Friday, February 5, 2010

Miracles and Anomalies: Magic, Psi, and Science.

"Do you believe in Miracles?" For me, the question would be: Do you know what you're talking about? The topic has been a masterpiece of human non-thought [in most quarters] and many people think that this is inevitably so. I, probably foolishly, don't think that non-thought is the way to go, even on this subject. I particularly don't want it to slide into the "Well, it's just a mystery" category, because my intuition feels that it is central to the understanding of many types of anomalies. So, "Devil take the Hindmost", here's a try at this.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Let's begin with something non-philosophical: Lourdes, one of the poster-children of the concept of "miracles". [In the interest of disclosure, I am a Catholic]. Here's the background: the Marian apparitions took place in 1858. Claims of miraculous cures began almost immediately. Despite what many people think, the Church is not keen on modern miracles, and rather fears them as wild-cards that occur outside the jurisdiction of the hierarchy, and sources of potentially high embarrassment, if they turn out to be bogus. Because this case was immediately so "public" and sensational [newspapers of the day were screaming headlines about the newest cure], the Church decided to try to protect itself by initiating a "Medical Bureau" composed of professional people [deliberately open to non-Catholics] to evaluate alleged cures. As time progressed, the standards that an alleged cure would have to meet to be declared a "miracle" became almost impossible to meet, even if the incident was extremely remarkable. Many instances were recognized as "cures" but, out of many hundreds of cases only 67 have been designated "miracles". Some of the qualifying criteria are: the cure must be "immediate", "complete", and "permanent", and whatever the problem was has to be termed "incurable" due to anything happening at the time or even capable of happening in terms of treatment et al. The lists of the cures are available widely on the web, and you can read about them there and make up your own minds. For our discussion here, the "miracles" at Lourdes are felt by the people who studied them to have occurred outside the bounds of what Medicine and Science deems possible. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
And that, of course brings us to the debate. There are at least four main opinions about miracles. "Science" has one. "Religion" has one. People who see the world in terms of "Magic" have one. And people who see the world in terms of "Parapsychology" have one. "Science", if such an entity exists, parrots, still today, the opinions of David Hume--the ultimate restrictive reductionist. Hume said:"A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined... no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle...." Hume was exactly in the spirit of the so-called "Enlightenment" in this, and may be credited as the foundational philosopher of that sort of view. His argument above is based on the premise that there is nothing but empirically-derived physical law and so anything that does not seem to match that set of laws is impossible. If you are a materialist reductionist, you can make that argument [sort-of], but you've prejudiced all discussion a priori. Our favorite girl, Catherine Crowe, as we have seen, saw right through this restrictive prejudice. As it turns out "Science" isn't this reductionist thing that Hume imagines. The picture in the upper left of the collage shows three "scientists". Langmuir, in the upper left, ferociously opposed all "irrationality" whether he understood anything about it or not. He was a mindless skeptic [and that included basically all "anomalies"]. George Gaylord Simpson was an avowed atheist-materialist. He judged things through the lens of automatically denying anything having to do with "spirit". Nicola Tesla, on the other hand, had no time for any of that B.S., and was, in his science, simply trying to explore no matter where it might lead. Depending on what your "philosophy" was, you would be more or less sympathetic to anomalies or miracles on an incident by incident basis. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The other "philosophies", of course take wildly different stances. "Magical" thinking is a bridge between science and psi, in its more thoughtful school, but completely non-think in its other. The non-think school just says "stuff happens"--pop!--no cause. Well, that's beneath comment. The thoughtful side says: there are "recipes" that one can learn about or discover, which if performed according to proper "ritual", will produce certain "behavior" in the world, which is not understood by science. In this, magical thinking is just like empirical science [a discovery process, leading to a type of "law" of the creation, and the establishment of a set of useful tools and a "protoscience"]. Whether you can actually do any of that is, of course, another story, but people who believe in magic feel so. In earlier times, what we call science today was called "natural magic". --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Parapsychology, in its more enthusiastic membership, is quite allied with magical thinking, whether they want to be or not. This is because psychic research sees the root cause of these non-physical law phenomena as "psychic" in nature--i.e. having to do more with the powers of consciousness than matter. If a "Magician" would be successful, the parapsychologist would attribute that success to psychic ability not mysterious properties embedded in the "stuff" of the universe. If he/she had to perform a ritual, that was to get them into the proper mental state. Olde-time Religionists, of course, thought that all such miracles were just part of the immediate ability of GOD to do whatever He wanted to--the "ZAP" hypothesis. That turns out to be the way most religionists still {non-}think today, but it is not the position of current Church theology--more about that later. Hopefully everyone is getting many intuitions as to how all this might come to dominate thinking about anomalies.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
