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Jerry Coyne and Stephen Fry’s fishy tale about St. Thomas Aquinas

I don’t like to accuse two highly respected public figures of lying. Lying, after all, presupposes an intention to deceive the people you are talking to, and not being a mind-reader, I’m loath to ascribe such a wicked intention to two people whom I’ve never met. But when two highly intelligent men make false statements, which they almost certainly know to be false, and they then use these statements for the purpose of scoring cheap points at someone else’s expense, then I think it is fair to say that they are guilty of distorting the truth. And to those who would distort the truth, I say: what you propose to do is bad enough, but if you are going to do it, then you should at least be clever about it. Getting caught telling an untruth only makes you look inept – and if you are exposed, you forfeit whatever public respect you may have once had.

I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether the two gentlemen whom I’m about to expose have forfeited not only the respect of their readers, but also their credibility on all matters relating to religion. Loss of credibility is a much more serious thing: for whereas respect can (in some cases) be regained after making a full and public admission of wrongdoing, credibility cannot. Being sorry about past mistakes does not make you trustworthy in avoiding future ones.

The two highly intelligent men whom I’m writing about are well-known to most of my readers: the evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne, of the University of Chicago; and the British actor, broadcaster and author, Stephen Fry. Both of these individuals are also outspoken critics of Intelligent Design, and their grounds for criticism are very similar: one writes that “Intelligent design, or ID, is the latest pseudoscientific incarnation of religious creationism, cleverly crafted by a new group of enthusiasts to circumvent recent legal restrictions”, while the other describes ID as “a barbarously irrational mixture of pseudoscience and fallacious argument that poses itself ‘innocently’ as a credible alternative.” Finally, both men would define science as “evidence-based truth,” as contrasted with the so-called “revealed truth” of religion.

The miracle of the herrings

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post: what counts as good evidence for a miracle, and do we have any good reason to believe that Aquinas’ miracle of the herrings passes muster as a credible miracle? In a recent post titled, The Miracle of the Herrings: Why Thomas Aquinas is a saint (6 August 2013), Professor Jerry Coyne made the astonishing claim that St. Thomas Aquinas, a thinker who is respected by Christians of all stripes and who is widely considered to have been the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher, was officially declared a saint on the basis of a bogus miracle, based on third-hand evidence. The Catholic Church normally asks for a supernatural sign from God – in other words, a miracle – before officially declaring a person to be a saint, in a process known as canonization. In fact, the Church usually – but not always – asks for two.

Towards the end of his brief post, after having exposed the sham miracle that was allegedly used to justify St. Thomas Aquinas’ canonization, Professor Coyne triumphantly exclaimed to his readers: “There you have the standard of miracles the Catholic authorities consider dispositive.” Science, as Coyne never tires of reminding us, is based on observational evidence, which is (generally) replicable; whereas religion is based on faith, backed up by hearsay and rumor. Score: science 1, religion 0.

What, you may ask, was the basis of Professor Coyne’s astonishing claim about the miracle that propelled St. Thomas Aquinas to sainthood? Apparently, it was a Youtube clip sent to him by a reader, of a popular TV show called QI (Quite Interesting), which is hosted by the British actor, comedian and author, Stephen Fry:

Alert reader Grania, an ex-Catholic, sent me a YouTube clip of the “QI” show hosted by Stephen Fry, which apparently specializes in esoteric knowledge. If you watch the clip at the link, you’ll see, a few minutes in, a discussion about a fish-related miracle used to canonize Thomas Aquinas.

The show that Professor Coyne is referring to is more than four years old: it was aired on January 28, 2009.

What Stephen Fry said on the QI show, about the miracle of the herrings

I’ve taken the trouble to transcribe what Stephen Fry said on the QI show on January 28, 2009, on the subject of the miracle of the herrings, which is ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas:

(0:03)
Stephen Fry (to his studio guests): Tell me, if you will, the tale of the miracle of the herrings.

Studio Guest: Is that a miracle as in the act of an interventionist God? Absolutely didn’t happen?

Stephen Fry: Yeah, you’re right. It so didn’t happen, but it is an official miracle. It’s just one of the more pathetic fables…

(At this point, the conversation veers off-topic, as Fry and his guests exchange humorous banter about the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, narrated in the New Testament. Finally, after about a minute, Fry steers the conversation back on-topic.)

(1:26)
Stephen Fry: As you know, [the] Roman Catholic Church likes to appoint… (er) after they’re dead, it likes to do this thing to holy dead people: it makes them a saint.

Studio Guest: They’re fast-tracking one at the moment, aren’t they? There’s Padre Pio: they’re trying to fast-track him.

Stephen Fry: And they’re trying to fast-track Mother Teresa, of course. But this is one of the great 13th century, divine creatures, as it were – a theologian-philosopher called Thomas Aquinas, and they wanted to make him a saint. Now he was a Dominican friar, but he didn’t mortify his flesh, as he was supposed to – there he is. (An image of a rather corpulent Aquinas is displayed on the television screen.)So they couldn’t… you know, that was a bit bad. He didn’t seem to do any particularly good works while he was around. (Chuckles loudly.) He wrote splendidly; he was a great philosopher. And they had to try and find a miracle for him, and there was no miracle, until someone told a story that apparently on his deathbed, he said, “Oh, I really fancy a herring. Some herrings, have we got some herrings?” Now, they’re in the Mediterranean, where there are no herrings, so they thought, “We’ll give him some pilchards, he won’t know.” So they gave him some pilchards, and he went, “Mmm. Very [good]. They’re the best herrings I’ve ever tasted!” And so – this is genuinely true – the Catholic Church decided to interpret that as the miracle of the herrings: that the pilchards had turned to herrings in his mouth. (Audience laughter.) And therefore he qualified as a saint, and therefore he is to this day St. Thomas Aquinas…

(3:09)
Anyway, there we are. The miracle of the herrings was attributed to Thomas Aquinas so that he would qualify for sainthood.

What Stephen Fry got wrong

There are at least six things wrong with Stephen Fry’s account.

First, the Catholic Church doesn’t make people saints. God does that. What the Catholic Church does, after an examination of the evidence, is declare them saints.

Second, a theologian-philosopher such as St. Thomas is certainly not a “divine creature”; he’s not a divine anything. He’s just a mortal man.

It turns out that St. Thomas Aquinas was a very humble man. In order to back up that assertion, I’d like to quote from a document containing the proceedings of the first canonization inquiry for St. Thomas Aquinas, held in Naples in 1319 (forty-five years after the saint’s death at the age of 49). The document was posted on the Web ten years ago, back in 2003. Stephen Fry may not have heard about this document, although he should have known about it, since his QI show specializes in esoteric knowlege, and if you are hosting a show like that, you really do need to be on top of your facts. However, Professor Coyne certainly has heard of the document: he even cites it and accepts as genuine in his post, The Miracle of the Herrings: Why Thomas Aquinas is a saint. Now, I should point out that the document Coyne cites is found on the Website of an extremely eccentric group of people who claim to be “more Catholic than the Pope” – so much so that they think the current Pope isn’t even a valid Pope, and that the last valid Pope died 55 years ago, back in 1958! One needs to exercise due caution when assessing the veracity of documents on such Websites. Still, I have looked at the document carefully, and judging from the language used – which is very similar to that of an ecclesiastical trial held in seventeenth century Spain, which is also on the Web – it appears to be the real McCoy. I’ve also looked at other papal documents listed on the home page of the Website in question, and I can affirm that these documents are quite genuine. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the document is indeed what it claims to be: an official canonization inquiry into the personal sanctity of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the miracles wrought by God on his behalf.

According to the proceedings of the first canonization inquiry for St. Thomas Aquinas, those who knew the saint all agreed that he was “always gentle and humble, never windy-worded or pretentious,” as Lord Bartholomew of Capua, Chancellor and Protonotary of the kingdom of Sicily, put it (see section LXXVII of the document), and that he remained “unalterably humble, gentle, and courteous,” even when engaging in theological disputations. The abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova testified under oath (see section VIII) that even when St. Thomas Aquinas was gravely ill, he refused to allow his companions to bring him bundles of wood, to keep the fire burning in the fireplace of his room. Whenever St. Thomas saw them doing him this favor, he would struggle to his feet, protesting, “Who am I that holy men should bring me my fire-wood?” Aquinas would surely be mortified to hear himself described as a “divine creature.”

Third, the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas had a rather large frame doesn’t mean that he didn’t engage in self-mortification. As a priest who belonged to the Dominican Order of Friars Preachers, St. Thomas would have taken several vows, requiring him to engage in self-mortification. which are described in an article in The Catholic Encyclopedia:

The Preachers adopted from the monastic life the three traditional vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty; to them they added the ascetic element known as monastic observances; perpetual abstinence, fasting from 14 Sept. until Easter and on all the Fridays throughout the year, the exclusive use of wool for clothing, and for the bed a hard bed, and a common dormitory, silence almost perpetual in their houses, public acknowledgment of faults in the chapter, a graded list of penitential practices, etc… They suppressed in their order the title of abbot for the head of the convent, and rejected all property, revenues, the carrying of money on their travels, and the use of horses.… The Preachers consequently made study their chief occupation, which was the essential means, with preaching and teaching as the end… The Friars had to vow themselves to the salvation of souls through the ministry of preaching and confession, under the conditions set down by the Gospel and by the example of the Apostles: ardent zeal, absolute poverty, and sanctity of life.

Does that sound rigorous enough for you, Mr. Fry?

But there’s more. At the first canonization inquiry for St. Thomas Aquinas, witnesses were unanimous in their testimony that St. Thomas had led an exemplary life as a member of the Order of Friars Preachers, so we can only assume that he kept his Dominican vows, which required him to engage in extensive self-mortification. Additionally, several witnesses described St. Thomas as “temperate” in his appetite for food and drink, and one witness also alluded to his fasting. Brother Octavian of Babuco, who had known St. Thomas for several years, testified under oath that “Thomas was a man of pure and holy life, chaste, temperate in food and drink, diligent in prayer, fasting and study; that in prayer he shed tears; that he was most charitable, compassionate and humble, full of devout wisdom in his dealings with God and man.” Another witness, Brother James of Caiazzo, who knew St. Thomas Aquinas in Naples and Capua, described him as “temperate, so that he never demanded special food, being content with what was served to him.” A third, Brother Conrad of Sessa, who also knew Aquinas for several years, described him as “[t]emperate in food and drink, so that he never asked for anything special,” adding that he was “[u]nconcerned about his clothes.” A Dominican priest, Fr. John of Boiano, who personally knew St. Thomas Aquinas, described him as “humble, temperate, and chaste.” Lastly, Brother Peter Capotto testified that St. Thomas was “most temperate, never minding what he ate or even noticing it, so detached and absorbed he was in contemplation.”

Fourth, Stephen Fry is doubly wrong in his assertion that there was no miracle for St. Thomas Aquinas, until someone told a story about the miracle of the herrings that allegedly occurred on his deathbed. First of all, Fry is wrong about the timing: according to the testimony of Nicolas, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, who testified at St. Thomas Aquinas’ canonization inquiry, the miracle of the herrings didn’t occur on Aquinas’ deathbed, but about one month before his death, “when Thomas lay sick in the castle of Maenza” (see section VIII of the document). According to the abbot, St. Thomas was heard by several people to say: “If the Lord has chosen this time to come for me, I had better be found in some religious house.” He was then carried to the Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, about six miles (ten kilometers) from the castle, and there he lay sick for about a month, before passing away in the year 1274.

Fry’s second mistake is that he apparently fails to realize that miracles performed during the life of a saint, or even on his or her deathbed, cannot make that person a saint; the miracles must occur after that person’s death. (Think about it. We all have free will. If the miracles occur before the person’s death, then what’s to stop the person from backsliding into sin and going to Hell? And even on a person’s deathbed, that person might have a change of heart, for better or worse, right up until the very last moment. That’s why Catholics ask the Virgin Mary to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” We really mean it.) Indeed, popes have insisted on the requirement for posthumous miracles from the twelfth century onwards. As far back as 1198, Pope Innocent III declared: “Two things are required, so that somebody may be considered a saint in the Church Militant, namely works of piety during his life, and miracles after death.” (See also here and here.) So the miracle of the herrings, even if it had occurred on Aquinas’ deathbed, couldn’t have propelled him to sainthood, as he was still alive. And if occurred one month before his death, well, forget about it.

