Editing the storyFebruary 14, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Jayman’s comments continue:
(3) You edited the story so that you can attempt to provide an explanation for the healing that is not extraordinary and thus does not place you in the position of having to choose between competing extraordinary claims. (A) Bernadette and the nuns did pray for a cure, not merely a sign. (B) Bernadette has been investigated by “hundreds of doctors and theologians” and no medical explanation has been provided. This means we can dismiss your attempted diagnoses and that you’re wrong in implying Bernadette is denying doctors access to herself. Apparently she is not as superstition has you’d like to believe.
Ultimately, you have no explanation. You say admitting ignorance is not shameful and that superstition is ignorance pretending to be knowledge. You are ignorant of how Bernadette was cured but claim to know God was not involved. You’re superstitious according to your own definition.
I could be wrong, but I get the impression Jayman is not too happy with me at this point. Nevertheless, he raises some interesting points, and I’d like to address those here.
First of all, he accuses me of editing the story. If you go back and read my post, however, and compare my quotation of the story to Jayman’s original quotation, you’ll see that I did no such thing. It’s true that my discussion of the story focused on the topics I considered relevant, just as Jayman’s replies to me do not quote my entire post but only refer back to specific points he wants to discuss. That’s just normal conversation, not tampering with the evidence.
But let’s look at points (A) and (B), which he seems to feel I’ve neglected. I’m rather glad he brought them up, frankly, because they are topics that deserve further discussion.
It’s true that I did not discuss the prayers, by Bernadette and the nuns, asking for an outright cure. But let’s look at that now. In a nation full of believers, it’s to be expected that whenever someone is suffering from some kind of serious disorder, there’s at least someone praying for them somewhere. This means that virtually any time there’s a cure (or something like a cure), odds are extremely good that someone was praying for just that outcome.
This scenario is ideal for setting up a post hoc fallacy. By praying constantly for all kinds of desired “blessings,” you guarantee that there will be a prior prayer any time any of those “blessings” happens to come true. But here’s where “editing the story” comes in: you only count the cases where the prayer is followed by the “blessing.” You don’t include the cases where the prayer endures for quite some time with no positive outcome. It’s “heads I win, tails you lose,” a kind of rigged scorekeeping that exaggerates the “successes” by the simple expedient of eliminating the failures. Mere chance is enough to produce astonishing stories of “miraculous” results, by a kind of theological natural selection.
This sort of “editing the story” is indeed tampering with the evidence, because an impartial consideration of all the results of all the prayers would show that prayer is no more effective than waving beads and feathers, or hopping on one foot while whistling “Dixie.” Surgery can be successful without prayer, but prayer without surgery is no more successful than no prayer at all, at least as far as cases like Bernadette’s are concerned. If prayer could cure tethered spinal cords, it would be cruel of the nuns not to pray for the other victims and heal them too.
So the reason I didn’t bother discuss the prayers of the nuns is because I considered it to be insignificant background noise. Prayers are happening all the time, and consistently seek the same sort of good things. If they actually made a difference, then we’d see a real world in which better things were happening. People don’t pray, “Lord, please let things continue pretty much as they have been all along,” they ask for expanding the good and reducing/eliminating the bad. They ask for a world that is different from the one we live in, and the reason they want it to be different is because we don’t receive all the good things they were praying for before.
The main thing prayer accomplishes is to create an atmosphere that promotes superstition: by making sure prayers continue, whether they work or not, believers ensure that there’s always an excuse to give God credit whenever the ordinary course of events happens to turn out satisfactorily. All it takes is for there to be enough human ignorance that we don’t always know what the factors are that led to the positive outcome.
Which brings us to (B), above. Bernadette has been examined by “hundreds” of doctors and theologians (how many of each, I wonder, and what did their investigation consist of?), and “no medical explanation has been provided.” Jayman is wrong when he states that this means we can dismiss all of the possibilities I’ve suggested. Not knowing what the natural cause is does not mean knowing that there was no natural cause (which is the conclusion that Jayman seems to be jumping to).
