The Enduring Fascination of Miracles

Ilkka Pyysiäinen. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

On June 28, 2005, someone pointed out to the partially blind Catholic Julio “Sly” Dones that a plaster statue of Jesus he had found in a dumpster in Hoboken, New Jersey, had miraculously opened its eyes. Soon the media was flooded with stories about the statue blinking its right eye, turning its head, and streaming tears (Arne 2005; Schapiro 2005; Associated Press 2005). The natural explanation is that the statue had embedded blue eyes made of glass and that the eyelids of the right eye had been partially broken off (Nickell 2006). Yet it was the news about a miracle that became widespread, not the natural explanation. This is true of nearly all reports of supposedly miraculous events. They have an enormous power to spread among people, while natural explanations of the same events are for the most part ignored or actively contested. What makes miracles so attention grabbing?

Miracles and Folk Intuitions

It is usually thought that miracles are events that take place against the laws of nature, with laws of nature here understood in a scientific sense. Theologian Calvin Miller, for example, writes (2003, 25), “But a single praying passenger may abrogate the force of physics and chemistry and order the world back to honoring God’s interruption of natural law.” Such a view cannot help us explain how and why persons identify certain events as miraculous. People classify certain types of events as miraculous quite irrespective of whether they know anything about natural laws. There were miracles in this sense long before there was science (see Pyysiäinen 2002, 2004b).

Thus, when we wish to explain human thinking and behavior, we must conceptualize miracles in such a way that contrasts them with our everyday expectations, not with science. Only then can we try to explain why certain types of events are regarded as miraculous. Miracles are phenomena that violate our intuitive expectations about such basic categories as solid objects, living things, and personal agents (Pyysiäinen 2002). The ways we think about objects that fall in these categories has been intensively studied in recent cognitive and developmental psychology and cognitive science (e.g., Atran 1987, 1990; Rosengren, Johnson, and Harris 2000; Bloom 2005; Geary 2005).

Let me first explain what I mean by categories (Bloom 2005, 39-63). Categorization means that we group concepts and ideas into classes. All apples, for example, belong to the class or category of apples. Every individual apple is not a totally unique entity because an individual apple shares many features with other apples. It is one instance of the general category of apples. Once we realize that an entity is an apple, we know many things about it just because we have accumulated knowledge of the category of apples. In this way, membership in a category always helps us understand what a given entity is like. We need not evaluate time and again whether this particular apple is edible, what it tastes like, and so forth. Once we know that it is an apple, we know many other things about it as well.

We have many kinds of intuitive expectations about the behavior of various types of entities because we have implicit knowledge of basic ontological categories. We automatically infer many things on the basis of membership in a specific category (Boyer 1994). Categories form hierarchies in the sense that apples, for example, is a subcategory of the higher-order category of fruit. The classical biological taxonomy consists of the hierarchy of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum (division), and kingdom. More recent, so-called cladistic taxonomies differ somewhat from this classical model, but the basic principle of categorization is the same (see Christoffersen 1995; Härlin and Sundberg 1998). An organism always belongs to only one species, genus, and so on. We humans, for instance, belong to the species sapiens, genusHomo, family Hominids, order Primates, class Mammals, phylum Vertebrates, and kingdom Animals. There are also similar folk-biological taxonomies composed of essence-based, species-like groups and the ranking of species into lower-order and higher-order groups, with humans everywhere thinking about plants and animals in similar, highly structured ways (Atran 1987, 1990, 1998).

Such basic categories as solid objects, living things, and personal agents appear so early in the cognitive development of the infant that they seem to be genetically encoded (Keil 1979, 1989; Boyer 1994, 2001; Geary 2005). Pascal Boyer, citing Frank Keil, thinks that we have an intuitive ontology consisting of such categories as abstract object, living thing, animal, event, and so on (Boyer, 1994, 101). We intuitively, spontaneously, and automatically categorize entities in these categories and apply folk-mechanical, -biological, and -psychological explanations as relevant in each category (Boyer 1994, 2001).

