Public Challenge: Show Me a Miracle

I recently listened to an interview with Dr. Gary Habermas on the “Christian Meets World” podcast. Habermas talked excitedly about the evidence for miracles. He claimed that eight million Americans have had near-death experiences. And if you’re open to this evidence, why not that for the resurrection of Jesus? They’re the same afterlife, after all.

Habermas cited Dr. Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2011), in which are documented hundreds of recent miracle claims. Some miracles have MRI evidence documenting the before and after medical conditions. In one instance a spleen was surgically removed but then reappeared after prayer. He guesses that there are 100 million miracle reports from around the world.

When Habermas debates atheists and brings up this evidence, famous atheists have no comebacks. They’ll handwave but have nothing better than, “Well, people report crazy things.”

These are bold statements. Provocative statements. In fact, I feel a challenge coming on.

I publicly challenge Drs. Keener or Habermas to pick their favorite miracle claim and submit it for public analysis.

Gentlemen: out of the hundreds of claims in this book or the millions of claims worldwide, take your best-evidenced claim for a miracle. This wouldn’t be something that’s a known puzzle for modern science (cancer that went away for no obvious reason, for example) but something that science says can’t happen—maybe an amputated limb that grows back. Forget the hundreds of claims; bring the evidence for just your best one.

I see four possible outcomes of such a public critique.

1. The evidence is not researchable. Not all of the evidence exists or it’s impossible to access, or for some other reason a complete story can’t be put together. Maybe records have been destroyed, red tape prevents them from being accessed, the documentation is written in Turkmen or Quechua or some other inaccessible foreign language, or witnesses are inaccessible or deceased.

2. The evidence crumbles. We have a complete story, but the evidence isn’t sufficiently reliable. We can’t be sure that records weren’t deliberately tampered with or memories haven’t faded. Maybe we have the statement of just one person without corroboration or a claim from someone without the relevant qualifications (a layman making a medical diagnosis, for example). Maybe human error can’t be ruled out (inadvertently putting the x-ray from patient X into the folder for patient Y, for example).

3. We find a plausible natural explanation. That story about the spleen that was removed and then reappeared? Spleens can grow back. Amputated limbs that regrow? There have been such claims—the 1640 “Miracle of Calanda” is one example—but, as Skeptoid has shown, natural explanations are sufficient to explain the evidence for this claim. Prayer that stopped an epidemic? As I reported a few months ago (“Claims that Prayer Cures Disease”), the epidemic had run its course by the time prayer started.

Any plausible natural explanation defeats the miracle claim.

4. We have a complete case, and natural explanations are less plausible than a miraculous explanation. This is the happy outcome that Habermas expects.

After public analysis of the Best Claim, I predict that we would see outcome 1, 2, or 3. And once we do, my next prediction is that Messrs. K. and H. will drop that claim like a used tissue and burrow through their files for another one.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over. “Oh, you don’t like that claim? Not a problem—I got plenty more.”

As with UFO sightings, lots of crappy evidence doesn’t equal a little good evidence. It’s just a big pile of crappy evidence.

Gentlemen, may I encourage you to respond to my challenge? You know how to reach me.

Messrs. K. and H. assure the public
their production will be second to none.
— The Beatles, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite”

  • Jason

    I would like to know more about what people like Habermas think about how the miracles occur. I’m assuming that by ‘miracle’ they mean that there has been a suspension of natural laws by a divine entity. But does that mean that the lost limb, for example, just appears back. In other words, if it grows back (thus defying what we presently know about natural laws but still somewhat operating according to biological and chemical processes), is that a miracle or just an amazing natural event? In sum, according to miracle believers, does God use natural laws when he breaks them or is a miracle in the strict sense only when there is a total suspension of natural laws. All of this seems to have an important bearing on your challenge.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Good questions, but the mechanism that Habermas imagines seems to me to be a different issue. I’m first looking for good scientific evidence (which he claims he has) for just one flippin’ miracle. A solid case for something that science says shouldn’t be happening.

