Miracles & Ebola

Can We Trust In God’s Wisdom When Facing A Desperate Health Situation? 

By Professor Stephen Mumford (University of Nottingham)

October 10, 2015         Picture: Martine Perret, UN/Flickr.

I. Introduction

So often taken for granted, health is a precondition of much of human happiness. In the extreme case, ill-health that threatens mortality can take away every worldly pleasure. Our lives are relatively short against the history of the planet and we all seek to maximise our stay, avoiding accident and disease whenever we can. When illness comes, we want the cure, which alleviates suffering and prevents any more serious development of the disease. But what if the situation is more serious, incurable or terminal? Does one have to give up hope? Is there any point at which it is rational to pray for divine intervention?

The Ebola outbreak in Western Africa saw in some places a clash of faith and science. Ebola is one of the most serious viruses known. It is potentially fatal, acts rapidly and spreads easily. Without treatment, the mortality rate is high. Yet there are good scientific, medical processes for dealing with an outbreak that minimise the dangers as far as we currently can. If handled correctly, there is some decline in the mortality rate of those infected; but perhaps even more important, there is a vast reduction in the incidence of new infections in others. This succeeded and initial fears that Ebola would spread all around the world did not come to pass.

There is, however, another approach one could take when faced with such a desperate situation, whether due to Ebola or any other threat to health. What about religion? What about having faith that God will make things right? Shouldn’t one pray for deliverance from this or any other evil? Is that just superstitious nonsense, a last resort, the ultimate sign of desperation? From another perspective, is it hope-giving or even the best hope? Science doesn’t solve every problem; indeed, we know it causes some, such as nuclear weapons and pollution. So who are we to assume we can handle all these problems single-handedly. Humanity’s arrogance has caused so many difficulties, isn’t it sometimes right to trust in God’s wisdom instead?

I will take a philosophical approach to answering these questions. They are pressing. There were some at the heart of the Ebola outbreak who did indeed challenge the medical approaches to the problem. Those approaches were brought by outsiders wearing frightening garbs. The outsiders were overruling local authorities and accepted practices. In particular, they seemed faithless, acting as if they didn’t need God’s help but were going to tackle the problem entirely with human-made science. Where was prayer in their plans? Where was God’s beneficence?

All sorts of philosophically significant ideas are involved in this debate. What does prayer actually do and how does it do it? What would count as a miracle? Is it rational to believe that miracles ever occur? And how do we adjudicate between two very different belief systems when they come into conflict? Is there any neutral position from which to adjudicate between them?


II. Prayer

There are many reasons why people pray, no doubt, and thus many functions that it is supposed to – and does – play. Social anthropologists and theologians are probably best placed to describe all these functions. Some people feel it is a communion with God, a chance to try and understand the Holy, and thereby work through the best approaches they should take to the problems they face in ordinary life. In this kind of prayer, there is no expectation that God will intervene and solve those problems. Perhaps it can be used just to purge bad thoughts. There need be no answer required from God, except insofar as God might be thought to help along the way if a right course of action is found through prayer. This kind of meditative prayer is not the one that concerns me, partly because it does not raise some of the difficult metaphysical issues that other kinds of prayer can. Indeed, it might be thought not to differ too much from regular contemplation.

The biggest challenge is a prayer for intervention. Sometimes this is small and insignificant. Suppose a footballer at the start of a game prays for God to keep him or her safe. Even worse, suppose the prayer is for their team to win. There seem at least some cases where people have the hope that God will intervene and alter the course of events, having heard the prayer, such that one side wins a sporting encounter – perhaps the team that offered up the best prayers or who have the best record of being Godly and faithful [See Leftow & Oppy‘s discussion of petitionary prayer in sports]. This is petitionary prayer: making a petition for God’s action.

