Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Evidence for the Supernatural?

Wolfgang asked an interesting question: "Do you think that two intellectually honest people can arrive at contradictory conclusions?"

Of course it is possible to honestly reach different conclusions if the evidence is inconclusive, but the interesting question is whether it's possible when the evidence strongly supports a particular conclusion. I think it is possible when people start with presuppositions.

For example, Answers in Genesis (AIG) presupposes that the Bible clearly teaches a recent creation and they therefore interpret scientific evidence in a way that supports that conclusion. (However, many Christians, including St. Augustine who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, reject that presupposition and hold that the Bible says nothing about the age of the earth.) AIG maintains that everyone has presuppositions, and that there is nothing intellectually dishonest about them.

Is it intellectually honest to have presuppositions? Well, it is a form of question-begging because the presupposition itself determines our conclusion. So if the highest level of intellectual honesty is an honest search for truth, then any presuppositional bias undermines it. However, I would not say that presuppositions are necessarily a sign of intellectual dishonesty because they are so common. As Winston Churchill said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened." But although presuppositions are common, they keep us from engaging honestly with the evidence.

Skeptical Bible scholars tend to presuppose that the supernatural is impossible. And if a Bible scholar starts out with the presupposition that nature is all that exists, then of course it follows that it would be impossible for God to raise Jesus from the dead because that would be a supernatural act. Any natural explanation, no matter how tenuous, would then be preferable.

For example, atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann maintains a priori rejection of the supernatural and yet he says, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." Although he accepts the historical evidence he concludes that the best explanation for it is that everybody who thought they saw the resurrected Jesus actually hallucinated. Peter hallucinated because he was overcome by grief for denying Jesus, Paul hallucinated on the road to Damascus, James the skeptical brother of Jesus hallucinated, and all the five hundred who saw Jesus at one time hallucinated.

As I'll discuss in a future post, this hypothesis betrays a lack of understanding of hallucinations, but the question is whether, based on my limited mind-reading abilities, I think that conclusion is intellectually dishonest. Although I disagree with Lüdemann's presuppositional bias, I think that his inability to believe in the supernatural is sincere. He started out as a liberal theologian who didn't accept the supernatural, and he became an atheist when he concluded that it is not possible to be a Christian and not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that decision was an honest one. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, the resurrection of Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, and if it didn't happen, our faith is in vain.

But I think it would have been even more honest to question the presupposition that the supernatural is impossible, because there is no logical reason to conclude that. We only assume that a person cannot rise from the dead because we have never heard of a medically documented case. Dead people stay dead--at least if they've been dead for over two days.

However, that is an empirical conclusion, not a logical one. The fact that the laws of nature are predictable tells us nothing about whether anything exists beyond nature. We are like the primitive person from a tropical climate who doesn't believe that it is possible for a lake to be solid. And of course it is impossible in a tropical climate, but not in parts of the world where the temperature drops below freezing. The conclusion that water can never be solid is an empirical one that only holds true if the temperature never drops below freezing. Sub-zero weather adds a contingency that negates the conclusion that water is never solid.

In the same way, what is true within our space-time is not necessarily true beyond it. Lüdemann objects to miracles because they're unscientific, and since science depends on the predictability of nature, it is certainly true that miracles are unscientific. But since science cannot explain why the natural laws on which it depends exist in the first place, this doesn't mean that miracles are logically impossible--it means that the explanatory power of science is limited.

But if we left it at that, we could just as easily believe in pink unicorns; there is no reason to believe something just because it's logically possible. However, it is rational to believe something if it is the best explanation for the evidence given the context, particularly if there is no viable alternative explanation.

And what is the context? John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Greek word translated "Word" is "Logos," which means "reason," "rationality," "order," or "word." John tells us that Jesus is the transcendent, creative Mind that became flesh. He existed in the beginning, and everything came into being through Him.

