A “miracle” is not against nature, but against known nature

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. . . .

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....'”

[From David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, L. A. Selby Bigge, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 114-16.]

This sounds reasonable, until we consider what Hume may mean by “nature”. Does he mean the laws of the physical universe as the materialist conceives it? If so, he would be begging the question. For reality may or may not have a non-physical component. When people talk about “miracles” they usually imply that a non-physical component has changed something in the physical. If so-called non-physical turned out to be reality, then it would be appropriate to call this aspect of reality “natural” as well, and part of the nature of events. In which case, we should abandon the term “miracle”. Relevant in this regard is this quote from Isidore of Seville's De Etymologiae: portentus ergo fit non contra naturam, sed contra quam est nota natura” “thus a miracle is not against nature, but against known nature.” So Isidore might lead us to agree with the generality of what Hume is saying about miracles, while questioning Hume’s possibly limited view of what is natural.

Isidore implies that we need to take care, when we talk about laws of nature, that we are not merely describing what seems to be common-sense at the moment. Memories may come to mind of scientists who said that heavier then air machines could never fly, or that it was unsafe to travel at more than 30 miles an hour. The great physicist Lord Kelvin in the 1897 said that the world was 24 million years old. About that time he also remarked that the age of new discoveries in the field of physics was coming to an end. Of course a while earlier than that, people would have said that it was against natural law to hear someone in the act of speaking while they were a thousand miles away, and even more against natural law to see someone speaking on the other side of the world. And how much more against natural law to see and hear someone in outer space. What would Hume have said about putting a little machine on the ground in the planet Mars and having it regularly reporting its activities to interested people on Earth?

In the same pages as quoted, Hume writes, “It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation

On the other hand, people who are technically dead, with no heart-beat and no brain function, have in fact been revived. This is sometimes the state of affairs when there is brain surgery. When patients are in this state they quite often have an Out of the Body Experience where they seem to be separate from their bodies and seeing and hearing all that doctors and nurses are doing. A very interesting paper by Dr Pim van Lommel was published in The Lancet discussing this phenomenon in detail. See http://www.iands.org/dutch_study.html . A medical practitioner friend of mine obtained permission from a patient who had experienced such an OBE for me to interview him. (See the article about Anthony Rogers under the heading Experience in the February issue of The Ground of Faith. [http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~thegroundoffaith/issues/2006-02/index.htm ]

All this raises the possibility that people who talk about natural law may sometimes be talking about their prejudices. Hume is perfectly right when he appeals to human experience in justifying a point of view. The issue however is whether or not we are going to exclude a whole class of human experience in the interests of maintaining a belief system.

The philosopher William James together with Professor Barrett, F W H Myers, Edmund Gurney founded the British Society for Psychical Research. Henry Sidgwick, C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, also were philosophers who appealed to experience, and were presidents of the Society. Gilbert Murray, a British classical scholar and diplomat, was likewise a president. When I was studying at Oxford, my hall of residence was not far from his home, whither some of us students were invited to tea. We were discussing psychic research, and I remember how he described telepathy experiments with his daughter. He related that in one formal experiment he felt that she was thinking of a man sitting in a Viennese restaurant eating female lobsters. This was correct. It was an incident in one of her Russian language novels, which she had chosen because her father had no knowledge of Russian.

In collecting evidence for an understanding of consciousness as being partly independent of the brain, all these scholars would be aware of the academic constraints needing to be observed, if meaningful evidence is to be assembled together.

An interesting book, compiled and edited by Gardner Murphy and Robert O. Ballou in 1960, is William James on Psychical Research. 332 pp.

On page 15 James is quoted, “Anyone with a healthy sense for evidence, a sense not methodically blunted by the sectarianism of ‘Science,’ ought now, it seems to me, to feel that exalted sensibilities and memories, veridical phantasms, haunted houses, trances with supernormal faculty, and even experimental thought-transference, are natural kinds of phenomenon which ought, just like other natural events, to be followed up with scientific curiosity.”

James spent many years studying the famous medium ‘Mrs Piper’. He recorded a striking case on clairvoyance with such thoroughness, that twenty-three pages are occupied with his notes, with signed statements from many witnesses, so that only a person inaccessible to reason would reject the testimony. He also wrote an interesting monograph, Religion and the problems of the soul.

