XFiles Weekend: Toxic faith

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

We come now to Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, and I’m going to steal a little of Lewis’ thunder by giving away the plot. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Lewis wants to claim that there exists some sort of “real” Moral Law which he can then attribute to an invisible, magical Being, or Lawgiver. Trouble is, if we take any sort of rational and objective look at the actual evidence, we find that it’s fundamentally inconsistent with his claims. Instead of admitting that the facts don’t fit, however, Lewis argues that this glaring discrepancy is proof that multiple realities exist, and that his so-called Moral Law must come from the other one.

In making this argument, Lewis has implicitly thrown reason and science out the window, but in Chapter 4 he goes on to make this more explicit. Appealing to the age-old expedient of declaring that this new “truth” lies beyond the reach of science, he declares that we must reject and ignore any sort of reasonable, scientific evaluation of the “evidence” he tries to use to back up his claims. The problem with abandoning science and reason, though, is that it becomes very difficult to make a coherent argument without them, as Lewis is about to demonstrate.

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More than a theory

Jayman writes:

I get the sense that skeptics want even more than a theory and predictions. Perhaps you can tell me why the following theory and prediction does not cut it?

One may theorize that ghosts are the spirits of deceased humans that generally inhabit a location known to them when they were alive. Such a theory allows one to predict that at certain locations ghosts will be observed and that one may be able to identify the ghost as a deceased person who lived at that location.

Have at it.

Technically, of course, Jayman is describing a hypothesis rather than a theory, but that’s a quibble. Let’s look at the larger question(s). What do skeptics really want? Why isn’t it necessarily scientific to have just a theory and some predictions? And how can we tell when someone’s theory (or hypothesis) is just superstition in disguise?

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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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What is superstition?

Continuing with Jayman’s response from yesterday’s post:

(1) You call believers in miracles “superstitious”. Yet there have been atheists who aren’t superstitious who have come to believe they have witnessed a miracle.

(2) You say of believers in miracles:

[T]hey see something they don’t fully understand, and they ascribe it to some invisible, magical cause even though they cannot show any verifiable connection between the two. Most of the time they cannot even say what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. So people see something they don’t understand, and they ascribe it to God, and since they cannot tell us precisely how God would have done what they claim, then it must be magic (or in Christian terms, “miraculous”).

Most believers can explain how God might do something. For example, one could posit that God hears a prayer to be cured from a disease, decides to answer the prayer, and heals the person of the disease.

I’m glad Jayman brought that up, because I realize that the term “superstition” is unflattering at best, and I’d like to explain why I’m using it. It’s not out of a desire to insult or disparage believers, but because the action itself happens to fit the definition for “superstition.” And please note, I’m trying to be careful not to call the people superstitious, I’m calling the action superstition—it could be that people are simply being careless, and don’t realize the implications of what they are doing.

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More on the evidence regarding God

I’m going to skim through some of the discussion with Jayman about the evidence relating to God. There’s more there than will fit in a single post, naturally, so I’m just going to hit the points I want to hilite. The first comes in this comment:

I accept that everyone (not just 48%) can be mistaken from time to time. What I find extraordinary is the claim that each and every one of these millions of individuals just so happened to be mistaken at the time they thought they were experiencing or witnessing a miracle and, moreover, that other witnesses of the same event were mistaken in the exact same way…

My point is that many atheists make an extraordinary claim (that they can explain every alleged miracle without resorting to the supernatural) in order to deny another extraordinary claim (that God intervenes in history) and that they accept their claim without extraordinary evidence.

First of all, this is not quite true: neither atheists nor anyone else claims that we already possess explanations for every instance where we do not understand how something happened. Obviously, the reason we don’t understand them is precisely because we do not currently have the answers. It’s hardly extraordinary, though, for humans to encounter phenomena they don’t fully understand.

Jayman’s argument is an appeal to ignorance, a hope that, somewhere in the answers we don’t have, might lie some actual evidence that God exists and intervenes in the affairs of men. He overlooks the extraordinary fact that, of all the answers we actually do possess, every single one has proven to be consistent with the way things work in the real world, i.e. with what we call “the laws of nature” because they proven to be so infallibly true. 100% consistency, with literally zero exceptions, is pretty extraordinary, though you could also call it pretty ordinary, since that’s the way things always turn out.

I do not claim that I can explain every strange thing that happens in life, I merely claim that truth is consistent with itself, and therefore I am confident that any future answers we may find will turn out to be consistent with the truth we already possess. But this is rather irrelevant to the particular issue under discussion here, since the question is not whether men are omniscient, but whether God shows up in real life. Man’s failure to know a particular answer does not constitute God showing up in real life. Ignorance is not knowledge. It’s as simple as that.

