In the mail last week, I found a copy of November 2010’s Awake! magazine sent to me by a Jehovah’s Witness. It has a cover story on “Is Atheism on the March?” and the person who sent it to me politely indicated that it may be to my benefit.

I have no idea how I became known as an atheist deserving to be on whatever list whomever has for sending proselytizing literature. The proselytizing doesn’t bother me, and neither do the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As far as I can see, whatever harm they do is to themselves. But in this right-wing and severely anti-intellectual political climate, it’s easy to be slightly paranoid about drawing the attention of Republicans in the state in which I teach. I hope that doesn’t happen. (And if it does, thank goodness for tenure.)

The argument against atheism that the issue of Awake! presented depended largely on a generic sense of intelligent design. There’s a very similar online example from their February issue as well. The argument is nothing special. But it does prompt me to wonder how different theistic religion would be if the extremely popular intuition of divine design no longer had such an immediate purchase on most peoples’ brains.

bookmark_borderVictor on Weird Stuff

Victor Reppert has been kind enough to reply on his Dangerous Idea blog to my comments on his earlier posting. I’m replying to his reply, which will evoke a counter-reply, which will get a counter-counter-reply…until one or the other of us has some real work to do and has to break it off. Sigh. That is the damn problem with these discussions. They could go on for lifetimes, but we academics have to work them in between grading papers, committee meetings, publishers’ deadlines, etc.

Anyway, here is what he says:

“I have trouble seeing why people are so sure that he [the supposedly clairvoyant violin teacher] didn’t know, even if they are naturalists. Does he really know that this is naturalistically impossible? It might be less likely given naturalism than given supernaturalism, and thus the evidence might probabilistically support supernaturalism via Bayes’ theorem. (OK, OK, people accuse me of abusing Bayesian probability theory on a daily basis, so I’m already bracing myself). But the most we can say, I think, if my teacher knew that my rival had gone down and been upset, this might be difficult to explain naturalistically based on what we know about nature at this point. Why do we have to assume it was a guess that turned into an appearance of knowledge because of confirmation bias.

A few more details about the incident are relevant here. First, he said he had this “perception” just at the time when the rival went down. Second, my violin teacher never reported anything like this in the three years when he was my teacher. It’s not as if he brought up a bunch of them, and this one just happened to fit. He did mention other clairvoyant incidents, but didn’t claim to have a whole lot of them. Third, although spellers, like all competitors, experience the agony of defeat, nobody ever was quite as demonstrative as this guy. So I’m just not sure you can chalk it all up to guesswork and confirmation bias. In fact, in the absence of some good reasons to believe that he couldn’t have known something that was going on a couple of miles away in that school auditorium, I think the reasonable thing to say would be that he did know.

But, of course, we have to consider the not only the probability of the event given naturalism, but we must also consider the laws of supernature. How probable is the event given supernatural involvement. Is it the sort of thing God is likely to do, or not, if we suspect God? Of course, Keith and I disagree as to whether it is possible to consider the laws of supernature, but people who have beliefs about supernature have probabilistic expectations concerning what to expect from supernature. If you say that’s not enough for a law, well guess what. In quantum mechanics all you get are probabilities also. Are we worried that God isn’t observable? Well, science commits to unobservables all the time.

In considering miracles claims like the Resurrection, we can formulate a theory about what kinds of miracles God is likely to perform, and why he would perform them. Given this theory, we can ask whether the historical evidence is more likely to be the sort thing we should expect if the theistic theory is true, or whether it is more like the sort of thing we should expect if the theistic theory is false. There is a very large trail of historical evidence to look at.

Of course, you can end up deciding that yes, the historical evidence confirms the theistic story, but the atheistic account is more probable based on the total evidence, or relative to your priors.

Have the laws of nature been established by a firm and unalterable experience, as Hume suggests? I don’t think so. My experience is far from establishing the laws of nature on a firm and unalterable basis. What about yours?”


Is clairvoyance impossible given naturalism? I certainly see no reason to think so. We currently have no idea, given what we know about the natural world, how clairvoyance, ESP, etc. could possibly work, and no scientific (as opposed to anecdotal) evidence that it does work. However, it strikes me as dogmatic to say that such events could not someday be verified and scientifically explained. No, my point is that skepticism about anecdotal reports of clairvoyance or other paranormal occurrences is abundantly justified, to the point that we can very reasonably dismiss such stories without further ado.

