Yet another in a series of things I wrote some time back (September of 2005, in this case) which I thought might be of interest in this venue. Granted, to most of us, the following is intuitively obvious ... but sometimes you just gotta say, "What the hell...."

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“You see there is only one constant. One universal. It is the only real truth. Causality. Action, reaction. Cause and effect.”[1]

While the Merovingian was a snotty, self-important dweeb within the Matrix’s scheme of things, I couldn’t be more in agreement with him as to the issue and the necessity of cause and effect. Cause and effect is and indeed must be the central operator to the coherent function of this reality. It gives order because of its order: first a cause, then effect resulting from that cause. Correspondingly, without cause, there is no effect. There cannot be a response without a stimulus or result without a process, no “then” without an “if.” This author takes this assertion one step further: there must be no effect without cause, if we are to presume that this universe, this reality which we inhabit is to be an orderly universe and not one ruled by chaos.

I make this assertion to argue against an alleged phenomenon which, if true and real, would threaten to reduce a reality which is apparently causal to one potentially without objective rule. That phenomenon is, of course, the miracle. The definition of the word itself runs against the grain of the orderly dual entities of cause and effect:

miracle (n) An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.[2]

I can’t help but note that even dictionary.com hedges with their definition, noting that such an event “appears inexplicable.” True Believers, regardless of Christian, Jewish, Islamic or other stripe, would have no such qualification. Miracles to them are God’s action on man’s behalf, whether correcting, healing, punishing or other action, as well as being prima facie evidence of His existence. It is verification and justification of their faith and more: an implied permission to proselytize in favor of their God with said miracle as evidence.

“There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.”[3]

The desire for miracles can run rampant in some quarters of our culture, particularly anywhere there is unrequited want without means. The idle mother who vainly wishes for something better for her kids (while doing nothing substantial to achieve such an end), the gambler who persists in feeding quarters into the one-armed bandit, figuring he is somehow owed his reward, the parents who have tried all alternatives for a cure for their stricken child, all these people at one time or another may abandon the sterile order of causation for the hope of irrational intervention. Anyone who wants a change in their life and either cannot or will not embrace the process necessary to effect such a change also may find themselves trapped in the belief that they are due some manner of divine intervention. In the grand scheme of things, I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of such desires go unfulfilled.

Sadly, there are plenty of hucksters, professional and otherwise, willing to exploit such people’s hopes. They’ve had many assorted names down through the years, but their snake oil is pretty consistent throughout that time: giving the appearance of producing miracles with one hand while separating marks from their money with the other. I did a Google search using the P.T. Barnum quote and it was in fact rather astonishing to see how many times it occurred in association with the debunking of alleged religious miracle makers. What’s saddest about this is that people reach for miracles, wanting their lives to be extraordinary and rather than make the effort to make their lives so by the sweat of their own brow, they turn to others to have their lives made extraordinary by pseudo-miracles with no more substance than that of a two-bit grifter working his game.

Spock: “Random chance seems to have worked in our favor.”
McCoy: “In plain, non-Vulcan English, we’ve been lucky.”
Spock: “I believe I said that, Doctor.”[4]

Sometimes random chance does work in our favor, though it must be admitted that in the above-quoted example, all you have are two actors reading their lines in a situation predetermined not by fate, but by a writer of fiction. The dice roll to a seven, the judge rules (perhaps inexplicably) in our favor, the light turns green just as we were about to move to the brake, certainly there are thousands of such examples every day that would qualify. Should such situations be construed as miracles? With any kind of serious examination, my answer has to be, “Not hardly.” The roll of the dice is well understood by the laws of probability and statistics, and unless those cubes are weighted or otherwise modified, it would take more than one occurrence of a seven to convince me that Providence had purposefully smiled down on someone. As for the judge’s ruling, ask the judge, and if the ruling is peculiar in its aspect, check his bank account, too, or his relationship with the involved parties or the interest represented. There may be more at work than one person’s desire for a favorable verdict. The serendipitous green light may be a product of the control box’s programming, external influence by an in-ground sensor, or as a rare instance, a failure in the circuitry.