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The healing of Bernadette McKenzie

Boy, I leave town for a few days and the comments go nuts! Oh well, that’s a good thing, so bear with me while I try and dig myself out again. It’s a bit dated at this point, but I wanted to use the Bernadette McKenzie story as a practical illustration of the point I was making in my earlier post about miracles. For reference, here is the story, as quoted by Jayman:

A decade ago, at the age of 12, Bernadette McKenzie found that she could no longer stand upright, even after three operations. She suffered from a tethered spinal cord, a rare congenital condition causing constant pain. The nuns at her school in suburban Philadelphia began a series of prayers, seeking the intercession of their deceased founder, Mother Frances de Sales Aviat, whom they regard as a saint. On the fourth day, Bernadette herself knelt by her bed, telling God that if this was to be her life she would accept it. But she wanted to know–a sign. If she were to walk again, she pleaded, let her favorite song, “Forever Young,” play next on the radio. It did. She immediately jumped up and ran downstairs to tell her family. Bernadette didn’t even notice that her physical symptoms had disappeared, something her doctors say is medically inexplicable. Her recovery is currently being evaluated by the Vatican as a possible miracle [it’s since been accepted].

Notice, this is what’s considered a real miracle, as defined by the Vatican, so it’s fair to assume that other alleged miracles will have similar traits. And yet, it’s easy to show that this does not constitute an instance of God showing up in real life, nor is there any particular reason to suppose that anything supernatural is involved. Bernadette’s experience is a textbook example of superstition: “explaining” something by ascribing it to a purported cause even though you not only cannot show any actual connection between the two, but cannot even describe what such a connection would consist of if it did exist. And if this is a fair sample, then we are justified in concluding that the others are not actual supernatural manifestations either. If the Vatican had real miracles to offer, would they tarnish the value of the term “miracle” by applying it to a mere superstitious attribution?

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TIA Tuesday: Imagine there’s no heaven

Last week, we left Vox cackling gleefully amongst the flaming debris of what he thought was the wreckage of Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument—an argument that Vox “demolished” by the unexpected strategy of admitting that Intelligent Design is a self-defeating sham. This week, he serves heaven as well as he has served ID, in his presentation of the anthropic principle.

As we saw before, the flaw in the anthropic principle, as an argument for an intelligent Creator, is that it fails to distinguish between imaginable alternatives and those which are actually possible in the real world. As Vox correctly points out, there is not—so far—any conclusive scientific reason for supposing that any other configuration of the fundamental physical constants of the universe could actually occur in objective reality.

Only by postulating a potentially infinite number of universes can our wildly improbable universe become mathematically probable. Of course, there are no signs of any of these other universes, nor did science ever take the idea of parallel universes seriously until the alternative was accepting the apparent evidence for a universal designer.

If, however, the total number of actual possibilities is limited to one, then it is at least an exaggeration to refer to the 1:1 probability as “wildly improbable.” By Vox’s own argument, the anthropic “problem” is not so much an improbability as a misperception.

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Good news and bad news

As the saying goes, I’ve got good news and bad news. It doesn’t matter which you want first because it’s the same news either way: The Tribulation has already begun.

All the signs of the start of the period called The Tribulation — predicted in the Bible as a seven-year period before the return of Jesus the Christ — have already occurred. This is only part of the research that I’ve uncovered recently while working on a new book…

The original working title was Are We Already in the End Times?, but I recently changed the title from a question to a statement. The new title is Tribulation: 2008.

The writer is Tom Kovach, columnist at renewamerica.us. The bad news is that, according to Kovach, we’ve all been Left Behind, including the True Believers (who, as it turns out, have sadly misinterpreted certain Bible verses about the order of End Time events). The “good news,” of course, is that this means Jesus will return in the year 2015, and we’ll have a thousand-year reign of peace and prosperity. Right?

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Neurostition

What do you get when you cross neuroscience with superstition? One answer might be the word I made up for the title of this post. A somewhat longer answer, though, can be found in Chuck Colson’s latest post at townhall.com.

In a recent issue of the New York Times, respected columnist David Brooks described how what he calls a “revolution in neuroscience” is shaping “how people see the world.” I agree with him—up to a point…

Our brains are not “cold machines.” Rather, “meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings.”

And Brooks is right when he says that research like this will turn the recent debates over atheism into a “sideshow.” There is simply no way to sustain a “hard-core” materialistic understanding of human consciousness and morality in light of the new research. Where does the consciousness and moral decision-making come from?

That’s a question with an interesting answer, but before we look into that, what shall we make of Colson’s triumphal declaration that recent neurological studies have sounded the death knell for materialism?

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Is Original Sin the answer?

Since we’re on the topic of evil in human behavior, let’s take a look at the Christian doctrine of Original Sin and/or the so-called “sin nature.” Some Christians make a distinction between Original Sin and the “sin nature,” but the two ideas have enough in common that we can treat them as being basically the same idea, which is that Adam’s sin caused all mankind to become sinful. Or, as Mr. Horvath puts it,

the Christian religion says that people are by nature sinful and fallen. So it isn’t any surprise to Christians- or it shouldn’t be- when humans do bad things to other humans. We shouldn’t even be surprised when Christians are mean to other Christians…

When liberal pacifist Reinhold Neibuhr was confronted with the realities that emerged after WW2, he had a change of heart and mind and realized that Original Sin was real. GK Chesterton wrote that Original Sin was the only Christian doctrine that can actually be empirically demonstrated.

But does the doctrine of Original Sin really explain evil behavior? Or is it merely a superstition that does nothing more than attribute evil to an indetectable and magical “cause”?

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