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Science or Myth: A False Dichotomy

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“Reality is everything that exists. That sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Actually it isn’t.” Thus begins Professor Richard Dawkins’ recent  book, The Magic of Reality. In order to explain reality, Professor Dawkins takes us on a tour of modern science by contrasting its explanations with those we find in myths and fables: “These are the stories we all remember with fondness from our childhood, and many of us still enjoy when served up in a traditional Christmas pantomime—but we all know this kind of magic’s just fiction and does not happen in reality.”

“This kind of magic” he calls “supernatural” magic, and he contrasts it with the “magic of reality,” that is, modern science. “The magic of reality,” he goes on to say, “is neither supernatural nor a trick, but—quite simply—wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

Dawkins’ point is simple: modern science gives true accounts of reality, while mythical stories give false accounts. I think we can all agree with this to a point, but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, the details lie in what he means by “modern science” and what he means by “mythical story.” His notion of modern science is common enough: data gathered through our senses by means of experiment and organized in models which best represent what we observe. This definition is fairly straightforward and unproblematic; anyone who has been through school is familiar with it. The problem comes in his notion of mythical story.

For Dawkins, anything which is not testable in modern scientific terms is classified as a mythical story—something which is a false account of reality. Now it is certainly true that there are plenty of mythical stories out there, and he gives a number of them in the book, some very colorful and fantastic. My personal favorite is the Australian myth concerning the origin of the Sun’s rising and setting: two lizards use a boomerang to drag the Sun from East to West! This is a mythical story which is clearly not true in any realistic sense. But in his list of mythical stories, Dawkins also includes some which are not so easily categorized: the Virgin Birth and the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. I can understand why he would not classify these as modern science, but they are certainly in a different category than the boomerang lizards.

Dawkins’ problem seems to be that his vision of reality is too narrow. You cannot expect to know reality accurately if you put everything into just two categories, modern science and mythical story. There are parts of reality which do not fit into either: something can be true and real even though it is not tested in the laboratory. St. Augustine makes this clear in On the Trinity:

“Far be it from us that we should deny that we know what we have learned through the testimony of others. Apart from them, we do not know there is an ocean; we do not know there are the lands and cities that famous reports describe for us; we do not know that the men and their deeds existed that we learn about by reading history; we do not know the things that are reported every day from whatever quarter and are confirmed by indications that are consistent and in agreement [with one another]; finally, we do not know in what places or from what people we arose. For all these things we believe on the testimony of others.”

Professor Dawkins is right that the real is wonderful, and wonderful because it is real. It is just that his notion of the real is a bit too restricted. I applaud him for using the notion of wonder in relation to modern science; too many people see science merely as a useful tool for solving problems and making use of the natural world. Although it is true that, through science, countless lives have been saved and the quality of our lives has been vastly improved as compared to ancient times, Dawkins rightly emphasizes that utility should not eclipse wonder. There is something magical about knowing the workings of the natural world and seeing its rational order unfolding in our world, and Dawkins’ book does a great job of showing children this “magic.” Where I cannot follow him is in denying truth or reality to things that are beyond scientific measurement and verification, like history and revelation. While these forms of knowledge are not science (in the modern sense of the term), at the same time they do not fit neatly into the category of mythical stories.

To borrow a line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Professor Dawkins, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
 
 
This article first appeared on DominicanaBlog.com, an online publication of the Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph who live and study at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. It was written by Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P., who entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He received an M.Th. in Applied Theology from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, where he studied for the Anglican priesthood.
 
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The Order of Preachers, known also as the Dominican Order, was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 with the mission of preaching for the salvation of souls. With contemplative study serving as a pillar of Dominican religious life, the Order continues to contribute to the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason, following the example of such Dominican luminaries as St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Friars of the Province of St. Joseph administer Providence College in Providence, RI and serve as teachers and campus ministers in several colleges, universities, and seminaries in addition to serving as pastors, chaplains, and itinerant preachers. Follow the Dominican students at their blog, DominicanaBlog.com.

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  • muchsarcasm

    If you want to separate the mythological category into two separate categories, one for items that have been disproven or are simply not believed anymore (like the sun being Apollo's chariot) and one for items which can't be disproven but are still believed (like Fatima or the virgin birth) then go ahead. Most people treat these claims on a case-by-case basis anyway. Having Christian beliefs in the same overly large category along with Islamic beliefs, paranormal beliefs (ESP and such), and other unprovable items doesn't confer it any additional weight when determining if it's true or not.

    • Good points. It seems you agree with the author--and disagree with Dawkins--that it's wrong to assume all non-scientific claims are mythical.

      • Mike O’Leary

        I accidentally posted earlier under my "muchsarcasm" account that I use for humor/entertainment sites, as opposed to this account for serious discussion.

        Taking into account what David Nickol wrote about whether the article above accurately depicts what Dawkins was saying, I'd say the author was right in that we can't lump these things into just two categories. Each account's accuracy is judged on its merits. When those merits are both unprovable and unfalsifiable we have to give them much less credence than those accounts we can say confidently are true.

      • Doug Shaver

        it's wrong to assume all non-scientific claims are mythical.

        If, by definition, whatever is mythical is false, then I agree we shouldn't do that. I don't know whether Dawkins is doing that, and I'm not taking the reviewer's word for it that he is.

  • David Nickol

    I have not read The Magic of Reality, but I wonder if it is being represented accurately here. The promotional copy on Amazon reads as follows:

    Richard Dawkins, bestselling author and the world’s most celebrated evolutionary biologist, has spent his career elucidating the many wonders of science. Here, he takes a broader approach and uses his unrivaled explanatory powers to illuminate the ways in which the world really works. Filled with clever thought experiments and jaw-dropping facts, The Magic of Reality explains a stunningly wide range of natural phenomena: How old is the universe? Why do the continents look like disconnected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle? What causes tsunamis? Why are there so many kinds of plants and animals? Who was the first man, or woman? Starting with the magical, mythical explanations for the wonders of nature, Dawkins reveals the exhilarating scientific truths behind these occurrences. This is a page-turning detective story that not only mines all the sciences for its clues but primes the reader to think like a scientist as well.

    It sounds like the book takes a look at scientific phenomena for which there have been, in the past, mythical explanations that we now know to be untrue. That seems to me quite different from dividing all reality into two categories—myth and science. If Richard Dawkins is that simpleminded (which I rather doubt), then I can't agree with him.

    However, it does seem to me that the "virgin birth" ("virginal conception" would seem to be a more accurate description, although Catholics do seem to believe in some inexplicable birth process for Jesus that was painless for Mary and left her a physically intact virgin) must be either "myth" or fact. It does not belong in some kind of special category. Either it is true (as literally interpreted) or it is not true. One might argue that it conveys some kind of spiritual truth if it is not literally true (about the specialness of Jesus), but nevertheless, on a literal level, it is either true or not true, as are a number of Catholic claims about Mary and Jesus.

    We know the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are irreconcilable and cannot both be literally true, but many exegetes would claim they contain some kind of truth, perhaps somewhat akin to the way the (almost certainly invented) story of the 6-year-old George Washington chopping down the cherry tree contains truth about the character of Washington, even if he never chopped down a tree. I have found that it is not unusual for biographers or historians to include accounts of events they consider almost certainly untrue (which they of course label as such) to illustrate a point.

    So I would never divide reality into "myth" and "scientific fact," but there are some claims made by Catholicism that may be open to scientific proof or refutation, and there are others that may be myths rather than facts for which there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove.

    A recent piece in the New York Times titled Why Take a Stance on God? will be of interest to many, although it does not bear directly on this thread. The question addressed is whether, if neither atheists nor theists can prove they are correct, does it make sense to take a side in the debate?

    • "We know the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are irreconcilable and cannot both be literally true..."

      Ha, do we really know this? That's news to me and millions of other Catholics (and non-Catholics, for that matter.) Most Christians have no problem harmonizing the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.

      "...but many exegetes would claim they contain some kind of truth, perhaps somewhat akin to the way the (almost certainly invented) story of the 6-year-old George Washington chopping down the cherry tree contains truth about the character of Washington, even if he never chopped down a tree."