      He claims he’s got it. Now I’d like to see the evidence!

      • Jason

        Yes, but what’s the difference between an unexplained natural event and a miracle (acc to Habermas)?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Jason:

          Habermas says that miracles happen to everyone. He says that we dismiss things as coincidence that were actually miracles. Sounds like wishful thinking to me.

          As for the distinction that you mention, I don’t believe he touched on that. He doesn’t label everything miraculous, but he seems to be saying that he’s happy to throw “it’s a miracle” into the mix of candidate explanations.

        • Jason

          Thanks for taking the time to respond again. I certainly appreciate that Habermas’ definition of ‘miracle’ is not defined very well, but I suppose that is (at least) part of my point. The challenge that you issued is impossible because you and Habermas will inevitably be unable to agree on the terms of the bet. Even if Habermas provides significant evidence for what he calls a miracle, you will still call it an unexplained natural event. And as Habermas explains below, he considers miracles natural events anyway. Based on what Habermas says, everything could potentially be a miracle, if we just call it that. I never understood how people could attribute blessings to divine intervention without attributing their hardships.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The gold standard for me would be if we can reach a scientific consensus that it was supernatural.

          Good point about blessings vs. hardships. When things go well, God gets the credit, and when they don’t, he doesn’t get the blame. Weird.

    • joeclark77

      CS Lewis wrote a book called “Miracles” which identifies three conceptions of the “laws” of nature and the corresponding definitions of miracles, which might be an interesting way to answer your question. See chapter 8, “Miracles and The Laws of Nature” in that book.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Thanks for the tip. I haven’t read that one.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com Hausdorff

    My favorite line of this post

    “lots of crappy evidence doesn’t equal a little good evidence”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      :)

    • blotonthelandscape

      Similarly, courtesy of c0nc0rdance on the Youtubes, “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

      • joeclark77

        It’s a popular quote but data actually is a plural of anecdote.

        • smrnda

          It depends on how systematically accumulated these anecdotes are. I can’t just take 100 people who say that they took pill X and felt better as evidence of anything, but a 100 person double-blind study might provide the type of data needed to be evidence.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          That’s why it’s so easy to spin a positive story for any nutty treatment (soul healing, crystals, whatever). Out of 100 customers, surely some of them had things go their way afterwards. Just cherry pick those and let the buyer beware.

  • http://Michael.Santovec.us Michael Santovec

    And of course, just because an event is deemed to LIKELY be a miracle, doesn’t tell us who actually performed the miracle. Just because someone prayed to some deity, doesn’t mean that that deity did it. Someone else might have prayed to some other deity on their behalf. Or some other deity may have stepped in, or a genie, or a space alien (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke), or someone’s psychic powers, or maybe the conscious universe, or whatever.

    To identity the miracle worker you need to observe them performing the miracle, which would usually entail miracles on demand.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      It’s amazing what satisfies someone’s need for evidence when they have a preconception they’re eager to support.

  • http://meskeptic.blogspot.com Charlie, the Maine Skeptic

    I’ve been meaning to contact Mr. Habermas on this very subject. He references all kinds of studies when he speaks on the subject, but he doesn’t link to any from his web page. Nice article.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’m going to try to get a link to this post to Habermas and the other guy that he mentions. I’ll see what happens.

  • JohnH

    Since it relates to this and not the subject that I was addressing on the other thread and since an atheist echo chamber is about as interesting as watching paint dry (or any kind of echo chamber, I don’t discriminate) then I will restate what I said.

    You have this odd idea that miraculous means breaking the laws of nature, in my faith that is not the case. God can not break the laws of nature any more then we can, though the laws that He is aware of are not necessarily the ones that we are aware of. This doesn’t mean that His actions are not miracles but it does mean that all of them should sort of have plausible explanations in the laws of nature and if they don’t then that is a deficiency in our understanding of the laws of nature that needs to be rectified.

