I know that miracles occur, because I say so

One thing that's been grinding my gears as I read through True Reason, as well as read some of the responses, is the tired old "there were miracles!" canard.

I remember back in the debate with Sean Carroll and Michael Shermer, Ian Hutchinson literally resorted to the line of 'argument', if you can even call it that, that he had personally witnessed miracles and nobody can disprove that he did. Francis Collins gave us the same crap with his 'three waterfalls' story.

Today I had a commenter on the previous post tell me "all of these revivals are accompanied by various accounts of miracles and supernatural experiences." That's right on the heels of David Marshall, in chapter six of True Reason, saying, "miracles in fact sometimes occurred." I mean, they just put it out there so nonchalantly, like I'm gonna go, "Oh, really? I didn't know that! What powerful evidence!"

Sathya Sai Baba had millions of followers
People have been making claims about supernatural gobbledygook since the dawn of humankind. That's because human beings are not, in general, rational creatures. We're prone to a litany of cognitive biases and errors in judgment that cloud our ability to view our circumstances dispassionately and rationally. Really, the great accomplishment of the scientific method is that for the first time in human history, we have a way to systematically identify and weed out such cognitive blunders.

What's telling though is how selective believers are with their miracles. Millions of people have seen Jesus on toast! Millions have flocked to see various incarnations of the Virgin Mary! Millions have felt the presence of the Holy Ghost! Millions also believed that the Hindu mystic Sathya Sai Baba performed miracles, that John Edward talked to dead people, or that John Popoff could miraculously heal people. But do Christians feel as though they have to explain away the 'testimony' of millions of people that have been objectively duped?

I'm not sure why it's so difficult for some of these believers to understand that the burden isn't on anyone else to disprove the occurrence of miracles; extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Miracles aren't some sort of 'get out of jail free' card, and claiming them as evidence for your specific doctrine just shows that you're not thinking critically or rationally.



Update: After I wrote this, it occurred to me – in reference to the previous post – that trying to pass off miracles as evidence for one's religion is actually great evidence that you haven't treated your own religion with the same skepticism you apply to other religions. Do you have to disprove Sathya Sai Baba's 'miracles'? Do you have to disprove all the sightings of the Virgin Mary?  Do you have to disprove the psychic powers of John Edward? Or the miracle of the angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith? Of course not. No believer thinks they have to disprove miracles from other faiths or superstitions before they reject them, but they tend to take claims about miracles that reinforce their own faith at face value.

It also occurred to me that some people object to the old phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Because, like hey man, what's "extraordinary evidence" anyway? Well first, I can tell you what isn't: hearsay. Because that's all the evidence you're presenting when you claim that you or other people from your own faith experienced or witnessed a miracle. Secondly, extraordinary evidence would be unambiguous, unquestionable, independently verifiable and incontrovertible. So if Sathya Sai Baba claimed to heal people, start with rigorous medical documentation of the illness – and enough independent information to rule out a misdiagnosis. Then have video evidence of Baba performing the 'miracle'. Provide evidence that the person sought out no other treatment and/or did not undergo treatments that would plausibly heal the disease. Then finish with independent lines of evidence that demonstrate the person to be complete healed. Then, just to be a good scientist, repeat the experiment with the identical parameters many times over to demonstrate that it wasn't just an improbable fluke (like, all the doctors misdiagnosed the person and their blood samples were mistakenly swapped).

That'd be a start. Nothing like that will ever happen. Well, obviously not with Sathya Sai Baba since he's dead, but it'll never happen anywhere else either. But if you're going to claim that your favorite deity suspended the entirety of the natural order, you have to have better evidence than "You can't disprove it!" if you expect anyone else to believe it.

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