Tuesday, 17 November 2009

do miracles occur? - practice

Arguing the philosophy of miracles is one thing, claiming to have observed them is another. And who better to report on healing miracles than qualified doctors? (See miracles happen for some background, and heart starting action for a well-reported example.)

The World Christian Doctors Network (WCDN) compiles case histories of apparent miracles, and presents them on its website, and at its annual conferences. It recently held its 2009 conference in Kiev, Ukraine.

Many cases of apparent miraculous healing were reported at the conference, including a documented case of an Australian man who had been given only a short time to live because of recurring skin cancer which had "metastasized" to his chest and lungs. But after attending a christian healing prayer meeting, "tumor regression started" and after further prayer his skin cancer disappeared, and a CT scan showed the lung cancer had gone as well.

The same Aussie doctor also told of how she had been revived after being "dead" for 45 minutes, an occurrence she regards as a miracle because she suffered no brain damage.

what are we to make of this?

For many christians, these stories are easily believed, but sceptics (which includes some christians) can always find reasons to disbelieve - perhaps the documentation is deemed inadequate, perhaps the event occurred but was a fortuitous but natural occurrence, or perhaps they just simply cannot believe because of their scepticism.

It seems to me that we have to at least accept that some miracles appear to have occurred, and resolutely maintaining that none of these events are actually miracles seems contrary to the evidence. But these events raise other questions, such as "if these miracles really did occur, why doesn't God do miracles happen more often?" I wish I knew the answer to that one!

Monday, 16 November 2009

do miracles occur? - theory

Some people believe in miracles, some believe they never happen.

Sceptics tend to quote philosopher David Hume, who argued that if someone tells us about an apparent miracle (an event that is contrary to the known laws of nature), it is always more likely that the person's testimony is doubtful than that the miracle actually happened. Thus, he argued, we can never be justified in believing the miracle occurred.

Sceptics often take this to mean that Hume showed that miracles cannot occur, but this isn't correct. If we regard Hume's argument as valid, it doesn't show that miracles cannot or do not occur, only that we cannot ever have sufficient reasons to believe they have - which is very different.

Hume's argument is assumed by some to have ended the matter, but philosophers are now much less inclined to think Hume got it right. Books such as John Earman's "Hume's Abject Failure" and "Hume, holism, and miracles" by David Johnson argue that Hume got it wrong, perhaps very badly wrong. Other philosophers argue that Hume's argument can be re-worked into a form that is still valid. But perhaps the general view, for example, as expressed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is that miracles are now an open question.

What is the basis for the arguments against Hume?

Richard Swinburne argues that we have many more means to test miracles these days than the simple personal testimony of a few alleged eyewitnesses as Hume seemed to assume. Thus it may not be likely that the evidence is unable to overcome the improbability of a miracle, especially if one is open-minded about the possibility of God existing.

Victor Reppert and Earman both use probability theory to show that Hume's claims are wrong. For example, if there are enough eye-witnesses to a supposed miracle, the probability of them all being mistaken can be shown mathematically to diminish to almost zero. (Reppert also points out that if Hume's argument is correct, we could never believe a newspaper report about a lottery winner because the probability of winning the lottery will always be less than the probability that the newspaper got it wrong!)

A related issue is whether science has proven miracles impossible, as some sceptics say. But the philosophers tell us that science has done no such thing. Science shows us what happens in the natural course of events, and cannot tell us whether God might interfere.

But even though the philosophers, in general, seem to maintain an open mind on the possibility of miracles, scientists and sceptics seem unwilling to admit even the possibility. For example, Carter Bancroft, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, writes: "A central tenet of science (particularly of the physical sciences) holds that, at least since the Big Bang, a fundamental set of laws has governed the entire universe—no exceptions permitted." In other words, the laws of nature don't simply describe what normally happens, they describe what must happen, with no allowance for freely willed actions, by people or by God.

But then again, as Miracle Max said in "The Princess Bride": "Look who knows so much!"

Next post, do miracles occur? - practice.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

illegal immigration?

Photo: MorgueFile

For many years now, Australia has been the destination of "boat people" - refugees or would-be immigrants from troubled lands to the north and west. Decades ago they were from Vietnam, more recently from the Middle East, Afganistan and Sri Lanka.

And for the same period, debate has raged in Australia between those who want to keep out the "illegals", and those who want to offer help to people in distress. Elections have been fought over the issue, and opinions are highly polarised.

Take these two examples:

In favour of compassion

Recently my friend Russ presented on his blog, Out on a limb, a number of reasons in favour of treating refugees like humans, based on material prepared by GetUp!. It was presented in the form of myths about asylum seekers, which were:

Myth 1 – Australia takes in more than its fair share of asylum seekers

Australia's current intake is lower than average, below UN recommendations, and per capita only 20th (out of 44 countries considered) in the world.

Myth 2 – Boat people are swamping our shores

Only 10% of asylum seekers arrive by boat, most come by air. A greater percentage of boat arrivals are found to have valid reasons. Far more people overstay their visas illegally.

Myth 3 – the Government's changes in policy have made Australia a soft target

There is no evidence that changes in Government policy, either a "tougher" stance or a more lenient one, have made any significant difference to the numbers of arrivals. Rather, conditions in the countries of origin seem to be the main factor.

Myth 4 – Refugees are a burden on our economy

Refugees are an insignificant proportion of welfare payments and may assist the economy in providing expansion to the workforce.

Myth 5 – Boats are bringing terrorists to our shores

This is an unlikely route for terrorists. In the US, all immigrants involved in the World Trade Centre attacks arrived on visas.

Myth 6 – Asylum seekers are illegal immigrants

Seeking asylum is legal under Australian and international law to which Australia is a signatory. Whether they are allowed entry as genuine refugees is a matter for Australia to determine.

All this seems very reasonable and humane. On these facts, it would seem that Australia should be more generous to people in distress. Yet there is another side to the story.

In favour of a "stronger" policy

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Paul Sheehan (Migration: the true story) argued that Australia is not a racist, inhumane or intolerant society:

1. The record high number of refugees admitted by the previous government did not generate significant public opposition.

2. Despite rising violence by militant Islamists around the world, the increase in Muslim numbers via legal channels in the past two decades has generated no meaningful political opposition.

3. Australia has a high number of foreign-born residents (almost 25%) and one of the world's largest per capita immigrants intakes, with the majority of arrivals being non-European.

4. It is more difficult to identify and check those people who arrive by boat than those who arrive by air and overstay their visas.

5. A recent spate of convictions for terrorist activity within Australia has largely involved people who came as immigrants.

6. The Tamil Tigers, from whom many recent arrivals originate, have received considerable support in Australia.

7. Australia can only accept a certain number of refugees without harm to economy, environment or social structure.

8. The present Government deploys a zero-sum refugee policy, so if boat arrivals are accepted, those who register to immigrate have to wait longer.

9. UN conventions on asylum seekers do not override Australian law.

10. Some would-be immigrants are demanding rights that do not exist under international law.

This too seems reasonable, if not so humane. Which story is true?

It seems likely that both sets of facts are true. In which case, the truth is very complex, and there are no easy answers. We want to help the unfortunate refugees, but we want to remain in control and be fair to others. There are arguments both ways, and the Australian Government and people will have to resolve them.

I am still a little inclined to the compassionate option. But we would all be better served if politicians on both sides spoke less like the "shock jocks" of talkback radio and gave us their considered assessments of these facts and the best possible compromise.