Suppose that, someday, a miracle took place that had indisputable evidence for it - videorecording by multiple cameras, a large audience of eyewitnesses (including not only religious adherents but also skeptics and atheists from all walks of life, and highly scientifically educated folks to boot) and medical or other records. Could be something like someone jumping from a height of 30+ feet onto concrete without suffering the slightest injury, or a woman who’d had a hysterectomy mysteriously getting a new uterus again, or a badly-broken forearm straightening and healing immediately on the spot.***
The hypothetical is that the miracle is indeed legit and was proven to not have been the doing of shenanigans, such as some sleight-of-hand trick to fool a crowd (such as concealed items) or an edited video, so don’t fight the hypo. The question isn’t whether the miracle is legit, but rather, what the ramifications of a legit miracle would be.
What would be the societal and scientific ramifications of such a thing?
*** The examples given are all miracles claimed to have happened in real life by some people, such as, for instance, some folks affiliated with Heidi Baker’s Iris Global ministries in southeast Africa. However, the small number of eyewitnesses, lack of videotaping, etc. isn’t enough to persuade a larger audience, hence why I hypotheticalized, what if they’d had a lot, lot more evidence collected on the spot?
It’d be almost impossible to prove, without doubt, that it’s legitimate.
But let’s accept the hypothetical. It might reduce atheism. I’m not sure what else it would do, though - even if it “proves” that there’s something supernatural, it doesn’t say anything about what that is. It doesn’t provide any more evidence for the Christian God than for Thor or Vishnu (or very powerful aliens, for that matter). I suspect it would just be another unexplained incident for the history books, and a few decades would just be a footnote of moderate curiosity. Unless there were a bunch of these sort of miracles at once, it could just be seen as a freak occurrence, never to be seen again.
None of the miracles you mention would IMO be sufficient to convince most people of anything. Penn & Teller could duplicate them all.
Everybody knows Moses goes to Pharoah and says “Let my people go!”. Most people don’t know (or have forgotten), that the first time Moses did this he performed three miracles. He repeatedly made his hand pale and sick with leprosy. Then he made it normal again. He changed a vessel of water to blood. He made his staff turn into a snake. Pharoah looked at his priestly advisers and asked “Can you do these things?”. The advisers said they could and went on to duplicate the miracles. In a bit most people do know, the snake Moses made ate the snake the advisers made. Still, Pharoah was not impressed.
A fall onto concrete? All kinds of trickery could be involved. A broken arm setting or a uterus reappearing? Medical records can be faked. You want a miracle to convince the world? Think much much bigger.
IIRC Ray Bradbury wrote a short story on this theme. Spoiler A space ship captain is chasing Jesus and looking for proof of G-d and miracles. None of the testimony provided is good enough for him. Yeah you say that kid has a withered arm and that painting shows him that way. But, can you prove he had a withered arm that miraculously healed? In the end, one of the ship’s officers stays behind. He says ‘The captain will always be a day, an hour, a minute, a second too late- won’t he?’ He then goes to meet Jesus who has never left the planet- the captain simply couldn’t see him because he lacked faith.
I think a single miracle would change basically nothing. Regardless of how well documented or how apparently real, look at how little people are swayed by clear and voluminous evidence that the absolute nonsense they believe in is in fact absolute nonsense.
A few people would be change their minds, but, honestly, the rational conclusion of encountering what appears to be unassailable evidence of a miraculous event is to assume that it’s fake, but faked too well for you to figure out. Just like every other amazing occurrence that defies a scientfic understanding of reality.
A continued sequence of miracles would likely start a new religion around whoever made the most effective claim to them.
I understand that you want to limit the scope of the question to “never mind how, let’s say that something impossible happened, and was attributed to religious powers. Then what?” But I would argue that this is a meaningless question, along the lines of “Can God make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?”. By definition, a miracle is something that is impossible according to known laws of how the universe works. If it were possible, it wouldn’t be a miracle. But also by definition, the impossible cannot happen.
If something apparently impossible happened, any enlightened society would launch a thorough study seeking to explain it by scientific method. It would become a scientific question, not a religious one.
It seems to me that the Bible is full of stories of pretty indisputable miracles. (As are, I presume, various other “sacred scriptures”, but as an American I’m most familiar with the Bible.) So this attitude of “Well, any miracle could be faked (and therefore faith is what’s important)” seems like a little bit of a cop-out.