Fifth, Stephen Fry’s claim that “the Catholic Church decided to interpret” what Aquinas said about the pilchards tasting like herrings “as the miracle of the herrings: that the pilchards had turned to herrings in his mouth” is also inaccurate on two counts. In the first place, the documents of the first canonization inquiry for St. Thomas Aquinas, held in Naples in 1319, totally refute Stephen Fry’s baseless canard that the sole evidence that the pilchards in the miracle story had actually turned to fish was Aquinas’ assertion that they tasted like fish. Here’s what brother Peter of Montesangiovanni testified under oath at the canonization trial (see section L):

Asked for his authority for this story, the witness said that the event took place within the four days that he himself spent at Maenza, along with the prior and the other monks mentioned above. He was present and saw everything and also ate some of the herrings–as also did brother Thomas himself and all the company, including Thomas’s niece the Countess Frances (who was wife to Annibaldo de’ Ceccano, lord of Maenza) and many other persons both secular and religious.

… Asked who were present at the event, he mentioned himself and his prior and John of Piedemonte, and brother Fedele of Tuscany, and Reginald of Priverno, and an attendant on brother Thomas called James of Salerno. Asked if these men were still living, he said ‘no’; he was the only one left. Asked why he happened to be then at Maenza, he said he had gone with his prior, under obedience, to visit brother Thomas. … Asked how he knew that the fish were herrings, he said that he had seen salted herrings at the papal court at Viterbo, so that he knew herrings when he saw them. Besides, brother Reginald, who had eaten fresh herrings in the countries across the Alps, declared that these were herrings too. Asked how they had been cooked, he answered that some were boiled and some fried.

Stephen Fry’s second error in claiming that “the Catholic Church decided” that the miracle of the herrings was an authentic miracle is that he fails to realize that the Catholic Church, in canonizing a person, nowhere declares that all, or even one, of the miracles ascribed to that person were actual miracles. All it officially declares is that the person in question is in Heaven. And that’s it. As Father Edward McNamara, Professor of liturgy at Regina Apostolorum University, succinctly put it in an article titled, Canonizations and Infallibility, “the object of canonization is that the person declared as a saint is now in heaven and can be invoked as an intercessor by all the faithful.”

As far as I can tell from my online research, Catholics are not bound to believe that the two miracles normally required for someone to be canonized as a saint were genuine miracles. What they are bound to believe – and I’m taking the common theological view that canonizations are infallible declarations, even though not all Catholic theologians agree on this point – is that even if it were to turn out that these “miracles” were not genuine, the person who was canonized is genuinely a saint, and is now in Heaven. (In other words, Catholics believe the Holy Spirit would somehow protect the Church from canonizing an individual who was not actually in Heaven.)

Catholics are certainly not bound to believe that all of the miracles listed in the records of a saint’s canonization trial are genuine. The trial records simply contain the entire testimony – good, bad and indifferent – of those who gave evidence under oath as to the sanctity and/or miracles relating to the saint in question. It goes without saying that much of this testimony is of inferior quality, and some of it is simply rubbish.

I might add that although Catholics are required to believe that a canonized saint is now in Heaven, they are not required to believe that the saint was of exemplary character, or free from faults. Even saints are flawed people, in their characters and in their judgments, and the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article on beatification and canonization is perfectly correct when he observes that “sanctity does not necessarily imply the exercise of heroic virtue.”

This is a very important point, since we know for a fact that some canonized saints had very considerable character flaws – St. Jerome, for instance, was notoriously irascible – while other saints made decisions which were, objectively speaking, gravely wrong, sometimes with terrible consequences: St. Thomas More, for instance, personally approved the burning of half a dozen people at the stake as Lord Chancellor, and ordered the confiscation of people’s Bibles – even Catholic ones – from their homes, while Pope St. Pius V encouraged English Catholics to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, whom he denounced as “the pretended queen of England and the servant of crime.” In our own time, Pope Francis has announced the upcoming canonization of Pope John XXIII, who was by all accounts a saintly individual, but he was also the author of the 1962 document Crimen sollicitationis (based on an earlier, almost identical 1922 document), which ordered Catholic bishops, under pain of excommunication, not to publicly divulge cases of child sexual abuse occurring in their dioceses, making it impossible for them to contact the police (ecclesiastical trials were to be held instead, if the evidence was deemed strong enough).

The reason why I’ve brought up the bad decisions made by St. Thomas More, Pope St. Pius V and Pope John XXIII is that Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens alluded to these terrible decisions, in a 2009 debate against British Conservative M.P. Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan of Nigeria, on the motion, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the World.” I’d now like to address this objection head on.

At this point, some of my Catholic readers may be wondering how a flawed individual could possibly go straight to Heaven when he or she dies. For according to Catholic doctrine, those people who die in God’s grace, but who have not yet achieved the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven, are required by God to undergo a spiritually cleansing purification, called purgatory, before they can enter Heaven. On this way of thinking, then, it appears that if some saints were flawed in their characters and/or their moral judgments, then they would have had to go to purgatory when they died, instead of Heaven. (Protestants of course reject the doctrine of Purgatory as unBiblical; Catholics think otherwise.)

It might surprise readers to know that the Catholic Church leaves open the possibility that even a canonized saint may have to pass through purgatory. Here’s what Catholic Answers apologist Michelle Arnold has to say on the topic of whether even canonized saints may (in some cases) have to go to Purgatory, before entering Heaven:

Canonization simply means that the Church knows for certain that particular individuals are now in heaven; it does not consider whether they experienced purgatory before they arrived in heaven. It is possible that canonized saints go directly to heaven; it is also possible that they experience purgatory.

American apologist Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelism at Catholic Answers, is of the same opinion, writing: “I can find no Church teaching to back up the idea that anyone who ends up as a canonized saint by definition avoided purgatory.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030-1032) describes purgatory as a “cleansing fire” and a “purifying fire,” and though it does not state whether this fire is real or metaphorical (on that point, see this article), the Catechism is clearly referring to to a very severe kind of purification. Now let’s recall the three saints I spoke of earlier, who made decisions that were, objectively speaking, gravely wrong: St. Thomas More, Pope St. Pius V and Pope John XXIII. The canonizations of St. Thomas More, Pope Pius V and Pope John XXIII took place (or, in John XXIII’s case, will take place) 400, 140 and 50 years after their deaths, respectively. Of course, souls in Purgatory would obviously not be subject to Earth time, and nobody knows what a year of Earth time would corresponds to in purgatory. However, it should be clear that if some saints have to go to purgatory before going to Heaven (as the Catholic Church permits its members to believe), then there has been ample opportunity for these three saints to have been thoroughly purged by the “cleansing fire” of purgatory of whatever faults they had. This, then, is my answer to Fry on the subject of flawed saints.

I might add that St. Thomas Aquinas himself, despite his great humility and gentle character, sanctioned the burning of heretics (Summa Theologica II-II q. 11 art. 3), for reasons explained by Michael Novak in his essay, Aquinas and the Heretics (First Things, December 1995), and his views on what God could justly command (Summa Theologica I-II q. 94 art. 5, reply to objection 2) are so shocking that they will make many readers’ jaws will drop to the floor in amazement. Let me state clearly: the Catholic Church, in canonizing an individual, does not thereby endorse his or her views on moral matters, which may be quite flawed.

Stephen Fry’s sixth and final error can be found in his statement that “the miracle of the herrings was attributed to Thomas Aquinas so that he would qualify for sainthood.” This is also doubly wrong. For starters, it overlooks the fact that a single miracle wouldn’t normally be enough for a person to be declared a saint, anyway. Theological opinions on how many miracles were required for someone to be declared a saint varied, up until the seventeenth century; however, barring exceptional cases like martyrdom (where the miracle requirement might even be waived by the Pope’s decree), it was generally held that one miracle was not enough, and the 1917 Code of Canon Law required a total of at least four (two at beatification and at least two more for canonization). This requirement for a total of four miracles was pared back to two in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. Recently, Pope Francis, invoking his papal authority, dispensed with the requirement for a second miracle for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, but this was an extremely rare case.

Furthermore, Fry’s statement that “the miracle of the herrings was attributed to Thomas Aquinas so that he would qualify for sainthood” assumes that this was the sole miracle attributed to Aquinas. This is complete and utter rubbish. The documents of the first canonization inquiry for St. Thomas Aquinas, held in Naples in 1319, show that over a dozen miracles, including miracles of healing from illnesses such as blindness and paralysis, were attributed to Aquinas. It was also publicly verified that his body remained incorruptible, for many years after his death, and that it gave off a sweet odor, even though the sacristan swore that it had not been artificially treated (see section LXV). I’ll say more about these miracles below.

Professor Coyne cites “evidence” for Stephen Fry’s fantastic claim – but he mis-cites his own sources!

In his post, The Miracle of the Herrings: Why Thomas Aquinas is a saint (6 August 2013), Professor Jerry Coyne tells his readers that he was initially a little skeptical of Stephen Fry’s claim about the miracle of the herrings, so he decided to check it out. And what do you know, it turned out to be true! Coyne writes:

I found this hard to believe, but, sure enough, the internet has the document used to support Thomas’s canonization in 1319, a 19-page screed (when printed out in 12-point Times font) called “The Sanctity and Miracles of St. Thomas Aquinas; From the First Canonisation Enquiry“. The examination of miracles apparently took place at the Archbishop’s Palace in Naples from July 21 to September 18, 1319.

But Professor Coyne either did not read the document he printed off, or he willfully suppressed statements in the documents that contradicted the assertions he made in his post. He tells us that the miracle of the herrings is in Section IX of the document, and proceeds to quote it verbatim:

IX. Asked if he knew of other miracles attributed to brother Thomas, the witness said that he had heard of many; and in particular that when Thomas lay sick in the castle of Maenza and was urged to eat something, he answered, ‘I would eat fresh herrings, if I had some.’ Now it happened that a pedlar called just then with salted fish. He was asked to open his baskets, and one was found full of fresh herrings, though it had contained only salted fish. But when the herrings were brought to Thomas, he would not eat them.The witness spoke too of a Master Reginald, a cripple, who was cured at the tomb of brother Thomas. Asked how he knew of these two miracles, he replied that that about the fish he had from brother William of Tocco, prior of the Friar Preachers at Benevento, who himself had it from several people at Maenza, where the event occurred. The other story he had from brother Octavian (mentioned above) who averred that he had seen it happen. And in the monastery these miracles were common knowledge.

Comments Coyne:

There you have the standard of miracles the Catholic authorities consider dispositive. Thomas apparently didn’t work or inspire many miracles in his life, so they had to use incidents from the bottom of the [fish] barrel. Note, too, that this one is documented third hand.

Game, set and match? Not quite. It turns out that there’s another description of the miracle of the pilchards in the very document cited by Coyne – this time, one given by an eyewitness.

The miracle of the herrings – what really happened?

The eyewitness to the miracle of the herrings was brother Peter of Montesangiovanni, an old monk and also a priest, who personally knew St. Thomas Aquinas for a period of ten years – and he states in his testimony that there were at least six people who personally witnessed the miracle, not counting Aquinas. Here is Brother Peter’s sworn account, which is taken from the First Canonisation Enquiry into the Sanctity and Miracles of St. Thomas Aquinas (held in Naples in 1319):

Peter of Montesangiovanni

XLIX. On Wednesday, 1 August, brother Peter of Montesangiovanni, an old monk of Fossanova and a priest, was called as witness and took the oath. He said he had known brother Thomas for a long while and in several places … the castle of St. John at Marsico, at Naples and at Maenza, and at Fossanova itself. Asked how long he had known him, he said for ten years in all; they used to meet from time to time, and he always saw Thomas following the same way of life, right to the day of his death when the witness was able to minister to him…

L. Asked if he knew of any miracles worked by Thomas in life or death or after death, the witness narrated the following which happened during that stay at Maenza. Thomas’s health declined while he was there, and his socius [companion or associate - VJT], seeing his weakness, begged him to take some food: whereupon Thomas said, ‘Do you think you could get me some fresh herrings?’ The socius replied, ‘Oh, yes, across the Alps, in France or England!’ But just then a fishmonger called Bordonario arrived at the castle from Terracina with his usual delivery of sardines; and the socius (Reginald of Priverno) asked him what fish he had and was told (sardines). But on opening the baskets, the man found one full of fresh herrings. Everyone was delighted, but astonished too, because fresh herrings were unknown in Italy. And while the fishmonger was swearing that he had brought sardines, not herrings, brother Reginald ran off to tell Thomas, crying, ‘God has given you what you wanted – herrings!’ And Thomas said, ‘Where have they come from and who brought them?’ And Reginald said, ‘God has brought them!’

