About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

NPR on miracles

by Massimo Pigliucci
“A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; 
and as a firm and unalterable experience has
 established these laws, the proof against a miracle,
 from the very nature of the fact, 
is as entire as any argument from experience 
can possibly be imagined.” (David Hume, On Miracles)

Well, I guess it was bound to happen: it is Easter weekend, and even National Public Radio had to broadcast some cheesy story about religion. Even so, I was not prepared for the amount of sheer nonsense that I heard from Barbara Bradley Hagerty over at Morning Edition.
The basic story was in fact heart wrenching: an 11-yr old boy, Jake Finkbonner of Ferndale, WA, back in 2006 experienced a terrible infection from flesh eating bacteria that his doctors thought would spell certain and painful death. Dr. Richard Hopper, Jake’s physician at Seattle Children's Hospital, told Hagerty that he had never seen such a serious case, that no matter how fast the surgeons were removing the boy’s skin to try to stop the infection, the bacteria kept spreading, at the alarming speed of up to half an inch in an hour.
The doctor did say some strange things during the interview for a medical practitioner, like “The infection was like it had a life of its own,” well, yes, it literally did! And understandably — if irrationally — the parents resigned themselves to the fate of their son by seeking comfort in their religion. As Jake’s mother put it, after having called a Catholic priest for the last rites, “Donny [the father] and I went off to the chapel and just surrendered Jake back to God. We just said, ‘God, he is yours. Thy will be done, and if it is your will to take him home, then so be it.’”
As I said, so far this is a tragic story which, remarkably, had a quasi-happy ending. The infection stopped as suddenly as it began, probably because of a combination of running its course and of the excellent medical treatment that Jake had received for two weeks (and a dozen surgeries).
The boy’s mother's comment, however, was “There's no question in my mind that it was in fact a miracle.” Why? Because in the meantime she had enlisted the prayers of parishioners at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, who in turn had appealed to “Blessed Kateri,” a woman who lived 350 years ago and had apparently died of a disease that disfigured her face (my guess: Seattle and its excellent medical facilities hadn’t been built yet). In the hospital, Jake was visited by a representative of the Society of Blessed Kateri (!) who promptly gave Jake’s mother a pendant with the image of Kateri on it. That, apparently, is all it took (forget the two weeks of surgeries), a miracle was accomplished.
Here is where the story turns bizarre, casting a serious shadow on NPR and Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s professionalism as a journalist. She asked whether the Catholic Church will accept the miracle “explanation” as genuine, and said: “To qualify as an authentic miracle, the Vatican has to determine that Jake’s recovery was unexplainable and that it occurred because people prayed to Kateri to intercede with God on Jake’s behalf.”
Well, I’m sure you are all curious to see how exactly the Vatican might go about accomplishing such a, ahem, miraculous feat! No worries, Father Paul Pluth — who is doing the “investigation” of Jake’s case on behalf of that international nutcase, the Pope, elaborates: you see, according to the good Father, Kateri has special access to God, “[which] means we have received assurances that this person now stands in heaven before the throne of God. One of the evidences of that has been miracles of healing.” Clearly, the good Father didn’t take Logical Fallacies 101, or he would have recognized this as what philosophers call begging the question. But never mind, let us proceed with this increasingly ridiculous story that has brought NPR, temporarily one hopes, down to the level of Faux News.
Father Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit, explains that “these days, the bar is pretty high” (I swear, I’m not making this up!), as demonstrated by the fact that the Church dismisses 95% of the cases of miracles it receives. Such rigor is necessary because, you see, “the Vatican does not want to approve miracles lightly, thus misleading people or looking foolish if the miracle turns out to have a logical explanation.” You don’t say, Sherlock.
Gumpel assured NPR that “we do not want to submit to the Pope a statement unless we are absolutely, morally certain that this case merits to be approved by him as a miracle by God.” I’m sorry, did you say morally certain? One may wonder what morality has to do with ascertaining matters of facts, but the Jesuit was probably making a rather obscure reference to the Aristotelian concept of probabilistic certainty, which has little to do with morality as we understand it today. Regarding the latter, though, it is worth nothing that surgeons are still working on reconstructing the boy’s face, let us therefore thank God the infinitely merciful and moral.
Enter Eusebio Elizondoas, the Vatican’s “Devil’s Advocate” (these days his role is known with the more positive title of “Promoter of Justice”). This guy, in Hagerty’s story is — again, I kid you not — a “skeptic”! A well deserved title, considering the scientific approach used by Elizondoas: “I’m trying to really push every single witness [and asking] ‘Really, are you sure? Are you positive that there’s no other way to explain this, a logical explanation or a scientific explanation or it was a pure coincidence?’”
Now just imagine for a minute that you were investigating a UFO appearance, likely caused by a bright satellite in orbit around the earth. You ask the witness: “Really, are you sure? Are you positive there is no other way to explain this?” And he says “No, I’m sure, it was Martians,” and you smile and go home, secure that your job as a skeptic had been carried out and that once more truth, evidence and logic had triumphed. Holy cannoli!
Even Dr. Rubens, Jake’s physician, despite his obvious accomplishments as a surgeon, displayed an incredible amount of faulty logic. He was impressed by the Devil’s Advocate and his assistants: “They took a very hard look at whether this really was something beyond what they described as the wonders of modern medicine.” And how on earth would they know, Doctor?
This is the only time in the story where a real skeptic, CSI’s Joe Nickell, finally makes a brief appearance (we are near the end of the segment, but now we have Fairness and Balance!). Joe gets to say what everybody else ought to have figured out from the beginning: “When the Catholic Church confirms miracles, it's using what is called an argument from ignorance.” Yup, once again, Logical Fallacies 101, which apparently they don’t teach in journalism school.
But Hagerty couldn’t possibly leave it at that, it wouldn’t make for a good religion-friendly story. So she ends instead by again quoting Dr. Rubens: “I can't explain why he would survive over someone else,” and of course the boy’s mother: “It would be disappointing if [Kateri] didn't get to be a saint.” Well, that will be for the Pope to decide. He has a solid background in these matters, considering that before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — what used to be known as the Inquisition.


