Countless clusters of frost and crystal gracefully descend to rest, dressing the trees in white to celebrate the winter holiday. With a warm cup of hot chocolate in hand, a young mother watches her son gleefully shred paper and toss ribbons she placed with care. But as each impractical, meaningless toy is revealed, her grin fades.

Images of blood and gunfire march through her mind as she ponders the fate of her love. It has been two hundred and sixty-four days and this morning since last they savored each other’s presence. Hope and fear have spared her no sleep since she last heard that the helicopter did not return from its mission.

Then a knock at the door.

Hatred boils in her blood. She knows that stoic men with hat in hand stand solemnly on her porch to deliver the news that she already knows. Before she can even set down her cup, her cheeks drip and her heart sinks into her stomach.

“Who’s at the door?” the boy asks.

“Nobody,” she responds, “just keep opening your presents.”

She makes her way to the door, clutching her chest and holding her mouth, ready to hear the words that can set her free from fear and allow her to accept his death. Tearful and trembling, she pauses to look in the mirror before greeting the figures who have haunted her.

As the wooden slab swings open, the fear evaporates and she crumbles to the floor. Every horrid vision melts away as despair becomes a memory. Bliss descends and renders every thought and word insufficient. Her love has come home.

This story is truly a miracle. Or is it?

Most are quick to declare an event a miracle, but before we can agree or disagree with such assessments, it would be wise to define the conditions of a miracle.

Although miracles are considered supernatural by many, it is much more difficult to discern the intent of heavenly beings than to examine the qualities of a typical miracle. For this reason, we will ignore the metaphysical nature of miracles and instead focus on the measurable and observable ingredients required in order for an event to be defined as miraculous.

Based on the common understanding of miracles, there are four possible criteria for the event:

  1. It is beneficial to the recipient.
  2. It is requested by or meaningful to the recipient.
  3. It is extremely unlikely or timely.
  4. It seems impossible or its origin is unknown.

Not all of these criteria are of equal weight. To be accepted by most as a miracle, an event must meet the first requirement. It is obvious, but worth discussing, that miracles must benefit those who experience them. This is because miraculous events often affect those other than the recipient in benign or negative ways.

When someone wins the lottery, it means that many others did not win. When we find money on the street, it means that someone lost it. There’s even a movie called Miracle which documents the triumph of the United States men’s Olympic hockey team in 1980. But this tale is as much about the American team overcoming incredible odds as it is about the Soviet Union team suffering disappointment and defeat – an inevitable consequence of competition. In this story, the Soviet team’s experience met only the last three criteria. Because their experience was detrimental, they likely reached the opposite conclusion as the Americans, declaring the event a curse or punishment. In order for us to experience a miracle, we must be the beneficiary of the event.

There are times, however, when miraculous events don’t benefit us but spare us from harm. Narrowly escaping a calamity, especially a rare or unusual unusual one, or surviving a terminal illness will cause us to feel blessed even though we didn’t gain from the event.

It’s also possible for events to be reevaluated weeks, months or years after they occur. A seemingly meaningless or even negative experience can later be perceived as miraculous. Likewise, a miracle may one day be invalidated in light of new information.

The second criteria for a miracle isn’t quite as important as the first, though some would argue that it is also an essential component. The additional importance is likely a reflection of the belief that miracles are a direct result of prayer or divine intervention. To them, the fact that the event was requested or meaningful reflects their deity’s care and benevolence toward them. To those who do not subscribe to this notion, it is not enough to solidify a positive event as a miracle, though it may enhance the significance of what is already considered a miracle.

The final two criteria are what many identify as the primary cause for their interpretation of an event as a miracle. When explaining the reason why we believe our experience was miraculous, the fact that the event was beneficial is obvious and therefore not mentioned. The request or special meaning is used only between those who share a supernatural view of miracles, but even in such cases, this facet can be considered less credible due to its emotional and subjective nature. For this reason, the last two criteria are much more likely to be offered as proof of a miracle.

There is a good chance that a positive event that is extremely unlikely or timely will be considered a miracle. Winning the lottery, finding money on the street or overcoming incredible odds to achieve victory are all evidence of the significance of the event being unlikely or timely. We do not consider winning two dollars on a scratchcard a miracle because the chance of winning a small amount is high. Likewise, finding money on the street is only considered a miracle in a time of need. And there’s nothing miraculous about a heavy favorite winning a sporting match. Miracles have to surprise us – make us stop and ponder the significance of the event – which leads us to our final criteria.