Asked for his authority for this story, the witness said that the event took place within the four days that he himself spent at Maenza, along with the prior and the other monks mentioned above. He was present and saw everything and also ate some of the herrings–as also did brother Thomas himself and all the company, including Thomas’s niece the Countess Frances (who was wife to Annibaldo de’ Ceccano, lord of Maenza) and many other persons both secular and religious.

… Asked who were present at the event, he mentioned himself and his prior and John of Piedemonte, and brother Fedele of Tuscany, and Reginald of Priverno, and an attendant on brother Thomas called James of Salerno. Asked if these men were still living, he said ‘no’; he was the only one left. Asked why he happened to be then at Maenza, he said he had gone with his prior, under obedience, to visit brother Thomas. … Asked how he knew that the fish were herrings, he said that he had seen salted herrings at the papal court at Viterbo, so that he knew herrings when he saw them. Besides, brother Reginald, who had eaten fresh herrings in the countries across the Alps, declared that these were herrings too. Asked how they had been cooked, he answered that some were boiled and some fried.

So there we have it. Whatever you think of it, the fact remains that the miracle of the herrings was witnessed by several people, who saw and tasted the herrings themselves. I sincerely hope that Jerry Coyne and Stephen Fry will eat their words and acknowledge that they were wrong on this point, and that whether the miracle genuinely happened or not, it was well-attested.

A blind man is instantly healed by touching the dead body of St. Thomas Aquinas, in front of 100 witnesses

But wait, there’s more! The same witness also attested to other miracles worked by St. Thomas Aquinas: the saint, shortly after his death, healed a man of blindness, in front of 100 eyewitnesses:

LI. Asked if he knew of any miracle worked by Thomas at the time of his death or afterwards, the witness said that while the corpse still lay in the bed in which he had died, and before it was washed, the then sub-prior of the monastery, John of Ferentino, who had lost his sight, was about to kiss the dead man’s feet – as they all were doing because of his holiness – when it was suggested to brother John that he should lay his eyes against the eyes of Thomas. So he did this; and at once he recovered his sight fully and clearly.

Asked how he knew this, the witness said that he was present and saw this happen, in fact he was one of those who advised brother John to do as he did. Asked about the time—the month and day–he repeated that it was the day on which Thomas died, though he could not recall the exact day of the week nor the month…. Asked who else was present, he mentioned Francis, bishop of Terracina (of worthy memory), and the aforesaid brother Reginald, and four or five Friars Minor and many Friar Preachers and monks and lay-brothers of the monastery, to the number, in all, of about a hundred. … Asked who had called him to see this miracle, the witness said that no one had called him; he had been continually at brother Thomas’s bedside as he lay ill and was there when he died, ministering to him; in fact he was standing just beside the dead body; and he remained there afterwards, with some other monks, to wash it. So he saw the whole thing. Asked then what words brother John had used when he laid his eyes on Thomas’s, the witness said he had not heard; the brother had prayed mentally. Asked how long he had seen this man suffering from loss of sight, he said for twenty days, during which time he could not recognise people and was unable to read. Asked how long he had known brother John subsequently enjoying the use of his eyes, the witness said that thenceforth for thirty years he saw him enjoying good sight.

J’accuse!

I have to confess my utter bewilderment and bafflement at how a scientist of the stature of Professor Jerry Coyne could withhold evidence like this from his readers. It stinks – and more than any dead fish could. I don’t wish to accuse the man of intentionally deceiving his readers; but at the very least, he is guilty of not even bothering to read a document on Aquinas’ miracles that he personally printed off – all 19 pages of it, as he tells us – and then pretending that he had read it.

I wrote at the beginning of my post that if you’re going to distort the truth – which is, of course, a reprehensible thing – then you should at least be clever about it, or you’ll invite well-earned ridicule. So I am baffled as to why Professor Coyne would be foolish enough to provide his readers with a hyperlink to the very document that would refute his claim that no eyewitness miracles were attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. To be sure, Coyne doesn’t use those exact words in his post, but he clearly implies as much: he ridicules the miracle of the herrings on the grounds that it is “documented third hand,” adding derisively that “Thomas apparently didn’t work or inspire many miracles in his life, so they had to use incidents from the bottom of the [fish] barrel.” He then states in passing, at the very end of his post, that “There are many other miracles for St. Thomas,” before listing a poorly attested and ridiculous-sounding miracle about one of Aquinas’ bad teeth, which was troubling him, and which conveniently happened to fall out, just before he had to deliver an important speech. The reader is invited to guffaw, and left with the impression that this is the level of evidence for all of the other miracles attributed to Aquinas. What rot.

I stated above that the records of a canonization trial contain the entire oral testimony of those who gave evidence under oath as to the sanctity and/or miracles relating to the saint in question. I added that some of this testimony is simply rubbish. For Professor Coyne to quote from the “rubbish” miracle reports while completely ignoring the more impressive ones is to distort the evidence, which is something I wouldn’t expect a scientist to do.

No two ways about it: Professor Coyne is covering up the truth here, even if he is not lying.

Another miracle wrought at the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas: A knight is healed of paralysis of his right arm

The following testimony by a knight named Peter Grasso of a dramatic miracle wrought by St. Thomas Aquinas after his death, was made under oath, and is taken from The Sanctity and Miracles of St. Thomas Aquinas From the First Canonisation Enquiry (held in Naples, at the Archbishop’s Palace, from 21 July to 18 September 1319):

Peter Grasso

VI. Peter Grasso of Naples, a knight and functionary in attendance on the king; about sixty years old. Having declared that he himself had received miraculous favours from the said brother Thomas of Aquino, he was called before the lords Inquisitors and took the prescribed oath to speak the simple truth on whatever he knows, whether by sight, hearing or other men’s report, about the life and miracles of brother Thomas; also to answer all questions truthfully, taking no account of love or hatred, prayers, or bribes, favours or inducements of any kind whatsoever…

VII. Asked about miracles worked by brother Thomas, the witness gave the following account of one. He had been afflicted with a complete paralysis of his right arm, so that he could not even raise his hand to comb his own hair or tie a scarf under his chin without help. This continued for about ten months until, in the Lent of 1316, he happened to be journeying to Rome, and, coming into the neighbourhood of Terracina, he turned aside to visit the grave of brother Thomas at the abbey of Fossanova. He had been told that Thomas lay buried there, and it had crossed his mind that perhaps the merits of the holy man might help to cure his arm; indeed he soon began firmly to believe that he would be cured. So, with two companions – Nicholas Filmarini and Henry Caracciolo, both knights of Naples like himself, and both eager to visit the tombs–he turned aside to Fossanova, leaving the other travellers to continue their journey to Rome. And entering the monastery courtyard, he met a monk who directed him towards Thomas’s grave, pointing to it from some way off. It lay, the knight says, to the left of the high altar, covered with a sort of carpet. This he had removed, and then, kneeling on the ground and facing the grave, he prayed in these words: ‘Lord God, who art wonderful in thy saints, through the merits of this thy saint restore strength to my arm.’ Then he lay down flat on the grave; and at once he felt his arm grow stronger. For a while a kind of numbness remained about the joints as though the muscles were still sluggish; but this too had vanished by the end of the same day. Next morning he found his arm restored to perfect health; not a trace of the paralysis remained. Asked for dates, he said that the paralysis began in May I315 and continued until May of the year following, when the cure took place. Asked about the place and witnesses, he answered as above.

St. Thomas the incorruptible?

When discussing the miracle of the herrings above, I quoted from the testimony of brother Peter of Montesangiovanni, an old monk who was also a priest. The same priest also attested at St. Thomas Aquinas’ first canonization trial that the body of St. Thomas remained incorrupt for several years, following his death. What’s more, it gave off a very mysterious fragrant odor:

LII. … The witness added that after Thomas had been buried seven months in the chapel of St. Stephen, he was exhumed and taken to a place before the high altar, where they buried him again. But when they exhumed him a sweet smell came out of the grave and filled all the chapel and even the cloister. And the clothes in which the corpse was wrapped were whole and entire, as was the corpse itself, except that the tip of the nose was missing. And some of the monks in order to make sure of that fragrance, came and put their noses right down on the body and so assured themselves that the sweetness came from the body and its clothing.… Then after seven years, the witness himself having now been elected abbot, he had the body again exhumed and transferred to a more honourable place, namely to the left of the altar (as one approaches it) and under a tombstone raised above ground level. And in this disinterment also the same sort of fragrance was experienced, and again the body and its wrappings were found whole and undecayed, except that a part of the thumb of the right hand had gone.Asked how he knew all this, the witness said that he was present at both translations of the body, and the second one he himself ordered, as abbot of the monastery. Asked concerning the times – the days and months – he said the first translation was seven months after brother Thomas’s death, and the second one seven years after the first. The months and days he could not recall exactly, they were so long ago now….

And what about that missing thumb, you might ask? According to
John of Boiano, an old Friar Preacher and a priest, who knew St. Thomas when he was in Naples and who testified at the first canonization trial, the thumb also remained perfectly preserved:

LXXXIX. … Asked about miracles,… the witness said that fifteen years after the death of brother Thomas he went, as prior of Durazzo, to the Provincial Chapter of the Friar Preachers at Anagni, where he was shown a thumb taken from one of Thomas’s hands. This thumb had been given by Reginald of Priverno, the usual socius [associate or companion - VJT] of brother Thomas, to the lord brother Hugh, the bishop of Ostia. The hand itself was in the possession of the lady countess, Thomas’s sister. The thumb (said the witness) was whole and healthy; in fact, it seemed fresh, with the skin, nail, flesh, bones, and colour, like the thumb of a living man.

Here’s what another witness, brother Nicholas of Priverno, had to say about St. Thomas Aquinas’ incorrupt and fragrant corpse, at his first canonization trial in 1319:

Nicholas of Priverno

XIX. On Thursday, 26 July, at the same place, Nicholas of Priverno, a lay-brother at Fossanova, was called as a witness, and, having taken the oath in the form described, was asked first concerning the life of brother Thomas of Aquino….

XX. Being asked whether he knew of any miracles worked by brother Thomas, either while still alive or after death, the witness said that a long while – about seven months – after Thomas’s death, when his body was taken from the chapel of St. Stephen to the grave in front of the high altar, the witness saw the body intact and smelled a strong and sweet scent that came from it. And later, about fourteen years after Thomas’s death, the grave was reopened at the request of one of his sisters, the Countess Theodora, who desired a relic of him; and one of the hands from the body was given to her. And the body was still intact and very fragrant.

Asked how he knew these things, the witness said he was present and saw them and smelled the fragrance both times. Asked about the times, he answered as before; but he could not recall the exact month or day. Asked who was present, he said that at the first opening of the grave nearly the whole community was there: they carried the body in procession with the cross and holy water and all solemnity; but at the second exhumation when the hand was given away, he named only brother Peter of Montesangiovanni, then abbot of the monastery, as present.

Cynics may scoff, and suggest that the body was skilfully embalmed, but did you ever hear of an embalmer that could make a body give off a pervasive, fragrant odor, fifteen years after its death? (I should acknowledge, however, that even the most perfectly preserved bodies of saints tend to go a little brown after a few centuries. Don’t ask me why – I have no idea. I’m just reporting this stuff.)

Those who are curious about the bizarre phenomenon of incorruption might like to read a very balanced, fair-minded article by Josh Clark on the subject, titled, How can a corpse be incorruptible? This short article on the subject is also well worth reading.

The miracle of the herrings: does it fare well against Hum’e critique of miracles?

David Hume, painted by Allan Ramsay in 1766. Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery and Wikipedia.

The Scottish empiricist philosopher voiced a well-known objection to the possibility of miracles:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should have really happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
(David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd. ed. 1902; Oxford, 1972, p. 116.)

Hume’s argument that miracles were antecedently unlikely was as follows:
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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 could possibly be imagined.
(David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd. ed. 1902; Oxford, 1972, p. 114.)

In his article on Miracles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Dr. Timothy McGrew puts forward the most plausible-sounding modern reconstruction of Hume’s original argument, made by commentator Alan Hájek:

Alan Hájek (2008: 88) offers a more detailed reconstruction of this argument. The first stage corresponds to the argument in “Of Miracles,” Part I:
1.A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
2.A law of nature is, inter alia, a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced.