    So no, God breaking the laws of nature would not be miraculous it would be impossible, assuming the laws of nature were fully understood. Miracles are signs from God (which is fairly obvious if one is at all familiar with Latin) and to understand how something that has explanation is also a sign of the existence of God then consider that Hoover dam has an explanation and does not violate the laws of nature but is still fairly decent evidence that there is some sort of creature capable of building such a structure on earth.

    I should also point out that in my faith miracles are usually supposed to be private affairs between us and God. Miracles, signs, proofs, and evidence do not convert someone to following God; having God part the heavens and show Himself to the entire world would succeed primarily in getting a whole lot of people to condemn themselves as they would know of God but still continue to not keep God’s commandments.

    God cares a lot more about how we act with what we know to be right then that we know everything exactly right. Religion is supposed to be a blessing in peoples lives, like it was for Job who knew he would see his family again and that even if he died that he would live again even in the midst of all the bad things that happened. Everyone is able to in part tell good from evil and if they choose what they know to be right then they will be offered more, eventually.

    • smrnda

      So a miracle is all in the matter of subjective perception? Meaning that when the bus was late today, it could have just been late or it could have been some kind of divine experience that has deeper meaning and significance? I hope you realize the problem with subjective bias there.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      John:

      You have this odd idea that miraculous means breaking the laws of nature, in my faith that is not the case.

      Noted. I don’t see why you’d think that this was a lynchpin of my argument.

      Miracles are signs from God (which is fairly obvious if one is at all familiar with Latin)

      We find out what words mean in the dictionary. If the meaning hasn’t drifted much from the original, that’s merely an etymological curiosity.

      having God part the heavens and show Himself to the entire world would succeed primarily in getting a whole lot of people to condemn themselves as they would know of God but still continue to not keep God’s commandments.

      That’s an odd problem. So God is motivated to keep himself secret? But he desperately wants a relationship? But by taking the first steps to having one, he risks sending that person to hell? But he must make his existence known for that person to avoid hell?

      Aaaaah! Must be tough being God.

      Religion is supposed to be a blessing in peoples lives, like it was for Job who knew he would see his family again

      Huh? He lost all his children. They were dead and gone. He ain’t gonna see them again.

      Yeah, I know he got new ones, but that’s not quite the same thing!

      • JohnH

        “So God is motivated to keep himself secret?”
        Based on the purpose of earthly life then yes, God is motivated to keep himself somewhat secret.

        “But he desperately wants a relationship?”
        Yes, God loves us, is our Father, and wishes us to regain His presence.

        “But by taking the first steps to having one, he risks sending that person to hell?”
        Sort of, by taking the first steps then God has given the person more knowledge which they should follow. If the person does not follow then they are doing something they know to be wrong which is sinning. However, there is repentance for sin so one is able to later repent of ones sins and be okay. However, there is the problem that if one dies having not accepted what God was willing to offer then one may be risking not receiving everything that one could have received, even if one otherwise goes to heaven then that person could still be consider damned (but that is completely up to God to judge).

        ” But he must make his existence known for that person to avoid hell?”
        That completely depends on what one means by “hell”. If one means an eternal state of misery and suffering then no, that is reserved for those that know God (and have no doubts they know God) and willfully choose evil. If one means any state of misery and suffering for the things that one has done wrong then sort of.

        “He ain’t gonna see them again.”
        “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
        And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
        Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.”
        Job 19:25-27
        Job knew of the resurrection of the dead and that he would see his family again.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          John:

          God is motivated to keep himself somewhat secret.

          Gee–I guess it sucks to be someone like me whose God-given brain demands evidence to avoid following the wrong path.

          How are we supposed to have a relationship with someone whose very existence we have no concrete evidence for?

          Job 19:25-27
          Job knew of the resurrection of the dead and that he would see his family again.

          The NET Bible’s comment on 19:26 is: “Job has been clear – he does not expect to live and see his vindication in this life.”

          This says nothing about seeing his family in heaven.