Ignorance is not knowledge; ignorance of the cause does not mean that we know the cause. It means that we don’t know what the cause is. But this does not mean we can’t know a few things about the cause. Nobody knows what the exact square root of 13 is (since it has an infinite number of non-repeating decimal places), but even though we don’t know what the exact answer is, we do know it’s not a quart of motor oil. It has to be a number, in order to be consistent with what 13 is, and what a square root is.
Likewise, no matter what caused Bernadette’s healing, we can know that it’s going to be consistent with the truth, as in the real-world truth. If God is not consistent with the real-world truth, He’s not going to be consistent with Bernadette’s healing, either. There may be many possible causes for Bernadette’s healing, and the way to tell which one is correct is to see which is more consistent with the real-world facts. We can eliminate the non-answers by showing that they are not consistent with the real-world facts, as Jayman is trying to do when he appeals to exams by “hundreds” of doctors and theologians.
For better or worse, though, the fact that “men have not found the answers” is actually perfectly consistent with the fact that the answers exist. Every new answer we find is an answer that already existed before we knew what it was. There is a cause for Bernadette’s healing that is consistent with the truth, and this is not in any way inconsistent with the fact that doctors do not currently know what that answer is, even if they never find out.
While that cause remains unknown, however, it is perfectly true that this incident is not an instance of God showing up in real life. If it were, doctors would be able to say that they do know what caused Bernadette’s healing. We’d be able both to describe how God was connected to the healing, and to verify that this connection did indeed take place. As it is, we have no evidence that this “miracle” could not have just as easily been the work of Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or SMERFs. It’s not that God showed up to perform the healing, it’s just that believers are taking advantage of human ignorance to superstitiously give credit to an unobserved and unverifiable “Cause.”
I must confess, however, that Jayman is right to accuse me of being unfair to Bernadette when I suggested that she might hinder an investigation into the true causes of her cure. I have no reason to believe that she has ever intentionally attempted to obstruct the investigation or hinder the discovery of the truth, and it was unkind and unfair of me to phrase it in those terms. I apologize.
What I should have said is that there exists a legitimate conflict of interest here. Bernadette’s “miracle” makes her a very special and significant person, as judged by her own faith and the beliefs of others. If this were indeed a genuine miracle, she would not only have experienced a powerful relief from a serious affliction, she would also have been uniquely honored as having been favored by God, in a way that almost no one is ever favored. She receives much honor and special consideration as a result of this perceived divine favor, giving her enhanced social standing in addition to providing an emphatic boost to her own treasured religious beliefs.
All of that evaporates if it turns out that her healing was merely the ordinary course of natural events. If science can debunk this “miracle,” then she loses all the social and psychological benefits she gets from being perceived as the rare and conclusive example of God’s intervention and blessing. It’s possible that she might have the strength of character to pursue the truth anyway, even at the cost of discrediting herself and her God, but it’s still a substantial conflict of interest. Hence, ambiguous miracles are a bad thing with respect to real-world understanding. So long as God fails to show up in real life, it adds nothing, and costs much, to superstitiously attribute cures and other phenomena to Him.
And it is superstitious. Not knowing the true cause, and merely ascribing credit to God in the absence of any tangible evidence linking Him specifically to the cure, is superstition. If I don’t know where shoes are made, and I say they’re made magically, by elves, in an invisible forest, I’m being superstitious. Nor does it make me any less superstitious if I can show you a shoe you can’t find a shoe factory for, as “evidence” that elves are real. Superstition is what it is, no matter how good or kind or intelligent the person practicing it.
Jayman says, “Ultimately, you have no explanation.” And that’s true: nobody does. Even Jayman does not, because a mere superstitious attribution is not an explanation. That’s really my whole point here. If God had shown up in real life, it would not be true that I had no explanation. The fact that nobody can explain exactly what healed Bernadette is itself proof that God did not show up, tangibly and in person, in this case. And this is not just me cherry-picking the worst available “miracles”—the Vatican has officially declared this to be a genuine and notable “miracle.”
Jayman wants to refute me, but the facts he cites only reinforce my point. And that, in itself, is what I call “compelling evidence.”