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