“Ah, HA!” cries the True Believer, “but what caused that failure which gave me that green light?” To people who have no understanding of electronics, any sufficiently complex black box may have as much personality as a human may and fails at its own whim, or when goaded by the vagaries of fate or … perhaps … at the behest of some Greater Power. From the point of view of someone well-acquainted both with the nature of electronics and the multiple ways electronics can fail, I can refer the interested student to the field of Wafer Level Reliability and phenomena such as electro-migration, a very common and well-understood principle which describes in quantifiable terms the progressive decay and failure of many electronic devices.

“One man's ‘magic’ is another man's engineering. ‘Supernatural’ is a null word.”[5]

The demystification of alleged miracles must be premised on strong, solid knowledge, a willingness to investigate thoroughly and dispassionately, as well as to ignore false data and the vainglorious wishes of those who would rather prove their point than bow to science and facts and evidence be damned in the process. It has doubtless been observed many times that the technology of the 21st century would be regarded as magic or witchcraft to those of even 100 years before. Any event purported to be miraculous in nature must be viewed with the same objective skepticism. The Age of Science, of methodological investigation and analysis of the nature and mechanics of our world, is not so old that such objective inquiry may be taken for granted. I refer you to the insistence by some that “Intelligent Design” be taught in the schools as an indicator that science is still not universally accepted as an arbiter of fact vs. fiction. Just because the cause is not immediately visible does not mean it is not there. Sixty years ago, Lysenko dismissed genetics more on political grounds than scientific, though his political savvy did not make him right. The saving grace of science is that, in its pure state, it is not swayed by political decision or religious belief. Once again, the True Believer will say that the scientist is motivated to skew his data to prove his point against the point of view of faith. Science’s rebuttal is simple: take that scientist out of the equation. Give the data to another or to several scientists. Let each of them process it using the scientific technique, and let us not be excessively surprised should they come to very similar if not identical conclusions! The whole point of science is to use repeatable techniques to gain useful knowledge in an objective fashion. The scientist’s views, beliefs or predispositions should not enter into the process and if they do, the result is almost invariably bad science.

Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.[6]

So, after all that, why am I so determined to debunk and disprove the existence of miracles? Because miracles, if they exist, upset the applecart. They introduce a very pernicious form of disorder to a world which is otherwise very well-ordered. If we allow the presence of effects for which there is no objective cause, then any effect becomes questionable. One would constantly have to ask oneself: is this the result of A, B, C, or the result of God’s will? Any chance at analysis or objective understanding of any phenomenon would go immediately out the window. Science as a reliable mechanism for gaining knowledge would become as useless as reading tea leaves. What we think we know now would devolve into endless conjecture and debate, for we would no longer live in a world governed exclusively by verifiable laws, but a world governed by whim, by the dictates and moods of an Almighty God Who acts to suit Himself and logic be damned. Such a world, where superstition and subjective, hysterical beliefs could hold sway over methodology and objectivity, is no world I would care to live in. I have no desire to be ruled over by the above-mentioned “spoiled child,” whether He or She is spoiled or not and regardless of whether Whoever is running things (if anyone) has my best interests at heart. I will be the judge of what is in my best interest, and I have no intention to delegate such decisions, now or in the future. As it comes to the mechanics of Creation, I will take Maxwell’s Equations over divine will every day of the week.

There is one notable condition under which I would tolerate the existence of miracles. That is, if miracles are not, in fact, effects without causes, but effects with well-hidden causes. One could compare such mechanisms to “backdoors” in computer programming, not generally known to the public, but readily available to whomever wrote the program. What would remain, presuming the verity of this possibility, is the eventual discovery of these backdoors by mankind at large. At this point, miracles simply become another tool, another mechanism, another two-edged sword, usable for good, evil or benign purpose by those sufficiently versed in this technology to make use of it, and the engineering of miracles becomes yet another well-disciplined science for study and understanding and implementation.