Thus,
3.There is as compelling a ‘proof’ from experience as can possibly be imagined against a miracle.
4.In particular, the proof from experience in favour of testimony of any kind cannot be more compelling.
5.There is no other form of proof in favour of testimony.

Therefore,
6.The falsehood of the testimony to a miraculous event is always at least as probable as the event attested to (however good the testimony seems to be).

However,
7.Hume’s balancing principle. The testimony should be believed if, and only if, the falsehood of the testimony is less probable than the event attested to.

Therefore, (by 7 and 8):
8.Conclusion 1. Testimony to a miraculous event should never be believed—belief in a miracle report could never be justified.

Part of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, which was assembled after his death by Babbage’s son, using parts found in his laboratory. Image courtesy of Andrew Dunn and Wikipedia.

Actually, the mathematical flaw in Hume’s argument against miracles was pointed out long ago by the mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (2nd ed., London, 1838; digitized for the Victorian Web by Dr. John van Wyhe and proof-read by George P. Landow). I’d like to quote here from David Coppedge’s masterly online work, THE WORLD’S GREATEST CREATION SCIENTISTS From Y1K to Y2K:

Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (hereafter, NBT) is available online and makes for interesting reading … Most interesting is his rebuttal to the arguments of David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptical philosopher who had created quite a stir with his seemingly persuasive argument against miracles. Again, it was based on the Newtonian obsession with natural law. Hume argued that it is more probable that those claiming to have seen a miracle were either lying or deceived than that the regularity of nature had been violated. Babbage knew a lot more about the mathematics of probability than Hume. In chapter X of NBT, Babbage applied numerical values to the question, chiding Hume for his subjectivity. A quick calculation proves that if there were 99 reliable witnesses to the resurrection of a man from the dead (and I Corinthians 15:6 claims there were over 500), the probability is a trillion to one against the falsehood of their testimony, compared to the probability of one in 200 billion against anyone in the history of the world having been raised from the dead. This simple calculation shows it takes more faith to deny the miracle than to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses. Thus Babbage renders specious Hume’s assertion that the improbability of a miracle could never be overcome by any number of witnesses. Apply the math, and the results do not support that claim, Babbage says: “From this it results that, provided we assume that independent witnesses can be found of whose testimony it can be stated that it is more probable that it is true than that it is false, we can always assign a number of witnesses which will, according to Hume’s argument, prove the truth of a miracle. (Italics in original.) Babbage takes his conquest of Hume so far that by Chapter XIII, he argues that “It is more probable that any law, at the knowledge of which we have arrived by observation, shall be subject to one of those violations which, according to Hume’s definition, constitutes a miracle, than that it should not be so subjected.”

How improbable is a miracle, using Hume’s own criteria?

Babbage’s point about the testimony a sufficient number of independent, reliable witnesses being sufficient to establish a miracle can be illustrated mathematically as follows. All the events that have occurred throughout history, in accordance with natural laws, can be considered together, as constituting a mass of inductive evidence rendering it overwhelmingly unlikely that the next event we observe will be a supernatural miracle. But how many of these events are there, altogether? There are two ways we could try to compute this figure. First, we could take the total number of events (or “elementary logical operations”) that could have occurred in the observable universe since the Big Bang, which has been calculated as no more than 10 to the power of 120 by MIT researcher Seth Lloyd, in his 2002 article, Computational capacity of the universe (in Physics Review Leters 88 (2002) 237901, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.88.237901). Alternatively, we could try to compute the number of events witnessed by human beings throughout recorded history. Given that the total number of individuals who have ever lived is estimated at about 100 billion or 10 to the power of 11, and that the number of seconds in an average human lifetime throughout history would be around 1 billion (30 years), and that humans are certainly not capable of consciously observing and registering more than (say) 10 events per second, this would give us a figure of 10 to the power of 21 events that might have been witnessed by human beings, through the course of history. (Some readers might want to add the total amount of digital information in the world, which in 2012 was about 2.7 x 10^21 bytes, or 2.16 x 10^22 bits.)

What’s the a priori probability of a miracle?

So the next question we need to answer is: given these vast numbers of events, how low should we rate the anterior probability of a miracle, assuming purely for the purposes of argument that no reliably attested miracle has occurred in all of recorded history? My answer is: (1 / 2n), where n is the number of events observed to date. I also think that we should restrict ourselves to observations by human beings (and perhaps, by their instruments as well, including all the information stored in the world’s digital images), rather than counting all 10^120 events – the vast majority of which are unseen by us – occurring in the lifetime of the observable cosmos. After all, we don’t really know what’s out there in the cosmos: before the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3 photographed the far side of the moon in 1959, we had no way of knowing that it was not teeming with miraculous events. So my rough answer for the anterior improbability of a miracle is: 1 in 2 x (2.16 x 10^22), or about 1 in 4 x 10^22, or 2.5 x 10^(-23), or 0.000000000000000000000025.

“OK, where do you get the (1 / 2n) figure from?” my readers will be asking. I originally thought of using Bayes’ rule, but then I changed my mind, as a more intuitive approach became apparent to me. Consider the expectations formula: E = n x p. The idea here is that if you’re rolling a die that’s not loaded, the probability p of it coming up on a given number (say, 4) will 1/6. So if you roll the die 600 times (that’s n, the number of trials), then you would expect it to land on 4, about 100 times (600 x 1/6 = 100). That’s E, the expected number of times the die will land on a 4.

When you are born, you leave the security of the womb. You find yourself thrust into the outside world. At this stage, your mind is like a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Things happen all around you, and are caused by you-know-not-what. Eventually, your mind learns to makes sense of this buzzing, blooming mess: you learn to recognize people, recognize objects – and, in short, recognize recurring patterns in the outside world. You go to school, and you learn about more patterns. Many of these patterns can be described by mathematical equations, which scientists call laws of Nature.

You also learn that some people believe that there are publicly observable events called miracles, which are planned by some Higher Intelligence at work in the cosmos, and which fall outside the regular patterns that scientists like to call laws. But whenever you ask to see one of these events, you are disappointed. Nothing happens. (At this point in my story, I’m being very generous to the skeptic: many religious people would say that they frequently see miracles occurring in their midst, and that unbelievers would observe these events as well, if they only cared to open their eyes.)

So you decide to sit down and hunt for miracles, by making a giant catalogue of all the events you observe, and seeing if any of them falls outside the laws of science and looks like it might be a manifestation produced by some Higher Intelligence – say, a message, or something like that. (Perceptive readers will note that this is quite different from the Intelligent Design quest, which does not look for exceptions to the laws of Nature, but for extremely unlikely patterns which are independently specifiable. ID doesn’t necessarily require miracles.)

Your friends suggest that you include all the events you’ve witnessed in your childhood, but you reply: “I wasn’t looking for miracles then. Perhaps they happened, and passed me by: maybe I didn’t register them, because they didn’t fall into a pattern I knew. This time, it’s different: I’m hunting for miracles. My mind is alert and ready. So I’m going to start from scratch.

You catalogue 100 events. No miracle yet. At this point, what should your estimate of the frequency of miracles be? I’d say: 1 in 200. Here’s why. Let’s say that the relative frequency of miracles in human history was 1 miracle for every 100 events. If that were the case, then using the E = n x p formula I mentioned above, you would expect to have observed one miracle (100 x 1/100 = 1). You haven’t observed one, so it’s a pretty reasonable bet that the relative frequency of miracles in human history is less than 1 in 100. That’s your ceiling. How low could it be? It might be zero. That’s your floor. In the absence of further information, you’d be rational to split the difference between these two figures, and provisionally estimate the relative frequency of miracles in human history at 1 in 200.

Seventy years pass, and by now you’re an old man. About 2 billion seconds have elapsed, and you still haven’t seen any miracles yet. (To help you in your search, you keep a camera running while you’re asleep.) You figure that you can consciously register at most 10 events per second, so the number of events you’ve consciously observed is 20 billion. By now, your estimate of the anterior probability of a miracle will have fallen to half-way between zero and 1 in 20 billion – in other words, 1 in 40 billion.

Just before you pass away, your friends beg you to count their observations, as well. “We’re conscious human beings too,” they say. “Why should you place yourself in a privileged position? Aren’t our observations just as valid as yours? It’s true that we aren’t spending every waking moment hunting for miracles, as you are, but we’re all looking for a miracle: after all, who wouldn’t want a sign from God? Don’t you think we’d report one if we saw one? And what about the 100 billion people who have lived and died in the course of human history? Aren’t you going to factor them in, too?” You reluctantly agree that this reasoning makes sense, and you revise your estimate to: 1 in (40 billion x 100 billion), or 1 in 4 x 10^21 (that’s 1 in 4,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). And then someone suggests counting all of the 2 x 10^22 bits in all the world’s digital images as observations of non-miraculous events, and you revise your estimate of the antecedent probability of a miracle to 1 in 4 x 10^22, just before you draw your final breath and expire.

Thus the a priori probability that the next event we observe will be “lawless” and potentially miraculous can be calculated as 1 in 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, if we confine ourselves to events witnessed by human beings and their computers and cameras.

The next question we have to ask is: how unreliable are normal witnesses (I’m not including drunkards or people with psychoses), when reporting lawless phenomena? After all, we do not normally credit the testimony of a single individual who claims to have seen or been abducted by a UFO. On the other hand, our senses are pretty reliable, most of the time: if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here, so the probability of an erroneous witness report can’t be too high. Let’s suppose that on any given occasion, when a reliable witness is observing something, the chance that his/her testimony is mistaken and that he/she is “seeing things” or hallucinating is 1 in 1,000, or 10 to the power of 3.

Now let’s suppose that a group of reliable witnesses observe a supernatural occurrence – say, a dead man being restored to life. If eight of them independently witness such an event, then the probability that all seven are seeing things is 1 in (10^3)^8, or 1 in 10 to the power of 24 (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). And if 40 such people independently witness the event, then the probability that all forty are seeing things is 1 in (10^3)^40, which is 1 in 10 to the power of 120, or the number of events that occur in the lifetime of the entire observable universe. Of course, the testimony of these witnesses needs to be independent, in order for this calculation to work. Nevertheless, it does show that a relatively small number of reliable, independent witnesses (at least 8, and no more than 40) is sufficient to overcome the overwhelming inductive evidence against the likelihood of a miracle which history furnishes us with.

I conclude that Hume’s objection is therefore mathematically groundless. Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary proofs; all they require is the testimony of a sufficient number of reliable, independent witnesses, to back them up.

So, is the miracle of the herrings credible or not?

As we saw, the number of independent witnesses required to rationally warrant belief in a miracle, if you’re a skeptic, is eight. There were six witnesses to the miracle of the herrings – seven if we include St. Thomas Aquinas himself. Moreover, some of these people both saw and tasted the herrings, so for these people, there’s the independent witness of sight and taste. Such people can be legitimately double-counted, so we could certainly say we’ve passed the magic threshold of eight witnesses. So I’d conclude that based on the evidence presented at the first canonization trial of St. Thomas Aquinas, belief in the miracle of the herrings would have been rationally warranted, for the people present at the miracle and also for the trial judges in the early fourteenth century, who heard the sworn testimony about the event.

Is belief in the miracle still rationally warranted today? That depends on how much you trust the honesty of the people keeping the records between then (1319) and now (2013). A skeptic might balk at this point, and say that after 700 years, there’s room for pious fraud. Maybe, maybe. Still, given the humdrum, matter-of-fact tone of the canonization trial report, I can only say it doesn’t read like a forgery. I’d therefore be inclined to credit the miracle of the herrings.

Stephen Fry: A credible source on matters of religion?

Earlier in this post, I refuted, point by point, Stephen Fry’s account of the miracle of the herrings. But on a more general note, we might ask: how credible is Stephen Fry as a source on matters pertaining to religion? The short answer is: not very. In 2009, Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011, pictured above) took part in a debate – which they won hands-down, and deservedly so – against British Conservative M.P. Ann Widdecombe (pictured above) and Archbishop Onaiyekan of Nigeria, on the motion, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the World.” Stephen Fry, in his opening argument, spoke for about 20 minutes. Among the factual blunders he made in the course of his talk were the following statements:

(1) Galileo was tortured for trying to explain the Copernican theory of the universe (2:57).
Response: This is a myth. See Mark A. Kalthoff’s review in First Things (October 2009) of Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press). See also the Catholic Answers tract, The Galileo Controversy. (The claim that Galileo was at least threatened with torture also appears highly dubious: see this comment of mine below.)

