In his book Climbing Backward Out of Caves (pdf), John R. Harris discusses why apparent miracles and other empirical phenomena cannot be used to prove religious claims:
There are no [empirical] arguments for faith, properly speaking, nor can there be. If you could pray to be placed atop the church’s steeple and then, miraculously, your body rose through thin air to the lofty perch desired, what would you have proved to the scientist? He would examine your shoulders for ropes or cords. He would investigate the church’s structure for a small elevator concealed from a certain perspective. He would search the premises for cleverly installed mirrors that project stable images over some ladder or mechanism. If brought to his last resort, he would have his own blood tested for hallucinogens and his own brain for neurological disorders. In a last last defense, he would perhaps found a new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time.
Your miracle, having been perceived, would be scientifically explicable, and hence no miracle at all. The trick would be finding the answer… but the presence of an answer could be presupposed, since causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen. All that we perceive immediately incurs the possibility of explanation. Those who should choose not to investigate your levitation beyond a certain point — to accept you as a true miracle-worker and prophet — would have made an arbitrary decision to desist from the search. Their resignation would not be justified by any objective evidence: it would only demonstrate that they had grown weary of searching, and perhaps that they were already predisposed to see wonders all around them.
I experienced the truth of this firsthand a couple of years ago (Friday, October 15, 2010, to be exact) when I asked God for a very specific sign, received exactly what I asked for that very same day — and came out of the experience not appreciably less of an atheist than I had been before.
I was living in Changhua, Taiwan, at the time, and working mostly in that city, but twice a week I took a train to Yuanlin and taught some classes at the university’s branch there. One day I was sitting in Changhua Station waiting for the train when something popped into my head and (subaudibly) out my mouth: “God, if you’re there, give me a sign.” Then, realizing that it might be nice to be a little less vague than that, I added, “Make someone give me a cicada.”
I can’t really say what prompted me to say such a thing. It’s not as if I had been particularly wondering whether God existed or hoping that he might. I had been an atheist for nearly 10 years, and I was quite confident in my unbelief. I had recently started reading and commenting on a few blogs by Christians (Bruce Charlton, John C. Wright, maybe a few others), and I suppose that’s what put it into my head. I had also had a few recent experiences where I had thought to myself, “You know, I could really use ___ right now,” and then the thing I had wished for had immediately (but otherwise quite non-miraculously) appeared.
Why a cicada? I don’t know. I had the idea that I should ask for something improbable but not actually miraculous, and that’s what came into my mind. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, and I thought at the time that it might be an inspiration — God telling me what sign he intended to give, rather than the other way around.
The request wasn’t quite as random as it probably seems, though. Those who remember the old header image from this blog will be aware that I’ve made the cicada a personal emblem of sorts, and that Friday morning in the station I was actually wearing a jade cicada pendant around my neck. (I had a second such pendant at home, but the cord had been broken for some time.) Cicadas are a reasonably common decorative motif in Taiwan, comparable to, say, unicorns in America. You don’t see them every day, but they’re not unheard of.
All day I was on the lookout for cicadas and was trying to guess what form the sign might take. (“Give me a cicada” is actually pretty vague.) Maybe I would see someone with a cicada T-shirt on the train. (I’ve never seen a cicada T-shirt before, but it could happen.) In addition to my regular classes in Yuanlin, I also did one-on-one tutoring with a little kid who loved insects and occasionally brought rhinoceros beetles and things to class with him — so maybe he would literally give me a live cicada. (His class was on Wednesdays, not Fridays, but it could still happen.) But nothing like that happened. All day I found nothing even remotely cicada-related, and that night on the train back home to Changhua I scolded myself for even entertaining the idea of a “sign” and said to myself, “Forget it. No one’s going to give you a cicada.”
I arrived home quite late that night, as I usually do. Ordinarily my wife would be waiting for me with dinner, but this time she met me at the door and suggested that we go out to the night market to eat and to get the broken cord on my other cicada pendant fixed. (I had bought both of the cicada pendants from the same vendor at the night market.) Her mentioning a cicada out of the blue (it had been broken for a long time, and it had been months since we had said anything about fixing it) got my attention, but it still wasn’t really the sign I had asked for, since I already owned the cicada in question and wasn’t being “given” anything.
At the market, I gave the jade vendor my pendant for repairs, and she showed me something new that she thought I might be interested in: a small white jade key chain in the shape of a cicada. Now we were getting closer to the sign, but not close enough — because of course I was going to buy the thing, which isn’t the same as being given it.
She needed some time to fix the cord, though, and while she worked and my wife chatted with her I wandered around the market a bit. When I came back, the vendor gave me the two cicadae. I reached for my wallet, but my wife stopped me and said, “That’s okay. I paid already.” So the new cicada did in fact end up being a gift rather than a purchase.
I was suitably impressed. For all the vague things I would have been willing to accept as a sign (seeing a T-shirt with a cicada on it!), what I received was precisely what I had asked for: someone gave me a cicada.
At that point I thought of Gideon’s asking for a second sign to confirm the first, and it occurred to me to do the same thing. Again I asked for the first thing that came to mind, and again I can’t really explain why I chose what I did: “Make someone say the word rabbit” (again I was shooting for something relatively improbable but not at all miraculous).
Within a minute or two of this request, a woman walked past me carrying a live rabbit in her arms. (Had I seem this woman before without consciously noticing her? Is that what put the “rabbit” idea into my head. It’s entirely possible.) Frustratingly, though, no one said anything about it. The word rabbit was not spoken. I felt almost as if I were being taunted, as if the intended message were, “See how easy it would be for me to grant that request? Well, I’m going to make a point of not granting it.”
In the following weeks I made a few half-hearted attempts at repeating the experiment — asking for other specific signs, trying to choose the first thing that came to mind — but nothing came of it — which is not surprising. “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” It’s not as if further signs would have served any useful purpose anyway. Repetitions would have decreased the odds that the original request had been fulfilled by mere chance — but the odds of that are already quite low enough. A billion to one or a trillion to one, what difference does it make? Mere coincidence is not an explanation I am seriously entertaining.
But neither — obviously — did the experience turn me into a theist. I think most people, believers and non-believers alike, would agree that it would be a pretty stupid reason to start believing in God. There are just too many other possible explanations. It could have been subconscious precognition on my part. It could have been subconscious mind-reading on the part of my wife. It could have been the work of some supernormal but subdivine being who wanted either to make me believe in God or to pass itself of as the same. It could have been “synchroncity,” whatever that is. It could have been any number of different things — far-fetched, all of them, but not obviously any more far-fetched than the idea that the omnipotent Creator of the universe decided to intervene in our world to grant a pointless request I had made on a mere whim.
I know I sound like Harris’s hypothetical scientist, founding his risible “new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time” — but the point is that Harris’s scientist, however silly he may sound, is right. An explanation is always possible. There can be no empirical argument for God. And thus asking for a sign is a fundamentally foolish thing to do, since a sign alone can never convince an unbeliever, but can only increase his condemnation should there turn out to be a God after all. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!