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Book review: “Why Science Does Not Disprove God” by Amir D. Aczel

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April 16, 2014 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time, Science & Worldviews
Book review: “Why Science Does Not Disprove God” by Amir D. Aczel

Today's entry was written by Emily Ruppel. You can read more about what we believe here.

One of the chronic intellectual fallacies of our time has become the belief that our deep and growing knowledge of how the universe works disproves the existence of God, or at the very least, obviates our human need for God. This view, popularized by “New Atheist” writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has become a rallying point for those disillusioned with faith—especially Christian faith—and in some circles is seen as almost synonymous with the kind of skeptical inquiry required by the scientific process.

It is, unfortunately, not an academically rigorous way of looking at the evidence for and against God’s action and presence, as described by MIT writer and physicist Alan Lightman in a recent review for the Washington Post. Lightman, also an atheist, is nevertheless critical of the New Atheist approach to questions of faith, which makes him a fair commentator on Amir D. Aczel’s new book, Why Science Does Not Disprove God.

Lightman seems to share Aczel’s opinion on New Atheist thinking, which he finds to be, at best, unnecessarily dismissive and at worst an assault on the integrity of science. Lightman does however criticize what he sees as Aczel’s own “sly mission” of attempting to use as-yet-unexplained phenomena as pointers to the possibility of an intelligent creator. He says this is a poor way to advocate for God’s existence.

He writes, “It is not the inability of science to explain some physical phenomenon that shows we cannot disprove the existence of a creative power (i.e., God). Science is a work in progress, and phenomena that science cannot explain now may be explained 100 years from now. Before the 18th century, people had no explanation for lightning. The reason that science cannot disprove the existence of God, in my opinion, is that God, as understood by all human religions, exists outside time and space. God is not part of our physical universe (although God may choose to enter the physical universe at times). God is not subject to experimental tests. Either you believe or you don’t believe.”

The full review, which assesses the claims of the book in more detail and also gives an insightful account of the so-called ‘fine-tuning problem’ as, “one scientific conundrum that practically screams out the limitations of both science and religion,” can be found on the Washington Post website.

Emily Ruppel is a doctoral student in rhetoric of science at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to her PhD work, she studied poetry at Bellarmine University in Louisville and science writing at MIT. She has also served as blog editor for The BioLogos Foundation and as Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #85089

April 16th 2014

The question is, “Does the universe/reality/life have (objective) meaning and purposes?”

If the answer is yes, then it must have been created by God.  The New Atheists say no to backup their belief that God does not exist.

While one cannot prove conclusively that there is no God, one cannot prove conclusively the other way also.  Conceiveably people might be able to fool themselves into thinking that Life is without purpose or has some demonic purpose and thus is without God.  This would destroy people and the earth, not God. 


Lou Jost - #85091

April 16th 2014

The title of this book sets up a straw man right from the beginning. Very few New Atheists think that science disproves the existence of all gods. Rather, science disposes of many of the reasons people have used to justify their beliefs in gods.

Yes, there are some god concepts that do contradict empirical evidence; these and only these are “disproven” by science. For example, if one’s god is supposed to have created the whole universe and everything in it at one instant 6000 years ago, then everything we know about the world tells us that this god does not exist  (“disproven” not in the sense of logical proof but in the everyday evidentiary use of the term).

There are also some New Atheists who think that some concepts of god are logically inconsistent, so that such a god could not exist.

But some definitions of god are compatible with what we know about the world from science. Atheists (New or old) just don’t find any good evidence for the existence of such gods.

Merv - #85092

April 16th 2014

I agree that the title of this book makes a trivial claim, though it probably isn’t wise to judge a book I haven’t read by its title.

I even agree with much of what you said above, Lou, though I think the writer could have supported a stronger and less trivial claim:  “Science cannot even produce evidence against the existence of God.”

The claim that science has produced evidence against certain alleged actions by God (i.e. a recent creation in an instant), while compelling, is not evidence against the existence of that God, and more than exoneration of a certain criminal by new evidence demonstrates that the accused suspect doesn’t even exist.

All that said, I agree that we need to stop shooting down the straw men and start discussing the real challenges.

Lou Jost - #85093

April 16th 2014

“... it probably isn’t wise to judge a book I haven’t read by its title.”

Yes, we’re possibly being a bit unfair, since these kinds of titles are often imposed by the publishers, with a market in mind, rather than by the authors.

Lou Jost - #85094

April 16th 2014

“Science cannot even produce evidence against the existence of God.”

Merv, this surely depends on what one means by “god”. I think science can marshall evidence against the existence of some gods (eg those that supposedly lived on Mt Olympus).

Merv - #85095

April 16th 2014

That is a critical distinction.  If I’m not mistaken, the Greeks considered their gods to be beings within the world of nature, right?  I.e.  sort of like super-humans living up in the sky but still within the universe.  We mostly agree they don’t exist as such, though perhaps they could actually exist if they were extraterrestrials who masqueraded as gods at one time leading to such stories.  Sci-fi plots love to dabble at those possibilities.  Anything bound within nature, including us, or any alleged other beings whether taken to be gods or not, I do agree should be detectable.

The Christian claim, on the other hand, regards a transcendent entity that, while not absent from the physical universe, is not contained by it.  So while manifestations or works of this God can certainly be seen by science (indeed how could they not be if everything is God’s work?)—yet the essence of this deity would be above any reach of our probing instruments. 

You have noted correctly that this then is a scientifically useless explanation for how anything works, and furthermore is extremely convenient if one just wants an answer for why science doesn’t reveal God Himself.  I can’t argue with that.  You are absolutely right—that IF science is everything or at least can, in principle, probe everything that exists; then God Himself would seem thus far absent (although his fingerprints seem to be everywhere if one has eyes of faith.)  But that Scientistic presupposition which you accept so uncritically is, for Christians, a failed premise. 

The Christian claim, rightly or wrongly, is all about this ultimate transcendent Creator.  So it is no good for atheists to speak of how we created god in our heads.  Any such entity that we imagine up has no more to do with the Christian God than any of the Greek gods did.  If the Christian view of the world is correct, either God exists and will/has existed forever quite independently of what you or I or anybody else has ever believed or wanted to believe, or there is no God at all of any kind, imagined or otherwise—just whatever gods we care to bestow the label upon.  If I wasn’t a Christian, I would be an agnostic as I see those two together comprising the complete set of logical possibilities.  I know this may not be fair to other religions that I have not tried or studied.  But one thing that you and I probably agree on is that there is an objective truth out there to be known that remains true quite independently of our beliefs (QM wierdness aside for the moment).  And if we think we see some corner of that objective reality with convincing clarity then what else can we do but continue exploring that as far as we are able, leaning on faith and hope for those matters we cannot probe directly?  And if that objective reality persists, we feel a need to share our brief and clearest glimpses as well as our hopes and blessings with others.  Your persistence here shows that you care what people think—a very healthy attitude to have for anybody who wants to believe in reality. 

Lou Jost - #85098

April 17th 2014

Thanks for that. But “... that Scientistic presupposition which you accept so uncritically…” is actually not a presupposition or a premise but an observation, and it wasn’t arrived at uncritically, as I used to imagine that revelation was a valid way of learning about wat exists. To me the uncritical position is the one that believes personal revelations are ways of knowing rather than ways of generating hypotheses that need to be tested more objectively.

“But one thing that you and I probably agree on is that there is an objective truth out there to be known that remains true quite independently of our beliefs…” Yes, I agree with you on that.

Merv - #85100

April 17th 2014

The Scientistic presupposition in question here at least as I stated it above would be that ...  “Science is everything or at least can, in principle, probe everything that exists.”

That is not a conjecture that can be observed, Lou, much less demonstrated as true from within science itself.   It is 100.0% presupposition.  What you probably meant was that you’ve never encountered anything that compels you to doubt that presupposition—so in that sense you claim you have “observed” it to be true.  But surely you see the circular reasoning involved then when you set your conviction up against others who have encountered life experiences (observations) that cause them to doubt your same axiom.   You can’t convincingly appeal back to your own axiom in order to persuade skeptics of its veracity.  The argument has to be settled on other ground—which is problematic for you since you don’t even acknowledge the existence of any other ground.  It is not problematic for Christians, however. 

We too will run into the same problem of not having any “neutral” territory from which we can assess these questions as if from some idealogical vacuum.  But then again ... we’re not the ones claiming to be in this imaginary position that is free of all faith requirement.

Lou Jost - #85102

April 17th 2014

My observation is not that science can in principle probe everything that exists. Clearly that is wrong. There could be multiverses which exist but don’t ever interact with ours. There could perhaps be disembodied minds (though I am not 100% sure the concept is logically coherent) that never interact with our universe. I have never denied the existence of things  which are not detectable by science.

What I deny is that religious people can claim to know something about the existence or desires of a nonphysical entity based only on revelation or personal experience, unless they use the tools of science to check their experiences.

Suppose, after praying for help to find your car keys, you find them in a place that you thought you had searched before and not found them, and suppose you take this as evidence in favor of the existence of your particular god. This indicates  that your hypothesized entity is indeed amenable to scientific analysis, because it interacts with the world. Science could concievable check to see if you had really examined your pockets carefully earlier, etc. If you want to get from imagining to knowing, you’re stuck with using the tools of science.

I think religious people are the naive empiricists here. Science is all about recognizing that our sensory experience is a layered construction, the product of many very complex brain processes, and not a direect line to the real world. Material is not solid, space and time are relative, etc. Your experience is a poor indicator of what really exists. That is the kind of well-confirmed observation that leads me to reject revelation or personal mystic experiences as direct lines to the truth.

You claim that discussing this is  “problematic for you since you don’t even acknowledge the existence of any other ground.” Once again you make it seem like this is a presumption or axiom of mine, but it is an observation of the lack of evidence for that other ground, not a presumption. I spent many years investigating mystic experiences. I took lots of flak for it. I initially believed there might be something there. I never presumed there was not.

Jon Garvey - #85096

April 16th 2014

But one thing that you and I probably agree on is that there is an objective truth out there to be known that remains true quite independently of our beliefs (QM wierdness aside for the moment).

Merv, philosophically that’s one of the axioms that leans me most towards belief in God, because it’s remarkably difficult to validate, and naturalistically can be argued to be of low probability - witness those discussions on QBism amd so on.

You’ll probably have seen those arguments that in a multiverse, the existence of Boltzmann brains complete with false sensations and memories is far more likely than an actual complex reality.

So to say that there is such a reality to be found is a faith statement akin to the statement that our reason is probably capable of perceiving it, and both are more likely with a transcendent deity such as you describe who prefers truth and reason to simulations or even minds that, postmodern style, dictate their own reality.

Lou Jost - #85099

April 17th 2014

Willima Lane Craig often trots out that Boltzmann brain argument. I don’t think it is valid, since past regularities due to random fluctuations would not be any guide to the future. Cosmologist Sean Carroll recently debated WLC and this topic came up. I haven’t had time to see it yet though….

