What I know

More comments from Jayman:

DD, nowhere in the first quote do I argue that God exists because there are things we cannot explain. My point was the hypocrisy in demanding extraordinary evidence only for some extraordinary claims but not others.

Regarding the cause of Bernadette’s cure, you’re begging the question (you know Bernadette’s cure has natural causes because events always have natural causes). We are dealing with Bernadette’s specific case, not some general case where the cure is unknown, so you can’t just pass this case off as ordinary for it apparently is not ordinary for her impairments to be reversed.

Finally, you are incorrect in assuming that God has not shown up in my life. Don’t assume other people’s “real-world investigations” go the same as yours.

Regarding the first point, I’ll grant that Jayman was not explicitly raising the issue of whether God’s existence is proved by the occurrence of unexplained mysteries, but the topic of miracles was too good a blog subject to pass up, and I was commenting in general on the fact that using unexplained phenomena as evidence is necessarily an appeal to ignorance, since if we were’t ignorant about the true causes of these phenomena, they wouldn’t be unexplained and we wouldn’t call them miracles.

I want to correct Jayman’s misunderstanding on his second point, though. We don’t know specifically what caused Bernadette’s cure, so I am not claiming that I do know what caused her cure. I am claiming that the specific cause is unknown. It’s true that our past experience has been that unknown causes, once discovered, have universally turned out to be natural causes. And it’s also true that we have no factual basis for supporting the conclusion that any supernatural cause was involved in producing Bernadette’s healing. And it’s even true that the stories men tell about God are extremely improbable, due to blatant internal and external inconsistencies, and on that basis we can be certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, that no such deity exists to have been the source of Bernadette’s healing. But I haven’t ever said that I know what caused Bernadette’s symptoms to disappear.

On Jayman’s last point, we come to a really interesting topic. I don’t just assume that God has not shown up in Jayman’s life, I actually know He has not. Truth is consistent with itself, and this allows us to learn much more than we can by first-hand experience alone. I know God has not shown up, tangibly and in person, in Jayman’s life, just like I know that no star in Orion’s belt is our sun, even without personally flying to each star in the constellation for an up-close inspection.

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What is a miracle?

So you’re out at night, looking up at the stars, and someone asks you, “What would it take to convince you that the third star of Orion’s belt is really our sun?” You’re nonplussed. The sun is not part of any constellation, because when the sun is out, you can’t see the other stars. Yet you can’t have a “constellation” with just the sun! The terms of the question itself preclude the possibility of giving it any satisfactory and reasonable answer. But if you say, “There is no evidence you can show me that would convince me,” it sounds like you’re prejudiced and unwilling to give a fair and impartial hearing to the evidence. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Commenter “cl” seems to have run across this phenomenon, and alludes to it in one of his comments.

See, here’s the thing and why I think so much of this so-called dialog between believers and atheists is just to pass the time. Atheists are quite fond of saying, “Show me just one miracle and I’ll believe,” but then whenever something is offered, they simply explain it away or widen the goalpost. Doesn’t matter if the alleged miracle is an image of Jesus in a wafer, or something more complicated like this story of Bernadette. I mean what do atheists want? Like a genie that will grow back limbs whenever the correct mantra is spoken? Seriously. What is a fair definition of a miracle, and how do we eliminate the confounders of spontaneous remission and the placebo effect? I don’t see that we can, hence, and alleged miracle can be simply waved away with, “Oh, that wasn’t a miracle you stupid Christian, that was spontaneous remission.” Yet we have no explanation for spontaneous remission and we’re all back to square one. It just gets old I guess.

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Editing the story

Jayman’s comments continue:

(3) You edited the story so that you can attempt to provide an explanation for the healing that is not extraordinary and thus does not place you in the position of having to choose between competing extraordinary claims. (A) Bernadette and the nuns did pray for a cure, not merely a sign. (B) Bernadette has been investigated by “hundreds of doctors and theologians” and no medical explanation has been provided. This means we can dismiss your attempted diagnoses and that you’re wrong in implying Bernadette is denying doctors access to herself. Apparently she is not as superstition has you’d like to believe.

Ultimately, you have no explanation. You say admitting ignorance is not shameful and that superstition is ignorance pretending to be knowledge. You are ignorant of how Bernadette was cured but claim to know God was not involved. You’re superstitious according to your own definition.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression Jayman is not too happy with me at this point. Nevertheless, he raises some interesting points, and I’d like to address those here.

