Dr. Charles T. Tart on September 26th, 2011

I’ve been having a discussion with some spiritual people working toward a “trans-traditional spirituality,” and we’ve been talking about miracles.  Do they discourage even trying to develop a science, even a partial science, of spirituality, or can we fit them in somehow.  Since one of my main scientific interests, parapsychology, is about “miracles,” this is of great interest to me.

Let’s start with that word “miracle.”  The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition is:

miracle /0ˈk(ə)l/ noun & verb. ME.

[ORIGIN Old French & Modern French from Latin miraculum object of wonder, from mirari, -are look at, wonder, from mirus wonderful.]

1 A marvellous event not ascribable to human or natural agency, and therefore attributed to the intervention of a supernatural agent, esp. (in Christian belief) God; spec. an act demonstrating control over nature, serving as evidence that the agent is either divine or divinely favoured.

I believe this is the way most people use the word “miracle,” a supernatural agent has demonstrated His/Her/Its control over nature, and it makes no sense given what we humans understand about nature and nature’s laws.

Let’s consider something very simple which I think we all believe science has established beyond any reasonable doubt.  If you take two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen and heat them enough, they turn into water.  Always.

A “miracle” would then be that you repeat the above and it doesn’t turn into water, as such an outcome is not ascribable to what we know on “natural agency.”  If someone credits God or the gods with fixing it so no water is formed, that’s the basic stuff of a “miracle.”

Putting such a result into more neutral language, you have some observations, in this case a zillion of them, that two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen, heated to some specified temperature, always turns into the stuff we call water.  We have also developed a conceptual system, chemistry, which makes this observation logically plausible and fits it in with a much wider collection of observations, the body of chemistry.

Ideal Science and Scientists and Reality:

Now I could describe the “ideal” scientist as always curious and not overly attached to any concepts, and to some degree some scientists tend to be like that (I hope I’m that way).  But coming back to ordinary human reality, we all tend to get attached to things that work practically and to things that make sense and so make us feel smart.  Who doesn’t like to feel that they are smart, understand how the world works, and can control it at least fairly well?

So probably most actual human scientists, faced with the observation of no water formed when there should have been water formed, jump to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the experiment, not that what they believe are basic laws of chemistry were violated, that there was a “miracle.”  And since we humans do make mistakes, it’s not a bad first conclusion, we could indeed have screwed up the experiment.

So we do the experiment over and over and the “miraculous outcome” keeps happening, no water, even though we’ve carefully examined our apparatus, etc.

Well a lot of scientist will simply dismiss the anomalous results at this point rather than question their knowledge: it still must be some error even if they can’t figure out what that error is yet.  We will figure it out some day, of course.  This someday belief, applied to being unable to come up with a convincing physical explanation for something, is what philosophers long ago named “promissory materialism.”  Someday we will understand this and everything else in proper material terms.  The problem is that this is not science, this is “faith,” in the worst connotation of “faith.”  A principal requirement for something to be a scientific theory, according to many philosophers of science, is that a theory must be capable of being disproven.  Well you can never prove that X won’t be proven in the terms you prefer – chemistry, God, devils, little green UFOs, what have you – someday.

A practical example of this is the evidence for ESP.  Hundreds and hundreds of experiments show ESP manifesting, so the pseudo-skeptics then claim that ESP really means Error Some Place rather than Extrasensory Perception.

A very few scientists will find the failure of an experiment to conform to what we think are the laws to be really exciting and want to research it – like us parapsychologists.  After all, any parapsychology experiment comes down to setting up a situation where, given what we think we know about the physical world, nothing can happen.  Put two people in isolated rooms miles apart, have one look at a randomized deck of cards every minute while the person in the other writes down what she thinks the card is each time.  Given all we know about the physical world, you’ll get chance level scores, say 50% correct if the task is to guess red or black with ordinary playing cards.  Then some people average more than that, say 53%, long enough to be statistically significant, and we have evidence for ESP.  Yes, 50% of the time the receiving person is just guessing, but every once in a while they know what the correct card is…..very interesting.

