He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fair Questions: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

Previously, I addressed the question asked by Michael Shermer: What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

I did not think it was actually a very useful question, and so I would like to ask a better question that actually gets at the root of the issue: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

There's no particular reason that Shermer and other materialists and/or physicalists can't just assume that there's a natural, material explanation for someone rising from the dead and wandering around.  After all, that's what they assume about many scientifically unexplained events.

So it's not necessary for so many of them to reflexively deny that someone rose from the dead.  What is necessary for the materialist who believes that all things have a natural cause to deny is any claim that some phenomenon (or all phenomena) has a supernatural cause.

And this is, I think, precisely why they object to religions which claim that there are supernatural causes, whether for specific events, or as a first cause of all things.  It would also explain why, when I have asked them specifically what sort of evidence they would accept for claims about the existence of a deity, the responses have been...interesting.

One example from a dialogue I had many years ago with a very bright agnostic atheist.  I asked him what sort of evidence would be sufficient for believing in extraordinary claims.  He proposed video evidence (presumably with audio as well).

So, with some new additional details to make the story a bit more fully-fleshed, I described something very similar to the following scenario as a hypothetical example of an extraordinary claim with video evidence of it:

A woman's mother was dying from a very aggressive cancer, and all the doctors in the United States whom she had been diagnosed by said that there was nothing to be done except make her as comfortable as possible for the last few months of her life.
She found a clinic in Mumbai that was willing to try a new treatment on her mother, and so she and her mother booked a flight to India and got a ride to the clinic in Mumbai.  Because the patients were part of a study which was testing the efficacy of the new treatment, there were video cameras in the rooms.
After they had spoken with the nurses and doctor who was primarily responsible, her mother was placed in one of the rooms, where she would be prepared for treatment.  The day before the treatment was to begin, while the woman was there with her mother in the room, there was a flash of light which temporarily overwhelmed the video camera.
After the light faded, the video recorded a blue-skinned, four-armed figure dressed very strangely who had suddenly appeared in the room.  The figure identifies himself as Vishnu, tells the woman's mother that she is healed, refers to himself as the divine preserver and sustainer of the cosmos, and leaves with her a gold trinket in the shape of a lotus blossom.
There is another flash of light, and then the blue-skinned, four-armed figure is gone again.  The doctor is concerned when the woman tells him of these events that were captured on video, and he has the video checked.  He also has her re-checked for the cancer, and can't find any cancer remaining.
When the woman and her mother return to the United States, none of the doctors they've seen before can find any cancer either.  The woman dies peacefully many years later in her sleep.

So, I asked, in this hypothetical scenario, is the video of these events sufficient evidence to believe that a deity named Vishnu healed the woman of her cancer?

The answer I was given was a resounding, "No."  I was advised that the more plausible explanation is that an extraterrestrial intelligent and super-humanly competent life form had healed her.  Personally, I would accept such evidence as described in the above scenario as evidence of the existence of Vishnu, in the same way that I would accept similar kinds of evidence for other phenomena.

But given the assumptions of a person who believes that all things have natural causes, this is a perfectly understandable response.  It's quite coherent with that worldview.  And it shows us something important about the consequence of that belief: there is no room for any supernatural cause as an explanation for anything if one holds to materialist metaphysics.

For someone who believes that everything has a material/natural cause, there is no possible evidence that is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause.  They are simply not open, at least intellectually, to belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena.

Even if such a person witnesses, at the end of the age, a bearded Jewish carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth coming with the clouds from Heaven and surrounded by angels with flaming swords, they would have to conclude only that they were suffering from a vivid hallucination, or perhaps that these were just extra-terrestrial life-forms whose origin is purely a natural process of evolution on other planets.

On the other hand, for those of us who have a common-sense standard of evidence, we actually have the ability to be open to evidence of both natural and supernatural causes of phenomena.  And I think that open-mindedness is valuable so long as we have critical thinking processes to help us mitigate our quite powerful and perfectly normal human confirmation bias.

Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com which is depicting Michael the Archangel in Heaven.


