It was a potentially traumatic day for me. After having my hair cut by the same person for 37 years, Betsy departed for central Oregon. But she gave me the name of a replacement hair cutter.
Who I'd phoned and made an appointment with for Thursday at 1:30. There it was, in my Mac's calendar: September 25, 1:30 pm.
Nervous about how my precious hair would fare in the hands of another woman, I left home early enough to arrive at the salon a few minutes early -- wanting to ease into this brave new world of haircutting after more than a third of a century in Betsy's comforting realm.
Only to be met with a "Um, did you have an appointment? I can fit you in, but I had you down for tomorrow."
Oops. Somebody had screwed up. I didn't think it was me. It was possible, though. After this awkward beginning, I felt OK as we got into the business of trimming.
She and I agreed on how much to take off (half an inch). I appreciated her comment, "You have nice hair." For someone my age, at least.
But then she looked out the window and said, "Just a second. I was going to have lunch with my mother. She just drove up. I need to run outside and tell her we'll do it another day." That made me feel sort of guilty, since I might have been the one who screwed up on the appointment time.
However, when she got back to trimming my hair, I was told "Actually it's no big deal. I see my mother all the time. And I learned that tomorrow my father is coming to town. It's good that I'm cutting your hair today."
Driving away after my haircut, I mulled over what had just transpired.
Was it a good thing or a bad thing that I'd showed up at the salon on a day my haircutter hadn't expected? What did this mean? Could it be a sign that I should stick with getting my hair cut by her? Or maybe I should take my wife's advice and try the woman who takes care of her hair, in part because I wouldn't have to drive as far?
Then another thought popped up.
Subconsciously I'd been assuming that the "universe has a message for me" thing was valid.
Meaning, there was some meaning to these hair-cutting events beyond how I felt about them, some sort of hidden purpose that could be discerned if I was perceptive enough to understand "what the universe was trying to say."
Naturally I didn't think that God or some other divine entity was the source of this hidden purpose. Hey, I'm churchless!
I really, really, doubt this is true
Still, I could tell that a lingering telelogical leaning was still present in my psyche. I was looking for an end, a reason, an overriding explanation for my arriving at the salon on an expected (for my haircutter) day.
Realizing this, my mind then shifted gears.
Stuff just happens, I reminded myself. What happened todaydoesn't mean anything more than the meaning I ascribe to it. At that moment, I felt a weight depart from my wondering mind.
There's no need to try to figure out what the universe is telling me. The universe isn't saying anything to me. There's no cosmic message here, no meaning-puzzle to be assembled, no secret code to be deciphered.
I don't see "stuff happens" as negative. Rather, it is an affirmation of reality and the mystery that looms when we try to understand its depths (notwithstanding how the most famous popularizer of that phrase used it).
I'm not sure why what has already happened to me, did. I'm not sure why what lies in the future for me, will be. I'm not sure why this present moment, is.
The chains of causes and effects -- including what appears to be randomness -- linked to even the simplest event are breathtakingly beyond the complete comprehension of even the smartest people in the world, or the most advanced computers.
Stuff happens. Then other stuff happens. Until we die. That's beautiful!
Here's an amazing sign of the supernatural that happened to me recently. Except, it wasn't really amazing. Or, supernatural. Just seemed like it could be.
Four days before I'd contacted the yard maintenance company that episodically helps us out with chores we need to do in our non-easy care garden. When I didn't hear back from them after a few days, I phoned again.
The woman who answered my call said she'd send another email to the maintenance supervisor, Chris. But two days later I still hadn't been contacted by Chris.
So I looked up his email address on the company's web site. I'd just started composing a message to him. All I'd done so far was put "Chris" in the address line. Then the phone rang. Instantly I thought, "I bet that's Chris."
Amazingly, it was. He phoned me at almost exactly the same moment I'd decided to email him.
Most, if not all, people have had experiences like this. Thinking of someone just before they phone, text, email, or whatever. Visualizing something happening, and then it does. Running into someone you know from your home town half a world away.
David J. Hand, a statistician, explains this stuff away in his fascinating book, "The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day."
Here's the Amazon description:
In The Improbability Principle, the renowned statistician David J. Hand argues that extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month.
But Hand is no believer in superstitions, prophecies, or the paranormal. His definition of “miracle” is thoroughly rational. No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need, Hand argues, is a firm grounding in a powerful set of laws: the laws of inevitability, of truly large numbers, of selection, of the probability lever, and of near enough.
Together, these constitute Hand’s groundbreaking Improbability Principle. And together, they explain why we should not be so surprised to bump into a friend in a foreign country, or to come across the same unfamiliar word four times in one day.
Hand wrestles with seemingly less explicable questions as well: what the Bible and Shakespeare have in common, why financial crashes are par for the course, and why lightning does strike the same place (and the same person) twice. Along the way, he teaches us how to use the Improbability Principle in our own lives—including how to cash in at a casino and how to recognize when a medicine is truly effective.
An irresistible adventure into the laws behind “chance” moments and a trusty guide for understanding the world and universe we live in, The Improbability Principle will transform how you think about serendipity and luck, whether it’s in the world of business and finance or you’re merely sitting in your backyard, tossing a ball into the air and wondering where it will land.
In my case, it didn't really require great mathematical insights to understand why my email message to Chris and his phone call to me coincided so precisely.
This happened on Friday morning. I'd been thinking that I wanted to get the garden maintenance issue settled before the weekend. Chris likely had the same idea. He may have been going through his list of unanswered emails at about the same time I was pondering my day's to-do list.
Yes, it felt strange to pick up the phone and hear "Hi, this is Chris" after I'd just started to write an email message to him. However, since I'd been reading The Improbability Principle, this didn't strike me as anything miraculous or other-worldly.
Hand points out that countless combinations of this and that are experienced by each person every day. Most of these events don't grab our attention. For example, every time someone unexpectedly phones or sends an email message.
it is only when we have a thought of that person just before a communication arrives that we have a sense of Wow! This is miraculous!
Many supposed miracles, of course, are outright frauds. But the rest are the result of what Hand calls the Improbability Principle. A key part of this principle is the law of truly large numbers, explained by Hand here.
One of the key strands of the principle is the law of truly large numbers. This law says that given enough opportunities, we should expect a specified event to happen, no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity.
Sometimes, though, when there are really many opportunities, it can look as if there are only relatively few. This misperception leads us to grossly underestimate the probability of an event: we think something is incredibly unlikely, when it's actually very likely, perhaps almost certain.
How can a huge number of opportunities occur without people realizing they are there? The law of combinations, a related strand of the Improbability Principle, points the way. It says: the number of combinations of interacting elements increases exponentially with the number of elements. The “birthday problem” is a well-known example.
The birthday problem poses the following question: How many people must be in a room to make it more likely than not that two of them share the same birthday?
The answer is just 23. If there are 23 or more people in the room, then it's more likely than not that two will have the same birthday.
Hand goes on to explain why. This relates to a tragic story in my home town, Salem, Oregon.