      Very well put. The New Testament narratives are interested in communicating the truth about Christ, which they sometime pursue through literal history and other times through theologically-informed narratives

      "So I would never divide reality into "myth" and "scientific fact," but there are some claims made by Catholicism that may be open to scientific proof or refutation and there are others that may be myths rather than facts for which there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove."

      You'll find no disagreement here. I only wish Richard Dawkins, and other atheists, would take such a sensible position.

      I am curious about one thing, though. I can't remember if it was you or another non-Catholic commenter who argued that all historical claims about Christ are, by their nature, unverifiable because we can't empirical examine them (a claim which would seem to cast down on pretty much all of history.) Whether you agree with that, what specific examples do you have in mind when you assert, "there are some claims made by Catholicism that may be open to scientific proof or refutation"?

      Thanks!

      • David Nickol

        Ha, do we really know this? That's news to me and millions of other Catholics (and non-Catholics, for that matter.) Most Christians have no problem harmonizing the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.

        I dare say most Christians (and most Catholics) could not tell you which parts of the infancy narratives come from Matthew and which come from Luke. It is extremely common (especially on Christmas cards) to show the Magi standing and looking at Jesus in a manger. No such incident is to be found in the Gospels.

        Here's a summary of the problems as laid out in John L. McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible in the entry for Infancy Gospels:

        Mt and Lk have in common only the basic elements of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the virginal conception of Mary. Catholic tradition has from earliest times understood the virginity of Mary as perpetual. In other respects the differences at times raise a difficulty in combining them. Lk not only knows nothing of the episode of Herod and the Magi and the flight to Egypt, but it is nearly impossible to combine these events with his account. Lk also has nothing of the problem of Joseph. Mt has none of the temple incidents which Lk relates, and again it is difficult to combine them with his narrative. Mt seems to know of no residence at Nazareth before the return from Egypt. Certain problems are raised by external history: cf. Census; Magi. In addition, the infancy accounts of Mt-Lk are generously endowed with quotations from the OT which show Jesus as Messiah and king.

        It is hardly possible that Mt and Lk have drawn from a common source. In addition to the differences noted above, the infancy narrative of Mt is colored by tragedy and sorrow, while the account of Lk has a spirit of joy. The language in both Mt and Lk demands a Semitic original for each; this is particularly evident in Lk, where the style differs sharply from the rest of the Gospel. There is nothing in the text to suggest that the material comes from a firsthand witness of the events. In Mt Joseph is the prominent figure, in Lk Mary and the other women predominate; but an attribution of the material to these is not warranted.

        These features of the Infancy Gospels, together with the absence of the infancy elsewhere in the NT, have led modern scholars to suppose that the primitive Church possessed little or no living memory of the infancy and childhood of Jesus. This implies that no messianic features were obvious in His infancy and childhood, a supposition which is easily made, since such features leave no echo in the accounts of his public life. The Infancy Gospels, which apparently arose only in certain areas of the primitive Church, were intended to be theological expansions of the bare data contained in the memory of the early life of Jesus by the use of the OT and the developed belief in His divine sonship and His Messiahship. Thus the infancy narratives are proclamations of his supernatural origin and character and anticipations of the revelation of Him as Messiah and Lord to both Jews and Gentiles. In Mt the revelation meets with profound hostility. Lk does not exhibit this element. In both Mt and Lk the infancy anticipates the passion and death of Jesus. . . .

        • Michael Murray

          This is an example of the kind of thing it would be nice to settle in a series of posts about what Catholics think of biblical criticism.

          • David Nickol

            I should have pointed out that Dictionary of the Bible, which I quoted from above, was written by a Jesuit priest (John L. McKenzie, S.J.) and bears on the copyright page an Imprimi Potest, a Nihil Obstat, and an Imprimatur. It was published in 1965.

            Even Benedict XVI stated in his book on the Infancy Narratives that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke cannot be harmonized and serve theological, not historical, purposes.

          • Michael Murray

            Thanks. This kind of issue confuses me. Is this a neo-Catholic thing ? The recent converts from Protestantism taking the Bible more literally than the "old guard" ?

          • David Nickol

            It is hard to explain without throwing labels around. From my perspective, "mainstream" biblical scholarship (both Catholic and Protestant) strikes the average Catholic as "liberal," so to "conservative" Catholics, it appears ultra-liberal bordering on heretical. You have no doubt noticed that "Strange Notions Catholics" are not at all pleased by the New American Bible, which is the official English-language Bible for the United States approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a work of what I would call "mainstream" biblical scholarship, and yet it would probably be disconcerting to "middle-of-the-road" Catholics (if they read it) and some "conservative" Catholics feel it is downright heretical. (I am talking about the exegetical notes, not the translations of the Old and New Testaments.)

            I think part of what accounts for this is that apologists and popularizers within Catholicism tend to be quite "conservative" (for example, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Edward Feser, etc.). I think in most Catholic schools, an introductory New Testament course might very well use one of Bart Ehrman's textbooks. Bart Ehrman (setting aside his personal beliefs, which he does in his textbooks) is really quite "mainstream." But I think the Gospels, as they are used in Catholic religious services (including priests' homilies at Mass) are not subjected to historical-critical study, so even priests giving sermons based on the Gospels are setting aside what may have been a "mainstream" education about the New Testament and not communicating it to their parishioners.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I think in most Catholic schools, an introductory New Testament course might very well use one of Bart Ehrman's textbooks. Bart Ehrman (setting aside his personal beliefs, which he does in his textbooks) is really quite "mainstream."

            I went to a conservative catholic high school and elementary school, but a liberal catholic college. When I took New Testament, I could answer any multiple choice question on the interpretation of scripture by selecting the answer that would have been most incorrect according to the K-12 studies.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I know that you need to make use of some labels in order to communicate these ideas, but wouldn't it be possible to qualify your statements?

            Are "Strange Notions Catholics" monolithic? Why not say, "some Strange Notions Catholics"?

            Are priests monolithic? Why not say "some priests"?

          • David Nickol

            I know that you need to make use of some labels in order to communicate these ideas, but wouldn't it be possible to qualify your statements?

            By prefacing my comment with a statement about "throwing labels around," and also by putting each label in "scare quotes," I had hoped to signal that the labels I used were not intended to be precise and should not be taken too seriously. I probably should have made the point more explicitly.

            I did not intend "Strange Notion Catholics" to mean "all Catholics who post comments on the Strange Notions web site." I left "Strange Notion Catholics" undefined, so I am not sure how meaningful it would be to qualify it and say "some Strange Notions Catholics."

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            When you talk about priests "setting aside" what they have learned and "not communicating it to their parishioners", it sounds like you are describing some sweeping of things under the rug. That is not my experience, and I don't think that is a fair way to read it in general.

            The homily isn't a history lesson. The homily is meant to assist parishioners in understanding how inspired scripture is applicable in their own lives. Parishioners are dealing with loss of loved ones, addiction, ailments, job insecurity, social stigmatization, etc. Modern historical-critical scholarship may provide insights for the ways that we can live out the Word of God in our lives, but I think priests can be forgiven for assuming that Biblical scholarship per se is not foremost among the needs of parishioners.

            I DO think that Joe Catholic in the pews is generally woefully ignorant of things like the Pontifical Biblical Commission guidance for reading the bible. But why is it all on priests to correct that, and why would we expect that education to happen during Mass? No one is stopping parishioners from getting together and educating themselves.

          • David Nickol

            When you talk about priests "setting aside" what they have learned and "not communicating it to their parishioners", it sounds like you are describing some sweeping of things under the rug.

            It was not my intention to do so. It is probably not the case that most homilies based on the Gospels should rely more on the historical-critical method.

            No one is stopping parishioners from getting together and educating themselves.

            It seems to me that "the Church" in some form ought to be actively educating its members. Back in my day, almost every Catholic child went to Catholic school at least through the eighth grade, and most through high school. That seems to have changed quite drastically, and even back in the good old days I think classes offered to Catholic public-school children were often seriously inadequate. I can't imagine it is any better now, although I would assume that there are some excellent programs out there with excellent teachers.

