Thursday, June 23, 2016

Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?

The Israelites Gathering Manna (Clerck)
from Wikimedia Commons

“Miracles always relate to the faith. That is why a belief in miracles is not a vacation from reason, a little holiday from the tedious demands of rational responsibility. Not only is it reasonable to believe that miracles can and do happen, it is unreasonable to think they cannot and do not occur.”― Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles—a Catholic View
"The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern into which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern."        --C.S. Lewis, Miracles


Some 22 years ago when I was being catechized, preparing to enter into the Church, I was much troubled by the Eucharistic phenomenon, transubstantiation.   As a physicist, I could not understand how the wafer could become the flesh of Christ and the wine His Sacred Blood.    The wise old priest who was instructing me asked: “Do you believe in the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection?”    I answered, “Yes, of course—that’s why I’m going to become a Catholic.”    He then said, “Well, if you believe in one miracle, why not a second, or more?”   And that answer made a lot of sense to me.   

So the first property of a miracle is that it is related to faith in God, as an act or sign from God.   Miracles are presumed to be rare events, supernatural—that is, not wrought by natural law.    Certainly not all rare events are miracles.    Winning the lottery is a rare event.   But if you needed that win to pay for a cancer medication, then you might consider it a miracle.   We’ll see below what evidence the Church needs to certify a rare event—a medical cure or other phenomenon—as a miracle.    

And finally, I'll try to show, in both a personal and broader context, that science does not create roadblocks to a belief in miracles--if we assume God exists, is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can, as C.S. Lewis suggests, feed a new event into the pattern of natural law, bring down manna from heaven to feed the Israelites.


I'll not discuss specific miracles ;  the various types and categories are well covered on the internet  (see the given links):
The Catholic Church has to be very cautious in endorsing miracles.   Should a Church approved miracle turn out to be due to natural, rather than supernatural causes, or--worse yet--to be the product of fakery, the Church will wind up egg on her face.   The supposed miracle will be cited by non-believers as additional evidence against the truth of the Church's theological and moral stance.

general protocol for approval of "Private Revelations" is given by the Sacred Congregation for Propagation of the Doctrine of the Faith (SCPDF).   The first stage is approval by the bishop of the local diocese;  he may seek the aid of a committee of experts.  Further approval is given by the SCPDF, either using a permanent commission, as in the case of healing miracles required for canonization, or an ad hoc commission.

These agencies can return three verdicts on whether the event is truly miraculous, not to be explained by natural laws: yes, no, can't decide (translating from the Latin).    Whatever this judgment, and the final judgment of the SCPDF, might be, it should be emphasized that other than those miracles which are part of Doctrine or Dogma (e.g. the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), the faithful are not required to believe in miracles, although they are encouraged to do so.

 Different Types of Miracles

Stature of San Juan Diego,
who saw Our Lady of Guadaloupe
Marian Apparitions (paraphrased from the linked source)
1)  There must be moral certainty, or at least great probability, that something miraculous has occurred, something that cannot be explained by natural causes, or by deliberate fakery.

2)  The person or persons who claim to have had the private revelation must be mentally sound, honest, sincere, of upright conduct, and obedient to ecclesiastical authority.

3) The content of the revelation or message must be theologically acceptable, morally sound and free of error.

4) The apparition must yield positive and continuing spiritual assets: for example, prayer, conversion, increase of charity.

Not all Marian apparitions have been approved.  The most noteworthy example is that of Medjugorje.

Eucharistic Miracles
Eucharistic miracles occur when the host, previously consecrated, either issues blood or is transformed into human tissue.   One of the oldest (8th Century A.D.) occurred at Lanciano Italy.   The host was transformed into cardiac tissue, and subjected in 1970-71 and 1981 to histological analyses.   The results corresponded in blood type (AB) to that found for the Shroud of Turin.   Remarkably, the tissue remained uncorrupted for the 1100 years after the miracle occurred.  

