Examining Miracle Claims: Philosophical and Investigative Approaches,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

A miracle is usually defined as an event supposedly unexplainable by nature. But such a definition is predicated on a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance—that is, from a lack of knowledge. It is like saying, “We don’t know; therefore, we do know.” Anglican writer C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) succinctly defined a miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”1 But this begs the question: What supernatural power? One cannot explain one mystery by invoking another.

Philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) argued that miracles did not in fact occur. He stated in his Treatise “Of Miracles”: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” 2

But in making an inquiry about a “miracle,” how does one actually proceed? Over now more than half a century, I have examined countless miracle claims. The character played by Hilary Swank in the 2007 movie The Reaping was inspired by my work as a miracle detective. In my unique career, I have tried various approaches.

Philosophical (Top-Down) Approach

The simplest course of action when encountering an alleged miracle is to apply the top-down method. Basically, one accepts Hume’s philosophical view and simply acknowledges that ivory-tower stance. All that is really needed is a comfortable armchair, a pen, and perhaps an eclair.

That is to say, one is not obligated to respond substantively when the claim of miracle is invoked. As a top-downer would ask: What would be the point? An endless exchange with the claimant that would ultimately go nowhere?

This would be true if the claim were not expressly labeled miracle but rather only suggested as paranormal (that which is beyond the normal range of science and human experience) or even merely extraordinary. One might then be expected to go further, engaging the claimant in debate. Otherwise, there is the danger of appearing too closed-minded. It is illustrated by the example of Jean Bouillaud, a celebrated physician. In 1878, the members of the French Academy of Sciences had gathered to witness the demonstration, by the physicist Théodose Du Moncel, of Thomas Edison’s recent invention. As a small, primitive phonograph began to speak—faithfully reproducing the words Du Moncel had spoken just moments before—suddenly the eighty-two-year-old Bouillaud leaped at the physicist, grabbing him by the throat. “You wretch!” he shouted. “How dare you try and deceive us with the ridiculous tricks of a ventriloquist!” Bouillaud “knew” that only people—not machines—could speak.3

So for many of the top-down school, standing firm on Hume’s philosophical principle is the right place to be, unless that position looks suspiciously like a dogma, used to dismiss—antecedent to inquiry—any miracle claim. I am among the critics who feel that that attitude often represents bias on steroids, and it may lead to calling the offending individual a “debunker”—an unfortunate term. Although fanciful claims should be debunked (i.e., discredited by exposing the “bunk” within them), the label “debunker” can imply that one is acting unfairly.

It can suggest—rightly or wrongly—that the results are known in advance and will always be negative. In other words, it may imply that one has begun with the desired answer and worked backward to the evidence, picking and choosing—engaging in what is termed confirmation bias. To make matters worse, some debunkers develop an insufferable attitude of feeling superior to those they consider too credulous. While such skeptics may actually be better informed, as a practical matter such an attitude does not “play well in Peoria.”

Investigative (Bottom-Up) Approach

For all these reasons, I have taken a different approach from the purely philosophical. Instead of deciding in advance whether a miracle could exist, I have determined to examine specific cases, trying to discover the best evidence and let it lead to the most likely solution, using established principles of scientific inquiry. These include “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” and “the burden of proof is on the advocate of the claim.”

I faced such issues early in my career, regarding the once-puzzling Shroud of Turin (the purported burial cloth of Jesus). Many devotees insisted that the image on the linen—that of an apparently crucified man—was miraculous, perhaps from a burst of radiant energy at the moment of Christ’s resurrection. After all, they observed, how could such an image have been made? How could a forger, an artist working at least as early as the mid-fourteenth century, have created an image that was said to be a “perfect photographic negative”—long before the invention of photography?