Merv - #85101

April 17th 2014

Jon, I share also in the (for me quite vague) concept that there is something quite fishy about our current state of affairs in this universe even (or especially) as one of a nearly infinite multiverse.  But I don’t have enough of a handle on this to rest much on it—which limits how much I rest on others’ impressions of what we should get out of it too.

But it does seem like the multiverse should have too many other possibilities in which we might have arisen  for us to have landed in one with so much consistency.  I wouldn’t arrive at that conclusion without some prior faith committments to get me there first, but I do share in your theistically motivating (and motivated) impression.

Lou Jost - #85103

April 17th 2014

More on “Scientism”: I think the writers of the Bible were also proponents of my view. Most of the revelations in the Bible are bolstered by stories of unmistakable divine signs or interventions in the physical universe. The writers knew that mere revelation, or alleged personal contact with the divine, does not carry weight; there has to be some physical demonstration that the revelation or alleged contact was genuine.

Surely you can see the problem if there are no objective ways to test a revelation or a personal experience of divine contact or communication. How would you adjudicate between competing claims of experience of the the divine? An Israelite claims to have heard his god tell him to murder all the Canaanites, including innocent babies. A Muslim claims to hear his god telling him to go on a jihad and kill Jews and Christians, including innocent babies. Both claims are backed up by large cultures, scholarly communities with long traditions, etc. How could we judge either of these claims unless there were some objective evidence to back up the legitimacy of the alleged “divine conversation”? The writers of both the Jewish and Muslim sacred literature thoughtfully did include such evidence. The Torah has sticks turning into snakes in Egypt (though it also rather unhelpfully says that the Egyptian gods also could do this, so those gods  were real too, just not as strong as the Jewish god). The Islamic literature has flying horses, a breaking moon, and other things. So clearly the writers of these sacred traditions do seem to understand that revelation has to be tested by ordinary scientific criteria. In this respect they agree with me.

Merv - #85104

April 17th 2014

I’ll reply to both streams of posts above here at the bottom so that we are in one conversation again.  First, about a couple things from farther above.

What I deny is that religious people can claim to know something about the existence or desires of a nonphysical entity based only on revelation or personal experience, unless they use the tools of science to check their experiences.

You are right that this would be a hopeless task—certainly not within the reach of science.  But not hopeless if that entity is a Creator who wishes to reveal enough to us to give us something to live for beyond our daily survival.

Suppose, after praying for help to find your car keys, you find them in a place that you thought you had searched before and not found them, and suppose you take this as evidence in favor of the existence of your particular god. This indicates  that your hypothesized entity is indeed amenable to scientific analysis, because it interacts with the world.

What it indicates is that the alleged actions of that Creator are amenable to scientific analysis.  I agree with you that there are some things to be learned about God by studying creation.  But to know God’s heart or purposes we are utterly dependent on revelation.  And this dovetails nicely into your most recent post above.

How could we judge either of these claims unless there were some objective evidence to back up the legitimacy of the alleged “divine conversation”?

I don’t know of any “objective” way to immediately adjudicate between such claims for those contemporaries who first heard them.  We now have the benefit of history and subsequent prophets, theologians, scholars, etc. who help sort through everything.  The O.T. itself gives one practical tip:  if the prophecy fails then it was not from God.  That is how they were to distinguish between false and true prophets, but that requires some removal in time perhaps beyond a human lifetime for some claims.

So yes, they were quite concerned about evidence—I’m glad you approve.

It sounds like you have all sorts of interesting stories you could tell about your past investigations into alleged paranormal events.  The flesh and blood concerns of this world often don’t seem as exciting. 

But when a carpenter dons a towel and kneels to wash his friends’ feet as we symbolically did this evening, the “here and now” physicality of such real life makes phantoms and aspirations to lofty magic seem like the fleeting vapors of a mirage in comparison to rough worn hands about their simple service.

Lou Jost - #85106

April 18th 2014

“But not hopeless if that entity is a Creator who wishes to reveal enough to us to give us something to live for beyond our daily survival.”

Merv, I repeat, such revelation is not a way of knowing. This should be obvious, since there are many contradictory claims of such revelations across the world’s religions and cults, and millions of people fall for “revelations” that even Christians would consider as obviously silly (eg Joseph Smith’s ridiculous Mormon revelations). Unless there is an objective means to test it, there is often no difference between real revelation and self-deception.

Surely you recognize the temptation to submit to this kind of self-deception; religions have some nice perks (some people like to think that their lives have a purpose imposed from above, some people like to think they are being cared for by an invisible entity, many people want to belong to a community of like believers, participate in group bonding rituals, etc). People who want to believe these things seem willing to ignore all the contradictions and silliness of the Christian message, and will defend even its indefensible parts (we saw this in the recent Hump of the Camel thread where Christians defended unspeakable Old Testament horrors).  It’s my impression that many religious people participate in “joyful self-deception” and will do anything to maintain this self-deception. This includes ignoring their own rules about evidence, such as the prophecy rule you mentioned (Jesus certainly seemed to make failed prophecies).

“I don’t know of any “objective” way to immediately adjudicate between such claims for those contemporaries who first heard them.”

As I said, the Bible writers (and most other writers of holy books) did know of  a way. They added signs and wonders to indicate the revelations came from a real deity. They agree with me on this need to distinguish madmen’s ravings from real revelations.

GJDS - #85108

April 18th 2014

I do not want to comment on your ‘ramblings’ against Christians - you have made your views plain and obvious. On the matter of revelation however, you seem to have missed the central point. This point is that God reveals Himself to those He chooses as an act of Grace. The criteria that we as reasoable human beings would use when we ‘adjudicate’ on this as knowledge, is inevitably that of our understanding of good and evil, concern for ourselves and others, avoiding acts that harm ourselves and others, and so on. Without such a grounding everything else can become meaningless and Christianity, the Gospel, and the OT all testify to this. It is hard to make sense of your comments (many many comments) that purposely avoid mentioning the core tenets of the Christian faith.

Lou Jost - #85110

April 18th 2014

But GJDS, even if Christianity had beautiful precepts and tenets (and I agreee that some of them are beautiful, though others are left over from the Bronze Age), this doesn’t have much relevance to the truth value of the faith’s existential claims. Some purely secular ethical systems have produced similar tenets; the existence of such tenets is not in itself evidence of divine inspiration. It’s the latter question that interests me.

GJDS - #85118

April 18th 2014

Where does one start with you Lou? The ‘evidence’ you are obsessing with is in ‘the works of those who profess belief and faith’. If these people do evil, then that is proof that they are false and not of the faith - because they do not live by those tenets. If on the other hand they do, that is proof and evidence of the validity and truth claims they make regarding their belief. Secular people who profess similar tenets, or may subscribe to some such tenets, is taken as evidecne of their sincerity and authentic personhood - if not they are branded as hypocrits and thugs.

Again I repeat, revelation is an act of Grace - if this is you real interest in these discussions, then your only recourse is to pray to God for revelation - I can assure you any other approach will be futile.

Lou Jost - #85125

April 19th 2014

That’s silly. There are good (and bad) people in every religion, and among those who profess no religion. A person’s goodness or badness has no bearing on the actual truth claims of his or her religious beliefs.

GJDS - #85133

April 19th 2014

You have a very strange notion of what is silly - if a person states that his or her beliefs are the basis for his/her good deeds, you dismiss that as sillyness - unless you are provided with evidence! Just how deluded are you? And what basis would a non-religious person have for doing good, unless that is also recognised in some manner as a belief?

Good people do not make claims on anything knowing such claims are false, nor do they intend to decieve themselves or others, including on matters of belief and faith. Yet you constantly denigrade such people without any evidence, except your raging prejudices - ask yourself, how does an attitude like yours impact on your ability to distinguish between what is true and false, and what is good and bad?

Lou Jost - #85135

April 19th 2014

I made a fairly simple statement that seems impossible to understand, but you manage to misunderstand it. I accept that some people are good because of their beliefs. I pointed out that this has nothing to do with the truth or falseness of their beliefs. Do you really deny that point? Somebody could be good because they think the UFO invisible police will vaporize him if he does something wrong. Just because he is good, does that mean the UFO invisible police must be real? Of course not.

Lou Jost - #85136

April 19th 2014

oops:  “I made a fairly simple statement that seems impossible to understand”  should read “I made a fairly simple statement that seems impossible to MISunderstand…”

GJDS - #85138

April 19th 2014

Now who is getting just plain silly - you keep changing the topic and then protest - let me make it simple. If a person believes the ten commandements are from God and yet he commits murder, or indulges in deceit, we brand him a hypocrite and state his deeds are opposite to the beliefs he proclaims. If a person believes in UFO’s and happens to avoid murdering anyone, we do not equate his UFO nonsense with his behaviour regarding murder. If on the other hand, he sets up committees, constructs buildings and such like, to deal with the UFO’s he believes are landing there, we would question his beliefs based on his deeds. Just what is so silly with this?

I again say, your obsessions with religion have distorted your views, and the fact you need to constantly repeat them speaks to an even deeper need within you.

Lou Jost - #85140

April 20th 2014

”....your obsessions with religion have distorted your views, and the fact you need to constantly repeat them speaks to an even deeper need within you.”

I could say the same about your comments.

GJDS - #85143

April 20th 2014


I do make comments because I openly state that I am religious and identify with a particular tradition (Orthodoxy). I have tried to understand your position, but I find this to be extremely difficult. You seem to accept core tenets of Christianity, but then dismiss them as ‘just another religion’ - that is your right I suppose, but for an atheist, it makes little sense to then argue the way you do on these matters.

I also get the impression that you have some sort of bug about miracles. Many of your comments are in line with our views on supperstion - Christianity has spoken against such things for 2000 years, so you should understand why I would treat your comments with short and sharp replies.

Again, the Faith does not depend on ‘proving’ any miracle, so if I understand your objections, then my conclusion is that your are just plain wrong on this one.

Anyone (including myself, and atheist friends) understand that superstion may be unhealthy, although I detect a greater tolerance these days - we now say, provided it does not harm people. I suspect that a great deal of superstion and para-normal stuff (and UFO’s) is an indication of the destructive and nihilistic cultural trends that have grown in the western world (be it gothic rock or whatever). Thus I find your comments odd, in that you associate these essentially atheistic trends with biblical teachings (and then decry some aspects of cultures in underdeveloped counties).

  I short, I find your thinking and comments regarding Christianity (and I guess other major faiths) mixed up and difficult to ‘make sense’ from what you post.

Lou Jost - #85146

April 20th 2014

Maybe you don’t understand that your faith is just another superstition, in the eyes of most of us. The only thing that could change that view would be some kind of objective evidence that your god was real. It wouldn’t have to miracles. It could be strong unambiguous prophecies of the future, or it could be that revelation contained information about the world that would not have been available to the culture of the time. Or maybe you can think of some other kind of objective evidence that doesn’t depend on already believing the story. 

Eddie - #85147

April 20th 2014

Lou, you wrote:

“your faith is just another superstition, in the eyes of most of us”

Who is included in “us” and how did you calculate or measure “most”?

Lou Jost - #85148

April 20th 2014

“Us” = atheists

GJDS - #85157

April 20th 2014

Once gain you display the extreme irrationality of someone with a deep-seated need, which motivates you to indulge in such ramblings. Even your previous comments contradict this innane #85146 response.