            Over on the Commonweal website, it is quite common to hear people (especially educators) in a position to know lament how "poorly catechized" Catholics are. There was a discussion that I was very interested in about creating a web site to feature, say, ten books that "poorly catechized" Catholics could read that would make up for the deficit in their education. I still think it is a good idea. One problem, of course, is that the folks on Commonweal would no doubt come up with a very different list of ten books for a program in "remedial Catholicism" than would people associated with Strange Notion, First Things, Our Sunday Visitor, and any number of other sites/organizations that might undertake such a project.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Yeah, the lists probably would be pretty different, but I think that's OK.

            The Commonweal Catholics and the First Things Catholics all have to make their case to show how their understanding of the Church is consistent with scripture and tradition. I think it is up to each and every Catholic to do his best to evaluate the merits of the arguments from all sides and determine for himself, as honestly as he can, where the heart of the Church really is. I say, let all the different griots have at it, and may the best griot win! (Or rather, may the Holy Spirit win, through the best griot(s)).

          • Ignatius Reilly

            No one is stopping parishioners from getting together and educating themselves.

            I disagree. A significant part of the church holds that there are books that one should not read for fear of losing their immortal soul.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I'll buy that. But a person who wanted to educate himself could politely ask his accuser from that "significant part of the Church" to provide a current list of magisterially forbidden books. The hunt to find this non-existent list would keep the censors busy for a while.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            There was this list that was in effect till 1966:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_Librorum_Prohibitorum

            Certainly in every examination of conscience booklet, it is at least a venial sin to encourage doubts by reading something like Hume.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think it is homogenous though. For instance, a fairly large percentage of Catholics think Paul wrote all of the letters that were attributed to him.

        • Michael Murray

          It is extremely common (especially on Christmas cards) to show the Magi standing and looking at Jesus in a manger. No such incident is to be found in the Gospels.

          Yes it's just a popular myrrth.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            Heh. At first i felt incensed about your comment, then realized it was gold.

          • Michael Murray

            Clearly you are a wise man.

          • Mike O’Leary

            More than that, he's a guiding star for the rest of us.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Hmm. You may also have shown that the US Civil War never happened, inasmuch as stories set in that era may portray the same event as joyful or melancholy, or one may omit a detail found in the other. And of course it is well-known that different eye-witnesses may recall different details. If the accounts were exactly alike, one might be properly suspicious. Nor did historiography in them thar days have the same objectives as today. The geneologies, for example, did not have as their purposes establishing eligibility for the DAR or anything of that sort. There was a lot more use of symbol than in the rather staid and prosaic modern ages; so the modern must learn to read past the symbols if he is to attain a modernist goal.

          Consider the Battle of Waterloo. One version might claim that Wellington won. Another might claim that Blücher won. Still another will claim that Napoleon lost [which is not the same thing]. Yet, it was one battle, historically well-attested, with a great deal of surviving documentation and eyewitness accounts.

          According to the Traditions, Mary lived with Luke after her son was executed, so it is no surprise that Luke gives us material from her point of view. He is the only one to tell us things that Mary thought. Matthew, otoh, lived among and wrote for the Jewish Christians in Palestine (although we no longer have the original Aramaic text only a Greek version); hence, he takes a different POV and tried to illustrate different point. This upsets the Sola Scriptura crowd, but there it is.

          • David Nickol

            Hmm. You may also have shown that the US Civil War never happened . . .

            It was not my intention to "show" anything about what is historical and not historical about Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives. I was merely quoting a single, "mainstream" Catholic reference work that laid out some of the many problems in trying to reconcile the two very different account.

            Surely, though, you will acknowledge that we have more than two accounts of the Civil War, and while we may get differing slants in some accounts than others, and even irreconcilably different "facts" from two or more accounts, that does not throw into doubt the fact that the Civil War actually happened!

            If the accounts were exactly alike, one might be properly suspicious.

            Yes, but on the other hand, if accounts differ dramatically, that raises serious questions, too. Also, no one claims divine inspiration for accounts of the Civil War. I think it is a little more difficult for those who believe in divine inspiration to argue that it is perfectly natural for discrepancies in different accounts to exist. Exactly what advantage does divine inspiration bestow upon an author?

            There was a lot more use of symbol than in the rather staid and prosaic modern ages; so the modern must learn to read past the symbols if he is to attain a modernist goal.

            I couldn't agree more, but I am sure there will be some reading this who take it as an article of faith that Matthew and Luke's genealogies can be reconciled. There are a number of "explanations." What I am saying is that "mainstream" Catholic New Testament scholars, right up to and including Pope Benedict XVI, don't feel any need to reconcile the two genealogies.

            According to the Traditions . . . .

            I would not capitalize traditions here, since that confuses the issue of Scripture and Tradition being the two authoritative sources for Catholicism. The Catholic Church does not insist that all tradition is authoritative.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            that does not throw into doubt the fact that the Civil War actually happened!

            Wait another 2000 years.

            There was a short story in Analog science fiction magazine back in the 1960s entitled "Letter from a Higher Critic," proving that WW2 never happened through a literary analysis of the allegorical names of the alleged participants: the Wolf, Steel, the Church on the Hill, the Field of Roses.

            Then there was the earlier "Digging the Weans," in which archeologists digging in the ruins of what they called the Pound-Laundry (because the glyphs seemed related to washing and to a unit of weight) speculated that the people who called themselves (like all primitive people) merely Us (or We) were in competition with those who also claimed to be Us-only-more-so: the Usser.

          • Mike

            Exactly:

            If the accounts were exactly alike, one might be properly suspicious.

          • Mike

            It seems sometimes that dogmatic atheists are MORE fundamentalist about Christianity than us so-called fundamentalist Christians and more LITERAL Bible "thumpers" than so-called literalist christian bible thumpers.

      • Garbanzo Bean

        Catholics aren't literalists. The phrase "cannot both be literally true" is fine. There is no shortage of literal contradiction in scripture. Ask yourself which was created first, humans or animals. Then consult the two different creation accounts in Genesis. It should bother literalist creationists. It doesnt bother Catholics.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      Of course, the idea that myth is supposed to be some newspaper-like account of physical events is a relatively modern one. The story of the Nine Woots told by the Kuba people of West Africa is not supposed to be an historical account of how the world was created. It is a cataloging of the elements of Kuba life in an easily-remembered form. It is a conceit of the Modern that all other peoples in all of their stories were trying to do what we try to do, and failing. That's like criticizing Picasso because his perspective is a bit off.

      If the ancient Greeks believed that the sun was Apollo's chariot drawn across the sky or (more likely) the sun was Apollo and Apollo was the sun, what difference did it make? If some divine revelation had proclaimed that the sun was a ball of plasma in which gravitational forces compressed hydrogen ions to the point that they fused into helium, what practical use could they have made of it?

  • I would like to know why the authors consider the virgin birth and the boomerang lizards to be in different categories. It seems the distinction Dawkins is getting at is between stories that do not require a suspension of the laws of nature and those that do.

    I think Dawkins is saying that, given what we have learned about physics, we can now easily identify supernatural claims. As a naturalist he rejects these as do I. What we know about the cosmos is now robust enough for us to say that boomerang lizards and virgin births are impossible. What we mean by impossible is they violate rules which are simply never violated in observation, only in old stories or anecdotes.

    For us to accept these claims as true, or even possible we will need more than hearsay and anecdote. This never happens. The evidence for things like Fatima are simply not sufficient to overcome the millions of other observations that contradict them.

    • Garbanzo Bean

      The testimony regarding the Fatima event is well documented from both believers and non-believers. What other observations are you referring to? Those of people who were not there?

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Please provide the documentation by both believers and non-believers.

        • Garbanzo Bean

          I am sure it is all referenced in the footnotes and bibliography of Dawkins' book. Right?
          I read up on this event many years ago, back when people took books out of libraries to read them. If you actually care, maybe check your library... and be sure to refer to Dawkins' bibliography.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I am sure it is all referenced in the footnotes and bibliography of Dawkins' book. Right?

            I don't read Dawkins, so I wouldn't know. The book in question was written for children, so I doubt it includes a bibliography.

            I read up on this event many years ago, back when people took books out of libraries to read them. If you actually care, maybe check your library... and be sure to refer to Dawkins' bibliography.

            This is obfuscation. You claimed that the miracle at Fatima was well documented. I have tried to find such documentation and cannot. I was hoping you would provide evidence to back up your assertion that the miracle was well documented.
            What documentation we have gives different accounts of the same miracle. It also suggests that many people did not see anything.