In West Salem five young people were diagnosed with the same rare form of cancer. Understandably, there was an outcry for public health authorities to look for environmental factors that could have caused this seeming cluster of cases.
Greenlick, D-Portland, said the lack of a known cause for the cases shouldn’t stall the investigation.
“They’ve just sort of thrown up their hands because of that. I would like them to continue trying to puzzle this thing out,” Greenlick said. “I just don’t think that cluster could have happened by chance.”
Well, it could have. Just like so many purported miracles and other supposedly inexplicable events. We mistake improbable for impossible. Further, we fail to understand how our conceptions about probability are also mistaken.
Below I'll share a comment that I left on the above-mentioned newspaper story.
Here's two email messages that I got from a woman who practices Kriya Yoga and has had some pretty amazing yogic experiences. Yet she considers that the experiences are entirely based on the body/brain.
The book referred to in the first message is Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi." Way back when (early 70's probably) I read the book and marveled at the far-out descriptions of mystical goings-on.
Yes, unfortunately, a lot of people believed what Yogananda experienced was true. This is what helped build the organization he founded in California... The Self Realization Fellowship which later was incorporated as a church for tax purposes. I read part of the book when I was in my 20"s; now I'm 52 (an old gal). Back then I believed what was written.
About a year and a half ago I picked up the book and starting reading some of it and had to close the book realizing how it resembled a fantasy story (Lord of The Rings came to mind for some reason). Oh yes, I believe he did experience visions as this is what the practice of kriya yoga meditation will do. However, I think his religious fanaticism and devotion to a being called God, which does not exist, set the stage for these far out experiences.
My experiences with kriya yoga had me seeing golden light, wheels of light in red, yellow, orange, blue and violet (Oh yeah, gotta love this one, my guru says these are the chakras coming into view, keep placing OM at each chakra with the upward breath as we need to cleanse the chakras).
Then later on in the practice I kept seeing a full white moon, after that came the bursting forth of many suns while practicing yoni mudra. Which after a while my guru told me it was showing me how creation forms, a bursting forth of energy and light.
Anyway, with this practice I have found no god entity, no existence of heaven or hell and certainly no soul or spirit residing in the human body. Only matter, energy, and consciousness in other words, body, and brain.
Paramahansa Yogananda proclaimed to have come to the West to spread the teachings of an ancient yogic science called Kriya Yoga. In Chapter 26 of his book "Autobiography Of A Yogi" entitled "The Science Of Kriya Yoga" 3rd paragraph it is written:
Kriya Yoga is a simple psychophysiological method whereby, the blood is decarbonated and recharged with oxygen. Atoms of this extra oxygen are transmitted into life current to rejuvenate the brain and spinal centers. By stopping the accumulation of venous blood the yogi is able to lessen or prevent the decay of tissues. The advanced yogi transmutes his cells into energy. He then goes on to state Elijah, Jesus, Kabir, and other prophets used kriya or some similar method to cause their bodies to materialize and dematerialize at will.
Sound far fetched? You bet!
I am initiated into kriya yoga and have been practicing this tantric meditation technique for a while now. With this method one is instructed on where and how to locate the 7 chakras which in reality are the lumbar points in the spine. The 7th chakra is not part of the spine as it is the crown/ top of the head. The kriyaban is instructed in various mudras and in pranayama. Many of which come from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Such as the correct asana for practicing kriya meditation, kechari, the mahamudra, shambhavi mudra.
The practice of kriya yoga pranayam, whereby one draws the breath upwards mentally touching each of the chakras (spinal centers) then resting in the kumbhaka state produced visions of wheels of light in red, yellow, orange, blue, and violet. These I was told by my guru are the chakras coming into view. Keep placing OM at each chakra as we need to cleanse the karmic seeds from our chakra database. (Okaaay,)
Then suddenly, one day my entire head was flooded with a golden light and the internal sounds of Omkar resounded within. Such peace, joy and bliss. I was sure I had found the god within! Turns out it was all brought about by the practice of pranayama. Breath and mind are linked!
Next came all the sensations of energy (prana) moving up and down the spine. The body would gently sway like the motion of a pendulum on a clock. The spine felt like it was tingling and vibrating. I saw a pure white orb like the full moon on several occasions. Wow! such a great spiritual vision, so I thought. Then came the bursting forth of many suns while practicing yoni mudra.
According to my guru, this mudra was showing me creation, the bursting forth of energy and light even though this mudra is manipulated by the one practicing it. One takes a deep inhalation, retains it, thumbs close the ears, index fingers cover closed eyelids, middle fingers close the nostrils while the ring fingers and pinkies are placed at the corners of the mouth.
To sum up everything, all the visions are just a product of practicing pranayama (breathing technique). The energy flows of prana are also produced by practicing pranayama. Breath and mind are definitely linked. Nothing mystical.
The sense that all is one or everything is one also arises from doing this practice. However, the feeling of being one with everything is impermanent.
Synchronicity. I don't believe in it as something supernatural or miraculous. Just as an interesting phenomenon which has a natural explanation. Still...
I enjoyed the connection between a book I started reading this morning, and a new video from David Lane, a.k.a. neuralsurfer, I came across a few minutes later via a Lane Facebook post. Common theme: brain-produced hallucinations which can seem absolutely real to the person hallucinating.
The book is Oliver Sacks' "Hallucinations." Sacks is a professor of neurology who writes books about ways the brain produces unusual experiences.
Here's some of what I learned in the first few pages:
It is not always easy to discern where the boundary lies between hallucinations, misperception, and illusion. But generally, hallucinations are defined as percepts arising in the absence of any external reality -- seeing things or hearing things that are not there.
Perceptions are, to some degree, shareable -- you and I can agree that there is a tree; but if I say, "I see a tree there," and you see nothing of the sort, you will regard my "tree" as a hallucination, something concocted by my brain, or mind, and imperceptible to you or anyone else.
To the hallucinator, though, hallucinations seem very real; they can mimic perception in every respect, starting with the way they are projected into the external world.
...Hallucinations have always had an important place in our mental lives and in our culture. Indeed, one must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.
...Do "ecstatic" seizures, such as Dostoevsky had, play a part in generating our sense of the divine? Do out-of-body experiences allow the feeling that one can be disembodied? Does the substanceless of hallucinations encourage a belief in ghosts and spirits?
After putting down the book I watched Lane's "The Illusion of Certainty," a short 5:38 video about Faqir Chand. He was an Indian guru who realized how devotees' miraculous visions were produced by themselves, projections of their own desires and expectations.
Well-done, David Lane. I like the title.
Certainty is a subject I've blogged about a lot. Evolution/natural selection favors those who aren't paralyzed with indecision when confronted with, say, a tiger about to leap on them. Bursting into action by feeling certain about what to do, even if the decision isn't optimal, is better than remaining actionless.
And soon after, killed.
But it also is necessary to be in touch with reality. Hallucinating things that aren't there, or failing to see things that are there, also isn't conducive to staying alive. Or living productively.
