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Miracle or coincidence?

Why an unlikely event that seems miraculous most likely isn't.

July 13, 2013
  • Costa Rica's Floribeth Mora stands by the shrine she made to Pope John Paul II at her. She suffered from a cerebral aneurysm that was inexplicably cured on May 1, 2011, the date of the late pope's beatification.
Costa Rica's Floribeth Mora stands by the shrine she made to Pope John… (Enrique Martinez / Associated…)

Would Lawrence R. Krauss "recognize a miracle if one sat down and bit him on the ankle"? Reader Nathan Post wondered as much in his letter published Thursday in response to Krauss' July 8 Op-Ed article on miracles and the canonization of Pope John Paul II.

Post also wrote:

"Noting the dearth of miracles reported at Lourdes, France, Lawrence M. Krauss appears to make several assumptions. In a nutshell, he is saying that the number of miracles reported at Lourdes and recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as legitimate is solid evidence — almost proof — that miracles do not occur.

"One thing we do know is that if a single miracle occurred at Lourdes, Krauss would be proved wrong.

"Another assumption Krauss appears to be making is that God is some kind of spiritual gum machine: You put something in and something comes out. If true, that would betray an incredible ignorance of the church or its thinking on the subject."

Lawrence R. Krauss responds:

It is correct that if a single miracle occurred at Lourdes, or anywhere else, I would be proved wrong. However, a miracle is something that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be attributed to natural causes.

This means that if one could imagine a coincidence or an accident as the cause of something seemingly "miraculous," no matter how remote or unlikely, that is more probable than the likelihood that the laws of nature have been suspended.

All of us are prone to believe that strange events are significant. You might dream, for example, that someone you know breaks a leg and then you wake up and find out that person actually was in an accident. But we tend to forget the thousands of times our dreams are nonsense and don't have any correspondence with reality.

If someone were to regenerate an amputated arm or jump off a building and fall up instead of down, that would be worth thinking about. But attributing to divine providence more simple things like being cured of diseases that sometimes go into spontaneous remission is stale and vapid.

In themselves, irrational beliefs are not harmful or bad, I suppose. It doesn't hurt anyone for a person to believe in, say, unicorns. But such beliefs become dangerous when they cause people to behave in self-abusive ways, such as avoiding good medical care in the hopes that a god will cure you. This is a major problem with miracles.

Finally, it is telling that there is no evidence, in all of human history, of a miracle that has been validated by entities that are not affiliated with churches.

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