"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Carson et al on the miraculous

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece on Sunday, March 3, Jesuit Father James Martin explained and defended the vetting process the Vatican follows in its investigations into causes for the canonization of saints. He also made some recommendations for improving its already-considerable credibility. Over at An Examined Life, my friend Professor Scott Carson responded with a sympathetic but rather critical piece questioning Fr. Martin's reasoning with regard to the vetting of specifically medical miracles. A combox discussion ensued between Scott, Fr. Martin, and Justin Catanoso, a business-journal editor and journalism professor who took the occasion of his cousin Gaetano's canonization to write a book, My Cousin the Saint, that will be published in May. (You can hear the recent NPR interview with Justin here.) While sympathetic to Scott's concerns, I want to respond to them in a way that will bring out the true utility of the Vatican's approach to miracles of healing.

Two things cause me to write about this particular topic now. One is personal. Several years ago, I made an effort to meet Justin Catanoso, who lives and works close to where I was living and working at the time. What had aroused my interest was an article he had published about St. Gaetano somewhere. I wanted to discuss religion with him, as well as get his help with job networking, since there were few people better acquainted with the local business world. He seemed like somebody who would be a good and interesting friend for another educated Italian-American guy to have. I called him and we arranged a meeting; but the next day, my car broke down. Since it would take me two weeks to come up with the dough for the needed repair, I called Justin to cancel. We haven't had any contact since; but now I have a hunch that that could and should change.

The other reason I have for writing about Scott's take on miracles now is that I've been thinking again lately about the relationship between having reason enough to believe and having faith. The two do not seem to be the same, yet it also seems obvious that they have something important to do with each other. As the late Dominican Herbert McCabe wrote:

Here people might take up one of two opposite positions, both of which I think are wrong. They might say (a) that having faith in a proposition has nothing whatever to do with having reasons for it, or else they might say (b) that it is exactly the same as having reasons for it.

McCabe goes on to show that "[t]he first extreme makes the notion of truth inapplicable" and "[t]he other makes the notion of faith inapplicable." Since both are applicable, the correct account lies somewhere between the extremes. But rather than explicate the middle way by discussing a text that few readers are likely to possess, I turn my attention to Scott's position on miracles. I suspect the truth can be brought out more conveniently that way.

Stimulated by the aforementioned combox discussion, Scott followed up with a post entitled The Miraculous: Explanans or Explanandum? (For those of you unfamiliar with analytical philosophy of science, I note that the term explanans means "something that explains," in the sense of something that can be cited in order to explain something else, and explanandum means "something to be explained.") Scott writes:

My central worry in the earlier post was principally a methodological one, because I certainly do not deny that miracles occur. Indeed, I gave examples, in that earlier entry, of miracles that I believe occur every day. My worry is rather over the quasi-empirical condition put on canonization in the new document from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. As the discussion with Justin and Fr. Martin unfolded, it became clear to me that there was a minor equivocation taking place on the notion of explanation, as well as on the relation between the miraculous as a phenomenon to be explained (i.e., the miraculous qua explanandum) and the miraculous as phenomenon invoked as explanation (i.e., the miraculous qua explanans). In this entry I'd like to sort some things out with respect to that relation.

OK, so what comes out of the sorting?

If I read him correctly, Scott is arguing that the lack of a scientific explanation for a given healing or recovery is not merely insufficient reason to call the event a miracle—which I do not dispute—but is actually irrelevant to deciding the question whether it's a miracle. That's because even

...the unanimous agreement of medical experts that there is no physicalist explanation for this cure is no more significant than the unanimous agreement of physicists that we don't know whether there is a black hole at the center of each and every galaxy in the universe. The lack of a scientific consensus on a given question does not entail that there never will be such a consensus, or that there could not be one in principle.

That, I believe, is going too far. The lack of a "physicalist explanation" for a given cure is certainly not sufficient for calling the cure a "miracle" in some theologically significant sense of that term; but equally certainly, such a lack is necessary for calling the cure miraculous in such a sense. Thus it is a reason to do so. It is just not reason enough in itself.

As Scott recognizes, though, there is a difficulty about the status of miracles in explanation. Are miracles explanantia, things that explain something, or are they explananda, things to be explained? If all we have to go on is the absence of naturalistic explanation for a given cure, that does not suffice to establish that the cure was miraculous in a theologically significant sense—typically, as the extraordinary and direct action of God, performed for some spiritual purpose. And if that's the case, then one is not yet in a position to cite the cure's being a miracle in that sense as an explanation for the lack of a naturalistic explanation. By the same token, if the cure really is a miracle in the relevant sense, pointing out as much does not so much explain the cure as classify it. So calling some event a miracle does not, just in itself, explain the event even if one is justified in calling it a miracle in the relevant sense. Miracles are not, just by themselves, explanantia.