However, hallucinations of supposed supernatural phenomena often can co-exist with someone living a more or less outwardly normal life. If someone's vision of a guru, heaven, angels, God, Jesus, or some other spiritual entity doesn't interfere with necessary practical actions and thoughts, then he/she can believe wrongly that reality has been augmented, rather than diminished.
The video makes a strong neuroscientific point: expectations and prior experiences have a big influence on perceptions.
My wife and I hate the brownish California ground squirrels which have migrated north and made Oregon their home. They dig destructive tunnels and can kill plantings with their chewing. But we like the native gray squirrels. Sometimes they can be hard to tell apart.
If we've been having problems with ground squirrels, often I'll look out the window and think "Damn! A ground squirrel is sitting on that rock!" However, a closer look reveals the truth: it's a lighter colored gray squirrel with its tail hidden (tails of the two species are quite different).
What I see is affected by my past experience and current expectations. Same goes for visions, hallucinations, illusions. If a religious devotee desperately wants to see God, guru, or whoever, his or her mind may oblige with a subjective perception that feels absolutely real.
Feeling certain about the objective reality of an experience is by no means a guarantee that what was experienced exists outside an individual's mind/brain. This is why demonstrable evidence or confirmation by other sources is so important to truth-seekers.
Sorry Peaceseeker, if you want proof of the RSSB miracles all you have to do is do a Google search, it's funny how there is positive news about RSSB on Google but Brian doesn't incorporate it on here. But when there is false news about RSSB he's quick along with the other bloggers to incorporate it here.
G, please share the proof of RSSB miracles. Gosh, if there was demonstrable proof of ANY miracles in the world -- Christian, Buddhist, RSSB, whatever -- you'd think this would be front page news.
But this hasn't happened. So let us know about this proof, which somehow has gone unnoticed by everybody but you. Enlighten us.
Remember what I noted in last night's post: anecdotal evidence isn't persuasive proof. People can say anything about anything. Doesn't mean it is true.
The human brain is capable of massive feats of self-deception. That's why objective evidence is needed: to protect against self-delusion, tricks of the mind.
What I said is so obvious, it doesn't seem like it needs to be said.
However, actually it does, because religiosity blinds people to what they would be able to see clearly, if they didn't have a wall of dogma standing between them and reality. I know, because I used to be one of those who stare at a mental wall and believe there is nothing on the other side.
Truth should be our goal, not blind belief.
Believing in miracles, or God, or any other supernatural phenomenon without good reason/evidence means that we're more interested in the subjective products of our own mind than in the Big Wide World of objective reality that exists beyond our personal notions about it.
This is the beauty of science and the scientific method: it is the best way to become egoless. We can't get away with merely self-centeredly saying "I know...." A scientific way of looking at the world challenges us to say "This is the way things are, because...."
In other words, we are pushed to see reality as it is, not as how we want it to be, or prefer it to be.
Since God usually is considered by religious people to be the highest truth in the cosmos, blind belief in miracles is insulting to any God which might actually exist. Assuming something to be true without excellent evidence to back the assumption up means we aren't really interested in truth.
We're interested in embracing our own beloved unproven assumption, not reality, not the highest truth. We've deified an emanation of our own mind, a desire to believe in something, rather than what truly exists.
Sacrilege! Which is why skeptics are the true devotees of a God that they doubt exists, not those who embrace blind faith.
Skeptics love truth more than the comfort of a reassuring feeling. "Jesus rose from the dead, just as I will." "The guru is all powerful, capable of saving my soul." Ideas such as these comfort believers. But science knows that reality exists beyond the bounds of what we humans find comfortable.
Big claims demand big evidence, big proof.
Miracles are a big claim. So is God. To accept miniscule evidence as proof of a big claim is demeaning to it, an insult. We should respect objective truth more, and our personal ideas less.
(For more along this line, check out my previous post about the burden of proof.)
Late last night, while changing channels on our TV, I happened across a midnight mass that was being broadcast on ABC. After watching for a few minutes my wife and I were struck by how really weird the church service was.
Understand: it wasn't any weirder than any other religious form of worship. I'll give the Catholic priest credit for talking calmly and quietly, unlike more fervent evangelical preachers.
But what he was talking about seemed exceedingly strange to our rational, reasonable, evidence-loving psyches. Which was recognized by the priest (bishop, actually, if I recall correctly), because he spoke about how Jesus' birth and all that followed had to be accepted on faith.
He said that God communicated with humanity through a virgin birth. Later, that messenger from God, Jesus, died and came back to life. These miracles were violations of the laws of nature, the definition of a miracle.
Why people believe in such ridiculous notions would be a complete mystery to me if I hadn't once believed in other miraculously ridiculous religious notions myself. We humans love a good story, especially if the ending is a happy one where we're given eternal life, salvation, enlightenment, or some other spiritual goodie.
So I picked up volume 35 of the Great Books of the Western World, a set that I grew up with and inherited when my mother died (the bookcase in her living room was built to match the width of the Great Books).
I'd never read Hume before, though I've heard much praise of him from the guys and gals who frequent Philosophy Talk, a radio program that I listen to regularly. Often someone will say, "Hume is my favorite philosopher."
His section on miracles is terrific, a lot more pleasing than Christmas music to my skeptical ears. David Hume is fearless when it comes to challenging a belief in miracles. That's particularly impressive considering he wrote in the 1700's, when denying God was a pretty damn serious matter.
A few years ago I asked, "Where have all the miracles gone?" I observed that with the advent of modern science, recording devices, and such, suddenly miracles like walking on water, manifesting loaves of bread out of nothing, virgin births, and coming back to life are nowhere to be seen.
Convenient. Hume asked the same question.
It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present.
...It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigiousevents never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enow of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.
Blunt talk. Truthful talk. Miracles are lies. Repeat, lies. People lie. We observe this all the time.
It's a frequent occurrence. Some lies are willful. Others, outside the bounds of conscious awareness. Meaning, we feel like we're telling the truth, but we've been deceived. Perhaps by other people. Perhaps by our own brains, which are prone to making many errors.
So Hume asks whether it makes more sense to believe (1) that a genuine miracle has occurred, something which transcends the laws of nature that are observed to operate with marvelous regularity, or (2) that those testifying about the veracity of the miracle are lying.
Here's Hume's central miracle-demolishing argument. It makes a lot of sense.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
...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: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.”
When any one 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.
Hume starts off by saying that human experience argues against the existence of miracles, because we don't observe them. After all, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, and we live in a world governed by those laws. So by definition, a miracle is extremely unlikely, improbable, miraculous.
In the second paragraph above, Hume shows his understanding of both the scientific method and how people get along in everyday life. Rarely are we absolutely certain that something will happen. Even the sun rising is indeterminate to an infinitesmial degree. Maybe scientists have miscalculated the physics of solar goings-on, and the sun will flash out of existence suddenly. Extremely unlikely, but possible.