The most recent in Legnicka, Poland occurred  in 2013 when a host was dropped and then found to bleed.    Examination by pathologists confirmed that it was most likely cardiac tissue.

These results are hotly contested by atheists who claim that they are either the result of fraud or that the internet reports of their occurrence are made up (including several in Buenos Aires when Pope Francis, then Archbishop Bergoglio, supposedly certified the miracle.)   Given the reluctance of Church officials to certify miracles which might be revealed as fraudulent or natural (see the section on Healing Miracles below), it seems unlikely that this objection is valid.   Whether all internet reports are totally accurate is another question.

Healing Miracles for Canonization
The process of canonization requires that the candidate for sainthood be responsible for at least two miracles.    The miracles must be the result of prayer to the saint-to-be and only to him or her.   Moreover, the miracle must involve a disease or injury that medical authorities say is totally without hope of cure.  A committee of doctors (not all of whom need be Catholic) must examine the medical circumstances of the cure and certify that it is indeed miraculous.

A good example is that given by the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II.   Three months after his death a French nun suffering from Parkinson's disease (the same affliction that Pope St. John Paul II suffered from) prayed to him and woke up one morning in perfect health, even though she had been unable to move her legs before.    The second cure, after his beatification, was that of a Costa Rican woman who had been told by her doctors that her brain aneurysm gave her only a month to live.

We emphasize that the evaluation process for such miracles and for other miracles at shrines, such as Lourdes, is extremely rigorous.   A group of doctors have to certify that there has been no previous medical treatment that could give a cure--that is, 0 % chance according to conservative diagnosis for a cure.   There is no way to argue that fraud is involved in these cases or that something outside of "natural law" has not occurred.


Very briefly, the answer to that question is YES!   Let me explain in detail.  In the first place, it should be evident from the material above that the Church applies rigorous and scrupulous standards in evaluating miracles.  Mother Church does not want to be embarrassed when fraud or natural causes are proven to be the cause of what are supposed to be miraculous events.

Secondly, if I were to answer no, I would have to assume that science explains everything, that "Naturalism" (or materialism or scientism) is the only explanation  for all things and processes;  in other words,  I would accept that the so called laws of nature are just that, prescriptive, rather than descriptive attempts to give a mathematical picture of some aspects of our world.    I would have to assume there is no "veiled reality" in quantum mechanics, and that a physicist who told me "I understand quantum mechanics" is neither a liar nor a fool.

If I believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, I also would have to wonder why God could not, as C.S. Lewis proposed, feed new events into nature to create what seems to us to be a miracle.   The so-called laws of nature, to repeat, are descriptive not prescriptive.   God can't make 2 + 2 = 5, but he can curve space  so that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.  

Accordingly, my faith in miracles does not contradict my belief that science is a wonderful  tool to understand the world, to help us appreciate the beauty described in Psalm 19A:
 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.  
Indeed, to take this a step further, to realize that the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" in science is itself a sort of miracle,

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memento Mori--Thoughts on Growing Old

Old Nun, M. Bassetto (1611)
from Wikimedia Commons
"Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

 Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."Dylan Thomas

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”   Lewis Carroll

Final perseverance is the doctrine that wins the eternal victory in small things as in great” Muriel Spark, Memento Mori


Old people, it is said, love to talk about their aches and pains.  I've forborne doing that, but as I look back on my recent 86th birthday, it struck me that it might be therapeutic to do so, and perhaps put my signs of senility into a more encompassing picture.

We have a 16 year old Shih-Tzu (112 in dog years) who suddenly is showing his age.  His tail, instead of being an arch over his back, now droops more and more;  he limps, favoring the two legs that are probably arthritic.    Although he has navigated well as a blind dog for these past three years over a large yard and cluttered rooms, he now seems to bump into objects more and more, and without the sound of our voices to guide, will hesitate--as if to ponder "where am I and what am I doing here?".