James worked closely with F W H Myers who produced a 1,360 page two volume work in 1903 entitled Human personality and its survival of bodily death, in which with rigour similar to that of James, he gives a multitude of case histories, which in effect map the zoology of paranormal experience evident still today. Let us continue the above quote from James:

the existence all about us of thousands and tens of thousands of persons, not perceptibly hysteric or unhealthy, who are mediumistic..is a phenomenon of human life which [psychologists] do not even attempt to connect with any of the other facts of nature. Add the fact that mediumship often gives supernormal information, and it becomes evident that the phenomenon cannot consist of pure eccentricity and isolation.. It cries aloud for serious investigation.”

He was thus “disposed to think it a probability that Frederic Myers will always be remembered in psychology as a pioneer who staked out a vast tract of mental wilderness and planted the flag of genuine science upon it.”

Another classic is the work of G N M Tyrrell in his Science and psychical phenomena, and Apparitions.

There is a huge body of research conducted in many countries of the world from those times until the present day. Work in this field is documented in Parapsychology Abstracts International under the editorship of Rhea White. It gives summaries of the literature of parapsychology from the earliest times to date. The title was later changed to Exceptional Human Experience The index came out three or four times a year over a period of twenty years, and is an essential tool for study in this area.

Fruitful studies of paranormal phenomena come under many headings:

Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) See the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_voice_phenomena

Instrumental transcommunication (ITC) See www.victorzammit.com/book/chapter04.html

Scole experiments prove afterlife See www.victorzammit.com/book/chapter05.html

It would be instructive to read through the whole of Victor Zammit’s book with its discussion of proofs of the afterlife under 25 headings.

A large number of QM physicists deal with mind, consciousness, the idea that the basis of reality is mental, not physical. Amongst their number is Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, David Bohm, David Peat, Frank Sarfatti. There is a vast number of papers and book written by such people, and presentations of their theories and their scientific basis have been prepared for the layman over the past seventy years. The literature is so huge, that it is impossible to summarise here.

In view of this, it is perhaps surprising that there is hostility to the whole area in most psychology and philosophy departments in English-speaking universities. As James said, “it cries aloud for serious investigation.”

But hostility there is. A doctor friend, lecturing part time in the School of Medicine, for the degree of Master of General Medicine, proposed to write a thesis on Telaesthesia Between Twins, using as a basis, a study he had made of 60 pairs of twins, many in his own practice. Consulting an academic about it, he was advised, “You can kiss your career goodbye, if you go on those lines.” When he intimated that the academic side of his work was not so important to him, the academic changed his tune, and was supportively interested. I have read his thesis, for which he got good honours, and the phenomena studied have been treated with the utmost rigour, and are unquestionably genuine.

In the nineteenth century one could not read at Oxford or Cambridge, unless one subscribed to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. One wonders whether what was to happen, was Academia’s revenge for such stupidity.

In 1915 J B Watson received a revelation, perhaps not from on high, that all human behaviour is to be explained in terms of conditioned reflexes, à la Pavlov’s Dogs, and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, and is of no significance. One wonders whether he was conscious when he wrote that. This assumption fitted all too well with the spirit of the age in the academic world, so that there was little serious study of consciousness until 75 years later in 1990s.

It is noteworthy that those who wish to ignore the whole field, are loath to examine any single example of the paranormal, but rather dismiss the field with generalisations.. all paranormal experiences are illusory, hallucinations, wish fulfilment because of grief, muddled thinking, poor scientific observation and methods, fraud, or plain superstition. The tendency is to attack the experimenter rather than objectively studying the experiment.

The opposition shown by academics in the fields of philosophy and psychology is quite understandable. What is at stake is the whole materialist hypothesis, namely that we best understand reality by dividing it up into the smallest possible bits, that the development of the universe, and the establishment and evolution of life on this Earth is the result of the random combinations of the smallest particles of matter or energy.

Proof of the reality of one instance of clairvoyance, or personal survival after death, would result in the dropping of the materialist hypothesis which has served science so well in the past four centuries and more. The fear of academics would be that such a proof would open the floodgates to unreason, superstition, religious fanaticism, and that what would then happen to science would make the famous Scopes trial a frightening symbol of much worse. Maybe once again scientists would have to subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles.

The latter was one example of unreason in high places, yes, but the total ignoring of the whole field outlined originally by James and Myers, that too is unreason.