The Miraculous: Explanans or Explanandum?

For the past few days I have had the great fortune and pleasure of carrying on a discussion with Fr. James Martin, SJ in the comments section to my post of last Friday on the recent document on canonization. Fr. Martin, who is an associate editor of America, the Jesuit journal, had written an OpEd piece on the document for the New York Times, which piece was the inspiration for my blog entry. Fr. Martin and Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest whose book, My Cousin the Saint, is due out in May of this year from William Morrow (and see the NPR story here), have done me the honor of discussing at length with me some of the aspects of "the miraculous" that I questioned in my earlier post, and an issue has arisen from that discussion that I would like to address in more detail. Few of my regular readers agree with my general position on the miraculous, so I highly recommend reading the comments on that earlier entry, because Justin and Fr. Martin do an excellent job of presenting the case against me. I feel extremely fortunate, on the one hand, to have been able to enjoy an extended conversation with Justin and Fr. Martin, but I also feel extremely guilty, on the other hand, for keeping them from what I assume must be very busy lives, so I can't promise anyone that they will continue to comment on my ramblings, but I certainly hope that they do.

My central worry in the earlier post was principally a methodological one, because I certainly do not deny that miracles occur. Indeed, I gave examples, in that earlier entry, of miracles that I believe occur every day. My worry is rather over the quasi-empirical condition put on canonization in the new document from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. As the discussion with Justin and Fr. Martin unfolded, it became clear to me that there was a minor equivocation taking place on the notion of explanation, as well as on the relation between the miraculous as a phenomenon to be explained (i.e., the miraculous qua explanandum) and the miraculous as phenomenon invoked as explanation (i.e., the miraculous qua explanans). In this entry I'd like to sort some things out with respect to that relation.

Let me begin with a story. When I was living in North Carolina I had a dear friend with whom I attended daily Mass, who claimed on many occasions to have enjoyed visions of Our Lady while at Mass. Sometimes, while kneeling in prayer after Communion, she would faint, and would tell us after coming to herself that Our Lady had spoken to her while she was unconscious. On other occasions, she claimed to smell a powerful scent of roses while receiving Communion. The Church I attended had a small coterie of folks who were regularly at the daily Mass, most of them a good deal older than I, and most of them took everything my friend said pretty much at face value. This mostly took place during the late 1980s, when a lot of people were claiming to experience wonderful things in Medjugorje, and my friend and her husband were refugees from Czechoslovakia, so the events in Medjugorje were close to their hearts. If my friend's experiences were literally what she believed them to be, then I suppose one could say that she was experiencing the miraculous on a nearly daily basis independently of what one thinks happens on the altar at Mass.

Putting that story aside for just a moment, let me limn, to the best of my ability, the position that Fr. Martin tried to stake out in his comments on my post. He noted that "medical miracles" are of particular importance to the Vatican's canonization process because they are "dramatic", the sort of events that are "so out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy". While it may not be possible to prove that such events are miraculous, he said, a medical doctor can still "rule out other causes for the healing, and can determine if a person is physically healthy." He goes on to make a rather pragmatic point about the process:
if you leave out the science and the medicine, then where are you in this investigative process? As Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit who works in Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, says in "My Cousin the Saint," a new book just out, "Do you have a better way of doing it?"
All of which is fair enough. I don't deny that medical miracles could occur, I only deny that there is any reasonable basis for declaring that they have, in fact, occurred, and this, I take it, is the principle difference between my view and that of Justin and Fr. Martin.

In my own comments in reply to them I framed the problem in this way. A medical doctor is a certain kind of scientist, and it seems fair to hold them to the methodological constraints of their science, medicine. It simply is not good science to say that, because we cannot find any explanation for some phenomenon, that there is no physicalist explanation for that phenomenon. Note that this is not to say that it would not be rational to believe that what occurred was miraculous; it is only to say that it would not be good science to say such a thing. The medical doctors in these cases are not, themselves, saying that a miracle has occurred, of course: it is up to the Church to determine such things. But it is troublesome that scientific evidence of any kind would be adduced as a part of this process, as I hope to show.

