I’m reluctant to address this topic because it tends to bring out the trolls, so I’ll state in advance that I won’t approve comments I deem trollish. But this question has become so prevalent in the atheist blogosphere, I may as well address it too. I should also state up front that I’m an agnostic with atheistic leanings so I’m obviously skeptical about miracle claims. Having said that, however, I’m not a fan of using this tactic in dialogue with theists. If it’s asked as a genuine attempt to elucidate some aspect of the problem of evil or the problem of hiddenness (more on this below) all well and good. However, it frequently comes across as a mean-spirited, cheap debater’s trick. Often, there doesn’t seem to be any genuine interest in an answer on the atheist’s part; it’s just a ‘gotcha’ move. We can do better. So in the spirit of addressing the question seriously, let’s continue.
First, it’s not altogether clear to me what some of the atheists who pose this question are asking. Are they asking why we don’t have miracle reports of amputee healing? If so, they simply haven’t looked for them (see below). Of course, they could say that none of these reports are verified, but that objection applies to miracle reports generally; it’s not specific to the amputee case. Are they asking why such reports aren’t more common? Again, one could ask this of miracle reports generally. The implication seems to be that if there were a God, we would expect to find amputees being healed fairly frequently. But one doesn’t have to be a theist to think that this is a rather dubious assumption. More on this later.
Second, it might help to get a taxonomy of miracles on the table. Since all of the miracle reports I cite below are from the Catholic tradition, it seems apropos to begin with Aquinas. He talks about three types of miracle (my paraphrase): 1) God doing something that nature could never do (e.g. creatio ex nihilo); 2) God doing something that nature could do, but not in order (e.g. nature can give life but not after physical death); 3) God doing something that nature could do in order, but God does it without the usual mediating event(s) or time (e.g. a broken bone healing overnight). I suspect that a hypothetical limb regeneration miracle would be a miracle of the second type. Nature can grow limbs, but not after amputation, at least in the case of mammals. So we can say that limbs growing back spontaneously after amputation, if it occurred, would be a category 2 miracle. Impressive, but still no big deal for omnipotence.
Now let’s come back to the question of reports of such miracles. A cursory Google search will get you quite a few of these. I’ve included some reports that don’t involve limbs, but are along the same lines as category 2 miracles above. Remember that I’m not claiming that any of these miracles occurred, I just want to get these reports on the table. As mentioned, all are from the Catholic tradition. Here they are in reverse chronological order:
1. The alleged healing of Giovanni Savino by Padre Pio in 1949. Savino’s right eye was completely destroyed following a construction accident. Eyewitnesses, including a physician, testified that the eye was completely gone, the eye socket empty. After a mystical visitation by Padre Pio, the eye was allegedly found to be restored. An ophthalmologist, who was also an atheist, is reported as testifying to this.
2. The Miracle of Calanda, an event that allegedly took place in Spain in 1640. This report involves an amputated leg being miraculously restored following a mystical visitation of the Virgin Mary. What makes this report noteworthy is extant signed and notarized documentation that testifies to the authenticity of the event.
3. St. Anthony of Padua (1195 — 1231), the patron saint of amputees no less, is said to have restored an amputated foot.
4. In 726, John Damascene is said to have miraculously restored an amputated hand.
5. Biblical accounts are not explicit, but many of my Christian friends would cite Jesus’ healing of lepers (who we can plausibly assume were missing digits), his healing of the man with the ‘withered hand’, and the healing of the high priest’s servant’s severed ear.
My purpose here is not to debunk all of these reports. Some have the flavor of legendary formation, others seem to be reported in a more judicious way. I suspect the order in which I’ve listed them is strongest to weakest. Again, I’m as skeptical as the next non-theist about the veracity of these accounts. But the point is, we have some reports on the table and we have to start with these reports. The methodology of many atheists who ask “why doesn’t God heal amputees?” has the same problem as Hume’s methodology: they assume something never happens and use that as a basis for their argument. Again, one can question the evidential basis of these reports, but one cannot proceed a priori. (Incidentally, I think a revised, Bayesian version of Hume’s argument against miracles would be admissible, but I can’t get into that in detail here.)
I want to return to the assumption that if there is a God, he would restore the limbs of amputees, perhaps frequently. One might have two reasons for assuming that God would do this:
1. To remove some of the evil and suffering in the world
2. To provide more evidence of his existence
The first reason is one with which I’m sympathetic. There’s a lot of evil in the world and the fact that some people lose body parts and suffer as a consequence is certainly an evil. However, I’m not sure it’s uniquely evil. In fact, there are other evils I would probably eliminate before I’d eliminate this one, if I had the power to do so. So I don’t see how amputation presents theists with a novel problem with respect to the general problem of evil. Perhaps existing theodices could simply be tailored to address this more specific question. I leave it to theists to elaborate this possibility.
The second reason is related to the problem of divine hiddenness. It’s a sub-species of the general question, ‘if there is a God, why doesn’t he give us more evidence of his existence?’ I do think that this is a genuine problem for theists, but I don’t necessarily think that restoring lost limbs would be the most expedient way for God to reveal his existence. There are other, imaginative ways for an omnipotent being to do this. For example, God could announce his existence simultaneously to everybody on the planet in every known language. If God wanted to be less obtrusive, and allow room for human freedom, he could simply give everyone an unmistakable, but non-coercive, religious experience. Insisting that God regenerate a few arms or legs seems kind of silly in this context. But some might object that restoring an amputated limb would be of greater evidential value than the miracle reports we often hear from Christians (e.g. spontaneous remissions) because there wouldn’t be the ambiguity in the former case that there is in the latter. This may be true. A category 2 miracle is more impressive than a category 3 miracle. But evidential value is relative and dependent on context. And even a well-documented case of amputee restoration wouldn’t have as much evidential value as the other hypothetical scenarios I described. So, again I don’t see how this question presents the theist with a novel problem.
So I beseech my free-thinking brethren to think a little more carefully about this question before you throw it out there. I hope we can have a substantive discussion about the issue on this blog without resorting to childish tactics. As always, keep the comments civil.