 Have you ever let the thought into your head that you do not understand faith, and never have? And why in heaven or on earth would I (or any sane Christian) take the slightest trouble to change your silly view? Is it because you are obsessed with the fact that people of faith do not listen to your prattling and yet you feel compelled to continue with this parroting?

You are trully a confused person.

Lou Jost - #85163

April 21st 2014

It would be nice if you actually presented a coherent argument now and then. 90% of your comments to me consist of name-calling and insults.

GJDS - #85164

April 21st 2014

Poor old Lou - you declare the Christian faith is a superstition, without providing anything but insults and degrading comments as support, and then, to top it all, you complain when I correctly lable such comments as prattling and rantings (where is the name calling? - all comments are a response to your ludicrous and unsupported comments you make).

Lou Jost - #85166

April 21st 2014

Then we differ profoundly on what constitutes a valid argument.

GJDS - #85180

April 21st 2014

A valid argument is one in which, at the very least, continues to argue the point that constituted that argument. The points were core tenets of Christianity and what you may or may not understand as faith. You display an inordinate tendency to waffle about almost anything that comes into your head, and when this is shown to you, politely or sharply, you hide behind ‘insults’ and what have you.

The insults that I see are from you in that you treat other people’s beliefs with utter contempt, and try to justify this barbaric attitude with a, “science has proven” your non-sense, or “provide evidence of God’s existence to you”. Both of your defenses are humbug, and it is astonishing that you do not understand this.

Merv - #85109

April 18th 2014

Merv, I repeat, such revelation is not a way of knowing. This should be obvious, since there are many contradictory claims of such revelations across the world’s religions and cults, and millions of people fall for “revelations” that even Christians would consider as obviously silly

I also will repeat, Lou, that the presence of many false claims does not rule out (or even render improbable!) the existence of real truth.  This is such an obvious fallacy—I’m not sure why atheists keep trotting it out, but I guess you have to make do with what you have.

As I said, the Bible writers (and most other writers of holy books) did know of  a way. They added signs and wonders to indicate the revelations came from a real deity.

And these signs and wonders, Lou, are *revealed* truth.  I.e.—done apparently as a seal of testimony  ...

[Our dog, Walnut (affectionately known as ‘Wally’) just drew his last breaths and my younger son and I buried him out in the back yard, so death is a visceral presence in our household here between the start of this post and its conclusion ... Rest in peace, Wally.]

... a seal of testimony to those who are given the charge of carrying it on.  Why God doesn’t just visit each of us personally with signs and wonders, or put on huge annual displays into perpetuity [beyond what we already have bombarding our comprehension] so that none of us ever have to talk to each other about God or learn to trust each other, I can only speculate. 

To your charge that revelation is not a “way of knowing”—you may be quite right at least in the narrow (and I remind you: axiomatic) way in which you define “knowing”.  But yes, even with revelation we still only see through a glass darkly.  If you want to imagine that modern scientific methods are an exclusive avenue to truly know anything, that is your prerogative.  But my empirical observations of my own human nature as well as knowing something of history preclude me from fully trusting something that must still rest on human layers despite its best efforts to free itself from that influence (and it is the conviction that it actually has freed itself from the human layer that ironically makes it so naively susceptible—a lesson in which some other religions may be well ahead of the Scientistic religion).  And as you so frequently rehearse to yourself, religion too is a highly fallible set of practices, to the extent that it also rests on human layers.  Only if something [Someone] from beyond has laid a foundation that some of our religions are able to haltingly plant their feet on will there be any hope of true wisdom and knowledge (not from our religious efforts—but from that one laid foundation towards which we imperfectly strive.)  

Well, this has been several hours in unfolding, given the nature of my day here, so I had better just hit the send button.

...blessings as we look towards Easter.


Lou Jost - #85111

April 18th 2014

” ...the presence of many false claims does not rule out (or even render improbable!) the existence of real truth.  This is such an obvious fallacy—I’m not sure why atheists keep trotting it out, but I guess you have to make do with what you have.”

Completely unfair, Merv. I did not make that claim (nor does any atheist I know). I thought we were going to try to avoid straw man arguments. I’ll spell out my argunment for you:

1. There are many contradictory claims about revealed truth.

2. Therefore some of them are false.

3. Therefore we can’t take revelation at face value but must have some objective way to test such claims. Without such tests, you can’t distinguish self-deception from real revelation.

”...these signs and wonders, Lou, are *revealed* truth.  I.e.—done apparently as a seal of testimony”

Yes, these are what we need to judge whetehr a revelation is real. As I keep saying, writers of holy books agree with me that objective evidence should be required in order to judge whether a revelation came from a real god, as a protection against self-delusion. And these signs and wonders were suppsoedly freely given in the past, according to the writers.

“Why God doesn’t just ... put on huge annual displays into perpetuity [beyond what we already have bombarding our comprehension] so that none of us ever have to talk to each other about God or learn to trust each other, I can only speculate.”

Whatever your answer to that question is, it would also have to explain the alleged eagerness of gods to intervene and give signs in the distant past. Your aside fails to do that. The real explanation is obvious.

Merv - #85113

April 18th 2014

Thanks for spelling it out above, Lou.

Regarding your #1 ...   agreed.

Regarding your #2 ...   agreed.

Regarding your #3 ...   provisionally agreed.

I add to your #3 that scientific tests are of limited use in the cases where a personal god (from outside of nature) chooses to perform a miraculous sign for some individual or group in the past.  If the action isn’t part of the everyday providence from that god, then it won’t register in the form of some repeatable test for laboratories. 

You will add that if a scientist had been present at any such event itself, science could help verify the miraculous nature of the event.   ...to which I would respond:  “well, sorta maybe”.   One might be able to verify that this event does appear unexplainable at the moment by our present science—so maybe that does count for something; you seem to indicate you might accept that.  But you have hastened to add that such things are moot points anyway since “miracles” are safely buried in the past where they were “freely given” and they seem mysteriously absent today.

We’ve had similar discussions in the past; I’m not convinced that the many centuries over which Bible events spanned were as full of miracles as is popularly imagined.  The stories are chock full of characters who seemed always to be “starved” for some sign from God until they actually got one.  And of course we hear the stories of those who did get a response from God.  Crowd all those stories together in a few chapters and books and you have the impression of an ongoing magic show where no skepticism could be expected to survive.  And yet somehow, skeptics abounded!  From those following Moses around to the very disciples of Jesus, one would think they all had nothing but the complete confidence of their own eyes from just a few sentences back in the story.  But no—there they are complaining that they will die in the desert or the disciples wondering if Jesus could just clinch their doubts with a sign.  Not exactly what we expect from the “gullible bunch” that moderns make all these ancients out to be. 

A cluster of telephone poles can look like a quite crowded bunch from a distant, nearly aligned vantage point, but when we approach and walk among them we discover much open space between.  In the same way we may get misimpressions from our distant future vantage back on what appears to us to be an age of “miracle concentrate”.  We forget that people lived long spans of time (sometimes years or even entire lives) in between the given stories.  And then even in the event itself, it wasn’t always public (like the crossing of the red sea).  Sometimes even the contemporaries had to depend on the witness accounts of those few actually present for more personal kinds of healing miracles.  They had to learn trust and pass along testimony just as we do.

Lou Jost - #85124

April 19th 2014

“From those following Moses around to the very disciples of Jesus, one would think they all had nothing but the complete confidence of their own eyes from just a few sentences back in the story.  But no  ...”

Of course here you are assuming these are real accounts of skeptics in the face of miracles. In fact they are good evidence that either the miracles really didn’t happen as described, or that the whole thing (including the part about the skeptics) is made up and has some other purpose than historical reporting. In fact the OT is just a standard origins myth, and should be read as such. This is the interpretation that best fits the text and our knowledge of history.

Lou Jost - #85112

April 18th 2014

”...Scientistic religion.”

People here are fond of saying stuff like that. If we are going to really discuss this, though, you’re going to have to give up your straw man definition of Scientistic, as I explained in my comment 85102.

Merv - #85114

April 18th 2014

I thought I had a fair appraisal of what “Scientism” is…

the conviction that repeatable empirical tests are the *best* (or do you want to go for *only*?) way to confidently know any and all truth.

Even if you settle for the more modest choice of *best*, it still runs afoul problems when coupled with the universal:  *all* truth.

Merv - #85115

April 18th 2014

And we should add that the Scientistic conviction is almost always coupled with the dismissive conviction that any philosophical questions (such as about inherent meaning beyond what  we make up for ourselves) that may not be scientifically addressable are therefore meaningless, irrelevant, and useless.  Only physical truth counts as real truth.  Is that also a fair assessment for what is included in the Scientistic package?

Lou Jost - #85117

April 18th 2014

Merv, yes, that’s a better definition than the one you gave in 85102. I’d suggest striking “repeatable”, though. A one-off event can be informative. So I disagree with your setting aside past miracle claims as inaccesible to science: past events can be investigated, and certainly can be objective evidence for some truth-claims.

Also, mathematical and logical truths, and internal psychological states, can be determined by a person without public scrutiny, so  I think that in your definition, “all” truth is a bit much.

I guess I’d subscribe to a version of this that said “The truth value of contingent statements about the external world cannot be known without empirical evidence.”

I disagree very strongly with your additions in 85115. I don’t think many atheists dismiss questions like “What is the purpose of life?” or ‘Why are we here?” We just dismiss your claim to know the answers. We also note that not every question necessarily has an answer, and I think the evidence strongly suggests that there is no grand answer to those two questions.

So in fact your claims about god are amenable to empirical testing, even for a scientismist. If the miraculous events of the bible really happened, that would be evidence (though not proof) of the validity of the revelations it contains. (And I agree with you that if they didn’t happen, that doesn’t disprove god’s existence.) So, as always, the differnece between us is just our different evaluations of the strength of the evidence for those claims. It is not correct for you to blame this disagreement on some scientistic or philosophical prejudice, or a naturalistic “axiom” or “religion”.

Lou Jost - #85119

April 19th 2014

I’m guessing that even our standards of evidence don’t really differ very much. You probably dismiss the evidence for Islamic miracles like flying horses and splitting moons, Mormon miracles like mysterious disappearing golden tablets (which are better attested than the miracles of the Bible), indigenous miracles like my friends’s grandfather changing into a jaguar at night, etc. I suspect we only differ in our degree of consistency in applying our standards.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85120

April 19th 2014

Lou wrote:

We also note that not every question necessarily has an answer, and I think the evidence strongly suggests that there is no grand answer to those two questions.

So how do you counsel a person who wants to commit suicide?  Tell him or her you’re right?

It seems to me that what you aqre saying is there is no such thing as non scientific truth, which is interesting because what most people are concerned about truth it is non scientific truth.

People might be interested in the Higgs boson but that is not the truth about life that concerns them.  If science has a monopoly on scientific Truth, not that many people are buying.  It seems irrelevant and it is irrelevant. 

Probably Christians take scientific truth more seriously that others and often it seems that scientismers what to turn Christians off to science.

