Bioethics Discussion Blog: "Medical Miracle" and the Other Side of the Coin

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"Medical Miracle" and the Other Side of the Coin

To present a different view regarding the question "what is a medical miracle?", I have extracted a small portion of a paper written by Boguslaw Lipinski, Ph.D., D.Sc. and to be found at the Faith and Culture website. Go there to read the entire paper titled "Christian Roots of Western Medicine" Also it would be most interesting to read what my visitors to this blog have to say about medical miracles. So.. comment! ..Maurice.

What is a medical miracle? There is a religious meaning, a lay meaning,
and what we shall call a scientific meaning. We define a scientific miracle an
event that has an extremely low probability of occurring. Such miracles are well
known in medicine, but generally physicians call them spontaneous remissions.
Scientific, or medical, miracles do not need any explanation: their occurrence is
explained by statistical probabilities. In other words, miracles - in our scientific
sense of the word - are definitely part of scientific thinking. (Berry RJ: “What to
believe about miracles.” Nature, 1986;322:321-322.)
In 1984 fourteen signatories, all of them professors of science in British
universities, submitted a letter to the Times about miracles (The Times, 13 July
1984). They asserted that:" It is not logically valid to use science as an argument
against miracles. To believe that miracles cannot happen is as much an act of
faith as to believe that they can happen. We gladly accept the virgin birth, the
Gospel miracles, and the resurrection of Christ as historical events. Whatever
the current fashions in philosophy or the revelations of opinion polls may
suggest, it is important to affirm that science can have nothing to say on the
subject. Its 'laws' are only generalizations of our experience." The authors have
exposed the fallacy of Hume's attack on miracles based on an assumption that
events have only a single cause and can be explained if the cause is known. "
This is logically wrong. For example, an oil painting can be 'explained' in terms
either of the distribution of pigments or the intention and design of the artist. In
the same way, a miracle may be the work of (say) a divine up -holder of the
physical world rather than a false observation or unknown cause. The authors
quote Medawar (Medawar P. The Limits of Science. [Harper&Row, New York,
1984]) who said: " There is then a prima facie case for the existence of a limit to
scientific understanding." Most of our anxieties, problems and unhappiness
today stem from a lack of purpose which were rare a century ago and which can
fairly be blamed on the consequences of scientific inquiry.

6 Comments:

At Monday, January 30, 2006 5:33:00 PM, Anonymous Moof said...

Dr. Bernstein ... this article (Christian Roots of Western Medicine) was particularly interesting to me, since I'm intimately aware of the details surrounding the life of the Polish nun (Kowalska,) and the six Medjugorge "visionaries." I was even fortunate enough to meet one of the visionaries (Ivanka) a number of years ago.

For about a decade, I administered a religious retreat ministry, with an emphasis on spiritual, emotional and physical healing. We had "healing retreats" all over New England, and also over in the Holy Land. I've personally witnessed things that I know cannot be explained by science - other than, as the article states, by "statistical probabilities."

Miracles, whether caused by a "Prime Mover," or by the faith (strength of mind) of the petitioner, certainly do happen ... and not just healings, but also other inexplicable phenomena. I've been witness to a variety of such things: bilocation, "word of knowledge," etc. ... and I'm not a credulous person. In fact, I often struggle with trying to understand the nature of what is now considered "ultranatural" phenomena - "miracles."

I believe that a day will come when science will be able to explain (and perhaps reproduce at will) such things, but we have a long way to go before that happens.

May I ask your own opinion on "Medical miracles" ... or indeed, simply any miracles?

 
At Monday, January 30, 2006 10:42:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Moof, I look at "miracles" including so-called "medical miracles" as a probability crapshoot. If an event is happening frequently enough and there is a miniscule chance in a different outcome, then that different outcome will appear and be considered as a "miracle". But there has to be some chance of an different outcome. For example, if a rock on the ground developed a heart and a brain and started to talk, I could not argue that the occurance was based on statistical probabilities. I would have to call it something and therefore I would consider that a "miracle". In medicine, there are many, many, many factors that contribute to the outcome and believe it or not we physicians are only aware of only a small number of factors. When those factors of which we are unaware make an outcome different than the ususal, we have no understanding or explanation. The patient and the family though will talk of a miracle.

