What’s in a miracle? – A scientific system of canonization

MiracleI recently wrote a summary of the process of becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. Well, now I want to pick up on something that’s been bothering me about it – it’s those miracles.

To head off any objections, I’m not interested in an argument about whether miracles are possible – such debates always get bogged down in semantics and evidence-free speculation. But it might surprise you to know that I think the definition of a miracle is fundamentally a scientific one, albeit with the thoroughly unscientific attitude that if we can’t explain it, we should just stop trying, give it a special name and say Goddidit.

A miracle is an event which cannot be ascribed to human action or the laws of nature. In essence, the supernatural is our best guess, because we don’t have another explanation. Given that it’s an exclusionary definition (what’s left after you’ve eliminated all the other options), the only way of identifying a miracle is by rigorous scientific examination. Every possible hypothesis has to be tested before we resort to the miracle explanation.

But this is a God of the Gaps situation – we’re in danger of worshipping nothing but our own ignorance, as there are possible explanations that we just don’t know about or can’t understand. Even if we were able to test for absolutely anything, these events don’t occur in test conditions, and are reported after the fact.

VisionWhich brings me round to the matter of canonization. Miracles are the currency of this process, but their identification still rests on an inability to explain an event any other way. Whether there’s such a thing as a miracle or not, that’s a sure way of getting a non-trivial number of false positives. But the scientific background of the miracle definition gave me an idea.

Rather than assessing an individual anecdote in an attempt to determine whether there’s any “normal” explanation for the events as described, why not adopt a properly scientific protocol? Just randomly assign people into groups that either pray to the candidate for canonization, or pray to a “placebo saint” or not at all. Then any natural but unexplained “miracles” should occur evenly across both groups, eliminating them as a factor.

I know this will never happen. So do you. Maybe we agree on the reasons, and maybe not. But isn’t it interesting to consider the possibility of putting these claims to a genuinely scientific test? To me, it seems like an obvious way of controlling for our lack of knowledge, but such an approach is anathema to religious thinking.

Maybe that tells us something. Maybe it doesn’t. But the more I think in scientific ways, the more I realise how many ways there are of testing claims that I used to just give up on, leaving them in a pile of unsolvable mysteries. The world’s so much more interesting when every idea is a claim to be tested, instead of a dogma to be accepted or rejected.

Images courtesy of Czarest and fjklein, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “What’s in a miracle? – A scientific system of canonization”

  1. violetwisp says :

    Funny you should say that, there’s a great post about that links to a few scientific studies specifically about the effectiveness of prayer. No ‘miracles’ were found …
    http://robertnielsen21.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/whats-the-point-of-prayer/

  2. Neil Rickert says :

    Growing up, I saw miracles as strong support for Christianity. Yet, with my growing interest in science, I found the miracles to be a puzzle because some of them seemed impossible.

    If miracles only occurred during the life of Jesus, perhaps that would be a sign. But the evidence seemed to suggest that miracles were actually quite common, and they only became rare with the growth of science and the tendency of scientists to investigate miracles to see if they are actually natural events.

    That kind of thinking has led to my current view. I see a miracle as a surprising and unexpected event which does not have an immediately obvious explanation. However, it is likely that there is quite mundane explanation to be found.

    Some examples:

    If a person, say 2000 years ago, chewed willow bark, and their headache went away, they would call that a miracle. We would see it as due to the natural aspirin in the willow bark.

    When someone’s cancer goes into remission, that is often seen as a miracle. Remission is certainly unexpected and surprising. Yet it is something that occurs with some frequency.

    A person who had a near miss of a traffic accident might say that it is a miracle that he was not killed.

    If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, that would be a miracle — especially since I do not purchase lottery tickets. Yet someone could by a lottery ticket in my name, and that could happen to win.

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    Yep, miracles are usually just giving up and saying “Goddoneit”. And I don’t mind saying “Wow, can’t understand that or explain it with my present science knowledge.” without adding Goddoneit. I agree

  4. Sabio Lantz says :

    Ooops, forgot to follow, sorry.

  5. Barbara Backer-Gray says :

    God of the Gaps, I love it! And worshipping our own ignorance. Well put.

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