  1. Thanks for the post, Sam. It reminds me of something that Farrell Till once said. Farrell Till was a popular atheist debater and internet skeptic when I was a teenager, and someone once asked him what kind of evidence he would require to believe in the existence of God. He said that God would have to create a skyscraper instantly, before his eyes, and then he (Farrell) would to up the elevator to every floor to make sure that the skyscraper was real. Once this investigation was complete, he would believe in God.

    One problem with holding to such an extraordinary standard of evidence is that it presupposes that the object one is being asked to believe in (namely, God) is a completely ridiculous hypothesis. I would contend that a God who had nothing better to do than create skyscrapers so that we would believe in Him would not be a God worth putting my faith in.

    More fundamentally, though, even once the miracle has been seen, why believe in it? Why not believe that the skyscraper (or whatever else the miracle might be) is a mere hallucination? Given the assumption of a materialistic worldview, hallucinating a miracle is far more likely than actually seeing one. In fact, even if other people tell you that they saw the same miracle that you did, how did you know that they're not hallucinations, too? Thus, skepticism can collapse in on itself indefinitely, such that no miracle would ever be enough.

  2. Of course, many religious systems have their own problems vis a vis stories of miraculous visions. One problem is that any information within a vision that contradicts a certain religious tradition can easily be re-interpreted in terms of that religious tradition.

    Let me offer an example of what I'm talking about. Let's suppose you have a hard core hyper-fundamentalist Protestant who hates the Catholic Church and believes that it is the whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation. Now, let's say that he reads about the visions of Fatima, and the strange solar phenomena that were observed by many at the time of the vision. After reading these accounts, he is convinced that the three children didn't make the whole thing up, and that something other-worldly happened there at Fatima. So what does he do? Does he convert to Catholicism? Well, there's a small possibility that he might. But it's far more likely that he will interpret the miraculous events in terms of what he already believes. Since he already believes that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, he would find it far more likely that Satan himself was responsible for the apparition and its accompanying signs.

    Although I do believe that Satan exists and even has some influence on our lives, I think that it's problematic to attribute agency to him in such an ad-hoc fashion whenever we come across evidence for a hypothesis that contradicts our own worldview.

    My own approach to visions and miracle stories is a healthy dose of skepticism. First, I look at how unexpected or surprising the contents of the revelations are. Do the revelations simply confirm everything that the seer already believed? Or do they clash with his/her previously held beliefs in an important way. This is largely a positive test. That is, just because a vision simply confirms everything a person already believed, doesn't mean that it, ipso facto, isn't true. However, if a vision starkly contradicts a person's previously held beliefs (think of St. Paul on the road to Tarsus), then we should grant it greater evidential weight. Many visions do not pass this test, but still may be veridical. I know a couple, friends of mine, who have a daughter who has struggled with chronic illness since her early childhood. They are evangelical Protestants. Often, on the night before a diagnostic test or operation, she has reported to her mother that she had a dream in which Jesus appeared to her and told her that everything would be OK. While I do not stand in judgment over her visions or claim to know that Christ definitely did or did not appear to her, I simply note that the vision accorded perfectly with her previously held beliefs. Now, if my little friend announced she had seen a beautiful woman wearing blue who called herself the Immaculate Conception and who smelled like roses, that would definitely raise my eyebrows.

    Secondly, I look for obvious signs that would falsify a vision. Many of our ideas about Heaven and about angelic creatures, for example, are based on popular culture that has in turn been influenced by artistic traditions coming out of the Middle Ages. For example, think of winged angels and such. Now, I'm not critiquing the relative merits of the Medeval artistic tradition, but merely pointing out that it contains certain artifacts which are either not mentioned in scripture at all, or even occasionally contradict it. For example, angels in the Bible are typically presented in human form, and are never depicted as winged (though, to be fair, there are other winged creatures described in the scriptures, though most are animal inform). So, if a person's vision includes seeing "angels flying around" or seeing "the Pearly Gates" or going to Heaven and "floating around on a cloud," I'm much more inclined to doubt their entire story as their brain recycling pre-conceived notions to manufacture such a vision.

    1. Good point, Jack. I tend to evaluate claims of supernatural visions similarly, in addition to looking for natural explanations first.