          Job 2:9 makes clear that these people didn’t expect an afterlife.

        • JohnH

          Job 2:9 have nothing to do with the afterlife or lack thereof.

          “How are we supposed to have a relationship with someone whose very existence we have no concrete evidence for?”

          I am sorry to say that based on your latching on to part of Luke 21 and what I had previously given you then you have concrete evidence of God, even if you choose to deny it.

          Regardless though, Everyone has the evidence of all of those that say they believe and the effects of that belief (whether good or bad). That should be enough evidence for anyone to take the first step of faith.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Job 2:9 have nothing to do with the afterlife or lack thereof.

          No?

          [Job's] wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

          Job is to curse God and die … and then meet up with God again in the afterlife? Not very good advice. But if dying simply means annihilation–and an end to the torment–then this makes sense.

          you have concrete evidence of God

          In my book, that’s pretty weak evidence. Should I point you to Gilgamesh or the Upanishads and demand that that’s good evidence of the supernatural?

          Everyone has the evidence of all of those that say they believe

          Interesting point. So, given all the believing Muslims in the world, are you going to step into Islam, given all the evidence that this implies? Or does this rule only apply to John’s religion?

        • JohnH

          Dieing would still mean an end to bodily suffering. You might want to consider Job’s response to his wife.

          “that’s pretty weak evidence.” – but still evidence, and it is stronger then what you are making it out as being.

          “Should I point you to Gilgamesh or the Upanishads and demand that that’s good evidence of the supernatural?’

          Sure, both have some evidence of the supernatural and any religion in question better have some sort of explanation of such things.

          “given all the believing Muslims in the world, are you going to step into Islam, given all the evidence that this implies? ”

          As above Islam contains evidence of God and any religion in question should have an explanation for such.

          “Or does this rule only apply to John’s religion?”
          It would be a useless rule if it only applied to my own religion, given that my own religion is a small fraction of a percent of all believers and has a start date less then 200 years ago. However, given the claims of my own religion then most believers in any religion can also be seen as supporting evidence to the existence of God.

          I have been busy and suffered computer difficulties sorry about taking so long to respond.

    • Makoto

      “You have this odd idea that miraculous means breaking the laws of nature, in my faith that is not the case. God can not break the laws of nature any more then we can, though the laws that He is aware of are not necessarily the ones that we are aware of.”

      I’m curious – what about Jesus’ miracles? Bringing people back from the dead? Turning water into wine in an instant? Walking on water? Healing the sick and blind in instants? Fasting in the desert for 40 days? The loaves and the fish? Coming back to life himself days after death, with wounds intact that people could put their fingers into?

      Were these all examples of laws that a god knows of that we simply do not yet? If so, that is fantastic news, as we are trying to learn more about natural laws through science all the time (and have discovered plenty of useful things, like how to make airplanes), while the bible is significantly lacking in such details that would be very useful to us in figuring such things out.

      Then again, if we figure out the bringing back the dead trick, it’s going to get really crowded around here.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Makoto:

        Excellent questions of JohnH. Thanks for raising them.

      • JohnH

        “Were these all examples of laws that a god knows of that we simply do not yet?’
        Yes.

        • Makoto

          Doesn’t that effectively mean a god can do anything – instant healing, bring back the dead, transmutation, and so on? So your limit about working within natural laws has no meaning? What were you thinking of that was outside the potential laws that a god may follow?

      • joeclark77

        If you hit a pool cue in a certain way that would ordinarily cause it to go in a certain direction, but I am tilting the table and it goes in a different direction, does that mean the laws of physics are violated? No. The laws are consistent, but the result is unexpected because there’s an input into the equation that you weren’t aware of or hadn’t counted on. This is one of the philosophical conceptions of miracles that CS Lewis wrote about, which I mentioned in a comment above.