The laws of physics break down at the Big Bang singularity, so speculation as to what caused it goes beyond the reach of science into metaphysics. The predictability on which the scientific method depends comes to an abrupt end at the beginning of time. We know nothing of a beyond, so a naturalistic cause is not inherently more parsimonious than a supernatural First Cause.

If anything, an eternal, immaterial, transcendent, and all powerful Mind is the simplest explanation that explains the scientific evidence without the need for further assumptions. If this universe consists of all nature, then the Creator would be supernatural; if the Big Bang marked the beginning of time, then the Creator would be eternal; and if the universe is all matter, then the Creator is immaterial. This fits what we know about the universe and explains what we don't know. Unless we assume as a premise that nothing exists beyond nature, it is the most parsimonious explanation.

So in the context of this Grand Miracle--an ordered universe emerging from nothing--we ask ourselves whether it is reasonable to conclude that the power behind this universe also has power over death. And if that power is a Mind, then He certainly does.

But we don't have to accept anything on blind faith; we just have to examine the historical evidence carefully and reach an honest conclusion. In the next posts, I will examine facts that have been widely accepted by historians, and I believe the best explanation for those facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

19 comments:

Stormbringer said...

Presuppositions happen. Fact is, nobody is neutral. Ken Ham taught me that we all have our biases. A materialist will say that there is no supernatural at all, so it's very difficult to get him to accept evidence to the contrary because he is making the rules.

BeamStalk said...

However, that is an empirical conclusion, not a logical one. The fact that the laws of nature are predictable tells us nothing about whether anything exists beyond nature.

I doubt you would find a lot of people that disagree with that statement at least in the scientific naturalist camp.

We are like the primitive person from a tropical climate who doesn't believe that it is possible for a lake to be solid. And of course it is impossible in a tropical climate, but not in parts of the world where the temperature drops below freezing. The conclusion that water can never be solid is an empirical one that only holds true if the temperature never drops below freezing. Sub-zero weather adds a contingency that negates the conclusion that water is never solid.

Which is entirely testable, even from the tropical area.

In the same way, what is true within our space-time is not necessarily true beyond it.

Agreed, but that is not testable, and may not very well be testable ever. Now there may come a time when we can test that hypothesis, I personally don't see how but I am not a physicist.

BeamStalk said...

Lüdemann objects to miracles because they're unscientific, and since science depends on the predictability of nature, it is certainly true that miracles are unscientific. But since science cannot explain why the natural laws on which it depends exist in the first place, this doesn't mean that miracles are logically impossible--it means that the explanatory power of science is limited.

Yes and no. Science relies on predictability and repetition. Miracles are not predictable and not repetitious. They are chaotic. They make the certain uncertain.

The natural laws are descriptive. They describe attributes of nature. What you are asking is where does the wetness in water come from. Gravity is a description of interaction of objects with mass. Hooke's law is a description of elasticity. The law of conservation of mass and energy is a descriptive law of the interaction of mass and energy. Science is built upon these laws as, so far as we can tell, being universal. If a law ever did not apply, then all science based upon that law would collapse. Miracles by definition violate scientific laws.

Would you ever board a plane knowing that Newton's laws of motion, which are the basis for lift and thus flight, could be suddenly turned off for no particularly reason?

The laws of physics break down at the Big Bang singularity, so speculation as to what caused it goes beyond the reach of science into metaphysics. The predictability on which the scientific method depends comes to an abrupt end at the beginning of time. We know nothing of a beyond, so a naturalistic cause is not inherently more parsimonious than a supernatural First Cause.

You forgot to add so far as we can tell now. You have said it yourself earlier, just because we don't know doesn't mean we can't ever know. Yes our descriptions of nature, so far, seem to break down around right before the first Planck time. Not too long ago, our ideas and theory on gravity broke down the smaller the object we looked at. It turned out the current Theory of Gravity was insufficient and a new theory had to replace it. This being general relativity. In the same way, currently our theory of quantum mechanics breaks down at the singularity but it could just be a problem with our understanding not with nature.