His bark is still imperious as he asks to be let out or in, so his spirit seems to be good, despite the drooping tail.   (My wife contends that he has racial memories of being a pampered pet in the household of the Chinese Empress and condescends to stay with us round-eyed peasants.)  But as he climbs onto his pillow to make himself comfortable, there are little whines of unhappiness and aches.  Although his appetite is quite good, albeit selective, he has grown quite scrawny in his old age--ribs and backbone are conspicuous.  (That's one attribute of old age I wish I would emulate.)

It strikes us that he won't  be with us much longer, but we will never want to "put him down" as long as he is not in pain, even though it's clear that taking care of him will involve more and more work, some of it messy.    And here comes the point of comparison.  I myself am noticing a slow-down.   Yard work that a few years ago I did  to work up a sweat, I now find hard to do without breaking for a rest every five minutes.    As a point of pride and for cardio-vascular workouts, I used to avoid elevators.   Now it's seldom that I go up or down stairs except in our home, and then I plan errands to minimize trips between floors.


But I too, do not want to "be put down", even when what seems to be still working--my  mind--becomes as decrepit as my body.    And I see signs of what could happen  when  I attend  Masses held in the chapel of a local nursing home, managed by an order of Catholic Nuns.  The Nursing Home is also a rehab center for patients with Alzheimer's and other senile mental disorders.   Many of the elderly nuns are there,  either for physical rehab, nursing care, or Alzheimer's.

There are about 10 to 15 of us non-patients (including some still active nuns) who attend Mass there on a semi-regular, twice-a-week basis,    We sit in chairs along the back and one of the side walls.    The main part of the room is empty to hold the 10 to 15 wheel-chairs in phalanx rows, with four or five patients in wheel chairs against the other side wall.   There are a few chairs in the room for friends and relatives of the patients, to sit with wheel chairs.   Two or three attendants and nuns sit along the back wall.   No one rises or kneels during the Mass--it would be a hurtful reminder to those in the wheel chairs who cannot do so.  As is usual in Catholic Churches, one sits in a customary place.

During Mass I occasionally hear one of the patients (usually not one of the nuns) making a comment--"that's beautiful", "praise God", "where's my watch", "thank you Father".  As the priest makes his rounds handing out Holy Communion to each of us, visitors and patients, I look up and see some of the patients sleeping; the priest or EMOHC (a nun) will gently nudge the patient and slip a small portion of the Host into her mouth.

One of the nuns celebrated her 82nd anniversary in the Order a few weeks ago and her 100th birthday a week later.  She is alert and usually not one of those sleeping as Holy Communion is given out.   I see another nun, sleeping during the Mass; her hands are folded in prayer, but she seems oblivious to all that goes on around her, even when asked to receive the Host.   I recall some five or six years ago--she was sharp, witty, alert, managing a large enterprise for the order.   What are her interior thoughts now, I wonder?  Her hands are folded in prayer--does that posture mirror an interior devotion?

Which direction will I take--will the mind in exterior behavior go;  will there still be an interior self to contemplate and pray?


“If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
Recall the Ash Wednesday injunction as we are ashed: "Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return".    The Latin motto, "Memento Mori"(remember that you have to die) was important in Medieval times for those pursuing an ascetic discipline, to hone their thoughts to the hereafter.

I recall this as the title of a wonderful novel by Muriel Spark about forethoughts of death and how they enhance life.   In the novel a group of elderly people--arty and social types--receive occasional phone calls (before the days of cell phones) "remember you must die".    Their lives go on, perturbed somewhat by the calls, but not exceedingly so.    They do confront death, in different ways, however.   Whence the quote at the beginning of this section.   At the end of the novel it is not clear who has been sending the phone messages--perhaps God?