Few skeptics were knowledgeable about such issues, and their response was to become more strident rather than more informed. However, it is not only necessary to be right; to be effective, one must also be understood to be right. So I set to work to examine the shroud claims. The image lacked the wraparound distortions that would have been caused by a real body. Also, it was only a quasi-negative. (That is, when it was photographed to produce, on the film’s negative, an alleged “positive” image, the man’s hair and beard were incorrectly white!) I experimented with actual face imprints, but they were always badly distorted due to the third dimension. I finally achieved success in 1978 by making a rubbing from a bas-relief (a low relief). The result was an undistorted image with darks and lights distributed just like those on the Turin “shroud.”4

And so I learned an important lesson: wrangling over philosophy and, invariably, semantics was likely to leave one mired in controversy, whereas a hands-on approach—I could see, peering into the future—might well get to the crux of important matters. In the final analysis, the Shroud of Turin image could scarcely be termed miraculous, because it could be explained and effectively replicated. When tempera paint was subsequently found to make up the image, that was corroborative evidence for forgery. And it, in turn, was consistent with a bishop’s report that a fourteenth-century artist had confessed that the shroud was his handiwork. In 1988, radiocarbon dating of the cloth to the time of the forger’s confession effectively settled the controversy.5

Now, as its name implies, the type of inquiry that contrasts with the top-down approach does not begin in the upper region of an ivory tower. Rather, it usually functions at ground level, where crime-scene experts so often search for trace evidence. It does not represent a static philosophical end but instead a dynamic process: what is meant by the expression “getting to the bottom” of some issue.

That process is best termed investigation, a serious inquiry that goes beyond merely gathering information with the ultimate purpose of reaching a judgment. We call the systematic seeking of knowledge research, the attempt to solve a specific mystery an investigation. Therefore, we may “research” the artistic elements of an icon but “investigate” why it may be “weeping.”6

The goal of the investigator—who abandons or modifies hypotheses as necessary—is the development of proof, in favor of one hypothesis, that is sufficient to solve the original problem.7 When more than one hypothesis can account for the known facts, the “preferred” one can be determined by invoking Occam’s razor, the principle that the “simplest” explanation—actually the one with the fewest assumptions—is most likely to be correct.8

A rigorously tested hypothesis could become upgraded to the status of accepted “theory.” Yet, as Martin Gardner cautioned, “there are no known methods for giving precise ‘probability values’ to hypotheses.”9 In any case, either the “preferred hypothesis” or the accepted theory may yet have flaws or leave some questions unanswered, so the mere raising of objections will be insufficient to remove it from its advantaged position. As a practical matter, the removal of a hypothesis or theory from its preferential position should come through development of a demonstrably superior hypothesis that would replace it. Of course, evidence clearly fatal to a hypothesis or theory would cause its removal even in the absence of a replacement.10

Investigating Claims

We have already looked at several applications of the investigative (bottom-up) approach—a cluster of techniques in the investigation of the Shroud of Turin: the use of provenance (historical record), image replication experiments, radiocarbon dating, and so on.

As another example of the approach, in 2006 I stood in a pilgrim line in Bruges, Belgium, and held in my hands the reliquary supposedly containing the very blood of Christ. This is claimed to have effected many miracles. To extend my examination time, I stood in line twice, scrutinizing both the crystal vial (actually known to be a medieval perfume bottle) and its contents, a waxy-looking substance bespeckled with supposedly coagulated droplets of red “blood.”

However brief, the examination was nonetheless revealing. The red color was suspicious, because real blood blackens with age. Moreover, the reliquary lacks a credible provenance, having no record before 1270 CE. It appeared with a profusion of other dubious blood relics, including several in which the blood sometimes liquefied and resolidified—although this one no longer performs that “miraculous” trick. Taken overall, the evidence suggests a pious fraud, and we may predict what forensic tests would be likely to discover.11

Among the many “weeping” effigies I have encountered was one at a Greek Orthodox church in Toronto. The priest had once been defrocked and more recently had gone missing—along with $500,000. I was invited to the site by the parent Greek Orthodox Church of North America and given carte blanche to dismantle the shrine and take samples of the “tears” for the police crime lab. The tears were suspicious because they emanated not from the eyes but rather from the top of the head, and they were oily, whereas water readily evaporates and must be frequently replenished. The tears consisted of a non-drying oil—a well-known trick.12

In one of several undercover cases, I worked with National Geographic Television, going in disguise to an Atlanta service of Brazilian faith healer “John of God.” He claimed to be assisted by spirits who took control of his body and assisted him in performing surgeries without anesthesia. He supposedly opened the body paranormally and manipulated vital organs or performed stunts such as using a dull knife to scrape an eyeball. Among other pseudosurgeries, he performed certain “invisible” procedures.

