There are many issues surrounding miracle claims, both in ancient and modern times. There are enough to fill an entire book. I want to focus on a few relevant topics that have come up in recent conversations. If you feel I missed an important point, please comment and I will respond.
You cannot prove a negative claim.
I’d like to start by saying that you can’t prove a negative (and it shouldn’t be required). For example, if I said to you that unicorns exist, you could not prove that they do not. We could search the world and even space and not find them. Yet, I could say they are invisible or they exist in a separate dimension or something like that. Similarly, I can’t prove that god or miracles do not exist. It’s simply not possible – a logical loophole. However, the onus for an extreme claim, many would agree, is on the person making the claim, not the other person. So, I should have to show you that unicorns exist. Likewise, the onus is on the person claiming a miracle to show that it is true. No one has ever been able to prove anything supernatural, thus, they reside in the loophole so they don’t have to abandon their belief.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you don’t think you should have to provide proof of an extraordinary positive claim, then let’s run through a thought experiment:
Let’s say you are walking past a newsstand and you see a magazine claiming a Bigfoot sighting, accompanied by the customary grainy photo. Will you walk around the rest of the day believing Bigfoot has been found unless someone comes along to prove the article wrong? Of course not. You will regard it with skepticism unless there is a really convincing argument presented for believing it. However, if you see an article saying that the President just returned from Asia, you will probably not question it without good reason. This is precisely because we expect above average proof for extraordinary claims.
Now, if the Bigfoot claim is viewed in this way, how much more extraordinary is a super being that is all powerful and all knowing? It is to your benefit to agree that the onus should be on the claim-maker. Otherwise, you would have to believe all kinds of nonsense from alien encounters to astral travel to Scientology or at least consider the beliefs as valid as your own. I imagine not many people are willing to make this concession.
Miracle healing claims are unique.
This is not true. There are many claims of miracles from every religious group. These include healings, becoming immortal, suddenly being able to read a new language, virgin births, etc. A few examples of groups that believe in supernatural healing include Mormons, African religions, native American religions, voodoo, psychics, new age groups, and many more. These are claims made in the present day and they similarly have a person diagnosed as sick, followed by some ritual, followed by a person better (or apparently better). On what grounds would you accept your own claims and reject these as fraud?
On a side note, uniqueness has nothing to do with the truth of a proposition, as I discussed in earlier posts.
Miracle claims do not rule out extraneous variables.
Everyone involved in making miracle claims is committing a logical fallacy, popularized by David Hume, that just because one event follows another, that means it was caused by it. This is similar to the person who wears a certain pair of socks, then wins a poker tournament and deems them lucky, then always wears that same pair of socks to play poker. Obviously, this person’s socks are not really affecting the cards, his opponents, etc.
Just because something is a fallacy doesn’t mean that it’s not true. It just means that the simple order of events is not enough – we need more evidence.
So what can provide enough evidence for a supernatural claim?
This depends on whether the claim is a physical or metaphysical one.
If the claim is physical, like the Eucharist becoming the literal flesh and blood of Christ, a simple test of the materials will suffice. To my knowledge, the Catholic Church has never submitted to such a test in real time.
If the claim is metaphysical, then we should see consistent statistical significance. We have tried this in double blind studies. Described simply, do sick people improve more often when they have people praying for them? We have found there is no significant statistical difference so far. If, through a controlled double-blind study, significance is found, then repeated several times with similar results, we can say that prayer may positively affect health. If, over several years, this continues to be the case, then we’ll have a pretty good idea of its causation.
Since we don’t find any correlation, people come up with excuses. We’ve probably heard them several times before: God works in mysterious ways. You can’t understand the mind of God. God has a plan, and this is part of it. We are supposed to learn something from this unanswered prayer. We must not have had enough faith.
These are all apparent attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance. If we can sufficiently show that there is no difference between praying and not praying, then why pray at all? What does it accomplish? If there is no more significance in whether someone prays than in whether they are right or left-handed, then I can’t think of a rationale to continue the practice.
If you want to convince non-believers, then show us the evidence. Specifically, show us the scientific evidence or at least the significant correlations. Without it, stories of magic healings (by the way, random disease remission happens to people without prayer too), sports victories, awards, monetary success, and whatever else you may attribute to prayer are meaningless.