America has run out of miracles, and we know who to blame

When Harvard’s basketball team unexpectedly won its first-round game in the NCAA tournament, the Harvard Lampoon sent out this apologetic tweet:

“Everything else” apparently includes the lack of miracles in modern America.  Here is Pat Robertson:

Why do miracles “happen with great frequency in Africa, and not here in the USA?” asked a 700 Club patron Ken. “People overseas didn’t go to Ivy League schools,” Robertson replied with a chuckle.

“We are so sophisticated, we think we’ve got everything figured out,” the Christian Broadcasting Network chairman continued. “We know about evolution, we know about Darwin, we know about all these things that says God isn’t real, we know about all this stuff.”

According to Robertson, it’s the “skepticism and secularism” that is being taught at “the most advanced schools” around the country that is keeping God’s miracles at bay.

Meanwhile, Africans are “simple” and “humble.” “You tell ‘em God loves ‘em and they say, ‘Okay, he loves me’,” said Robertson. “You say God will do miracles and they say, ‘Okay, we believe him’.”

If Harvard and those other snooty places had only disappeared, maybe we’d be seeing Florida Gulf Coast in the Final Four.

Miracles and sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha

Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God got me thinking about miracles, because Miller believes in them and believes he understands how they can occur. And now we have the Catholic Church canonizing a bunch of new saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She becomes the first Native American saint.

Kateri was noted for her chastity and her “mortification of the flesh”:

Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals

Good job, seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries!

I can recall her name from my parochial-school history book long ago–she probably showed up in a sidebar as an example of how even American Indians could become good Catholics.  (I recall the name, I think, because it has a nice rhythm to it, like an Indian chant.) There’s a Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha down the road from me in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the parishioners are of course excited.

The Church, like Miller, also believes in miracles, and it requires them before making someone a saint.  Nowadays you need one to be beatified, and another to be canonized.  The miracle that brought Kateri over the finish line happened to a kid from Washington state, who recovered from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed to her.

I read a good book once called Making Saints about the careful process the Vatican undertakes to investigate the miracles needed for canonization.  It is one example, among many, of very smart, very dedicated, very religious people spending their lives doing something entirely worthless. The miracles, as I recall, were pretty much all inexplicable medical cures, like the one attributed to Kateri.  The problem, of course, is that inexplicable medical cures happen all the time.  Why?  Because we have only an imperfect understanding of medicine.  For the stuff we do understand–like, you don’t grow a new leg when one gets cut off–well, there aren’t any miracles in that neck of the woods.

I read a few news accounts of the canonization and the related miracle, and none of them questioned the miraculousness of the miracle.  The family was convinced, the Vatican was convinced, so what more do you want?  People, in fact, want miracles.  They make life more interesting; they give us hope.  I will note that my novel Pontiff is suffused with miracles — they make novels more interesting, too!  So I guess I’m not one to complain.  But it does seem like some reporter should quote a medical authority expressing some skepticism about the whole thing.  I suppose an editor would just lose the quote, though.

(A person I work with has been to one Mass in her life — the canonization of one of her relatives at the Vatican. That’s pretty cool, although her relative’s death was anything but cool.  Saints don’t generally lead happy lives, or have happy deaths.)

Heaven and Miracles and Newsweek

So Newsweek has a cover story called “”Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.”  It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

And here’s the kind of experience the doctor had:

Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them.

Birds? Angels? These words registered later, when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms.

A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above, and I wondered if the winged beings were producing it. Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it. The sound was palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but doesn’t get you wet.

All pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories.  What’s annoying is that a major magazine is calling this “proof” without quotation marks, without a question mark, without any sort of rebuttal.  (The story is an excerpt from a book by a mainstream publisher, Simon & Schuster.) Where are the alternative hypotheses?  Where is the objective analysis?

For a rebuttal, you have to go elsewhere, like the Huffington Post, of all places, where the physicist Victor Stenger says:

[The neurosurgeon] writes, “According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.”

This is nothing more than the classic argument from ignorance, which forms the basis of almost all ostensibly scientific arguments for the existence of the supernatural. The argument from ignorance is a less polite but more descriptive name for the God-of-the-gaps argument. This argument often appears in dialogues on the existence of God or anything supernatural. Basically, it says: “I can’t see how this [observed phenomenon] can be explained naturally; therefore it must be supernatural.”

The flaw in the argument should be obvious. Just because someone–or even all of science–currently cannot provide a natural explanation for something, it does not follow that a natural explanation does not exist or will never be found. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the story of humanity filling in the gaps in its knowledge about the world of our senses. In the case of NDEs, plausible natural explanations do exist.

Another description I’ve heard for this approach is the argument from personal incredulity.  It is, of course, strongest when it’s your experience; your brain knows what it knows, no matter what the scientists say.  But (of course) your brain doesn’t necessarily know what it knows.  I’ve just finished a book called Subliminal by the theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, which surveys the research currently taking place that shows just how mistaken our conscious brain can be when it comes to understanding behavior and experience.  The more science progresses in this field, the shakier some of our most basic ideas about how we act and perceive and know appear to be.  As Mlodinow puts it, “the brain is a decent scientist but an outstanding lawyer.”  That is, the objective truth seeker in us generally loses out to the impassioned advocate for what we want to believe.  If you’ve had a life-changing experience, you want to believe in the truth of that experience; you don’t want to be told that it’s the random firings of neurons as you came out of a coma, or fragmentary memories that your brain has somehow turned into a coherent narrative, or any of the other dreary, trivial explanations that the scientist is going to offer.

One of the things I like most about Christianity is that it turns human history into a story, because I love stories.  How much more interesting the Christian world of sin, sacrifice, and redemption is than the Darwinian world of purposeless, mindless change and adaptation and extinction.  But not all stories are true; in fact, nearly all of them aren’t.  We shouldn’t believe them just because we want to.  And we need to understand that our brains aren’t always the best judges of what is true; for that, we can’t do without science. This neurosurgeon, and Newsweek, have left the science behind.