Thursday, March 2, 2006

Shockwaves of wonder

A few months ago I read Joan Carroll Cruz's The Incorruptibles. It inspired me to research other "allied phenomena", such as stigmata, marvelous images, and weeping or bleeding icons. While reading about stigmata, more than once I found the objection that if they were really divine phenomena, they shouldn't manifest so disparately. This objection is rooted in the fact that many of even the most inexplicable cases of stigmata appear on different parts of the body, take on different shapes and sizes, bleed differently, etc. These discrepancies suggest to some a scam, as if the fakers were merely trying ignorantly to replicate previous stigmata, but getting it wrong in this or that detail. A related explanation given is that stigmatists are trying to mimic religious art and themes they've encountered throughout their lives. Since different people experience different art, different stigmatists manifest difference stigmata. It's variegated auto-suggestion, the critics say.

This objection is certainly valid in many of the cases. However, the more bizarre and truly inexplicable cases insist on more than auto-suggestion. Such a "sensible" objection depends on a shallow examination of the evidence in cases of spontaneous, prolonged, unwilled stigmata. In other words, the shrewdest miracle investigators, particularly those commissioned by, say, the Vatican, dismiss innumerable "stigmata" as hoaxes, whether from obvious self-mutilation or from the less obvious but possible power of auto-suggestion.

The key is not to approach such claims, let alone any part of life, with a facile Humean disdain for exceptional occurrences, but rather to measure carefully and soberly the evidence for this or that particular incident. Hume weighed evidence for miracles; honesty insists we measure the evidence. Weighing evidence for miracles instantly disfavors them, since they are by definition less common than other phenomena; measuring miracles, however, is a much more challenging task, such as Alexis Carroll, among many other professional physicians, have learned on a journey to Lourdes (see also Jaki's Two Lourdes Miracles). The great irony of Humean skeptics is that while they bar all such "divine anomalies" out of consideration on the a priori grounds of the statistical and commonsensical preponderance of a normal explanation, yet they argue the emergence of human life in an already incalculably unlikely universe is hardly shocking. The common non-believing (Humean) approach to cosmology is dismissive of the universe's amazing "fine tuning" and its highly "unnatural" anthropocentricity. "Such an occurrence was just bound to happen," the skeptic says, with a shrug. Yet, this same skeptic will say miracles are simply impossible given the overwhelmingly non-miraculous nature of experience.

But I digress. The point I'd like to make is not about the historicity and inexplicability of this or that miracle -- though such a venture is not overly difficult and not at all fruitless. Rather, I simply want to propose a "way of looking" (Schauensart) at the discrepancies among the more reliable cases of stigmata.

A few weeks after having read about this phenomenon, I was riding the bus to Jing Yi University. Suddenly, we hit a bump, and I noticed all the passengers' heads, including my own, bobbed downward in the same moment. It was if we all hiccupped or nodded at once. I wouldn't have given any more thought to it, except that I had happened to notice minute difference in the particular ways we all had bobbed our heads. When the bump came, one young lady had her head turned left, while I was looking straight ahead. Accordingly, my head went in planar descent, whereas hers curved downward a little diagonally. I noticed a student's younger, suppler neck bent farther down than the old lady's near her. And so on, for as many people as my view from the rear of the bus could register.

What had happened? We had all experienced the same phenomenon, or impulse, "from outside", but we each had manifested its effects differently according to where we sat, how we were composed, where were looking and so forth. It struck me like lightning that this is precisely the logic behind stigmatic discrepancies! Far from "branding" stigmatists like holy cattle, God the Spirit works from within a unique person to produce stigmata. As that person freely and deeply unites him or herself to Christ the wounded Savior, the Spirit synergizes this "co-suffering' into ultimately tangible effects. The wounds Padre Pio felt in his soul, as he followed his Crucified Lord, ultimately found their way to his flesh. This "phenomenological symmetry" between the soul and the flesh is exactly the aim of theosis (sanctification, union witht the divine, restoration of the self), insofar as theosis means reconciling the holy desires of the soul and will with the movements and impulses of the flesh. True stigmatists cannot simply "dredge up" these wounds; the wounds are, after all, not even their own: they are Christ's, belonging to Him who dwells within them. So, while genuine stigmata are, like all fruit of godliness, never possible without the Spirit's antecedent movements of grace, yet it is equally true they are never simply imposed by God on unwilling creatures. Precisely by uniting myself to Christ in religious zeal and obedience, I in a sense invite God to wound me, mark me, label me, as His own with the marks of Christ.

Crucially, of course, God marks ME, as a unique individual. The "marking" He achieve sin me is interwoven with my whole nature, my whole background, my whole cultural awareness, etc. So, in the mystery of the confluence of the divine will with the human, as the wounds of Christ well up from a fertile heart to be seen on the flesh by human eyes, they well up according to the vessel God chooses: namely, me. (No, I'm not a stigmatist! I simply dislike using "one" and "oneself".) Hence, it as little wonder that various stigmatists are stigmatized variously as various Christians express the same Gospel variously (in phraseology, piety, attitude, culture, "style", etc.). This or that cultural resonance will effect how the Spirit's stigmatization is "filtered" through my consciousness into tangibility. This or that dermatological or muscular constitution will affect how the marks of Christ "filter through" my flesh into the public eye.

