The following is an excerpted and edited conversation from a physics chat room [October 6th, 2003]. The discussion was initiated by member "X" and essentially asked if a event occurring once can be admitted to the realm of scientific epistemology? Thus, the discussion.
X--Ok, a serious topic. Do events which can happen only one single time belong to the realm of science/physics--justify answer.
Y--Neither X. Religion--falls in category of miracles.
Z--If an experiment is valid, it can be repeated.
Y--I just cannot imagine a single event--one would never empirically prove it.
X--So physics/science is limited to phenomena which are repeatable?
Y--I agree with Z.
Z--X, I think if the event just occurs once, it would be as if a physics law were created only during that event and later destroyed.
Y--Theories are connected to repeatable events by definition.
X--Well anyway I thought a miracle was an event that takes place without respecting the laws of physics etc.
Y--Part of a definition of a theory is that it is repeatable.
X--Is the miracle concept dependent on the state of our knowledge then?
Y--Its part of scientific method--multiple experiments.
Z--Like I had said.... if an experiment cannot be repeated it is as if the laws of physics existed only for the moment that the experiment occurred.
Y--Current knowledge, yes.
Z--Not all the laws.. .the ones that permitted that experiment to occur.
X--OK Y, if science can only handle repeatable events, then we are doomed to never "KNOW" anything about unique events.
Y--How important are unique events in epistemology?
Y--Other than saying that our current knowledge may be incomplete.
Y--There is room for uniqueness.
Y--An indication of an incorrect and incomplete body of knowledge.
X--Or, is the issue really a matter of human interpretation in that we only accept that which we understand /a la caveman having a wind god because he couldn't understand air.
Y--In a way yes.
Y--Knowledge is always unfolding and will accept the unique.
X--No brain--no epistemology ???
Y--There may be in the future room for miracles.
Y--Like a burning bush that Moses experienced.
X--Then maybe physics is a dead end in our trying to answer fundamental questions since "brains" are just parts of some kind of bio mechanisms.
Y--Not really X.
Y--Physics--a body of knowledge--will always be unfolding.
Z--If our brain were different.... would physics be different?
X--As I was saying, even with a unique event there is hope since we still can talk about probabilities and information content etc.
Y--Miracles may be a part of a body of knowledge in the future.
Y--Everyone will have a Moses burning bush.
X--The miracle concept is independent of any religious connotation / just depends on our state of scientific knowledge right ?
Y--Religions use a unique event to bolster their faith.
Y--Not really scientific for them.
X--Their faith or their faithful?
Y--If anything else, it is a slam by religions against science.
Y--Burning bushes, parting a large sea, water into wine, and so on.
X--Can we agree that science is just ordered/classified knowledge plus methodologies to obtain new knowledge ?
Y--In the future--yes, begging the question Z--these events may be part of a new body of knowledge.
X--So, to know what science is, we must know what knowledge is.
X--And we are back to the premise that all "human" knowledge is based on actual physical observations.
Y--There may well be metaphysical.
X--So, if we physically observe a unique event, it is part of our body of knowledge.
Y--Maybe an undiscovered explanation.
Y--Consider the following....
Y--Ancient mans’ very first observation of Halley’s comet.
X--Seemed unique to ancient man.
Y--He may have considered it a miracle or unique event based on current knowledge--then guess what--76 years later it appeared again--now the current single event knowledge of the event was understood and became a part of a new body of knowledge.
Y--So the same maybe with a burning bush.
X--So we open the door for "religious miracles" to someday be part of our knowledge base. I cannot accept that on the simple basis that many such "religious miracles" were made up in the minds of people and never were observed.
Y--We don't know that for sure X.
Y--The events could have happened.
Z--And what about the virgin Mary visions? They occurred many times... is that an unique event?
Y--But I do agree that they have more mythical/religious meaning than an actual physical event.
Y--Repetition does not yield uniqueness.
Y--That is part of an hypothesis of an event.
X--There is quite a difference also in an event which reoccurs on its own and an event that we can make reoccur, say in a laboratory.
Y--Yes--but to add bona fide events to a body of knowledge does require lab testing.
Y--The lab can be the universe--not a building downtown.
X--I think it is an unanswerable question as to whether or not there are miracles.
Y--For the time being yes.
X--For example, if a miracle is more than just not yet discovered science.
Z--An example just occurred to me... the cases of "miracles" in medicine.. a terminal person is about to die and suddenly survives... the doctors cant say what happened and made this person continue alive... is it undiscovered science?
X-- Also we have to look at the possibility that all events are unique! After all each is characterized by a time parameter etc., etc., etc.
Y--I think so Z.
Y--Recovery from a disease can be a mystery.
Z--But while they don't discover, they say "it was a miracle".
X--Z, I would say unknown science since we do not yet know all there is to know about physiology etc. And we may never "discover" what kept the person alive.
X--We are all just skirting the deity issue.
Y--My point exactly.
Y--Ultimate knowledge of everything may never be know.
Y--There must be some mystery.
X--Z, Also remember the survival due to a medical miracle may in principle be like knowing that the probability of one single number in the unit interval being chosen is zero yet individual numbers are chosen i.e., happen.
Y--Perhaps man is incapable of knowing all.
[The names were changed to protect the innocent.]
Any thoughts about single, non-repeatable events and scientific knowledge? Should miracles be left to matters of faith? They certainly don't fit within the criteria of scientific epistemology.