Consider what we know about memory. I hope I do not embarrass Victor when I reveal that he is within a year or two of my age (58). This means that for him, as for me, seventh grade was a looooong time ago. Memory is not a recording device. It is a story teller. In telling stories to ourselves and others repeatedly, what gets locked in our memories is not what happens, but the stories we tell. It is far too easy to think that the foibles of memory only happen to other people while our memories are clear. So, Victor may–in all honesty, of course–be reporting details that did not happen. The plasticity of memory is naturally a problem with all reports of extraordinary occurrences (Let’s see, was that one angel, or two men in dazzling apparel, or just a young man dressed in white at the empty tomb?).

A principle of rationality that I endorse is this: “When you hear hoofbeats in the distance, think ‘Aha, horses!’ not ‘Aha, unicorns!'” In other words, try hard to give something an ordinary explanation before resorting to a weird one. What I have from Victor is not the original event but a report of an event that allegedly occurred 40+ years ago. That report is the “hoofbeats” here. How best to explain the occurrence of such a report? Even supposing that the event happened exactly as Victor reports it, it would be credulous in the extreme to conclude that this was a genuine case of clairvoyance. Humans have a strong tendency to underestimate the prevalence of coincidence, and paranormalists thrive in that lacuna of human rationality.

Let me illustrate with my own anecdote. Needless to say, World War II seriously disrupted relationships and friendships, sending people for years to distant locales. During the War, my father lost track of an old friend. One day, a couple of years after the War, he was walking down the streets of Atlanta and thought he saw the old friend walking down the block ahead of him. He increased his pace, moving to catch up. Just as he was about to catch up, he blunders into a man who just stepped out of a shop. He steps back to apologize and sees that the man he blundered into was the old friend he thought he was pursuing. Something paranormal? Nope. Coincidence? Yep. Of course, such events are so striking and surprising when they occur, that we have a hard time accepting that they are “just coincidence.” Yet, over the course of a normal lifetime, highly improbable events of some sort or another are almost certain to occur. On a given day, an event like that might be most unlikely, but at some point in the approximately 30,000 days of an 80 year life, it very well could happen.

Victor also notes, correctly, that in estimating the probabilities of miracles, we have to recognize that these estimates will rationally differ given people’s priors. Therefore, the degree of credulity or incredulity with which we approach a miracle report can be rationally different for different people. OK, but I am interested in miracle claims adduced for apologetic purposes. As I see it there are two kinds of religious apologetic–soft apologetic and hard apologetic. Soft apologetic endeavors to reassure the faithful that their beliefs are, for them, reasonable. Thus if a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins type says that religious believers are all fools or knaves, a soft apologist would show that believers need be neither. Hard apologists, on the other hand, try to bludgeon people like me into belief. But if you are going to try to convince me, you have to work with MY priors, not yours. Soft apologetic is easy to do; hard apologetic is hard.

Is it reasonable for Victor to believe in some miracles, the Resurrection, say? Sure. Why not? Is it reasonable for me to disbelieve it? I defy anyone and everyone to show me that it is not.

Finally, Victor says that his experience is far from establishing the laws of nature on a firm and unalterable basis. Two questions here: (1) If so, does not this make the task of the apologist much harder in trying to convince the well-girded skeptic? If we really don’t have any firm basis for regarding certain things as physical impossible, and I am given evidence that someone rose from the dead, I could just pass this off as something that happens from time to time. No miracle is needed if no natural law had to be violated. (2) OK, well what then is wrong with the following?: A man applied to a welfare agency for public assistance and got back the following bureaucratic missive: “Dear Sir, Our records indicate that you are presently deceased, and therefore ineligible for public assistance. Should your condition have changed, please notify this office within the next thirty days.” Well, holy mackerel. Something is wrong here. If “firm and unalterable experience” have not shown us that the dead remain dead, what has gone wrong???

bookmark_borderSkeptics and Miracles

On his “Dangerous Idea” blog Victor Reppert offers the following story and queries:

“Spelling Bees, Violin Teachers, and ESP”

When I was in the seventh grade, I won the District Spelling Bee. The defending champion, somewhat to my surprise, went out when there were six people left, stomped off the stage, and went crying to his mother. After winning the Bee (and qualifying for the state finals), I was asked to provide a picture for the newspaper. As it happened, my violin teacher had a Polaroid camera, and my parents and I knew this, so we visited him. He told me that he had been thinking about my spelling bee, and at one point had an awareness that my rival had gone down, and that he was very upset about it. He had this awareness at about the time when my rival went down. He said that he had sometimes had episodes of clairvoyance.