So almost always we weigh the evidence for one proposition against contrary evidence. This is what Hume means by a "mutual destruction of arguments." It's kind of like matter interacting with anti-matter: each annihilates the other, until what remains is the more massive, the largest quantity, the most substantial.
How much force remains behind an argument that a miracle is real after opposing arguments are arrayed against it? None at all, says Hume. The only way a miracle could be accepted is if its falsehood would be more miraculous. Again, brilliant.
Which brings us to the third paragraph in the quotations above.
To accept a miracle, like the story of Jesus being resurrected, we'd have to accept that it would be even more improbable, even more unlikely, even more miraculous for early Christian true believers in Jesus' divinity to not stretch the truth, to not lie, to not choose to pass on certain stories of Jesus' life and death rather than stories which would counter the prevailing Godly narrative.
In short, we'd have to accept that it'd be a miracle if humans acted like human beings: deceitful, biased, untrustworthy, mistake-prone. And that, Hume says, would be absurd, because we observe people acting that way all the time.
So when the evidence for and against a miracle is assessed, the balance always weighs heavily against the miracle. Always. After describing some hypothetical miracles supported by considerable seeming evidence, Hume still says:
All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.
In short, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Such has never happened with a miracle. Thus, there is no reason to believe in them. Have faith in miracles, if you like. Just recognize what you're doing: denying reality.
If "God" (however we define that word) is the most real entity in existence, and the creator of this universe, I suspect She isn't happy when people deny reality. This is like supposed lovers of an artist ignoring her works of art.
The genuine lovers of God, if God exists, are those who, like Hume, seek to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of something, choosing to accept as real only that which really exists.
To become a saint in the Catholic Church you've got to manifest at least two miracles. (Only after the person's death -- sainthood now is purely a posthumous possibility in Catholicism, though things were different in the Middle Ages.)
John Paul II is halfway there, as this dead-and-gone Pope has been credited with a cure of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre's Parkinson's disease, which gets him to the beatification level. Failing to investigate many cases of sexual abuse apparently isn't a black mark for a would-be beatified.
Their case is that he failed to confront the abuse scandal, that he squashed the Liberation Theology movement, that he shut off discussion on gender equality and that he did not recognize, as Pope Benedict XVI did recently, that use of condoms can be a moral choice for preventing the transmission of of HIV/AIDS.
Michael Kinsley, who has Parkinson's himself, wrote an excellent analysis of this ridiculous attempt to make a miracle out of a questionable case of medical remission. In "Don't let 'miracles' trump science," he said:
Congratulations to Simon-Pierre. It’s miraculous what a miracle can do. But I could use a miraculous cure for Parkinson’s, too, as could millions of others around the world who have the disease or will develop it.
And the main force preventing such a miracle is the Roman Catholic Church. The most likely source of miraculous cures for all sorts of diseases, with Parkinson’s foremost among them, is stem cell research. The Church opposes stem cell research on the grounds that it uses, and in the process, destroys human embryos.
These are surplus embryos from fertilization clinics that will be destroyed, or permanently frozen, anyway. They are not fetuses; they are clumps of a few dozen cells. But of course, none of this matters if you believe they are human beings.
The famous test of that belief goes something like this: Suppose there was a fire destroying your house and you had the choice of rescuing either a real one-year-old baby or two test tubes, each containing an embryo. Would you really go for the test tubes and let the baby die?
It seems more than a little unfair — not characteristic of John Paul II at all — that he would cure Simon-Pierre but leave the rest of us hanging out to dry. I hope that, in his next miracle, John Paul II will do something to rectify this situation. After all, it might be his last one.
Here's an interesting take on supposed miracles -- which likely actually are a manifestation of what could be called "the law of really large numbers."
Check outDesultory Decussation: Where Littlewood’s Law of Miracles meets Jung’s Synchronicity by David Lane and Andrea Diem Lane.
If there are thousands, nay millions, of events in our lives (measured in transparently fractal ways), then it should be expected that for every 10,000 plus events, there may be two or more events which intersect. Notice that intersection and you will be aware of a meaningful coincidence--the meaning being that two disparate parts have something in common (whatever that intersection may entail).
If enough things happen, some will be "miraculous." That's a given, if a miracle is taken to mean something way out of the ordinary.
Every time somebody wins a gigantic lottery prize, that's a miracle. What are the odds!? Hundreds of millions or more against those numbers being picked.
Yet, some set of numbers necessarily had to be chosen. So the winner feels it was utterly unlikely he or she got the prize, while it was completely predictable that eventually the money would be won by somebody.
In "Folk Numeracy and Middle Land" Michael Shermer discusses our inability to comprehend the laws of large numbers, mistaking them for other-worldly miracles.
Let us define a miracle as an event with million-to-one odds of occurring (intuitively, that seems rare enough to earn the moniker). Let us also assign a number of one bit per second to the data that flow into our senses as we go about our day and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day. We get 43,200 bits of data a day, or 1.296 million a month. Even assuming that 99.999 percent of these bits are totally meaningless (and so we filter them out or forget them entirely), that still leaves 1.3 "miracles" a month, or 15.5 miracles a year.
Thanks to our confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore or discount contradictory evidence, we will remember only those few astonishing coincidences and forget the vast sea of meaningless data.
So it's possible it will rain on Obama's parade tomorrow. But if that happens, it won't be prayer that made it happen. Just a meteorological anomaly.
Praising god, what fun is there in that? But cursing god – or whatever higher power you don't believe in – this has a lot more entertainment value.
Over on the terrific science blog Pharyngula ("Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal"), I ran across a post about a Indian man who volunteered to be put to death by a Tantrik magician.
On live TV, no less.
The laughing fellow on the left is Sanal Edamaruku, president of Rationalist International and atheist. The cranky old man in the robes on the right is Pandit Surinder Sharma, a self-described Tantrik Magician. The scene is in a studio on Indian television, where the magician is trying to kill the atheist with sorcery. Sharma had said he could kill anyone with sympathetic magic inflicted on a doll made of dough, and that he could accomplish this in a mere three minutes … so Edamaruku confidently offered himself as a victim. The old fake went on for hours and failed.
You can watch this display of religious superstition demolished by reality on YouTube. The first attempt to kill Edamaruku is documented in two videos, here and here.
Then Sharma took a crack at plying his black magic at night, when it supposedly would be more effective. The result was the same.
A laughing Edamaruku. That's what I enjoyed the most about this show. The skeptic's laughter.
So many people are infected with a fear of god. Or of guru. Or of some other metaphysical power that they believe can raise you up or cast you down as it likes.
The best response to this nonsense is bring it on. I curse god a lot, along with the guru who initiated me thirty-seven years ago. Both have ignored me, so I figure they deserve more than a little profanity.
Try it yourself. It's liberating. Whatever religious entity, person, symbol, or such you used to have the highest regard for (or maybe still do), curse it to the limit.
Now, I suppose it could be argued that this negative attention to religiosity reflects a lingering belief. I don't go around cursing leprechauns, because I've never had any faith in them.