Let us imagine a case such as Fr. Martin himself described in one of his comments:
I've met one person who was authenticated as a miraculous cure, and she and her friends prayed, and was instantaneously and permanently cured of her lifelong illness. In her case, how much "evidence" would we need? Doctors affadavits before and after showing her physical state? Medical testimony from a battery experts? The presence of a completely healed person? As in other cases, we have all these things.
Let us assume, for a moment, that what we have observed so far is the illness itself, the praying, and the disappearance of the illness--we have not, as yet, obtained any "medical evidence" from physicians. What is the probability that this event (that is, the disappearance of the illness) was miraculous? I will use the variable p to denote that probability. On one reading of what probabilities are, p is nothing more than an indication of our willingness to accept the truth of some proposition, so there are some folks for whom p is already very close to 1, if not, in fact, equal to 1. But I think that most folks would not be very quick to assign such a high value to p; they would wait for the "medical evidence". And here is the problem. As medical experts are called in to examine the case, a variety of things can happen, but only two are of particular interest to this question. One thing that could happen, is that the medical experts could make an examination of the case and unanimously come to the conclusion that the illness disappeared in a completely natural way, and that the underlying mechanisms of what happened are fully understood by medical science. Now, this does not mean that a miracle did not occur, of course, just as the fact of biological evolution is not sufficient to show that there is no God who created the world and everything in it, but this particular scenario would certainly have the effect of causing the value of p to plummet for many people.

The other possibility is that "medical testimony from a battery of experts" could be unanimous in declaring that there is no known process whereby the illness could possibly have just disappeared in the way that it did. In this case, although there are indeed a few people for whom the value of p would increase, the difficulty is that there is no reason why the value of p should increase in this case. It is a simple fact of science that the tools, methods, procedures, and theories of any given epoch will fail to explain many things about the natural world on any given occasion. Hence, the unanimous agreement of medical experts that there is no physicalist explanation for this cure is no more significant than the unanimous agreement of physicists that we don't know whether there is a black hole at the center of each and every galaxy in the universe. The lack of a scientific consensus on a given question does not entail that there never will be such a consensus, or that there could not be one in principle. Hence the value of p ought not to increase in this case.

Depending on what we mean by that probability. I said that what it represented was the degree of confidence with which we would assent to a given proposition, in this case, that a miracle had occurred. What does it mean, exactly, to say that an event is miraculous? I've been talking as though its meaning were clear, but perhaps it isn't. I've been talking as though "the miraculous" is just something for which there is no naturalistic explanation, but is that what it really means? Certainly some people think that's what it means. If you look at the so-called "demythologizing" interpretations of the Scriptures, they are full of attempts to give naturalistic explanations of the miracles in there. When Moses parted the Red Sea, what really happened was a strong wind, not uncommon in that area, that blew all night during a low tide blah blah blah. When Jesus fed the five thousand, what he really did was to inspire a kind of community in which all worked together to find ways to be fulfilled by what they had blah blah blah. If you are a materialist, then you will antecedently recoil at the ontological ramifications of saying that Jesus literally fed five thousand people by literally generating bread out of thin air (or, perhaps, out of a pre-existing but very small amount of bread). To "demythologize" the miracles in this way is to attempt to explain them in physicalist terms, and I take it that at least one element of the desire to call a cure "miraculous" is the desire to claim that there exists no possible physicalist explanation for the event. If the event were merely unexplained for the moment, but would be adequately explained in the future, it would not be regarded as miraculous (hence the long wait in the Church in cases of cancers).