Lou Jost - #85121

April 19th 2014

“So how do you counsel a person who wants to commit suicide?”

I can give better counsel than a Christian. I can give real reasons why the person should reconsider. I could talk about the finality of death, the effect on his or her loved ones, the things they might be able to change about their life, etc. You on the other hand can only make things up.

Lou Jost - #85122

April 19th 2014

That was too harsh. A reasonable Christian would give the same counsel as me, and then add the made-up stuff.

Lou Jost - #85123

April 19th 2014

And Roger, just because we want there to be answers to those big questions doesn’t mean that they really have answers.

PNG - #85181

April 22nd 2014

And of course, just because you or someone else, doesn’t want there to be answers, or doesn’t care at some particular moment what they are, is not any indication that no such answers can be had. What’s good for the goose…

Merv - #85127

April 19th 2014

A one-off event can be informative. So I disagree with your setting aside past miracle claims as inaccesible to science: past events can be investigated, and certainly can be objective evidence for some truth-claims.

Yes, I could nuance that a bit more.  Certainly claims like a global flood or age of the earth are (I agree) investigatable scientifically.  Changing water into wine, or personal healings done in the far past are not accessible except in noting how unlikely (or likely!) such an event could be in the ordinary course of affairs.

Also, mathematical and logical truths, and internal psychological states, can be determined by a person without public scrutiny, so  I think that in your definition, “all” truth is a bit much.

Agreed.  I didn’t mean to imply that Scientism does not accept those kinds of truths as well. 

I disagree very strongly with your additions in 85115. I don’t think many atheists dismiss questions like “What is the purpose of life?” or ‘Why are we here?”

I am glad to hear that.  It is good baggage to jettison (or to never have had on board to begin with).

Lou Jost - #85128

April 19th 2014

“Changing water into wine, or personal healings done in the far past are not accessible except in noting how unlikely (or likely!) such an event could be in the ordinary course of affairs.”

I have to disagree. They are no less accessible than other historical events. No one says the assasination of Caesar is beyond our reach, even though it was an unlikely event. The alleged parting of the Red Sea, the zombie march on Jerusalem, the loaves and fishes miracle (thousands of witnesses!), or Jesus’ ascension into heaven all could have produced independent eyewitness written records by Egyptians, Romans, or Jews (or even Christians—-most scholars think we don’t have any direct eyewitness records of any kind for any of these events, though I know some of you disagree).

If these events (supposedly with huge numbers of witnesses) really happened, there might even today be an eyewitness’ written fragment laying around somewhere waiting to be discovered. We might also find out that they didn’t happen (the Red Sea event in particular seems vulnerable to archaeological disproof). These were not inaccessible, private events, if they happened as described.

In fact, we already know that some of the alleged miracles (Flood, for example) didn’t happen as described. The evidence for the other miracles is also weak or negative (absence of contemporary records in cases when such records would be expected). This evidence would only look good if one were desperate to believe. As I said earlier, the miracles of Mormonism are better attested than these.

Merv - #85129

April 19th 2014

That fact that you are referring to eye witness testimony (or alleged lack thereof) is my very point [that it isn’t strictly scientific].  Without a time-machine we have to make use of witness testimony or even second or third hand testimonies which I was presuming you don’t generally find to be scientific.  But if you are allowing “scientific” to then include:  “ancient testimony that confirms my Scientistic biases” verses other testimony that is automatically suspect, then aside from other problems with that, it is at least healthy progress that you are willing to accept even just some historical witness accounts as worthy of serious consideration.

Lou Jost - #85131

April 19th 2014

We have always agreed that evidence is evidence. But that includes evidence about the unreliability of testimony, internal contradictions, etc.

“ancient testimony that confirms my Scientistic biases”

Darn, here we go again with you accusing me of scientistic biases. I just spent a lot of time here trying to explain that you are wrong about that, and you seemed to agree with most of my points. Some day will you please stop pretending I reject this stuff a priori because of “scientistic prejudices”  and  start discussing the real issue, the quality of the evidence in favor of your claims?

Lou Jost - #85134

April 19th 2014

Again, I invite you to ask yourself why you reject the Mormon miracle of the golden tablets, and presumably many other miracle claims of modern and ancient cults. We would probably agree most of the time on why this or that claim was not well-enough attested to be credible. It isn’t because we have scientistic prejudices, it’s because we know something about the unreliability of evidence for these kinds of things.

Merv - #85137

April 19th 2014

...it’s because we know something about the unreliability of evidence for these kinds of things.

*these kinds of things* you said—and I’m supposed to pretend that you aren’t aiming those words at specifically religious claims?  Those are your words, Lou, not mine.  Don’t fault me for recognizing your biases when you put them out for all to see.

About Mormon miracles, golden tablets, or all other miracles claims ... I haven’t studied them and you presume I reject all such things if they aren’t considered to be under the orthodox umbrella of “Christianity”.   But actually I do not automatically rule out all such claims.  Most of them—I would suspect probably didn’t happen if I was forced to take a stand on what little of all such things I do know (because I too have an inculturated Scientistic bias, which will heavily influence my less reflective gut reactions—the difference between me and you being my recognition of this about myself).  But since I do accept the reality of a spirit world [not all of which is aligned with God]—that alone means I don’t automatically reject accounts of spiritual experiences even of bizarre kinds. 

Do this thought experiment, Lou.  A man walks up and relates to both you and me his story about how he was demon possessed, but then his local witch doctor cast some spells and now he’s been freed of the demon.  Both you and I would probably politely listen.  I’m guessing you would privately but strongly suspect the man’s affliction was a physical malady from which he now coincidentally (or psychosomatically) feels relief—and you would think this because you have never seen convincing evidence that demons as independent spiritual beings even exist.  Is that a fair guess about your reaction?

I also would strongly suspect there was a physical dimension to his malady and his cure.  But since I already have accepted the existence of a real spiritual realm, I would instead mentally file this account away as an interesting phenomenon to remember.  Alone, it doesn’t make for very strong evidence of spirit realm activity.   I wouldn’t be switching religions or anything like that.  But I don’t dismiss the man’s claims as at least a nod of evidence towards something spiritual.     And if a doctor did examine the man and found a physical explanation for his malady and/or cure, I still would not think that necessarily precluded the truth of his spiritual assessment of the experience.  Whereas, if I’m not mistaken, that would clinch it for you if it hadn’t been clinched already for you before that.

Have I misjudged how you would react here, Lou?  Given your travels, this might not be hypothetical for you as it is for me, so perhaps you don’t even have to use your imagination.

Lou Jost - #85141

April 20th 2014

Merv, you’re ignoring so much of what I wrote above!

I’m going to divide this response into two parts.

First, “those sorts of things” refers to what both of us would regard as miraculous claims. Not necessarily religious. The sorts of things that should raise red flags for any careful student or juror, because they fall far outside our everyday experience and well-supported scientific theory.  These things include psychic surgery, bodily levitation, moving external objects with your mind, bending spoons a la Uri Geller, stuff like that. There may or may not be religious elements connected to these.

I can’t stress enough that I am not saying these things are impossible (though my past experience here tells me you or somebody else will continue to accuse me of that anyway). As I said above, I spent many years looking closely at those sorts of things, with a strong suspicion (based on my own experiences and those of people I knew) that some of the more subtle paranormal phenomena were real. I was a vocal advocate for them.

When I was in college I convinced the college president to give me a grant to build a quantum-mechanical random number generator to test precognition, and I convinced  the psych dept to let me float human subjects in saltwater isolation tanks and try to elicit strong images and emotions in their girlfriend or boyfriend oustide the tank, in the hope that there might be evidence of communication. In grad school at a major university I convinced someone in the physics dept to give me space for my QM random number generator, and I convinced the psych dept to give me an office for my experiments.

Do you have any idea how hard that was? These institutions were not friendly to these kinds of activities, and it took enormous effort to accomplish them. I spent those years passionately (and successfully) arguing for open-mindedness. So it really bugs me that you guys accuse me now of rejecting your claims out of pure prejudice.

One of the things I learned in my research (especially my historical investigations of turn-of-the-century paranormal claims by famous scientists such as A. R.  Wallace,  co-discoverer of evolution) was how easy it was for people to fool themselves when they dearly wanted to believe something. Those guys were witnessing their loved ones coming back from the dead to talk to them through mediums. I initially thought there might be something there, but on further investigation they fell for the silliest tricks in the book, because they wanted it to be true so desperately. 

To help me spot frauds I learned magic from a psych prof who happened to also be a magician. This was also an eye-opener. The average person would never imagine how easily the human mind can be made to fool itself.

I learned about the psychology of perception and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Another eye-opener. Perception is  a highly contructive process and the experiences our brains construct for ourselves depend heavily on our prior expectations about the world.  Memory is also highly constructive and not in any sense a direct recording of past events.

I am not a skeptic because of prior prejudice. I am a skeptic now as a result of a long open-minded learning process. There can be such a thing as an informed skeptic.

Eddie - #85149

April 20th 2014


I want to make sure I understand your claim.  You are saying that because one graduate student, using saltwater tanks and a random number generator, found no evidence for psychic phenomena, that therefore such phenomena do not happen?  Or are you saying something narrower, i.e., that as far as you could determine, there was no evidence for psychic phenomena, and therefore you personally don’t accept their existence (but don’t deem irrational or scientifically benighted those who do)?

Your points about memory and perception are reasonable.  That is why we like to have, both in courtrooms and in laboratories, multiple witnesses with different and independent motivations, to confirm events.  But your complaints about the unreliability of our perception, memory, etc., though important to keep in mind, are hardly adequate to cast blanket doubt on all psychic phenomena.  There are many reported psychic phenomena for which the people involved had no prior expectations, and therefore cannot be interpreted as letting their expectations shape what they perceived.

Example:  a woman (known by all her loved ones as hard-headed and practical, and not given to spiritual enthusiasms of any kind) at one point knew that “something had happened” (she did not know what) to a specific child of hers.  At the time she did not know where that adult child was, what he was doing, etc., and therefore could have formed no theory or expectation; in fact, she had no reason at all to be thinking about him at that particular moment.  She discovered later that, at the very moment (or close enough to the very moment) that she had the premonition, her son had been involved in a serious accident hundreds of miles away (no news report was available yet, nor was she anywhere near a newspaper or radio etc. in any case when she had the experience).  Now these premonitions, with that level of specificity (correctly identifying one out of many children) are actually quite common.  And they can’t be explained by wishes (who would wish their child to be involved in an accident?), expectations (why would you expect that someone you knew would have an accident on a trip you didn’t even know he was taking?), outside helpers sneaking clues in (as would an accomplice at a magic show), etc.  

Another case:  a man is driving along, and sees, a few yards ahead of his car, what appears to be a close relative, apparently floating across the road, waving and smiling at him.  When he gets home, he finds out that this relative (whom he had not been thinking about at the time, and who had not been diagnosed with any illness) had just died suddenly.  That can’t be explained by expectations, wishes, having unconsciously noticed a newspaper headline, etc.  But the knowledge was there.

