Guru Magazine - - Contents - DARYL IL­BURY• SCEP­TIC GURU

Scep­tic Guru, Daryl Il­bury, chal­lenges the con­cept of mir­a­cles as we know them. But all is not lost: the world’s true won­ders are be­com­ing more and more ac­ces­si­ble – all you need is a mi­cro­scope.

More peo­ple than ever be­lieve in mir­a­cles. Even though re­li­gious at­ten­dances are fall­ing, be­lief in the in­ex­pli­ca­ble is see­ing a re­vival. We shouldn’t be so eas­ily duped says Scep­tic Guru, Daryl Il­bury. As a stal­wart ra­tion­al­ist, Daryl nev­er­the­less be­lieves in the mirac­u­lous and the won­der­ful. How­ever, the mir­a­cles he be­lieves in are prob­a­bly not the ones you’re think­ing of…

Flick through the pages of a typ­i­cal tabloid and it won’t be long be­fore you are con­fronted with a head­line that screams ‘mir­a­cle’. If it’s not an ad­vert for some oint­ment or pill regime claim­ing to cure ev­ery­thing from chilblains to can­cer, it will be a story of an event that pur­ports ev­i­dence of divin­ity. Such claims should be ex­am­ined with a scep­tic’s eye – be­cause one man’s mir­a­cle is a wise man’s sci­ence. First of all, let’s get some­thing out of the way:

there is a place where you will most def­i­nitely find a mir­a­cle – in this pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of the term. It’s in a dic­tionary, where it’s de­fined as ‘an ex­tra­or­di­nary and wel­come event that is not ex­pli­ca­ble by nat­u­ral or sci­en­tific laws’ and is there­fore of­ten ‘at­trib­uted’ to some form of di­vine agency. So mir­a­cles re­ally do hap­pen? Not so fast! The word ‘at­trib­uted’ is key here, be­cause at a glance it may sug­gest causal­ity, some­thing that believ­ers in mir­a­cles take as a given. How­ever, ‘at­trib­uted’ sim­ply means ‘con­sid­ered’ or ‘re­garded’, and it un­der­lines the rel­a­tive na­ture of what is con­sid­ered a ‘mir­a­cle’. Just be­cause some peo­ple may at­tribute some­thing to di­vine in­ter­ven­tion doesn’t make it a re­al­ity, just as some re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists at­tribut­ing a cat­a­strophic event to, say, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity def­i­nitely doesn’t make it so.

Mirac­u­lous logic

Fur­ther­more, believ­ers in mir­a­cles may point to the phrase ‘not ex­pli­ca­ble by nat­u­ral or sci­en­tific laws’ as mean­ing that such events are some­how ‘big­ger’ than sci­ence, but they will pooh-pooh ‘ghosts’ and ‘ghouls’ as triv­ial and purely ‘su­per­nat­u­ral’. This is ironic be­cause the word ‘su­per­nat­u­ral’ is sim­i­larly de­fined as ‘be­yond sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing or the laws of na­ture’ – so all ‘mir­a­cles’ are su­per­nat­u­ral! It’s not a ca­sual con­nec­tion. Be­liev­ing in mir­a­cles is nor­mally sup­ported by logic sim­i­lar to that sup­port­ing the be­lief in the su­per­nat­u­ral: be­cause ‘sci­ence can’t ex­plain ev­ery­thing’, su­per­nat­u­ral events must be pos­si­ble. This is ter­ri­bly flawed logic. It’s a lit­tle like say­ing if you take ev­ery­thing out of your fridge and ob­serve that it’s empty, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a uni­corn in there. So there’s no such thing a mir­a­cle? That’s not en­tirely true if you dig deeper into the word ‘mir­a­cle’ for its root mean­ing. Its ori­gin can be traced back to the Latin phrase ‘mirac­u­lum’ mean­ing ‘ob­ject of won­der’. Now, that should res­onate with sci­en­tists! Carl Sa­gan once wrote: “We all have a thirst for won­der. It’s a deeply hu­man qual­ity. Sci­ence and re­li­gion are both bound up with it. What I’m say­ing is, you don’t have to make sto­ries up [and] you don’t have to ex­ag­ger­ate. Na­ture’s a lot bet­ter at in­vent­ing won­ders than we are.” It’s no co­in­ci­dence, then, that Richard Dawkins’ au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is ti­tled ‘An Ap­petite for Won­der: The Mak­ing of a Sci­en­tist’.