But I think it's healthy, and an interesting experiment in self-awareness, to see what happens when you call a previously revered divinity every obscene name in your vocabulary. If you feel any hesitation or anxiety, some belief is still mixed in with your faithlessness.
When my computer acts up, and I call it a fucking piece of shit, I don't worry that it's going to bite me back.
However, the first few times I said this to my long-dead guru, the thought came: What if this pisses him offand he really does have godlike powers?
Well, I'm still here. Just like Edamaruku.
I figure that if the supposed divinities I curse (sometimes I cast obscenities at Jesus, God, and Allah also) don't like how I'm talking to them, they can damn well make an appearance in my consciousness and tell me off in person.
So far nobody's showed up. Guess they're either pansies or non-existent.
I enjoyed the comments on the Pharyngula post. Here's some of my favorites (#15, #21, #27, #41).
If a thousand magicians tried this a thousand times each, and in a single demonstration the target suffered a sudden heart attack, this would become the event many declare to be proof that the magic works. Much like prayer really.
Wow - apparently I have this amazingly strong force called "atheism" protecting me, and I don't even have to worship it. All I have to do is NOT believe in any god at all. I feel powerful! The tide is turning...
This is true, you know - Sanal was protected by something, even though it isn't really a god and Sanal doesn't really worship it. I call it "reality".
We can all do the same, and I have a number of times. When a believer is assaulting my ear hole with the supposed power of god to bring down lightning bolts from the heavens on unbelievers, or some other load of bull, I've called on their god to do exactly that, right now, within that specific minute. And I stand there waiting smiling. Amazingly, they step back like they actually expect something to happen. Of course, nothing happens. I remind them that dying 20 years from now of a natural death does not count. Since it's demonstrated their god has no actual power when nothing happens, all they can do is bleat "blasphemy".
Magic is so, well, magical. We see, but we can't believe our eyes. A rabbit comes out of a hat. But I saw the hat was empty! And nothing could have been put into it!
Yet there's the rabbit, coming out of the hat. Go figure.
Which most of us can't, because magic tricks usually are closely guarded secrets – from non-magicians, at least.
Adam Gopnik wrote a fascinating piece for The New Yorker, "The Real Work," about the practice and philosophy of magic (the full story doesn't appear to be available online, just an abstract).
About all an outsider may say is that the surprising thing about most magical methods is not how ingeniously complex they are but how extremely stupid they are – stupid, that is, in the sense of being completely obvious once you grasp them.
…We will ourselves both to overlook the obvious chicanery and to overrate the apparent obstacles. Or we imagine that an elaborate bit of trickery couldn't be achieved by stupidly obvious means. People participate in their own illusions.
That is why a magician's technique must be invisible; if it became visible, we would be insulted by its obviousness. Magic is possible because magicians are smart. And what they're smart about is mainly how dumb we are, how limited in vision, how narrow in imagination, how resourceless in conjecture, how routinized in our theories of the world, how deadened to possibility.
Now, this may sound like the definition of a guru, someone who opens us up to a broader conception of reality, breaking down the barriers between mundane materiality and magical mystery.
However, few people (if any) believe that a magician is doing something truly magical. They know there's a trick involved. The magic lies in the invisibility of the magician's craft, much of which is founded on imperfection.
…the Too Perfect theory says, basically, that any trick that simply astounds will give itself away…What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician's ability to suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them perfect, and none of them quite obvious.
…At the heart of the Too Perfect theory is the insight that magic works best when the illusions it creates are open-ended enough to invite the viewer into a credibly imperfect world. Magic is the dramatization of explanation more than it is the engineering of effects.
In every art, the Too Perfect theory helps explain why people are more convinced by an imperfect, "distressed" illusion than by a perfectly realized one…The magician teaches us that romance lies in an unstable contest of minds that leaves us knowing it's a trick but not which one it is, and being impressed by the other person's ability to let the trickery go on.
Frauds master our minds; magicians, like poets and lovers, engage them in a permanent maze of possibilities.
When you talk to people who have deep faith in a guru, which described me at one time, they won't admit that the guru is a magician. Rather, he or she is considered to be a miracle worker – someone who genuinely possesses supernatural powers.
Yet these powers are never displayed. At least, not in a fashion that would allow them to be scientifically assessed.
So the magician and the guru end up sharing the ambiguity spoken of above that keeps the onlooker enthralled. Illusion or reality? Fake or true? What's really going on here?
Disciples usually don't consciously think this way, of course. They're enthralled with the show, which, depending on how you look at it, consists either of spiritual sleight of hand or a display of genuine mystic realization.
I've been to India twice, in 1977 and 1998. Each time I saw an impressive presentation of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas guru. You have to see it to believe it. That's also the nature of magic.
During my first visit, I attended a bhandara (spiritual gathering) of maybe a hundred thousand people – I have no idea how many. (Some details are in my "God's here, but I've got to go" post.)
There's nothing like this in the West. A papal appearance doesn't come close to the fervent devotional atmosphere. Most Indians look upon the guru as god. Imagine Jesus giving a sermon in person to a gigantic throng of Christian believers, and you've got some idea of what a bhandara is like.
The energy is electric. The mystic magic palpable.
Yet here's the thing: with a skilled magician of the usual sort, the audience is led to believe that no trick is being performed, because the actions of the magician are so natural. Gopnik writes about a card trick:
The story, as usually told, emphasizes Vernon's search for "naturalness," for methods of card manipulation that would look entirely real, even under scrutiny. The deeper meaning of the myth, though, is that the magician is one of the few true artists left on earth, for whom the mastery of technique means more than anything that might be gained by it. He center-deals but makes no money – doesn't even win prestige points – because nobody knows he's doing it.
…We could watch Horowitz's fingers on the keyboard as we listened to the music; if we could admire Vernon's fingers on the deck as he did the trick, he wouldn't be doing it right.
But with a guru, the audience is being treated to a form of anti-magic. Onlookers are led to believe that a spiritual trick is being performed even though none is in evidence.
It's like an old joke that I remember from my high school days.
"Want to see a trick?" "Sure." "OK." (pause) "Want to see it again?" "You didn't do anything!" "So you think…want to see the trick again?"
On the school bus this got a laugh (the first couple of dozen times we told the joke to each other, at least). When people unreservedly embrace a guru's anti-magic, though, it isn't so funny, because the consequences of excessive guru worship can be serious.
Before class started yesterday, a Tai Chi friend (Eric) and I were talking about miracles. Christian miracles, specifically, but a miracle is a miracle.
Well, more accurately: no miracles are no miracles. Because we mused about the fact that they sure are in short supply these days.
Where's the walking on water, the resurrection of the dead, the mysterious manifestation of bread loaves?
Conveniently, with the arrival of modern science – including video cameras, medical monitors, and other hard to fool objective instrumentation – miracles have taken a leave of absence. Religious types would say, "On God's command."
I say, "Bullshit. People can't get away with miraculous claims anymore in this appropriately skeptical secular world, so they rarely try."