          • Michael Murray

            I am sure it is all referenced in the footnotes and bibliography of Dawkins' book. Right?

            I don't read Dawkins, so I wouldn't know. The book in question was written for children, so I doubt it includes a bibliography.

            No it doesn't. But I am sure that age group all know how to use google and wikipedia.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            I posted a better response to Ignatius re. documentation.
            https://strangenotions.com/science-or-myth-a-false-dichotomy/#comment-1604541261
            Though you might be interested.

          • Michael Murray

            I am sure it is all referenced in the footnotes and bibliography of Dawkins' book. Right?

            Like Ignatius says it's a book for children and young adults so no bibliography or footnotes. But I'm guessing that age group know about wikipedia and google.

        • Mike
        • Garbanzo Bean

          You asked for some documentation, and all I did was make fun of Dawkins. I finally had the time to look around today at length.

          One of the interesting examples of a non-believer's testimony regarding the events that day is that of Avelino de Almeida. [At this point, it is important to point out that the names can be a source of confusion. Another prominent witness was Professor José Maria de Almeida Garrett, who is sometimes referred to as Joseph Garrett and sometimes Almeida Garrett.]

          Avelino was at the time editor of a newspaper in Lisbon called "O Seculo" ("The Century"). It was established in 1880 and published until its demise in 1978. A cover from Oct 6 1910 can be seen here, reporting the Proclamation of the Republic, later referred to as the First Republic.
          http://caisdoolhar.blogspot.ca/2010/10/6-de-outubro-de-1910.html

          The First Republic was extremely anti-Catholic and adopted what is now called the "hostile model of the separation of church and state". The periodical "O Seculo" was on-side with this approach. It is not surprising that it published numerous parodies of the claims of the children in the months leading up to Oct 13 1917. Avelino went to Fatima precisely to record the complete failure of the predicted miracle.

          The lady had told the children for months that on Oct 13 she would provide a miracle, and to tell people to come. And so many came, some believers, some scoffers. Avelino himself estimated the number at 30,000.

          Avelino came expecting to be able to write that nothing happened and that the credulous catholic peasants were idiots. His account of the event was front page the next day. Here are some quotes:

          "From the road, where the cars were packed together, and several hundred people had remained, not having had the courage to advance towards the muddy field, one could see the immense multitude turn towards the sun, which appeared at its zenith, coming out of the clouds."

          "It resembles a dull silver disc, and it is possible to fix one’s eyes on it without the least damage to the eye. It does not burn the eyes. It does not blind them."

          "Stupefied and with heads uncovered, they watch the blue sky. Before their dazzled eyes the sun trembled, the sun made unusual and brusque movements, defying all the laws of the cosmos, and according to the typical expression of the peasants, 'the sun danced'."

          He was challenged by all the anticlerical press, but he renewed his testimony fifteen days later in another periodical, "Illustraçao Portuguesa". This time, he illustrated his account with eleven photographs. I am told that all through this second article he repeats: "I saw it... I saw it... I saw it."

          The later article also has this:
          "What did I see at Fatima that was even stranger? The rain, at an hour announced in advance, ceased falling; the thick mass of clouds dissolved; and the sun – a dull silver disc – came into view at its zenith, and began to dance in a violent and convulsive movement, which a great number of witnesses compared to a serpentine dance, because the colours taken on by the surface of the sun were so beautiful and gleaming."

          And it concludes:
          Miracle, as the people shouted? A natural phenomenon, as the learned would say? For the moment, I do not trouble myself with finding out, but only with affirming what I saw... The rest is a matter between Science and the Church."

          From this quote, we can see that he did not become a believer right away. I have no idea how he ended up later on.

          I cannot find a copy of "O Seculo" online from that day, but there are images of it. Happily "Illustraçao Portuguesa" is available online. You can find it here:
          http://hemerotecadigital.cm-lisboa.pt/OBRAS/IlustracaoPort/1917/N610/N610_master/N610.pdf

          You have to click in about 14 pages, it is a large 3 page article. I have not been able to get a translation in English (other than snippets here and there, as above).

          • Ok that's one person's account and you only have part of it. Unconvincing I am afraid. After a number of exchanges on this I no longer know what Catholics think happened there. Something supernatural? One commenter says miracles are not supernatural. So does Jaki.

            There seems to be agreement that nothing actually happened to the sun, but that something happened with the atmosphere or these people had some kind of vision.

            We know they all did not see the same thing, nor did all see something strange.

            I accept that something weird happened there that day, I would think that a number of people exclaimed when the smoke started to appear, and the others hearing this exclamation began hallucinating things. Some lied and saw nothing some stared at the sun and had images on their retina

          • Garbanzo Bean

            I just provided a requested document and was glad that I could find it. Illustraçao Portuguesa magazines have been scanned and are free online. I simply went to Oct 29 2017 and found the complete three page article within the scan of the original magazine. It is a delight to find something like that; in days of old it could take months or years, now all that stuff is being scanned and might be found by an amateur overnight! Marvelous stuff.

            I am not sure what you mean by "unconvincing"? Are you thinking there is something out there that constitutes a "proof object" of some kind? I am not in the convincing business. What I want is to read original statements of what the people said, this is just one guy. In this case it happens to be a skeptical journalist unbeliever. I learned Greek simply to read Plato and Aristotle in their original languages, and by the age of 24 was teaching Greek at a secular university. The actual text of things is actually important if you want to do analysis of events accessible only by testimony. Chemical reactions can be investigated empirically because they can be repeated. History can only be scrutinized through texts.

            I don't read Portuguese and I am not going to learn it, but I paid my ten year old to transcribe the article into a text file and he will push it through google translate when he is done. Yes that is sloppy! It would be nice to have a critical translation into English.

            The word "supernatural" in Catholic intellectual circles refers only to God. All other existing things are natural. So natural would include angels, demons, ghosts (if they exist), etc. So in that context, Catholics would say miracles are not supernatural.

          • So we have a number of accounts of people saying they saw the sun seem to do impossible things. You are saying nothing supernatural happened and calling this a miracle.

            I am saying nothing supernatural occurred but I see no reason to call it a miracle because I think that term implies supernatural. So sure I guess we have nothing to discuss.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            I think in common usage (ie., not in catholic intellectual circles) the words "supernatural" and "miracle" are hard to use really clearly. I dont mean to imply that by referring to the event as "the miracle of the sun" one immediately believes it is was a miracle. In common usage the people who believe it was a miracle would probably also call it supernatural. Jaki is a catholic intellectual, so i suspect he was using the word in that sense. Or maybe he doesnt think it was an authentic apparition. You can be a catholic in good standing and not accept the authenticity of the Fatima event.

            To be clear, I actually do think that a person who called herself "The Lady of the Rosary" did appear to the three children, did tell them to spread the idea that she was going to cause a miracle on Oct 13 1917, and did tell them to gather people to watch it. She told them the time of day it would happen. And this unfortunate journalist Avelino de Almeida ended up being the unwilling story teller of what unfolded there.
            I do not have a serious problem with the story, because I am already a Catholic, and accept the existence of angels, the resurrected Jesus, the resurrected Mother of Jesus, and so on. I do not expect the story to convince anyone of any of that.

            I do not claim that there might be sensible naturalist explanations which could satisfy a non-believer. But if someone wants to put those forward, and be taken seriously, the explanations offered actually need to be applied against the evidence regarding the event, such as the story of Avelino de Almeida. And of course, the other testimonies.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            What do you think the message of Fatima is?

          • Garbanzo Bean

            A lot of people have spent their lives really entangled in that question... to put it nicely. The "second secret" seems interesting historically, I only read about it yesterday for the first time.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            This time, he illustrated his account with eleven photographs.

            It would be interesting to see those photographs.

            I am not convinced that what happened is in anyway miraculous. I think there was some psychological priming with retinal distortion. The message of Fatima is not one that I think the mother of an all loving God would give.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            Can you not see the photographs? Click through about 14 pages of the magazine. They wont convince you of anything, they are just pictures of the people there that day.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Oh, I thought he had photographs of the sun.

      • The fact that no one else in the world noticed the sun move. Documenting claims doesn't make them credible. People lie all the time, invent elaborate hoaxes, exaggerate, are mistaken. People lie all the time under oath. The sure never moves in the way claimed by Fatima.