Take John 11:38-44. That there’s a story in the Bible about Jesus raising some guy named Lazarus from the dead is reasonably well known to most educated people in “the West”, even those of us who aren’t Christians (and never have been)—“Lazarus” as a metaphor for “coming back from the dead” or something along those lines is pretty readily intelligible. But if you actually read that story, the author(s) of the Gospel specify that, before Jesus supposedly raised him from the dead, it had been so long since Lazarus had died that the body was beginning to smell bad. From the King James Version:
So, no “Oh, he had just fallen into a trance” or “He was just resting!” or “He was just pining for the fjords!” in that story.
To this idea that “Well, the medical records could have been faked”—OK, so the woman is first examined by a team of medical experts (including atheists and other people who don’t believe in Pastafarianism), who all certify that, by gadfrey, this woman has no uterus! MRIs, CAT scans, the whole nine yards, with all tests repeated multiple times to everyone’s complete satisfaction. Then a Prophet of the Flying Spaghetti Monster lays hands on her (or, uh, maybe he does more than just “lay hands” on her) and presto! She’s pregnant! And has a new uterus for the baby to be in.
So, what’s the reaction to that? I mean, this still doesn’t prove the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t evil (maybe the FSM is really the anti-Pink-Unicorn, given power to tempt us away from Her ineffably invisible pinkness before the End Times, when She shall trample all Her enemies beneath Her hooves). Maybe the Prophet of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a Sufficiently Advanced Alien—but at some point “Sufficiently Advanced Aliens” isn’t really any better than just throwing up our hands and saying “Goddidit!” (“Mr. President, we looked in the silos and the missile tubes, and every one of our nuclear weapons has been transformed into a bowl of petunias.” “Yeah, I just got off the hotline, and–fortunately for us!–the same thing has happened to the Russians and the Chinese. And the French and the British, and the Indians and the Pakistanis. And probably the Israelis. And the North Koreans, too. Darned aliens, interfering in our internal planetary affairs!”)
There would definitely be things that, if they actually happened, would be totally inexplicable in the scientific framework of the universe that we’ve carefully built up with a few centuries of quantifiable observations and experiments and rational theory-making, and I don’t think it’s helpful to deny that. A theory that can literally explain anything is actually worthless.
I don’t really think it does science a service to take the attitude of “Everything can be explained by SCIENCE!” Everything up this point has proven explicable—or at any rate, we haven’t yet run into anything that’s clearly not explicable and ain’t ever gonna be—and I personally am confident that this state of affairs will continue on into the future.
But if, next Tuesday, all cats start spontaneously giving birth to dogs, I don’t expect biologists to just say “Oh, yes, uh, obviously it has now become adaptive for cats to give birth to kittens that are totally identical to puppies in every possible way, and therefore, you know, that has been, uh, selected for…Yes, that’s perfectly fine, totally in accord with our theories, nothing to see here, move along!” That would be Chick Tract levels of intellectual pointy-headedness.
Using the last election or two as a point of reference, large groups of people will believe stuff without any evidence, and equally large groups of people will refuse to believe stuff no matter how much evidence you shove in their faces. It doesn’t matter if the evidence for your miracle is indisputable-What matters is whether you tell people what they want to hear.
That isn’t what I said. There is a lot that science cannot yet explain, like the Big Bang and much of quantum physics, and there will probably always be gaps in our knowledge. And I’m well aware of the old dictum (from Arthur C. Clarke, I believe) that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
What I’m saying, though, is if faced with something apparently impossible, such as extremely advanced alien technology, we would seek to understand it and characterize it analytically as best we could, and would do so in a systematic way by applying the scientific method. Depending on what it did it might well attract religious fanatics, but I’m confident that as a society overall we’re long past the primitive stage of attributing novel phenomena to magical deities and would take a sober and rational approach to trying to understand such phenomena. We might be as far removed from actually being able to “explain” how it works as a Greek philosopher would have been from explaining a microchip, but we would view it as technology rather than magic, and could at least analytically catalog what it does.
I agree: a miracle would open a new branch of science. Miracleology. The first question would be, is there a mechanism behind this miracle, or was it random? If the latter, that would really throw a lot of other science into question, as true randomness isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a part of the macro world. We’d examine whether there were a quantum trigger to the miracle. If there’s a mechanism behind the miracle, what’s the mechanism? Is it reproducible? Is it investigatable?
Take the regrowing uterus. What did the woman do prior to the regrowth? How long did it take? If she’s willing to undergo tests, does the regrown uterus match her other tissue? Does it show signs of age (e.g., DNA damage)? Is anyone else regrowing their uterus or other body parts?
It’d open a huge branch of science, but it’d be a mistake to jump to conclusions. That regrown uterus could be:
God answered her prayer (and not millions of other prayers)
A supergenius scientist helped her with the regrowth.
Fairies are real.