Many peo­ple don’t re­alise it, but sci­ence is driven by this thirst or ap­petite for won­der. As it pro­gresses, sci­ence finds ex­pla­na­tions for things for­merly con­sid­ered not ex­pli­ca­ble by the laws of na­ture; and in the process, th­ese ‘laws of na­ture’ are adapted. Also within the realms of sci­ence – specif­i­cally when in­ves­ti­gat­ing the very small and very large scopes of the nat­u­ral world – the laws of na­ture as we know them can have a nasty habit of be­ing com­pletely flipped on their heads. The re­sult: we dis­cover things that re­ally are – in the true sense of the word – mirac­u­lous.

Real mir­a­cles

The late pa­le­on­tol­o­gist and pop­u­lar-sci­ence writer Stephen Jay Gould, writ­ing in The Panda’s

Thumb (1980), tells the fas­ci­nat­ing story of mag­ne­to­tac­tic bac­te­ria – mi­cro­scopic aquatic or­gan­isms that ‘eat’ strings of cubed par­ti­cles of iron min­er­als to cre­ate tiny in­ter­nal com­passes (mini-mag­nets, as it were) so that they can nav­i­gate by the Earth’s mag­netic field. What is truly – and here’s that word – ‘mirac­u­lous’ is that the size of the cubed par­ti­cles that the bac­te­ria choose to in­gest, roughly 500 angstroms (an angstrom is one ten-mil­lionth of a mil­lime­tre),

is ex­actly the cor­rect size to achieve the de­sired re­sult. Some­how the bac­te­ria ‘know’ that if the par­ti­cles were any smaller, they would sim­ply be in­ef­fec­tive, and if any larger they would can­cel each other out. Stay­ing with bac­te­ria, the Amer­i­can neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist De­bra Niehoff has a fas­ci­na­tion with E. coli

– not be­cause it’s known as a lit­tle crit­ter that can cause a nasty up­set tummy, but be­cause of its in­cred­i­ble arse­nal of seem­ingly hu­man­like skills, specif­i­cally its ca­pac­ity to dance and com­mu­ni­cate. The laws of na­ture are dif­fer­ent down in the gut. For one, what we imag­ine as eas­ily flow­ing liq­uids are (for bac­te­ria) highly vis­cous, not un­like trea­cle. To counter this, as Niehoff ex­plains in her book The Lan­guage of Life (2005), E. coli have de­vel­oped a skein of spin­ning fil­a­ments, called fla­gella, that are pow­ered by a ‘gear­box of pro­teins’ that spin the fla­gella like a ro­tor at more than 100 rev­o­lu­tions per sec­ond, al­low­ing it to churn its way through the ‘gloopy’ liq­uids in the gut. But that’s not all: when the ro­tor spins clock­wise, the fla­gella each stroke to their own beat and E.coli spins and tum­bles; but then it switches, the ro­tor spins coun­ter­clock­wise, and the fla­gella spi­ral into a sin­gle tail, giv­ing it a smoother, more di­rect thrust for­wards when needed. Re­cent stud­ies of E. coli have also found that they have a ten­dency to ‘chat’ amongst them­selves. This hadn’t been no­ticed be­fore be­cause bac­te­ria are nor­mally grown in labs in flat petri dishes, away from the hazards of their ‘nat­u­ral’ en­vi­ron­ment. How­ever, when ex­am­ined un­der nat­u­ral con­di­tions, E. coli dis­play re­mark­able sur­vival skills, not least the ca­pac­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with each other (via re­cep­tors) through a set of com­plex in­ter­changes. A chem­i­cal ‘chat­ter’ of en­zymes and pro­teins gives E. coli the ca­pac­ity to hunt for food as a group in­stead of as in­di­vid­u­als. Yes, just like dol­phins. The thought of bac­te­ria com­mu­ni­cat­ing goes against our un­der­stand­ing of the laws of na­ture – that com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween liv­ing or­gan­isms is the sole pre­serve of those with at least some mea­sure of a brain. As such, the fact they can do this falls squarely within the realm of a mir­a­cle. So, if you are look­ing for ev­i­dence of real mir­a­cles, you need noth­ing more than an ap­petite for won­der… oh yes, and a pow­er­ful mi­cro­scope.

ABOVE: A trans­mis­sion elec­tron mi­cro­graph of E. coli show­ing its


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