Now you can dismiss all such stories as “anecdotal” and not subject to scientific testing because they are not repeatable.  But they are very common, and they are often reported by people who are educated, middle-class, “normal” people who are known to be honest and have no obvious reason to lie or deceive about the matters reported.  

I don’t claim to have any explanation—religious or otherwise—for such phenomena.  I don’t rule out the possibility that many of them have wholly natural explanations.  But I would never be so bold as to say that all of the people reporting them are liars or were on hallucinogens or were suffering from sleep deprival etc. at the time.  I suspect that some portion of the stories are accurate, whatever the explanation may be.  And because the knowledge or perception comes “out of the blue,” and is of surprising rather than expected or wished-for events, the usual rationalizations don’t apply.  I don’t think your lab tests can come anywhere near to wiping out all this testimony from all over the world, found in past writings and in present-day testimony.

It seems to me—contrary to what I would wish, with my typical modern desire for a fully rational and naturalistically explicable world (I was raised with the attitudes that you now profess, and it is still hard for me to shake those attitudes)—that there are more things in heaven and earth than are found in my philosophy—or in yours.

Lou Jost - #85150

April 20th 2014

Eddie, my comment was written to explain (yet again) that I don’t reject these phenomona a priori. I engaged with the evidence (not just in labs but in real-life accounts) and found it wanting.

Your analyses regarding your two individual cases are naive. I agree with you that it is a very difficult thing to study.

Eddie - #85152

April 20th 2014


Your remark that my analyses are naive is pompous.  Show how the analyses are naive, don’t just say it.

In fact, my analyses were conducted with reference to exact criteria specificied by yourself.  You indicated that many phenomena which do not exist are in fact called into imaginary existence by our expectations (you gave the example of stage magicians, among other things, who trick us into seeing things we don’t actually see, by making use of our expectations) or our wishes (e.g., people who refuse to believe their loved ones are dead, and are therefore eager to see evidence they are alive).  In the examples I gave, neither wishes nor expectations have any obvious relevance to the phenomena, as I showed. 

So either show me how those phenomena could have been generated by wishes or expectations, or otherwise provide a better analysis than I gave.  Simply calling the analyses naive is nothing but sneering, and sneering is not argument.

I understood fully the purpose of your reply to Merv, but I notice also that you did not answer my question about what exactly your claim (regarding the existence of psychic phenomena) was.  Please reread the question, and give your answer.

Lou Jost - #85155

April 20th 2014

I just told you what my claim was. I was not pronouncing on the reality of paranormal phenomena.

Your comment started out sneering, so I didn’t feel like taking the time to elaborate much with you. But I’ll elaborate if you really want to know.

Your analysis of those anecdotes leaves out multiple important factors. You don’t mention whether these are first-person accounts or not, and you don’t mention how much time passed between the experience and the recounting of it, and you don’t mention if the  people involved mentioned their premonition to someone before they confirmed it. You don’t mention how close in time the “fullfilment” followed the premonition. You don’t mention (and can’t really know) how often the woman worried about her distant son or thought that something might have happened to him (it is not an uncommon thought among many mothers). All this information is essential to evaluate the stories. And even if we had all that, it is really hard to figure out the probability that the events happened just by chance, since they are self-selected from an immense pool of human experience in which events with 1-in-a-billion odds happen to someone on earth every single day. That’s why it is so tempting to try to study this stuff in a lab. In the end, we just can’t say much on the basis of these kinds of anecdotes.

Some kinds of single anecdotal events might become persuasive if they were vastly improbable and well-attested. Especially if they involve physical phenomena. However, the track record for the veracity of these claims is abysmal. 

By the way, if paranormal phenomena were real, it could provide an alternate, non-religious explanation for all the miracle claims and prophecy claims of all the world’s religions.

Eddie - #85159

April 20th 2014


I do not see where my comment started out sneering; it started out asking you a question—whether you were claiming to have disproved the existence of paranormal phenomena, or whether you were merely explaining why you yourself did not accept the existence of such phenomena.

In any case, I am surprised that you, having conversed with me as often as you have, would think I was so intellectually sloppy as to overlook the kind of objections you raised above.  In fact, I would of course, if called in to formally investigate any such phenomenon, go through just such a checklist as you provide—and I wouldn’t need any Ph.D. in physics or population genetics, or any other formal scientific training, to have dreamed up exactly that checklist.  Indeed, when I was in high school I had exactly that sort of set of skeptical questions for all claims of paranormal phenomena.  I was as hard-nosed a doubter then as you are now (and used essentially all the same arguments as you do now, against religion as well as ESP etc.).

But I was not here conducting a formal investigation; I was giving you the short, simple version of a couple of cases, sans footnotes.   I was not going to write 1,000 words in each case, trying to anticipate your many objections and fend them off.  I was trying to show you that in many cases your objections simply won’t apply (there were no magicians or mediums present in either of my cases, and no one either wishes or expects to see a ghost in front of his car while driving, let alone the ghost of a healthy man he wasn’t worrying about or even thinking about at the time) or expects that a specific child out of a large family will have something happen to him, as opposed to worrying from time to time about the children generally).

But in fact, one of the cases I did hear from the horse’s mouth, and none of your checklisted items apply.  The other case I heard of secondhand, and therefore would be less insistent upon; but I am sure that others have heard similar stories from the horse’s mouth.  And the larger point is that you are overlooking the cumulative effect of such reports.  Scratch out 50% of them as outright lies or fabrications; scratch out another 25% as due to unconscious influence of wishes or expectations; scratch out another 10% as due to sheer coincidence; when we are talking about millions of such cases over the history of the race, that still leaves much to be accounted for.  

I said clearly that I made no claim about what such cases proved; I did not say they proved the existence of God, or the truth of any religion, or even of ESP or precognition.  I said only that it looks as if there may be things operating in the world that do not fit into our normal understanding.  These things provide prima facie evidence of certain phenomena, and the sum of all your experiments (in a controlled atmosphere which may dampen the very spontaneity which generates such phenomena, for all we know) doesn’t make much of a dent in the total body of cases.

If you put two young people in a lab, under glass, with cameras on them, and say:  “I want you two to fall in love,” and they don’t do so, that doesn’t prove that people never fall in love.  It proves only that people don’t respond well to being coaxed into falling in love.  You’d have a better chance of determining whether people fall in love if you observed them from the bushes than if you set up a controlled experiment.  If psychic phenomena are like that (as they may well be), lab tests will often turn up misleading negatives.

There are of course many other cases I could have cited, where more rigorous investigations have been conducted.  I saw a one-hour TV special (by a reputable news source, I believe) about a man who correctly predicted an airplane crash based on numbers he spontaneously envisioned, which turned out to be the numbers on a the fuselage of the crashed aircraft.  It turned out that his person has a much higher than average rate of success with clairvoyance/precognition than would be predicted of chance, and that people who have reason to be skeptical of such claims—including the detective bureau of the police in a major US city—make use of this person’s apparent clairvoyant/precognitive abilities on a frequent basis.  Can this person see the future, or see at a distance?  I don’t know.  I make no claim.  But some hardheaded homicide cops, who are used to fake psychics and know when to discount them, believed in this guy.  I therefore would not rule out the possibility that this guy really has some power that normal people don’t have.

I agree with you that paranormal explanations are not necessarily religious explanations.  That was not my point.  My point was that your experiments aren’t decisive.  And by the way, I congratulate you upon making them—maybe I should have said that right away so you wouldn’t think I was sneering—it shows open-mindedness.  But I was commenting on your apparent view now, i.e., you seem to think that you have disposed of the possibility.  If I’ve read your comments wrong, you can clarify.  Simply say:  “I am still very open to the existence of paranormal phenomena.”  Or:  “Based on my research, I am now pretty much in disbelief of all such claims.”  Then I’ll know what you currrently think.  That you were initially open-minded, I already picked up; I was trying to get at what you think now, what you think your experiments proved, if anything.

Lou Jost - #85165

April 21st 2014

“My point was that your experiments aren’t decisive.”

Eddie, of course I know that, and I never said they were. I studied real-world reports as well, as I explained above. What I learned was that the quality of evidence was much poorer than appeared at first glance, and I now think it is very unlikely that such phenomena exist.

You should take that TV report with a grain of salt. The media likes these claims because they draw viewers, but their fact-checkers are usually not adequately trained to evaluate them. Past media events regarding psychics like Uri Geller show this clearly. If the psychic you mention really had the ability to do this beyond what would be expected by chance, parapsychologists would be on him like flies on honey, recording his every pronouncement and doing the necesssary tests to prove that he was making predictions beyond what would be expected by chance. We haven’t heard anything about him, so I bet this claim was false.

Regarding your statement about cumulative probabilities, you are missing a key point. In a population of hundreds of millions, or billions, extraordinarily rare coincidences (with millions-to one odds against them) will happen every day by chance alone. It is very difficult to assess probabilities for self-selected events from such a huge pool of experience. The same goes for experimental results, when insiginificant studies are unlikely to be published (this is called the “file-drawer” problem in statistical analysis).


Eddie - #85167

April 21st 2014


Thank you for answering directly the second time what I hoped you’d answer the first time:  you are not claiming that your experiments were decisive.  You could have saved some time and effort on both our parts by saying that the first time around.

I already indicated that I took the report about the psychic with a grain of salt:  I said that I did not know whether he had any real powers.  But it wasn’t just a quickie news report.  It was years ago, so I can’t give you the details, but it was a full special program on a major US network, and no, it wasn’t one of those “occult mystery” regular programs where people investigate haunted houses, etc.  The program contained detailed reporting on the individual involved, and lengthy interviews with the chief of detectives of a major US city—I can’t remember which one, maybe Boston or Baltimore.  They were at the time using this psychic regularly, and they were using him because he was getting results.  I’m not saying this proves anything; I’m saying that hard-headed detectives running the police department of a major US city are not likely to consult a psychic unless they believe there is empirical support for his abilities.  These are guys who investigate murder cases etc. dozens or hundreds of times per year, and are not likely to be impressed by phonies.  The psychic reportedly led them to bodies in the woods that they would never otherwise have found, etc.

And yes, coincidences happen, but when the same psychic scores again and again, the use of “coincidence” gets weaker and weaker as an explanation.

Again, I’m making no claim about this psychic.  I’m saying that there is prima facie evidence that he had real power, and I’m saying that the detective bureau of a large US city is not going to be as credulous as a reporter for the National Inquirer.  Such cases should not be simply dismissed.

On the more general pint, yes, I’m fully aware that given large enough numbers, you are going to get some amazing coincidences.  (Why people with science Ph.D.s seem to presume that others can’t count, or do basic mathematical reasoning, is beyond me.)  So yes, if enough people dream that their Aunt Mae has died, sooner or later a real Aunt Mae will die on the same night as the dream; I’m not such an idiot as to think that would prove anything.  But a mere death plus a relationship is not very specific; and dreams, we know, are connected with our fears, wishes, and imaginings.  The example I gave, however, was of a WAKING vision, where the person was neither sleeping nor even daydreaming or nodding, but driving down the road in broad daylight, and literally saw a vision of a person he was not thinking about at the time, and had no reason to be thinking about, and who was not known to be ill or in any danger, and who was seen to float through the air.  That is very specific.  Waking visions of that precision aren’t all that common (whereas dreams occur by the tens of millions every night).  If the person wasn’t outright lying, there is definitely something to be explained.  Again, I am not claiming proof.  I am not concluding that the man saw a ghost.  I am saying that it is reasonable to consider the possibility of a psychic connection of some kind, in cases that specific.  Only a dogmatist would say that all such cases should be automatically discounted.  And while you aren’t being formally dogmatic about it, you do seem to be suggesting that such cases aren’t really worth paying attention to.