  1. Regarding "morally certain": Descartes drew a distinction between metaphysical certainty and moral certainty. Metaphysical certainty is certainty beyond any possible doubt, whereas moral certainty is certainty beyond what we might call today 'reasonable doubt'. It has nothing to do with morality. I imagine the priest is using 'moral certainty' in the Cartesian sense.

    A similar example of this can be found in the film, 'Righteous Kill,' in which Pacino's character is asked if he's sure that DeNiro's character is not the killer. Pacino's character responds, "I know it to a moral certainty". This always had me perplexed, until Peter Markie (Descartes scholar and Epistemologist at University of Missouri) explained the distinction to me.

  2. Yep, I heard that story also and was thinking how credulous could you get? Why wasn't it the medical treatment?
    quoting Dr. Rubens: “I can't explain why he would survive over someone else,”

    And why not? It happens all the time, some people survive diseases, other don't. Gods and miracles of the gap. NPR despite delivering good coverage of some things some time, can be so disappointing.

  3. There's a Simpson's episode where Milhouse berates Bart for his deceptive ways. In particular, he mentions the time Bart acidentally killed his goldfish and Bart tried to convince Milhouse that he never actually owned a fish. "What about the bowl, Bart? What about the bowl?" Milhouse exclaimed.
    What about the antibiotics Eusebio? What about the antibiotics?" Conveniently left out of this story - amazingly by everyone involved, including the doctor - is the regimen of antibiotics that was surely administered to the young man. There's always a bit of deception, ignorance, narcisssism, and sheer coincidence involved in these stories of miraculous happenings. How desperately they try to imagine god as real!
    Thanks, Massimo, for putting my exact thought into words.