So, to push at least my thinking a little further: what's a "Miracle"? At a first try: "A Miracle is a Surprise which occurs without us being able to understand it on the basis of the functioning of physical laws". Maybe all schools of thought would agree with that so far. But now I'll make my enemies. This Surprise occurs because either we have an incomplete set of physical laws or understandings, [the UFO anomaly is one which will be solved, in my opinion, not by the spiritual or paranormal, but by our discovering the rest of the elements of the physical universe, i.e. E.T]; or we have not integrated the psychic and spiritual elements resident in the Creation into our cosmology. By this I mean to indicate that we might feel that something is a Miracle, but it will be well understood some day on the basis of "scientific" physical laws, but other things that we see as Miracles will never be understood on that basis, and will demand the inclusion in our thinking of spiritual or psychic "laws". Our difficulties in dealing with Miracles and certain other commonly experienced anomalies are due to our pathetic incompleteness when it comes to our pursuit of our "Theories of Everything". --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The Church's "new" theology of Miracles rejects the concept that they are violations of the laws of the Creation. This new Theology says that GOD uses the potentialities already resident in the fundamental laws of the Universe to produce what we see as the miraculous. Well, OK as far as that goes. What the theologians [minus some real adventurers like Herbert Thurston, who wrote the terrific study The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism], are missing is the psychic side of all this. If there are parapsychological potentialities resident in reality, then GOD is loaded with such ability too. Are not there psychic "laws" embedded in this Universe? Even if pedestrian "science" can't get a handle on them?-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------When a "Miracle" or a "True Anomaly" occurs, its presentation to us is [usually] "physical" {yes, pure information-transfer anomalies occur such as clairvoyance or telepathy, but let's stick with a physical analysis for the moment}. That physical presentation or "change" may have occurred at one of several "scales of nature" as far as normal science is concerned. It could have happened grossly on the macroscopic level. [like a whole new arm suddenly appeared]. It could have happened at the microscopic level [physiological systems, molecular actions--like an immunity-related cure--cancer, diabetes, artery-clearing, slow regrowth etc]. It could occur at the atomic level [transmutations, radioactive decay]. Or it might be as deep as the level of the fundamental forces [action-at-a-distance, levitation, ---dare we say psi?][by the way, it is a "dirty little secret" of science that "action-at-a-distance" is a ubiquitous phenomenon, totally unexplained by causal models/mechanisms...i.e., a miracle]. Lourdes-like miracles probably don't occur grossly. But they well could occur by the parapsychological manipulation of molecular and deeper levels of our physical world. The theologians are not yet ready to so openly welcome the terminology of the paranormal, due to old hang-ups about it being dangerous and potentially the Devil's Workshop, but that is where they need to go. A very good book, Miracles, by Scott Rogo [quite recommended], would disagree with me on my merging of miracles and the psychic, but that is where I respectfully disagree. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
What we are missing is the inclusion of the spiritual/psychic. Catherine saw that as a colossal cultural error, and it is a colossal "scientific" one as well. We will never get the Theory of Everything until the spiritual/psychic "dimensions" are included alongside the 9,10,whatever number of force dimensions that the mathematicians are fooling with now. Down deep within the engines and gears of creation, there are more elements of "force-projection" and phenomena- manifestation than restricted science is willing to contemplate. "They" will never get there. What they will resist until their last breath [when they'll have a huge shock as the "light-tunnel" shows up] is the centrality of Observership. Not only is the Prime Observer "governing" the stability of the physical laws, as originated at the Big Bang, but constant other observerships are at work, some more consciously than others. Sometimes such observership might be from the Deity, making a traditional "miracle", sometimes it might be from one of us, making a psychic or self-healing "miracle". Sometimes it might even be a spirit entity or a "folkloric" one, doing something "impossible". All of these might occur outside the bounds of restricted "physical" law, and, on that ground, "impossible" [a priori] for Hume. Well, OK. But for "Enlightenment", that is a dim bulb indeed. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I believe that despite the ongoing great discoveries that science will make--and we should all cheer that on-- the reductionist practitioners will ultimately have to change or lose face completely. The hated "Miracles" [spiritual/psi/anomalistic] will continue to happen despite their wishing them away. In the face of those events, they have reduced themselves to only one, [ironically mindless] response: as the avatar of Langmuir and Simpson, and CSICOP, says in the picture above, when faced with the parting of the Red Sea: "Fluke". We have a job in this search for truth that is bigger than what we might feel. It's our job to be little Charles Forts saving the things which don't fit, and obnoxiously bringing them to the attention of---everyone. So mount your chargers; even though you suspect that you are more like Don Quixote than Isaac Newton. What's the option? David Hume?-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Last thought: in my old age I have become precisely in the chorus of Minneapolis story-teller-singer, Peter Mayer. Reflecting on the difference of old-style religion and where he has grown into today, he sings: "Wine from water is not so small. But an even better magic trick is that anything is here at all. So the challenging thing becomes. Not to look for Miracles...but finding where there isn't one. "