And it's not just Christianity that lacks miracles. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, every religion on Earth is suffering through a down market in the miraculous commodity market.
I mentioned to Eric that Sai Baba, a modern Indian holy man, is notorious for faking the production of supposedly sacred ash. Sai Baba is a con artist, but he still has lots of followers.
What's surprising, I said, is that people are content with such a picayune miracle. Why doesn't Sai Baba manifest piles of flawless diamonds, rather than worthless ash?
Because he's a sleight of hand artist (and not a very good one), rather than a miracle worker.
Which should be much in evidence, because the RSSB guru is considered to be God in human form, like Jesus. And everyone knows that God can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants.
Not the guru, though, because "Kal" (a secondary god who rules the lower regions of the cosmos) got the Big Guy God to grant him some favors – as I recall the dogma, by standing on one leg (who knew that gods had legs) for millions of years.
One of the favors was that saintly gurus couldn't perform miracles. If they could, this would depopulate Kal's realm, because everybody would be attracted to these holy men (sorry ladies, saints are almost universally male), learn how to gain God's favor, and never be reborn again in the material world.
So supposedly this is why gurus, though godly, don't reveal any miraculous powers. They aren't permitted to by this agreement between God and Kal (a.k.a. the "negative power").
Another convenient agreement is between disciples and the guru. Initiates aren't supposed to reveal their inner experiences, miraculous or otherwise. This means that it's impossible to know if someone has experienced an inward "miracle," because the recipient of such is duty bound to say, "Can't say."
The end result is that RSSB miracles (1) can't be performed, and (2) even if they could be, they can't be revealed.
Fortunately for Jesus, the authors of the Gospels, and Christianity, these rules weren't in effect in the Holy Land a couple of thousand years ago. God only instituted them recently.
Again, just when science made it possible to rigorously test miraculous events. To repeat:
Almost every time I write something like “There’s no proof of anything beyond the physical” I get challenged by believers in ESP, astral projection, life after death, or other supernatural phenomena.
That’s fine. I love challenges. If I wanted to have everything that I say accepted without question, I wouldn’t be a blogger. Nor would I have been married for thirty-five years.
But here’s the thing: when I say “proof” I mean proof. The real deal. Scientific confirmation. Controlled studies. Replicated studies worthy of being published in a major journal. Proof that makes skeptics into believers.
The James Randi Educational Foundation has a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. Yes, a million bucks awaits anyone “who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.”
So if you know someone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability, or if you can do this yourself, check out the application procedure. And remember me if you win the prize. Sending 5% my way would be a nice thank-you for cluing you in to the Challenge.
I promise that I’ll put a personalized plate on the convertible Mini that I’ll buy with my share: ESPTRU, or whatever you want.
Now, I realize there are lots of supposed scientific studies that claim evidence of the supernatural. A Church of the Churchless comment led me to the “Science is a method, not a position” blog, where I dutifully clicked away on links that purport to shed light on the blind spots of reductionist materialism.
I wanted to find the proof that I’m looking for. After all, I’m made of matter. And I’m not wild about the prospect of being reduced to nothing when I die. So any evidence to the contrary is going to grab my attention.
Unfortunately, I came away empty-handed, my skepticism still intact. I read about the dog who seems to know when his owner is coming home. I’d seen this feat demonstrated on a TV special and it certainly raises questions. But answers? No.
Ditto with this study of telephone telepathy, also by Rupert Sheldrake. There was a 1 in 20 chance that the results were a statistical fluke. Without replication by independent researchers, telepathy remains highly questionable.
One of Randi’s FAQs is “Scientific papers have been written supporting paranormal events and talents. Therefore, how can you deny them?” His answer:
Scientists can be wrong — sometimes, very wrong. The history of science is replete with serious errors of judgment, bad research, faked results, and simple mistakes, made by scientists in every field. The beauty of science is that it corrects itself by its own nature and design. By this means, science provides us with increasingly clearer views of how the world works. Unfortunately, though science itself is self-correcting, sometimes the scientists involved do not correct themselves. And there is not a single example of a scientific discovery in the field of parapsychology that has been independently replicated. That makes parapsychology absolutely unique in the world of science.
Some say that scientists aren’t willing to even consider evidence for paranormal phenomena. That doesn’t make sense. Scientists are driven by a desire for fame and fortune just like other people. To make a discovery that turns the world upside down—as would solid proof of the supernatural—that’s the dream of most scientists.
Carl Sagan said that one of the most important functions in science is to reward those who disprove our most closely held beliefs. Randi is taking this function literally. A million dollars literally.
There’s no excuse for not taking the Randi Challenge. Claus Larsen has come up with an answer to the most common excuses, such as “I don’t do this for personal gain.” Like he says, you can always give away the million dollars to a worthy cause.
Recently a couple of people have asked me, “What’s wrong with believing?” after listening to one of my rants about the power and glory of Faithlessness. It’s a question that is akin to the more basic query: “What’s wrong with feeling good?”
Because religious belief does make many people feel better. Yesterday on a cable news channel I saw an interview with a female doctor about the power of prayer. She said that she had a patient who now was almost totally paralyzed.
He told her that prayer and a belief in God’s goodness—that there was a divine reason or plan for what had happened to him—was sustaining him. Seemingly you can’t argue with that. Whatever works. The interviewer said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Except, there are. No doubt about it. Here’s an example of a man who refused to pray even when he had to wait helplessly outside the operating room where his wife had to undergo a C-section after complications arose.
It’s a good story. He ends with this:
As for all those religious folks out there sitting in their own foxholes, they would do well to reconsider their prayerful ways. After all, if their nightly prayers to God were really effective, they would never have ended up sitting in foxholes in the first place.
I’m not an atheist. I identify more with the terms “agnostic,” “uncertain,” “open minded.” I discussed my attitude toward religious belief in “What’s wrong with faith?” But basically I’m in accord with the non-prayerful atheist, who says:
Searching desperately for comfort, I tried to think of what other people would do to calm themselves down. It occurred to me that most people in my situation would pray. Could it work for me? Was my stubborn atheism placing my wife and child at risk? What did I have to lose?
At this point, I wasn't above trying anything that had a reasonable chance of working. Nonetheless, after considering the possibility of prayer for a few minutes, I realized that praying wouldn't help anything.
What would have happened if I had decided to believe in God just so that I could have someone to pray to? I would have placed myself in the position of praising an entity which has the power to help everyone in need but only gives such help when it is promised loyalty and obedience in return.
Even then I wouldn't have any guarantees because, as even the most fanatical Christians believe, sometimes the answer to a prayer is "no." I wasn't about to place the lives of my wife and son under the power of an all-powerful deity who is nonetheless inconsistent and stingy.
Besides, I still didn't believe in God. If I was sure that God didn't exist, then prayer would be nothing but talking to myself, asking an imaginary entity to influence events in a way that just isn't possible. I knew that the natural laws of the universe work without regard to the personal problems of individual humans. Praying really hard couldn't change the course of the cesarean section any more than it could keep the sun from rising.
