If a fine follow-up to my posts on the miraculous, Dr. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae offers a cogent and illuminating defense of the Vatican's perspective on the role of empirical verification in the canonization process. There is much in his discussion to agree with, and my intention here is not seriously to dispute any of his major findings, but merely to quibble with some of his distinctions. In short, I intend to put the "anal" in "analytic philosophy", and with a vengeance.
Let me begin by reminding my teeming following of the excruciatingly banal point that I was trying to make in the first place. My view can be put succinctly this way:
(1) Miracles do occur. (I'm just putting this one in here for full disclosure.)
(2) Miracles are supernatural events.
(3) Hence, no scientific findings are ever relevant to the miraculous.
In my posts I had addressed these claims from the point of view of scientific explanation, since the point at issue was the utility, or lack thereof, of obtaining statements from medical professionals about alleged miraculous cures. Mike agrees with me, apparently, that medical evidence from professionals is not a sufficient condition for declaring a cure miraculous, but he asserts that it is at least a necessary condition. He goes on to say many fine things about the role of the miraculous in the life of a believer that I do not dispute at all, but he says these things partly with a view to defending the thesis that miracles are not, as I claimed, "inexplicable", so I will confine my remarks, at least for the nonce, to the questions:
(a) Is empirical evidence a necessary condition in the present case?
(b) In what sense may the miraculous be regarded as explicable?
Let me begin by stating at once that I think Mike has, as usual, done a marvelous job of making clearer points that I, in my haste and exuberance, left remarkably cloudy, and (again, as usual) I am in his debt.
Regarding question (a), let me say first of all that I myself did not put the thing in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions not because I wanted to avoid the argot of analytic philosophy (mê genoito!), and not because I did not think the conditions were neither necessary nor sufficient, but because I regard the application of such conditions to the present case something of a category mistake. The difficulty is not that empirical evidence fails to be sufficient, or that it is not necessary, but that empirical evidence is completely irrelevant to the question of the miraculous in general.
Having said that, however, let me address Mike's positive claim in a different way, namely, by assuming with him that such evidence actually is relevant. Still it would not be necessary, and this, I think, for reasons that Mike himself will accept. To assert that medical evidence of a certain kind is a necessary condition on the miraculous is to say that, absent that medical evidence, it is necessarily the case that a miracle did not occur. This, I think, is simply too strong a claim, given the sort of evidence we're talking about.
What sort of evidence is that? Well, ex hypothesi (as found in Fr. Martin's comments to my posts) we're talking about a situation in which, on one day a noxious condition (say, a lethal cancer) is present, and on the next day (or within some suitably short period of time) that condition is entirely gone, without a trace, and with no empirical evidence of any naturalistically describable sequence of explanatory causes that could suffice to "explain" the disappearance of the condition. For the time being, we must put aside any questions about how one might go about verifying something like this (the only way to investigate the matter, it seems, is to cut the patient open and find that there is no tumor there when the X-ray or MRI said that there was one; but by that time there is no way to ascertain whether the X-ray or MRI in which it appeared two days earlier was in the least reliable). Hence, the evidence that we're talking about in the case of the miraculous is an assertion from a scientific professional to the effect that the situation just described actually obtains in some particular case. The question, then, is, should we require that specifically this sort of evidence be a necessary condition on declaring a cure "miraculous"?
In thinking about this question, consider another kind of case. Suppose we want to explain why some particular bit of water is frozen solid. One sort of explanation says, "It's frozen because its temperature was held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere for a certain length of time." That is, I take it, a sufficient condition on the water's freezing, and it is a fully naturalistic explanation of the water's freezing. Suppose we were not to ask, however, "Why is the water frozen", but rather, "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere?" On certain sorts of occasions, that question might have an equally straightforward answer: "Well, it's the middle of a freezing cold January day in Minnesota and the Arctic Clipper has been blowing on this glass of water for two days straight now, and so the temperature in the water went way down and it froze." But suppose our question is this: "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere, given that it is a balmy summer day in Florida, and this glass of water, which was quite warm yesterday, has been sitting here in the warm summer Florida sun for nearly 12 hours?" This gives our earlier "explanation" of the water's being frozen quite a different status.