  4. The real skeptic wasn't even included in the audio clip!

  5. Wow, I am kind of flabbergasted at this one. It hits pretty much every no-no in the logical argument lexicon.
    I think SJK hit it right on the knocker where he draws the distinction between moral and metaphysical certainty.
    Terrific post!

  6. In the very essay, from which Massimo quotes, Hume says:in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence... A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence...

    Come on Massimo, you are a philosopher. You should should know what moral evidence and moral certainty are! You are making us look bad.

    Hume on miracles is worth reading by anybody interested in the subject.

  7. SJK, Hume guy,

    Of course, you nailed it! I should have realized it. It simply didn't occur to me that an NPR piece would use that sort of arcane language that, frankly, isn't even used in modern philosophical parlance. Then again, wouldn't ascertaining a miracle require a metaphysical certainty?

  8. Let us suppose that Father Gumpel and the Catholic Church can, with a high degree of probability, exclude the more plausible naturalistic explanations (the efficacy of Finkbonner's antibiotic treatments, e.g.). Let us further grant, though I am not entirely sure how one might accomplish this, that Father Gumpel et al. can exclude with a high degree of probability all possible medical explanations, to include even future explanations which might reveal themselves with further empirical research.

    Even then Father Gumpel et al. are not justified in believing that Finkbonner's admittedly anomalous recovery was a miracle. If were are permitted to postulate as an explanation an hypothesis which defies all empirical regularities, and indeed the entire edifice of scientific knowledge, then how does one exclude the plethora of other competing, equally miraculous explanatory hypotheses? How does Father Gumpel exclude the hypothesis that inter-dimensional, immaterial beings cured the boy? How does Father Gumpel exclude with any degree of confidence the alternative hypothesis that the Ashvins (divine Hindu horsemen with healing powers) cured the boy? How does Father Gumpel exclude the hypothesis that Vulcans did not violate the Prime Directive and cure the boy, unbeknownst to him and his parents?

    Once one countenances one miraculous hypothesis, one must countenance all miraculous hypotheses; and then its down the primrose path we go. In the end, I must say, Massimo, that your accompanying cartoon is apropos. If one postulates miracles as explanatory hypotheses, then I cannot imagine what is in more need of clarification and analysis than that which was hypothesized. It is an instance of explaining the obscure with the obscure.

  9. If the pope has a direct line to god, why does he need an investigation to determine the validity of a miracle? Can't he just ask the big guy?

  10. A dead locust tree fell across our east fence and had to be removed. The stump was too large to pull out of the ground, so we took the large sections from the body and dragged them over the stump. Then we set them on fire in order to burn it out.

    As I was watching the fire, I observed a large ant on a cut section of the wood trying to find a way to survive. Ii would run to the edge, sense the heat from the fire and then run to the other side. There wasn't much hope for the ant, the section it was on was completely surrounded by fire. The only thing that could save it was intercession from a higher being.

    It received it. I extended it a twig and as soon as it had climbed on, I removed it from the fire. It occurred to me how nice it would be to have a higher being that could rescue me, should I ever find myself in a hopeless situation.

    I understand your contempt for religious dogma, because I share it. But let's not be so heartless as to hold a desperate mother responsible for the Inquisition. Professor, even if hope in a higher being is irrational, why would we want to take that away from a mother facing the loss of her beloved child? Doesn't an irrational hope in a hopeless situation seem better than no hope at all?

  11. Justin,

    First of all, nobody blamed the Inquisition on the worried mother, let's not get too melodramatic.

    Second, if you read the piece carefully, I did bot blame the mother at all. My criticism is first of the irresponsible reporter, second of the doctor who incurs in logical fallacies, and mostly of the Catholic Church who keeps triving on irrationality and suffering. Oh, I do blame *them* for the Inquisition, though.

