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Miracles, and miracles of science
Doubting Thomas and anti-vaxxers
In a previous post, I wrote about how humans have faced the same problems of believability, from Herodotus down to today’s public health guidance about Covid-19. This post is on the same theme but with an Easter twist.
We often say that seeing is believing.
In the biblical Easter story, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to some of his disciples. One of the disciples, Thomas, was not there when the risen Jesus presented himself. Thomas simply could not believe that Jesus lived again. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas would not believe until he literally stuck his fingers into the wounds Jesus received on the cross.
Jesus appeared again, and this time, Thomas was there. “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.” Jesus’s words appeared to convince Thomas. “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
In the biblical story, Jesus chides Thomas for his disbelief. More than 1,000 years later, the Scottish philosopher David Hume gave a rational argument for Thomas’s behavior. In short, if a miracle is something that is, by definition, immensely improbable, should we not prefer other, non-miraculous explanations?
When any one tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Hume, On Miracles)
Hume’s analysis of miracles pays particular attention to the role of witnesses. We know that people don’t have perfect memory, and we know that people can be confused or deceived, so why shouldn’t Thomas have doubted? Why shouldn’t he have suspected that the other disciples were mistaken, that they had hallucinated something, or that someone who looked like Jesus had deceived them? Maybe these things are improbable, but are they less probable than someone rising from the dead?
Hume goes a step further, and tries to imagine a situation where he would believe witnesses, where the testimony was iron-clad. He comes up dry:
But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank ;[...] and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death [...] I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; [...] All this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phænomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.
We say that seeing is believing, but by Hume’s logic, it’s the other way around: believing is seeing. You won’t see something as a miracle, unless you were ready to believe it was a miracle.
The priest at my old church told me that, when he visited a monastery in the monastic quasi-state of Mount Athos, he was able to touch the left hand of Mary Magdalene, which is kept there. In his account, this hand came from a woman who lived 2,000 years ago, was body-temperature warm, and produced a pleasant smell. I must have made a face, because he said, “You don’t believe me?” That was an awkward moment. How could I explain that it seemed more likely to me that he was mistaken, that what he touched was likely something other than a 2,000-year old human hand?
If I could explain away Mary Magdalene’s hand, he said, then I should read about the new saints Raphael, Nicholas, and Irine of the Greek island of Lesbos. These saints are “new” because, although they were martyred in 1463, we only learned about them in 1960, when multiple villagers on the island had visions about these saints. These visions included details about their appearance, their ages, the gruesome ways that they died, and directions that lead to the saints’ bones. Again, I find myself in Hume’s shoes, thinking that it’s a smaller miracle that Lesbos has human bones in many places, than that people received new information about events that happened 500 years ago.
I didn’t dig more into this story, because there are thousands of saints’ lives and thousands of other miracle narratives. I don’t believe, so I don’t see, and reading more accounts like this isn’t the kind of thing that would change my mind.
In this frame of mind, I’m actually a bit surprised that I’m willing to believe that Covid-19 vaccines are real. (To be clear, they are real. Vaccination is the single best thing you can do to prevent dying or getting very sick from Covid.) The science really does sound miraculous. We take the genetic sequence of a virus –which is a miracle of its own, considering that we didn’t really know what viruses were until about 100 years ago, and the first time an RNA virus was sequenced was just 50 years ago– then synthesize RNA corresponding to the protein that the Covid virus uses to attack our cells –where the words “synthesis,” “protein,” and “attack” are each little miracles of their own– and then package that in a way that makes safe to infect into humans. And also we made hundreds of millions of doses in a year or two.
Hume’s analysis is that we tend to believe things that we personally observe. The sun has risen and set every day I’ve paid attention, so I would find it difficult to believe that the sun one day stood still. But I didn’t run an observational trial with my own eyes, counting how many people I knew who were vaccinated or not vaccinated and whether they got very ill or died if they caught Covid. I don’t know if anyone aside from doctors could develop first-hand conviction about the value of Covid vaccination.
In these cases, I find Herodotus more help than Hume: what we see might have more to do with who we trust, and what we are willing to believe, than what is in front of our eyes.