        • Garbanzo Bean

          Obviously the sun didn't physically move; if it had, the solar system would have come apart. Observe that the solar system is intact. The problem is, the majority of people saw something, and testified to that fact.
          You can just say "bah, hoax or whatever", it doesnt matter. But dont confuse dismissal out of hand with an authentic naturalist investigation.

          • David Nickol

            The problem is, the majority of people saw something, and testified to that fact.

            One of the problems with the accounts of Fatima is that, since the sun didn't really move, since different people "saw" the sun behave in numerous different ways, and since some witnesses saw nothing unusual, what "objectively" happened there cannot be determined, because there were so many different subjective experiences. That does not necessarily rule out the possibility that something miraculous or supernatural occurred there, but it leaves us with large numbers of irreconcilable subjective accounts. It is certainly remarkable that many people claim to have seen different phenomena while others present saw nothing. But if it was a miracle, strictly speaking it wasn't the "miracle of the sun," since there is no agreement by witnesses of what the sun did, or even appeared to do.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            Yes I think that is all true. Of course, something simple like a traffic accident or a piano concerto will generate a wide range of verbal reports among witnesses of what happened. So one person saying the sun danced, and another saying it zig-zagged, is not a surprise. Of course there are a wider range of reports than that with this "supposed miracle of what people say the sun did that day" [i think to avoid confusion we should stick with "the miracle of the sun"], with some people saying they saw nothing.
            An authentic naturalist investigation would want to test what water was available at the site, collect data on the people along with their testimony, have an opthamologist check the eyes of both those who saw something and those who saw nothing, etc. Samples of soil, plants, air, and so on should have been taken as quickly as possible. And so on. All of that might have been done, I dont recall that stuff. What is shocking to read is the testimony.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            I have come up with a better response to Ignatius re. documentation.
            https://strangenotions.com/science-or-myth-a-false-dichotomy/#comment-1604541261
            If you are interested.

          • Actually, the majority did NOT testify that they saw something. There were about 70,000 people present, as far as I can tell we don't know what kind of sample were questioned, how many saw nothing, how many saw the same thing and so on. We have a few accounts of people saying they talked to people who saw different things and some said they saw nothing.

            I don't say "bah, hoax or whatever", I say you need to do better if you want to convince me that something supernatural occurred.

            I grant you it is mysterious, unexplained and so on. But such ignorance does not entail we know what happened or that there was a supernatural cause.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            I dont want to convince you something supernatural happened. From an unbiased naturalist perspective, I think the event should be considered unexplained.

            For a Humean skeptic, it should just be a case of "told ya causality is a delusion." Flashes of light and color... but isnt that all we see anyways? I speculate.

            A lot of testimony was captured over the years. The idea seems to be that an overwhelming number saw something, and a handful saw nothing. It seems it was hard to find the handful, perhaps they were ashamed at having seen nothing? The dry clothes and mud is harder to explain, and I doubt anyone said the mud was still there.

            An excerpt from the account of the naturalist Dr. José Maria de Almeida Garrett, professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Coimbra, is interesting. I hadnt read that kind of detail before: http://www.fatima.org/essentials/facts/miracle.asp

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I dont want to convince you something supernatural happened. From an unbiased naturalist perspective, I think the event should be considered unexplained.

            There are a myriad of psychological reasons to question the reliability of the testimony. There is also this:
            http://www.marcocorvaglia.com/medjugorje-en/i-saw-it-with-my-own-eyes-then-it-is-false-miracles-of-the-sun-and-more-part-1.html

            For a Humean skeptic, it should just be a case of "told ya causality is a delusion." Flashes of light and color... but isnt that all we see anyways? I speculate.

            This is a straw man. Hume would say (among other things) that we have more reason to believe that the witnesses to the miracle were lying or mistaken than we have for believing that the sun danced and dried the earth.

          • Garbanzo Bean

            According to the website you refer to, we should have "miracles of the sun" everyday. Perhaps there is a difference between the two phenomena.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            Not really. We don't stare at the sun, because it is bad for our eyes. Plus, if we looked at the sun and found that it distorted our vision, we would chalk that up to looking at the sun not some sort of miracle. In the sun miracle case, because people were expecting a miracle (even the skeptics were primed) they are more likely to view the phenomenon as miraculous.

        • Garbanzo Bean

          I have posted a better response to Ignatius re. documentation.
          https://strangenotions.com/science-or-myth-a-false-dichotomy/#comment-1604541261
          If you are interested.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      But boomerang lizards are more impossible than parthenogenesis. Furthermore, the stories are told for different purposes in different narrative traditions.

      • I do not see how something can be more impossible than something else. In any event, the virgin birth is not ascribed to parthenogenesis, it is ascribed to supernatural causation, Mary did not have a child on her own, something supernatural impregnated her.

        Once you accept that the supernatural can happen, literally everything that is not incoherent is equally as possible.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          I do not see how something can be more impossible than something else.

          Admittedly, humor goes over the heads of fundamentalists, who insist on a remorselessly literal reading of texts, including comments on blogs. But science regards many things as "impossible" that are not logically so. It is only the logically impossible that is "impossible" simpliciter. E.g. a married bachelor, to burgle your own home, a four-sided triangle, etc.
          The conclusions of science are (by present dogma) falsifiable. Thus, that a vessel may not travel faster than life or that a virgin may not give birth and so on are all subject to falsification by a contrary event. One may find it hard to believe that there are intelligent space aliens or that someone rose from the dead after a longer interval than most of those who have risen from the dead, but one cannot regard it as "impossible" in the strict sense of mathematical or metaphysical impossibility. It may only be scientifically "impossible," which translates as "we haven't a clue how this might happen."

          the virgin birth is not ascribed to parthenogenesis, it is ascribed to supernatural causation

          Why do you suppose that a supernatural cause might not make a physical footprint? After all, it is supposed that God created the World and the world (and all its "natural laws") is eminently physical. The laws of physics cannot distinguish between the local motion of an object moving naturally and one thrown deliberately. They are described by the same equations. There is nothing in the nature of a miracle that requires "poofing." God is as capable of using water to make wine as he is to make wine from nothing at all.

  • Ignatius Reilly

    Most modern miracles can be given naturalistic explanations. If the naturalistic explanation is reasonable, should we still consider the event miraculous? I would imagine Catholics would want to make the distinction between miracles that are genuine and miracles that are the result of fraud or a misunderstanding of an event.

    With that in mind, the "dancing of the sun" can reasonably be explained by retinal distortion caused by prolonged staring at the sun.

    • Garbanzo Bean

      Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became "suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling".
      Retinal distortion can dry clothes and mud! Who knew.

      • Ignatius Reilly

        Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became "suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling".

        My comment has nothing to do with the ground suddenly becoming dry. I gave a naturalistic explanation for the sun miracle. Do you think that explanation is lacking is some way? This has nothing to do with the supposed drying of the ground.

        What percentage of the witness reported that the sun dried the ground? "Witnesses reported" is rather vague. Certainly the primary miracle is the sun dancing.

        Retinal distortion can dry clothes and mud! Who knew.

        Is this condescension?
        Let me ask you a question: How do you judge the validity of an apparition and a miracle? When I was catholic (most of my adult life), I witnessed many a miracle that was later shown to be fraudulent. So, how do we know the real miracles from the false ones?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          My advice would be to simply view miracles as surprising events that reveal truth. If you do not perceive that any truth has been revealed, it may still be a miracle, but it is an inconsequential miracle from your perspective. It is really nothing more than a "surprising, and perhaps questionable, fact" in that case. For me, the Fatima miracle falls into this category.

          On the other hand, if you do perceive that some truth has been revealed, the revelatory event itself may become somewhat (*) less significant. Your understanding of "what happened" is just a collection of dead facts, and dead facts can be wrong (and always are wrong, to some degree). But when dead facts reveal living truth, maybe those dead facts are pretty close to correct.

          (*) I don't think that one can, or should, completely separate medium from message. The way that truth is communicated is part of the truth itself. In that sense, I don't think revelatory events themselves can ever be completely detached from that which they reveal. Nonetheless, I think it is possible to perceive the truth of what a person says while having an unsure recollection about exactly which words they used.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            My advice would be to simply view miracles as surprising events that reveal truth. If you do not perceive that any truth has been revealed, it may still be a miracle, but it is an inconsequential miracle from your perspective. It is really nothing more than a "surprising, and perhaps questionable, fact" in that case. For me, the Fatima miracle falls into this category.