Such cases sound alarmingly trivial with which to bother God. But it may be only a moral difference between these examples and prayers for matters such as safety from disease. Someone who contracts a serious illness and prays for recovery could also be asking for God to intervene in mortal affairs. But at least this is no small matter to us. It might not even be a selfish prayer, for you could pray for others even if you are not affected personally. Either way, it seems that the same principle is involved. One is praying in these cases firstly in the hope that one’s prayers are heard by an intended recipient. We want God, the supreme supernatural being to be affected by what we say, to perceive our thoughts or words; hence, to be affected by them. We want, second, that hearing the prayer calls God to action, which takes us on to the topic of miracles.


III. What is a miracle?

Philosophers have a number of different theories as to what would rightly constitute a miracle. A standard account is that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature by divine intervention (see David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, X: ‘Of Miracles’, for an example of this kind of approach). Aquinas says something similar: that a miracle is anything God does apart from the natural order of things (Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Ia, 105, 7). I have a preference for a simpler account that I think delivers the right result against a number of test cases. What we should mean by a miracle, in my view, is simply a natural event that has a supernatural cause.

A person being cured of a disease is a natural event, in so far as it is something that happens in the natural world. It happens at a place and time and perhaps involves some body that previously had an infection ceasing to be infected. Now if the cause of this event – this curing – was outside of nature, such as if it was the decision and action of a supernatural being such as God, then the curing should count as a miraculous one.

“What we should mean by a miracle, in my view, is simply a natural event that has a supernatural cause”

There seems no automatic reason why a miracle must be a violation of a law of nature. Some people might get cured of the same disease naturally. But suppose God heard the prayer of one person and decided to intervene and make sure this individual survived. Then we ought to call this event miraculous even if no law were violated.

Another example illustrates how this might be. The example is non-medical. Physical particles decay but no law of nature dictates when they decay. We can describe some laws concerning how long particles of a certain kind persist, but this is a chancy matter. The law has to be given in terms of a half-life, which is understood as the time after which there is a 50/50 chance of a particle of that kind having decayed. But the particle can decay some time before the time of that half-life, or some time after. Now suppose that God was keen that a particular particle that interests him decays at one specific time: and he makes it happen. This particle’s decay at that time does not involve any violation of a law of nature, nor is it outside the natural order of things. Were we to know about the decay, it might seem entirely unremarkable to us. But if the decay was indeed caused by God, it seems right that it should count as a miracle. My definition of a miracle allows that it does, because this is indeed a natural event that has a supernatural cause.

There’s another case that favours the simple definition I gave. Some philosophers have wondered whether an act of Creation – where God created the universe – should count as a miracle. Some theories don’t seem to pronounce it so. Some think of a miracle as an intervention in an already up and running natural order; but there isn’t one in this case. Nothing existed before the first natural event so there was no natural order to be interrupted, no laws of nature yet, and thus no ‘intervention’ in anything. In Creation, God didn’t have to stop anything happening. No nature yet existed. But there would seem to be good reason to think of this as a miracle – the miracle of Creation – if the first event of the natural world (the Big Bang) was caused by God’s action.

Suppose one makes the kind of prayer that petitions God. Then isn’t this what one is asking for? One is asking that God takes an action that has a natural consequence; that is, an effect in the natural world. And were that to happen, wouldn’t it count as the prayer being answered? Wouldn’t it count as the miracle that had been requested?

Not everything that God does counts as a miracle, however. Suppose God acts in a way where all the consequences of the action remain within the supernatural realm. Perhaps God chooses to reward an angel for having done good. There is no miracle there, on my account, because God has not affected any natural change, in the world that we inhabit. Hence, even if God were answering a prayer to reward that spirit, he would not be performing a miracle in doing so. He would merely be acting within his own domain. The case does bring some interesting metaphysical issues into focus, however, as we will now see.


IV. The great divide

I have been talking as if there are two realms: the supernatural and the natural. This is essential to a good understanding of the miraculous, I have argued, because a miracle is when a cause crosses such a divide, from the supernatural side to the natural side.