Intuitive ontology served us well as long as our species was not able to explore and manipulate the environment using advanced technology. Evolution shaped our minds to process things that were important for our ancestors to perceive to survive and reproduce. Our ancestors did not care about atoms or galaxies. Therefore new advances in technology, such as cameras, firearms, or the telegraph, appeared as miraculous to those who saw them for the first time. These inventions violated the intuitive expectations that characterize folk mechanics. Only new, accumulated experience and reflective thinking can help persons to become routinized in dealing with phenomena for the understanding of which we do not have a spontaneous capacity (Wolpert 1992; Keil and Wilson 2000).

This may never have been possible without new cognitive development that made our ancestors capable of detaching ideas from their immediate reference to the perceived world (see Cosmides and Tooby 2000; Geary 2005). This decoupling made it possible to think about absent conspecifics as though they were present, to lie, create art and fiction, and also form superstitious and religious ideas. In this perspective, miracles are phenomena that violate our intuitive expectations related to basic ontological categories (Pyysiäinen 2002). Boyer (1994) calls concepts involving such violations counterintuitive. Counterintuitiveness does not mean the same as “funny” or “not true”; it simply refers to the fact that a concept or mental representation contradicts human intuitive expectations about basic ontological categories.

Minimally counterintuitive representations contain only one violation of expectations (Barrett 2000, 2004; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Atran and Norenzayan 2004). There is evidence that such representations are better recalled than intuitive or maximally counterintuitive ones and that they might therefore be widespread in and across cultures (Barrett and Nyhof 2001; Boyer and Ramble 2001). The context in which counterintuitive concepts appear seems to be important, however. When subjects are presented mere lists of concepts, without a narrative context, they recall intuitiverepresentations better than minimally counterintuitive ones. Minimally counterintuitive representations are better recalled only when the narrative context creates an expectation for counterintuitive concepts, which persons thus may actually interpret to be intuitive. As different types of discourses activate different kinds of background knowledge, persons can, for instance, expect the attack of aliens in a science fiction movie but not in the radio news (Norenzayan and Atran 2004; Upal 2005; Gonce et al. 2006; Upal et al. 2007; Tweney et al. 2006).

Yet treating a counterintuitive representation as though it were intuitive does not mean the breakdown of intuitive ontology altogether. Becoming routinized in using the concept of a bodiless mind (gods, spirits, angels) in one context does not override the general expectation that minds are embodied. Therefore the religious beliefs in traditions other than one’s own have often been considered to be superstitions (Martin 2004). Although miracles are events that, in principle, contradict intuitive expectations about basic ontological categories, it is possible to become routinized in regarding some such events as natural in the sense that they are something to be expected, although they cannot be predicted. If, for example, praying seems to heal a sick person, this is something a believer might expect, although she cannot foresee or predict in which cases it will be that God decides to heal a sick person because of the prayers of others.

Two things are important here. First, becoming routinized in expecting miracles to happen does not reduce the salience of miracles and make them purely ordinary events. On the contrary, supposed miracles are attention grabbing and memorable events because they are unpredictable, often relate to important things in life, and thus trigger highly emotional responses (see Pyysiäinen 2001, 97-139). Second, believing that God can work miracles does not mean that one has an explanation of the mechanism through which God acts. It is precisely for this reason that supposed miracles are unpredictable. As soon as one can point out a mechanism that produces a supposedly miraculous outcome, the miracle ceases to be a miracle, just as has happened in the case of firearms and cameras.

This means that it might be advisable to reserve the word miracle for counterintuitive events that violate intuitive expectations and have no scientific, mechanistic explanation. Moreover, miracles in the strong sense of the word are typically attributed to some supernatural agent; mere unexplained events are miracles only in the weak sense of the word (Pyysiäinen 2002).

It is possible, in principle, to violate intuitive expectations either by transferring agency to an artifact or to a natural object or by stripping an agent from a biological body (Boyer 1994). Similarly, the ontological boundary between mere things and living kinds can be transgressed in both ways, making stones alive or plants and animals mere dead matter. Transference of agentive properties gives us such representations as bleeding effigies and statues that hear prayers (see Nickell 1993, 19-100), while the denial of a biological body to an agent results in representations such as spirits or gods. It seems that most miracle beliefs are constructed by transferring agentive properties to a thing or a living kind or by transferring biological properties to a thing (see Thompson 1934, 4-200). This is reflected in, for example, the miracles Jesus is reported to have performed.

