Monday, January 17, 2011

The New Maths : 1 / 10 = miracle

We've heard it for the first time this year and we know for sure it won't be the last. It's the phrase that the media just love to scream at us, whether it's a miner in Chile or a pilot on the Hudson River. " It's a miracle!" The story this time is the heinous shooting tragedy in Arizona which took the lives of six. In the midst of such bloodshed it is natural to look for the upside. Thankfully this story provides such an opportunity; for in the midst of it all, Rep. Giffords the target of the attack has been recovering from her gun shot wound to the brain. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely happy that things are turning out well for Giffords so far but this story taken from the Associated Press on January 13th caught my attention. Here are the opening sentences from the article :

"Even Gabrielle Giffords’ doctors are starting to call her recovery a miracle.
Few people who take a bullet to the brain — just 10 percent — survive such a devastating wound."

I had to read this over and over again. Ten percent survive such injuries and doctors, DOCTORS, not ordinary Joes in the street, are calling it a miracle? Wow!!! I know that we have been told by Christians that God doesn't do those really incredible old testament things anymore like part Red Seas, send plagues and turn people into pillars of salt but in 2011 a 1 in 10 chance event is a "miracle."This is a level of devaluation far worse than any developing country's currency has had to face at the hands of the IMF in the last two decades. It's definitely a head scratcher but in the new maths of the 21st century, 1/10 = miracle.

With this new ultra low bar for miracles I now recognise how many miracles I experience everyday of my life. I just need to think of my regular visits to the supermarket. There are 10 checkouts for groceries and I have to pick one. It's quite a random thing and the probability of picking any cashier is of course 1 in 10. On any given day there would be a ninety percent chance that I avoided the one I happened to be at. I never really thought twice about it before but now I know that each time that happens it's a miracle. A miracle in the supermarket with every visit, isn't that something?

I thought about it further and realised this "1/10= miracle" changes so so much more. I mean, think about the different activities that you do each day. Anything that is done less often than once every 10 days would have to be classified miracle. This means every day that I have stayed home sick from work has been a miracle and a huge one too, since that would be less than 1 in every 100. Vacation days by the same reasoning would have to be miracles as well. So next time you are on a cruise ship with tourists from around the world, take a moment to reflect, you're smack in the middle of a mass miracle. Because, with the exception of the crew, that is not how any of those people spend one day of every ten.

You could just go on and on to find more miracles and the scary thing is that with the rate of devaluation of miracles, things are not likely to end here. In the future we are likely to see 1in 5 miracles maybe even 1 in 2 miracles. Indeed, I have heard that successfully predicting the gender of an unborn child has been described by some as a miracle. If this is true then the era of the 50/50 miracle may well be close at hand. This raises of course an even more interesting question will the "miracle line" one day shoot below that "50/50" axis? Could we one day see a situation where a miracle is actually more probable than no miracle? We could very well one day have miraculous expected events. Getting out of bed, eating breakfast, not getting into an accident on the way to work, these could all one day be miracles.

All of this makes me think about the Centre for Inquiry (CFI) advertising campaign about to begin here in Canada. Perhaps reflecting the more conservative nature of the average Canadian compared to those south of the border , there are no claims of people knowing anything is a myth or a scam. It's a simple restatement of that old Carl Sagan adage, " Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence." The ad goes on to list some examples of claims such as Bigfoot, UFOs, Christ, homeopathy and Allah. I rather like it, it's sure to stir some emotional responses but yet it's not saying any of these things are not real. It's just asking them to " show us the beef" so to speak.

Still , notwithstanding that the CFI message is good for today, we have seen above that many things referred to as miracles are nowhere near as extraordinary as Bigfoot or UFOs. What can we do to address this changing reality? I don't know, but maybe the next bus ads should say something like this:

" Ordinary Events require ONLY Ordinary Explanations."


  1. I tend to define a miracle as something we don't expect, something that's way off the scale in terms of probability. It's been 10 years or more since I jettisoned supernatural thinking and mental squinting in order to see the "invisible hand" in the sky, but sometimes we just brace for the worst ... and then it doesn't happen. This is the best time ever to be shot through the head -- even without gross damage that usually results from the bullet crossing the corpus collossum, a bullet through the brain is serious stuff. Even 10 years ago, I doubt Rep. (not Gov, BTW) Giffords would have survived. The medical profession has made great strides. But they're not at the point where they can fix everything. They know that. They know that as it stands now, Giffords' survival is highly unlikely and that's what I think -- hope -- they mean when they call it a miracle. I doubt that they're all down on their knees in the doctors' lounge, lighting candles and rocking back and forth with a bible in their hands. The non-medical staff, perhaps...