But what are these two realms? There is a tradition to be found in most theologies that requires such a division. The natural realm of our mortal existence seems to be a world of space and time in which things are located. Your life will have a beginning and an end in time, as does the existence of all other things. You also have a location, although this can vary over time. And when we think of natural causes of natural events, they seem to depend importantly on these spatiotemporal locations. Causes have to be close to the effects they produce in both space and time. Perhaps they have to be co-located at the very moment the cause produces the effect.

The supernatural realm, as religions typically depict it, stands outside of space and time. It is rarely understood as containing any physical things at all, so they don’t need to be in space. We might think of such a realm as the spirit world, for this is where spirits and all things spiritual sit. God, angels and ghosts have no bodies and so no spatiotemporal aspect, which is what allows us to think of this as a form of infinite existence or immortality. Interestingly, some think numbers and other mathematical objects are outside of space and time so not really part of the natural realm. This is why Plato allowed them an eternal existence in the realm of the Forms, along with other things such as the perfect triangle.

Of course not everyone believes that there is such a spiritual realm. Some don’t even think the idea coherent. It sometimes seems as if your spirit will have a beginning in time: for instance, at the point of conception. But how can something enter at a time into a world when it has no temporal dimension? And how can there be any change if there is no time? How does a spirit think or act with no time or change? However, it is not for me to defend in any great detail how such a supernatural world exists and what it is like. That is the theologians’ task. But it does seem essential that they take this task. God cannot be part of our natural world, even if he is very good and very powerful, maybe like Superman. That would still make him a natural object, lacking a spiritual dimension, and arguably not worthy of worship.

And if there is no supernatural world, it seems that there really should not be anything that could count as a miracle either. If all the causes of natural events are other natural events, then none of them are miraculous. They are just plain old instances of physical causation, deserving of no metaphysical or spiritual wonder at all.

There being two distinct realms seems a precondition of there being miracles, therefore, but that still does not mean that miracles are simple and easy matters to understand. Natural causation in our world involves physical things often pushing and pulling other physical things around. This typically involves contact, as in the case of one billiard ball colliding with another and passing on its momentum. That makes miracles something of a mystery. The cause of the miracle is outside the natural world – outside space and time. So it cannot be physically next to its effect; nor does it have any momentum to pass on. Descartes long ago saw that there was a similar problem of how a mental substance could cause changes in a physical substance, and vice versa. He saw that there was a difficulty in explaining how the mind and body interact if one is spatial and the other is not. Miracles raise this type of difficulty again.

Yet, this ‘difficulty’ seems precisely a very good reason to think of miracles as genuinely miraculous. The miracle is that causation can cross this great divide between the supernatural and the natural. That’s the mystery in it; and without some such mystery, you might think nothing really miraculous has happened. We seem to understand the natural and supernatural realms as so different that it seems nothing could bridge them. If God’s action achieves that, it seems to deserve precisely the name miracle.

This all looks neat and tidy as a theory. But there are a few problems. I do not think they oblige us to change our understanding, however.

First, when giving an account of prayer, it involved our thought or speech being heard by God. So doesn’t that also involve the great divide between natural and supernatural being crossed? In this case, it starts with a cause in the natural world – a prayer – that ends with a supernatural effect when God hears. Doesn’t it now look as if prayer is a form of ‘reverse miracle’: a supernatural event with a natural cause? Perhaps that is so. Certainly prayer, if it is heard, raises some of the exact metaphysical problems and mysteries that miracles do. Yet it might seem even more problematic in this case because we are attributing to plain old human beings a power to affect such reverse miracles.

There might be an answer, however. Some of the old empiricist philosophers, such as Locke, talked about perception as if the perceiver was a mere passive recipient of sensations. The idea persisted into modern times when philosophers spoke as if minds receive sense data, impressed upon us by the outside world. But this model of perception is easy to dispute. Perception is more of an action – something that we do – rather than something done unto us. Two people looking at the same object can see it differently, as in the case of the Necker cube. Their minds are operating upon the bodily sensations and, crucially, it is not really a perception before or until the mind has performed such interpretive operations. It is plausible that babies have to learn to see and also that people from different cultures may learn to see things differently.