  12. Father Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit, explains that “these days, the bar is pretty high” (I swear, I’m not making this up!), as demonstrated by the fact that the Church dismisses 95% of the cases of miracles it receives.

    Sigh. It's like the "skeptical" paranormal investigators who stress the importance of separating "true" reports of ghosts, aliens, etc., from spurious ones. Or rather, it is exactly the same thing.

    I’m sorry, did you say morally certain? What does morality have to do with the investigation of an empirical fact about a boy’s illness?

    Massimo, you should delete or strike out the paragraph in which you offer this misguided piece of mockery. The Wikipedia article "Moral Certainty" is a handy place to start learning where the phrase comes from and what it means.

  13. MKR, you must have missed the discussion above. I know that medieval philosophers made that distinction, I just think it's bizarre that it appears in an NPR piece. And where on earth did you get the idea that paranormal investigators distinguish between true and false ghost findings??

  14. Massimo,

    In reading 'Of Miracles' and a few other works, I cannot help but see within Hume a superficial resemblance to Bayesianism. Though, I suspect I am interpolating a bit here.

    I am aware that Bayes read Hume and, in part, Bayes' 'Essay Toward Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances' was authored in response to Hume's problem of induction. Also, I am aware, via John Earman, that Hume had some exchange with Bayes' close friend Richard Price (himself a rather good philosopher) who criticised 'Of Miracles' on Bayesian grounds. I wonder if you have given any thought to the matter?


    For those who may wish to read Hume's essay 'Of Miracles': http://www.davidhume.org/texts/?text=ehu#10

  15. Paraconsistent,

    good point. I've always thought that Hume's argument can actually be recast in Bayesian terms. It is more difficult for me to understand in what sense one could pose a Bayesian challenge to it, though.

  16. Massimo,

    If one approaches the matter of miracles from a subjectivist Bayesian position, one could, in principle, begin with extremely high priors for the existence of, e.g., the Abrahamic god who, by the Biblical accounts, performs miracles. (The priors could be ranged over various logical arguments for god's existence, etc.)

    The existence of the Abrahamic god would then make miracles more probable (less improbable), and thus the evidence which one might need in order to make belief in miracles rational would not need to be extraordinary in nature. I believe Richard Swinburne takes this approach.

    I should add that I by no means endorse this position.

  17. Para,

    right, I thought that's what you might have meant. But the fact is that even subjective Bayesianism is supposed to converge to stable posteriors, eventually. Since we have a shitload of evidence against miracles, and pretty much none in favor, then even starting starting with extremely pro-miracle priors (by then again, why? "subjective" doesn't mean that anything goes) surely we have reached the same conclusion as Hume...

  18. Massimo,

    Yes, I think you are exactly right. Even if one were to begin with very high priors for the existence of miracles, insofar as one consumes evidence prudently, and one updates one's confidences according to Bayes' rule, one ought to come to a rational disbelief in miracles.

    As an aside, I am often amused with proponents of miracles. They often proffer miracles (e.g. Jesus' empty tomb) as evidence for a supernatural agency, but in the next sentence will proffer the existence of a supernatural agency as evidence for miracles (William Lane Craig does this all the time).

  19. Massimo, one doesn't have to believe in miracles to have an interest in the way the Catholic Church certifies them. I should hope that even if NPR did not contain a single theist, they would continue to report on the activities of the Catholic Church, and certifying miracles is one of those activities. Surely you are not arguing that it should be stricken from the journalistic record.

    But if not, then what are you arguing? Are you saying that Barbara Bradley Hagerty took the possibility that this was a miracle seriously? I didn't get that from your description of the piece. Perhaps I just have to listen to it.

  20. Scott,

    Of course I'm not arguing that reporting on the activities of the Catholic Church should be avoided (though we don't often hear reports about astrologers on NPR, do we?). But the tone and content of the piece are far from what I expect from an NPR reporter.

  21. Massimo and Paraconsistent:

    You gentlemen may already be aware of it, but David Owen has a very good article on the Bayesian aspects of Hume's argument against miracles (available on JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2220337).

