Plane Crashes and God

Heather MacDonald brings up a good, but ultimately useless and socially awkward, argument.  Essentially she challenges people who saw the “Hand of God” in the amazing landing of Captain Sully’s Flight 1549 to explain why there was no such intervention in the crash of Flight 3407 in Buffalo.  I think her timing in the matter is exceptionally callous, but had the point been made 30 days later, it would pose an interesting starter question on how God interacts in this world.

Let’s examine the word “mircale”.  It can be defined as “a marvellous event manifesting a supernatural act of a divine agent”.  What makes an event “supernatural”?  It has to be something out of the ordinary, which means it has to be statistically unlikely.  Additionally, for there to be the driving hand of a supernatural intelligence, there should be repeated defiance of statistical liklihoods to suggest intelligent manipulation for outcome.

For example, I remember a story a while back about a toaster “possessed” by the devil.  The owner of the toaster said that every time bread was a put into the toaster, it would come out with an upside down cross burned into it.  Let’s apply our standard to it:  what is the liklihood of the heating elements in a toaster acting in a concerted manner to burn a cross-shaped patter in a piece of toast?  It seems highly unlikely, given how toasters are usually shipped.  And to present the shape of a cross on the toaster, a charged symbol to any Christian, certainly suggests a defiance of odds, enough so to suggest the working of an intelligence.  Could it possibly be Satan, acting in this world through a household appliance?  Sure, anything’s possible.  There seems to be an intelligence at work.  But it’s far more likely that the intelligence at work here is an attention-seeking toaster owner who rigged his toaster to spew a Satanic slice of heated wheat bread.

Using similar reasoning, let’s look at the two separate plane crashes.  Flight 1549 had both engines lost during bird impacts.  Captain Sully had control of all elevators and enough thrust to keep the jet airborne for a short time, which gave him the opportunity to fly to the Hudson river and maneuver to make a spectacular water landing.  What makes this special?  It was a landing in an urban area, it was a plane landing without the assitance of jet-thrust, and it was a landing on water that didn’t result in a roll or sheared wing, allowing the passengers to escape.  The weather was optimal, and the landing was textbook.  Statistically, airplanes which lose both engines don’t land in such a perfect fashion, so that’s statistically low.  The weather was good for such a landing.  The pilot was experienced and capable.  The flight crew and passengers behaved in an ideal fashion.  Is it miraculous?  There was an intelligence at work in the safe landing, sure (Captain Sully).  But was it God directly landing the plane?  Well, not directly.  I’ll talk more about this in a minute.

Now let’s examine Flight 3407.  According to the details of the flight, the plane experienced ice on the wings.  Ice on the wings is especially dangerous as it limits the control the pilot has on the plane.  The controls respond slowly, meaning the pilot can overcorrect or undercorrect much easier, which seems to be the case here.  Making a turn to approach an airfield, the ice made the pilot overcorrect and bank at a steeper angle, and the pilot lost altitude too fast to correct and the plane flight ended in tragedy.  Was there a lack of guiding supernatural intelligence here?  Or just the fulfillment of a statistically more likely outcome?

To assume that God directly acts in our world presumes that God picks and chooses his battles, and that’s shortchanging God’s interaction with this world.  God has many intelligences here to act through, but ultimately all actions here are the actions of humans.  When people make desperation prayers to God, they often lack focus and direction.  When I pray for God’s intervention, I ask him to help guide his agents in this world, people.  Pray for strength for the patient to bounce back from a course of chemo.  Pray for God to sharpen the piloting skills of the pilot.  Even then, some tasks may be beyond the capabilities of those involved.  Some cancers cannot be cured, and it’s not because God doesn’t want that person to be cured– it’s because we haven’t found a way to cure that cancer yet.

If God intervened every time we asked, there would be no need for us to improve.  Where would medicine be if we could just pray our diseases away?  Oh, I’ve got diabetes.  Time to pray it away!  But instead we have a world with challenges we need to overcome.  In wondering why God wasn’t present for the Buffalo crash is ignorant of all the other flights that landed safely.  The real miracle is that humans have evolved from a primitive, cave-dwelling state to an advanced hominid that can build flying machines and then keep the thousands of flying machines criss-crossing the United States from crashing into each other in mid-air.  The real miracles are in the development of engineer and aviation, the skills of the pilots, and the training that allowed Captain Sully to make a safe landing in the Hudson.  We thank God for such a miraculous water landing, but we conveniently ignore the years of training, the response of the Port Authority, the goodwill of those who offered coats and coffee to the cold, and the reaction of the people of the United States in a time when we need a hero.

Neither the plane crash or plane landing are divine intervention.  In identifying these as singular events to prove God’s working in this world (or lack of working), we ignore the long string of “miracles” to get us here.  God acts, but in very passive ways.  If He acted in more active, more visible ways, it would undermine Free Will.


1 Response to “Plane Crashes and God”

  1. 1 Matt R.
    February 14, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    And there’s all kinds of miracles. The Hudson River pilot “made” his luck/miracle by being well trained. The crashed pilots….the black box will tell.

    And then there are miracles like obscure humanities teachers for Bowdoin College surviving the entire Civil War just to read about an obscure Napoleaonic maneuver before the Battle of Gettysburg and being in just the right spot to exploit the maneuver. Wait. That’s luck. God could have been on the side of the Confederacy. Who’s to say one side was good and one side was Evil? Shame on me.

    I always thought the movie “Bruce Almighty” could have been made better by Jim Carey “allowing” some idiot to kill a hundred people in a disaster to protect free will.

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My name is Doc. Welcome to my blog. If you're visiting from another blog, add me to your blogroll (and I'll happily reciprocate). I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry and live in Wisconsin. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. My email is docattheautopsy at gmail. (No linking to deflate the incredible spam monsters).



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