For this reason, I am reluctant to agree with Fr. Martin, when he writes:
I don't think that those healed say simply, "I have no explanation for this, and neither does anyone else." They go further than that, and so does the church. The one healed, and the church says, "In the absence of any other possibility, we do have an explanation: we believe it is a miracle."
To say that an event is a miracle is manifestly not to explain it, but to declare it inexplicable. Sure, it's an "explanation" in a metaphorical sense--it is something that you could say in answer to the question "Gee, how did that happen?" But in giving "It was a miracle" as an answer to that question one does not really explain anything, one merely categorizes. If there is a loud noise coming from my basement and someone asks me "What was that?" I could answer "It was a loud noise", but I have not explained how it happened, or whether it was an explosion or just a crash from falling boxes knocked over by the cat, etc.

So what are we to say about the case that Fr. Martin describes of the person "who was authenticated as a miraculous cure"? The view that I defended in my comments was this: what we ought to say depends upon how we interpret the world. If we are religious--in particular, if we are Catholics, for whom God's Incarnation is just one of infinitely many ways in which our world is shot through with God's literal presence among us--then there will be cases where it will be within the "rules of the language game", as it were, for us to declare that some phenomena are "miraculous", by which we mean not merely that we can find no "scientific" explanation for them, but that we believe that we can see the mind--and hand--of God at work in the event in a way that we do not always notice it in other events. Non-believers will never be able to say any such thing no matter how many medical experts you call in, and this, I suspect, is something that worries some folks, because Fr. Martin wrote explicitly in his original OpEd piece about not only making belief easier for believers but also making disbelief harder for non-believers when we canonize a person on the basis of an "authenticated miracle".

On the view that I am defending, the testimony of medical experts does not need to carry the weight that it is forced to, but cannot, carry. All that is really needed is the declaration of the Church that a person is worthy of veneration, and this kind of declaration is something that the Church has the capacity and the authority to make, whether or not there are any "medical miracles" in the offing. The earliest saints were simply those persons who died a martyr's death, and there was certainly no process in place for the requiring and testing of miracles. I suppose the difficulty with such a proposal is the political situation: if John Paul's hagioplethorification resulted in too many canonizations, one can only imagine what might happen if the requirement of "authenticated miracles" were to be dropped (hence my allusion, in the earlier post, to Fr. Guido Sarducci's routine about "just two lousy miracles"). So my musings here must be thought of in strictly methodological terms: I am not attempting to make any proposals about praxis.

The answer to the question of my title, then, is: Neither. To declare something a miracle is neither to offer an explanation of what happened, nor to ask for one. Such declarations are, rather, a part of the language of faith, a function of the way in which Christians read and interpret the world around them. I believe that there is a grammar to this language, by which I mean that I believe that it is salutary to entrust the Church's magisterium with the task of making normative judgments about how best to carry out this reading and interpreting.

I don't know, offhand--perhaps Fr. Martin will enlighten me--what the juridical status of these "authenticated miracles" is supposed to be. By that, what I mean is this: if I believe that person X is a saint on the grounds that the Church has declared X to be such, am I also required to believe de fide that the events declared to be miraculous in X's life really were miraculous in the sense that, say, Our Lord's raising of Lazarus from the dead was miraculous? Or may I, in good faith, wonder whether the people of the time simply could not find any naturalistic explanations for some of the events in X's life? It seems to me that it is more important to believe that X is a saint, if he really is one, than to believe that some event was miraculous, if it wasn't.

My friend from North Carolina who experienced Our Lady's presence in ways that the rest of us did not eventually had a particularly bad fainting spell, for which she was taken to the hospital, where they removed a tumor from her abdomen the size of a large cantaloupe. Her visions, fainting spells, and other apparition-related experiences came to an end with the removal of the tumor. Coincidence? Possibly. Perhaps her visions were authentic, or perhaps they were simply manifestations of some other underlying, physical aetiology. I'm not sure I'm in a position to say, with absolute certainty, what was going on with her, but I'm also not sure whether it matters: she was an example of holiness to me and to others, whether she was particularly close to Our Lady or not, so her life was already a sign of something else, whether or not she was having visions, and that, to me, is the true nature of the miraculous: a making manifest, to those who have eyes to see, of what is only visible to those with such eyes. If you have a listen to that NPR piece by Justin Catanoso that I linked to at the beginning of this piece, you will find that he actually says something similar at the end of his commentary: his brother was not cured "miraculously" of his cancer, even though many people in many places were fervently praying for such a cure. But, he says, a kind of miracle happened nonetheless: the coming together of family members from all over the world, united in prayer, seeking solace from the Comforter. As I have noted elsewhere, that is the sort of miracle that I think all prayer ought to be directed towards.