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XFiles Friday: Swooning and swiping

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

With all the fun we’ve been having on the day blog (and thanks to all our commenters for keeping things so lively and interesting!) it almost seems like a vacation to get back to Geisler and Turek and their attempts to discredit skeptical views on the resurrection. We’ll start off with an easy one: the “Jesus didn’t really die” theory, aka the Swoon Theory.

Is it possible that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross? Perhaps Jesus merely swooned. In other words, he was still alive when he was placed in the tomb, but he somehow escaped and convinced his disciples that he had risen from the dead. There are numerous fatal flaws with this theory as well.

This one’s easy enough: Geisler and Turek are correct. Law of averages, eh? They were bound to get one right sooner or later, and this may well be it. The “swoon” theory just doesn’t work, and G&T quite gleefully rip it apart, appealing to testimony regarding the nature of Jesus’ wounds, the unlikelihood of a critically wounded Jesus saving himself from a sealed tomb, and the improbable responses of the disciples. For me, it’s enough to note that a genuine “swoon” would not have produced the gospel story as we have it today.

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Wrestling with superstition

Happy Darwin Day, everybody! Continuing with Jayman’s comments on the “healing” of Bernadette McKenzie, we come to his second point.

(2) The term “superstition” does not help move the discussion forward because it is subjective and pejorative. You believe Bernadette’s belief in a miraculous cure is an example of superstition because she explains her cure by ascribing it to a purported cause that cannot be connected to the cure, even in theory. But a theoretical connection between God and the cure can be made. For example, she could posit that God disconnected some tissue attachments that had been stretching her spinal cord. Moreover, even scientists will ascribe a purported cause to an event when they can’t show an actual connection between the two. One need only think of dark matter. The fact is that if one waited for proof that X existed before considering evidence pointing to X’s existence one could never acquire any knowledge. It is a double standard on your part to call Bernadette superstitious while not holding others, including yourself, to the same standard.

I am not using the term “superstition” subjectively, and have taken care to specify the exact, objective criteria by which I declare that this or that proposed explanation can be shown to be merely superstitious. As for the term itself being pejorative, I’ve tried to avoid that, but to a certain degree it’s inescapable. Experience has shown that appealing to magical causes is unhelpful, contributes nothing to our actual understanding, and never proves correct once the actual causes are known. If someone feels embarrassed when they’re caught making superstitious appeals, it’s not because I’m insulting them, it’s because reality has made it too obvious that superstition is silly.

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How many stars are not the sun?

I’ve managed to work my way up to some of Jayman’s comments on the “Healing of Bernadette McKenzie” post. Whew! I know it’s old news by now, and I’ve already addressed a lot of what he has to say, but there are still a few points I think are worth making.

In responding to Deacon Duncan I will try to focus on the logical contradictions he holds since that was my point all along.

(1) While some other alleged miracles have similar traits to Bernadette’s story many other alleged miracles do not. It is not logical to assume that if you can explain one story you can explain all stories. Rather, to confidently assert that God never acts in history, which you do regularly, you would have to be omniscient. Therefore, it is an extraordinary claim to assert that you know God never acts. The extraordinary evidence for such knowledge is never offered.

Let’s suppose that you and I are outdoors on a dark, cloudless night, looking at the stars. “Look at all those stars,” I say. “Countless billions, and yet not a one of them is our sun.”

“Wait a minute,” you object. “How do you know none of those stars is our sun? You can’t possibly have examined each and every one of them. Most of them aren’t even visible to the naked eye. You would have to be omniscient to know that none of them is our sun!”

You’d never say that, of course, because you agree with me: none of them is our sun. This is not a conclusion we reach by a brute force enumeration of each and every star in the cosmos, followed by detailed analysis of each. Rather, we know this because of one very fundamental and obvious fact: if any of the stars in the sky above us were the sun, it would be day, not night.

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Santa Claus, Nessie, and God

The main thrust of Jayman’s complaint against me is that he does not think it is possible for me to know that God does not show up in real life. I’m being inconsistent, he thinks, when I hold that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, because I can’t possibly have the extraordinary evidence required to support the extraordinary claim that I know God does not show up.