“To be ‘matter of fact’ about the world is to blunder into fantasy – and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful.”[7]

Having heard my flat rejection of his belief in miracles (and likely with it, his religion), the True Believer may resort to pity at this point. “What a sterile, lifeless world you must live in.” My answer? “Not at all!” Not believing in miracles does not by any means imply that I have no sense of wonder for the world. Knowing the secrets of the magician’s slight-of-hand doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the trick. I can watch and be amazed at the flight of a bird, though I know the principles of flight. I can delight in the colorful beauty of a sunset or a rainbow, though the physics of each are hardly difficult to comprehend. The works of Beethoven or Mahler or Shostakovich … or Lennon and McCartney or Joni Mitchell or Will Smith may inspire and delight me, though the mechanism of those works’ inspiration and creation is completely beyond my ken. I may grasp a fraction or so of that vast field which is bio-physiology, yet I can marvel at the phenomenal capacity of that biophysical structure which contains my consciousness. Miracles and wonderment are hardly the same thing, though many mistake the one for the other, unnecessarily. My reliance on science saves me from the hucksters and snake-oil salesmen who are doubtless bent on saving me … or at least my wallet. From that platform, I can enjoy my life and the phenomenon of life as I please.

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[1] The Merovingian, from The Matrix Reloaded

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com

[3] P. T. Barnum (allegedly)

[4] Star Trek – The Original Series: “The Doomsday Machine”

[5] Robert A. Heinlein. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

[6] Robert A. Heinlein. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

[7] Robert A. Heinlein. The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

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Tags: cause and effect, miracle, whim

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Comment by Loren Miller on March 30, 2014 at 10:47pm

Nice to see all this new activity on this post.  Have to say, I do think this is one of my better ones, and reasonably important, if I do say so myself.  Still, the believers seem to think you can decouple effects from causes, and I have one word to describe that attitude:

DISORDERED.

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 30, 2014 at 10:03pm

It is interesting that so many believers perceive atheism to be a "sterile, lifeless world". If anything, life is so much richer and meaningful when one realizes THIS is it. No dress rehearsals. No reward or punishments, other than what comes across one's path. I am sorry there is no retribution for the scoundrels of the world, and if I had my say, the ones who find faith on their deathbeds seem to be kind of puny rascals to me. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on March 30, 2014 at 9:58pm

Napoleon, that was an interesting audio of Loren's piece. The accentuation was interesting. Is there a way to modulate that? Also, funny when ".[3]" was spoken. Nice treat, thanks. 

Comment by Charles T. on March 30, 2014 at 9:12pm

The was a great read for me. Thanks for posting !

Comment by Napoleon Bonaparte on February 17, 2014 at 3:26pm

I'm working on it. I'll un/reinstall and try different software.

Comment by Loren Miller on February 17, 2014 at 3:17pm

[chuckle] I'm tempted to narrate my own entries at this point.  Ol' Anna there sounds a bit stilted!

Comment by Napoleon Bonaparte on February 17, 2014 at 3:13pm

Cause and Effect vs. Miracles by Loren Miller (text/speech)

Comment by Loren Miller on February 17, 2014 at 12:05pm

Glad you enjoyed it, Joan!

Comment by Joan Denoo on February 17, 2014 at 11:49am

What a stimulating way to start my day! This paragraph rang a loud bell for me and bears repeating: 

"The desire for miracles can run rampant in some quarters of our culture, particularly anywhere there is unrequited want without means. The idle mother who vainly wishes for something better for her kids (while doing nothing substantial to achieve such an end), the gambler who persists in feeding quarters into the one-armed bandit, figuring he is somehow owed his reward, the parents who have tried all alternatives for a cure for their stricken child, all these people at one time or another may abandon the sterile order of causation for the hope of irrational intervention. Anyone who wants a change in their life and either cannot or will not embrace the process necessary to effect such a change also may find themselves trapped in the belief that they are due some manner of divine intervention. In the grand scheme of things, I can’t help but notice that the vast majority of such desires go unfulfilled."

Fact is, each paragraph, each topic, bears repeating, so go read the entire piece. 

Comment by Idaho Spud on May 12, 2013 at 2:43pm

Loren, this is a concept that I've never thought about before, but as usual, you present it very well, and I agree with you.

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