Do Miracles Happen?
Occasionally something occurs that you or I might be tempted to call “a miracle.” But: what follows when you try to talk about a “miracle” that you think might have happened to you? Despite the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution, which says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …
actually we moderns do have an Established Religion, from which we can only dissent at our social peril:
Like any religion that’s effective in the modern world, Secular Humanism is a life-changing belief system requiring public adherence and treating dissenters with a wary and qualified “tolerance.” Nowadays, there are textbook anthologies of religion with chapters allotted to Secular Humanism, as one more religion. But it’s not just “one more.” It’s established. It polices the public square.
What are its major doctrines? I’ll list some of them.
- Since consciousness is an effect of brain activity, it can’t possibly survive brain death.
- Living organisms enjoy their present state — as functional wholes made of interdependent, working parts — by chance.
- Space, time and the laws of nature exploded into being suddenly, without antecedent causes or explanation. An explanation would have to reference a natural law – and there weren’t any before the Big Bang!
- The gentler characteristics of humanity exist on the same basis as their brute features: survival.
As they used to say in Brooklyn — where I taught philosophy for many years —
If you can believe all this,
I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.
My suspicion? Nobody really buys all of it.
Take the first tenet:
brain death = annihilation.
Some years ago, when A. J. Ayer (one of the more influential philosophers in the English-speaking world) was hospitalized for pneumonia, he started to choke on something he’d been eating.
His heart stopped for four minutes.
Despite the expectation of his doctors –- of irreparable damage to his brain — Ayer revived unimpaired. Afterward, he wrote an account of his experience during the four minutes. Under the title, “What I Saw When I Was Dead,” it was published, for all the respectable world to see, in the widely-read Sunday Telegraph.
Prior to this experience, Ayer had held that any report of consciousness without brain function must be “meaningless.” In his article in the Telegraph, he showed keen awareness of the risk of excommunication from his own social circles.
“I trust,” he wrote, “that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.”
Given the risks he had mentioned, I thought the fact of this philosopher’s coming out of the closet with an experience like that should be taken seriously. (Reportedly, he told his private physician that he had seen God, but he did not write this in the Telegraph.) My article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” explored what the experience he did describe publicly might mean philosophically. At least one highly-regarded colleague and friend – who held that the mind is the brain – declined even to read my article, explaining, on behalf of himself and others in his department, “Freddie has lost his cool”!
I did not believe them. That is, I did not believe that they were avoiding all contact with Ayer because they were sure he was suffering from mental confusion. In my view, they feared that Ayer’s mind really did sail through the oxygen starvation that should have damaged his brain. His having done so raised the alarming possibility that one of their key doctrines was wrong!
Was it a miracle? Did an atheist philosopher return from near-death to tell the Secular Humanists that they had been misinformed?
What is a miracle?
It’s usually defined as a happening credited to God because it overrides or violates relevant laws of nature. Since we don’t know what all the laws of nature are, I think it’s risky to define a miracle that way. So let me give it a go, in rather different terms.
a happening that sheds light on the meaning of one’s life
– or the lives of others –
which could not have been brought about by human contrivance alone
or by nature in its random operation?
In Ayer’s case, the miracle showed that you don’t need a working body to have experience. All his life as a working philosopher, he’d striven mightily to demonstrate that you can, by reasonable inference, get from private experience to a world that exists objectively, bodily. From time to time, he’d noted briefly that his philosophical effort had not been successful. But he continued to think that it ought to work, if somehow he could solve the conceptual difficulties involved.
Now all that changed. He hadn’t needed a working brain to have a complex and lucid experience. So his philosophical work was shown to have been a failure — misguided at the outset. A light was shed on the meaning of his life. Not a flattering light, but a light just the same.
In my working life, “miracles” have not required a near-death experience. In the cases I think of, I’d been making long and strenuous efforts that seemed to be getting me nowhere. My very strivings seemed to leave me isolated, a figure of fun, someone to ridicule. The happenings I termed “miraculous” involved a confluence of events – not supernatural but synchronous and highly improbable – that combined to bring my efforts into high-resolution focus as meaningful and fruitful.
Miracles are improbable. One has to stop and look – or stop and listen. There is clatter rattling around in one’s head. The anxieties and felt futilities of one’s efforts, the never-ending to-do list, the iron doctrines of Secular Humanism, are part of the clatter. To perceive the patterns of life, one has to try to set all that aside.
One has to silence the clatter –
in order to perceive the improbable.