Very well: in what sense could extraordinary events be explananda, events to be explained precisely as miracles? Believers, and those on the way to faith, often explain miracles as events God brings about to confirm or elicit faith. That much is right there in the Bible, and I believe that to be true. But the same could be said of other things that there is no compelling reason to call miraculous; so, observing miracles is not, in general, necessary as a way of confirming or eliciting faith. Nor is it sufficient; otherwise everybody who witnesses a miracle in the relevant sense would be confirmed in or brought to faith, which is manifestly not the case. So I think Scott is right when he writes that "To say that an event is a miracle is manifestly not to explain it..." But I don't think his next clause follows, either from what I have just quoted him as saying or from any considerations adduced by either of us. It does not follow that calling something a miracle, if indeed that is what it is, is "to declare it inexplicable."

If Christianity is true, then miracles not only occur, but can be and sometimes are helpful for getting people to see reality more clearly than before. It would seem that Scott recognizes that. He writes:

....what we ought to say depends upon how we interpret the world. If we are religious--in particular, if we are Catholics, for whom God's Incarnation is just one of infinitely many ways in which our world is shot through with God's literal presence among us--then there will be cases where it will be within the "rules of the language game", as it were, for us to declare that some phenomena are "miraculous", by which we mean not merely that we can find no "scientific" explanation for them, but that we believe that we can see the mind--and hand--of God at work in the event in a way that we do not always notice it in other events.

It's important to point out here that the following "rules of the language game" as Scott describes is cognitively quite significant. Seeing the hand of God at work in some extraordinary event, thus regarding it as a miracle in a theologically significant sense, is not just playing a language-game. It is a way of forming a belief that, in turn, either elicits assent to a wider and quite powerful set of beliefs or confirms one in holding that set. One thus maintains the particular belief about the miraculous event, and the set of beliefs thereby confirmed, as true. That's part of what it is to play the language-game being specified. Accordingly, coming to see some extraordinary event, inexplicable in purely naturalistic terms, as a miracle in the relevant sense is not to declare the event "inexplicable" full stop. It is to explain the event in terms of a wider, non-scientific set of beliefs within which regarding the event as a miracle makes sense. So miracles are certainly explananda within a cognitively significant language-game, even if the mere act of classifying an event as a miracle explains nothing in itself.

At the same time, miracles function to an extent as explanantia, as a kind of explanation, within that language-game. If one observes a given extraordinary event and comes to see it as a miracle in the relevant sense, then that constitutes a reason for one to assent to the Faith, so that such a reason in turn constitutes part of one's explanation why one assents to the Faith. This is not to deny that, in general and in themselves, such reasons are neither necessary or sufficient for the assent of faith. But they can help people make or maintain that assent, and in some cases they do just that. So miracles can be cited to explain faith, and in that sense they can function as explanantia. But I would go further.

If one comes to see and affirm a given event E as a miracle in the relevant sense, then one commits oneself to holding that there is a non-naturalistic explanation of E's occurrence. Thus, even if one can't actually give such an explanation, the very act of classifying E as a miracle in the relevant sense commits one to holding that, whatever the explanation may be, it is an explanation of a certain sort. I have my own theory about what that sort is. Miracles like those Scott has been discussing are among God's personal, unritualized sacraments: they are both signs and instruments of what divine grace does in general for us, and they help to bring about what they signify. But whether you like that theory or not, no believing Catholic can, as such, deny that miracles function as some sort of explanantia within the Catholic "language-game," just as they are explananda in another way I've described.

The larger lesson here is about the relationship between reason and faith. "Reason" alone, as a faculty, can never "prove" that any proposition belonging to the deposit of faith is true. It cannot even prove, in any given case, that an event lacking a natural explanation has a supernatural explanation instead. But some events, ideas, and people can constitute reasons, within a set of converging reasons, for making the assent of faith to the deposit as a whole, thus showing such an assent to be reasonable even though not intellectually compelled.

Naturalistically inexplicable healings, such as those discussed by Scott, Fr. Martin, and Justin, can certainly count as such reasons under certain conditions well-attested by Catholic (and Orthodox) tradition. In themselves, they are not probative; but for those who "get it," they confirm faith. And that's what the Vatican's miracle-vetting process is designed to help us do. By eliminating naturalistic explanations as far as possible, the process enables the Church to establish one necessary condition for seeing a dead person as so close to God that invoking their intercession can bring the hand of God down to us in an extraordinary way. That supports McCable's "middle position." Faith requires believing that certain extraordinary things have occurred and are the direct work of God; reason helps us to identify what those might be.

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