  1. I like this piece: it reminds me a bit of Prof Robert Shapiro's Origins, which approached EVERYTHING from a truly skeptical - i.e., a non-involved, highly detached - point of view, pointing out all the flaws in the accepted explanations for the origins of life, but also pointing out the virtues in all the supposedly fairytale versions told by supposedly primitive peoples.

    Where Science's gone increasingly wrong, to me, is in its claims it EXPLAINS things, whereas in the past Science attempted to more and more accurately DESCRIBE things.

    That's why I love engineers, because while the likes of the Scientific American're quoting chapter and verse of the theoretic dogma why manned powered flight ISN'T possible, the likes of the Wright Brothers've gone past wondering how it'd be done if it WAS possible, and moved onto how to stay higher in the air, and how to get higher.

    Scientists seem to be more about vindicating the prestige of beautiful pristine theories, engineers more about bending the laws of nature until they break to reveal new ones.

  2. They live, usually, in two very different worlds as well. Engineers love to apply knowledge already known. Once they do, and what they've built is "running" there's hardly room for doubting anything. Where they ARE a bit like scientists, however, is when something that they've built [though it runs, is seen as a lousy "solution" or system. Then they too defend their "babies" irrationally. We see this a lot nowadays in the rejection by engineer types of the reality of how the big technological systems have dark sides which mess up peoples' lives and destroy environment. Both these types of guys, in the end have a similar, though human, flaw---they irrationally defend "their own" in the face of anything.

  3. Actually, now I think about it, Prof, you're right, because was it Edison who fought tooth and nail to prevent Tesla's alternating current replacing direct current?

    Keep up the good work!

  4. "The hated "Miracles" [spiritual/psi/anomalistic] will continue to happen despite their wishing them away.... What's the option? David Hume?"

    But... they DON'T happen, do they? All we have are stories from people who claim they happened, basically when no one was looking. We don't have amputees getting their limbs back or another type of healing that could be convincing without any doubt. No saint can levitate on command before a committee of inquiry. Mary doesn't appear to EVERYONE; she's like the Emperor's new clothes. The Church doesn't release Marian prophecies until after the prophecied event has already taken place (Fatima), etc.

    Why look down one's nose at people who actually want more than an anecdote? That's rational thinking. Magical-thinking people can't give me a crystal ball to see what's going on hundreds of miles away; science has given me a television. Magic can't give me a broom to fly on, religion can't make me levitate, but I've been on an airplane. Science has given us every great thing to improve our condition.

