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March 6, 2011

On the Supernatural Miracle

The universe by its nature follows natural laws.  These laws are made clearer by
science and scientific advances.  A supernatural miracle by definition is a
contravention of these laws; a scientist believes in these laws, and therefore
cannot rationally believe in supernatural miracles.


Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in
this world

By Michael Shermer

Scientific American

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the brilliant author of the wildly popular Sherlock
Holmes detective stories, which celebrated the triumph of reason and logic
over superstition and magical thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish physician-
turned-writer did not apply his creation’s cognitive skills when it came to the
blossoming spiritualism movement of the early 1900s: he fell blindly for the
crude hoax of the Cottingley Fairies photographs and regularly attended
séances to make contact with family members who had died in the First
World War, especially his son Kingsley. Perhaps fittingly, Conan Doyle’s fame
brought him into company with the greatest magician of his age, Harry
Houdini, who did not suffer fakes gladly.

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home,
whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing—a favorite
method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who
allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate—­could be done by perfectly
prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the
room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four
cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not
been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well
of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the
street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question
or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle
complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s
book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and

How appropriate, for what happened next defied explanation, at least in
Conan Doyle’s mind. Houdini had him scoop up the ink-soaked ball in a
spoon and place it against the slate, where it momentarily stuck before
slowly rolling across the face, spelling out “M,” “e,” “n,” “e,” and so forth
until the entire phrase was completed, at which point the ball dropped to the
ground. According to William Kalush and Larry Sloman in their 2006 biography
The Secret Life of Houdini (Atria Books), the Master Mystifier then dealt
Conan Doyle the lesson that he—and by implication anyone impressed by
such mysteries—needed to hear:

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion ... I won’t
tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by
perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along
these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that
certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of
“spirits,” just because you cannot explain them....

Lamentably, Sir Arthur continued to believe that Houdini had psychic powers
and spiritual connections that he employed in his famous escapes.

This problem is called the argument from ignorance (“it must be true
because it has not been proven false”) or sometimes the argument from
personal incredulity (“because I cannot imagine a natural explanation, there
cannot be one”). Such fallacious reasoning comes up so often in my
encounters with believers that I conclude it must be a product of a brain
unsatisfied with doubt; as nature abhors a vacuum, so, too, does the brain
abhor no explanation. It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely. Thus
do normal anomalies become paranormal, natural phenomena become
supernatural, unidentified flying objects become extraterrestrial spacecraft
and chance events become conspiracies.

Houdini’s principle states that just because something is unexplained does
not mean that it is paranormal, supernatural, extraterrestrial or
conspiratorial. Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure
that it is not in this world, for science is grounded in naturalism, not
supernaturalism, paranormalism or any other unnecessarily complicated