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On miracles

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on June 2, 2009

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”

As I’ve often mentioned in this blog, philosopher David Hume famously said 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,” setting the bar for believing in miracles properly high.

Unfortunately, many people blatantly ignore Hume’s advice, moving that bar so low that banal coincidences suddenly count as “miracles,” reinforcing their preexisting supernaturalist view of the world. One such instance took place in the q&a session after a nice talk I attended a few days ago at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. The talk was by Lawrence Bush, author of Waiting for God: The Spiritual Reflections of a Reluctant Atheist.

Bush gave an eminently sensible talk, starting out with the common observation of coincidences to which human beings attribute special meaning (a secular version of Carl Jung’s discredited idea of “syncronicity”). As Bush wryly commented at one point, while it is a good idea to pause and reflect on what happens to us in life, it is rather egomaniacal to imagine that the universe is sending us messages (often through catastrophes, personal or affecting others) just so that we can learn from our experiences.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, given the somewhat new-agey flavor of some (but by all means not all!) chapters of the Society for Ethical Culture, the q&a was as irritating as Bush’s talk had been level headed. One questioner in particular related a touching story of his adoptive grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and given six months life expectancy. The grandson reacted constructively to that abysmal prediction, using the remaining time to travel with his grandma to places where she had always wanted to go. Turns out the woman lived three years, which allowed for more travel and what I’m sure are indelibly good memories.

But then the grandson went back to the doctor and pointedly asked: “You said six months, she lived three years. What are the chances of that?” To which the doctor apparently replied with a no-nonsense (if a bit insensitive, assuming things really went that way) “One in seven hundred.” The conclusion of the story is that the questioner asked “What is the difference between 1/700 and a miracle?” strongly implying that his grandmother had of course been the beneficiary of a miracle.

READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY AT “RATIONALLY SPEAKING”


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