(2) Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo both proposed the idea of Limbo (3:43), which meant that unbaptized babies would not know Heaven.
Response: What Aquinas actually maintained was that although these babies could not go to Heaven, the “children’s limbo” (limbus infantium) that they went to was a place or state of perfect natural happiness. Augustine, on the other hand, opposed the idea of limbo: he actually believed (incredible as it sounds) that unbaptized babies went to Hell, although he envisaged their punishment as very mild, and certainly preferable to annihilation. Fry could have easily discovered these facts, if he had done a little background reading on the subject. In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger described limbo as a “theological hypothesis” that he would be willing to “abandon.” In 2007, as Pope Benedict XVI, he did just that: Catholics are now free to believe that when unbaptized babies who die, their souls go straight to Heaven.

(3) Under the medieval system of indulgences, two-thirds of a year’s salary could ensure that a dead loved one could go to Heaven (4:34).
Response: Absolute nonsense. The “two-thirds of a year’s salary” claim is fiction with no basis in fact; poor people could often obtain indulgences without paying any money, through performing acts of penance, such as fasting. And although the sixteenth-century preacher Johann Tetzel (whom Luther opposed, in his 95 theses) promised his audience that they could, by paying some money, guarantee that a dead soul in Purgatory would go straight to Heaven, this was never Catholic teaching. Indeed, the notion was rejected by the Sorbonne University in 1482, and again in 1518, and by the Thomist theologian, Cardinal Cajetan, who declared emphatically that, even if theologians and preachers taught such opinions, no credence need be placed in their claims. The common theological view in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was that the Pope had no authority over the souls in Purgatory, and that the Church could only intercede with God on their behalf. (See this article by Father Ryan Erlenbush, as well as this article and this one.)

(4) The maxim, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the Church there is no salvation) was used by the Catholic Church to excuse the rape and torture of the Aztecs (6:07).
Response: The Catholic Church has never excused rape, and an examination of the contemporary historical evidence shows that the Spanish conquistadors justified their destruction of the Aztec empire on the grounds that the Aztecs engaged in the barbarous practice of human sacrifice. It should also be noted that the Dominican preacher, Bishop Bartolome de las Casas, denounced the atrocities of the conquistadors.

(5) One of the principal burners and torturers of those who tried to read the Bible in English was St. Thomas More (8:00). More put people on the rack for daring to own a Bible in English. He tortured people for daring to own a Bible in their own language (8:30).
Response: Although it’s true that there were no Bibles available in the English tongue before the Reformation, it was available in other languages. According to Fr. John A. O’Brien, Ph.D., LL.D., author of the 1938 best-seller, The Faith of Millions (Our Sunday Visitor; reprinted 1963, 1974), Catholics had already published 14 complete editions of the Bible in High German and five in Low German before Luther published his German New Testament in 1522 (see p. 131; in a footnote, Fr. O’Brien cites Janssen, History of the German People, XIV, p. 388). Fr. O’Brien adds: “During the period of seventy years, from 1450 to 1520, Catholics had published 156 Latin and six Hebrew editions of the Bible, besides issuing complete translations in French (10), Italian (11), Bohemian (2), Flemish (1), Limousine (1) and Russian (1)” (ibid, p. 131. Reference cited: Falk, Die Bibel Am Ausganages des Mittelalters).

As for St. Thomas More: “the scholarly consensus is that there is no historical evidence that More engaged in torture,” according to an online article by Michael Moreland, Vice Dean of Villanova University Law School. It is true that six people were burned at the stake for heresy during the time when Thomas More was Lord Chancellor, and that More personally approved of these burnings, but I can find no evidence that More had anyone burned for the sole crime of owning an English Bible, although some were imprisoned. More’s views on the burning of heretics were savage, but he was not alone: R. W. Chambers, in his biography, Thomas More (Jonathan Cape, London, 1976), notes that “It was the view, held by all parties alike, that open defiance of authority in spiritual matters, of such a kind as to lead to tumult and civil war, might be punished with death” (pp. 274-275). Most Protestants shared this harsh opinion with their Catholic contemporaries in the early sixteenth century. Finally, More’s narrow-minded zealotry in implementing a rigid censorship of all printed books, and in outlawing the possession of English Bibles, is chronicled in detail by history lecturer John Guy of Bristol University, in an interesting article titled, Sir Thomas More and the Heretics (History Today, Volume 30, Issue 2, 1980). But as Guy himself acknowledges, even More was prepared to endorse the printing of an official English Bible, if the people abandoned all heresies. It is simply wrong to claim, as Fry does, that More was opposed to people reading the Bible in their own native language; what he opposed in his day, was the heresy he believed such reading engendered.

Well, that’s five major blunders on religion, just in the first eight minutes of Stephen Fry’s opening speech! Fry is an educated man; he graduated with honors in English literature, from Cambridge University. It is a pity that he did not check his facts more carefully. But now that my readers have seen how careless the man is with his facts, the question they need to ask themselves is: does Fry have any credibility, when writing on matters religious?

Conclusion

Perhaps there is a lesson we can all learn from this: the need for intellectual humility. The foregoing argument I have advanced in support of my view that eight witnesses are all that’s needed to make belief in a miracle rationally warranted may well be wrong. If it is, then I am sure others will expose its faults. Be that as it may, I have at least nailed my flag to the mast, and declared where I stand. It is my hope that this post of mine will re-open a healthy debate on a controversial issue. Finally, for what it’s worth, I wish Stephen Fry and Professor Coyne well, and I hope they reconsider their views. Cheers.

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34 Responses to Jerry Coyne and Stephen Fry’s fishy tale about St. Thomas Aquinas

  1. We should note the English priest William Tyndale produced the first english version of the Bible from the Greek, and his translation was used as the basis of the KJV. But he was killed for his efforts in 1536.

  2. I can’t figure out why you repeatedly refer to Jerry Coyne as “highly intelligent”.

    Could you please explain?

  3. Of note: One of the main faulty assumptions that precludes atheists from believing that miracles are possible in this universe is their false belief that the universe is a closed system, but the fact of the matter is that advances in quantum mechanics have advanced to the point of revealing that this universe is dependent on a ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, cause for its continued existence:

    Here is a clip of a talk in which Alain Aspect talks about a debate between Neils Bohr and Einstein, and the failure of ‘local realism’, or the failure of materialism, to explain reality:

    Quantum Entanglement – The Failure Of Local Realism – Materialism – Alain Aspect – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/w/4744145

    The falsification for local realism (reductive materialism) was recently greatly strengthened:

    Physicists close two loopholes while violating local realism – November 2010
    Excerpt: The latest test in quantum mechanics provides even stronger support than before for the view that nature violates local realism and is thus in contradiction with a classical worldview.
    http://www.physorg.com/news/20.....alism.html

    Closing the last Bell-test loophole for photons – Jun 11, 2013
    Excerpt: The new research, conducted at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Communication in Austria, closes the fair-sampling loophole by using improved photon sources (spontaneous parametric down-conversion in a Sagnac configuration) and ultra-sensitive detectors provided by the Single Photonics and Quantum Information project in PML’s Quantum Electronics and Photonics Division. That combination, the researchers write, was “crucial for achieving a sufficiently high collection efficiency,” resulting in a high-accuracy data set – requiring no assumptions or correction of count rates – that confirmed quantum entanglement to nearly 70 standard deviations.,,,
    http://phys.org/news/2013-06-b.....otons.html

    Quantum Mechanics has now been extended to falsify local realism (reductive materialism) without even using quantum entanglement to do it:

    ‘Quantum Magic’ Without Any ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ – June 2011
    Excerpt: A team of researchers led by Anton Zeilinger at the University of Vienna and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences used a system which does not allow for entanglement, and still found results which cannot be interpreted classically.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....111942.htm

    Put simply, a photon is not a self existent entity but is always dependent on a ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, cause to explain its continued existence within space-time. Or as Christian theists have always maintained, God ‘sustains’ the universe!

    Moreover as if that was not enough, non-local (spooky action at a distance) quantum entanglement is even possible without the physical interaction of the particles first:

    Qubits that never interact could exhibit past-future entanglement – July 30, 2012
    http://phys.org/news/2012-07-q.....ement.html

    But perhaps the most crushing piece of evidence against the reductive materialistic view of atheists/Darwinists like Coyne, was/is the violation of the Leggett inequality:

    Quantum physics says goodbye to reality – Apr 20, 2007
    Excerpt: They found that, just as in the realizations of Bell’s thought experiment, Leggett’s inequality is violated – thus stressing the quantum-mechanical assertion that reality does not exist when we’re not observing it. “Our study shows that ‘just’ giving up the concept of locality would not be enough to obtain a more complete description of quantum mechanics,” Aspelmeyer told Physics Web. “You would also have to give up certain intuitive features of realism.”
    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/27640

    A team of physicists in Vienna has devised experiments that may answer one of the enduring riddles of science: Do we create the world just by looking at it? – 2008
    Excerpt: In mid-2007 Fedrizzi found that the new realism model was violated by 80 orders of magnitude; the group was even more assured that quantum mechanics was correct.
    http://seedmagazine.com/conten....._tests/P3/

    Now Dr. Coyne can pretend if he wants that he does not considered reality not existing when we’re not observing it as a miracle, but I certainly consider such a finding by modern science to indeed be miraculous in every sense of the word!

    Further note,, Photons, on which everything in the universe is dependent on so as to derive their most minute movements, are found to require a beyond space and time, ‘non-local’, cause to explain their continued existence in space time. It is also very interesting to point out how these recent findings for quantum non-locality for photons, (and even for material particles), dovetails perfectly into some of the oldest philosophical arguments for the existence of God and offers empirical confirmation for those ancient philosophical arguments. The argument from motion is known as Aquinas’ First way. (Of note, St Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225 to 7 March 1274.)

    Aquinas’ First Way – (The First Mover – Unmoved Mover) – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmpw0_w27As

    Aquinas’ First Way
    1) Change in nature is elevation of potency to act.
    2) Potency cannot actualize itself, because it does not exist actually.
    3) Potency must be actualized by another, which is itself in act.
    4) Essentially ordered series of causes (elevations of potency to act) exist in nature.
    5) An essentially ordered series of elevations from potency to act cannot be in infinite regress, because the series must be actualized by something that is itself in act without the need for elevation from potency.
    6) The ground of an essentially ordered series of elevations from potency to act must be pure act with respect to the casual series.
    7) This Pure Act– Prime Mover– is what we call God.
    http://egnorance.blogspot.com/.....t-way.html

  4. Or put more simply:

    “The ‘First Mover’ is necessary for change occurring at each moment.”
    Michael Egnor – Aquinas’ First Way
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....first.html

    Of related interest to ‘the first mover’, in the following video Anton Zeilinger, arguably the best experimentalist in quantum physics today, tries to explain the double slit experiment to Morgan Freeman:

    Quantum Mechanics – Double Slit Experiment. Is anything real? (Prof. Anton Zeilinger) – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayvbKafw2g0

    Prof. Zeilinger makes this rather startling statement in the preceding video:

    “The path taken by the photon is not an element of reality. We are not allowed to talk about the photon passing through this or this slit. Neither are we allowed to say the photon passes through both slits. All this kind of language is not applicable.”
    Anton Zeilinger

    i.e. motion is dependent on a “Prime Act”, i.e. on a ‘first mover’! Moreover quantum non locality also provides empirical confirmation for the ancient philosophical argument for ‘being’, i.e. for ‘existence’ itself!

    Aquinas’ Third way – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V030hvnX5a4

  5. All this material about a miracle would call for a miracle for people to read it all.

    What is the evidence of the author anointing the two chaps here as INTELLIGENT GENETLEMEN.
    i’m not saying they ain’t but whats the reason for the prestige?!
    If evolution is wrong would it not follow that its the MORE intelligent then reject it and follow its the LESS intelligent then embrace it after serious study of it.
    I make no accusations about how to score intelligence and about these people. I don’t know them.
    I just not aLWAYS and ALways people announce people as intelligent, read more then others, based on standards of mysterious origin.

    As a protestant i don’t know if this saint did a miracle but I’m sure he was a intelligent thinker as he is still remembered and studied.
    Time tells the tale about quality.

