Thursday, January 5, 2017

Science, Miracles, and Skepticism

There is an ill-tempered commenter at Dangerous Idea who thinks everyone except himself is intellectually dishonest.  He spares nobody from criticism, theist and atheist alike, unless they are in full agreement with his own brand of Protestant (or at least, anti-Catholic) theism and far-right-wing politics.  But he is particularly scornful of atheists and skeptics.  And in  his estimation, his command of logic and science vastly exceeds that of any ordinary mortal (after all, he's a programmer).  His name is Ilíon, and he has a blog called Iliocentrism, which is very much an echo chamber where dissenting voices are not allowed.  He was the subject of one of my earlier posts.

A few years ago, Ilíon made a post that mocks the skepticism of those who doubt claims of miraculous events reported in the bible.  This seems to be one of his favorite posts, because he drags it out from time to time at Dangerous idea, in response to anyone who attempts to look at claims of miracles from a scientific perspective, as was the case here, in answer to John Moore, who had given the only reasonable response among the comments to Reppert's post asking whether science unfairly assumes philosophical naturalism.  Moore rightly points out that science necessarily concerns itself with the regularity and predictability of nature (and this is what methodological naturalism, not philosophical naturalism is all about).  And Ilíon, in his usual manner, takes issue with that by linking to his old canard.

The thesis of Ilíon's post appears to be that science is consistent with any miraculous event, and anyone who doubts whether miracles actually occur is practicing selective skepticism.  As the basis for this, he quotes from Carl Sagan:
once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street.
Sagan refers to this kind of event as a "stochastic ooze", and notes that the expected time between occurrences is "much longer than the age of the Universe since the Big Bang".  What Sagan doesn't point out here is just how much longer that interval really is.  And this is the opening that Ilíon needs to make his own dishonest comparison:
And, sometimes, iron axeheads which have flown off their handles and fallen into a pond or river float to the surface. ... And, sometimes, the dead bodies of persons who really and truly are dead, rise back to life. ... So, given what 'scientistes' believe and assert about the nature of reality, how can their denial of, and refusal to believe, any of the miracles recorded in the Bible be anything other than selective hyper-skepticism, which is to say, intellectual dishonesty?
Let's talk a little bit about intellectual dishonesty, shall we?  First, there is a matter of probability.  The Stochastic Ooze that Sagan refers to is something that is not expected to happen even once during the life of our universe.  Quantum tunneling is a phenomenon of individual sub-atomic particles moving through barriers, and it is a matter of probability, a function of the distance and the height of the energy barrier that must be penetrated.  Just to get an idea of the probability of the Stochastic Ooze, let's assume that a single particle might make this journey (from garage to street) with a probability of one in a million.  For two particles to make the same trip and end up in the same relative position might be one in a trillion (or one in a million to the power of two).  And for each additional particle to make that same journey and reassemble in the exact same way would reduce the overall probability by an additional factor of a million (which, I think, is being very generous).  There are trillions of trillions of particles that must all participate in this extraordinary event.  Based on that, the probability of the Stochastic Ooze would be less than one in a million to the power of a trillion trillion, and that's generous.

How small is that probability?  It's something that you can't comprehend.  Let's consider a much larger number - one in a googol.  A googol is a 1 followed by a mere 100 zeros.  The number of atoms in the entire universe (as we know it) is a tiny fraction of a googol.  If something had a probability of one in a googol, I wouldn't ever expect to see it happen.  The probability of the Stochastic Ooze is much, much smaller than that.  It is so small that we wouldn't expect to see it once in the lifetime of trillions of universes.  In other words, for all intents and purposes, it is ZERO.  So would I be skeptical if someone told me it happened?  You bet I would.  And Ilíon compares that to miracles that he thinks were almost everyday events during the lifetime of Jesus.  Should we be skeptical?  You bet.

The other thing that Ilíon doesn't seem to understand is what can happen in quantum mechanics.  The Stochastic Ooze is an instance of quantum tunneling, where particles move through an energy barrier.  We know this happens.  But large objects, like cars or axeheads, still have to comply with the laws of Newtonian mechanics.  Axeheads don't float on water.  Quantum mechanics accounts for quantum tunneling, but it doesn't allow any and all kinds of miraculous events to occur.  And it certainly doesn't provide any kind of scientific explanation for dead, rotted corpses getting up and walking.  Ilíon seems to think that quantum mechanics implies that anything is possible, so if we can believe that an object could move through a wall, we shouldn't have any trouble believing whatever the bible says.  It's all explainable by science.  That is his ignorance speaking.

To assert that biblical miracles are explainable by quantum mechanics, and that skeptics are overly selective in their skepticism is nothing but Ilíon's own intellectual dishonesty and/or ignorance on full display.


  1. Not all miracles, Skep, certainly not Muhammad's winged-horse, nor the millions-attested miracles in India. Only Christian miracles need apply. Million is very selective about miracles. ;0)

    1. Come on, now. I saw Muhammad fly by on his winged horse just the other day. Happens all the time.

  2. Ilíon, is just a troll. For him a comment is just an opportunity to generate a semi-clever insult. I try, as best I can, to just ignore him.

    1. Even the religionists there advise people to ignore him, but they still think his logic is impeccable. I really don't know why.

  3. I don't think he is a troll. More likely, he is genuine in his assertions, and has serious mental health issues.