  • http://www.alstefanelli.com Al Stefanelli
  • Chuck Doswell

    If the definition of a “miracle” is NOT some sort of evident violation of natural law, then how does one even recognize its occurrence amidst the flow of natural events? If the putative deity can NOT do things that violate the very laws he is supposed to have set in place, he certainly can’t be called omnipotent. The illogic of christian (and other religions, too) arrogance is truly astonishing.

    • JohnH

      Omnipotent means the power to do all that can be done, God can not do logical impossibilities (like make an impenetrable wall and an unstoppable cannon ball).

      You are making theological assumptions that do not hold to my faith in regards to violating the very laws God set in place.

      As for the flow of natural events, no one considers the Hoover dam to be a natural occurrence when they first see it, I wonder why?

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Well, the Hoover dam is natural in that it was built by humans, who are part of the natural world. But I think I see your point.

        And what are God’s Hoover dams? These things that you know are natural but not natural?

  • Makoto

    One of my major questions about miracles is about god’s power. Think about it like this:

    In the beginning, god created everything (super duper power)
    Later, god created plants and animals and such (super power)
    Later still, god rained down food, made tablets, burned bushes, etc (power)
    Later on, god revived a few dead people, and that was pretty much the end of the ‘big’ miracles (still power).

    What has been done since then in any of those categories? If you want to say that ‘good stuff’ is a miracle, sure, that’s happened all along, and to all manner of life (“Hey, I’m a tree, and I kept growing today – miracle!” or “hey, I’m a slave in ancient Rome, and didn’t get beaten today – miracle!”). But trying to compare ‘nice thing’ to a biblical miracle is tough, I’d say. At most, I could see how a god could have existed before, and was slowly using up its power to do lesser and lesser things over time until it was out of juice.

    Alternatively, if you want to say god can’t make miracles because it would mean we lose free choice because we can see god’s influence, why could god directly influence the world before (parting the Red Sea, manna from heaven, resurrections, etc), but can’t do so now?

    Or there was no god in the past (and no big miracles), and the no-big-miracle state of modern times matches that perfectly, and doesn’t need a supernatural explanation.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I touched on this in God’s Diminishing Power.

      • Makoto

        Ha! I should really read back posts more when finding a new blog. Great way of putting it, or (potentially the same argument, depending on what we determine dark energy is or how it pushes expansion) god’s power decreases via the inverse square law as the size of the universe increases, since it has to cover all of creation.

        Either way, given the size of the universe, no wonder we can’t see the impacts these days. With that kind of decrease over size, ‘create everything’ to ‘make something that people can be happy about but doesn’t violate any natural laws people already know about’ is somewhat logical. A shame I’ve never heard that argument from a religious source, since at least it’s a starting point for a discussion, and better than ‘because the bible said so’ in my opinion. Still trivial to argue against, but better than just going from an old book.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I hadn’t thought of your dark energy connection. If God’s power is infinite, perhaps it has to be infinite per unit volume (since the universe if finite)?

          Taking an Iron Age god and transplanting him in the age of quantum physics doesn’t make for a happy end result, IMO.

    • joeclark77

      The main explanation is the faithlessness of the modern era. God performs miracles for those who do not believe, but does not perform miracles for men who lack faith (i.e. for men who would not respond to them even if they saw them). There’s a part in Mark’s (I think) gospel where Jesus is unable to perform miracles in His home town and is astonished at the people’s inability to believe. This continues the point I’ve made in some other comments, that faith is not the same thing as belief. What God is concerned with is not so much whether you know about Him, bu how you will respond to Him when you find out.

      Of course there’s also a simpler explanation: we don’t need new great miracles because we’re already aware of the great miracles, courtesy of the people who wrote them down. God doesn’t need to repeat His old tricks because we already know about them. The ancient Israelites got a bunch of “fresh” miracles because they didn’t have a bunch of historical ones to look at.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Joe:

        God knows what it would take to get me to believe, and yet he doesn’t do it. Weird.

        bu how you will respond to Him when you find out.

        He hasn’t given me much of a chance.

        we don’t need new great miracles because we’re already aware of the great miracles, courtesy of the people who wrote them down.