  6. First, the Catholic Church doesn’t make people saints. God does that. What the Catholic Church does, after an examination of the evidence, is declare them saints.

    How does that work, Vincent? How does God make a saint, exactly?

  7. I can’t figure out why you repeatedly refer to Jerry Coyne as “highly intelligent”.

    Could you please explain?

    Good point, Cantor!

    Intelligence is an impossibly vague concept without a reliable means of measuring it. Appending “highly” to “intelligent” implies a quantifiable concept, which is most misleading.

  8. On whether Galileo (then in his 70′s) was tortured. The consensus seems to be that he was merely threatened with torture (and possibly shown the instruments that would be used to torture him).

  9. Mr. Fox, it might interest you to learn that the primary opponents to Galileo’s heliocentrism, who caused much of the problems for Galileo, were Galileo’s academic colleagues not the Catholic Church.

    Origins – Galileo with Dr. Jerry Bergman – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsaPvjKNXDA

    The Galileo Affair and “Life’ as the true “Center of the Universe”
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BHAcvrc913SgnPcDohwkPnN4kMJ9EDX-JJSkjc4AXmA/edit

  10. Mr. Fox, it might interest you to learn that the primary opponents to Galileo’s heliocentrism, who caused much of the problems for Galileo, were Galileo’s academic colleagues not the Catholic Church.

    I’m sure Galileo (and Urban VIII) had enemies, notably many among the Jesuit community. Nonetheless it was the Catholic Church, in the form of the Inquisition that charged, convicted and condemned him.

  11. Translation of some of the trial documents.

  12. Mr. Fox, as the video by Bergman clearly illustrates, your overarching narrative ofthe highly complex, and nuanced Galileo affair, of trying to falsely portray Christianity as this great impediment to scientific progress simply does not wash. In fact, Atheists are hard-pressed to name just one founder of modern science who was an Atheist and not a Christian. I know of not one Atheists among the who’s who list of founders. And surely Atheists would be proud to proclaim any such example if any could be found among the Likes of Newton, Galileo, Keepler, Copernicus, Liebnitz,, etc:

    Founders of Modern Science Who Believed in GOD – Tihomir Dimitrov – (pg. 222)
    http://www.academia.edu/273960.....OD_Journal

    Even Hume, the father of skepticism had this to say:

    (4) DAVID HUME (1711-1776), Scottish empiricist philosopher, historian, and economist, founder of modern skepticism
    1. In 1745, in his famous letter to John Coutts (Lord Provost of Edinburgh), David Hume wrote:“Wherever I see Order, I infer from Experience that there hath been Design and Contrivance. And the same Principle which leads me into this Inference, when I contemplate a Building, regular and beautiful in its whole Frame and Structure; the same Principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect, from the infinite Art and Contrivance which is display’d in the whole Fabrick of the Universe.” (See Hume 1977, 120;
    A Letter From a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh
    ).2. In the Introduction to his book
    The Natural History of Religion
    (1757), Hume stated: “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent Author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection,suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.”(Hume 1956, 21).

    further notes:

    Science and Theism: Concord, not Conflict* – Robert C. Koons
    IV. The Dependency of Science Upon Theism (Page 21)
    Excerpt: Far from undermining the credibility of theism, the remarkable success of science in modern times is a remarkable confirmation of the truth of theism. It was from the perspective of Judeo-Christian theism—and from the perspective alone—that it was predictable that science would have succeeded as it has. Without the faith in the rational intelligibility of the world and the divine vocation of human beings to master it, modern science would never have been possible, and, even today, the continued rationality of the enterprise of science depends on convictions that can be reasonably grounded only in theistic metaphysics.
    http://www.robkoons.net/media/.....ffd524.pdf

    Jerry Coyne on the Scientific Method and Religion – Michael Egnor – June 2011
    Excerpt: The scientific method — the empirical systematic theory-based study of nature — has nothing to so with some religious inspirations — Animism, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Islam, and, well, atheism. The scientific method has everything to do with Christian (and Jewish) inspiration. Judeo-Christian culture is the only culture that has given rise to organized theoretical science. Many cultures (e.g. China) have produced excellent technology and engineering, but only Christian culture has given rise to a conceptual understanding of nature.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....47431.html

    The Origin of Science
    Jaki writes: Herein lies the tremendous difference between Christian monotheism on the one hand and Jewish and Muslim monotheism on the other. This explains also the fact that it is almost natural for a Jewish or Muslim intellectual to become a patheist. About the former Spinoza and Einstein are well-known examples. As to the Muslims, it should be enough to think of the Averroists. With this in mind one can also hope to understand why the Muslims, who for five hundred years had studied Aristotle’s works and produced many commentaries on them failed to make a breakthrough. The latter came in medieval Christian context and just about within a hundred years from the availability of Aristotle’s works in Latin..
    As we will see below, the break-through that began science was a Christian commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo (On the Heavens).,,
    Modern experimental science was rendered possible, Jaki has shown, as a result of the Christian philosophical atmosphere of the Middle Ages. Although a talent for science was certainly present in the ancient world (for example in the design and construction of the Egyptian pyramids), nevertheless the philosophical and psychological climate was hostile to a self-sustaining scientific process. Thus science suffered still-births in the cultures of ancient China, India, Egypt and Babylonia. It also failed to come to fruition among the Maya, Incas and Aztecs of the Americas. Even though ancient Greece came closer to achieving a continuous scientific enterprise than any other ancient culture, science was not born there either. Science did not come to birth among the medieval Muslim heirs to Aristotle. ….
    The psychological climate of such ancient cultures, with their belief that the universe was infinite and time an endless repetition of historical cycles, was often either hopelessness or complacency (hardly what is needed to spur and sustain scientific progress); and in either case there was a failure to arrive at a belief in the existence of God the Creator and of creation itself as therefore rational and intelligible. Thus their inability to produce a self-sustaining scientific enterprise.
    If science suffered only stillbirths in ancient cultures, how did it come to its unique viable birth? The beginning of science as a fully fledged enterprise took place in relation to two important definitions of the Magisterium of the Church. The first was the definition at the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215, that the universe was created out of nothing at the beginning of time. The second magisterial statement was at the local level, enunciated by Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris who, on March 7, 1277, condemned 219 Aristotelian propositions, so outlawing the deterministic and necessitarian views of creation.
    These statements of the teaching authority of the Church expressed an atmosphere in which faith in God had penetrated the medieval culture and given rise to philosophical consequences. The cosmos was seen as contingent in its existence and thus dependent on a divine choice which called it into being; the universe is also contingent in its nature and so God was free to create this particular form of world among an infinity of other possibilities. Thus the cosmos cannot be a necessary form of existence; and so it has to be approached by a posteriori investigation. The universe is also rational and so a coherent discourse can be made about it. Indeed the contingency and rationality of the cosmos are like two pillars supporting the Christian vision of the cosmos.
    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/aug.....rigin.html

    Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany – October 2011
    Excerpt: I had discovered that over the same period of the twentieth century that the US had risen to scientific eminence it had undergone a significant Christian revival. ,,,The point I put to (Richard) Dawkins was that the USA was simultaneously by-far the most dominant scientific nation in the world (I knew this from various scientometic studies I was doing at the time) and by-far the most religious (Christian) nation in the world. How, I asked, could this be – if Christianity was culturally inimical to science?
    http://charltonteaching.blogsp.....-wife.html

    The History of Christian Education in America
    Excerpt: The first colleges in America were founded by Christians and approximately 106 out of the first 108 colleges were Christian colleges. In fact, Harvard University, which is considered today as one of the leading universities in America and the world was founded by Christians. One of the original precepts of the then Harvard College stated that students should be instructed in knowing God and that Christ is the only foundation of all “sound knowledge and learning.” http://www.ehow.com/about_6544.....erica.html

  13. Moreover Mr. Fox, once again as the Bergman video clearly illustrates, It was Galileo’s academic colleagues, who in your overarching view should have the champions of science, who were in fact the ones most directly opposed to his heliocentric view.,, This is much like today where the old dogma of Darwinism finds it greatest support in the ‘priesthood’ of Academia, with the likes of Coyne and other hard-core atheists severely persecuting anyone who does not toe Darwinian orthodoxy!

    “In the last few years I have seen a saddening progression at several institutions. I have witnessed unfair treatment upon scientists that do not accept macroevolutionary arguments and for their having signed the above-referenced statement regarding the examination of Darwinism. (Dissent from Darwinism list)(I will comment no further regarding the specifics of the actions taken upon the skeptics; I love and honor my colleagues too much for that.) I never thought that science would have evolved like this. I deeply value the academy; teaching, professing and research in the university are my privileges and joys… ”
    Professor James M. Tour – one of the ten most cited chemists in the world
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....evolution/

    Top Ten Most Cited Chemist in the World Knows That Evolution Doesn’t Work – James Tour, Phd. – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCyAOCesHv0

    Slaughter of the Dissidents – Dr. Jerry Bergman – video lecture
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_ygt_mqzO8

    On the Fundamental Difference Between Darwin-Inspired and Intelligent Design-Inspired Lawsuits – September 2011
    Excerpt:
    *Darwin lobby litigation: In every Darwin-inspired case listed above, the Darwin lobby sought to shut down free speech, stopping people from talking about non-evolutionary views, and seeking to restrict freedom of intellectual inquiry.
    *ID movement litigation: Seeks to expand intellectual inquiry and free speech rights to talk about non-evolutionary views.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....50451.html

    Intelligent Design Supporter Expelled from Civil Liberties Organization – podcast – January 2013
    http://intelligentdesign.podom.....1_00-08_00

  14. There are generally three common objections to miracles, some of which are detailed by Alan Hajek. The first is the most common:

    1.A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
    2.A law of nature is, inter alia, a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced.

    Our understanding of the laws of nature is based on what scientists have observed happening in the natural world around us. However, those laws are similar to the grammar rules for a language—there may be some exceptions to the rule. Our understanding of these “rules” may, in fact, be very limited. A dedicated scientist may have spent a lifetime studying a certain law of nature. But all it takes is one “exception” for him to have to reevaluate his understanding of that law. As the saying goes, “Just one black swan undoes the theory that all swans are white.”

    Hajek goes on:

    Thus,
    3.There is as compelling a ‘proof’ from experience as can possibly be imagined against a miracle.
    4.In particular, the proof from experience in favour of testimony of any kind cannot be more compelling.
    5.There is no other form of proof in favour of testimony.

    The Bible does not tell us to believe all miracles. In fact, the opposite is true. The Bible warns us to be very careful when it comes to trusting miracles and powerful signs. Notice this clear warning: “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives.”—2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10, New International Version.

    Therefore,
    6.The falsehood of the testimony to a miraculous event is always at least as probable as the event attested to (however good the testimony seems to be).

    . Years after that event, some Christians in Corinth started to question whether Jesus had been resurrected. How did the apostle Paul help those Christians? Did he simply say, “Have more faith”? No. Notice how he reminded them of established facts. He did not rely on his own testimony.

    And further:

    However,
    7.Hume’s balancing principle. The testimony should be believed if, and only if, the falsehood of the testimony is less probable than the event attested to.

    Therefore, (by 7 and 8):
    8.Conclusion 1. Testimony to a miraculous event should never be believed—belief in a miracle report could never be justified.

    While it is true that natural phenomena may have been associated with some miracles—such things as earthquakes, plagues, and landslides—these explanations have one thing in common. They disregard the timing of the miracle as explained in the Scriptures.

    Direct intervention by God failed to produce faith in the first-century believers who denied Jesus was the Messiah. Faith is more than mere belief. It is also more than a momentary emotional reaction to some miracle. Says Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.” Moreover, the undeniable proof of unseen realities is so powerful that faith itself is said to be equivalent to that evidence. Yes, faith is based on evidence. And in times past, miracles played a role in the development of faith or the building of it. The signs performed by Jesus served to convince others that he was the promised Messiah. (Matthew 8:16, 17; Hebrews 2:2-4)

    Really, then, is it logical to say that it is impossible for them to happen just because they do not occur every day?

  15. Well, I read what you write, Barb. But, herrings? Hardly an impressive choice for a demonstration of the power of the deity! Why not something more dramatic and persuasive?

  16. Jesus being raised from the dead was certainly more dramatic than herrings. Yet it failed to convince religiously minded people who anticipated the arrival of such a person.

    And, as I brought out, the Bible clearly warns against accepting all accounts of miracles as being truthful.