So, as we grow old we contemplate that "undiscovered country".   We hope we are made strong by faith; that by faith even though imperfect, we will find that our Lord, in His infinite capacity for forgiveness, will not look too harshly on our sins.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Are We Special?
New Thoughts about the Anthropic Principle

William Blake, Europe--A Prophecy
from Wikimedia Commons
Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth - the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient "coincidences" and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Paul Davies, winner of the 1995 Templeton Prize
"It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence.”  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion


You see in the quotes above two different views of the Anthropic Principle, that our universe is finely tuned to support carbon-based life; it's known in several versions ranging in acronym form from Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), to Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP), to Christian Anthropic Principle (CAP), to Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (you do the acronym).

My interest has been awakened again by conversations (via email) with an author who believes that the Anthropic Principle, as exemplified in a series of physical events and values for constants--the anthropic coincidences--strongly and quantitatively (via probability arguments)  supports the proposition of a creating God.

I also believe that these anthropic coincidences help us to believe in God, but I do not believe that probability arguments, as they have been used heretofore, are valid.     Rather, I take the point of view of the psalmist  in Psalm 19:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.  Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.  There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard." KJV


These anthropic coincidences have been discussed in two other posts on this blog:   Philosophic Issues in Cosmology 6, The Theology of Water.   I'll summarize the arguments presented in these posts;  if you, the reader, are not familiar with the ins and outs of the anthropic principle, I urge you to read these posts and the references contained therein.

I'll not go through an exhaustive list--that's done in references given in the linked posts; rather they can be categorized as follows:

  • Features of the universe--e.g. space dimensionality 3; the mass/energy content of the initial universe that enabled expansion but not immediate collapse; uniformity in very early universe;  size;
  • Finely tuned values for fundamental physical parameters--e.g. the mass difference between proton and neutrons that enables stability for nuclear processes; the carbon-12 excited state energy that by resonance enhances the probability of carbon-12 nucleus formation from a rare collision of three He nuclei;
  • Nature of physical laws--e.g ratio of electromagnetic force to gravitational force; inverse cube force law for gravity; quantum mechanical laws that enable chemical bonding and (see below) the special properties of water;
  • "Accidental" geo-astronomical features--e.g. tilt of the earth's axis enabling life-friendly climate, unusually large moon shielding earth from asteroid and meteor collision.
It must be emphasized that there are many more instances of such fine tuning--parameters for which the values have to lie between narrow limits to enable a life-supporting universe, and many more examples of geo-astronomical and chemical features.    Ellis, in the reference linked above, specifies general conditions that must obtain for a universe to contain life as we know it.


Some Christian apologists use the anthropic coincidences as an argument for the existence of God by citing the very low probability for their occurrence; all these happening would not occur by chance.   A major objection to this procedure, which Ellis points out, is that the universe is a single datum--probability arguments are generally applied to samples from larger collections for which we have information about variability.

For example, if you've examined 20,000 crates of oranges and found 100 crates containing bad oranges, you'd be justified in putting a probability of  100/20,000 or .005 in finding a bad orange in the next crate.   But if you've only come across one crate of oranges, then it's speculation to put a probability on finding a bad orange.  (But see below.)

Another error one finds is that some apologists list a string of fine tuning examples (call them a,b,c,d...x),  and then use the argument that P(a,b,c,d...x) = P(a) P(b) P(c)P(d)...P(x).    They say that the probability of the total set is the product of the probabilities for each member  of the set.

This would be true if the events were independent, in other words if what happened for one event did not depend on what happened for another.* Such independence will not necessarily hold.   Consider, for example, the properties of
Model of Ice Structure, red: oxygen; white, hydrogen
Dashed lines represent hydrogen bonds
From Wikimedia Commons
water that are life-friendly:

  • thermodynamic--high freezing and boiling points, high specific heat, etc.;
  • physical --surface tension, low specific gravity of ice, maximum density of liquid water at 4 deg C.   

These properties all depend on the very unusual capacity of protons in a H2O molecule to form strong hydrogen bonds to oxygen atoms in other H2O molecules.   And that hydrogen bonding capability arises from quantum mechanics and the physical nature of electrostatic attraction.    So it is one feature, not many, for which a probability should entered. .    And how do you assess the probability of quantum mechanics giving rise to hydrogen-bonding?


