By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“ David Hume proposed that a claim of a miracle has one sure test of veracity: the possibility of the miracle not happening should be even more crazy than the possibility that it did.” ~ Wattala Claim
I have no desire to run down any religion and I am sans any religion. On the other hand, I am impelled to examine claims that are tantamount to a war on science -claims that can only serve to deceive a gullible public. The latest sensational story is a tale about an alleged miracle at St Anne’s Church in Wattala, Sri Lanka – a dominantly Catholic suburb.
The claim is made by the Parish priest himself-Revd Father Sanjeev Mendis – listening to the story told by a young woman who reportedly said that she saw drops of sweat pouring down the visage of a picture of Jesus given to her by some priests who brought the picture from Chalakkuddi in India. “We had family problems for some time and these subsided since the miracle began,” said this woman. “I have experienced some strange feelings which are hard to explain ever since this miracle began.”
Religion Depends on Miracles
Religious institutions world over and through the ages have depended on miracle stories to boost their faithful numbers. I say this is yet another one like the old ones. Persons in authority like the priest in this case should be doubly careful before they spread a narrative of this sort; they have a responsibility to tell the truth.
The Bible relates many such miracles during the time of Christ. The very resurrection from a state of death of Jesus Christ has been the centrepiece. Turning water into wine and feeding thousands of people with just one loaf of bread are just a few of the biblical stories.
Among the modern ones include the miracle at Lourdes and the miracle at Fatima, Portugal. Australian national pride was heightened when the Pope recently canonised one of her citizens, Mary Mckillop, as “saint” for having “successfully interceded to cure a cancer patient.” The Buddhists-although adherents of an atheist religion – have their own stories about “Iddi balaya, ” which is a kind of ability to levitate and fly through air without any mechanical device like an aeroplane. The latter power is alleged to have happened not by divine intervention, however, but by effective deep meditation.
Violate Natural Laws
These tales do one thing: they claim certain happenings that violate natural laws, which form the very heart of scientific and technological investigation. The God -believers’ stories are that it is divine or supernatural intervention. The ‘supernatural influence,’ contradicts natural laws and naturalistic explanation for phenomena. The simple reason is that we never experience such interruptions in natural laws in any general sense save for a few and far-between isolated personal stories or anecdotes.
David Hume on Miracles
David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and an intellectual giant in the history of the philosophical enterprise, gave the best logical repudiation of miracle tales-to date. Hume wrote his account in his, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” Even Professor Richard Dawkins does little more than develop on what Hume did say. David Hume first posits through the evidence of our experience that there is a defining regularity in the universe that is reflected in what are deemed laws of nature. The sun rises every morning. A ball thrown up, falls to the ground by the operation of the natural law of gravity; tides come in and out in regularity due to the gravity of the moon; liquids behave the same way, day in and day out. The illustrations of regular happenings of natural events are endless and the evidence for such regularity is vast. This observed regularity creates a kind of habit in our minds to predict that they would occur again and again in the future. Science and technology has advanced so much today on the central assumption of such predictability.Therefore, the “laws,” are factual or are firmed in every pragmatic sense. Since they work, we accept them. Admittedly, it isn’t logical to believe that just because a serial of events and consequences occurred in the past they would occur in the future, too. Hume admitted this illogicality but accepted the scientific truth on a pragmatic basis.
Taking off from the “fact” of these laws and the invariability of their occurrence, Hume proposed that a claim of a miracle has one sure test of veracity: the possibility of the miracle not happening should be even more crazy than the possibility that it did. In this way, one needs really substantially big evidence on behalf of the proposition that the miracle did happen. The balance in evidence should, in other words, heavily be on the side of the possibility of the miracle having actually occurred.
Application of Hume Criteria
We will leave the Biblical claims aside as we are a far away from history. Just take the Wattala case:The young woman’s experience could possibly have been an illusion driven by suggestion. The report states that the woman had experienced family problems. Her troubles would have heightened her mental vulnerability to suggestion and illusion. In general, illusions can occur to anyone bathed in extreme faith or even in someone who has mental health issues. In the Wattala case, the appearance of tears in the picture of Jesus were not seen by any multitude of witnesses. Even in the instance of a “multitude” witnessing, there is something called collective illusion. It is also possible that a chemical reaction had occurred over something accidentally fallen on the picture.Thus, there is more probablility in favour of the miracle not having happened. Applying Hume’s criteria, the claim fails. I remember, years ago in Polonnaruwa, there was a story about Buddha’s halo (Budu Res) displayed on the sun at the premises of the Somavati Chaityaya. It was, later, found that that was due to a car mirror causing a reflection. Until then, hundreds of unsuspecting villagers rushed to the scene and pilgrims arrived in busloads to worship.
Lourdes, Fatima, and the Australian Case
The case of the cancer cure by the Australian saint, has been explained by scientists that remissions do naturally occur at a percentage rate among cancer patients. Yet, Rome went on to canonise the lady.
Many of the stories of ‘cure in Lourdes,’ have been similarly identified later by a panel of scientists as being remissions that occurred coinciding with patients bathing in the pool in Lourdes’ “holy water.” Professor Krauss, writing in the Los Angeles Times states that “the percentages of cures from cancer at Lourdes are much the same as those for spontaneous remission in the population at large, but of course only a few of the claimed cures are from cancer.” The Lourdes story began In Lourdes, in the Pyrennees, where in 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary. Millions have dipped themselves in the water by Lourdes in the hope of a cure.
What of the sun miracle at Fatima, in Portugal. It has been described differently by witnesses. Some claimed that the sun “spun pinwheel-like with colored streamers,’ while others maintained that “it danced.” Others reported that before the “dance of the sun” occurred, they “saw white petals shower down and disintegrate before reaching the earth.”
The whole issue is shrouded with controversy although the Church had declared the events worthy of belief as a miracle. People “elsewhere in the world, viewing the very same sun, did not see the alleged gyrations; neither did astronomical observatories detect the sun deviating from the norm (which would have had a devastating effect on Earth!). Alternative explanations would include “a combination of factors, including optical effects and meteorological phenomena, such as the sun being seen through thin clouds, causing it to appear as a silver disc. Other possibilities include an alteration in the density of the passing clouds, causing the sun’s image to alternately brighten and dim and so seem to advance and recede, and dust or moisture droplets in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight and thus imparting a variety of colors. The effects of suggestion were also likely involved, since devout spectators had come to the site fully expecting some miraculous event, had their gaze dramatically directed at the sun by the charismatic Lucia, and excitedly discussed and compared their perceptions in a way almost certain to foster psychological contagion.”
It is clear that in all theses cases the application of David Hume’s criteria would rule out the possibility of miracles having occurred since the options available to regard them as not having occurred far outweigh the “evidence,” presented to support the proposition that the miracles did occur.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org