The Logic of Miracles
Making Sense of Rare, Really Rare, and Impossibly Rare Events
- ISBN: 9780300224153
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: April 2018
The Logic of Miracles is a fascinating book that has very little to do with religion. As Mérö notes in the very first sentence of the preface, “this book is about secular “miracles”—highly unusual events—that have profoundly changed the world economy” (vii). The highly unusual events Mérö describes are not always economic ones, but this book focuses both on understanding how it is that strange economic events occur and on providing practical strategies for surviving these. Students of religion assigned this text will likely be as baffled as I was when a colleague recommended I review it.
In the third chapter of the first section of The Logic of Miracles, Mérö provides an interesting typology of miracles: pseudomiracles, which are simply rare events that occur in a statistically predictable way; true miracles, which encompass phenomena that deviate from the laws of nature as currently understood by science; and transcendent miracles, which are the product of divine will and can never be amenable to scientific explanation (60-61). Because Mérö is interested in providing scientific and mathematical explanations for “miracles,” he seldom discusses transcendent miracles except to note these are “outside the scope of this book” (110) and that transcendent miracles, if they occur, “are so rare that there may be no point in even trying to prepare for them” (183). In other words, readers interested in an explanation or investigation of religious miracles are advised to look elsewhere.
Readers who are interested in advanced mathematics will be delighted by this book as Mérö explains difficult concepts clearly and provides helpful and often playful examples to explain, for instance, the differences between Gaussian and Gauchy distributions or the connections between chaos theory and scale-invariance. Other readers may delight instead when Mérö announces in the beginning of the antepenultimate chapter, “if you are not an aficionado of higher mathematics, you will be pleased to learn that I will introduce no more of it for the rest of this book” (183).
It is in the three final chapters that Mérö introduces some concepts that may be of use to scholars of religion—though only as a kind of “convertible knowledge” (234). One of the central ideas in the book is that different mathematical models are required for different kinds of phenomena, which can then be grouped into different kinds of “worlds.” Gaussian distributions describe a “mild” predictable world, which Mérö labels Mildovia. In Mildovia, enormous deviations from the average are rare. Gauchy distributions describe instead a “wild” world (Wildovia) in which large deviations from the average occur more frequently. In chapter 10, Mérö explains that we always live in both worlds and so “must learn to think in Mildovian and Wildovian terms simultaneously” (193). Mérö borrows Orwell’s term “doublethink” to describe this process of thinking both ways or of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both. Mérö strips the term doublethink of its political and totalitarian connotations to apply it to the necessary inconsistency and ambiguity of inhabiting two worlds. This idea is helpful for my own work on enchantment as it helps to describe how modern subjects may both believe in and yet also dismiss enchanted, wondrous, and magical events.
Although transcendent miracles—the ones that scholars of religion might be most interested in—are mostly excluded from this book, Mérö does describe a personal and potentially transcendent miracle in his epilogue. In 2006, Mérö visited Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial and experienced a kind of unexpected love for the Germans despite their role in exterminating the better part of his family. Although Mérö does not claim this miraculous feeling of love is necessarily transcendent, he describes it as “at least a true miracle,” one that cannot be explained the laws of nature as currently understood by science (253).
In his section on convertible knowledge, Mérö explains that scientific training, which employs complicated mathematical models, and training in the humanities, which focuses instead on complex conceptual relationships, are both useful and necessary. Although Mérö does not set out to explain or investigate transcendental miracles, it seems likely to me that explanations for these lie in conceptual relationships rather than mathematical models. Yet I may be wrong, and one insight from The Logic of Miracles is to expect the unexpected. Anyone who hopes to explain religious miracles with the help of mathematical models should certainly read this book.
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Professor in the Humanities Department at Dawson College in Montréal, Canada.Ian Alexander CuthbertsonDate Of Review:August 19, 2018