Miracles even a skeptic can believe

Lisa Kogan wrote an article for O, The Oprah Magazine in which she claims to discover miracles even a skeptic could believe.  The word choice used in this article caught my attention. In particular, the word “skeptic” is taken to mean “cynic”,  i.e. to describe the pessimist rather than the critical thinker. Take this excerpt:

I need to resurrect the feeling of wonder that salvages us from cynicism. I’m looking for leaps of faith and the element of surprise, and a trace of something that defies logic.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer Ms. Kogan an alternative viewpoint: skeptics are not necessarily cynics. Skeptics are simply those who take great care in weighing the evidence before jumping on board with extraordinary claims. Furthermore, skeptics manage to feel a great deal of awe and wonder at what they encounter, without taking leaps of faith or compromising logic.  Think of Carl Sagan: one of the founders of the skeptics’ movement (I highly recommend his book The Demon-Haunted World), yet one of the most inspiring people to hear speak about the natural wonders of our universe.

To demonstrate my argument, here is my response to the twelve miracles provided by Ms. Kogan, one for each month of the year:

January: Ms. Kogan slips while ice-skating, and does not suffer serious injury. Her doctor tells her that “it’s a miracle you didn’t break anything”.

I think Ms. Kogan is confusing a colloquialism with a statement of fact. It is not, in fact, established that her escape from injury defies the laws of nature, as a miracle would require. Instead, Ms. Kogan is simply lucky. And that’s a very positive thing, as she suggests.  She is justified in feeling relief that she did not hurt herself more seriously (and perhaps she could spare a thought or two for those who really did get hurt in her situation – where was their miracle?).

February: Ms. Kogan regards the longevity of her marriage as a miracle.

Once again, no laws of nature need to be suspended in order to keep two people in a relationship for 17 years. In fact, it happens all the time, both in our species and in others: we are evolved to thrive in relatively long term partnerships. But while this is not a miracle, it is still a cause of celebration. Why? Because it’s an achievement. It’s something that takes a lot of dedicated hard work.  And it is also extremely rewarding, and results in deep and meaningful emotional bonds.

March: Ms. Kogan loses weight.

Ms. Kogan’s remarks here are wonderfully humorous, and it’s clear that not even she regards the loss of four pounds as an actual miracle (but well done anyway!).

April: Ms. Kogan enjoys a song by Eva Cassidy.

My wife and I have a song we consider to be “ours”: a kind of symbol of our relationship. It is Eva Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s “Field’s of Gold”. Ms. Korgan is quite correct: Cassidy has an extraordinarily haunting, ethereal voice that is an absolute joy to listen to.

But as emotionally laden as music is, it does not have to defy logic. It does not have to suspend the laws of nature. Music is a fascinating phenomenon that we do not fully understand, principally because we do not fully understand our brains and their long evolutionary history. But not being able to understand something does not mean that it must, by definition, be miraculous.  As we learn more about the brain, we will learn more about how music works – how it produces the responses it does. This promises to be a very exciting adventure indeed.

May: Spring is a miracle.

I suspect that Ms. Kogan is not entirely serious about this one, either. The change of seasons most certainly does not defy logic. However, it is certainly fascinating the way we respond emotionally to the changes of the seasons. Humans have been around a very long time: hundreds of thousands of years. Think of all the seasons that have passed in that time, and how central they have been to our very survival. It is no wonder, then, that we consider spring to be beautiful.

June: Sportsmen behaving sportingly.

It is a rather sad commentary on the nature of sports today that anyone would consider it a miracle that two baseball players settle a disagreement civilly. But it does not defy logic, no matter how rare it is.  Nonetheless, we can be grateful for this behavior, and encourage it to spread.

July: A politician does something vaguely commendable.

Again, I’m sure Ms. Kogan is not entirely serious in claiming that a small show of political cooperation constitutes an actual miracle, so I won’t say too much about this. I do hope, though, that some more convincing miracles are in store for the rest of the year…

August: The passage of time is miraculous.

At this point I am getting a little worried that Ms. Kogan was not quite serious about her project to find miracles. On to the next one!

September: Birth is a miracle.

Conception, pregnancy, and birth, do not defy the laws or logic or suspend the laws of nature. They are, instead, complex processes that are both imperfect and occasionally brutal – the product of many, many years of natural selection in a demanding environment. Scientists and doctors have studied human reproduction in great detail, and no miracles have yet come to light, just plain old biology, chemistry, and physics.

But does that mean we can’t experience awe and wonder at the entire process? Does that mean we shouldn’t experience profound emotion at the sight of our new son or daughter coming into the world? Of course not. Having a child is a profoundly life-changing experience. We do not need to call it a miracle to know this.

October: Distributing food to poverty-stricken cancer patients is miraculous.

There ought to be more organizations like the one Ms. Kogan describes. It is a travesty that so many seriously ill people have to battle not only their disease but their hunger. It is the hard work of kind, caring people that allows such problems to be tackled. If we truly believe that it takes a suspension of the laws of nature to get people to behave this way, then we have a very dim, pessimistic view of ourselves indeed.

Rather, it seems to me that people are naturally kind and caring. And we show more appreciation and respect for kind and caring people when we credit them with their behavior, instead of attributing it to a miracle.

November: Lack of aggression at Thanksgiving dinner.

Again, it’s a little sad to think that the mere absence of bad behavior at the dinner table could be thought of as a miracle. Of course, it is no such thing: people are quite capable of behaving at the dinner table without defying logic or the laws of nature. And we should be grateful when they do.

December: Ancient pieces of art are miracles.

The artifacts Ms. Kogan discusses are 400-year old tapestries. If one looks at the physics and chemistry of these objects, it is not remarkable that they have survived, especially given the care taken to preserve them. No miracle is needed.  However, we can still appreciate these items as relics of a long lost culture – glimpses into a strange world we will never see again. And we can ponder the long passage of time, and how things continually change.

In her artcle Ms. Kogan essentially encourages us to pay more attention to the good things in life, and I’m completely on board with that. But she does not make a good case that any of these are miracles. They may, in some case, be rare, but that is no reason to regard them as defying logic or circumventing nature.

I hope I’m mistaken, but I get the sense that Ms. Kogan is keenly aware of the paucity of old-fashioned religious miracles in today’s world (no one walks on water or feeds crowds with a single basket of food), and that she is attempting to fill the gap by looking for more mundane events on which to pin the label of “miracle”.  If this is the case, I hope she can learn to appreciate the many wonders of life without requiring the defiance of logic or leaps of faith.

The world is full of scams and cons, and we are easily duped by them. As a skeptic, I like to encourage people to think rationally and critically about extraordinary claims, such as the ones Ms. Kogan makes regarding miracles. I don’t deny the beauty and rarity of certain things in life. But it does us little good to believe, without hesitation, that these things are miracles.

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