            But what if the miracle leads believers away from the truth?

            I always thought that miraculous occurrences should be judged by the consequences ("the fruit"), the reliability of seers, the reliability of the witnesses, and the message itself. Meaning, is the message rational and does it conflict with Catholicism. Finally, is the miracle easily explained by natural causes?

            With Fatima, I would note that the children are not reliable witnesses. Lucia's mother consider her to be an imaginative liar. They also seem to have an obsession with hell. The first secret:

            Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repulsive likeness to frightful and unknown animals, all black and transparent. This vision lasted but an instant. How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven. Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror

            I believe that the apparition also told them that souls fall to hell like snow flakes, and one of the neighborhood teenagers, who died at 18 was going to be suffering in purgatory for her sins until the end of time. Is this the message of Jesus?

            Aside: I actually find it to be morally reprehensible that anyone would tell this story to a child, which is why I care about this topic.

            However, for our sins, we don't just get to go to hell we also get the following:

            You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father

            So, because we have "sinned", we deserve the holocaust. Whatever happened to "love God and do as you will"? The
            Fatima God seems to tell us that we must repent, or he will visit war, pestilence, and famine on us poor sinners, and if that does not teach us, we get hell. Of course, in order to stave off these calamities we must do serious penance (not that it mattered, because the calamities happened anyway). This is the message of Fatima: Behave and do penance, or you will get war, famine, and hell. Is this the stance of the Church?
            Or is this the God of children? A frightening punishing
            God that parents sometime use to keep their kids in line.
            Finally, what was the utility of Fatima? Did anything good come out of it? Perhaps, as some of my protestant friends tell me, the apparition was Satan leading us astray.

          • Michael Murray

            Interesting quote from the children about hell. I've been told here quite often that hell is not about burning but separation from God. I guess the children were speaking metaphorically.

          • David Nickol

            Actually, I think the standard explanation is that the worst (but not the only) suffering of hell will be separation from God. If one were cynical, one might suspect that to put it that way is to gloss over or evade the issue of punishment by infliction of physical pain or something akin to it.

            The problem with any alleged vision of hell is that first, the standard explanation maintains that hell is a state, not a place. And second, the only inhabitants of hell (if hell exists and has inhabitants) at present are pure spirits and can't be seen. Angels, whether good or bad, don't "look like" anything, and human souls don't "look like" anything. So a vision would have to be something like an "artist's conception" of what hell would look like if hell could be seen. It would have to be designed by some spiritual being to be intelligible to the human mind. So assuming for the sake of argument that the children were granted a vision, it would have necessarily been designed for them to perceive. So I think metaphor is basically the right word, but the metaphor would have been presented to them as visual images. It wouldn't have been a metaphor created by them.

          • Michael Murray

            Actually, I think the standard explanation is that the worst (but not the only) suffering of hell will be separation from God.

            Ah I see. Mind you I have been told on these boards that as an atheist what I desire is separation from God so I am just getting what I desire in hell. So I guess I have to hope the separation is the worst of it !

            It would have to be designed by some spiritual being to be intelligible to the human mind. So assuming for the sake of argument that the children were granted a vision, it would have necessarily been designed for them to perceive.

            True. But there are many visual images of isolation that a child would readily identify with. For example people locked in empty rooms alone while outside everyone is with the friends playing in the sun, etc.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I think you put forward some good reasons for not believing in that particular miracle. Among the most important of your reasons (to my mind) is the fact that the notions of punitive justice that are present in the children's revelations seem to be at odds with more fundamental tenets of Catholic theology. Given that apparent contradiction, a Catholic might be led to:

            1. Conclude that the revelations were not valid, or at least remain agnostic with respect to their validity.
            2. Conclude that the more fundamental tenets of Catholic theology are not valid.
            3. Find distinctions and modes of interpretation to bring those revelations into coherence with the more fundamental teachings of the Church. Presumably, the Church, in declaring the miracle "worthy of belief", has done this in some form or other, though I don't claim to have any specific knowledge in this regard.

            I think options 1 and 3 are both on the table for a Catholic. The Creed doesn't require you to go with option 3.

            Your protestant friends are entirely correct. Purported miracles could come from a place of deception. As some ultra-conservative "Catholics" like to point out, even the pope himself could be an agent of the devil. I personally think those conclusions are contrary to common sense, but everyone must discern for himself, based on the totality of the data available to him, what is true and what is not true.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            When I was Catholic I would have chosen 1, but the JPII and Benedict both professed fondness of the apparition, which I did not really understand as the apparition to me seems more about punishment than love.

            What do you consider the fundamental tenets of Catholic theology? It is certainly common for more conservative Catholics to label liberal Catholics as "not really"
            Catholic or as a cafeteria Catholic.

            I would say that belief in the Eucharist is probably one fundamental tenet.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I would begin to answer your question about fundamental tenets by telling you how I understand the Church. I understand the Church as the Body of Christ. That is not a metaphor for me. I literally think that the living Christ manifests himself materially through the Church (notwithstanding that the Church is understood to be female, which has interesting gender implications for the living Christ), just as I literally believe that the Eucharist is a material manifestation of Christ.

            Therefore, discerning what the Church truly believes is, for me, very much like discerning what a human being believes. Human beings say things that appear contradictory. They say things through their body language. They say some things out loud, and some in writing. They say some things very clearly, and other things much less so. Human beings have complex multi-compartment brains, and the different compartments are often in tension, or even at war with each other. I see all that as being true of the Church as well.

            Despite all that complexity, I think some things are clear. For explicit Christians, the Resurrection is the ultimate non-negotiable (though I do buy into the idea of anonymous Christianity, wherein Resurrection faith may be held implicitly and unconsciously). Branching out from there, you immediately have the Incarnation, and then the rest of the stuff in the Creeds. Eventually, for Catholics, you land on this gradient of Church teaching that spans everything from dogmata to encyclicals to catechism to what your priest told you to what your Grandma told you. I don't think the lines between those different categories of Church teaching are clear. I think you have to do your best and make an honest assessment as to whether you are really listening to the true Church or just a Church of your own selfish imagining.

            For my part, I am thoroughly convinced that I am listening to the true Church and not a Church of my own devising. I don't know Christ perfectly, and I encourage people to call me on it when I say something about Christ that is incorrect, but I don't let anyone tell me that I don't have a personal relationship with Christ. If people want to call me a cafeteria Catholic, they can go ahead. I know who I am, and I think I know who Christ is, so people can go ahead and say what they want.

            I still haven't really answered your question, but I've gone on so long already that I feel I should stop here.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Typically, by its theological aspects.

          "We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not."
          -- St. Thomas Aquinas, On the truth of the catholic faith against the gentiles

          • Ignatius Reilly

            What do you think of the theology aspects of Fatima?

            By the way, I will reply to your response on the contingency thread tomorrow - I'm too tired tonight.

        • Garbanzo Bean

          The "sun miracle" at Fatima includes among other things the extremely rapid drying of wet clothes and mud. Your naturalistic explanation via "retinal distortion" cannot account for that.
          I realize now you may not have been referring to the Fatima event, but to something else. Your phrase regarding retinal distortion is also found verbatim on the wiki article re. Fatima.
          Regarding miracles, people claim all kinds of nutty things. But people claim all sorts of nutty things about just about everything. So there is that.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            I don't think the ground dried rapidly. There really isn't much documentation for it.
            So how are we to judge the nutty miracles from the real ones?

          • Garbanzo Bean

            How did you evaluate the documentation regarding ground drying which you couldn't find, vs the documentation in general you couldn't find?

  • Peter

    The Nicene Creed says: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen".

    Some would say this is myth, but we are now discovering that the observable universe comprises only a small fraction of creation. The vast bulk of the cosmos is unobservable and therefore unseen. It looks like myth can become reality.

  • Doug Shaver

    For Dawkins, anything which is not testable in modern scientific terms is classified as a mythical story—something which is a false account of reality.

