Between God and Science: The Miraculous Case of Harrison Okene

“Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when He does not wish to sign his work” – Anatole France

Harrison Okene is a 29-year-old Nigerian who survived a 60-hour ordeal, trapped in a ship at the bottom of the ocean, after the Chevron oil service tugboat where he worked as a boat cook, capsized on May 26, in the Atlantic ocean, off Nigeria’s coast.

The news of his survival and ultimate rescue was received with great joy in Nigeria and around the world.  More interesting than the amazing narrative however, were the reader comments and online reactions that accompanied the story.

While most readers were full of praise for Harrison Okene, for his strength and perseverance, and for the divers who braved the odds to rescue him, other readers focused on explaining why and how Mr. Okene could have survived under such circumstances. The range of explanations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Talking about the ridiculous, one reader even suggested that Mr. Okene could have survived by breathing off his farts, while another went as far as suggesting that the whole event was a staged scam aimed at making the survivor ultimately famous and rich.

 One particular comment gave rise to a tangential line of arguments and immediately caught my attention. This particular reader hinted that Mr. Okene’s survival was a miracle, an act of God. According to this particular reader, God had an ultimate life plan for Mr. Okene. Expectedly, this line of argument was quickly rebutted by other readers who offered what they believed were more “rational” explanations.

It is worthy of note that Mr. Okene himself considers his survival and rescue a miracle. He was quoted as saying:

“I don’t know what stopped the water from filling that room. I was calling on God. He did it. It was a miracle.”

An article in the Slate made an attempt to rationalize the events surrounding Mr. Okene’s survival, from a physicist’s perspective. The physicist began by posing a scientific question: How large does a bubble have to be to sustain a person with breathable air? Then came the following explanation:

Okene’s salvation—the air bubble—was trapped because the overturned boat acted as a sort of diving bell, the cup-shaped chambers that have transported explorers and workers into the depths for centuries…..  Whether in a bell or boat, trapped air rises to the top of a concave chamber. The only way it can escape is by diffusing through the water itself, one molecule at a time. Eventually this would happen, but Okene would have succumbed to thirst, hypothermia, or asphyxiation long before his air bubble diffused into the ocean.”

The article further explained:

Humans require 10 cubic meters of air per day. So for Okene to continue breathing for 60 hours, he needed 25 cubic meters of air. (Even if his metabolism changed in the cold water, Umansky says, this is still a safe estimate). But Okene was breathing at 100 feet, or 30 meters, below the surface of the water. For every 10 meters a person descends, one atmosphere of pressure is added. This compresses gas and makes it denser, according to Boyle’s law. Since Okene was trapped at 30 meters below the surface, his air supply became denser by a factor of four. This means he needed only 6 cubic meters of air to survive rather than 25 cubic meters. A space of about 6 feet by 10 feet by 3 feet would be sufficient to supply that amount of air.

Science or miracle? The Laws of Physics or the Power of God? I posed this question to a non-representative  sample of friends comprising of 10 Europeans and 10 Africans. Not surprisingly, more Africans than Europeans (9 v.s. 2) believed that this was an act of God, as opposed to a chance occurrence explainable by the laws of physics. More interesting, was the fact that while the 2 Europeans were prepared to entertain physical theories as an alternative explanation, all 9 Africans were absolute and unyielding in their miracle beliefs.

Every event could have a rational or supernatural connotation, depending on one’s innate biases. While the rational can always be explained through logic and reason, supernatural explanations often are based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof, with strong reference to the good and the evil aspects of the metaphysical.

Mr. Okene is obviously a Nigerian and our “penchant for the religious and superstitious” is well known. Our beliefs in the supernatural are strongly rooted in tradition.  While there is nothing wrong in having strong belief in a deity or in the doctrines of a religion (in fact there is a lot to gain from it), studies have shown that these beliefs are accentuated and often taken to the extreme among the less informed, and those exposed to extremes of poverty and hopelessness.

Let us not be quick to forget that a segment of our society believed, and many still do, that president Goodluck Jonathan’s ultimate ascendancy to the presidency, often at the misfortunate expense of his previous bosses, has everything to do with the supernatural, as aptly indicated by his first name, which serves as the ultimate proof of his supernatural “calling” at the time of birth, to salvage Nigeria. Let us also not forget that we live in a society where deaths from road accidents are often attributed by many to blood-sucking demons and where children with epilepsy are described as witches.

Are there any deleterious or benefical effects of  superstitious beliefs on health? I will touch on this in a future post. Stay tuned!

Disclosure: The author is a Christian.