If you're wondering about the relevance of all this, I'm trying to motivate the view I defended earlier, namely, that empirical evidence ought to be regarded as irrelevant, not necessary, to our believing something to be miraculous. Suppose a medical condition clears up for reasons that the medical community declares fully naturalistic. Does it follow that the disappearance of the condition was not miraculous simply because certain proximate causes can be identified as part of the process? Not necessarily, and yet we would be forced to say that it was necessarily not miraculous if we hold to the necessary condition that Mike has stipulated. While that might satisfy the non-believer, surely it should not satisfy the believer.
The evidence of medical experts is supposed to reassure us that there's been no funny-business, no "perfectly ordinary" or natural cure, and this, in turn, is supposed to reassure us that what happened was, in fact, a miracle. But empirical evidence, as such, can accomplish none of this. Indeed, the whole situation is a massive confusion of the ontological with the epistemic. Ontologically, a given event is either miraculous or not miraculous independently of any empirically observable phenomena; epistemically, of course, it is precisely the observable phenomena that we look to for reassurance that what happened was a miracle, but, as I showed in my earlier post, there is no rational reason why our confidence that a miracle occurred should either increase or decrease as a consequence of any empirical evidence, because the miraculous is not an empirical category. To say that our confidence in the miraculous should be affected by the empirical is like saying that we can determine the pitch of a particular sound by tasting it.
If empirical observations were rationally compelling in the case of the miraculous, then non-believers would be manifestly irrational, since the testimony of literally hundreds of witnesses has been handed down to us that Our Lord performed many miracles. And yet there are those who do not believe that testimony. If a medical expert tells us that there is no scientific evidence to explain the disappearance of a tumor that was present the day before in an X-ray or MRI, any good medical expert worth his salt would have to admit that there are all sorts of alternative, naturalistic explanations available as to why the disappearance of the condition ought not to be regarded as miraculous, if what one is after is a scientific standard of empirical verification. True, the Church is able to find medical experts willing to take part in the exercise and who will say that there is "no explanation", but that means nothing; for every non-believing medical expert the Church finds who is willing to take part in the "verification" process, there are dozens of other non-believing scientific experts who will tell you that the whole process is a waste of time. These folks will never say that there is "no scientific explanation" for such things, they will say that the scientific explanation has yet to be found.
This brings us to question (b). Mike wants to say that the miraculous is, in fact, explicable, but in saying this he equivocates on the notion of explanation. I had specifically confined my remarks to scientific explanation, because it is the relevance of the scientific method to the verification of the miraculous that is at issue. In this sort of a context, the miraculous simply must be inexplicable, otherwise it is not miraculous. Obviously there is a metaphorical sense in which the miraculous is explicable: it is the work of God. But to say this is not to explain the miraculous, it is to describe it (and in terms that are not acceptable to everyone). We do not know how God accomplishes the miraculous, and that is the sort of knowledge that would be required if we were to say that miracles are literally explicable. Similarly, to say that a miracle explains something else may satisfy some, but it will certainly not satisfy everyone: in order for the answer "It is miraculous" to satisfy any such question as "How did that happen?" one must antecedently be willing to accept that such things as the miraculous can occur, and the capacity to accept such things is already something supernatural and, hence, outside the scope of the notion of explanation as such.
I think that Mike is on the firmest ground when he notes that "for those who 'get it'", that is, for the believer, the miraculous can confirm faith; but this is to admit that faith is present to be confirmed. Without faith, one will not "get it" to begin with: the miraculous is simply impossible at best, meaningless at worst. For those who do "get it", however, it simply is not necessary at all that a cure be scientifically inexplicable in order to be regarded as miraculous, since everything, even the ordinary workings of nature, are the handiwork of God. Even if a cure appears to result from perfectly ordinary "scientifically verifiable" naturalistic processes, we may still ask "Why did those processes kick in in this particular case, allowing for full recovery, when in certain other identical cases they do not kick in and the patient dies?" Just as water may freeze for the perfectly ordinary reason that it reached a certain temperature, we may always seek beyond the proximate cause for a deeper explanation. In some cases, such as the Minnesota winter, we may not have any reason to believe that anything out of the ordinary has happened, but that fact should not deter us from being willing to believe that there is sometimes something extraordinary even in the ordinary. The willingness to entertain such beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with scientific empiricism, and can in no way be affected (either up or down) by any results flowing from empirical methods.