Victor 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???