It wasn’t something that he said came from God. It’s not something that supports my religious beliefs, especially. But I have often thought back to this incident. How did he know? Should you be skeptical of my report now, since this doesn’t seem to be something that happens in the ordinary course of nature?”

Am I skeptical of Victor’s report? No. Why should I be? People frequently think that they have had clairvoyant episodes, premonitory dreams, ESP, etc., so there is no reason whatsoever that I should doubt such a report. It is not at all outside of the “ordinary course of nature.” On the contrary, people have such experiences all the time. How did he (the violin teacher) know what had happened? Well, of course, he did not know. People get hunches, feelings, and intuitions all the time. Some, by chance, are going to be close to something that actually happens. Confirmation bias then steps in to make sure that we remember those that seemed to correspond to what happened and forget all of those that did not.

Of course, Victor raises these queries because of their seeming relevance to miracle reports. Didn’t Hume say that we should be skeptical of reports of events outside of the “ordinary course of nature?” Well, it depends on what we mean by the “ordinary course of nature.” The largest largemouth bass ever caught was a lunker of 23 pounds landed by a Georgia angler circa 1924. Now this is pretty astonishing since a largemouth bass of ten pounds is a whopper. My Dad was a lifelong bass fisherman and he never caught one over eight pounds. Suppose, though that in tomorrow’s paper I read that a largemouth bass weighing 24 pounds had been caught. Would I be skeptical? Maybe slightly, but I would probably tentatively accept the story. What if the report said that a largemouth bass of 50 pounds had been caught? I would most definitely be skeptical and would strongly suspect a hoax. What if the report said that an enormous, glowing bass had levitated out of the water and pronounced maledictions on all fisherman? Obviously, no newspaper–with the exception of the (now sadly defunct) Weekly World News would every publish such a story.

The point is that the believability of a report depends largely upon the degree to which it is outside of the “ordinary course of nature.” How far outside the ordinary course will a miracle report be? If a miracle is to have an apologetic purpose, that is, if it is to be a part of an apologetic program designed to secure the claims of a purported revelation against the objections of skeptics, then it will have to be something that skeptics cannot dismiss as an unusual, but natural, occurrence. It must be something more than extraordinary, since the merely extraordinary happens all the time.

To do the apologetic job, a miracle claim should report something physically impossible, i.e., something that, given everything that we know about nature and its capacities, we believe that nature could not or would not do. Only an event that is physically impossible, yet actually occurs, could kick the skeptic’s butt and provide presumptive evidence for the existence of supernatural agency. Again, the merely extraordinary will not do. Had the Gospel story been that Jesus, when confronted in the Garden of Gethsemane, kicked off his sandals, and, in an amazing display of martial arts prowess proceeded to beat up the soldiers sent to arrest him, that would be extraordinary but not evidence of divine agency.

Two obvious problems immediately confront the would-be miracle claimer: (1) Would not the actual occurrence of the event show that it was not, in fact, physically impossible, and thus a phenomenon for which we could, at least someday, expect a scientific explanation? (2) Since an event we currently and with abundant justification consider physically impossible–like rising from the dead or walking on water–will be one which skeptics regard as having a background probability of near zero, the miracle claimer will have an enormous burden of proof just establishing that the claimed event actually took place.

Both of these are very serious problems for the miracle-claimer, and though I think that in principle they might be effectively addressed, in practice (as Hume argues in Part II of “On Miracles”) he will have a devil of a time. Hume did not argue (though many highly qualified persons have taken him as arguing) that it is impossible in principle to establish a miracle claim. However, as an argument that skeptics may use to dispute miracle claims based on human testimony, he thought his argument would be useful as long as the world endures. He was right.