Sunday, September 24, 2017

On the Impossibility of Miracles

We measure human rational sanity by one’s consistent success in distinguishing clearly between fantasy and reality, each assigned to a well-partitioned, distinct mental space or domain. DSM 5, the authoritative diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association, identifies this as the single factor in the diagnosis of delusion and psychosis in patients. We in modern civilization happily apply this distinction as a reasonable standard for rational judgement and mental health in all areas except in the realm of the sacred; some prominent cultural exceptions include Santa Claus, Jesus, the Qu’ran, the Western Wall, Krishna, Budh Gaya, et cetera. Each exception—Let us be clear—requires some indulgence in belief, i.e., the assertion of otherwise unwarranted inferences about reality in the face of inadequate or contrary evidence. The license for such indulgence appears to provide the very point or purpose of what one means by sacralization in human society, beyond mere signification. Indeed, when people call something “sacred” (and not merely “significant”) they are tacitly sequestering that something as exempt from common standards of rationality, i.e., from the cognitive distinction between fantasy and reality.

In order to assess the possibility of “miracles,” one must first define the term with reasonable precision. We use this term to describe two kinds of phenomena: First, we may call an unlikely event a “miracle,” such as an uncanny phone call at just the right moment, a sports team pulling out a remarkable victory against all odds, or a coin toss that results in the coin landing on-edge instead of heads or tails. This particular use of the word “miracle” appears hyperbolic and, as such, does not constitute what we literally mean by the term; a miracle is not merely an extraordinary natural event. Nikola Tesla, moreover, was not a miracle-man, but a scientist and engineer who saw evermore deeply into the natural order. In truth, when we claim that a miracle has occurred, we mean that something naturally impossible has transpired; this is the second (the primary, true) use of the word. A “miracle,” by common definition, is a supernatural intervention in the natural order.

Here we may choose to end the argument, claiming a quite reasonable conclusive victory. Miracles, by very definition, are natural, rational impossibilities. When someone claims a miracle has occurred, we respond by saying that “there must be some rational explanation.” By doing this, we are implicitly recognizing as a society that miraculous claims are essentially irrational, i.e., a miraculous proposition contains one or more a priori contradictions with regard to its constituent terms. If I claim that my dog can run a mile in under 1 second, supposing those terms to carry their common meanings in language, we find a contradiction. Our common use of the term “dog” implies a number of natural constraints. All dogs possess physiological constraints in running speed, such that, even upon hearing that “a dog ran a full mile in under 1 second,” one immediately classifies this claim as “miraculous” or as fantastical, cartoonish even, and not within the mental space of natural reality. Such claims require “belief,” i.e., the suspension of reason and sufficient evidential support.

Many of late have found David Hume’s claim that “whatever is conceivable is possible” to be somehow reasonable and correct. Hume wrote, “Whatever can be conceived by a clear and distinct idea necessarily implies the possibility of existence.” (Treatise, p. 43) People have taken this to mean that whatever one may imagine in the mind, that also is possible in reality. Following Hume, Aviezer Tucker, Richard Carrier, et alii have sought to argue (via Bayes’ Theorem) that all miraculous claims in history must achieve some possibility, however small, that they are factual. There appears, however, to be no proven relationship between the all-but-limitless extent of the whimsical human imagination and the present, concrete constraints of the natural world. In short, the natural order itself, alone must delineate the strictures and limitations of what we may rationally deem as possible, not our human penchant for fantasy. Only an evidence-driven construction of reality may qualify as rational and sane. Miraculous claims, as they by very definition lack empirical warrant, cannot qualify as knowledge. For, if a claim had empirical support, would we not classify such a proposal as indeed natural, not supernatural? The linguistic insight here, therefore, yielded by basic critical interrogation, appears to be that the category “supernatural” stands as a cipher or namespace for all claims arising out of “belief” in fantasy or myth, not out of empirical knowledge. As for the domain of reality, we reasonably conclude, all things are natural.

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