Folk Beliefs and Theology

The following are among the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Epistles:

  1. Matthew 17:27 (New International Version [NIV]): Jesus predicts that the first fish the disciples catch will have a four-drachma coin in its mouth.
  2. Mark 8:22-26: Jesus heals a blind man by rubbing spit in his eyes.
  3. John 11:43-44: Jesus wakes up the dead Lazarus.
  4. Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25: Jesus rebukes the winds and the waves, and the sea becomes completely calm.
  5. Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48; John 6:19: Jesus walks on the lake.
  6. Matthew 21:19; Mark 11:14: Jesus commands the fig tree never to bear fruit again.
  7. Mark 16:19: Jesus is taken up into heaven.
  8. John 20:19: Dead Jesus appears to his disciples through locked doors.

These miracles fit well in Stith Thompson’s scheme for classifying marvels in his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1934, 4-200). Thompson’s following seven main categories are derived from literate sources documenting folk beliefs:

  1. Otherworldly journeys
  2. Marvelous creatures
  3. Spirits and demons
  4. Remarkable persons
  5. Persons with extraordinary powers
  6. Extraordinary places and things
  7. Extraordinary occurrences

The eight biblical miracles listed previously correspond to the following eight subtypes in Thompson’s seven categories, respectively:

  1. Extraordinary swallowings (F910-23)
  2. Marvelous cures (F950-56)
  3. Extraordinary occurrences concerning seas or waters (F930-33)
  4. Extraordinary occurrences concerning seas or waters (F930-33); compare other marvelous powers (marvelous runners F681-81.5)
  5. Extraordinary trees, plants, fruit, etc. (F810-17)
  6. Journey to heaven (F11-17)
  7. Phantoms (F585)

Biblical narratives are naturally in the background of many folktales in Christian cultures (e.g., Loomis 1948); conversely, also, the biblical motifs have been influenced by the folk traditions of their time. Folk narratives come in various genres; not all beliefs are the object of serious belief. Types of folk narratives have been classified by sorting them according to the criteria of factual versus fabulous and secular versus sacred (e.g., Littleton 1965). Myths, for example, are “extremely sacred and patently fabulous,” (Littleton 1965) while history is both factual and secular. Folktales (Märchen), for their part, are fabulous but secular, while sacred histories are sacred but factual. Legends, or sagas, are in the middle of both continua (Littleton 1965; see Pyysiäinen 2001, 223-25).

Whether persons actually believe in a specific miracle thus is not a simple yes or no question. Doubt is not part of intuitive judgment in everyday life (Kahneman 2003), and obvious facts are not regarded as objects of belief. Our everyday certainties are held true only in the implicit sense that we make inferences on their basis, not in the sense that we would consciously think that we have such and such beliefs (see Pyysiäinen forthcoming). We do not usually decide whether a given belief is true before we start to employ it as a premise in reasoning (see Boyer 2001, 298-306). Persons do not believe in miracles because they somehow relax their otherwise strict criteria for evidence; rather, they relax these criteria because some counterintuitive claims about miracles have become plausible to them (Boyer 2001).

Theology, in contrast to everyday religion, is based on reflective thinking and a philosophical analysis and elaboration of the motifs in folk traditions (Wiebe 1991; Boyer 2001; Pyysiäinen 2004a). A theological view of miracles thus is more sophisticated (e.g., Brown 1984; Swinburne 1989). There is, however, experimental evidence to the effect that persons have difficulties in using theologically correct concepts in everyday reasoning (Barret and Keil 1996; Barrett 1998). Theology thus mostly lives in reflective contexts and in a book-mind interaction, being transferred to everyday contexts only with great difficulty, if at all (Boyer 2001; Pyysiäinen 2004a). Thus theological beliefs are not easily distributed in populations.

In folklore studies, it has been a matter of dispute whether given narrative motifs become widespread because of the psychic unity of humankind or because of cultural contacts and borrowing. The first alternative was represented by ethnologist Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), while the second one was made popular by geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904; see Koepping 1983). One formulation of the contact hypothesis was the so-called Finnish method of the folklore scholars Julius (1835-1888) and Kaarle Krohn (1863-1933; Krohn 1971).

