Miraculous Healing Claims and Medical Inexplicability

I’m currently wading through Craig Keener’s massive two volume work “Miracles.” The book relays healing anecdote after healing anecdote. Frankly it is largely boring, incredibly tedious reading, and should have been about a quarter of the size.

Keener tells us that his main thesis is to defend the claim that people all over the globe – past and present – have claimed to be eyewitnesses to miraculous events, and thus New Testament claims can’t be dismissed as later legends, but rather they were genuine claims by eyewitnesses. I honestly don’t know who Keener is aiming at here because I have never met a single person – past or present, in real life or in literature – who doesn’t already know that many people past and present make claims concerning supposed miraculous events they witnessed. Such miracle claims abound in practically every culture. No-one seriously disputes that. I suspect Keener is being rather disingenuous with us, telling us hundreds and hundreds of miracle stories in the hope that we too begin to believe in miracles, or if we already believe then he means to affirm our belief with all these stories. I simply do not believe him when he tells us that the point of his book is the far more modest claim that people claim to have witnessed miracles.

Keener frequently refers to some instance of recovery as “medically inexplicable.” This is a common emphasis in the miracle-touting literature. This stress on medical inexplicability fits well with the definition of miracle provided by Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia: “an event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to divine intervention.” Now, admittedly Keener is at pains to stress that he does not regard all the cases he reports as miraculous, but he does seem to strongly imply that many – even most – of his cases are best explained in these terms. In fact, it seems to me that the main reason Keener presents hundreds of such claims, regardless of their quality (and most are little more than folk tales or hearsay) is to allow him to say something like “sure, some of these claims might be false but there so many of them such that they can’t all be false, and therefore some must be due to supernatural agency.” As part of his cumulative case Keener presents these medically inexplicable recoveries. But how significant is it that some recovery is “medically inexplicable?

That some healing or other is “medically inexplicable” is a woefully inadequate – albeit very common – reason for positing divine intervention. It relies not on any positive evidence but rather on the mere lack of an explanation. This amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. It is not legitimate to argue: “Doctors cannot explain why Bob’s tumour has disappeared, therefore the tumour was taken away by God.” That’s classic god of the gaps reasoning. There are lots of good potential reasons why some recovery might be “medically inexplicable.” For instance, perhaps a patient was misdiagnosed with Serious Disease A when she in fact only had Temporary Disease B. That she recovered is inexplicable as long as we think she suffered Serious Disease A, but of course she might not have. Alternatively, a doctor might well be mistaken about some condition or other. Doctors, after all, do not know everything about every disease. They can also make mistakes, thinking a disease was incurable when it in fact isn’t. Such might be very common in impoverished countries with little or no decent healthcare. Doctors might well lack the equipment for making a sound diagnosis. It is noteworthy that most of the healing claims Keener relates originate in such countries. A doctor might also use the language of “miracle” simply to mean “highly unusual,” rather than “act of God.” Moreover, a patient might misunderstand or misreport what his doctor tells him about his condition and chances of recovery, and in many cases it is the patient – not the doctor – who reports the recovery as “medically inexplicable.” Lastly, even modern medicine is far from omniscient. There are many things we do not know, such as why certain diseases behave the way they do. Remember that what was “medically inexplicable” 400 years ago is routine to us, and the same will likely be the case 400 years from now.

It is worth pointing out also that an event could be “miraculous” in some sense – as a special providence or intervention by God – even if it is completely medically explicable. For instance, suppose God heals Bob of cancer, such that had God not intervened Bob would’ve died. In this case Bob’s recovery might well be medically explicable (perhaps he had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery) and yet it is miraculous nonetheless. Or imagine a faith-healer who had an uncanny success rate in praying for people to be healed of cancer. It is possible to see that the case for miraculous intervention could be made despite the fact that each and every case is technically medically explicable (cancer often does remit, particularly with treatment).

It seems clear to me, therefore, that being medically inexplicable is neither necessary nor anywhere near sufficient to establish a miracle.

Stephen J. Graham

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