Miracles and Meteorites

Stanley Jaki, in his book God and the Sun at Fatima, comments on the scientific history of meteorites:

Once the Académie des Sciences in Paris decided that eyewitness accounts about fiery streaks dashing toward the earth should not be trusted, meteorites were discarded from the collection of other scientific academies as well. No less a scientist than Lavoisier changed the written statement of an eyewitness because it countered his disbelief in meteors. Laplace shouted, “We have had enough such myths,” when his fellow academician Marc-Auguste Pictet urged, in the full hearing of the Académie des Sciences, that attention be given to the report about a huge meteor shower that fell at L’Aigle, near Paris, on April 26, 1803.

This is not untypical. Historically, the scientific community showed a similar reluctance to accept the reality of earthquake lights, rogue waves, and other phenomena.

Laplace’s concern, of course, was probably not that the idea of stones coming from the sky seemed to him absurd in itself, but that it did not seem possible to explain it by natural principles known to him. The idea of continental drift was long rejected for this reason, namely the apparent lack of a mechanism that might bring it about.

This concern is not entirely unreasonable. If scientists were to accept all eyewitness accounts as they stand, they might be forced to constantly add new principles in order to explain the most recent stories. On the other hand, it would be reasonable for them to give somewhat more attention to accounts which come up repeatedly, as happened with the accounts of the above phenomena.

Accounts of miracles can in fact be treated much like such accounts. A miracle does not mean something which has never been seen in any age or country, as Hume defines it, but something which does not have natural principles. Thus, for example, if a man rises from the dead we do not (generally speaking) believe that this could have resulted from natural principles. This does not prove that it cannot happen at all, as Hume supposes, but only that if it does happen, it results from some additional principle, above and beyond the principles of nature.

 

Conspiracy Theories

Two conspiracy theories that I accept:

1. Vincent Foster was murdered.

2. The Church did not reveal the entirety of the third secret of Fatima. See also the book by Antonio Socci.

Elliot Sober begins his article Coincidences and How to Think about Them:

The naïve see causal connections everywhere. Consider the fact that Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice. The naïve find it irresistible to think that this cannot be a coincidence. Maybe the lottery was rigged or some uncanny higher power placed its hand upon her brow. Sophisticates respond with an indulgent smile and ask the naïve to view Adams’ double win within a larger perspective. Given all the lotteries there have been, it isn’t at all surprising that someone would win one of them twice. No need to invent conspiracy theories or invoke the paranormal – the double win was a mere coincidence.

Throughout the article, he recognizes that the “sophisticate” has a problem justifying his account by probability theory, at least in the sense that by any reasonable analysis, the naive account remains fairly probable. Nonetheless he betrays a strong desire to find a way to justify the position of the sophisticates, as for example when he says:

As noted before, it may be possible to provide an objective Bayesian treatment of Adams’ double win. Even though the FIX hypothesis has a higher likelihood than the FAIR hypothesis, perhaps there is a way to justify an assignment of prior probabilities that has the consequence that the FAIR hypothesis has the higher posterior probability.

This of course implies that a treatment that suggests that the lotteries were likely fixed is automatically not objective.

It may be easy to argue that many conspiracy theories are more a result of flawed mental tendencies than of rational thinking. But insofar as virtue consists in a mean, it is necessary to avoid the opposite error as well.