Saturday, April 21, 2018

Quantifying miracles

i) The issue miracles is often framed in terms of mathematical odds. Like there's a presumption against having a license plate with that particular number, given tens of millions of license plates, but that presumption can be overcome by specific evidence to the contrary. By the same token, miracles are said to be very rare. Therefore, the mathematical odds against the occurrence of a miracle are high, though not insurmountable. 

I've never been impressed by that way of framing the issue. To take a comparison, consider a corridor with closed doors on both sides. Let's say there are 100 doors total. What are the odds that any particular door is locked?

I don't think the mathematical odds are relevant. That's the wrong way to broach the issue. There's no presumption that the closed doors are either locked or unlocked. That depends on other variables. 

If it's during business hours, many doors may be closed but unlocked. If it's after business hours, they are more likely to be locked. Yet even then you have workaholic employees who are still slaving away in their office. Or doors may be unlocked because the cleaning crew is servicing offices. 

Some doors lead to conference rooms. These remain unlocked day or night. There might be a door to a utility room that's normally locked.

The abstract odds have no bearing on the probability that any particular door is locked or unlocked. There's no presumption one way or the other. 

ii) Even if miracles are very rare, that's not a mathematical assumption. Rather, that's an empirical observation. In our experience, miracles are (allegedly) very rare. That's not a question of a priori mathematical odds, but a posteriori evidence.

Moreover, it's ambiguous to say miracles are rare. Rare overall? We'd expect miracles to be underreported since most Christians aren't famous. Miracles might be frequent, but most of them will never be a matter of public record. 

Something can be rare but still be common if the absolute number is large even if the relative number is small. It might be a fraction of total events, yet the percentages are considerable. Green eyes are rare, but if millions of people have green eyes, that's a lot of green eyes. 


  1. Also the greatness of a miracle has no necessary correlation with our ability to perceive it. For example, there may have been an asteroid that was supposed to destroy all life on earth a year ago, but 500 years ago God immediately answered the prayer of a little child to protect earth and all its pretty little flowers.

  2. My daughter likes to say 'People who don't believe in miracles just aren't paying attention'. An occurence can be natural and even common such as a string of dominoes falling one right after another. But do we ever see the finger that started the chain? Some miracles are overt such as healings. Some are the outcome of the daily and hourly providence and care of God. The fact that He does care enough to provide as He does is, in itself, a miracle.