  17. Jesus being raised from the dead was certainly more dramatic than herrings. Yet it failed to convince religiously minded people who anticipated the arrival of such a person.

    As I see it, if his message was true, why did it need a miracle such as his (alleged) returning from the dead. His words (as reported) make sense or they don’t.

  18. Before a crowd of scholars and philosophers in the city of Athens, the apostle Paul said: “[God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.” Furthermore, Paul told Christian believers: “If, indeed, there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised up. But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is in vain.”—Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 15:13, 14.

    As to Christ’s resurrection, there are no fewer than four men who testified publicly to seeing Jesus after his resurrection, and one of their accounts tells us that he was seen by more than 500 Christian disciples. (Matt. 28:16, 17; John 20:19; 21:1, 2; Acts 1:15, 22; 1 Cor. 15:6-8)

    Consider the following statement by Bible scholar A. J. Maas: “Briefly, therefore, the fact of Christ’s Resurrection is attested by more than 500 eyewitnesses, whose experience, simplicity, and uprightness of life rendered them incapable of inventing such a fable, who lived at a time when any attempt to deceive could have been easily discovered, who had nothing in this life to gain, but everything to lose by their testimony, whose moral courage exhibited in their apostolic life can be explained only by their intimate conviction of the objective truth of their message.”

    Consider the powerful argument of another eminent scholar and archaeologist, George Rawlinson, who wrote: “The early converts knew that they might at any time be called upon to undergo death for their religion. They preached and taught with the sword, the cross, the beasts, and the stake ever before their eyes. . . . and every early writer advocating Christianity, by the fact of his advocacy, braved the civil power, and rendered himself liable to a similar fate. When faith is a matter of life and death, men do not lightly take up with the first creed which happens to hit their fancy; nor do they place themselves openly in the ranks of a persecuted sect, unless they have well weighed the claims of the religion which it professes, and convinced themselves of its being the truth. It is clear that the early converts had means of ascertaining the historic accuracy of the Christian narrative very much beyond ourselves; they could examine and cross-question the witnesses—compare their several accounts—inquire how their statements were met by their adversaries—consult Heathen documents of the time—thoroughly and completely sift the evidence.”

    The resurrection of Jesus Christ was direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy:

    “He was despised and was avoided by men . . . He was despised, and we held him as of no account. . . . He was being brought just like a sheep to the slaughtering; . . . he was severed from the land of the living ones. . . . And he will make his burial place even with the wicked ones, and with the rich class in his death.”—Isa. 53:3-9.

    Of the fact that God would raise him up again to life, the prophet went on to say: “If you will set his soul as a guilt offering, he will see his offspring, he [being resurrected] will prolong his days, and in his hand what is the delight of Jehovah will succeed. . . . the righteous one, my servant, will bring a righteous standing to many people; and their errors he himself will bear.”—Isa. 53:10, 11.

    The later prophet Daniel foretold his sacrificial death:
    “And after the sixty-two weeks [actually in 33 C.E.] Messiah will be cut off, with nothing for himself. . . . he will cause sacrifice and gift offering [at the Jews’ temple] to cease [replacing them with the real sacrifice of his life].”—Dan. 9:26, 27.

    The apostle Paul also pointed to the fortieth psalm as applying to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Paul depicts Jesus as saying, at the time of his baptism: “You prepared a body for me . . . Look! I am come . . . to do your will.” Paul adds: “By the said ‘will’ we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.”—Heb. 10:5, 7, 10; Ps. 40:6-8.

  19. Alan @17

    As I see it, if his message was true, why did it need a miracle such as his (alleged) returning from the dead. His words (as reported) make sense or they don’t.

    Good point, but . . . since His message was that he was God, it would be hard to make sense of His words if He didn’t rise from the dead, no? The resurrection is so that you know the words are true.

    It’s hard to keep a good God down! ;)

  20. Alan Fox:

    As I see it, if his message was true, why did it need a miracle such as his (alleged) returning from the dead. His words (as reported) make sense or they don’t.

    Lot’s of people have claimed to speak for God. You can find some of them hanging out at train stations. Only one claimant proved that He really was sent by God by fulfilling prophecies, performing miracles, and identifying Himself as the source of truth.

  21. Alan Fox:

    Thank you for your post (#8). You claimed that there is a consensus that Galileo was at least threatened with torture, even if he was not tortured. Some authorities have said this, but I’ve found two sources that rebut this allegation.

    Writer and journalist George Sim Johnston, in his article, The Galileo Affair (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Press), writes about the second trial of Galileo:

    Galileo, an old sick man, was summoned before the Inquisition in Rome. In vain he argued that he was never shown the document which, unbeknownst to him and Bellarmine, had been slipped into the file in 1616 forbidding him to even to discuss heliocentricism. Contrary to popular accounts, Galileo did not abjure the theory under threat of torture. Both he and the Inquisitors knew that the threat of torture was pure formality. Galileo was, in fact, treated with great consideration. Against all precedent, he was housed with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. As for the trial itself, given the evidence and the apparent injunction of 1616, it was by the standards of 17th century Europe extremely fair. The historian Giorgio de Santillana, who is not disposed toward the Church’s side, writes that “we must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities” in a period when thousands of “witches” and other religious deviants were subjected to juridical murder in northern Europe and New England.

    Johnston is a contributing editor for Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. He is also a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association.

    And here’s an extract from a 2004 Catholic Answers tract titled, The Galileo Controversy:

    In the end, Galileo recanted his heliocentric teachings, but it was not — as is commonly supposed — under torture nor after a harsh imprisonment. Galileo was, in fact, treated surprisingly well.

    As historian Giorgio de Santillana, who is not overly fond of the Catholic Church, noted, “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities.” Galileo was offered every convenience possible to make his imprisonment in his home bearable.

    Galileo’s friend Nicolini, Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican, sent regular reports to the court regarding affairs in Rome. Many of his letters dealt with the ongoing controversy surrounding Galileo.

    Nicolini revealed the circumstances surrounding Galileo’s “imprisonment” when he reported to the Tuscan king: “The pope told me that he had shown Galileo a favor never accorded to another” (letter dated Feb. 13, 1633); ” . . . he has a servant and every convenience” (letter, April 16); and “[i]n regard to the person of Galileo, he ought to be imprisoned for some time because he disobeyed the orders of 1616, but the pope says that after the publication of the sentence he will consider with me as to what can be done to afflict him as little as possible” (letter, June 18).

    Had Galileo been tortured, Nicolini would have reported it to his king. While instruments of torture may have been present during Galileo’s recantation (this was the custom of the legal system in Europe at that time), they definitely were not used.

    The records demonstrate that Galileo could not be tortured because of regulations laid down in The Directory for Inquisitors (Nicholas Eymeric, 1595). This was the official guide of the Holy Office, the Church office charged with dealing with such matters, and was followed to the letter.

    As noted scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked, in an age that saw a large number of “witches” subjected to torture and execution by Protestants in New England, “the worst that happened to the men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof.” Even so, the Catholic Church today acknowledges that Galileo’s condemnation was wrong. The Vatican has even issued two stamps of Galileo as an expression of regret for his mistreatment.

    You also asked (#6) how God makes someone a saint. That’s easy: by admitting them to the joys of Heaven, the chief of which consists in the Beatific Vision of God. Of course, most people, when they die, are still attached to sin to some degree, even if they die in God’s grace; hence they need to be spiritually purified, before receiving such a vision.

  22. Hi Barb,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on Alan Hájek’s critique of Hume’s argument on miracle. I should mention that Dr. Timothy McGrew discusses this critique at further length in his article, Miracles, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    McGrew begins with the first three premises of Hume’s argument, as reconstructed by Hájek:

    1.A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.
    2.A law of nature is, inter alia, a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced.

    Thus, 3.There is as compelling a ‘proof’ from experience as can possibly be imagined against a miracle.

    McGrew comments:

    Hájek makes a strong case that this is a faithful reconstruction of Hume’s reasoning. But as he goes on to point out, this argument is problematic at multiple points. The definition in 1 is at the least not forced upon us; and the inference from 1 and 2 to 3 overlooks the possibility that a regularity to which no exception has previously been experienced is also a regularity of which no instance has previously been experienced — a possibility that is countenanced on some major conceptions of laws — or that the law in question has not been instanced very often. (Hájek 2008: 91) Hume might reply that, while this is theoretically possible, it does not hold in the cases of interest.

    The next part of Hájek’s argument proceeds as follows:

    Thus, 3.There is as compelling a ‘proof’ from experience as can possibly be imagined against a miracle.
    4.In particular, the proof from experience in favour of testimony of any kind cannot be more compelling.
    5.There is no other form of proof in favour of testimony.

    Therefore, 6.The falsehood of the testimony to a miraculous event is always at least as probable as the event attested to (however good the testimony seems to be).

    McGrew continues:

    But even granting that reply, Hájek points out that 5 may be questioned; and 6 is deeply problematic, since lack of analogy is at best an obscure reason for concluding that an event is maximally improbable. For if strength of analogy is a critical determinant in a rational agent’s probability function, then he should be comparably skeptical regarding all spectacular scientific discoveries—”And that is absurd.” (Hájek 2008: 103)

    In my article above, I also pointed out Charles Babbage’s critique of Hume’s argument, which was made 180 years ago, to the effect that Hume treated evidence as something additive, when in fact the testimony of multiple independent eyewitnesses can render it multiplicative. That being the case, a sufficient number of eyewitnesses can render even the most improbable occurrence sufficiently probable as to rationally warrant credence in the report of the occurrence.

    Thanks once again for your comments.

  23. Hi Alan Fox and Barb,

    You raise some excellent points regarding the credibility of eyewitness testimony. The larger the number of independent eyewitnesses, the more credible the testimony becomes. It is also true that if the eyewitnesses maintain their testimony in the face of persecution and even death threats, and show themselves willing to die for the truth of what they saw, then their testimony becomes especially credible. This is what happened in the case of the resurrection of Christ, which was witnessed by more than 500 people, some of whom were subsequently martyred for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead. These points are developed in great depth by Timothy and Lydia McGrew in their excellent article, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, which is well worth reading.

    The miracle of the herrings had several eyewitnesses, but the cure of a blind man who pressed his eyes against the dead body of St. Thomas Aquinas had 100 eyewitnesses, as I mentioned above in my article. (It is true of course that none of these witnesses had to die for the truth of their beliefs, but they testified under oath in a time when perjury was commonly regarded as one of the worst of sins: Dante placed perjurers in the eighth of his nine circles of Hell.)

    But the most impressive case I have come across, in terms of eyewitness reports to a miracle, is that of the 17th century Italian saint, Joseph of Cupertino, who was seen levitating well above the ground and even flying for some distance through the air, on literally thousands of occasions, by believers and skeptics alike. The saint was the phenomenon of the 17th century. Those who are curious might like to have a look at his biography by D. Bernini (Vita Del Giuseppe da Copertino, 1752, Roma: Ludovico Tinassi and Girolamo Mainardi). The philosopher David Hume, who was notoriously skeptical of miracle claims, never even mentions St. Joseph of Cupertino in his writings. Funny, that.

    The evidence for St. Joseph’s flights is handily summarized in an article, The flying saint (The Messenger of Saint Anthony, January 2003), by Renzo Allegri.

    The earthly existence of Friar Joseph of Cupertino was rich in charismatic gifts. However, the phenomenon which attracted the most attention occurred during his disconcerting ecstasies. Chronicles recount, as we have already said, that he need only hear the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint before going into an ecstasy. He used to let out a wail and float in the air, remaining suspended between heaven and earth for hours. An inadmissible phenomenon for our modern mentality.

    ‘To doubt is understandable,’ Fr. Giulio Berettoni, rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph of Cupertino in Osimo tells me ‘but it isn’t justifiable. If we take a serious look at the saint’s life from a historical point of view, then we see that we cannot question his ecstasies. There are numerous witness accounts. They began to be documented in 1628, and this continued until Joseph’s death in 1663, i.e. for 35 years. In certain periods, the phenomenon is recorded to have taken place more than once a day. It has been calculated that Joseph’s ‘ecstatic flights’ took place at least 1,000 to 1,500 times in his lifetime, perhaps even more, and that they were witnessed by thousands of people. They were the phenomenon of the century. They were so sensational and so public that they attracted attention from curious people from all walks of life, Italians and foreigners, believers and unbelievers, simple folk, but also scholars, scientists, priests, bishops and cardinals. They continued to occur in every situation, in whatever church in which the saint prayed or celebrated Mass. It is impossible to doubt such a sensational and public phenomenon which repeated itself over time. It is also worth noting that these events occurred in the seventeenth century, the time of the Inquisition. Amazing events, miracles and healings were labelled magic and the protagonists ended up undergoing a trial by the civil and religious Inquisition. In fact, St. Joseph of Cupertino underwent this very fate because of his ecstasies. But he was subjected to various trials without ever being condemned; final proof that these are sensational events, but also real, extraordinary and concrete facts.’ (Emphases mine – VJT.)

