In her essay “Miracles in Traditional Religions,” Fiona Bowie, a social anthropologist, makes a case in favour of taking the miracle claims of practitioners of “traditional religions” more seriously.
In the course of her essay she chastises Western thinkers for ridiculing, ignoring, or dismissing what traditional peoples report concerning miraculous phenomena. Bowie’s essay is indeed fascinating, but sadly it contains several basic reasoning mistakes which I’m going to highlight in the course of this response.
Bowie opens her essay with the story of Nigel Barley, an anthropologist who spent time with the Dowayo of Northern Cameroon and in particular their renowned rainmaker the “Old Man of Kpan.” The Old Man kept a number of “rain stones” on a particular mountain, which were used in his rituals to make it rain. Towards the end of Barley’s trip they visited the spot on the mountain where the rain stones were kept, and he asked the Old Man if he could see him actually making rain. The Old Man replied that as he had just splashed the rain stones it was going to downpour and so they better get off the mountain pretty quickly. True enough, whilst they were on their way back down a violent storm broke overhead.
According to Bowie, Westerners tend to be uncomfortable with believing such stories because we’ve lost both the notion of a personalised universe and the belief that our thoughts and actions interact with the powers of nature – be they gods, spirits, or other forces. The problem with this, she argues, is that: “Such a view does not fit easily with the words and actions of the Old Man of Kpan. He had splashed remedies on the stones and as a direct consequence it rained.” What we have here is a fairly clear instance of the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we claim that because X happened after Y that Y was the cause of X. From the reports of Nigel Barley all we can conclude is that after the Old Man performed his ritual it rained. We cannot say it rained because he performed his ritual, unless we have good reason for connecting the events. After all, at the time when the Old Man performed his ritual there were millions of other events occurring also. Why not attribute the rain to something else? Maybe an Englishman on the Underground sneezed and caused the rain. Maybe an Australian pulled his bath plug out. Maybe Poseidon woke up cranky and hurled a storm over the land in his fury. Maybe some unknown weather god got sad when he saw his favourite wildebeest killed by a predator and cried tears that manifested as rain. Why suppose the Old Man caused it by splashing his rain stones? Millions of hours of research and study have gone into understanding weather. We now have a good grasp of the physical processes at work. Storms do not manifest due to rituals.
There isn’t anything particularly uncanny about the abilities of the Old Man. He’s lived in that area for a long time. He understands its weather patterns well enough, I’d say. Moreover, when a storm is close it can be easily visible on the horizon from certain vantage points – say, the top of a mountain.
And this brings me to my second criticism. Bowie seems so desperate to embrace the insights of “traditional peoples” and chastise Westerners for their scepticism concerning such things that she ends up forgetting to apply even a rudimentary critical analysis to the various claims she discusses, often adopting a rather naïve face-value acceptance of miracle claims. For example, she discusses a case of two hunters in Alaska, one of whom had fallen through ice. His companion threw a stretch of rope to him and pulled him out. What’s miraculous about this is that the companion claimed to be carrying a rope that was only 5 foot long and when he threw it to his friend in the icy water it miraculously grew longer so as to reach him. Bowie seems to just accept this story without pondering alternative explanations. For instance, perhaps the man had simply underestimated how long his rope was. Alternatively, perhaps – as is common in situations of extreme stress – his perception of reality was skewed, making it seem that his friend was further than he really was. Bowie doesn’t entertain any such alternatives. Why not?
The answer to this question is found at the end of her essay when she quotes approvingly the words of Edith Turner concerning the applicability of Ockham’s razor to our quest for the miraculous. According to Turner we should not: “go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers” rather than learning “simply to listen to what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously” However, this strikes me as a misstatement and misuse of Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor does not mean we are obliged to choose the most simplistic answer: The Old Man of Kpan sprinkled water and as a direct result it rained. It doesn’t mean we simply believe whatever people tell us about this or that phenomenon and the reasons for it. Ockham’s razor means that we should – all other things being equal – opt for the simplest adequate explanation. An explanation might remain incredibly complicated, but still be the simplest one that adequately explains some phenomenon or body of data. It is neither simple nor adequate to claim that a rope miraculously grew so as to save a man drowning in icy water, and I have already provided two simpler and more adequate explanations for this event.
Moreover, who exactly are the people described as “adept” at such things? How are we to know who is adept and who isn’t? Given the sheer amount of dubious claims – and even more dubious people making them – it isn’t clear who we are supposed to listen to. What about the Indian clairvoyant who believes he has the ability to find criminals. Is he adept? Should we punish people according to his say so? Rather than rely on thousands of hours of hard work, research, and investment should we view the Old Man of Kpan in equal terms to any meteorologist when it comes to theories as to what causes storms? It seems to me that the only way to answer the question about who is and who is not “adept at these matters” is to investigate the claims that come to our attention. The trouble is that when we do so such claims typically evaporate, and Bowie has done little to convince us that there’s good reason for taking them seriously.
Stephen J. Graham