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January 29, 2015

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Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” — David Hume

Last week, the Vatican announced that a meeting of cardinals and bishops had ruled that the late Pope John Paul II was responsible for a second miracle, and thus the way was cleared for sainthood.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints decided he had cured a woman from Costa Rica in 2011 after a panel of doctors apparently ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

There’s the rub, of course. There are many medical results we do not understand. Spontaneous remission of cancer, for example, occurs in a reliable but small fraction of the population; no immediate explanation can be presented on a case-by-case basis.

Attributing that lack of understanding to the intercession of a dead pope is a huge step, and it illustrates a fundamental difference between “evidence” in religion and “evidence” in science.

The physicist Richard Feynman pointed out that in science, when we have an idea, we try to prove it wrong as well as right. This is an essential feature of scientific skepticism that helps us avoid the trap of interpreting accidental coincidences as significant results.

In every experiment, anomalies occur. We accept such randomness in science and test to see if any purported exciting new result is statistically significant before we then begin to examine it more carefully to see if we might be misinterpreting something mundane as something exciting.

If, on the other hand, one seeks out “testimony miracles,” there is a good chance one will find them. This is because one is making a presumption that miracles occur. More fundamentally, it ignores the advice of Hume, written long ago, rephrased by Carl Sagan somewhat later in a punchier way as: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Another example from Sagan is more to the point here, perhaps. Consider the miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary that were purported to have occurred at Lourdes, France, in 1858. Since that time, millions of pilgrims have visited Lourdes to bathe in the waters and be cured. The Catholic Church keeps careful records on such claimed cures, and more than 60, including cancer remissions, have been ruled as otherwise inexplicable and thus miraculous.

The problem, however, is that when one examines the spontaneous remission rates in the general population from diseases such as cancer, the rate is actually higher than that reported among the Lourdes pilgrims. (Sagan pointed this out, but others have also compared medical reports and Lourdes reports.) Thus, if you bathe in the Lourdes waters, you apparently have a smaller likelihood of being spontaneously cured than others who have not.

However, if you are one of the faithful and go to Lourdes, and later your disease goes into remission, there is no way I, or anyone else, will be likely to convince you it was just a coincidence.

If that fact makes you feel safer, if it makes you feel that someone is watching out for you, perhaps there is no real harm done. However, when a major institution such as the Catholic Church is willing to attribute otherwise unexplained events to miracles, it strains credulity so much as to encourage skepticism about its other claims.

Ultimately the acceptance of miracles — events where the laws of nature apparently break down — are one example of a “God of the Gaps” argument that ultimately ends up building tensions between science and religion. If inexplicable events are used as evidence for God, what happens when later science comes along and provides a natural explanation? When the gap goes away, where is the room left for God?

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His latest book is “A Universe from Nothing.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. Good article by the columnist but it flagrantly ignores the first miracle attributed to Blessed John Paul II. Curing of Parkinson's disease in a sister who prayed to the then Pope for healing. Does Parkinson's disease completely heal itself too?

    Carmine D

  2. Clarification: My use of 'sister' above is as in a religious order not a family member. The sister was in the advanced stages of Parkinson's and had been for years before praying to Pope John Paul II for a miraculous healing.

    Carmine D

  3. Clarification 2: When Catholics, or anyone for that matter, prays to a religious person, saint, or saint to be/in process, they do so for the religious person as an intercessor before the altar of God. If answered, it is proof that the religious person prayed to for intercession is in fact in heaven with God.

    Carmine D

  4. As history has proven beyond a shadow of doubt, all religions are about control and nothing else.

    The good bible-thumpers preach these phony concepts as a way to con the populace.

    A charade, of course, but how would they be able to bankroll their lively-hoods without it.

    All this BS talk about miracles is just that, "BS".


  5. Interestingly, Stalin, an atheist, on his death bed shook his fist up to God, according to his daughter who was at his bedside. Stalin it is said told his fans and followers if he had 10 men like St. Francis of Assisi he [Stalin] would have controlled the entire world and all the people in it.

    Carmine D

  6. For the non-believers who like proof:

    "Joseph Stalin, (who murdered many millions of his countrymen), while on his deathbed - as related by his daughter Svetlana to Malcolm Muggeridge: "He suddenly sat up, groaned, shook his fist at the ceiling as if he could see beyond it, then fell back and died."

    Does that sound/act like an atheist?

    Carmine D

  7. I find it interesting that the creator of the universe can only find it within himself to cure people of diseases that are capable of resolving themselves.

    When a Pope regrows the limb of a deserving amputee (of whom I suspect there are a great many), I'll reconsider.

  8. Advances by the medical community for treating amputees with prosthetics have already accomplished replacement of lost limbs. No need for God to do the same. But, religion and belief in God endow amputees with the faith, hope and will power to lead normal lives with them [prosthetics]. Medical science and religion working in concert for the good of humanity. Miraculous isn't it?

    Carmine D

  9. The cornerstone of what validates all miracles, is the Resurrection, which has never been proven - it is only an opinion.

  10. Resurrection has been proven. The tomb was empty on Easter Sunday. Jesus spent 40 days after Easter among his Apostles, disciples and an estimated 5000 others, all documented in the Bible, who saw, listened, ate, and lived with Him before he ascended. Without the resurrection there would NEVER be a Christianity as we know it today. That's the proof, if you need it, for the resurrection.

    Carmine D