Mutated slime mold parasite that’s invading bodies by assuming forms of missing organs
But I don’t think we’re talking about “extremely advanced alien technology” in this thread. We’re talking about miracles, the sorts of things humans claim happen in stories from religion and mythology.
A human woman has sex with a swan. The same night, she also has sex with her human husband. She then lays two eggs, each of which hatches into a pair of (apparently human) twins.
I don’t think we’d have a whole lot of luck analyzing and understanding THAT one. I mean, how the hell does a female Homo sapiens sapiens—or any female mammal—lay eggs?!? Humans don’t have egg-laying parts, humans don’t even produce eggs (I don’t mean mammalian ova, I mean big things with shells like female swans do in fact produce), it just doesn’t make any sense on any level.
It’s perfectly reasonable to say “That never happened—that was just a wacky story some ancient Greeks made up—and it never will happen—humans don’t have egg-laying parts” and so on. But if it DID happen (and I’m certainly not saying that anything like that has ever happened or ever will) it would break our understanding of the Universe in a pretty fundamental way. (“Gee, I guess Zeusdidit. Better get cracking on sacrificing those oxen, puny mortal!”)
My reference to advanced alien technology was intended as an example of something that may appear to us to be apparently impossible (like a chip-based calculator or PC would be to the ancient Greeks) but nevertheless amenable to systematic observation and analysis.
You’re right, we wouldn’t have a lot of luck systematically analyzing the swan egg thing. But here my answer is back to my first argument that a miracle by definition is impossible, and impossible things by definition cannot happen. My point being that the OP’s question amounts to “what if something that cannot happen in the real world happened in the real world?”. I don’t find it a particularly interesting hypothetical to ponder. The realistic question is “what would happen if we encountered some remarkable new phenomenon that we could not explain?” That’s the one I tried to answer.
But even if they were, I still think they’d be subject to scientific study, even if that study is to determine whether there’s a deity behind them.
The example I like to think about is a challenge to Archimedes: find a way, I ask him, to enable a man in Athens to hear the whisper of a man in Thebes. I suspect that Archimedes could prove, using his knowledge of air, the earth’s curvature, and sound’s transmissibility, that such a device would be impossible.
Yet my iPhone is charging beside my computer.
The technology that renders this feat possible is trivial and quotidian to us–but would likely appear more miraculous to Archimedes than an egg-laying woman.
Well, if you don’t want to ponder the question in the OP, that’s fine, but then this isn’t the thread you should be not pondering it in. There are things that are “logically impossible”—what if pi were NOT equal to 3.14159… etc.? I don’t know if such a world could even be grasped, or if it even makes any sense. But we can also at least conceive of things that are physically impossible—human women laying eggs (eggs like birds lay); the Moon being made of green cheese; the Sun stopping its apparent motion across the sky for a while.
A great many people in a great many times and places have believed that the Universe is a fundamentally magical and inexplicable place. (Or “explicable” only in terms of the whims and caprices of some being with an active will.) There were gods behind every tree, and if one of those gods chose to turn you into a newt, well, that was just that. We have had enormous success in approaching the Universe as something that obeys “laws” that are explicable, understandable, and repeatable. Those laws are often very weird (especially when you get far beyond temperatures, speeds, pressures, or sizes of the sort one might expect to encounter on the Serengeti). There are also very complex things (like computers) that can sometimes give us the impression of being arbitrary and capricious, or mischievous, or even actively malevolent (especially because, as social apes, we have very exquisitely-tuned neurological apparatus for detecting agency, and the possibility that one of the other agents we’re dealing with is mad at us).
But, if we woke up one day and found out that there really are gods behind every tree (or there is one big God who can do whatever the hell He wants), and they (or He) have just been napping for a few centuries, or playing a prank on us, but now it’s back to random smiting time, then science would be irretrievably broken. I’m not saying it is broken, just that it would be.
I find some of the attitudes being expressed in this thread smack a bit of “Atheist Fundamentalism”, or the dread “Scientism”.
“Why, you godless heathens can’t even conceive of a theistic universe! No matter what happens, you’d have some kind of ‘explanation’—it’s obvious you’re just rejecting God, because of Sin and Man’s Fallen Nature!”
For me, I can conceive of them—I can at least conceive of some sorts of theistic or polytheistic realities*—I just don’t accept them, on account of there’s no evidence for them, and mountains of evidence against them.
*There are theological claims that I think are fundamentally internally inconsistent or illogical—God being simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent; Divine Omniscience and human Free Will together; God (the tri-omni God) being “incarnated” as a being who is “very God and very man”—and I therefore really can’t even conceive of accepting them. Telling me “Oh, that’s just a Mystery!” doesn’t help any.