    I have not read The Magic of Reality, but I've read several of his other books, and this doesn't sound like something Dawkins would say.

    Where I cannot follow him is in denying truth or reality to things that are beyond scientific measurement and verification, like history and revelation.

    I doubt that Dawkins denies the truth of history, and if he does, then I would have no problem telling him to his face that he was wrong. I know it's fashionable in some circles to say that history cannot be done scientifically, but that depends on an entirely too narrow construal of what it means to be scientific.

    As for revelation . . . the argument seems to be: We cannot infer its falsity from its failure to be scientific. And I'm OK with that argument. If you tell me that God has revealed certain truths about himself to certain people, then I cannot prove that it didn't happen. But I will say that no believer has given me any good reason to believe that it did happen, and that is all the justification I need for not believing that it happened.

    • Michael Murray

      I doubt that Dawkins denies the truth of history,

      That would be very strange working all your life at Oxford. You are knee deep in the stuff all the time.

  • Maybe there are even more categories. It turns out something might be able to be a miracle and have a natural explanation. For example, the Fatima miracle.

    The October 13 event, taken by itself, seems straight-forward to explain as a purely natural phenomenon. The best explanation I've seen for this phenomenon is given by Stanley Jaki; Stacy Trasancos relates Jaki's theory here.

    Even though the phenomenon itself may have a completely natural explanation, the events surrounding the phenomenon are not so easily explained. How would three shepherd children be able to predict the date and time of a rare atmospheric event three months in advance. I don't have a good explanation for at all for that.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      Indeed, the Bible itself is often happy to provide natural explanations for miracles. For example, we don't see pharaoh's army mysteriously vaporized while in pursuit of Moses and co. Instead, God works through the very natural means of wind acting on water.

    • I disagree. I don't think it makes sense to talk about natural phenomena as being miracles.

      I also disagree that what was reported to have happened on Oct 13 was an atmospheric phenomena. I don't think Jaki or Transocos possess the credentials required to identify a novel phenomena, especially based on vague descriptions from others.

      We do find some interesting facts. One is Jaki acknowledges there are disappointingly few actual eyewitness accounts. The accounts we have from newspaper articles, apparently written by reporters on the scene, do not clearly state that the reporters witnesses the phenomena. They all say that a cry went up from the cloud and then they saw, well different things. Some saw the sun move all across the sky and "dance". Others say they say it spin and blaze, there are differing views of what actually occurred.

      So we have thousands of people making pilgrimages, all stating at the sun and anticipating God to do something. Then they hear people cry out about seeing something and then they see something.

      These people were very primed. Given what we know about how susceptible people are to priming, suggestion and actually inventing memories, I think it is more likely than not that when people heard the cry, they hallucinated something. (Goodness I remember clearly seeing Santa's sleigh about 6pm on Christmas Eve when I was a child.)

      The other side is that I don't think we have anything like a representative sample from observers. Most of the people there were likely Catholic and expecting to see a miracle. I don't think in 1917 Portugal there was much of an interest in reporting a lack of seeing the miracle. How do we know that the majority didn't actually observe anything.

      It gets even more confusing when you ask why such a miracle could occur. If it did, why only in this one area

      • I don't know if Trasancos or Jaki have the credentials to produce an acceptable answer for laypeople. It may be that Jaki's credentials are at least somewhat related, given the work he did with Victor Hess on cosmic rays, which considered some meteorological conditions.

        It is a speculative explanation. From what little I know about the Fatima miracle, it seems as though something happened in the atmosphere. Some people who were there and who made reports were not Catholic, and probably didn't expect to see much. Quite a few people saw something, and not all who claim to have seen something were Catholic or were expecting to see a miracle. The thing they saw sounds much like some atmospheric effect (to me anyway), and Jaki's seems to me to be the most likely explanation. There are alternative explanations that involve atmospheric phenomena, such as dust clouds and sun dogs.

        When I say "miracle", all I mean is something that doesn't presently have a good explanation and that has some spiritual dimension. I don't think it involves the supernatural. I don't think God would work that way.

        I suspect, if this is an act of God, that God is either not capable or not interested in producing many miracles. If God is bound to work within the confines of natural principles, then he may not be able to bring about many natural miracles like this. Or he may not find it all that important to convince people of his existence, and may perform miracles for other reasons instead. Maybe he perceives time differently, and so performs miracles very frequently, relative to geological time-scales. The speculations could go on and on.

        I suspect that most miracles of this kind are a function not so much of divine activity, but a mix of the wonderful strangeness of nature and the incomprehensible vastness of human ignorance.

        • Paul, I think your re-definitions of words can lead to confusion and equivocation. I think the definitions you have advanced are novel uses of these words and will be confusing if you apply them without clarifying what you mean, which pretty much defeats the purpose of using a single word to describe the concept you are alluding to.

          But all that aside, from your comments above and elsewhere, I'd be interested in knowing more about your beliefs, if you don't mind airing them. I understand you identify as a theist. How would you answer the following questions

          Do you believe in any gods?
          If yes, what is [a] god?
          What do you understand the difference between natural and supernatural to be?
          Do you believe that the supernatural is possible?

          Ultimately I don't think you and I have different beliefs, but use different labels.

          Ignore if you like, or let's converse in another forum if you're at all interested.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Please discuss it here!

            Lots of folks (on both sides of the miracle debates) throw around the word "supernatural" as if they know what it means, but I cannot see how it is obvious what the word should mean. "Supernatural events" can presumably only be defined with reference to "natural laws", and most people are hard-pressed to define exactly what they mean by "natural laws".

            For similar reasons, I think it is very hasty to characterize Paul's usage of "miracle" as tantamount to re-definition. To me, his usage seems largely consistent with both standard usage and Catholic meaning.

          • I agree with you on supernatural. I've thought a lot about this term. At the end of the day I think the best usage is to describe events that are impossible but happen anyway. I think is incoherent, which is a big part of my skepticism.

            One of my things is to call out supernatural claims, if you want to say there is an unexplained phenomena, fine. But once you say it is supernatural, I feel like you are trying to accept that there are both immutable laws of nature, but that these are mutable by certain persons or phenomena. I call BS on that.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I approve of your perspective and I think it can (with minor modification) be well-defended on the basis of simple Catholic theology. (Not that you are asking for Catholic theologians to come rushing to your defense, but anyway ...)

            The way that I would say it is that God, in principle could revoke laws of nature that we perceive as immutable, but that he never has done that and he never will. Natural laws are part of God's spoken logos, and his spoken logos is an objective promise, and I believe God freely chooses to never go back on his promises, even if he could.

            Miracles partake in that part of the spoken logos that lies beyond our comprehension, but they do not violate that part of the spoken logos that is accessible to human comprehension.

          • Interesting. Illuminating. Thanks.

          • First the questions:

            I'm agnostic.

            I don't know whether God exists or not. I hope God exists. I try to live as though God exists.

            I don't have a very exact definition for natural and supernatural. Natural is part of nature, and supernatural is not part of nature.

            I do think that the supernatural is possible.

            If you want to talk in a different forum, e-mail me or Facebook me, and we can talk about my more particular beliefs about things, and about your beliefs about things.

            All I'm proposing here is the possibility that something could be both natural and a miracle. I think it could.

            If the definition of miracle I proposed is novel, it isn't novel with me. It's the same as the definition Spinoza uses (or it's meant to be, anyway). Something in nature that we don't understand yet, and to which we attribute some spiritual meaning. It's also similar to one of the descriptions for miracles Aquinas provides. It's the second of his three types of miracles (Aquinas counts everything).

            Of course, if you want to say that a miracle is necessarily a violation of a law of nature, then it's impossible for an event to be both natural and miraculous. And if that's the definition you want to stick to, please feel free to ignore what I've been saying.

        • Doug Shaver

          When I say "miracle", all I mean is something that doesn't presently have a good explanation and that has some spiritual dimension.

          What does having a spiritual dimension mean?

          • Spiritual dimension, in this context, meaning somehow connected to Mary, saints, angels, djinn, Zeus, Hera, ghosts, spirits, life-force, gaia, Great Spirit, whatever have you. Things like that.

            Fatima was connected to Mary. Mary supposedly told the kids when the atmospheric event was to happen. It happened when she said it would.