Anonymous said…
I think that you need to be a little more careful in how you interpret the ascribing of causes and explaining events in the world. In the real world of actual events (rather than mental suppositions) we never know the real cause of an event in the strict impiricist's way of understanding, because we do not have direct sense observation of "causation." So if we are ever to say that we know the cause, we have to mean it in a sense different from the usage by the strict empiricist. The perennial philosophy provides for "knowing" that is not so limited, and this "knowing" can be understood in terms that most people would say really is knowing under a careful and precise meaning, (as distinct from colloquial "I know he'll ask for strawberry ice cream" sort of expressions which are really just opinion). Again in real life, this knowing is not harbored in that ivory tower of strict (scholastically) scientific knowledge, such as the knowledge of the principle of non-contradiction, that the whole is greater than its proper parts, etc. These are known under the kind of knowledge called scientific by the scholastics, but there is a sort of knowledge that applies to actual real life events that is not so rigorous, (and also not certain in the exact same manner).

Moderns might want to say that this latter kind of knowing is merely opinion, belief, or supposition imposed by the observer, rather than what we really mean by knowledge in its proper sense. But this is in part due the fact that a large portion of modern philospophy rejects of any not strictly empirical interpretation of reality (though most scientists, while thinking they largely agree with these empiricists, actually operate in disagreement with them in using their reason). In a more reasonable interpretation of reality, there are modes of what is justly called "knowledge" that are not certain in the same sense that the axioms that underly rational thought are certain. This kind of knowledge is possible about an actual event without our ever attempting to say that our certainty about the event is measured in terms of 100%, when 100% is the certainty of axioms.

Or, to put it in other terms: there can be different modes of certainty without those modes being directly relatable to a percentage probability of error. Percentage probability of error is a mathematical construct that works in some things, but is not automatically valid for all things. It assumes that there is only one kind of certainty, that of being absolutely 100% certain. For example, a person can have a moral certainty about an event without being able to say that he is certain about it in the same sense as the certainty of strict axiomatic knowledge. As Aristotle says in the Nichomachean Ethics, is is a mistake to look for scientific certainty in areas that do not admit of such.

Thus, your use of the probability p that an event is actually due to miraculous causes is attempt to overlay onto a more common, every-day sort of meaning of "know" a framework that is not really valid for that sort of meaning.
Anonymous said…
Oh, and another point: there is a qualitative difference between saying "we don't have a natural explanation" in an area where we have just begun to explore the causes and know only a tiny bit about the subject matter (such as superstrings, for example), and saying "we see no room for a natural explanation" in an area that we have explored for centuries and we know quite a bit about how things naturally work. A purely quantitative modernist might say that these pronouncements are merely different by a different percentage probability of correctness, thus representing solely a difference in degree, but we are not forced to accept this account.

When the x-rays on one day show a large tumor making the person fatally ill, and when the next day the surgeon opens the person up and cannot locate any tumor, closes her up, and she is immediately healthy (other than the incision), we do not simply say "we don't have a cause." (This actually happened to the wife of a friend of mine.) We go further - according to our understanding of natural processes, a literally overnight removal of a known large tumor is not possible through natural causes alone. Sure, it is theoretically possible to posit a set of wholly unknown natural causes operating through the power of a sufficiently agitated mind that could have caused the body to get rid of the tumor. But that there are such hypothetically possible causes do not make us unwilling to say that we see no room for natural causes to bring about this effect.
John Farrell said…
I didn't realize that papal infallibility was tied to the canonization of saints. Strikes me as rather precarious.

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