I have no strong views one way or the other regarding ghosts, survival, ESP, precognition, etc.  Further, such things are of no importance to my religious views.  So I’m not raising this to somehow make the idea of God or the truth of Christianity more probable.  I’m just making a simple point that after one rules out the many cases which could easily be coincidences, and of outright trickery, and of perceptual errors, etc.  there may still be left over an impressive number of unexplained cases of such things, and that it is not reasonable to sweep them all away in a generalized skeptical rejection. And if you are not sweeping them away, then fine, but others do, and I’m merely recording my view that such a dismissal would be unreasonable. 

Lou Jost - #85142

April 20th 2014

Regarding your thought experiment, yes, my reaction would be similar to what you predict. But I wouldn’t let the guy talk without asking him questions. How did he know he was possessed? Were there any physical incidents that could not be explained? Etc. Often these questions reveal the triviality of a claim. But if he came up with something interesting, I’d file it away in my head as possible evidence, though because of my past experience investigating these things, I probably wouldn’t spend time trying to track it down unless it were very easy. You, on the other hand, might well miss something important (in either direction) because of your unconditional acceptance of spirits.

But let’s talk about some religious miracle claims. Let’s look at the Mormon golden tablets.  I still think that you and I would come to similar conclusions about them, for similar reasons.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85130

April 19th 2014


There is a big difference in saying we don’t have all the answers or we don’t have the final answers and there are no answers.

Scientism, because it denies the spiritual per se, denies that there are positive answers to life’s deepest problems.  Christianity makes the claim that while we so not have the final answers, since we live by faith and not by knowledge, we affirm that the present life and the life to come is good and worthwhile. 

We can make that faith statement not because we know all the facts, but because we know the Source of Life and Truth and we know God to be Good.   

Science can make scientifically true statements which is good, but I do not see why the fact these statements are true should mean that other types of statements are not true.

For instance the universe has worked very well, if not perfectly, over billions of years would seem to be not by chance.  If it the universe were without order, then you are right there would not be answers to all our questions.  However since there is as far as we can tell over a long, long time a cosmic order to the universe, which means that there are answers our questions.      

God so loved the world that God sent the Savior, God’s beloved Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have Eternal Life. 

While that is nothing scientifically impossible on this, this statement goes far beyond science to give meaning to life that science can never give.

Lou Jost - #85132

April 19th 2014

Just because you find a belief comforting doesn’t mean it is true.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85151

April 20th 2014

Lou wrote:

Just because you find a belief comforting doesn’t mean it is true.

Just because one find a belief comforting doesn’t mean that it is false either.  Many find belief in God not comforting because it means that they are responsible for what they do.

It seems that comfort and discomfort are not important critieria for the determination of truth. 

However it does seem to me that rejection of concept of Spiritual Truth is just as foolish as the rejection of the concept of Scientific Truth.  They are both important although we can live without science but not without spirituality.

There are reasonable criteria for determining Spiritual Truth, which should be observed.  If an aspect of life is rejected and ignored, it tends to become weed infested.      

Lou Jost - #85153

April 20th 2014

“It seems that comfort and discomfort are not important critieria for the determination of truth.”

I’m glad we can agree on that.

Eddie - #85154

April 20th 2014

I was very disappointed when the Easter Bunny overlooked me this year.  I thought that I had been forsaken by the pagan gods of spring.  But now I have my Easter basket—a post from Roger that I can endorse with warmth!

Well done, Roger.  Please don’t spoil it by mentioning dualism!

Lou Jost - #85156

April 20th 2014

Oh no, Eddie, you’re losing your edge!

“However it does seem to me that rejection of concept of Spiritual Truth is just as foolish as the rejection of the concept of Scientific Truth.” -Roger

The concept of spiritual truth has to earn its acceptance, not automatically be given a seat at the table.

Eddie - #85160

April 20th 2014

Lou, does the concept of ethical truth have to earn its acceptance?  Is the notion of ethical truth not part of our human experience?  Do we not sense injustice when the drunken police officer’s off-duty car accident is covered up by his friends on the force, whereas the average joe gets thrown in jail for the same offense?  Do you demand a hardcore proof that there is such a thing as “ethical truth” before you will allow anyone to say, in such cases:  “This is unjust?”

Spiritual truth is part of some people’s experience of life, just as ethical truth is part of your experience of life.  I do not see why spiritual truth, as such, has to be justified, though of course some claims that X rather than Y are spiritual truths might need to be debated.

Some people have absolutely no love of music; it does not move them, does not interest them in any way.  Does this mean that the musical experience of the rest of mankind has to justify itself to the musical Philistine?  If he will never be able to hear anything other than a string of noises, why should we waste our time trying to convince him that Mozart is beautiful in order to “prove” to him that there is such a thing as “musical experience”?

There are some people (a small minority, to be sure) who have no sexual interest either; does the rest of the world have to “prove” to such people that there is a genuine feeling of attraction?  What evidence could prove to such a person that this feeling existed?  External behavior might suggest its existence, but that would not prove it to a hardened skeptic; he would demand to feel the attraction himself before he would believe in it.  

So if there are people who are just “deaf” to spiritual experience, why should the world have to prove to them that such experiences are real?

I’m not saying that the world should force the spiritually tone-deaf to confess, at the point of a sword, that spiritual experience is real; but I’m denying that those with spiritual experiences have to ANSWER TO the spiritually tone-deaf in order to justify continuing to believe in spiritual experience themselves; and that is what you seem to be suggesting.

For Roger, spiritual experience is as real as scientific knowledge; he is therefore not going to try to justify spiritual experience in the court of scientific knowledge, any more than he would try to justify E = mc^2 before a panel of theologians.  To demand that he do so is the ultimate in “scientism,” and scientism is not scientific knowledge, but an ideology misusing the name and prestige of science.  

I believe in giving credit even to those I disagree with.  I often have found Roger’s philosophical and historical knowledge defective; but sometimes his pastoral and human instincts are good, and guide him rightly.  I believe he is in the right here.  I think he has a richer and more comprehensive view—on this subject—than you do.

Lou Jost - #85162

April 21st 2014

By that logic, someone who believes in astrology or numerology or fairies has an even richer view than either of us. Existential claims do need to earn their place at the table.

Eddie - #85169

April 21st 2014

No, the cases aren’t parallel.  I did not say that one couldn’t be skeptical of particular claims (of astrology, fairies, etc.) and still have a rich view of life; I said that to put the whole domain of “spiritual truth” in a position where it has to ANSWER TO the narrow standards of evidence which scientists necessarily employ would be just as arbitrary and wrong as to put the whole domain of “scientific truth” in a position where it had to ANSWER TO someone’s notion of spiritual truth (or ethical truth, or musical truth, or whatever).

You do have a tendency—which I assume you will vehemently deny—to privilege scientific truth above other forms of truth, and to regard other forms of truth as somehow more dubious, and in some cases as pertaining to wholly fictional objects.  I do not find that tendency reasonable.  It was my own tendency, for all the young years of my life—when I was a fierce advocate of Darwinian theory and accidental origin of life, and worshipped Carl Sagan and so on, and headed off to university on a science scholarship, etc.—but I now consider it unreasonable.

I chose the example of ethics because I thought you might be less hostile to the existence of a real realm of ethics than of a real realm of spiritual perceptions.  I assumed that you accepted not merely the abstract possibility but the confirmed reality of “ethical experience”—even if you disagree with various people about particular ethical truths.  But if you would put even “ethical truth” on trial before the court of natural science—if you would demand that those who think there ARE ethical truths demonstrate to scientists’ satisfaction (using the methods of science) that such truths exist, then it is not surprising that you would put spiritual truth on trial in the same court.  I am not saying you actually do this for ethical truth, but you sidestepped my point about ethical experience (musical experience, sexual experience, etc.), so I tentatively suspect (subject to revision) that you are unwilling to grant truths in those areas the same reliability that you assign to scientific truth.  I suspect that you think of the truths of religion and of aesthetics and more generally what is studied in the “arts” subjects as “fuzzy” and lacking in “rigor.”

That being the case, you and Roger are never going to agree, and it isn’t because you think clearly and Roger doesn’t (on the point in question, I mean); it is because you approach virtually every truth question with a single-minded approach derived primarily from mathematics and natural science, whereas Roger approaches truth questions with a multi-faceted approach which includes non-scientific considerations.  I don’t always find Roger’s EXECUTION very successful, but I think his broad premise—that theoretical truth about the great questions must be based on a careful synthesis of quite different methods and approaches, with no single approach having veto power over all the others—is the right one.  That’s why I said a kind word about his post.

Lou Jost - #85172

April 21st 2014

“theoretical truth about the great questions must be based on a careful synthesis of quite different methods and approaches, with no single approach having veto power over all the others”

Eddie, when any method or approach to the big questions extends its reach into the empirical realm, then science does have veto power (subject to the provision that science itself can change when we know more, so the veto need not be permanent). Nearly all religious claims made on this site do have empirical baggage, and this makes them subject to empirical verification or rejection, at least in theory.

Eddie - #85173

April 21st 2014

Lou, it is clear from context here (and by your many discussions elsewhere on this site and others) that by “religious claims” you mean primarily such things as “historical miracles”; but I wasn’t speaking of such things.  I was speaking of “the concept of spiritual truth”—the exact phrase used by Roger.  “Spiritual truth” in many cases—perhaps in nearly all cases—is not about the historical facts.  If you can admit that there is such a thing as “ethical truth” you should also be able to admit that there is such a thing as “spiritual truth.”  That doesn’t commit you to accepting the parting of the Red Sea or the Resurrection.

So we are talking about two different things; but even if I had meant to include historical miracles, I still would not give science veto power over their reality.  Science can only deal with nature insofar as it behaves regularly.  Whenever the normal “laws of nature” are suspended, science can say nothing about what might happen in their absence.  And obviously an omnipotent God can suspend the laws of nature.  Thus, “science” cannot say that a man never rose from the dead.  All that science can say is that if a man rose from the dead, the laws of nature were at that point not functioning—to which the religious believer will reply, “Well, duuuuh!”

Science can of course say that if there were a worldwide flood in 2300 BC, we ought to see certain traces; and then it can infer, from the absence of those traces, that there was no worldwide flood during that period.  But science can’t prove that God *couldn’t* have generated a worldwide flood.  It can only prove that God *didn’t* in fact do so in 2300 BC.  (And even there, if God monkeyed with nature after the flood, the inference might not be sound.)  So I give science no automatic veto power over even the the miracle stories.  (Present-day miracle claims are another matter.  A scientist might be able to prove fraud in particular cases, or that there was a natural rather than supernatural cause of an event, etc.  But it can’t disprove the core historical miracles recorded in the Bible.)