BeamStalk said...

If anything, an eternal, immaterial, transcendent, and all powerful Mind is the simplest explanation that explains the scientific evidence without the need for further assumptions.

Then where did the mind come from? How can you have an immaterial mind? How can you describe anything about it? How is it more parsimonious than something like virtual particles that we can observe and make predictions on?

This is like saying well I don't know how ice turns into water and currently have no way of knowing how it happens. So the answer must be an all powerful, invisible, immaterial, fairy is responsible for doing it and this makes more sense than any natural explanation. Then you claim it is more parsimonious and doesn't need further assumptions than nature alone? Really? You now have this extra baggage of a fairy on top of the initial problem which is still unresolved. How in the world is that simpler?

If this universe consists of all nature, then the Creator would be supernatural;

No, you are assuming a creator. When it is quite possible that the outcome of a universe was inevitable based on quantum physics. This is what Hawkings is writing about in his latest book.

if the Big Bang marked the beginning of time, then the Creator would be eternal

Only if we accept your first premise which I reject as there are premises that don't require violating Occam's razor.

Second it would be eternal for our space-time, which means that all mass and energy are eternal, which is described in the Law of conservation of mass and energy.

and if the universe is all matter, then the Creator is immaterial.

Not necessarily. A couple of ideas for the birth of the universe do require something from outside the universe but also require it to be material. The Big Bounce is one hypothesis and there is a multiple universe hypothesis that each universe creates a new universe, very similar to the big bounce. I personally don't think either of these really answer the question of what happened first but just put it off to a later point. I am using them to point out that the cause does not have to be immaterial.

This fits what we know about the universe and explains what we don't know.

Except it doesn't explain anything about what we don't know. It just says magic and walks away. How did this immaterial mind do it? What affect did it have on the singularity? So we are still left with the same problems that we started with of how.

Unless we assume as a premise that nothing exists beyond nature, it is the most parsimonious explanation.

It is only an assumption because it what we can study. If something is supernatural then we can never learn anything about it. If we could it goes from supernatural to natural. Does that make sense? If an immaterial mind affected nature, then it had to do it in a natural manner. There had to be some natural change that can be studied. That makes that supernatural thing a natural thing. It means we have a way of identifying and seeing it.

Take ghosts for example. If ghosts can interact with us and we can study those interactions, then ghosts are not supernatural. They would be part of nature. Those interactions could be studied, predicted and repeated. If a fairy caused ice to melt, it would affect the ice in some way we could study and point too. The fairy would no longer be supernatural but be a natural phenomena.

Anette Acker said...

Stormbringer,

Presuppositions happen. Fact is, nobody is neutral. Ken Ham taught me that we all have our biases. A materialist will say that there is no supernatural at all, so it's very difficult to get him to accept evidence to the contrary because he is making the rules.

I agree that presuppositions are very common, but I think they should be avoided. Anyone who has presuppositions is "making the rules," and two people with conflicting presupposition cannot communicate. But if the rule is "no presuppositions" then it is possible to have a dialogue with people who fundamentally differ and try to arrive more closely at the truth. I believe that apologetics can and should be without presuppositions. And the Bible can definitely withstand that kind of scrutiny.

BeamStalk said...

Jerry Coyne writes about this subject a bit:

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/10/22/methodological-naturalism-does-it-exclude-the-supernatural/.

He references these two articles by Russell Blackford which are also a good read:

http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/natural-and-supernatural-again.html

http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2009/05/nas-on-compatibility-of-science-and.html

Anette Acker said...

BeamStalk,

That's interesting. I actually just had a discussion on Steven J.'s blog about this.

Anette Acker said...

Which is entirely testable, even from the tropical area.

Yes, of course it's testable, but a primitive person who knows nothing of ice would not test it. And if this person lived during a time when freezers didn't exist, he or she couldn't test it.