        The Gospels? Sorry–pretty unconvincing.

        The ancient Israelites got a bunch of “fresh” miracles because they didn’t have a bunch of historical ones to look at.

        The pillar of fire and smoke? The manna? The miraculous conquest of Jericho?

        Sounds like they had them. Or at least the story makes that claim.

        • joeclark77

          That’s what I mean, the miracles were “fresh” for them. We don’t need fresh ones today because we know about all the old ones.

        • Kodie

          We heard about them but that doesn’t mean they happened. Furthermore, if they happened, then that’s one thing we know about god, that he can do them but decides not to. Or they didn’t happen because they can’t happen. We live in a world where we’re familiar with liars and embellished versions of stories, so why does anyone believe that’s not the case with the bible?

      • Kodie

        That’s convenient. Another simple explanation is that people process input based on what they would like the outcome to be. That there is no god, but people don’t so much respond to what they think is god so much as form their thoughts around an available template when they don’t know what else to make of something, especially when it has to do with statistical probabilities.

        Narrow escapes from a serious accident, for example, are a popular device in conversions or deciding factors that I’ve heard about. Accidents happen all the time when two objects attempt to occupy the same space simultaneously. If two objects attempt to occupy nearly the same space a few seconds apart, how is that a “sign”? Based on no apparent message, the listener decides that it’s Jesus because they’re unfamiliar with other gods, not because he signed his name. People take things that happen to them personally as if a low chance of something happening is the same thing as cosmic manipulation, as if accidents are always fatal so that surviving can be nothing but a mysterious wake-up call. Even if or especially another person died. News reporting a disaster in which nobody died, only a few people died, or nearly everyone died are equally responded to as miracles or some example of intervention of a deity.

        The simplest explanation is that we live on a planet with existing natural properties and other living occupants. So few things are within any one person’s control, however lot of it is in cooperative control. That doesn’t mean there’s a mastermind scooping us out of traffic right before we walk in front of a bus. This actually happened to me once, and it was a person.

  • smrnda

    I think that miracles in the Bible stories were understood to be violations of natural law, even if the idea wasn’t as well-developed as it would be later once the mechanisms of natural laws were better understood. Even a primitive person with no grasp of medicine or biology knows that if you kill someone, the person stays dead. It’s the same way they would understand that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Their explanations might be faulty, but they can at least point to events that would defy the natural order.

    Otherwise, a ‘miracle’ is just anything you feel like calling a miracle. Improbable events still have a nonzero probability of happening, and technologies that seem miraculous look a lot different once you understand the nuts and bolts of how they work.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Magic tricks are even easier to understand than an obtuse technology. At least with those, we know up front that it’s just a trick (ignoring charlatans like Uri Geller).

      • Kodie

        We don’t necessarily know it’s a trick. We only know it’s a trick if the person doing it tells us he or she is a magician/illusionist. This is actually called a craft by people who do it, and by people who see tricks performed have been told in advance that the performance is done by the person doing it and not at all supernatural, even if they never learn just how it’s done, never believe that it is being done by anyone other than the magician and his or her assistants (even if the assistants don’t know what’s going on or how the trick is done). And even after all that, people believe their own eyes when they see someone who doesn’t say they are a magician perform magic, that a person cannot possibly do [whatever], that there are no other illusions except when we’re told that they are.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Right–we know it’s a trick if we go to a magic show. Uri Geller was able to fool lots of people by claiming that it wasn’t a magic show.

        • Kodie

          I was thinking a lot more broadly than psychics and spoonbenders, etc. I mean, here’s the thing – there are feats that are meant to seem impossible and be impressive, and then there’s the credulity of the general public. “I am moving that object with my mind” is obviously an impressive feat if someone could actually do that, but even if he could, someone would still be looking for the hidden device. And even if no device can be found to aid the illusion doesn’t mean there isn’t one; it could mean he’s just extremely clever at setting it up.