I say this not to try to prove any miracle story true; I don’t believe in “proving” that miracles happened, and I don’t think there is any way to do so.  Nor do I think that miracles should be the main reason for anyone’s religious faith.  I’m just saying science is powerless to disprove the Biblical miracles, and always will be—by the very self-limitations of method (science can deal only with natural causes) of which scientists are so proud.

This is why debates over miracles between Ham and Coyne etc. are pointless.  Ham can’t prove the miracles happened, and Coyne can’t prove they didn’t, and so there is no hope of learning anything from the debate.  And in any case such debates never have any spiritually positive effect on those listening to them.  Which is not surprising, since they focus on the wrong thing.  

Lou Jost - #85176

April 21st 2014

Eddie, I partly agree with you. Science can’t say that a god couldn’t have made a flood; but it can say that there was no global flood during the last couple hundred million years at least.

So I find your last paragraph is inaccurate and contradicts the previous paragraph. Many Christians, including Ham, do claim that the universe is young and a global flood happened recently. This is part and parcel of their concept  of spiritual truth (which they derive from literal reading of the bible). Science, as you say, does have veto power over both those claims. Coyne and the rest of the world’s scientists CAN show that these miracles of Ham didn’t happen. Yes, I know it is not a mathematical proof, but the uncertainty in those conclusions (based on multiple clear lines of evidence) is far less than the uncertainties in Ham’s inferences.


Eddie - #85178

April 21st 2014

I’ll give you the Flood.  But the Flood doesn’t even make it into the Creeds; it’s not central to Christian doctrine, or even to Jewish doctrine.  Most of the miracles central to Jewish and Christian faith are too “local” and transient in their effects to leave the sort of record that a Flood would leave.  A leper is healed, a man walks across a lake, thousands are fed with scanty food, a man gets up from the dead; some pagans are burned up by lightning on a mountain; manna falls from heaven and is eaten up.  None of these events can be expected to leave traces today.  Even the temporary parting and rejoining of a portion of the Red Sea would probably not leave sure traces thousands of years later.  Neither science nor history can say much about any of these.

I’ll give you the opening of the tombs in Jerusalem if you insist—history might have something to say about that—why is such a remarkable event not recorded in contemporary documents?  But again, that story is in only one Gospel, and isn’t central to the main narrative of the life of Christ, and has played no serious role in the history of Christian thought.  Thus, the places where science or history could potentially falsify significant Biblical miracle claims are few and far between.

In the end, people choose whether or not to accept the central-to-faith miracles on general philosophical, theological, literary, or other grounds, because no decisive answer can come from scientific or historical study.  That’s why I find arguing about them a waste of time, and that’s why you don’t find me doing so here.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85168

April 21st 2014

Thank you, Edward, but as usual you do not understand what I am saying.  What I am saying is that there is more to life than the physical, but also the mental and the spiritual aspects of life and reality.

Humans live in a physical world, a mental or rational world, and a spiritual world.  Of course there are not sharp distinctions between these three worlds, but we live in a combination of them. 

Still we need different types of thinking and approaches to deal with different types of problems.  I make these three distinctions, physical, mental, and spiritual to correspond to basic psychological theory, body, mind, and spirit, and the three basic pillars of Western culture and civilization, Judeo-Christian ethics and theology, Greek philosophy, and Western science. 

Each area then already has a discipline which helps us to sort out fact from fiction.  The problem is that we have discovered that our world is a relational world, when our philosophy as based on the understanding that we live in a being/absolute world.

Our biggest problem seems to be conflicting claims of truth.  As for astrology and numerology they do not meet the scientific tests for truth that they claim.  Fairies and myths also do not meet whatever truth claims they make.

Sam Harris thinks that he can substantiate ethical truth claims by using scientific models, if I understand him rightly.  I do not know that he can but I would encourage him to try.  What I would expect would be that different ethical choices can maximize different values, but I question if the sceince can tell me which value is inconvertibly best in any given situation.   

Humans are composed of body, mind, and spirit.  We need to use and cherish all three wo we can live as far as posible in peace and harmony with ourselves, our neighbors, near and far, and our planet and universe.  That takes many kinds of thinking and decision making.


Eddie - #85170

April 21st 2014

Well, Roger, if I gave you credit for a more coherent position than you actually hold, at least that shows you I am trying hard to find some truth in your posts!

Of course, what Einstein etc. meant by “relativity” has nothing at all to do with “relational” theology etc. as you intend the parallel.  You’re simply bewitched by the multiple meanings of the same word, and have let yourself be confused by the common term.

As for “our” philosophy, that’s a silly generalization—there is no single philosophy of the era that can be called “ours.”  Rather, there is a plurality of competing philosophies, and your knowledge of the claims and arguments of each of these philosophies is very much in question.

I agree with you that we need many kinds of thinking and decision making.  The problem with the New Atheists is that they tend to offer a “one size fits all” model of thinking and decision making.  This is why their thought, outside of their special areas of scientific expertise, is frequently both narrow and shallow.  They have technical knowledge in a few small areas, but close to zero human wisdom.  

Lou Jost - #85175

April 21st 2014

Coninued from 85172:

Empirical evidence cuts through a lot of otherwise interminable theological argument. A young-earth creationist and a Christian believer in theistic evolution can argue among each other until they are blue in the face about which has the correct theology. But their positions have empirical consequences, and in this case the empirical evidence is crystal clear that the universe is billions of years old. We can definitively reject the young earth creationist position, more definitively than we could ever do with theological arguments. And yes, there is some uncertainty in science, but in this case there is far more uncertainty about the theological presuppositions than there is about the science.

Eddie - #85177

April 21st 2014

No argument regarding young earth creationism.  It definitely commits itself to, is even proud of, standing on empirical claims.  It therefore leads with its jaw, and can’t complain when it gets socked on the kisser.  But someone like Mike Behe, who is a Catholic who is fine with evolution, offers no theological claim that invites empirical rebuttals.  His scientific claims may do so, but not his theological beliefs (which he doesn’t make part of his ID arguments anyway).

It’s hard to see how the writings of major religious thinkers like Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Gandhi, etc. invite empirical rebuttals from science.  The “spiritual truths” that they offer—whatever one might think of them measured as spiritual truths—don’t seem to have much to do with floods or fossils or Mitochondrial Eve.  And even older Christian thinkers, who mostly tended to take a young earth for granted, didn’t make a young earth, as such, central to Christian theology (as opposed to an incidental consequence of Biblical chronology), and it’s quite conceivable that many of them, e.g., Calvin, Aquinas, would not make the age of the earth an issue if they lived today.

I’m not saying that there is never any possible conflict between scientific and religious claims—there could be, for example, on the question whether evolution is planned/guided, whether there is free will, etc.  But I think such conflicts are fewer than many people suppose.  In any case, many of the most celebrated “conflicts” are over issues that many religious believers don’t think are all that important.  But those religious believers who do think they are important get all the press attention, because “warfare between science and religion” makes for good copy.  “Subtle, nuanced, give-and-take conversation between scientific and religious leaders over an extended period of time” doesn’t sell papers or TV ads; “Ham versus Nye: Which Will Win, Science or Religion?” is the sort of thing the media would prefer to write and broadcast about.

And it doesn’t help that both the New Atheists and the extreme literalists are quite eager to feed the journalists’ baser impulses, by deliberately highlighting all possible areas of conflict, and deliberately downplaying all possible areas of agreement.  Thus, many parties bear the blame for the unproductive nature of discussions in this area.

But my main point was that “spiritual truths” are an important part of human life, just as “ethical truths” and “scientific truths” and “aesthetic truths” and “political truths” are.  I reject any form of intellectual imperialism that would give one sort of truth hegemony over all the others.

Lou Jost - #85179

April 21st 2014

I think that while young-earth creationism and the Flood are the easiest to refute, many of the others are also at least potentially provable or refutable. The Red Sea story is confirmable by finding a linear mess of appropriately-dated Egyptian wreckage under water. It is disconfirmable if historians can show that the Israelites were not in Egypt at the appropriate date (and this is the mainstream view of historians, I think). The Resurrection/Ascension story could be confirmed if some Roman eyewitness account would surface. It would be disconfirmed if textual analysis showed that bodily resurrection was a late (post-Pauline) elaboration (and this is indeed what it looks like, and I think it is the mainstream view, though not in Evangelical circles of course).

When religious people say that the miracles, prophecies, etc are not important, they are giving up the only evidence they have that their “revelation” is really from a god. That’s good, in my view, because then we can rationally discuss the ethical and existential implications, perhaps rejecting some and keeping some. Can’t have a rational discussion as long as the one side is sure the Creator of the Universe told him what is right.

I understood spiritual truths to mean truths connected somehow with a concept of deity. Unless a deity really exists, there is no truth there. Your inclusion of Gandhi, etc as writers on spiritual truth broadens the concept. I don’t have an opinion about that.

Eddie - #85184

April 22nd 2014

The Red Sea event is potentially confirmable by Egyptian wreckage, but absence of such wreckage does not prove the event did not happen.  A believer could say that millennia of salt-water damage, and millennia of currents, destroyed or washed away all traces.  (Just as Darwin and his successors argued that time and natural processes of loss and decomposition have erased most of the expected transitional fossils.)  In other words, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  So again, while there is no proof that the Red Sea event happened, there is no disproof, either.  And in the end, the faith of Israel is not based, and never was based, on an appraisal of scientific or historical arguments for the event.

I agree with you about the desirability of Roman eyewitnesses, but again, absence of such eyewitnesses does not disprove the events.  It merely leaves the matter in a state of indecision.  We have the account of one party; we don’t know what the other parties would have said.  Historical science is thus powerless to settle the question.

Regarding your example of textual analysis, as someone who has done such analysis, and is trained in the ancient languages as well as the methods scholars employ in such analysis, I can tell you that the results of such analyses are almost always debatable; nothing close to certainty is achieved.  I regard most of the conclusions based on such analysis as plausible conjecture at best, irresponsible speculation at worst.  Even the framework you are using (Paul early, Gospels late), while a plausible one, is not nearly as certain as the Biblical scholars would like the world to suppose, and indeed, there have been scholarly arguments in recent years that the Gospel of Mark (or most of it) predates the letters of Paul.  I say that not to try to make a historical case for a bodily resurrection, but merely to indicate how scholarly opinions change.  I trust the certainties of dating and method in Biblical scholarship about at much as I trust the certainties of evolutionary biology or cosmology.

The “evidence” that a revelation is from God doesn’t come from miracles, fulfilled prophecies, etc.  The only “evidence” that is worth anything is internal.  Indeed, even speaking of “evidence” in a modern scientific framework already distorts the subject-matter of religious truth.  This is where both fundamentalists and atheist critics of religion constantly go wrong.  It’s like applying the rules of chess to determine whether or not a move in Monopoly is legitimate.  If someone is not MOVED by the Biblical stories, I would say that person should go find another religion.  I would never try to browbeat that person into belief by demanding that they give in to the “evidence” of the Gospels or the Torah.