Now if you call this a “miracle” in the sense of “A marvellous event not ascribable to human or natural agency, and therefore attributed to the intervention of a supernatural agent,” you’ve brought your attempts to understand what’s happening to an end, you’ve defined it as something beyond human understanding, so what’s the point of trying?  And by not trying to understand further, you don’t understand further….

But if you don’t use that word “miracle,” with it’s implication that we humans can’t understand, but describe it as an anomalous event, simply something that doesn’t make sense in terms of what we already know, that doesn’t say it didn’t happen, and it invites us to try to expand our understanding.  So for a few scientists like me, “miracles” are an incentive to look deeper and further.  Indeed things that we’re sure happen but don’t make sense in terms of conventional knowledge might mean an error some place, but might very well mean the next major breakthrough in science if we apply ourselves.

How Far Can We Understand?

Now it could turn out that no matter how much further and deeper we look, we never get beyond verifying that these things occur, but just won’t make sense to us.  I’m willing to consider that outcome as possibility, although my preference is for it to make sense, and I am confident that, with further study, these kinds of events will indeed make a lot more sense than they do now.  Whether they will make any kind of “ultimate sense,” I don’t know.

But Miracles Prove My Religion is the True One!

I also have no objection to religious and spiritual people pointing to apparent miracles – paranormal phenomena in my more neutral description – as evidence that there is a reality to the spiritual.  Indeed that’s the whole thrust of my “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together” book.  Many, many people have had their spiritual and religious lives inhibited or squelched by followers of Scientism (Materialism pretending to be all of science) claiming that all spirituality is unreal, nonsense, imaginary, and who wants to be thought dumb and deluded?   The overview of evidence for the paranormal – for “miracles” if we were forced to use that terminology – that I give in the book is to support my conclusion that the followers of Scientism who have told spiritual people they are stupid are not only harming those people, they are misleading them, because real science, actually working with all the data of parapsychology, shows that humans sometimes show the kinds of qualities we would expect spiritual beings to have.  So it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in ones approach to life.

On the other hand, I think one of the reasons for irrational opposition to parapsychological research from religious people is that the evidence is now clear that no particular religion can claim superiority over any other because it can point to paranormal events, “miracles” among its followers.  Looking at the catalogs of these events in various religions they all have pretty much the same basic parapsychological phenomena occurring.

I personally take that as a sign that God/Spirit, whatever you want to call it, is happy to give such little boosts to people’s faith as long as it’s any faith that helps people become wiser and more compassionate.  I can’t “prove” that incidentally, I can’t point to extensive surveys that show, e.g., that “nice” religions have more paranormal events happen that “not nice” religions, this is just my personal feeling, my best guess at this early stage of our knowledge. And perhaps my bias that I may need to overcome some day.

It would be very interesting to catalog the kinds of “miracles,” paranormal events reported in various spiritual traditions though.  At first glance they are all pretty much the same, but differences might be very revealing.  For example, in Tibetan Buddhism there is a tradition, based on reports of people who claim to have witnessed this, of very spiritually advanced people passing into “rainbow body” when they die.  These are people who ask that their body be undisturbed, in a closed room, after they die.  Observers report seeing all sorts of rainbow like light leaking out of the room, and when it is opened at the end of the traditional seven days there is no body left in the room except for fingernails, hair, and clothing.  Or in some cases a very shrunken body.  I’ve never heard of anything similar in other traditions.

Do Miracles Destroy Science?

Coming back to the central issue, yes, I think considering any events as “miracles” does tend to destroy science.  There’s little point in doing science if some supernatural being suddenly and inexplicably changes the way the world works.  My belief – can’t prove it, but it’s what I operate from – is that Spirit or God or whatever is basically benign and won’t sabotage our intelligence this way.  But in terms of the way most scientists feel, yes, the possibility of supernatural beings arbitrarily changing reality does gut science.  A simple way to not worry about that is to deny all spiritual reality…..No non-physical, “supernatural” (another word that causes a lot of trouble), then nobody to mess up our experiments and undermine the advance of our knowledge.  No “miracles,” no worry.

Lots of interesting psychological questions developing from all this speculation, no time to go into it now….

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