          Can someone be exceedingly clever – in some way, I would even say he did move the object with his mind, only in a roundabout way. Is being smarter or better at something than everyone else a feat? Kind of. Having a skill not a lot of other people cultivate (or understand to be something that can be cultivated), like cold reading, is a feat, same as people who can sing often attribute their vocal talent to their deity and feel compelled to share it as though it is their purpose. They don’t see it as something some people can do (in the realm of an obviously possible skill or affinity) and some can do better if they work at it and intend, just like some people are auto mechanics or athletes or tailors, and some people aren’t even close.

          I was mostly directed at the “audience,” the general public. Not everyone believes everything they see, but a fair amount seem to be credulous about something rather ordinary (more ordinary than supernatural-y magic). Things like : perfect timing, narrow escapes, stuff their friend told them was true, what their pet is thinking, conspiracies, full moons, soul mates, past lives, predictions, product demonstrations, and anything that makes someone think taking up gambling sounds like a profitable idea. Even if at first they don’t believe Uri Geller could be for real (after all, he is demonstrating feats understood to be impossible, even after you see them), they will believe themselves after they’ve investigated and established for themselves that there is no device.

          The point is that there’s a really low bar. Although we do treat people as conduits to a supernatural realm at times, most “miracles” are things that cannot be reproduced for you if you weren’t there or they were pushed at the merest slightly spooky coincidence. I’ve heard people say the miracles that convince them to be Christian are in the category of “I felt compelled suddenly to read a bible, and the bible opened right to that [significant] page.” I don’t know, try it and post the result!

        • Bob Seidensticker

          You know about the JREF Million Dollar Challenge? Hasn’t been claimed. Hasn’t even been taken up by a reasonable challenger.

          So, sure, someone could fool the experts with a trick, but that’s one data point that says that it’s hard.

          That open-the-Bible idea might make for an interesting post. Thanks.

        • Kodie

          I don’t know if it was the JREF challenge, but I saw something on tv with the same premise anyway, which is where I got the idea about the cold-reading talent. They had 10 or so, and one woman they highlighted had a problem reading because she was not allowed to touch someone’s hands and/or the test had to be done with hands covered. She has a specific context in which her “gift” works, so it’s then not fair for the council to expect her to reasonably or accurately perform what apparently to her was an actual miracle or psychic ability.

          Maybe she’s bluffing and she knows it, maybe not. Some people are called to the ministry because they know how to work the salesmanship and they know that’s their talent, but I think most people are called (and I say “called” like anyone chooses a profession that appeals to them as opposed to whatever they can get) because they believe they have a spiritual relationship with a deity, and they still really believe that makes them able to help the most people. Were it not for their beliefs, they might otherwise feel called to some secular type of counseling or teaching. So, does Uri Geller delude himself or is he really slick? I haven’t looked at the background story.

          Experts of the James Randi caliber are going to be able to point out what’s wrong with every single case, while most people will not have the skill or resources to debunk every case for which they have doubt. They will kick it’s tires, so to speak, and decide that it must run. Similarly, they will dismiss actual things because something about it they just don’t like (or understand).

          My mom, for example, is quite suggestible to a product demonstration. She’s my favorite example because I have gotten to see up close her motivations and decision-making and the pitches she’s fallen for. I, the skeptic standing by, will point out not to waste her money. She knows I’m smart, but maybe I just don’t like too many things. I’m related to her, but I’m not a somebody like on tv. I’m certainly nowhere near as articulate. Although I was once in sales, I’m a terrible liar, which did end my employment there eventually, but I even believed everything I said because my manager was a terrific salesman. I knew he was a liar, but I thought I was on the inside and that he, of course, told me the truth. No, but he made me effective at lying because I didn’t even know. That was almost 20 years ago. I learned a lot from the experience, and it kind of sticks with me when I think about how superstitious beliefs are transferred from one victim to another and how people assess credibility.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, Uri Geller is slick, but the only delusion is the deliberate kind. He tells people (or told people) that he has psychic gifts. And he’s been debunked by Randi.