    It's also in a really good collection of essays on the First Enquiry edited by Millican.

  22. Oyster Monkey,

    I was not aware of Owen's article and thank you for bringing it to my attention; I will give it a read.

  23. Professor, if I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that there is just something very… "catholic" about the way this NPR story is put together. You’re appalled at how even the most reputable news sources are not immune to the subversive catholic influence.

    Does it seem that about all the Progressives can do in the interim, as an active effort to thwart the greater catholic conspiracy, is pursue policies of mitigation? Obviously this does little to purge the rampant “catholary” from our modern society.

    Is it too early in the Progressive movement to discuss the final solution to the catholic question?

  24. Justin, I have no idea what you are talking about.

  25. >"Justin, I have no idea what you are talking about."

    I'm obviously outside of my element on this one. I am not, nor have I ever been a Catholic. I have travelled to Rome and attended mass at the Vatican, for no other reason than to have had the experience. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and gleaned a lot of wisdom from the Christian texts. The problem is that I have also studied history and therefore I see a reoccurring theme within the official positions of Catholic leadership concerning the attainment and maintenance of power that is completely incongruent with my understanding of Christianity. Therefore, I can safely say that I share in the general apprehension many intellectuals have toward Catholic leadership; not from a standpoint of blind inculcated prejudice, but rather, from a standpoint of logical reason based on solid foundational knowledge. I should note that my discontent is not at all directed at the individual Catholic, who is merely trying to "be good in the eyes of God", but at specific power hungry leaders that value position over principle.

    None of this prohibits me from enjoying a story involving the "miraculous" recovery of a young boy from a flesh eating disease. Why wouldn't I want to know the process the Catholic church uses to certify a miracle, or the fallacious doctrinal methods that make certification possible? Furthermore, though I am a creature of logic and reason, I enjoy the occasional deviation from the traditional "cookie cutter" templates of our mainstream news outlets. I do however concede that this is widely considered a credible information source and deviant stories such as this could potentially represent long lasting ramifications in the arena of debate.

  26. Justin, there is very little for me to disagree with here. My point was certainly not that the story should not have run, but that it was badly done. Not only the general tone is far too favorable to superstitious nonsense, the skeptic voice (Joe Nickell's) was very limited in the printed version and cut entirely from the audio - I'm sure for purely editorial reasons of space...

  27. >"My point was certainly not that the story should not have run, but that it was badly done."

    Realizing that my entire side of the discussion has been based upon a false inference, I digress.

  28. Why do you think that show should be better just because it is produced by public radio? Take a look at the public first.

    Besides, the keys to the money box are now in the hands of religious nuts, so NPR has extra incentives to do this junk.

  29. gralm, that's too cynical a view of NPR. I know people there, and they are serious journalists trying to do the best job they can. They are not in the pockets of religious nuts. But occasionally they get it wrong, and it is up to the rest of us to call them on it.

  30. Massimo:

    I do not think they in the pockets of religious nuts and do not think that's too cynical view of NPR. NPR provides most of radio I listen and I am a member of local public station for the last 16 years.

    However, I think that NPR has more incentives to cater to sponsors than commercial stations. Advertising time buyers care mostly about their sales. NPR sponsors care about their image as well as ideology. Now, when large funding source (congress) in the hands of rights, NPR has plenty of incentives to yield.

    Indeed we should not discount simple human stupidity. In my opinion stupidity done more misdeeds than malice.

  31. Found this after reading about the certifying of the miracle. There's actually a pubmed link to an NIH paper (by a Catholic physician) on the process at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18090973. As for there being no explanation why this person would have survived and others not--then why would the doctors have wasted medical resources on a hopeless case? As for it being a story--I suppose it is in the sense that the catholic church has tremendous power and influence in the world, and I do know that many Catholic Native Americans have venerated the blessed kateri for a long time.


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