Saturday, August 08, 2009

"New Scientist" opinion piece on Miracles

New Scientist has an opinion piece on miracles by Hugh McLachlan. It is a bit strange as it either states the obvious or provide examples that do not make the case. You can read the full article here, but let me just focus on the second half - when he explicitly brings up science:

Dawkins, however, does. In The God Delusion, he asks: "Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth? Whether or not there is enough surviving evidence to decide it, this is still a strictly scientific question with a definite answer in principle: yes or no."

I think there is a lot of truth here. Even so, what Dawkins says does not completely settle the matter, far less settle it in favour of atheism. Suppose the correct answer is: no, Jesus did not have a human father. This would no more establish the truth of religion than the opposite falsifies it. If Jesus was born of a virgin, it does not follow that a law of nature was violated. To say "if A, then B" is not to say that there will be a B only if there is an A.

But if a central claim of the religion is that Jesus did not have a human father and it turns out he did - doesn't it undermine this particular religion? Am I missing something here? Yes, there are ways around it - such as a metaphorical interpretation, etc. But then the fuzziness comes in at the nature of the claim rather than what we actually find.

But wait. He gives a follow-up example:
For instance, human clones could be born of virgins - without violating a universal law. In the Humean sense of a violation of a law of nature, virgin births and the examples of "miracles" that Dawkins gives are not, if they occurred, necessarily violations of natural laws. They are uncommon, possibly astonishing, but as Hume himself said when he was defending suicide, all that occurs is natural, whether or not it occurs frequently.
Well...that is true. But I'm sure Dawkins will not be surprised today from virgin births via various reproductive techniques. The question is of a virgin birth 2000 years ago - without the possibility of these artificial techniques. For example, the news of a person flying at 30,000 feet 2000 years ago would be considered a miracle (i.e. violation of a laws of nature). Just because we have airplanes today that fly routinely at 30,000 feet - without violating any natural laws - doesn't make the ancient claim any more believable (or possible).

Lets move on:
As for the link between believing in God and believing in miracles, people may believe in God without believing in miracles in any sense of the term. Similarly, people may be scientifically minded and yet ask and give answers to non-scientific questions.
Ok...stating the obvious here...

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.

It depends on the context. Sure, it seems that here he is separating out the "how" and the "why" questions. Of course, there is no clash with science as long as the "how" question is in the domain of science. Problems creep in when there are competing "how" answers - and then science has turned out to be far more successful in answering those questions than any other method.

People might accept a scientific account of why a particular event occurred, yet ask similar sorts of questions about why there are particular juxtapositions of occurrences. Much of this speculation and theorising will be baseless, but there seems no justification for saying all such thinking is nonsensical. By analogy: most conspiracy theories are groundless, but not all of them are.

So some people might think of "miracles" as particular juxtapositions of events, each of which has a correct and acceptable scientific explanation. This might be nonsensical, but it would be interesting to discover wherein the nonsense lies. We should be open not only to possible observations and experiences that might dislodge some of our accepted theories but to thoughts and ways of thinking that may challenge our notion of what acceptable theories and explanations can be like.
But of course, this is how science progresses. Scientists don't simply dismiss weird results either as "miracles" or as impossibilities. Instead, they look for explanations within the natural world (for example, the counter-intuitive result of an accelerating universe and dark energy). From this perspective, of course, it is interesting to find where the "nonsense lies". However, look at an alternative case: In the 16th century England, astrology used to predict fires (cities used to have horoscopes), weather, as well as fate of the royal family and of other individuals. The juxtaposition of stars and events has to do with our ability to detect patterns where none exist. This was a way to get an illusion of control in an unpredictable world. Sure, now we know that astrology is total crap. City fires are rare these days and no one looks at stars for weather predictions - because we understand the physics of the atmosphere much better now. But what to do when people still believe in astrology - when they hold off crucial medical procedures because of the position of stars? Should we make an effort to find an alternative set of theories when we already have perfectly valid explanations? When should we finally bring in Occam's razor?

The problem here is that Hugh McLachlan doesn't provide us with any serious examples. It would have been nice to grapple with some cases that have enough complications to give his ideas a serious thought.

Read the full article here.


Atif Khan said...

For many reasons, I find Dawkins questions very valid and logical. It seems delusion is rooted deeply when it comes to people like Hugh McLachlan.

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