Far from disproving the singular divine origin of stigmata, their variability, in conjunction with a sober investigation of their veracity, actually points to the very God those stigmatists worship: the God of persons, of freedom, of concreteness, of particular incarnation. And in pointing to this God, this God who went so far as to be crucified for us, stigmatists are stigmatized in yet one more way: they are stigmatized as fools and scoundrels by worldlings. Why? Because they bear in their redeemed flesh the same wounds which fallen man refuses to embrace. Better to bleed to death by your own merits than be bled upon and refilled with life by Another's.

2 comments:

Michael Turton said...

The great irony of Humean skeptics is that while they bar all such "divine anomalies" out of consideration on the a priori grounds of the statistical and commonsensical preponderance of a normal explanation,
yet they argue the emergence of human life in an already incalculably unlikely universe is hardly shocking.


A twofer! Misunderstanding both arguments! And bogus claim about Lourdes. There are no genuine Lourdes miracles, Eliot. The Church has no real protocol for identifying causation (once you have decided to call something a miracle you have essentially given up any rigorous explanation of it). Further, the definition of "miracle" varies, and most of the "cures" are undemonstrated, cures of chronic diseases that often go into remission, or lies and error. As many skeptics have noted, no one has ever regrown a limb or regenerated an eye.

In any case modern skeptics have a far more powerful array of arguments than the centuries old arguments of Hume, including negative evidence (miracles are never observed), positive evidence (alleged miracles all have better alternative explanations), and scientific explanations of why people are so silly as to believe in miracles in the first place. Cognitive science is showing that belief in the supernatural is an outgrowth of in-built cognitive processing biases for handling social interactions -- teleological thinking. You seem to be woefully uninformed about this.

The common non-believing (Humean) approach to cosmology is dismissive of the universe's amazing "fine tuning" and its highly "unnatural" anthropocentricity.

There is no such thing as "fine tuning," Eliot. You're a fine mind that has gone to waste defending poetic nonsense.

Fine Tuning is basically misunderstanding of how natural selection works. Selection processes operating under natural law produce natural objects that are constrained to exist within the boundaries fixed by such laws -- it is not the laws that are tuned to the objects, but the objects that are tuned to the laws. The appearance of Fine Tuning is the inevitable result of any universe operating under natural selection. There is no set of universes, so long as it is able to contain natural laws that drive selection processes, that will not look designed to an observer not acquainted with how natural selection work. Essentially fine tuning is like an observer seeing a puddle and marveling at how the mud shaped itself perfectly to the water.

The ability of selection processes to drive objects to optimum formats for their particular niches is well known in many fields -- the genetic algorithm search function, for example, used to solve a variety of process problems in transportation, manufacturing, and other fields, takes advantage of selection processes to produce optimum solutions for such problems.

"Such an occurrence was just bound to happen," the skeptic says, with a shrug. Yet, this same skeptic will say miracles are simply impossible given the overwhelmingly non-miraculous nature of experience.

Again, you misunderstand. Self-replication is part and parcel of the universe, numerous objects self-replication to some degree. That is why many researchers see the emergence of complex self-replicating organisms as highly probable, if not inevitable given enough interactions (trillions of stars and planets) and enough time (galactic timescales).

Miracles are wrong because they are impossible, not because they are improbable. Rolling a "16" with 16 six-sided dice is improbable -- rolling it with two dice is impossible. Dead people don't come back, the sick are not magically healed, and the sun kept going right over Joshua's head.

Michael

the Cogitator said...

In any case modern skeptics have a far more powerful array of arguments than the centuries old arguments of Hume, including negative evidence (miracles are never observed),…

Oh? And I suppose murders never happen to those murdered, nor ever in front of eyewitnesses.

…positive evidence (alleged miracles all have better alternative explanations),...

Here you signal your unfamiliarity with the Church's tradition of rigorous criteria.

...and scientific explanations of why people are so silly as to believe in miracles in the first place. … Fine Tuning is basically misunderstanding of how natural selection works. Selection processes operating under natural law produce natural objects that are constrained to exist within the boundaries fixed by such laws -- it is not the laws that are tuned to the objects, but the objects that are tuned to the laws. … The ability of selection processes to drive objects to optimum formats for their particular niches is well known in many fields ….

I should restate my point.

First, the ever-increasing evidence for an informationally ordered, as opposed to mathematically patterned, universe exactly reverses the march of centuries of skepticism, which was based largely on a view of a random, purposeless cosmos. At every turn we are seeing the universe expresses not only causal harmony, but in fact informative order. Design is very different from information, and information is what we see.

Second, the thrust of the "design" argument should not be that because we see order, we thus see God. The real thrust is that because the cosmos is itself a contingent "creature", its order and beauty point to a source higher than itself. By fine tuning I do not mean finely tuned creatures in finely tuned niches. (I am not a creationist, so give me some credit for recognizing the functions of biology.) Hence, I am not referring to the products of entities within the field of universal laws. Rather, I am referring to the fineness of those laws themselves.