Spiritual truths aren’t necessarily connected with a deity; the word “spiritual” is broader in meaning than that.  Buddhist truths are spiritual truths, for example.  But even within a broadly theistic framework, someone like Kierkegaard or Buber is of almost a different species than someone like Ken Ham.  The difference in profundity of the conception of deity between Ham and Kierkegaard is like the difference between the technology of the Neanderthals and the technology of NASA.  Thoughtful Christians and Jews are reading Kierkegaard, Buber, Maimonides, Dante, Donne, Blake, Hopkins, etc., not walking through creation museums.  I’ve never learned a spiritual truth from an American fundamentalist, and I don’t suppose I ever will.  But I’ve learned much spiritual truth from British Anglican and French Catholic writers, and I believe that such truth can also be found in Greek and Russian Orthodox writers as well.  You might be wise to focus less on the shallowest forms of Christian religion and more on the deeper forms.  But  I don’t get the impression that you are interested in that kind of religious investigation.

Lou Jost - #85186

April 22nd 2014

“In other words, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Of course I didn’t say that it necessarily was. (This is one of many examples where you try to school me on basics, yet when you think I do that to you, you get upset.) I did, however, give possible evidence that really could help disconfirm those events.

The textual evidence may be uncertain now, but it is possible we’ll learn more and be able to make tigter statements about it. Again, my point is that these things are amenable to empirical investigation and we shouldn’t throw up our hands and say we can’t ever prove or disprove these empirical claims (some of which really are core elements supporting the belief that the Bible is an authoritative revelation from a god).

“The only “evidence” that is worth anything is internal.”

I think it’s bizarre that you recognize (and in my opinion, overemphasize) the subjectivity of empirical science, but swallow this completely subjective criterion for determining the “truth” (whatever that means to you in this application) when it applies to spiritual things. I think you are wrong about that, and I insist that the most objective and sure way to filter out false beliefs is by looking for their intersection with the physical world, and testing that using the best tools we have.

“But  I don’t get the impression that you are interested in that kind of religious investigation.”

Here I think you are right. But maybe I’ll reread one or two of those authors you mention.

Eddie - #85188

April 22nd 2014

Lou, I wasn’t trying to school you on basics.  I assumed that you already knew the principle I was appealing to; I didn’t imagine that I was teaching it to you for the first time.  I was merely indicating that this is the principle that would be appealed to (in the hypothetical debate over the Red Sea incident that we were envisioning).  No condescension was intended or should be inferred.  I’m sorry if it seemed otherwise.

I agree with you that some religious beliefs would be subject to empirical investigation.  The problem is that the religious beliefs you seem most concerned with are beliefs about the historical reality of certain isolated past events that would not be likely to leave traces.  Were we present when those events were alleged to have happened, then of course we could investigate them empirically.  But they happened thousands of years ago, and have left no trace other than testimony.  So while empirical confirmation or rejection of miraculous events is in principle possible, our location in time has taken that possibility away for most of the Biblical miracles.  So why argue about them on empirical grounds?  

You seem puzzled by my comment that the only evidence that is worth anything is internal.  Remember that I have been speaking about spiritual truths.  I meant that the only evidence *for spiritual truths* that is worth anything is internal.  That so-and-so walked on the water is not a spiritual truth.  It’s a historical claim.  For such claims, of course external evidence is relevant.  But arguing over such things is not important to me.  If you want to persuade someone to be a Christian, how could it possibly help to say:  “I have demonstrated that it is a historical fact that Jesus walked on the water; therefore you should forgive your enemies”?  Only an idiot would argue in that way.  The spiritual truth (if it is a truth, as the Gospels claim) that you should forgive your enemies does not depend on Jesus’ doing a carnival show of wonder-working.  You will accept it as truth only if it resonates inside you as truth; if it doesn’t resonate inside, no authority, no argument, no miracle, no historical proof, can make you regard it as such.

And the same applies to all miracles.  If I proved to your satisfaction that Adolf Hitler rose from the dead yesterday, would you obey Hitler’s teachings?  Somehow, I don’t think you would.  But what if Hitler argued:  “Since I rose from the dead, I must be God, and you must obey God.”  You would, I presume, continue to be repelled by his teachings, and would continue to ignore them.  You would measure his teachings by some other compass (spiritual, ethical, whatever) than the scientific compass by which you verified that he rose from the dead.  And rightly so.  If you can understand this, you can understand why I have refused to grant “scientific truth” any veto power over “spiritual truth.”  Science might be able to verify or falsify certain empirical claims, but it can neither establish nor disestablish any spiritual truth.

Lou Jost - #85198

April 22nd 2014

Eddie, maybe we actually agree, and you are just not understanding my point.

I am not the one who argues that because Jesus rose from the dead, he must be god and we should take his sayings as authoritative. I am arguing, just as you are, that ethical and scientific claims should be judged only on their merits, not on any alleged divine authority. I have often said that here on BioLogos.

But nearly every Christian poster here and on Hump of the Camel uses arguments based on treating the Bible as divine revelation. It’s right there in the BioLogos creed. While these people may argue about the correct interpretation of some part of scripture, I don’t ever see them say “Jesus said X, but I think X is wrong.”

The reason they rarely say that is because they think Jesus rose from the dead and must be god, and who are they to contradict something god says?

That’s why I think it is important to look closely at the empirical evidence for divinity; that evidence is the reason most Christians give for treating the Bible as authoritative rather than treating its content purely on its merits.

But if you can convince your fellow posters and commenters that we should judge each ethical and empirical claim of the bible on its own merits, without invoking divine authority, then there would be no need for us to debate these claims, and I could do something more interesting. I’d like that a lot!


Merv - #85199

April 22nd 2014

But if you can convince your fellow posters and commenters that we should judge each ethical and empirical claim of the bible on its own merits, without invoking divine authority, then there would be no need for us to debate these claims, and I could do something more interesting. I’d like that a lot!

Does this mean, Lou, that you are feeling obligated to hang around this drudgerous site until we’ve all been convinced to abandon our convictions of the Divine authority for Scripture?  I’m afraid it may be quite a while (and you are welcome to stay the duration but it may prove to be an eternity…).

I shouldn’t presume you are the only atheist lurking or posting around here, but among the active folks at least recently you may be nearly alone in *not* having accepted divine authority for Scripture (though come to think of it maybe Roger’s position shouldn’t be presumed).  The only debate for the large majority of us then is about the comparative merits of various historical or recent interpretations of Scripture.  Those are what will typically be more discussed on a Christian site. 

We can (and probably will) take the time to address your questions on basic spiritual claims about even just the mere existence of Divinity or Divine activity.  Please understand, though, that when you want to start by vetting all evidence through a Scientistic filter in order to appraise basic spiritual issues that don’t even have any scientific handles, it will continue to be a non-starter in a venue like this.

Merv - #85200

April 22nd 2014

Also please understand that it is not my intention to frustrate you by continuing to refer to your contributions in terms of “Scientism”—I know that is beginning to be a touchy word for you as you have adamantly denied having any such bias.  And I can appreciate how you’ve been around the block (far more than I have) investigating paranormal phenomena in the past with an apparently open mind. That your investigations to the best of your ability have been statistical/scientific and that you prize that form of knowing as at least the *highest* form of knowing (if not the *only* way to reach relative certainty)  regarding all life’s important questions is very revealing.  I can refrain from using the word “Scientism” if it makes you feel better, but that monster will always be hulking behind you for others to see no matter how comfortable and relaxed you’ve become in its presence.

Eddie - #85204

April 22nd 2014


Regarding your first two paragraphs; yes, I understood you to mean just what you say.  But your point, however valid, does not undermine my point—the point I made about Roger’s post, i.e., that there is a realm called “spiritual truth” that does not have to answer to “scientific truth.”  

Of course, “religious truth,” depending on how one means the term, could be broader than “spiritual truth.”  For example, “religious truth” might include “factual propositions about nature or history that religious people affirm.”  I grant that some “religious truths” of this sort are potentially subject to empirical testing.  But as I’ve indicated a few times now, that is not what I meant by “spiritual truth,” and it is not what I took Roger to mean by the term, either.  (Though it is often hard to tell what Roger means, given his inconsistent and bizarre use of terms.)

So I hope we can now close off this discussion, which has gone on too long for the simple point I was trying to make.

Lou Jost - #85201

April 22nd 2014

“The only debate for the large majority of us then is about the comparative merits of various historical or recent interpretations of Scripture.”

Yes, that has been clear from the beginning. You guys are so eager to point out what you think are my presuppositional biases, yet you seem to have closed your minds to your own, as you’ve just stated. I’ll keep discussing this issue, in the hope that some readers can get interested in re-examining these core beliefs.

Meanwhile I hope that we’ll see more ethical and scientific debates that are not based mainly on claims of divine authority.

GJDS - #85202

April 22nd 2014

“....we’ll see more ethical and scientific debates ....”

The basic requirement (that one may imagine), for any ethical debate is that both parties debate the specific topic of that debate.

Clearly, within reasonable bounds, most comments on Biologos deal with religious outlooks, most often related to outlooks regarding the bio-sciences, and any implications from these to various traditions of Christianity. 

The way that you may achieve your need for debates on divine authority (and perhaps empiricism, comparative religions, human experience, the para-normal, and I cannot remember the other topics your ramblings invoke), is for you to set up your own blog/web site, and begin by stating clearly your position, your principles, or whatever it is that seems to motivate and animate you, and then wait for comments from interested people.

Your constant sound bites and unsupported (let alone inordinately unclear remarks) assertions that you keep bringing up are simply out of place in forums such as this one. If you cannot accept the ‘starting position’ of a forum, and you keep pestering people with your comments, I suggest that it displays an odd ethical outlook from you, to say the least.

Lou Jost - #85212

April 23rd 2014

I don’t think it is out of place here to question the starting position of a forum.

Lou Jost - #85218

April 23rd 2014

Also, I enjoy discussing ideas with people who disagree with me. That is much more interesting than talking only to people who agree, and I learn more this way. It also helps me refine and test my ideas and expose them to refutation. I’d hope maybe a few readers of this website feel the same way.

Merv - #85224

April 24th 2014

I share in that with you, Lou.  I’m also selective about where I spend my limited time for this sort of thing.  So when I see other sites that consist of a high proportion of flame war (more heat than light), then whether I agree with the site philosophies or not, I tend to gravitate back towards sites like this one or the Hump where people can air their convictions in a mostly civil manner.

There is always a balance between listening and pushing.  Even questions can be “pushy” in that they have embedded statements from the “questioner” about what should be important and considered versus what is a waste of time.  And “pushy” is fine, don’t get me wrong.  If objective truth is really out there for us to learn about, then we need pushy teachers (who hopefully have been granted a clear view of the parts of that truth about which they teach) to inspire the rest of us.

Science isn’t the only game in town that embraces and celebrates refinement.  Theology benefits from refinement and exchange as well.  And it generally is well-informed enough not to pursue change just for the sake of change, but like science, it sets its sites on those objective truths that we trust are there for us to learn if we just have eyes to see them.

Lou Jost - #85227

April 24th 2014

I do appreciate the fact that most people here are usually civil to me.

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