Discerning GodMarch 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Jayman continues his comment by relating a personal experience that he feels is relevant.
One night I prayed to God and perceived receiving a message from God containing information about future events. I did not immediately conclude that God must have spoken to me. I realized that if God really did speak to me the events in the message would have to come true. They did come true. The same basic prayer/message scenario played out multiple times, with the message always confirmed later. The most parsimonious explanation seems to be that God sent me those messages.
Before I look at Jayman’s post, I’d like to say something about the response this story got, the first of which was to call Jayman a liar. Having been in a very similar situation myself, I have no problem stating that I emphatically do believe that Jayman is telling the truth as he understands it, and I don’t think it’s really helpful to make this sort of accusation against him. He has experienced something which is personally significant to him, and which he feels constitutes a case of God showing up in his life, and if we can’t come up with a better rebuttal than simple denial, we haven’t got a very good case. We need to be able to show why it falls short of reasonable standards of evidence—which is what I intend to do in the rest of this post.
First of all, notice that this is not a case of God showing up. If God had shown up to deliver the message in person, then Jayman would have known who the message was from, and wouldn’t have needed to repeat a particular test multiple times in order to convince himself that he knew who sent it. In the Bible, when God shows up, nobody asks to see a photo ID! But that’s not what happened to Jayman.
What Jayman experienced was a subjective phenomenon, an event whose existence consisted of his perception of it. A bystander in the same room would not have seen, heard, or felt any such message being delivered, and if Jayman had been unconscious (e.g. sleeping dreamlessly), the event would not have happened. His perception of the event was the event, which puts this experience squarely in the category of intuition, according to the FISH mnemonic.
It’s also a bit superstitious as well, in that he eventually attributed this event to God, without having evidence of any direct connection to any particular deity. If we were going to start proposing supernatural causes, we might say, for example, that it could just as easily have been the work of some other magical spirit, or some undetected clairvoyance on Jayman’s part. He believes God was responsible, but he has no verifiable evidence that would make God a more likely possibility than any of the other supernatural alternatives.
We don’t need to appeal to supernatural causes, though. As the Bible itself testifies, “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and this particular sort of experience is fairly easy for the heart to pull off. All it takes is two tricks: the ability to seriously underestimate your chances of guessing the future, and the ability to not count the misses.
Underestimating your ability to know the future is easy. For example, even if you know the weather forecast is calling for a 90% chance of precipitation tomorrow, you don’t know that’s what’s going to happen. You may have an appointment to meet someone, but you don’t know they’re going to be there. It’s easy for there not to be any way you can know what the future holds. So the first part of the “test” for a message from God is easy. Even if you’re 99.9999% sure of what’s going to happen, you never really know.
Getting a message that comes true is also surprisingly easy, if you realize that any messages that fail to come true are not from God. After all, if you got 6 messages from God, and one of them failed to come true, you wouldn’t decide that all six messages were fake, or that God was a fraud, you’d decide that the one message that failed was the only one that was bogus. Why blame God for a message he didn’t send? And He obviously didn’t send it because if He had, it would have come true. And the same for the next 28 messages that also fail to come true.
I have an infallible gift for predicting the future. If you flip a coin, I can predict whether it will be heads or tails, while the coin is still in the air, and be right every time. You can flip the coin as often as you want, and I will correctly predict the outcome. What are the odds of that, eh? There’s just one stipulation: if the coin ever comes up tails, my prediction doesn’t count. If you flip a coin and it comes up tails, you need to do it again. But so long as you abide by that stipulation, I can predict the flips with 100% accuracy, 100% of the time, no matter how many times you flip the coin.
Neat trick, eh? Our minds can do that for us automatically, under the right circumstances. We don’t even need to consciously rig the scorekeeping. It just seems to happen naturally, as we perceive what should and should not count. But the end result is that God gets to predict the future the same way I can predict coin flips: only the “successes” get counted as God’s. And the person doing the counting doesn’t even realize they’re doing it.
In any case, we know that God isn’t really interested in revealing His existence by means of predicting the future. If He were, we could easily arrange a demonstration that would be pretty hard to fake. For example, He could tell Jayman what’s written on the piece of paper in my back pocket. Or better yet, He could give us the MD5 checksum of the text of next Tuesday’s lead editorial in the New York Times. Jayman is in computers, so I’m sure he knows what I mean, and even if he didn’t, God would. But God won’t do that, and in fact He can’t, because God only agrees to tests that are guaranteed to succeed even if God Himself does not exist.
Jayman’s test, above, is a case in point. It becomes evidence of God only after it proves successful, as Jayman himself has testified. Had it failed to come true, he would have decided the message was not from God, and would therefore not count as a test for God’s existence. It’s the safe tests, the tests that have already passed, that get counted. Just like me and my infallible ability to predict coin tosses. And that’s the closest God comes to “showing up” in real life.