We’ve already met Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, when, on NPR, she gave credence to “miracles” supposedly caused by a postmortem Mother Teresa. Duffin, an atheist, has studied the Vatican’s methods for ruling out naturalistic causes of the cures used to validate sainthood (it takes two such miracles), and she agrees with the Vatican’s assessment. These things have no naturalistic explanation, and thus are “miracles” by Duffin’s lights (see below).
Well, Duffin is dining out on her god-of-the-gaps arguments, for she has a new and similar piece, “Pondering miracles, medical and religious” in the Opinion section of the New York Times. Here she discusses a remission from acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), which led to a woman’s long-term survival—an apparent cure.
This is very rare, but Dr. Alex Lickerman, a medical colleague of mine, combed the literature and found several examples of cures of AML without treatment (the “miracle” cure was accompanied by treatment, presumably chemotherapy). So these aren’t unknown, and there’s no mention of prayer in the other cases of cures. And, although Duffin claims that we can’t understand the cure she mentions, there are definite factors associated with remission and cures in the published cases. One is the specific mutation causing AML. The other is the presence of viral or bacterial infection: getting infection makes you more likely to have a remission or be cured. That’s presumably because those infections activate the immune system, which then fortuitously attacks the cancer cells. (In fact, one doctor tried “infection therapy” against AML, with perhaps some limited success.)
The correlation of spontaneous cures and remissions with particular mutations or infections suggests a naturalistic rather than a divine cause. After all, God and Mother Teresa should be able to cure all AMLs, not just particular types.
The bit that makes Duffin say her case is a genuine “miracle” is that after treatment the AML patient had a remission, then relapsed, was treated again, and had ANOTHER remission—this time a permanent one. She doesn’t know of any cases of double remission leading to cure, and indeed, there may not be any reported in the literature. But does that mean that, according to Hume’s principle, divine intercession is more likely that natural causes? I don’t think so. Even the most deadly diseases can sometimes spontaneously disappear, and since cases are so rare, we don’t know why. Again Duffin is falling into the God Gap: validating miracles because we don’t have a naturalistic explanation.
I’ll write more about this later, perhaps for another venue, but I want to quote a few paragraphs showing how credulous—and postmodern—Duffin is, to the extent of both dissing science and equating it with “faith.” Excerpts from her article are indented; my comments are flush left.
If a sick person recovers through prayer and without medicine, that’s nice, but not a miracle. She had to be sick or dying despite receiving the best of care. The church finds no incompatibility between scientific medicine and religious faith; for believers, medicine is just one more manifestation of God’s work on earth.
I’m not sure why the importance of “the best of care”? Wouldn’t miracles be even more convincing without care? And why are the remissions always for diseases in which we know of spontaneous remissions and cures without prayer? After all, as has been pointed out repeatedly, we don’t see missing limbs and eyes regrown, yet miracles should be able to produce these as well. (“Why won’t God heal amputees?” is even a website!) That itself is one of the strongest arguments against medical miracles.
Duffin’s piece goes on (my emphasis throughout):
Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.
Note the bit in bold. Pure science-dissing, and I need say no more. But wait! There’s more!
I also learned more about medicine and its parallels with religion. Both are elaborate, evolving systems of belief. Medicine is rooted in natural explanations and causes, even in the absence of definitive evidence. Religion is defined by the supernatural and the possibility of transcendence. Both address our plight as mortals who suffer — one to postpone death and relieve symptoms, the other to console us and reconcile us to pain and loss.
More postmodernism: Science-based medicine is just another “system of belief”! Sorry, but there’s a huge difference about how we establish the “facts” in science versus in religion. You can read Faith Versus Fact to see the argument, or my Slate article “No faith in science.” Here we have, however, more postmodernism. Finally, Duffin’s last paragraph:
Respect for our religious patients demands understanding and tolerance; their beliefs are as true for them as the “facts” may be for physicians. Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
Notice the scare quotes around “facts”. This implies that religious facts, like miracle cures, are pretty much like scientific facts. The last sentence is both ludicrous and invidious, touting the po-mo principle that “lived experience” always denotes “truth.” Well, just because someone thinks a miracle is supernaturally based doesn’t make it so. They used to think that lightning and magnetism were supernatural phenomena, but we’ve learned otherwise. Were they once “miracles” but no longer? Here Duffin is mouthing words that have no substance behind them, but fall sweetly on the ears of believers and faitheists.
I discussed this article with a colleague who made some trenchant and critical remarks. Asked whether I could name him/her, the person responded:
How about my being identified as a thinly disguised anonymous colleague and friend, for plausible deniability should I ever need surgery?
And my colleague’s take, quoted with permission:
So how can an atheist, and a doctor, publish such tripe? It’s dangerous tripe, too, because people at the margins who read it could tilt their treatment (or worse, the treatment of their children) toward prayer rather than reality. Three things are going on here, I think:
- Many doctors don’t think like scientists. Professionally, they are descendants of medieval barber-surgeons and apothecaries, and at various times in the history of medicine, there have been efforts to inject scientific standards into the profession (including the urge for evidence-based medicine today—why isn’t that a tautology?).
- “The history of science” is largely a postmodernist discipline, and I wonder if that’s true of the history of medicine as well.
- The Second Culture of humanities-oriented public intellectuals is sentimentally attached to religion, perhaps because they think the enemy of their enemy (scientific thinking) is their friend.
- Note, too, the key conceptual confusion in the article:
a. Science can’t explain everything, because many phenomena in nature, particularly in biological systems, are stochastic, and scientists are not Maxwell’s demons who can keep track of the position and velocity of every molecule.
b. Science can’t explain everything, because there are occult phenomena in nature that are beyond its reach.