"But is it probable that probability brings certainty?" Blaise Pascal, Pensees 496
I'm going to try a different approach, using probability as a measure of belief. (I apologize to those professional statisticians and mathematicians who will certainly be offended by my presumption.)   The approach is my take on Richard Jeffrey's Subjective Probability.

Let's start with a different definition of probability, based on strength of belief.   Consider the following examples for betting on a horse race.   You overhear a trainer telling a pal that "the next race is fixed for Trump's Nag to win, with odds of 9/1".    You bet $10,  expecting to win $90.    The defined probability, working from the odds ratio, is  1/(9+1) = 0.10.    The probability of losing your bet is then 1- 0.10 = 0.90.    The expectation value is 0 = 0.10 x 90 + 0.90 x(-10).

The next step is to consider conditional probability, that is how the probability of an event depends on a linked event.   Let A represent the event that the stock price rises to $100.   Let B represent the event that information about the possible rise of the stock is given.    Then the conditional probability is denoted as p(A|B), the probability of event A given that event B occurs.   Note that there is no causal relation implied here--it's only a matter of evidence.

Now to the meat of the matter.   Let F represent the event of fine-tuning for the universe;  G, that God exists;  N, that God does not exist (or that "Naturalism= materialism" accounts for everything).    Then

  • p(G| F )  is a probability, a degree of belief, that F --> G, i.e. fine-tuning is evidence for the existence of God;  
  • p(N | F)  is a probability that fine-tuning implies that God does not exist;  
  • p(F | G) is the probability that if God exists then He can fine-tune the universe;  
  • p(F | N) is the probability that a fine-tuned universe would occur in the absence of God;  
  • p(G) is the probability--the degree of belief--that God exists;
  • p(N)  is the probability--the degree of belief--that God does not exist.

Then straightforward manipulation gives (see note **) yields

 P(G | F)) = [ P(G) ] [ P(F | G) ]
 P(N | F)      [ P(N) ] [ P(F | N)]               
       1                2             3

Term 1 is a likelihood ratio for belief that fine-tuning implies the existence of God to belief that fine-tuning  implies no God;  term 2 is a likelihood ratio for belief in God to belief in no God (naturalism);   term 3 is a likelihood ratio for belief that God, if He exists, would create a fine-tuned universe to support life to belief that naturalism/materialism would yield a fine-tuned universe.

Now certainly term 3 is a number much greater than 1, even if the exact value is indeterminate.   The value for term 2 will depend on the individual--for a Christian martyr, it would be a huge number;    for Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Kraus it would be a very small number.

Here's the point: the value you impute to term 1, the likelihood ratio for belief that a fine-tuned universe is evidence for the existence of God, will be greater than  1 if you are not a hard core atheist.    If you're agnostic--it's a 50/50 proposition that God exists--then certainly fine tuning should convince you that God exists.   If you're an extreme atheist, then term 2 could become small enough to swamp term 3, even if the latter is very large.

So the upshot is that if you do believe in God or if you're an agnostic, fine tuning can be evidence for God's creating hand.   If you're an atheist--this will not be sufficient evidence.   And we come again to Grace given by the Holy Spirit as the mechanism for faith.


 * Further, if you do this with a large number of events, it will certainly not lead to useful information.   Consider a series of 50 independent events, each of which has a probability of 0.9.   Then the probability for all the events happening together is 0.9 ^ 50 = .0052. which is small, even though the probability for the events individually is large.

**Consider p(A and B), the probability that both A and B occur (or that both A and B are true propositions).   Then a form of Bayes' theorem is  that
p(A and B) = p(A | B) p(B) = p (B | A) p(A);  
whence p(A | B) = [p(A)/p(B)] [ p( B | A) ]

About Me

My Photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.