            If instead the event was predicted by a computer, no invoking of saints, angels or spirits, I'd say it doesn't have much of a spiritual dimension.

            Maybe people have different ideas about that. Looking at the stars is to me a deeply spiritual experience, but the context is probably different there.

          • Doug Shaver

            People certainly do have different ideas about spirituality. That is why, whenever a particular believer mentions it, I have to ask what they're talking about. Knowing what others have said doesn't tell me much about what you're trying to say.

          • Any or all of the possibilities on my list would work for me. I'm not picky.

    • Doug Shaver

      It turns out something might be able to be a miracle and have a natural explanation.

      OK. Then what is the difference between a natural occurrence that is a miracle and a natural occurrence that is not a miracle?

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        A natural occurrence that lacks a disorienting element of surprise, or that lacks a re-orienting revelation of truth, would not be a miracle.

        • Doug Shaver

          That's pretty subjective, isn't it? So, some natural occurrence could be a miracle for some people and not a miracle for other people.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            It could be subjective, but I don't think that is necessarily the case.

            If an authoritative group of scientists determines that there is no known explanation for a phenomenon, that says to me that the event is "objectively surprising".

            If an authoritative group of theologians comes to agreement on the ways that particular revelations can be brought into coherence with the deposit of faith, I would consider that also to be an objective finding.

            There is perhaps a limited sense in which all "surprise" is subjective. I don't think God is surprised by his own miracles.

          • Doug Shaver

            If an authoritative group of scientists determines that there is no known explanation for a phenomenon, that says to me that the event is "objectively surprising".

            It doesn't say so to me. If the only way we can know something is to ask an authority, then it's not objective.

      • Two possible answers:

        1. Whether we understand how it could have happened or not.

        2. Whether God directly intended it or not.

        Here's one hypothetical example:

        God wants there to be a parting of the red sea when Moses is there. He wants all the water molecules to part on their own at that time. He's decided, however, that he's not going to reach down and intervene on the sea. So he goes to the initial conditions of the universe (imagine that natural laws are entirely deterministic), and sets it up so that, at the time Moses shows up, the sea parts.

        This is an event that, itself, can be described using known laws of nature. It seems also to be a miracle. Maybe you say that the miracle happened at the origin of the universe, but I'd like to say that the directly intended effect, the parting of the sea, was a miracle too.

        • Doug Shaver

          Maybe you say that the miracle happened at the origin of the universe, but I'd like to say that the directly intended effect, the parting of the sea, was a miracle too.

          In either case, I don't see how the parting of the Red Sea, so explained, differs from the rising of the sun every day. It seems to me that you just proven everything that has ever happened to be a miracle.

          • I don't think that would be an accurate representation of my position.

            We're imagining God exists right now, and that he wanted to part this sea, and that we know he did because he told us somehow (maybe he told someone on good faith, and it got written in a book).

            Now, changing the initial conditions of a deterministic universe is going to have all sorts of consequences. You can't just change it so the sea parts. Lots of other things are going to happen before that. God may not have intended the particular motions of every atom along the way. He doesn't care much if this particular nitrogen molecule happens to be a bit to the right or to the left, except insofar as its position is part of what gets the sea to part when Moses is there.

            God wanted the sea to part. The sea parting is statistically unlikely. It would be hard to explain in a plausible way why such a thing would have happened by chance. It's a miracle, as I defined it before.

            I stub my toe on a chair. The event in itself isn't all that unlikely. It's pretty easy to explain. In spite of some choice words, God wasn't invoked. That's not a miracle, as I defined it above.

          • Doug Shaver

            That's not a miracle, as I defined it above.

            As you defined it, I have still have no way to distinguish a miraculous event from an ordinary event.

            Now, changing the initial conditions of a deterministic universe is going to have all sorts of consequences. You can't just change it so the sea parts.

            I certainly can't. Are you saying God couldn't have?

          • I certainly can't. Are you saying God couldn't have?

            God could not have, because it would be logically impossible to do so. If you change the initial conditions in a deterministic universe, those changes have to propagate into the future. If the changes don't have to propagate, then it's not a deterministic universe.

            As you defined it, I have still have no way to distinguish a miraculous event from an ordinary event.

            I think the distinction is quite clear in the case of the parting of the sea, versus the other events that would be caused along the way.

            Or, another example, Fatima by initial conditions. God sets the initial conditions such that three children experience visions telling them about the sun dancing, and then also sets the conditions so that a rare meteorological event occurs. It seems absurd to me to say that this is just as much a miracle as the jostling of molecules in the air, even if God set those conditions too.

            This is the best I can do to explain how a distinction is to be made between miracles and non-miracles. If you still don't see how to make such a distinction, I must admit defeat. I'm not capable of explaining it better, and so not capable of helping you understand my position better. So there's no real point in going on, me trying to answer your questions.

            But please let me know if this is the case, that you still don't see how the distinction is made. If nothing else, it will help me think about how to better describe my position for the future.

          • Doug Shaver

            If you change the initial conditions in a deterministic universe, those changes have to propagate into the future.

            Into the future, yes, but not necessarily through the entire universe. Nothing about determinism says that the effects of any change cannot be spatially constrained.

            As you defined it, I have still have no way to distinguish a miraculous event from an ordinary event.

            I think the distinction is quite clear in the case of the parting of the sea, versus the other events that would be caused along the way.

            OK. I suppose that whatever reason you have for believing that it actually happened also gives you reason to believe it had some spiritual significance distinguishing it from, let us say, today's rising of the sun.

            This is the best I can do to explain how a distinction is to be made between miracles and non-miracles. If you still don't see how to make such a distinction, I must admit defeat.

            As best I can assess my own motivations, I'm not being deliberately obtuse. I think I have some idea of what you're trying to say, but if I'm correct, then you're right that there is not much more clarification to be had. I appreciate your patience.

          • Nothing about determinism says that the effects of any change cannot be spatially constrained.

            That's quite possibly true. If the initial conditions were centered on the smallest possible region to affect the red sea (and no outside conditions need to be adjusted in order to keep our universe a friendly smooth habitable place), it would only have propagated out in a billion parsec radius sphere. That's a fairly small part of the visible universe (about 2% the total volume), but does contain all observed galaxies.

            The less God has to do in this system, the easier it is to make a brute distinction between miracles and non-miracles. If God could adjust the initial conditions very little, and in such a way that their effect could be kept to arbitrarily small regions, then you could say that miracles are anything that results from God messing with the initial conditions and non-miracles are everything else. I doubt that this is possible.

            Keep in mind I don't think that God actually does this. I just think that this is possible.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Do you think that natural laws, such as we understand them right now, imply determinism? In what sense do you believe in determinism?

            I generally assume that there is lots of room for free creativity, even in a universe that follows natural laws. It seems like live music to me, not something pre-programmed into a synthesizer. But I don't think about natural laws as much as I'm sure you do.

    • Mike

      If say Fatima was perfectly natural but the "odds" of something like that happening exactly when those kids said it would happen are say 1 in a billion or whatever does that make the even a miracle still? is their prognostication a miracle or "natural" and what if the even itself has a probab. of say 1 in a billiion is it a miracle?

  • Mike

    Miracle of the Sun at Fatima is a VERY Strange REAL ie. reality event that was written up by secular anti clerical journalists sent to fatima by the anti-catholic gov at the time to discredit the poor fools and yet these very same journalists document what at the very least is a very very strange occurrence in the sky above the little town; check it out on wiki it's positively weird BUT not a myth in any sense of the word.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_the_Sun

  • Mike

    But can you put math through the scientific method? Well no bc it doesn't actually exist does it; it is abstract a concept; what about justice? if it can't be "quantified" then analyzed "scientifically" does it also not exist? What about "love" or "friendship" or beauty or suffering? Is suffering bc it is not scientific not real? How about things in modern science that we don't understand yet, are they then too not real? What IS energy? not how much power it has but what IS it? What IS gravity? not how strong a force it is but what is it? Nobody know what those 2 things are? they are not physical that's at least for sure so if they are not physical are they also not scientific? They are "forces" but that's just the label we give to the particular phenomena not what they "are"....if i follow dawkins' reasoning or lack there of it leads me to exclude MOST of human experience and alot of modern science itself.

    Finally is Dawkins himself real a valid reality as he can't be explained scientifically either?