Given the sheer unlikelihood of sentient life emerging from what you yourself must begin by defining as a random, purely natural assemblage and matter-and-energy, then we must be willing to acknowledge ourselves as unlikely results. It would be as if you awoke tomorrow with your head sewn to the floor, but felt no worse for it. Given what we know about human biology, this is so unlikely as to demand a super-biological explanation. Likewise, given what we know about universes – and how even the slightest alteration of universal constants renders us obsolete – we cannot so facilely regard sentient life as inevitable. If you really think the laws enabling human life are really not so unlikely, one must ask why we don't see life so much more abundantly. If we are the inevitable result of uniform natural pressures throughout the cosmos, then why is there no evidence for other inevitable sentient, anthropoids in the cosmos? Since we seem to be the only such life, we would be as senseless as headless man to see it all as inevitable and no big thing. I’ll grant you that once the laws were fine-tuned in the creation of the cosmos, the natural niches and adaptations you address fall in line. Otherwise, they are so unlikely as to merit boundless wonder. But I believe you lack wonder in a pivotal way, so there isn't more I can say in this vein for the moment.

(Besides, no matter how "easy" you think it is for nature to produce advanced, sentient, teleologically minded beings like ourselves, you cannot explain the emergence of nonmaterial rationality from nonrational materiality. Supra-materiality is a given, a brute fact, of humanity in the cosmos, or cognition is a complete illusion. This is a strictly philosophical points, so your offhand allusion to "cognitive science" – ah, nothing like letting "Science" speak when individual scientists and specific studies seem so much less monolithic! – is putting the cart before the horse. Positing brute, random, nonrational materiality as the sum of existence gives us no good reasons to rely on our (fictive) "reason", which in turn erases the "rational" grounds we have for positing brute, random, nonrational materiality as the sum of existence. You cannot conjure mind from matter, and yet you cannot consider matter without mind. Hence, your materialism is refuted by your own nonmaterial defenses of it. See C.S. Lewis, Miracles, V. Reppert, A. Plantinga, et al.)

Second, more crucially, once we recognize the radical, anthropic fineness of the cosmos, we recognize its specificity and, in turn, its contingency. Far from seeing our universe as the "inevitable" or "necessary" result of primordial cosmic conditions, we recognize our universe as specifically one thing and not any other. And seeing that the universe is not infinite (cf. Olbers's paradox of infinite stars yielding infinite illumination, the 2.7 K radiation background, etc.), we cannot not only not presume a boundless budget for tinkering towards sentience, but also, more importantly, we cannot admit changes or advances, since an eternal, infinite universe always just is what it is, and necessarily so, without alteration. Hence, the universe is not necessarily what it is. And that which is not necessary is contingent. And that which is contingent is dependent on a non-contingent cause. See S. Jaki's God and the Cosmologists for more.

Again, you misunderstand. Self-replication is part and parcel of the universe, numerous objects self-replication to some degree. That is why many researchers see the emergence of complex self-replicating organisms as highly probable, if not inevitable given enough interactions (trillions of stars and planets) and enough time (galactic timescales).

Yes, yes, yes! This is some of the reason I am a theist. But here you miss the forest for the trees. Think about it: you yourself are arguing the universe displays order and teleology at every level, in every sphere – and yet you are not even willing to grant this points to a Higher Order? "Dear me, look at all this beauty, order and purposive behavior throughout all of nature – how is an atheist supposed to find God in this, I mean really?" Michael, your blindness is self-imposed.

Miracles are wrong because they are impossible, not because they are improbable.

You began by saying I misconstrued Hume's argumentation, but it is here where you do just that. Hume, or any strict empiricist for that matter, would have been the last to deny miracles on a priori grounds. But this is what you do. Since Hume's whole philosophy of induction was based on our a posteriori habituation to frequent patterns, rather than on rational a priori grounds, he could not deny any event on a priori grounds. To uphold natural casual integrity as an a priori, rationally deductive truth would have been to give natural laws the very "fixity" he denied they had. His point was that, based on the odds, there could never be sufficient evidence to overcome our habitual *natural* explanation for a miracle. This i just where I fault him, and your superficial treatment of Lourdes, or any other rigorously examined miracle, is subject to the same fallacy: weighing evidence is not measuring evidence.

"…once you have decided to call something a miracle you have essentially given up any rigorous explanation of it."

A fortiori, once you bar form the outset any supernatural explanations, you have essentially given up a rigorous consideration of it as evidence for supernatural reality. In just this way, you commit the Humean error of dismissing any evidence JUST BECAUSE it comes from someone insisting she herself was handled miraculously or from someone (esp. in cases of someone medically qualified) that claims he witnessed the miraculous. This is simply sloppy investigation, but all too fitting for your self-stitched materialist cushions.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but I am feeling very ill, so I must finish one last comment to you elsewhere and then rest. It may be some time until I hear from you or you then hear back from me, which is, I mean to say, for the better at this time.