This is not the place to defend such a view of perception in any detail. Rather, the point can be brought to bear on the case of prayer. Perhaps we are doing nothing special metaphysically when we pray. We do not exercise any mystical powers capable of supernatural effects. Instead, we could think of God being the active perceiver, having the ability to hear words spoken in the natural realm. One way in which this could work would be if he is able to partially enter the natural world and be affected by sound waves, which he then takes back with him to his natural world. But perhaps there are other ways too, the crucial thing being that the hearing of prayer is an action of God’s rather than something with respect to which he is passive.

There are a few other issues to address, though they are less serious for an account of prayer and miracles. One is that causes, as we usually understand them, are subject to interference and prevention. When one billiard ball strikes another, it usually makes the second ball move away, but not, for instance, if I hold it steady with my hand or I have nailed it to the table. In contrast, it seems that, at least theologically speaking, when God acts it necessitates the effect. Religions do not want to put limits on God’s power so do not allow that God wills something but it fails to happen due to some unforeseen circumstance. This would be a problem for the definition of miracles if it meant that God’s actions did not, strictly speaking, count as miracles because he was not really a causal agent.

But there are numerous ways in which one could avoid this objection doing any damage. One might say that God’s causings are of a unique, sui generis kind. He is, after all, the supreme Being, so why should his actions be subject to the same constraints as ours? Or perhaps one could say, instead, that God’s actions could, in principle, be prevented from having their effect but that he is able to use his omniscience to foresee and avoid any of the things that would get in the way of his intended effects. His willing could fail to be realised, therefore, but only if he wanted it to. But why would he ever both will for something and want to see it fail. That sounds like something limited by his own rationality but it doesn’t mean that nothing logically could stop God having his way. Indeed, if it was logically impossible for God’s will to be stopped, then God wouldn’t have to bother foreseeing and anticipating all the possible interferers with his plans.

A final problem with my account is that the definition of a miracle is a purely metaphysical one. What might seem to be absent is any moral dimension, which we could rightly expect miracles to have. Miracles are surely good things that should be welcomed, which is a factor I left out. But you can fix this point if you want. You can simply say that a miracle is a good natural event with a supernatural cause. I didn’t say this, however, because it seems to me that a ‘bad’ miracle, if there were such a thing, would contain just as much of a metaphysical mystery. Suppose the supernatural agent who caused the natural event was a devil who wanted bad things. I would still take that to be a kind of miracle. Perhaps a devil-worshipper has prayed for it to happen. The devil still needed the power to affect natural events from his home within a supernatural realm. Philosophically there seems little difference, here, though the cases might differ morally.

I will now turn directly to the ethical issues, though they do not concern the one just discussed. They are matters more pressing for us and for what is within our control.


V. In whom do we trust?

The ethical question I wish to consider is whether it is wrong to put trust in prayers for miracles when it concerns health if there are alternate approaches that would bring more success. One might think that people are entitled to their belief systems, which we should not supress. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty argued this persuasively. No one can have certainty over any matter so we should allow people to believe what they want. In the case of health, however, false beliefs can be dangerous and not just to the one who believes them. If I refuse a vaccination against measles, for instance, it might not just be me who suffers for I can harbour a disease that spreads to others [See The Critique’s Issue on vaccines here]. And Mill thought that while we shouldn’t outlaw any views, this did not mean that we cannot subject them to critical scrutiny and test whether they withstand rational argument.

There were documented cases during the Ebola outbreak where some people were urged to pray and to trust in God. Some went to pray at the side of those infected and they too became infected and died (see, for instance, this news report). Even when this approach was evidently failing, some were told that it remained a test of faith; and a test of just how strong that faith was. Can we hold religious leaders responsible for any subsequent deaths if they use their influence to dissuade others from medical treatments and instead put their trust in a divine intervention? We are free agents, often with the power to help ourselves in a fight against disease. Can a faith in the possibility of miracles distract or prevent us from doing so?