Psychologically, I realized that dependence upon prayer would lead down the path to insanity. If I believed that reality could be changed just by my wishes for it to change, then the concept of reality would cease to have any real meaning to me. A reality which follows the whims of my imagination would become nothing but a hallucination. What I needed was to exert control over my anxious imagination, not to surrender to it.
Right on, brother. Religious belief or faith is almost always individualistic. That’s a paradox, considering that humility and loss of ego usually is considered to be a religious virtue. It’s self-centered to believe that a God, guru, angel, Buddha, or whoever is going to bestow upon us the blessing of a miracle that isn’t available to all.
We are special. Divinity cares more about us than others. These beliefs underlie every intercessionary prayer. For if we merely wanted God to give us what is natural, normal, lawful, and regular, we’d merely say “thy will be done” (which, in my opinion, is the best prayer—if you feel the need to pray at all).
It’s better to let reality trump belief. Focus on what is happening, not in what you hope will happen. Focus on what you can change about reality, not on what you hope a higher being will change.
I continue to think about whether I even want a personal relationship with “God” (leaving that term suitably vague and undefined, per my churchless bent).
As I observed recently, the idea that God is right by my side, watching everything that I do, is creepy and voyeuristic, similar to fears about what the Department of Homeland Security might become, except a lot more omnipresent and omniscient.
Omnipotent too. Because most conceptions of a personal God presume that He/She/It can intervene in the affairs of the person with whom God has a personal relationship.
This makes sense. How can you have a relationship without relating? Give and take, back and forth, talking and listening, doing and being done to. You can have a pseudo-relationship with a pet rock, but all the relating is on one side. The rock just sits there, passive and inert.
Most people aren’t attracted to the idea of a stone-cold God. They like the feeling that God is walking by their side, supporting them through good times and bad times, stepping in to offer a helping hand when the situation (or prayer) demands.
On the face of it, that sounds good. And some Eastern and most Western theologies affirm that it is true. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are, by and large, entirely comfortable with the notion of a God who inserts himself into human affairs on both an individual and societal level.
And so are certain Eastern mystical faiths, such as Sant Mat, as I observed in my previous post. Much like Christianity, these faiths usually posit that a transcendental divine being exists (the “father”) who becomes embodied in a human form (the “son”). The embodiment of God, such as Jesus or a guru, has many of the powers of God—including the ability to jump into people’s lives/minds and change things around.
However, there is a competing conception of how divinity interfaces with the world that also has had, and continues to have, many adherents in both the East and West. This is a universal and impersonal metaphysics. Or, perhaps stating the case more accurately, a not-particular and not-personal metaphysics.
Not this, not that. Such is the manner of speaking of the via negativa, the way of approaching “God” that leaves divinity mysterious, ineffable, beyond purely human understanding. Since there remains a gap between what God really is, and what we can know about God with our intellect and senses, the idea of divinity coming down to our level doesn’t mesh with what we might call the way of mystery.
This way teaches that the universe is governed by universal forces that appear impersonal. Karma, in Eastern thought. Providence, in Western (Greek) thought. The cosmos is connected. Unity prevails. Life is fair. Destiny is deserved. What goes around comes around. All this happens naturally, without any need for God or a guru to step in and make wrong things right.
I don’t know which way of looking at the world is correct. But clearly the second “God is universal” hypothesis is much more in tune with modern science than the first “God is personal” hypothesis. For the laws of nature have been found to be remarkably, well, lawful. You don’t find gravity deciding, “I think I’ll take a break and let that car soar into space.”
Yet many people believe that God does just that: deciding to intervene in their lives and make something happen that otherwise wouldn’t. On cable news today I heard President Bush intoning something like, “And we pray that our troops in Iraq will be kept safe.”
A nice thought, on the face of it. Who could object to God keeping American troops safe? However, what this means, when you delve beneath the prayerful platitude, is that Bush wants God to assure that American soldiers will be successful in killing Iraqi insurgents without being killed in return.
The insurgents, of course, are praying to God for the same thing in reverse: for them to be successful in killing Americans while they remain safe. If there is a personal God who answers prayers of this sort, one or the other side in the Iraqi conflict is going to incur excess deaths because of a divine decree.
That doesn’t sound very Godly to me. For sure, this isn’t a God that I feel like worshipping—a God who plays favorites in choosing who will live and who will die. And even if this sort of God is just a fiction in the minds of true believers, belief in such a being leads to a destructive and divisive “God is on my side” mentality.
Happy National Day of Prayer. In honor of this day I invite everyone to pray for a worthy cause: me. To make things easy for you I’ve written out the prayer, complete with annotations:
“Almighty _______ [fill in name of your chosen higher power], I beseech you to grant the unselfish desire of Brian Hines, who lives on Lake Drive in Salem, Oregon [this is needed to direct the prayer away from the other undeserving Brian Hines’ in the world, and also to make sure my desire is delivered to the right place].
“Please place a supercharged Mini Cooper, racing green with the sunroof, in his driveway as he has been beseeching you for so long [well, just a bit over two years, but the prayer has more pathos with ‘for so long’].
“Brian’s desire is unselfish because this car will bring him so much joy, it [joy, if the higher power asks what this admittedly grammatically imprecise pronoun refers to] will flow out behind his speeding wheels everywhere he journeys, raising the spirits of all who glimpse the Mini Cooper blur. I thank you in advance for your grace and remain your humble servant,_______ [fill in your name if you want to be sure the higher power knows who is praying].”
Given my evident self-interest in the question, “Does prayer really work?,” I’m hoping that the answer is a hardy “Yes!” However, it appears the evidence is mixed, at best. Hector Avalos has written a thoughtful article, “Can Science Prove That Prayer Works?,” which makes me skeptical that the Mini Cooper is going to show up.
The tone at what purports to be “the annual National Day of Prayer official website” is, not surprisingly, a lot more upbeat. I browsed around for some reassurance that the Almighty answers prayers for supercharged Mini Coopers, but couldn’t find any. Disturbingly, the suggested areas for prayer today have nothing to do with my primary prayerful interests. Namely, my own happiness (in general) and the car that will make me happy (in particular).
Instead, people are asked to (1) Pray for the President, (2) Pray for journalists to be fair and balanced in their reporting, (3) Pray for students as they get ready for summer vacations, (4) Pray for churches and their support of their communities, and (5) Pray for families seeking to raise their children well.
At first glance this is a rather strange conglomeration of things to pray for, but a closer reading of the suggested prayers page reveals a unifying dogmatic Christian right philosophy. For example, in the Education area, it isn’t really a nice summer vacation that is the goal of prayer.
Rather, the problem is that “Many of our schools and universities are minimizing traditional subjects such as history and math, and are instead promoting a radical social agenda. Condom distribution, the promotion of homosexuality and a refusal to acknowledge God have become commonplace in our institutions of learning today.”
