Friday, February 23, 2018

Hinge - Episode 8 - Miracles

I've been listening to the "Hinge" podcast and have been meaning to blog about my thoughts on it, but have been so busy recently that I've not managed to write any coherent thoughts down before I've forgotten what they were and have moved on to the next thing. I may revisit this podcast in the future and post some thoughts at a later date, but for now here are my thoughts on episode 8.

I suppose I should briefly explain the setup of Hinge, in case you're unfamiliar with it. Basically its written and presented by two friends, one a pastor, one an atheist (former Christian) who decided to take a year off work and explore the big questions about God and Jesus properly, and then present it in ten podcasts, each about half an hour long. Its been interesting so far, but more than a little frustrating, because you simply cannot do justice to the questions they are exploring in only about five hours of audio.

This week's podcast is a perfect example of how the show doesn't really get to grips with the subject. The topic for this week was basically miracles; do they happen? In the half hour show they discussed three supposed miracles, which I will briefly summarise here:
  1. A situation where a believer was really short of money, did her sums and wrote down exactly how much money she needed to pay the bills, then she prayed about it. Later that week a Christian friend of hers (who knew nothing about the financial difficulty) felt compelled to send a cheque for a specific amount to this woman. When the cheque arrived it turned out to be exactly the same amount of money the woman had calculated.
  2. A situation where a man had a heart attack and the doctors could not resuscitate him, but kept trying for ages. When his wife arrived at the surgery, she prayed and the man's heart started working again. Despite being clinically dead for almost an hour, he eventually made a full recovery, with no brain damage.
  3. A situation where a man was crushed by a car, severing five major arteries and destroying much of his lower intestine. Somehow he survived until the hospital, but his guts were severely damaged and much of them had to be removed. When in hospital, some Christian healer felt compelled to come and pray for the guy and he felt something change in his insides. Some time later an atheist surgeon operated on him and discovered that much of his lower intestine had regrown.
Items 2 and 3 on that list are discussed in Craig Keener's book on Miracles that I really should read some time, but it is massive, so I'll pass for now.

The options presented and discussed in the Hinge podcast were the following:
  1. These were all miracle events, brought about by the Christian God.
  2. These were not miracle events, and some natural (but not explained) process must be at work.
That's it. No third option was even considered. 

For me, the answer to these conundrums does not necessarily need an omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. Indeed, if there was such a God involved, I'd expect different outcomes in each case.

Take the first case, what role does God play here? He basically gets the magic number telepathically from the head of one character and inserts it telepathically into the head of another. And the two characters already know each other. You don't need an infinite God to link these two, if you're prepared to speculate, then a simple telepathic link direct between the two would explain it with no divine agent. In one scenario you have two telepathic links and an infinite God, in the other only one telepathic link is required. Occam's razor would prefer the option with no God. Of course, there is limited evidence for telepathy, but then again, there is limited evidence for God.

You think an infinite God is more probable than telepathy? Are you sure about that?

And what this show failed to even mention is what about the many (hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions) of Christians in financial trouble who work out their financial shortfall, pray about it, and then nothing happens? Nobody sends a cheque. What about them? One anecdote doesn't explain why most of the time God seems to do nothing, and occasionally (I've heard a similar story before) people get just the right amount of money given to them in mysterious ways.

Given the law of large numbers, this could simply be coincidence. According to the story, the financial shortfall was a very specific number, and the mysterious cheque had that exact (and obscure) value, but here I must question the reliability of human memory. Suppose the shortfall was $164.07 and the cheque that arrived was $167.95, I have no doubt that the recipient would think those numbers were close enough for it to be a miracle, and as the story was told and retold over many years, the actual numbers could have been forgotten, but only the 'fact' that they were the same was remembered. Or maybe I'm being a bit cynical. I know my memory isn't perfect, I can't assume that everyone else has a perfect memory.

Turning to the medical miracles (and as far as I can tell - without reading it - most or all of the miracles in Craig Keener's book are medical in nature; nobody seems to walk in water or turn water into wine these days), there is one feature of both stories that was not questioned in the podcast - why does God need to work through an intermediary? In story 2, above, no 'miraculous' healing happened until the guy's wife showed up, then things turned around. In story 3, the apparent miracle only happened after the Christian healer guy turned up and prayed. In both stories it appears that God chose to, or perhaps needed to heal through an intermediary. Why didn't/couldn't he heal directly? I've heard this in many other healing stories - some human healer is involved.

Lets speculate again. What if some people simply have innate healing powers, able to cause healing, regrowth, or resuscitation just by laying on of hands, or something like that? Its like the telepathy thing again, in one hypothesis we have a healing individual and an infinite God, in the other we simply have a healing individual. Just because that individual believes that the power comes from God, doesn't actually mean that any God is involved.

And again, the programme doesn't discuss the stories of those who had heart attacks and then died. Or those who were crushed by cars and then died. The stories presented are the tiniest minority of actual incidents. Most of the time miracles don't happen. Some of the time, people just get lucky. Maybe these miracles were just instances of people at the favourable end of the probability bell curve, who happened to pray at some point in the incident. Maybe they are wrongly attributing their good fortune to God, when there was actually no God involved.

The feedback loop of faith is involved here (which I first discussed in this post). We don't hear the stories of dying people who cried out to God and died anyway. Those stories should cause us to reduce our belief in a God who answers prayer, but we don't do that because we never hear those stories. We only hear the stories of the survivors.

And the other thing implied in the show, but the issue was never raised, is that only the Christian God answers prayer and heals in these ways. What about those who call out to Allah and don't die? We never hear about them. What about those who cry out to Krishna? What about the prayers of Mormans, or Moonies, or whatever? The narrow focus on only two possibilities in this show (i.e. option A "The Christian God exists" or option B "There is nothing supernatural") rules out a whole host of interesting possibilities ad speculations. Reality isn't black or white.

Personally, I don't think these miracle claims are enough to demonstrate that the Triune God of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the only way to explain the weird stuff discussed. But I also don't think that Hinge takes seriously the possibility that weird stuff can happen without there being a God. From observation and from reading I am quite sure that weird and inexplicable stuff happens all the time, and our current understanding of the universe simply cannot explain it. But that doesn't mean we need to jump straight to God as an explanation.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Christian Philosopher Stephen Graham is quite critical of miracle claims, stories of guardian angels, Pentecostal healing preachers and the like, and he has been delving into Keener's book on Miracles. He doesn't seem impressed:

Edwardtbabinski said...

Also quite a discussion over here at Celsus Blog concerning Keener's book on "miracles":