The question shows how two belief systems can come into conflict. They needn’t always, of course. There are many people who are both religious and trust in science, including medical science. The problem raised only affects cases where the believer sees their faith as in conflict with science. When that happens, many of us would support the science. In that case, we see the problem being when faith is chosen over science, leading to a course of action that the science would not sanction. Another example is where life-saving organ transplants or even blood transfusions are not sanctioned in some religious orders. Or consider where abortion is prohibited even where it can save the mother’s life.

Two perspectives clash and someone thinks them irreconcilable. But can we, who have trust in science, really judge from a scientific perspective than non-science doesn’t work? We are bound to think that if our values are already scientific values. We are judging religion by scientific criteria, in which case science is bound to succeed. Religion, and prayer to God, could be the most important thing that we can do: if God exists, can hear our prayers, sometimes chooses to answer them and perform miracles. But if none of those conditions are met, a hope in miracles could be one of the most pointless and even dangerous things we can do. If it turns out that there is no God, if that is something we ever could know, then religious people have been wasting their and our time. If there is a God, then those same people are vindicated.

It might be argued that mere belief in God can have a positive effect, even if God doesn’t exist. Terminally ill people do sometimes seem to prolong their lives, and enjoy what they have, because of their faith. A scientist could dismiss this as a mere placebo effect. But does that matter if it works?

The ultimate test might be whether the course of action succeeds in getting people what they want. Statistically, there is no doubt that those who trusted in science had the best chance of surviving and preventing the Ebola disease from spreading wider among their communities. The scientific approach succeeded, controlling and containing the virus. The disease was stopped, so surely this was a huge success for science. In contrast, those who ignored the scientific approach, trusting in the power of prayer, were not protected and did not survive an exposure to the illness in as big numbers. Isn’t this a proof of who was right?

But an objection may, again, be that predictive success is itself a scientific value, so cannot be used to judge religion a failure. What other mark of success can we judge the power of prayer against, though? Let religion tell us what counts as success for them, and we can happily consider it. If prayer offers a higher chance of death form disease, but a much happier death, then we might say that it works on that level. But where it is offered as a hope of living, it looks as if it is a failure.

It seems that we are entitled to ask any science, and any faith, what counts for them as a success of their belief system and what would counts as failure. Religion no doubt has many successes. People have often found it a source of comfort that enriches their lives. But if it finds itself making prescriptions on matters of health along with empirically testable claims that this enhances the chances of survival, rational scrutiny is apt a judgement on the matter. That judgement can itself be challenged only by the most desperate argumentative measures, which forego all reason. Some things may well be beyond reason but the fact of whether someone is alive or dead is not one of them.

Stephen Mumford
Stephen Mumford
Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics in the Department of Philosophy and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham (UK). Accordingly, he has published many books in the area of Metaphysics- especially causation. His authored books in this area of philosophy include Dispositions (Oxford, 1998), Russell on Metaphysics (Routledge, 2003), Laws in Nature (Routledge, 2004), David Armstrong (Acumen, 2007), Getting Causes from Powers (Oxford, 2011 with Rani Lill Anjum), Metaphysics: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012) and Causation: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013 with Rani Lill Anjum). He was also editor of George Molnar's posthumous Powers: a Study in Metaphysics (Oxford, 2003) and Metaphysics and Science (Oxford, 2013 with Matthew Tugby). Apart from his fascination with metaphysics, Stephen is interested in the philosophy of sports, particularly the act of watching sports. In 2011, he published Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion (Routledge, 2011) as his first book length statement on the subject. To get a better sense of the philosophical issues surrounding sport viewing, you can listen to the following interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M58IEgvWSmA
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