From: Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest, May 22, 2000
The following article appeared first in the Philadelphia Daily News, May 15th, 2000.


by John Allan Paulos


Miracles here, there and everywhere. Popular discussions of miracles have recently appeared in Time and Newsweek, in newspapers and periodicals of all types, on TV and radio, and in movies such as the Philadelphia-based "The Sixth Sense."

A more significant local example is the case of Katharine Drexel. A Philadelphia heiress, nun and social worker who died in 1955, Mother Drexel is nearing the end of the long process whereby a person is canonized a saint.

The process hinged upon the recent official certification of two posthumous miracles attributed to her.

That Mother Drexel was an admirable, compassionate and selfless woman who divested herself of her considerable fortune and made the world a better place, I have no doubt. It's with the general notion of miracles that I have difficulty.

What does the word mean? If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day. Just ask any lottery winner.

But if a miracle is some sort of divine intervention, some questions come naturally to mind. Why, for example, is the rescuing of a few children after an earthquake often called a miracle when the death of perhaps hundreds of equally innocent children in the same disaster is laid to a geophysical fault line? It would seem both are the result of divine intervention or both are a consequence of the earth's plates shifting.

The same point holds for other tragedies. If a recovery from a disease is considered a miraculous case of divine intervention, to what do we attribute the contracting of the disease? Nobody except the most benighted maintains that AIDS is some sort of divine retribution.

In the Mother Drexel case, two hearing-impaired children prayed (or their parents prayed) to Mother Drexel years after she died, and they soon enjoyed spontaneous and unexplained recoveries. But such recoveries do sometimes occur, as do the more common spontaneous and unexplained deteriorations.

Not knowing what causes them in every case does not mean they're instances of divine intervention. In fact, scientists frequently are unable to ascribe a specific cause to either the contracting of a disease or a recovery from it. Statistical tests and clinical trials conducted not on one or two people but on large samples of people are sometimes insufficient to determine causes.

If someone really wanted to search for a causal connection between prayers and cures, he or she would need to examine a very large number of cases, set time limits on cures, survey the prayers and the person or entity to whom they're directed, compare recovery rates of those who pray with those who don't, and guard against self-deception and wish-fulfillment.

Another problem with proclaiming a miracle was noted a long time ago by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Whatever evidence exists that a certain phenomenon miraculously violates a scientific law is evidence as well that the scientific law in question is flawed or irrelevant. If before Alexander Graham Bell, for example, someone heard the voice of a friend who was hundreds of miles away, the evidence for this "miraculous" event would also be evidence that the physical laws that the event seems to violate (regarding how fast sound travels, let's say) are wrong or don't apply.

It's become somewhat trendy to say that religion and science are growing together and are no longer incompatible in any way, but are simply concerned with different realms. Religion, we're told, deals with faith and science with facts. The Templeton Foundation, a local philanthropy located in Radnor, makes a large annual award to whoever has made the greatest contribution to furthering this harmony between religion and science.

Harmony is difficult to oppose, but I don't believe that any attempt to homogenize these very disparate bodies of ideas can succeed. In many (but not all) ways, they remain quite distinct and reflect quite different mindsets.

Since getting people to change their minds about these matters usually calls for a miracle (in the sense of being extremely unlikely), I'll stop right here. Well, not quite. We can all be glad that, whatever the cause, the two children who prayed to Mother Drexel have completely recovered.

John Allen Paulos, a mathematics professor at Temple University, is the author of "Once Upon a Number." He is an advisory member of the Daily News Editorial Board.