He doesn’t have a leg to stand on if he cannot provide a naturalistic explanation for all miracle stories. Atheists create an impossible task for themselves…

He claims to believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He’s made the extraordinary claim that he knows God never acts in life so he should back it up with extraordinary evidence.

Of course I know he won’t be able to back it up. Only agnosticism and theism are logically compatible with the belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The agnostic can honestly say he has not seen evidence for God. The theist can honestly say he has seen evidence for God. But the atheist cannot honestly say he has done the necessary leg work and determined no God exists. Is honesty to much to ask for?

Honesty is what we’re all about here! Jayman’s mistake lies in assuming that the brute force approach is the only way to acquire and evaluate the evidence. And he’s right about one thing: the brute force approach is an impossible task, which is why it’s so safe for apologists to appeal to. But thanks to the principle that truth is consistent with itself, it’s not the only approach available to us. We don’t need to look in each and every place where a tiny and well-camouflaged deity might have hidden Himself. All we need to do is check the places where He should show up if the Gospels are true.

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Investigating the Marian apparition at Zeitoun

Jayman brings up a fascinating subject in a comment on my post about the frequency of divine intervention.

Starting in 1968, and continuing over a 2-3 year period, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared over the Coptic Church of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt. It was witnessed by millions of people of different religious beliefs, it was photographed and videotaped. Miraculous cures were also experienced. Investigations into the matter found no natural explanation. Time to start moving the goal posts?

Zeitoun is a great example to use as a typical “miraculous” apparition, but before we get to that, I’d like to say a little something about goal posts. There’s a psychological trick that apologists sometimes use in connection with claims of the miraculous, if the skeptic says there ought to be evidence of God showing up in real life. The trick is to show the skeptic some questionable evidence, and then insist that he believe, based on that evidence. If the skeptic admits that the evidence is genuine, then he must either admit that God showed up in real life, or he must admit that he is unwilling to look at the evidence. If he questions the quality and validity of the evidence, though, he gets accused of moving the goal posts. “Oh, you said you wanted evidence, but now that we’ve shown you evidence, you want something more. I seeeeee…”

We’re not really asking for anything more. When we ask for evidence, what we mean is we want genuine evidence of God genuinely showing up in real life. It has to be good evidence, valid evidence, evidence that can withstand cross-examination. That’s not asking for too much, surely? Once we have verified that we are indeed dealing with genuine facts and not misperceptions or intentional hoaxes, then we can move on to the question of what the evidence means. We haven’t moved any goal posts until we at least arrive at where the first set of posts stood. And that means having genuine evidence of a genuine appearance.

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A quick shout out

Just want to say a hearty thank-you to Daniel Florien for including my blog on his list of The Top 30 Atheist/Agnostic/Skeptic Blogs. That’s quite an honor, and I’m flattered to be in such good company. You should drop by if you haven’t already and have a look (don’t forget the blogs mentioned in the comments too).

Thanks also to PZ Myers for repeating the list on his blog Pharyngula. We’re seeing a nice bump in the stats right now thanks to these two mentions, and I appreciate it.

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XFiles Friday: Hallucinations and Lost Disciples

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Geisler and Turek claim to be “Skeptical About Skeptical Theories” concerning the Resurrection, though I’m not sure they’re really clear on what “skeptical” means. Skepticism does not mean blindly nay-saying whatever someone tells you, skeptical means that you want to see the evidence before you draw your conclusions. It’s the opposite of gullibility, not of faith, because a skeptic can have plenty of evidence-based faith, and that’s not a bad thing.

In any case, it’s time for G&T to try and sow doubts and suspicions about the doubts and suspicions of the skeptics, and we’re going to look at two of them today. The first is the skeptical suggestion that at least some of the early resurrection stories could have been rooted in hallucination.

Were the disciples deceived by hallucinations? Perhaps they sincerely thought they had seen the risen Christ, but instead were really experiencing hallucinations. This theory has a number of fatal flaws. We’ll address two of them.

Unfortunately, the “fatal” flaws addressed by Geisler and Turek may not be quite as lethal as they had hoped. Since they only shared two of them, we can’t be sure they didn’t pick the weakest available arguments, so as to lull skeptics into a false sense of security. But let’s look at their objections anyway, and see just how “flawed” the hallucination argument really is.

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