Who's Counting: Math vs. Miracles

— It sometimes seems to me that news coverage of miracles is more extensive than coverage of scientific breakthroughs.

Popular accounts of miracles (as well as of mysterious prophecies) have always appeared in supermarket tabloids, where they’re almost as common as unhappy celebrities.

In recent years, however, they’ve surfaced in magazines, newspapers, and periodicals of all types, on radio and TV, and in books and movies. In May, Newsweek reported that a large majority of Americans of diverse religious persuasions believe in miracles.

Two weighty miracle stories, in particular, have received a lot of recent attention. Since they provide a convenient prism through which to examine the concept of a miracle, let me very briefly describe each.

A Nun And Three Prophecies

The first concerns Mother Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress, nun, and social worker who died in 1955. The long process to sainthood for Drexel is finally nearing an end. Drexel’s canonization hinged upon official certification, completed only a few months ago, of two posthumous miracles that have been attributed to her. Both involved the unexplained cures of sick children.

A more well-known miracle, the Fatima story, dates from 1917. Three peasant children in the small Portuguese village of Fatima are said to have witnessed a sequence of visions of the Virgin Mary during which she revealed to them three prophecies. The first two were long ago interpreted as foretellings of World War II and the rise and fall of Soviet communism. The final one, made public just two months ago (the full text was released on June 26th), is said to have foretold the shooting of Pope John.

That Mother Drexel was an admirable, compassionate, and selfless woman who divested herself of her considerable fortune and made the world a better place I have no doubt. Nor do I have any reservations about the sincerity of the Portuguese children or the piety of their many devotees.

It’s with the general notion of miracle that I have difficulty.

Everyday Miracles

What does the word mean? If a miracle is simply a very unlikely event, then miracles occur every day. Just ask any lottery winner or bridge player. Any particular bridge hand has a probability of one in 600 billion of being dealt. It won’t do, however, to look at the 13 cards dealt to one and proclaim them to be a miracle.

So far, no problem. But if a miracle is intended to indicate some sort of divine intervention, some questions come naturally to mind. Why, for example, do so many in the media and elsewhere refer to the rescuing of a few children after an earthquake as a miracle when they attribute the death of perhaps hundreds of equally innocent children in the same disaster to a geophysical fault line? It would seem either both are the result of divine intervention or both are a consequence of the earth’s plates shifting.

The same point holds for other tragedies. If a recovery from a disease is a considered a miraculous case of divine intervention, then to what do we attribute the contracting of the disease in the first place?

In the Mother Drexel case, two very sick children prayed to Drexel years after she died and they soon enjoyed spontaneous and unexplained recoveries. But such recuperations sometimes occur as do the more common spontaneous and unexplained deteriorations. Not always knowing what causes them does not mean they’re instances of divine intervention. In fact, scientists are frequently unable to ascribe a specific cause to either the contracting of a disease or a recovery from it. Even statistical tests and clinical trials conducted on large samples of people are sometimes insufficient to determine likely causes.

One can make similar remarks about the Fatima case. Prophecies can be so vague that many different interpretations might be given to them. It’s not particularly risky to predict that wars and mayhem will occur at some indefinite time in the future. If one really wanted to investigate the validity of prophecies, one would need more precise predictions and established, strict protocols for investigating them.

Likewise, if someone really wanted to search for a causal connection between prayers and cures, one would need to examine a very large number of cases, set time limits on the alleged cures, compare recovery rates of those who pray with those who don’t, and guard against self-deception and wish-fulfillment.

Clashing With Science

Another problem with proclaiming a miracle was noted a long time ago by David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Whatever evidence exists that a certain phenomenon miraculously violates a scientific law is evidence as well that the scientific law in question is flawed or irrelevant.

If before the invention of the telephone, for example, someone heard the voice of a friend who was hundreds of miles away, one might consider this a miracle. The evidence for this miraculous event, however, would also be evidence that the physical laws that rule against the possibility (such as the speed that sound travels in air, let’s say) are wrong or don’t apply.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to say that religion and science are growing together and are no longer incompatible in any way. This convergence is, in my opinion, illusory. In fact, I don’t believe that any attempt to combine these very disparate bodies of ideas can succeed.

Since getting people to change their minds about these matters usually calls for something of a miracle, I’ll stop right here.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several books, including A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and, most recently, I Think, Therefore I Laugh. His “Who’s Counting?” column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.