    It's not some sort of mindset that causes me to say this; it's just an impartial tally. For all the talk of psi and 100+ years of research, I can't communicate with my mind to people far away but I can do so today with the cell phone in my pocket. To even suggest that science may one day have to be completely altered when the score is science 1000, magic, parapsychology, religion 0, is really hubris, not Hume's belief. When any of those three (some of which have had thousands of years of practice) can perform their claims when someone is looking, THAT will be a watershed moment. Science WILL look, if anyone can actually bring anything to the table. Sadly, "bad vibes", "uncooperative spirits", "the men in black took my photos", "the ghost won't move anything as long as James Randi is here", etc. always seem to come into play when people want to take things seriously. Again, can you really blame anyone for growing tired of that? Drag in a Bigfoot, E.T., Nessie, ghost in a bottle - science will put it under the microscope like anything else.

    I'd be seriously interested in knowing what one would gain by "throwing in" with disciplines that have given us nothing for hundreds or thousands of years rather than science. Would you ever invest in a company that had given you a 0% return on investment for that long? Why do we need to consider failed frameworks that have never managed to give us one hypothesis about the way the world works that can be independently tested (most fail right there) and have gotten positive results?

    Alan, there's no point to just describing things. The whole idea is try to understand things. That's how we figure out how to make new things or change things. Hypothesis formation and testing via experiment have always been part of the scientific method, and theory formation is the goal. Why WOULDN'T we want to explain things?

    One more thing, and I hope it doesn't offend you but I take issue with the term "an avowed atheist-materialist". Atheism/materialism isn't a school of thought that one needs to make a commitment to. It simply IS. All of our senses measure the physical world. That's all we know. That there's something else beyond that or outside of that is a mental/cultural construct that one does need to be initiated into. Left to their own devices, no human does (or can) experience anything beyond the material. That the wind is caused by their dead ancestors or their praying/meditating hard enough are ideas, but not sensory experiences. Atheism and materialism are the natural state of affairs and the mind, not a lifestyle choice until humans evolve another sensory organ that can detect ghosts/God/spirit/whatever.

  5. Thank you for your opinion on these matters. You will forgive me if I remind you that this is not a talk radio show which is asking for lengthy statements of personal philosophy on matters not provable one way or the other. I am allowed to say anything that I want to in my posts because it is my blog. If you have opinions that are philosophical and want to get into a big argument about them using absolutist language which you can't "prove" either, well, get your own blog. You have obviously not read this blog in its entirety, nor caught its drift, nor resonate with anything that energizes it--you also have not read my statements that this blog is my house, wherein I share its contents for no cost, and expect people to behave as if they were guests. I am quite happy to exchange information with people, and stand corrected on matters of fact, and have acknowledged so here. I will not however tolerate strong statements of reductionist philosophy as if this was obvious, when no intellectually honest scientists would support that any such things are proven, and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. You are welcome to your beliefs--and that is what they are. If you are looking for a soapbox to preach them, this, my house, is not the place, and you show poor form insisting to do so.

  6. Well, said. Both the post and the rebuttal. jgm has a slight point in the matter of replicatability (apparently, the dictionairies prefer "replicability") and perfomance on demand being desirable in 'proving' the existence and value of anomalous. But of course, then it would no longer be the anomalous.

    I really like your blog - the tone you set, and the material yuo provide. Thanks...rickpetes

  7. Oh, I need to practice my editing...rickpetes

  8. I see miracles as a case of the Great Programmer using the manual override button on the program. But, of course, the manual override facility is part of the program. In other words, Creation is designed to allow the laws of nature to be overridden.

    1. Perhaps. That is one way to model it. My view is that the Creator, though remaining essentially separate ("essentially" here is meant to have a deep meaning rather than street talk) is in panentheistic relationship with the Creation. The existence and physical law-abiding nature of the Creation is moment-to-moment sustained in its existence and lawful way by that panentheistic presence. Should the Creator choose to alter that lawful behavior for any time, the alteration has only to be Willed. This is close to what you are saying, I believe, but perhaps subtly different in that the language emphasizes the critical element as being the "paranormal" impression of Will (even sometimes our own human will) on orderly but fundamentally undetermined physical existence.



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