OK. This is a free country (for now, at least). Pray away for whatever you want to (though remember that a Mini Cooper for Brian Hines is the highest and greatest object of prayer). The big question, though, is who or what is on the other end of the prayer line.
Assuming such a connection even exists. I’ve got an open mind, since evidence for what physicists term “non-locality” is indisputable on the quantum level. Somehow the universe is one while also being many. Though no one knows the mechanism by which prayer might have an effect on objects or people, there may be a universal power underlying thoughts that awaits discovery by science.
Harold Koenig, a physician who, like Larry Dossey. studies the effects of spirituality on health and well-being, says that “the question is whether human intentions, within or outside meditation, have any effect on another person. Do good or bad intentions have non-local effects?” (see two interesting essays about prayer experiments by he and Dossey here).
Koenig goes on to say:
So, I think it would be a lot clearer—from both scientific and theological point—if we simply call such studies experiments of human intention, and not confuse things by calling them “intercessory” prayer. Intercessory prayer suggests that you are interceding before someone else on behalf of another person, and the Western concept of God (on which interceding before a personal God has meaning) does not hold up well under such controlled experiments. Thus, to keep things clean, I think we ought to focus on whether human intention or Eastern meditative prayer has any non-local effects, and just leave a personal God out of it.
Good advice. It’s interesting that, by and large, Eastern thought considers that human intention or desire is the problem, not the solution. For karma is the result of action, and actions flow from intentions. Karma is what keeps us bound to illusion, a lower domain of physical existence.
Who knows? Western prayer researchers may end up finding that their experiments confirm the reality of the law of karma, not a personal Judeo-Christian God who responds to prayers. Intentions expressed in prayers might have the same non-local effect as any other sort of thoughts or actions: a karmic connection. Whereas the thoughts of a single individual may have minimal effects indiscernible via a controlled experiment, perhaps the prayers of many people can affect the course of events—health-wise or otherwise.
I’m much more inclined to entertain the hypothesis that a universal karmic law is operating in the cosmos than is the whim of a personal divine being. If such is the case, then intercessionary prayer will turn out to be one of the countless means by which we members of Homo sapiens are kept ignorant of ultimate reality. For so long as we egotistically act as if we’re the center of the universe around which all else revolves, we won’t be such in humble reality.
That said, it won’t hurt you to add a little bit more karma to the massive pile of intentions you’ve already produced. So go ahead and recite the Mini Cooper prayer at the beginning of this post. Recite it frequently and passionately. Recite it with the force of all your heart and mind as if my happiness depends on it, for so it does.
For many people this time of year is a time to celebrate miracles. For Christians, Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection. For Jews, a one day supply of temple lamp oil that burns for eight days. Christians seem to have the edge in the miracle department—birth and death being more dramatic than a burning lamp—but I never fail to wonder, “Where have all the miracles gone?”
Never, ever, not even once, has there been a thoroughly documented miracle worthy of a National Academy of Sciences stamp of approval. Most miracles worthy of their name are reputed to have occurred hundreds of years ago, conveniently before the age of modern science and the methods that now could assess the miraculousness of an event that seems to defy the known laws of nature.
The James Randi Educational Foundation has a long-standing offer of a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. No one, the foundation web site says, has ever passed the preliminary tests for this prize.
Now, it can be argued that only God performs miracles, not humans. So this explains why no man or woman has ever been able to demonstrate a divine power. But many religions and spiritual paths do indeed claim that saints, gurus, mystics, yogis, and the like have the ability to perform miracles. The big question is: Why is there no evidence of this?
The simplest explanation for why documented miracles are non-existent is that they don’t exist. And this includes miracles of yore as well as miracles of today. Which, of course, pretty much demolishes the foundations of Christianity and Judaism. Islam too, for that matter, since Muhammad is held to have miraculously received the message of the Koran directly from God in a trance state.
Myself, I hold to the view that the greatest miracle is that there aren’t any miracles. The cosmos is wonderfully guided by the intelligence of universal laws that are so seamless, there is no capacity for untoward events to happen. This, at least, is a perspective that fits both with the findings of modern science and the teachings of the most enlightened mystic philosophers such as Plotinus.
In my book about Plotinus I say: Isn’t it interesting that miracles are, by nature, so rare and miraculous? Well-documented miracles are few and far between (skeptics would say non-existent). Even purported miracles are so much an exception to the general run of worldly predictability that they receive widespread and avid attention in both holy books and impious tabloids.
If great souls have lived on Earth, and I believe they have, then why hasn’t a miracle been performed that is so grand, so out-of-the-ordinary, so impossible to disregard, that believers and unbelievers alike are left awestruck at this display of other-worldly power?
For example, adding another full-sized moon to the night sky would be the sort of thing that would grab everyone’s attention. Emblazoning a message on the newly-created celestial body—“Believe!”—would be a nice additional touch.
Recently I got an email from my wife’s sister, Dee Pagac, who shares my skepticism about miracles. I liked what she said and will share it below. Yes, unlikely events like the one she describes do happen. But if a “miracle” is a one in a million event, and there are almost three hundred million people in the United States, each of whom experiences many events each day, then daily chance alone guarantees that there will be hundreds of seeming miracles in this country.
Anatole France said, “Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he did not want to sign.” Well, you could also say, “God is perhaps the pseudonym of chance when believers want to forge a miracle.”
Here are Dee’s thoughts on the subject:
“The thing I think is goofy is the belief that there is a god that we can pray to and he can make differences down here on earth. That ‘God’ gets all the credit for the good stuff and none of the blame for the bad stuff.
There was just a front page story last week in the Indianapolis News about a woman who while driving on a main street, felt compelled to turn her car into a trailer court and park behind a white van that turned out to be the one that had killed her son. Her 26 year old son had been killed in a hit and run while bike riding, I think a couple weeks before this.
People had reported seeing a white van or SUV. She said she just felt compelled to drive there and once there called her sister and told her about being there and not knowing why. Her sister came and they looked at the van and saw front damage, called police and it turned out to be the vehicle. The story ended with her saying this was proof there was a god cause it had to be god who led her there. Nice story.
What it made me wonder about, though, was why, if god could make her turn the wheel all the way on to another road and stop in a certain place just so she could get justice for her son, why couldn't he have made the killer turn the wheel just a little to miss the son on the bike or make the son turn the bike just a little to be missed by the van? That sure would have been a lot nicer of him.
If he has the power to save and cure people how does he decide when to do it? If he can talk to televangelists why doesn't he talk to atheists like me who need convincing or even regular religious people who are not becoming millionaires bilking old ladies like the televangelists.
If I were a queen and told people I had control over the life and death of my subjects and I was going to let some die by violent means - would my subjects still like me just because I said I would let them know who did the killing? If I could cure sick or injured people but only would if enough of the others prayed to me a lot - would they love me for that?
Anyway, that is my main question, why do people believe in a ‘God’ like that. To me it just doesn't make any sense.”
To me neither, Dee. Thanks for sharing your ideas.