Similar to the feeling of astonishment brought on by experiencing an extremely unlikely or timely beneficial event, the impossible or unknown origin of such an event also stirs in us the sense that something miraculous has happened. Just as our inability to predict an outcome causes us to declare it random, when we cannot understand or explain how something happened, the natural conclusion for many is that the laws of nature were temporarily suspended by some benevolent force in order to bestow on us a special blessing. Though this idea is more likely to be accepted by those who believe that miracles are divine, the sense of mystery alone retains the power to convince us that we have experienced a miracle.

For those who do not attribute miracles to divine intervention, the source of a seemingly impossible or unknowable event need not be identified in order for them to be amazed by it. However, as science continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe, this criteria becomes less credible. The constant ratification of our understanding of the physical world makes it less likely for us to declare that the origin of an event is impossible or unknowable, which means that we are also less likely to consider such an event a miracle.

The last three criteria we talked about are distinct from one another, but they all perform the same function: the creation of a sense of significance. In order for us to believe that an event was a miracle, supernatural or not, we must be astonished by it. Though some frivolously brand childbirth, sunrises and friendship as miracles, we must know that what we experienced was truly special in order to feel like it was a miracle.

So now we know what factors influence our belief in miracles. We’ve seen that miracles must be beneficial (at least to the one evaluating the event). In addition, we know that an event that is requested or particularly meaningful is more likely to be considered a miracle, especially by those who believe that miracles are supernatural. We also looked at the two most common causes of events being interpreted as miracles: unlikeliness or timeliness and an impossible or unknowable origin. Now let’s try evaluating some events to determine which criteria they meet and whether or not they deserve the title of miracle.

  • A woman is the sole survivor of a plane crash.
  • A man is struck by lightning on his way to work.
  • A child prays for rain and the following day it rains.
  • A man receives an unmarked envelope containing the exact amount of money needed to pay his debt.
  • A woman who is thought unable to conceive becomes pregnant.
  • A child born with a severe disability is abandoned but later adopted into a loving family.

It is certainly possible to evaluate these events, but what if we don’t see the big picture? What about the other passengers who died in the plane crash? What if the man struck by lightning was a serial killer? What if the child who prayed for rain did so without knowing that the weather report already predicted rain? Questions like these raise concern that our interpretations may be oversimplified.

The declaration of a miracle reflects confidence in our understanding (or lack of understanding) of the cause and purpose of an event. Even if we claim that the origin of the event is unknowable, that in itself is a claim of knowledge about the origin of the event. By labeling an event miraculous, we are saying that we know why it happened. Of course, it’s not impossible that we are correct, but the assertion that we understand the cause and purpose of events may say more about us than it does about the event.

There can be miracles when you believe.

Forever Young

What would the world be like if we lived forever?

Before we ponder this intricate hypothetical, let’s answer another question: what is it about old people that makes them old?

Obviously if we’re defining age as the gradual deterioration of the physical form, then the answer is some complex explanation involving DNA and telomeres, but that’s not what we’re discussing today. What we want to know is what biological, experiential and environmental factors cause an old person to feel and act like an old person. Let’s take a look at four traits commonly associated with the elderly.

The first example we’ll look at is speed. Older people tend to walk, talk and drive slower than younger folk. This is likely due the fact that as the body ages, ligaments tighten, joints stiffen and reaction time slows. This decrease in speed is clearly caused by the aging of the physical body.

The second trait is memory. Seniors are known to have trouble recollecting the past. While it’s true that older people have more memories to scan through, dementia and the natural deterioration of the brain are the culprits here.

The third example we’ll examine is the inability or unwillingness to adapt. It is well known that the elderly are not generally fond of change and that they struggle to understand modern morality, fashion and technology. This could be caused by a decrease in brain function, but a more likely source is the increase in nostalgia over time. As we age, we tend to view the past more favorably and become increasingly frustrated with modern conventions and inventions.

The final trait is political disposition. Older citizens tend to vote differently and with a different frequency than other sections of the population. This is caused by what is known as the cohort effect – the observation that populations with shared experiences tend to have certain traits in common. So, for example, those who endured the the depression of the 1930s in their youth are more likely to finish the food on their plate, enjoy farming and vote for politicians who are fiscally conservative later in life.

So we clearly have some traits that are caused by physical aging and others that, while rooted in the transition from youth to adulthood, come from merely existing for a long period of time. Before we return to the original question, let’s answer one more: what does living forever look like?