    2. Saul of Tarsus, an unconverted Jewish Pharisee, travelling on the road to Damascus allegedly had an encounter in which he heard a voice, which no one else in his travel party heard, and witnessed bright lights around him which no one else travelling with him saw. Isn't it much more reasonable that Saul had, if not a hallucination, a seizure? Both phenomena of seeing and hearing things around them which no one else nearby saw at the same time are documented evidences of epileptic seizures. Now, not wishing to be thought foolish or weak, Saul - an man by his own written admission afflicted with great pride in his heritage and in his intellect - could have hit on the idea that he, too, had seen a vision. Accounts of supernatural visions, both then and now, are common when the whole population of the earth, ignorant and educated alike, are taken into consideration.

      I have one more question, as ultimately this examination of natural versus supernatural causes is a search for ultimate truth: Christianity claims to be the only truth. Islam is similarly exclusive in its claim to be the sole and perfect truth. According to some in Christianity, Islam is a heretical religion and may even be considered to be an invention of the Devil. So, if a person has a vision of Muhammad riding a winged horse down from heaven, is it a hallucination? Is he a demon-possessed liar, or is he telling the truth? How can you say for sure which explanation is valid?

      I'll even give you my name and number so that you can answer this question, if you have one. Ryan (469) 426-1859

    3. Ryan, thanks for your willingness to engage in dialogue.

      Before I answer, I would strongly advise that you not provide your phone number in blog comments online, no matter how obscure. There are people who would misuse that information in ways that could cost you a great deal of time and money, and I wouldn't want you to fall prey to them.

      First, I'll respond that the vision Paul had of Christ recounted in Acts of the Apostles and the vision of the Prophet Muhammad on Buraq recounted in various hadith can and should be evaluated using the same evidence-based and rational standard.

      That said, I think a better comparison to Muhammad's night journey on Buraq is Jesus' ascension into Heaven, or in the Tanakh, Elijah being taken up to God on a fiery chariot. Or the Buddha choosing to be born into our world while living in the Tusita heavenly plane, or the implantation of Mahavira into the womb of one woman and then a King of the devas moving him to another woman's womb. These are just a few examples from my reading of various religious texts, but they're all much more comparable to Muhammad's night journey on Buraq.

      Paul's vision and auditory experience isn't described in a great deal of detail in Acts of the Apostles. We really don't have enough information to diagnosis it as an epileptic event, though that's one of a possible range of medical diagnoses that could provide an easy scientific explanation for the event. We could kind of generically wave it away as some sort of neurological event that temporarily took away his eyesight that conveniently went away when Ananias placed his hands on Paul and prayed over him. Or we could just say that the text is recounting events that didn't happen at all and not bother trying to explain any of it.

      That, I think, is why these kinds of events are so important to consider. It's easy to simply dismiss claims about winged horses and chariots of fire as hallucinations. It's also easy to just believe them all and say that there's a simple and obvious spiritual agency that causes all of them. What's challenging is sifting through them methodically. So how can we do that?

      The first step is to realize that when dealing with historical claims, or even claims about what's happening to us now, there is no real way to "say for sure" as you phrased it. Certainty isn't something we get much of in life, as far as I can tell, though perhaps I'm wrong.

      When we're evaluating a historical claim, what we're really trying to figure out is: What is the least improbable/most probable explanation based on the limited evidence we have available?

      I'm running out of time for the evening, but I should have some time after my workout tomorrow to continue with a more detailed explanation of the kinds of rational standards we can use to evaluate historical claims. But I wanted to set the stage first by pointing out that "say for sure" isn't a workable standard for believing any claim, because we can almost never "say for sure".

    4. Ryan, to continue my exposition and address some of your questions very directly, I'll note that my answer to your question, "So, if a person has a vision of Muhammad riding a winged horse down from heaven, is it a hallucination? Is he a demon-possessed liar, or is he telling the truth?"

      ...is that I don't know. I haven't investigated the hadith or other early Islamic sources used to provide support for Muhammad's night journey on Buraq with sufficient depth to have an answer to that question.

      That said, I can propose some general principles that we might use to decide whether the account's accuracy is more or less probable.

      More to follow as I have more time to write.