    As you rightly point out, Barb, “The Bible warns us to be very careful when it comes to trusting miracles and powerful signs.” The words of St. John are apposite here:

    2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.
    (1 John 4:2-3, NIV)

    The miracles associated with St. Joseph of Cupertino were typically prompted by St. Joseph’s hearing “the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint.” This would certainly suggest to me that they were not from some evil spirit.

    By the way, perhaps you are wondering where one can find the documentation for all of the miracles associated with St. Joseph of Cupertino. I’ve located a short pamphlet entitled, The Life of Saint Joseph of Cupertino by Fr. Christopher Shorrock O.F.M. Conv. (1985) which has this to say on the subject:

    A number of biographies of St Joseph of Cupertino have been prepared in the past and give us extensive details of the extraordinary life of the saint. Of paramount importance are the thirteen volumes of the Process of Canonization preserved in the Vatican Archives. In this great literary work we find recounted the numerous testimonies of witnesses (including princes, cardinals, bishops and doctors) who knew St Joseph personally and in many cases were eyewitnesses to the wonderful events of his life. These episodes clearly reveal a man completely open to the transforming grace of God.

    These volumes, however, are not available in English and are not readily accessible. Therefore it is my intention, in producing this small pamphlet of the life of this great, yet little known, saint, to attempt to show how the hand of God clearly manifested itself in St Joseph’s life and at the same time lead us to the realization that with total openness to God’s grace we may be able to recognize all the possibilities presented in our own lives.

    I hope that helps.

  24. 24

    Isn’t it curious how atheists seem so obsessed with GOD/the church? I find that quite telling.

  25. Stephen Fry is a liberal homosexual atheist of Jewish descent.

    I don’t write that as an ad-hominem, but it is something I keep in mind when considering his views on Christianity and other related matters.

  26. I believe this apparent miracle has been on the news, nationwide, in the US, recently:

    http://www.theblaze.com/storie.....5/#respond

    Oddly enough, there was another miracle (no ‘apparent’ about it), relating to a car accident, earlier in the week in the US, and like the one above, in response to prayer said out loud by a woman who had heard the crash. In that one, a man, found unconscious on the ground nearby, had to have exited the burning wreck through a side window which was far too small for him to get through.

    I think the US is such a cauldron, God must view its people, i.e. the public, as particularly deserving of special help.

  27. Good old Huffington Post! They managed to dredge up a Jesuit priest, who seems to be a throwback to the sixties, when the supernatural (Christ, for that matter) seemed to be regarded by the liberal intellectual elite, lay as well as clerical, as somewhat ‘downmarket’).

    He doesn’t seem to have taken on board at all the very isolated topographical site, which is a large part of the rationale for strongly suspecting it was a miracle. Even if he’s not found, he’s got an equally dismissive back-up story! And to think he’s written a book on the saints, rather curiously entitled My Life with the Saints.

    ‘Most likely the priest will be identified, and people will be able to thank him,” he told The Huffington Post in an emailed message Thursday. “If he’s not found, that may mean he wants to remain anonymous. Could it have been an angel? There are similar ‘angelic’ stories in the lives of the saints, when a figure inexplicably appears and cannot be located afterwards. There are angels, of course, but we tend to ascribe to angels anonymous acts that we find incredibly loving — when in fact human beings do incredibly loving things in hidden ways every day.”

  28. I won’t make any comment on the reliability of the miracle of the herrings. Rather, I offer the question I would pose to Coyne and Fry (or anyone who claims that miracles simply can not occur in our cosmos. The question is how do you know scientifically that the properties of the cosmos are such that any apparent miraculous event can not be an actual miraculous event, even in principle? Or to put it another way how do you know scientifically that the properties of the cosmos are such that no supernatural entity, even if such exists, could ever cause a miracle to take place in the cosmos, even in principle?

  29. Here’s the other video-clip I mentioned in #26:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWz1mJefW_I

  30. Hi Axel,

    Thanks very much for the link on the “angel priest.” I believe the real untold story about the “angel priest” who showed up at a car crash in Missouri recently is that in some parts of the United States today, police would actually bar a priest from the accident scene, and prevent him from administering the Last Rites to an accident victim – even if that victim specifically requested a priest. The same goes for ministers as well.

    Don’t believe me? Take a look at this report by Jennifer Graham in “The Wall Street Journal” (April 25, 2013), which tells how at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, clergy were not allowed to reach the victims of the bombing. I’ll quote an excerpt:

    The heart-wrenching photographs taken in the moments after the Boston Marathon bombings show the blue-and-yellow jackets of volunteers, police officers, fire fighters, emergency medical technicians, even a three-foot-high blue M&M. Conspicuously absent are any clerical collars or images of pastoral care.

    This was not for lack of proximity. Close to the bombing site are Trinity Episcopal Church, Old South Church and St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine, all on Boylston Street. When the priests at St. Clement’s, three blocks away, heard the explosions, they gathered sacramental oils and hurried to the scene in hopes of anointing the injured and, if necessary, administering last rites, the final of seven Catholic sacraments. But the priests, who belong to the order Oblates of the Virgin Mary, weren’t allowed at the scene.

    The Rev. John Wykes, director of the St. Francis Chapel at Boston’s soaring Prudential Center, and the Rev. Tom Carzon, rector of Our Lady of Grace Seminary, were among the priests who were turned away right after the bombings. It was jarring for Father Wykes, who, as a hospital chaplain in Illinois a decade ago, was never denied access to crime or accident scenes.

    “I was allowed to go anywhere. In Boston, I don’t have that access,” he says…

    For police officers securing a crime scene, and trying to prevent further injuries and loss of life, the decision to admit clergy to a bombing site is fraught with risk. Anyone can buy a clerical collar for just $10, and a modestly talented seventh-grader with a computer and printer can produce official-looking credentials…

    The Boston Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on its policy regarding clergy at the scenes of emergencies…

    But it is a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites—a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.

    And this isn’t the only case of its kind. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, in a blog article titled, The effects of secularism at the Marathon’s finish line (April 27, 2013), writes:

    I have heard stories of chaplains for emergency or law enforcement entities being told that they shouldn’t mention God.

    So there you have it. The official reason for denying priests and ministers from accident scenes is lack of valid identification. But that excuse won’t wash. As a blogger pointed out in an article titled, This isn’t America anymore (April 29, 2013) at the blog site Polination:

    Non-uniformed citizens were allowed to help tend the wounded. Even a three-foot-high blue M&M was there. But the guys with the backwards collars? Nada.

    Here’s a thought. Maybe more members of the clergy should become emergency volunteers. Then they’d be let onto accident scenes, because they’re wearing blue-and-yellow jackets. Oh, wait. There’s probably an official rule saying that volunteers aren’t allowed to say anything of a religious nature.

    Here’s another thought. I notice that the mysterious angel priest hasn’t shown up in any of the 80-odd photos of the accident scene that were taken. That might be a very good thing. I can imagine legal repercussions if his existence were officially verified. Just saying.

    You mentioned the Huffington Post article, Axel, which quoted from Father James Martin. Here’s his Wikipedia bio. He’s the editor of the Culture section of the Jesuit magazine America. I don’t think he was necessarily being dismissive, as he noted that “There are angels, of course,” in his comment. And see here for his comments on the entertainment industry’s obvious contempt for the Catholic Church: “It is as if producers, directors, playwrights and filmmakers feel obliged to establish their intellectual bona fides by trumpeting their differences with the institution that holds them in such thrall.” Sounds like his heart’s in the right place, to me. I wouldn’t peg him as a “trendy.”

    By the way, Axel, thanks very much for the video clip about an angelic visitation at an accident scene in Crawford, Texas, two years ago. And here’s the script of the video clip, at the 700 Club Website. Well worth viewing.

  31. DonaldM @28:

    The question is how do you know scientifically that the properties of the cosmos are such that any apparent miraculous event can not be an actual miraculous event, even in principle? Or to put it another way how do you know scientifically that the properties of the cosmos are such that no supernatural entity, even if such exists, could ever cause a miracle to take place in the cosmos, even in principle?

    It’s really quite simple. Everything turns on one point.

    Is physical nature (i.e. matter + energy + space + time) an isolated system?

    If it is, then it cannot be affected by anything beyond nature, and miracles are entirely excluded.

    If it is not an isolated system, then miracles do occur whenever something beyond nature influences something within nature (though whether we notice the influence from beyond nature or not is a separate matter).

    In the case of the miraculous, it is a misconception to consider the “laws” of nature as being “violated”, as if God were “breaking” His own “rules.” That way of thinking depends on the assumption that nature is an isolated system, and crossing the boundary would be a “violation.”

    The “laws” of nature are not “violated” or “broken” by a miracle any more than you “violate” the law of gravity when you fly in an airplane. Our laws always describe what happens in the absence of additional influences. The laws can never dictate that there are no other influences beyond those described by the laws.

    So it comes down to the pivotal matter of whether nature is an isolated system or not. The key point here is that science is unable to draw this as a conclusion of any kind. Rather, it is taken as an assumption, at least by some.

    If someone takes the isolation of nature as a starting assumption, then (unlike a testable hypothesis), by definition it can never be defeated by evidence. Rather, any evidence is necessarily interpreted in a manner consistent with one’s starting assumptions. Consequently, they will always land on conclusions that are consistent with that unquestioned assumption.

    Its interesting that we acknowledge that inside the universe there are no known systems that are truly isolated. It is only the physical universe as a whole that is considered to be the one example of a truly isolated system — which is the one case that science can never examine and test scientifically.

  32. Hi DonaldM,

    Thank you for your post. Interestingly, Jerry Coyne says he’s open to the possibility of a miracle. Science, he believes, could in principle supply strong evidence (but not proof) of the miraculous. In a November 8, 2010 post entitled, Shermer and I disagree on the supernatural, Coyne wrote:

    I don’t see science as committed to methodological naturalism — at least in terms of accepting only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science is committed to a) finding out what phenomena are real, and b) coming up with the best explanations for those real, natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a strategy that has repeatedly worked in science, and so has been adopted by all working scientists.

    As for me, I am committed only to finding out what phenomena really occur, and then making a hypothesis to explain them, whether that hypothesis be “supernatural” or not. In principle we could demonstrate ESP or telekinesis, both of which violate the laws of physics, and my conclusion would be, for the former, “some people can read the thoughts of others at a distance, though I don’t know how that is done.” If only Christian prayers were answered, and Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right, documented by all kinds of evidence, I would say, “It looks as if some entity that comports with the Christian God is working ‘miracles,’ though I don’t know how she does it.” …

    Science can never prove anything. If you accept that, then we can never absolutely prove the absence of a “supernatural” god — or the presence of one. We can only find evidence that supports or weakens a given hypothesis. There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.

    “What sort of cases does Professor Coyne think would render the supernatural probable?” the reader might be wondering. Coyne helpfully lists some examples of evidence that would persuade him that God was real in another recent post, entitled, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (8 November 2012):

    I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.

    In short: Professor Coyne claims to be open to miracles. It’s odd, then, that when some evidence of miracles comes along, he doesn’t follow up and investigate the evidence fairly.

    For readers who are interested in what Judaism has to say about miracles, I’d recommend Rabbi Fox’s article,
    Torah Perspectives on Miracles
    . It makes for fascinating reading. See also Miracles and the Natural Order in Nahmanides by David Berger.

    Finally, I’d recommend the Catholic philosopher Alfred Freddoso’s article, Comment on van Inwagen’s “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God”, for an explanation of how miracles are possible from a concurrentist perspective. Freddoso is a Suarezian.

    Hope that helps.

  33. This much can be said with certainty; Fry’s and Coyne’s critique is one big red herring.

  34. Hi everyone,

    It looks like they’ve found the “mystery priest” at the accident scene: Mystery priest in Missouri rescue comes forward (article by Carl Bunderson, August 12, 2013, CNA).

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