When we attempt to answer this question, many of us imagine a world full of young, healthy and happy individuals, but the cure for death can come in many forms. Here are five possible immortality scenarios:

  1. Mr. Freeze: we find a way to stop the physical effects of aging, but not reverse them. Our bodies no longer age, but we retain the years that we have already accrued.
  2. Death Becomes Her: we discover a way to prevent our bodies from shutting down due to old age, but we cannot prevent our bodies from degenerating.
  3. The Fountain of Youth: we find a way to restore our bodies to their youthful form, and no one ages beyond their prime.
  4. Robocop:  we use technology to modify our minds and bodies to an extent that age becomes irrelevant.
  5. Ghost in the Shell: we discover a way to transport consciousness into machines, shedding our useless organic forms.

Of these five possibilities, the most relevant and feasible is likely among the first three. At first it may appear as though these scenarios are very similar, but whether or not we are returned to our youth or our aging is halted will affect the world in significant ways.

Earlier we discussed some of the differences between the elderly and other demographics. Now imagine that the entire world is comprised of only individuals of the same age. In order to progress, we must have a better understanding of immortality’s effects.

First, we must acknowledge that our perception of age is largely based on physical appearance. Sure, there are those traits that we mentioned earlier, but it’s likely that if a 90-year-old woman was transported into the body of a 20-year-old woman, she would be treated much differently. The fact that romances such as the one between Bella and Edward from the Twilight series do not arouse suspicion reveals just how poor our understanding of age actually is.

In the series, Bella is a 17-year-old high school student who falls in love with Edward, a 106-year-old vampire. Edward became a vampire when he was 17, which means that he appears to be the same age as Bella. Now in the real world, a relationship between a 17-year-old and a 106-year-old is not only illegal, it’s downright unimaginable. Despite this, the relationship initially seems believable because Edward appears to be 17. In actuality, Edward may have more luck finding a suitable wife at a retirement home than a high school.

Now for a moment let’s imagine that there is a group of immortal people who have been alive for 1,000 years. What would they think of modern morals and fashion? What kind of grasp would they have on modern technology? How would they vote? The answers to these questions depend on whether or not we believe that youthful or elderly traits are derived from the age of the physical body we inhabit or from the amount of time that we exist.

Another mystery of immortality is that we don’t know what happens to people when they live beyond a century or so. As we discussed, we tend to become more conservative as we age, unwilling or unable to accept new ideas. If this trend were to continue indefinitely, an ever-aging population may threaten to stamp out political change completely.

It’s also important to remember that we don’t know how the cohort effect would be affected by a population that doesn’t physically age. It’s possible that without maturing past our youth, the window in which shared experiences may affect us is extended indefinitely. Many of us, especially seniors, look back on our youth with nostalgia, but if we’re eternally young, is it even possible to do so?

A final point to consider before we move on: if people lived forever, we would likely need a limit on breeding in order to control the population. This means that there would be few, if any, new humans. This lack of new life may slow the rate of change drastically, for there would be no inquisitive and rebellious youngsters to challenge the establishment. Another potential side effect could be a lack of inspiration and concern for others, since there is no future generation to which we might pass on a better world.

Now let’s explore some possible outcomes if these situations became reality. Here’s a table showing what we will experience based on the immortality scenario and whether or not aging continues to affect us once our bodies have stopped maturing.

Age Type Immortality Type
We Stay How We Are We Get Physically Old We Stay Young
Aging Affects Us We appear as we are now, but we feel and act increasingly old. We appear old, and we feel and act increasingly old. We appear young, but we feel and act increasingly old.
Aging Doesn’t Affect Us We appear, feel and act as we are now. We appear, feel and act old, but aging stops. We appear, feel and act young.

So what would the world be like if we lived forever? Well that depends not only on the means by which we cheat death and whether or not aging continues to affect us, but also on our ideas of what it means to be young or old. Based on these factors, we may be excited or frightened at the concept of immortality.

If, for example, we are all made young, never age and aging doesn’t continue to affect us, then the world’s entire population will be comprised of people that look, feel and act young. For those who are wary of the rebellious and reckless trappings of youth, this might sound like a recipe for disaster. If, however, aging continues to affect us, then we may end up with a whole world that is increasingly fond of the past and skeptical of change. This may cause moral and political shifts to halt and technological innovation to cease.

Now some may argue that the world is not so easily divided into the old and young, pointing to studies that reveal how our views do not become more conservative as we age. However, what is considered a conservative view does change over time, and so time makes conservatives of us all.

In the immortal words of Hartwig Schierbaum, do you really want to live forever?