The cognitive perspective here endorsed is a weak version of the psychic unity thesis. Although there may be no truly universal contents, there are cross-culturally recurrent patterns in beliefs and narratives about miracles. This is because the intuitive ontologies are valid cross culturally. Whether due to the cognitive evolution of our species or to learning, they bring along intuitive expectations, the violation of which makes certain beliefs attention grabbing and memorable. The beliefs are contagious and thus widespread because they are easy to adopt and to remember.

Mere memory effects are not enough to explain the natural appeal of miracles, however. Belief and disbelief are strongly emotional attitudes (Pyysiäinen 2001, 77-139; Thagard 2005); beliefs about miracles are also used for various purposes, serving oppression and liberation alike. Alleged power to perform miracles can also be used as proof of authority and that the performer has some special capacities. This involves the paradox that as soon as miracles become routine, they lose the aura of magic and can no longer be used as signs of special power and authority. Miracles are attention grabbing precisely because they are exceptional.

This might explain the fact that in religious traditions, miracles are often reported to have happened, although actively seeking them is strongly discouraged. Matthew (12:38-39, NIV), for example, relates Jesus to have replied to the Pharisees who wanted to see a miraculous sign, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Likewise, the monastic rules of Buddhist monks (the third Parajika Para rule) include the prohibition to vaunt one’s spiritual accomplishments (Vinayapitakam; see Sharf 1995, 236).

This tension between interest in and suspicion toward miracles manifests at least partly the tension between persons’ actual beliefs and theologically correct beliefs. Yet certain skepticism towards miracles is found also in folk religion. Pascal Boyer (2001, 76) provides the following example from his fieldwork among the Fang of Cameroon. When someone had insisted that he had seen a shaman stick a finger in the ground, with the consequence that it reemerged in another village, others said that he could not have seen this because he could not have been in two places at once. The man then confessed that he had only seen the shaman stick the finger in the ground; he had only heard about the reemerging of the finger from a very reliable source. After this confession, he then walked off in a sulk.

It seems that disputes like this can only arise with regard to counterintuitive claims or when there is insufficient information about intuitive claims. In the case of counterintuitive claims, our information is, in principle, never sufficient. Whereas a dispute about the number of cars in the parking lot, for example, can be settled by counting the cars, a disagreement over an alleged miracle cannot be settled by a similar gathering of new information. Miracles are considered to be exceptional phenomena, and thus no generalized information can help decide whether a miracle has happened. Even if no one has ever seen a finger stuck in the ground reemerge in another village, maybe such a thing did happen on one specific occasion? This line of reasoning typifies folk psychology. If a miracle cannot be conclusively disproved, this is then regarded as proof of its factuality (see Esptein et al. 1992; Denes-Raj and Epstein 1994).

Scientists, however, know that you cannot prove the negative and that this is not any kind of proof of existence. One cannot prove that Santa Claus does not exist, but this is not proof for the existence of Santa Claus. There are often good reasons for a scientist not to believe a given claim, although it cannot be directly shown to be false (see Pyysiäinen 2004b, 85-87). Everyday thinking works differently, for better or worse. Our disposition toward emotional coherence (Thagard 2005) often makes claims about miracles plausible, or at least attention grabbing, to us. In times of various kinds of crisis, miracles may then serve as a means of retaining a positive outlook on life and survival.

Shared belief in the incredible can also be a costly and hard-to-fake signal of commitment to a group and its values and beliefs (see Atran 2002, 133-40, 264-69). For example, those who publicly express their belief in the claim that a virgin gave birth to a child take the risk of being ridiculed by outsiders, while gaining the benefits of a good reputation among insiders. A believer in miracles is somebody who can be trusted because he or she obviously has invested time and resources in shared religion. In this way, beliefs about miracles spread in populations because they are cognitively salient, are linked with positive emotions, and can serve as a sort of secret handshake, by which believers recognize their fellow believers. Cognitive structures, such as intuitive ontology, canalize the cultural transmission of miracle beliefs, which may then become an integral part of everyday thinking.