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Miracles, Elvis, and Crop Circles
The Impossibility Of Knowing About The Unrepeatable
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I guess we gotta figure this miracle thing out.

Sometimes I watch the magazine shows on the Spanish television channels to resuscitate my Spanish. Usually they have a story about a miracle. Normally Juan Valdez has seen the likeness of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in his tortillas, or in a water stain on a rock, or a portrait is crying real tears. Word gets around. Thousands of people come to look. The press follows.

As best I can tell, a miracle means anything people don’t understand and they can’t do again to study it. Miracles seem to be all over the place, like ticks on a summer cow. They just flat gum up the grocery-rack tabloids.

Most religions have miracles. Jews have the parting of the Red Sea, and Christians have the turning of water to wine (which seems to me a more practical sort of miracle, but then I don’t have Egyptians chasing me), and the Moslems have the ascent of Mohammed to heaven. India’s a regular mass market in miracles. Ancient Rome had so many they had to store them in warehouses.

Then you have secular miracles, like Elvis sightings, UFOs that do weird examinations of hysterical spinsters, magical pyramids that sharpen razor blades, mutilated cattle, funny-looking space aliens with bulgy grey heads that the Air Force stores in New Mexico, and crop circles.

Reporters always treat believers, whether in the Bible or UFOs, with wary condescension, viewing them as witless but numerous, and likely to raise hell if sneered at, so maybe we better not, quite.

Well, maybe. I’m not so sure we have this odd world entirely figured out. Now, I don’t know chicken fat about miracles. But just for grins, suppose that something miraculous, or at least inexplicable, really happened, in an ordinary setting.

For example, there’s a place called the Washington Sailing Marina, where I go to heist a brew with friends and keep an eye on the Potomac. Suppose that a giant green leprechaun, six feet tall, appeared on the dock. (That’s a pretty healthy leprechaun, but the diet’s been good in Ireland since the Potato Famine. We’ll probably see leprechauns in the NBA.) Suppose he walked out on the river, turned into a huge order of barbecued ribs, and disappeared into the sky like a bottle rocket, bang!

Remember we’re supposing it really happened. What would the response be of the, say, 25 people who might be there?

Fifteen of them wouldn’t see it at all. They’d be looking the other way, scratching, or swilling beer and lying about their stock portfolios. Some would watch, startled, and then begin to worry about themselves, and head for a serious bar. They wouldn’t say anything, to anybody, ever. I mean, you don’t run up to strangers and say, “Hey, did you see a giant green guy turn into a plate of ribs?” They’d call for a struggle buggy and some big orderlies.

A few would see it together.

“Jeez. . . Fred, what’s that?

“Green guy. No, rack of ribs. No, looks like a bottle rocket.”


“I don’t want to think about it.”

There would be a lunge for explanatory security blankets. It was a mirage caused by odd reflections on the water. Not ribs, but a flock of seagulls browned by the smog. A Navy submarine, towing a green weather balloon from beneath the water (which is eight feet deep).

That would be the end of it. Nobody would ever speak of it again. It wouldn’t have happened.

Even though it had.

Suppose by contrast that the senior class of Tuscaweegee High were at the deck on their senior trip, having a Washington Experience, and saw the ribs make their way heavenward. Suppose the girls started shrieking and latched onto the boys for security, and the boys started thinking they ought to get some leprechauns in Tennessee if that’s the effect they had on girls. And suppose they carried on so much that someone called the media.

We still wouldn’t know about it.

A TV crew would show up from Channel Zero, two camera donkeys and a blonde reporteress, all bored out of their skulls. They’d be the crew who did filler for News Alive At Five–car crashes, grade-school shootings, and heartwarming stories about a dog that got run over, but survived due to a sustaining faith in multiculturalism.

I can imagine the assignment being made at the studio:

“Hey, Rita, get down to the Marina. They got leprechauns.”


“Yeah. They fly, like bugs. Yeah, you have to. I know you did Naked Lesbian Pudding Wrestling last week. Go anyway.”

The crew would show up and the blonde would ask patronizing questions tipped with humor. “Now, what size were these, uh, leprechauns? Do you see them often?”

The high school kids would be embarrassed and not very credible.

When the segment aired the anchor would trot out a psychologist who would intone, “Well, Roger, it has all the symptoms of mass hysteria.”

“Mass hysteria” is psychology talk for, “We’re clueless, but if we use a ponderous name and don’t look too vacuous, maybe nobody will notice.”

In short, if it shouldn’t have been there, psychologists will assure us that it wasn’t. Actually, a bunch of people can’t all see the same thing unless (a) they’re telepathic, or (b) it’s there. But never mind.

And that would be that. Humorous filler. Even though it really happened.

Further, if it isn’t repeatable, science can’t tell that it happened. This means that if miracles did occur, or do occur, or for that matter anything screwy and not real possible that only happens once, and stops, we can’t know it. Science can’t tell whether Elvis really materialized in a glowing cloud of Ace-Hold strawberry pomade, or a leprechaun turned into ribs.


To figure anything out, scientists would have to put the leprechaun in a lab with a mass spec and a gas-liquid chromatograph and do PET scans and MRIs, and stick purees of him into a DNA sequencer. And that leprechaun would have to be there every time they looked, which isn’t how leprechauns are. Sometimes they’re there. Sometimes they aren’t.

See? We can’t know about leprechauns, if any. As someone said, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our televised drivel. Or, as JBS Haldane put it, the world is not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.


(Republished from Fred on Everything by permission of author or representative)
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