  2. Interesting point you are raising here. I appreciate that the colloquial use of "miracle" no longer implies the supernatural for people like yourself.

    However in my experience, people that use the word "miracle" in association with an event tend to believe the outcome was caused or influenced by a source outside of nature, which they usually refer to as God. They say this while conceding that the event could be perfectly explained by natural causes. This way of thinking was illustrated very well by a caller to yesterday's episode of The Atheist Experience.

    So, although I understand where you are coming from I felt it was reasonable to interpret that when the doctors said "miracle" they were implying something supernatural was involved. At least I think that is the message that would have been conveyed to the general public.

    The point you make I think highlights that we need to be careful using " miracle" if we don't believe in the supernatural, as it may communicate a meaning we don't intend. It's to me similar to the confusion that often ensues when atheists use the word "spiritual." Certainly something worth thinking about,I am glad you brought it up.

    Thanks also for the correction vis a vis Rep Giffords.

  3. >At least I think that is the message that would have been conveyed to the general public.

    I've heard Dawkins talk about how he has to police his language to avoid being quote-mined. He used, if I recall correctly the natural "design" of a bird wing. And he was saying that he feels a need to have to find other words besides "design" because some people just can't grasp the very real, very common use of the term that doesn't mean "god done it."

    I think _most people_ if we took a poll, use "miracle" how Vol-E uses it. And I think both of you are correct that it's unlikely the doctors REALLY think it was god and not good medical treatment that resulted in whatever good outcomes Giffords experienced in this overall tragedy. I guess the "miracle" is only--as it almost always can be--that it wasn't far worse than it ended up being. It's almost like going to a home where a family with three children has just lost 2 of their kids in a fire and telling them it's a miracle the surviving one was spending the night at a friend's home.

    Who would assert that losing two children in a fire is anything but hideous. But if we're bent on looking for a silver lining in a tragedy, we can always find _some_ scenario that could have been worse. Would you rather have lost all three? Surely not. Are you glad this one didn't die? Of course. But what idiot would call losing 2/3 of your kids in a fire "fortunate"? If god wanted to show his good will, he'd have done better to stop the fire before it killed anyone--before it even began?

    I might even see an animal narrowly miss being hit by a car and think "It's a miracle that dog wasn't flattened!" I'm not using the term in any supernatural way. I only mean "fortunate" for the dog or "lucky" for the dog. But think even of those terms: Luck and Fortune. Even those carry supernatural baggage. You can't escape it.

    And it's sad we have to police our own expressions because there's some delusional person waiting to quote mine us all to use as "evidence" of his own distorted view of the term and of reality.

  4. Yes, language is such a ticklish thing and I think sometimes the users are not even sure exactly what they mean to convey. There is a lot of conflation of terms. I think the best we can do is to be as clear and unambiguous as possible when using terms and hope the other side will do the same. Alas, the latter part may be too much to hope for.

  5. @ Tatcieh,you are on point, bot are correct.These words can be used to mean quite different things. I also understand Dawkens' point. Religious people will take, out of context, your use of the word. The problem is, these words does make up our colloquialism, and, I agree with Neal DeGrasse Tyson, I am not going to let anyone (religious crazzies)scare me away from using words. I want to say "o God" when I am in love making. "o heru","o Shiva", naaaa, they don't cut it for me. lol

  6. Wow, this was quite an interesting debate you started, Vol-E. Thanks for weighing in tracie, always good to get an input from The Atheist Experience. You guys get to hear arguments from all angles. Still thinking about what is the most common interpretation of the word "miracle."
    Maybe it's different depending on your location.

    From a personal perspective, I have tried to eliminate religious language as much as possible from everyday communication. I think that the desire for believers to get confirmation for their beliefs is so strong that any religious language even a "bless you" after a sneeze is interpreted, even if subconciously, as tacit evidence for God's existence.

    I think as religion loses its grip in society this will change and I will have no problem using these expressions again, because they can be very useful in communication. They will come a time when thanking God will not have any religious connotation, it will be similar to how thanking your "lucky stars" today in no way means you believe in astrology.

    @ Spicelandatheist- No worries, I think Screaming " Oh God" during lovemaking is and always will perfectly acceptable in any context:).