          Sounds like your ups and downs in sales have been an educational experience.

  • joeclark77

    Allow me to offer my two cents on the “favorite miracle” question. Maybe its my patriotism, but my favorite is the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the two men most associated with the Declaration of Independence (they were called “the voice” and “the pen” respectively), both died on exactly the same day, precisely 50 years after July 4, 1776. It was unlikely for a number of reasons: they weren’t the same age, they outlived almost all the other signers (unusual in itself), they didn’t live close enough to each other for anyone to have known that the other was close to death (so no opportunistic pillow over the head by a family member trying to create a headline), they weren’t close friends and Adams at least was a faithful Christian (so no suicide pact here), and the coincidence was at the same time incredibly unlikely and extremely meaningful to all who heard the news in the following weeks (this is no grilled-cheese Jesus with ambiguous meaning). Furthermore, the facts of their dates of death are not in question and do not require any scientific knowledge to interpret, so there’s no room for weaseling out of confronting the facts directly. (RE your other post about historians not recording miracles, by the way, David McCullough is a talented modern historian and does mention this one in his biography of John Adams.)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      But what does this coincidence mean? If this is a miracle, what’s the message behind it?

      It was like a local lottery in New York City that had the winning numbers 9-1-1 on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. Pretty cool, but if that’s a supernatural message, what would it mean?

      • joeclark77

        But this wasn’t any two men, and it wasn’t just any day of the year. If it had been, say, James Madison and Sam Adams, and they had both died on a random day in October, it wouldn’t be nearly as pregnant with meaning. Clearly the message was meant for the people of the young republic and was a wink or a nod at the declaration of independence. Whether it was a sign of approval or merely an “I’m watching” I can’t say.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          JC: I’m still failing to see the significance. If you’re saying that it’s a remarkable coincidence, sure, I can buy that. If you want a more amazing one, consider the similarities between the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations.

          Whether it was a sign of approval or merely an “I’m watching” I can’t say.

          Then it was a pretty clumsy miracle if it was a deliberate sign that we can’t make heads or tails of.

    • ZenDruid

      That is a good example of how coincidence + power of suggestion + confirmation bias play out.
      Here’s another:
      Arthur C Clarke once wrote a short story The Star, wherein the protagonist discovers that the fabled Star of Bethlehem once hosted a vibrant civilization before it went nova. When Clarke died in 2008, within 24 hours there were 5 cosmic gamma ray bursts, when the norm is more like five in a week. Furthermore, GRB080319B, the second of the sequence, holds the record of the most distant (7.5 billion lightyears) object that was visible to the naked eye on Earth. It’s called the ‘Clarke event’. It’s a delightful coincidence and nothing more. The beam of gamma rays and visible light left its source 3 billion years before the earth was formed.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        I hadn’t heard of the Clarke event. Thanks for that.

    • smrnda

      Seems more like just another factual oddity, of which you can find a lot if you go looking for them. I mean, care to calculate the size of a group of people you would need to raise the probability that 2 people have the same birthday to over 50%? It’s a lot smaller than you think. Once I’d studied probability I found coincidences like this to be kind of amusing and interesting still, but a miracle (to me) would have to be something of zero probability occurring.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        The Monty Hall problem is another good one that challenges our intuitions.

  • Billy Bean

    Major Premise: God doesn’t exist.
    Minor Premise: Any evidence to the contrary is bogus.
    Conclusion: God doesn’t exist, and any evidence to the contrary is bogus.
    It’s ironclad. Where’s the problem?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      BB:

      The problem is that this isn’t what I’m saying here.

      The Problem of Divine Hiddenness is kind of a showstopper, not because it’s proof that God exists, but just because following the evidence leads you to conclude that he probably doesn’t.

  • Billy Bean

    Any god that doesn’t say “How high?” when I say “Jump!” could not be worth believing in.