Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Bayesian Account of Miracles

centaur 0

bayes headshot

Christianity is a tall ask for many skeptically-minded people, especially if you come from the South, where a lot of folks express Christianity in terms of having a close personal relationship with a person claimed to be invisible, intangible and yet omnipresent, despite having been dead for 2000 years.

On the other hand, I grew up with a fair number of Christians who seem to have no skeptical bones at all, even at the slightest and most explainable of miracles, like my relative who went on a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary apparitions at Conyers and came back “with their silver rosary having turned to gold.”

Or, perhaps – not to be a Doubting Thomas – it was always of a yellowish hue.

Being a Christian isn’t just a belief, it’s a commitment. Being a Christian is hard, and we’re not supposed to throw up stumbling blocks for other believers. So, when I encounter stories like these, which don’t sound credible to me and which I don’t need to support my faith, I often find myself biting my tongue.

But despite these stories not sounding credible, I do nevertheless admit that they’re technically possible. In the words of one comedian, “The Virgin Mary has got the budget for it,” and in a world where every observed particle event contains irreducible randomness, God has left Himself the room He needs.

But there’s a long tradition in skeptical thought to discount rare events like alleged miracles, rooted inĀ  Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s essay “Of Miracles“. I almost wrote “scientific thought”, but this idea is not at all scientific – it’s actually an injection of one of philosophy’s worst sins into science.

Philosophy! Who needs it? Well, as Ayn Rand once said: everyone. Philosophy asks the basic questions What is there? (ontology), How do we know it? (epistemology), and What should we do? (ethics). The best philosophy illuminates possibilities for thought and persuasively argues for action.

But philosophy, carving its way through the space of possible ideas, must necessarily operate through arguments, principally verbal arguments which can never conclusively convince. To get traction, we must move beyond argument to repeatable reasoning – mathematics – backed up by real-world evidence.

And that’s precisely what was happening right as Hume was working on his essay “Of Miracles” in the 1740’s: the laws of probability and chance were being worked out by Hume’s contemporaries, some of whom he corresponded with, but he couldn’t wait – or couldn’t be bothered to learn – their real findings.

I’m not trying to be rude to Hume here, but making a specific point: Hume wrote about evidence, and people claim his arguments are based in rationality – but Hume’s arguments are only qualitative, and the quantitative mathematics of probability being developed don’t support his idea.

But they can reproduce his idea, and the ideas of the credible believer, in a much sounder framework.

In all fairness, it’s best not to be too harsh with Hume, who wrote “Of Miracles” almost twenty years before Reverend Thomas Bayes’ “An Essay toward solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances,” the work which gave us Bayes’ Theorem, which became the foundation of modern probability theory.

If the ground is wet, how likely is it that it rained? Intuitively, this depends on how likely it is that the rain would wet the ground, and how likely it is to rain in the first place, discounted by the chance the ground would be wet on its own, say from a sprinkler system.

In Greenville, South Carolina, it rains a lot, wetting the ground, which stays wet because it’s humid, and sprinklers don’t run all the time, so a wet lawn is a good sign of rain. Ask that question in Death Valley, with rare rain, dry air – and you’re watering a lawn? Seriously? – and that calculus changes considerably.

Bayes’ Theorem formalizes this intuition. It tells us the probability of an event given the evidence is determined by the likelihood of the evidence given the event, times the probability of the event, divided by the probability of the evidence happening all by its lonesome.

Since Bayes’s time, probabilistic reasoning has been considerably refined. In the book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, E. T. Jaynes, a twentieth-century physicist, shows probabilistic reasoning can explain cognitive “errors,” political controversies, skeptical disbelief and credulous believers.

Jaynes’s key idea is that for things like commonsense reasoning, political beliefs, and even interpreting miracles, we aren’t combining evidence we’ve collected ourselves in a neat Bayesian framework: we’re combining claims provided to us by others – and must now rate the trustworthiness of the claimer.

In our rosary case, the claimer drove down to Georgia to hear a woman speak at a farmhouse. I don’t mean to throw up a stumbling block to something that’s building up someone else’s faith, but when the Bible speaks of a sign not being given to this generation, I feel like its speaking to us today.

But, whether you see the witness as credible or not, Jaynes points out we also weigh alternative explanations. This doesn’t affect judging whether a wet lawn means we should bring an umbrella, but when judging a silver rosary turning to gold, there are so many alternatives: lies, delusions, mistakes.

Jaynes shows, with simple math, that when we’re judging a claim of a rare event with many alternative explanations, our trust in the claimer that dominates the change in our probabilistic beliefs. If we trust the claimer, we’re likely to believe the claim; if we distrust the claimer, we’re likely to mistrust the claim.

What’s worse, there’s a feedback loop between the trust and belief: if we trust someone, and they claim something we come to believe is likely, our trust in them is reinforced; if we distrust someone, and they claim something we come to believe is not likely, our distrust of them is reinforced too.

It shouldn’t take a scientist or a mathematician to realize that this pattern is a pathology. Regardless of what we choose to believe, the actual true state of the world is a matter of natural fact. It did or did not rain, regardless of whether the ground is wet; the rosary did or did not change, whether it looks gold.

Ideally, whether you believe in the claimer – your opinions about people – shouldn’t affect what you believe about reality – the facts about the world. But of course, it does. This is the real problem with rare events, much less miracles: they’re resistant to experiment, which is our normal way out of this dilemma.

Many skeptics argue we should completely exclude the possibility of the supernatural. That’s not science, it’s just atheism in a trench coat trying to sell you a bad idea. What is scientific, in the words of Newton, is excluding from our scientific hypotheses any causes not necessary or sufficient to explain phenomena.

A one-time event, such as my alleged phone call to my insurance agent today to talk about a policy for my new car, is strictly speaking not a subject for scientific explanation. To analyze the event, it must be in a class of phenomena open to experiments, such as cell phone calls made by me, or some such.

Otherwise, it’s just a data point. An anecdote, an outlier. If you disbelieve me – if you check my cell phone records and argue it didn’t happen – scientifically, that means nothing. Maybe I used someone else’s phone because mine was out of charge. Maybe I misremembered a report of a very real event.

Your beliefs don’t matter. I’ll still get my insurance card in a couple of weeks.

So-called “supernatural” events, such as the alleged rosary transmutation, fall into this category. You can’t experiment on them to resolve your personal bias, so you have to fall back on your trust for the claimer. But that trust is, in a sense, a personal judgment, not a scientific one.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s perfectly legitimate to exclude “supernatural” events from your scientific theories – I do, for example. We have to: following Newton, for science to work, we must first provide as few causes as possible, with as many far-reaching effects as possible, until experiment says otherwise.

But excluding rare events from our scientific view of the world forecloses the ability of observation to revise our theories. And excluding supernatural events from our broader view of the world is not a requirement of science, but a personal choice – a deliberate choice not to believe.

That may be right. That may be wrong. What happens, happens, and doesn’t happen any other way. Whether that includes the possibility of rare events is a matter of natural fact, not personal choice; whether that includes the possibility of miracles is something you have to take on faith.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Allegedly, Thomas Bayes, though many have little faith in the claimants who say this is him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.