Sure, these factors may consist of psychologic, including spiritual mental effects, which could affect bodily functions which are part of mechanisms against cancer or infection, for example. If in some particular patient with a particular disease and the patient is highly sensitive or receptive to this effects, perhaps it will make unique difference in the outcome. All this is what makes medicine so interesting. It never becomes an assembly line and we can all look for a surprise including happy ones! ..Maurice.

 
At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 11:26:00 AM, Anonymous Moof said...

"I look at "miracles" including so-called "medical miracles" as a probability crapshoot. If an event is happening frequently enough and there is a miniscule chance in a different outcome, then that different outcome will appear and be considered as a "miracle". But there has to be some chance of an different outcome. For example, if a rock on the ground developed a heart and a brain and started to talk, I could not argue that the occurance was based on statistical probabilities. I would have to call it something and therefore I would consider that a "miracle".

Dr. Bernstein, the above example made me laugh out loud. I have to say, it definitely shows your more "scientific" side.

Your criteria for calling something a miracle is set quite high ... and I can't help but wonder where exactly you would draw the line, medically ...

... for example, would the (late adulthood) spontaneous (instantaneous) restoration of a (congenital) whithered limb count, in your view, as a "crap shoot," or a miracle?

... a patient, in a hospital, pronounced dead - rigor mortis has begun to set in. A prayer by a bystander ... and the "dead" woman awakens. Not that unnusual, I guess, but when this elderly lady awakened, the illness she'd died from was gone, as were a number of other degenerative medical conditions which the elderly are prone to developing. She lived a considerable number of years after that.

Now, I'm not arguing for miracles ... in fact, in spite of some amazing things I've seen, I'm not sure where I stand on that issue at the moment - which is another reason I'm finding this particular post so intensely interesting.

If a rock were to "develop a brain and a heart" and begin to talk, would that convince you that there are scientific things which seem to be beyond even our understanding of what is "statistically possible" (since our scientific understanding is still incomplete) ... or would that convince you that a Prime Mover was behind the action?

 
At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 9:23:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Moof, as a physician teaching medical students, I don't want them to believe they will become "miracle workers" even though numbers of peoople regard some medical specialists as just that. On the other hand, as a physician, I am willing to accept the family's interpretation of unexpected improvemnt in the patient's condition as a miracle. But I have doubts that it is beneficial, in the end, to the patient or family for the family to insist on waiting for a miracle when statistics fail to support a likelyhood of improvment or recovery. But consideration of waiting for a unlikely recovery has to be determined on a case by case basis.

When we hear of miracles as you described as examples, it requires careful and full documentation of the facts and findings by someone who has witnessed personally the recovery particularly when the recovery involves scientifically improbable restoration. One can't establish a miracle based on hearsay. Miracle stories abound but true miracles need the highest degree of evidence for proof. If my rock were to develop a brain and a heart and start to talk , I would have no doubt whatsoever that it was a Prime Mover responsible for such a miraculous occurance. It could also be that it was all just a dream. ..Maurice.

 
At Wednesday, February 01, 2006 7:57:00 AM, Anonymous Moof said...

I can appreciate everything you've said, and find that I'm agreement with you from beginning to end.

As far as the rock is concerned - I tend to lean more toward the "dreaming" than the "Prime Mover" at this particular time, although that hasn't always been so.

You're always a joy to "discuss" things with, Dr. Bernstein ... thank you!

 
At Tuesday, June 22, 2010 11:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this blog. We had a miracle 2 weeks ago.I'm working though trying to understand it, if that's possible?
My daughter drowned. There were no signs of life no pulse, no heartbeat, she was blue & gray and blended in with the bottom of the pool. God put the right people at the right place at the right time to find her and start CPR. A very large prayer chain began, she is alive and completely healthy with no ill effects. We watched a dead child come back to life. The goodness following this event has been enormous. Conversions, renewals of faith, people signing up for CPR classes & swim lessons. We have been profoundly blessed.

 

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