As I hobbled up to the alleged mystic with my cane, he chose me and some others for one of these procedures, in which thousands of “healing entities” supposedly began revitalizing a muscle or organ. Obviously, the entire procedure relied on suggestion. Since my encounter with him, John of God suffered a setback that none of his channeled spirits saw coming. In 2019–2020, based on hundreds of complaints against him for rape and other abuses, he was sentenced to prison for over sixty-three years.13

Other examples of the investigative approach are common. In one modern case, I visited a Campbell, Ohio, church’s grounds one night with a spotlight, demonstrating that a “glowing” statue was not emitting a supernatural light; instead, its gilded portions were only reflecting lights elsewhere on the grounds.14

Among other remarkable statues were those at a Marian apparition site in Conyers, Georgia. They were said to have heartbeats! Investigating for an Atlanta television station, I found no heartbeats were detectable by stethoscope. In fact, people were reaching up to feel the heartbeats in question. Interviews with some of the percipients indicated they were either feeling the pulse in their own thumbs or suffering the effects of pious imagination.15

One other example should suffice. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a “miraculous” spiral stairway, the main attraction of the Sisters of Loretto Chapel. Its supposed supernaturality lies in its complete lack of any central support, because helix staircases inherently require some kind of strengthening. In fact, however, the Loretto stair is just constructed cleverly: Of its two spiral structural members, the inner one is of such small radius as to function virtually like a solid pole. Even so, eventually the staircase became rickety and, by the time I visited in 1993, it had been closed to traffic. Nevertheless, I discovered a sure sign of its non-miraculous nature: a wrought-iron bracket once surreptitiously added to connect the outer stringer to a column supporting the choir loft and so provide needed stability.16

Conclusions

As we see, the top-down approach may be effective in stiff-arming a miracle claimant. However, it is clearly investigation that can shed light on claims—indeed, target them like a spotlight and follow through to ultimate clarity upon an issue.

Indeed, because the purpose of investigation is to explain, it is that approach that is likely to engage people, rendering them more open to being taught—even, I find, when they may have wished to learn something quite different! And in the process of explaining, anything that needs to be debunked will simply take care of itself. In the final analysis, miracle claims invariably prove to be examples of mystery-mongering, and solving mysteries is the essence of science.

[1] C. S. Lewis. 1947. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. Reprinted New York: McMillan, 1988, p. 15.

[2] David Hume. 1777. “Of Miracles,” included in the posthumous edition of Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 2nd ed. Reprinted London: Oxford University Press, 1902, pp. 109–131. Quoted material appears on pp. 114–16.

[3] Paul Tabori. The Natural Science of Stupidity. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1959, p. 154.

[4] Joe Nickell. “The Turin Shroud: Fake? Fact? Photograph?” Popular Photography November 1979, 97–99, 146–147.

[5] Joe Nickell. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013, pp. 120–121, 126.

[6] Joe Nickell. Ambrose Bierce Is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992, p. 2.

[7] For an extended discussion of the standards of proof, see Nickell, Ambrose Bierce Is Missing, pp. 1–6.

[8] David A. Binder, and Paul Bergman. Fact Investigation: From Hypothesis to Proof. St. Paul: West, 1984, pp. 13, 162; W. I. B. Beveridge. The Art of Scientific Investigation. New York: Vintage, n.d., pp. 63–68.

[9] Martin Gardner. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover, 1957, p. 7.

[10] Nickell, Ambrose Bierce Is Missing, pp. 3–4.

[11] Nickell, The Science of Miracles, pp. 101–103.

[12] Nickell, op. cit., pp. 65–69.

[13] Joao Teixeira de Faria. 2020. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joao_Teixeira_de_Faria; accessed March 9, 2020.

[14] Nickell, The Science of Miracles, pp. 83–87.

[15] Nickell, op. cit., p. 60.

[16] Nickell, op. cit., pp. 359–365.

A miracle is usually defined as an event supposedly unexplainable by nature. But such a definition is predicated on a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance—that is, from a lack of knowledge. It is like saying, “We don’t know; therefore, we do know.” Anglican writer C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) succinctly defined a miracle as “an …