You Say Miracles Happen? Show Me.

You Say Miracles Happen? Show Me. May 1, 2015

In an interview on the “Christian Meets World” podcast, Dr. Gary 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. Habermas 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 that Habermas is making. 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 difficult foreign language, or witnesses are inaccessible or deceased.

2. The evidence crumbles. In this case, 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. Or the “Miracle of Lanciano,” another with a natural explanation. Near-death experience? Science understands much of what happens as the brain becomes starved of oxygen (see Scientific American, Popular Science). Prayer that stopped an epidemic? I reported on one such claim (“Claims that Prayer Cures Disease”), but 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, I encourage you to respond to my challenge. You know how to reach me. That you spend your time writing books and giving interviews aimed at fellow believers convinces me that you know the evidence won’t stand up to scrutiny. Science hasn’t been convinced in the past, so why imagine it will now? No, the miracle claims are just superstition with a brittle coating of science.

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

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/26/12.)

Image credit: JOPHIELsmiles, flickr, CC

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