It is possible to see whether the scientific evidence points to a Creator, but science cannot study anything beyond this universe, so the rest is within the realm of philosophy.

Agreed, but that is not testable, and may not very well be testable ever. Now there may come a time when we can test that hypothesis, I personally don't see how but I am not a physicist.

This is why the question of whether God exists is a philosophical one, and we should not start with a naturalistic presupposition.

Yes and no. Science relies on predictability and repetition. Miracles are not predictable and not repetitious. They are chaotic. They make the certain uncertain.

From a scientific standpoint miracles are chaotic, but as we discussed on AC a long time ago, theologically miracles are not chaotic and they don't happen randomly.

But it certainly makes sense to me why God would create an ordered universe that operates according to predictable laws. As you said, science depends on that predictability.

However, that doesn't preclude miracles. It just means that they are rare and science cannot study them.

You forgot to add so far as we can tell now. You have said it yourself earlier, just because we don't know doesn't mean we can't ever know. Yes our descriptions of nature, so far, seem to break down around right before the first Planck time. Not too long ago, our ideas and theory on gravity broke down the smaller the object we looked at. It turned out the current Theory of Gravity was insufficient and a new theory had to replace it. This being general relativity. In the same way, currently our theory of quantum mechanics breaks down at the singularity but it could just be a problem with our understanding not with nature.

That is true. But I think it's important not to confuse science itself with a naturalistic philosophy. Science always has to keep breaking boundaries. But that doesn't mean, like Stephen Hawking implies, that it can answer philosophical questions. That fact is that what we know about cosmology is very consistent with a First Cause who created ex nihilo.

Anette Acker said...

Then where did the mind come from? How can you have an immaterial mind? How can you describe anything about it? How is it more parsimonious than something like virtual particles that we can observe and make predictions on?

If it's eternal, it doesn't come from anywhere. It just exists. We can't explain how an immaterial mind functions because the concept is higher than our experience. For every dimension we go up, there are more possibilities. If God is infinitely higher and the Creator of everything, then we can't conceive of the possibilities inherent in His nature.

All we know is that if this universe consists of all time, matter, and nature, then God is not that because He is beyond that.

Of course the various cyclic models and multiverse hypotheses would say that this universe is not all matter and possibly not all nature. But God is a simpler concept that is philosophically sound and explains what we know about cosmology.

Except it doesn't explain anything about what we don't know. It just says magic and walks away. How did this immaterial mind do it? What affect did it have on the singularity? So we are still left with the same problems that we started with of how.

We don't have to understand how God caused the Big Bang to have a reasonable faith that He did it, because it fits the evidence. Physicist Paul Davies said that the Big Bang "represents the instantaneous suspension of physical laws, the sudden, abrupt flash of lawlessness that allowed something to come out of nothing. It represents a true miracle--transcending physical principles."

Anette Acker said...

And I'm not saying that faith in God is a substitute for science. It is a substitute for scientism, which is a philosophy.

Anette Acker said...

It is only an assumption because it what we can study. If something is supernatural then we can never learn anything about it. If we could it goes from supernatural to natural. Does that make sense? If an immaterial mind affected nature, then it had to do it in a natural manner.

Yes, that makes perfect sense, and that is why the existence of God is always a philosophical question. We look at the scientific effect and ask whether God is the most likely explanation.

With respect to the resurrection of Jesus, we look at the historical evidence and decide whether the resurrection is the most likely explanation. And rather than decide like Hume did that the supernatural is always the least likely, we should look to Bayes' Theorem.

Take ghosts for example. If ghosts can interact with us and we can study those interactions, then ghosts are not supernatural. They would be part of nature. Those interactions could be studied, predicted and repeated. If a fairy caused ice to melt, it would affect the ice in some way we could study and point too. The fairy would no longer be supernatural but be a natural phenomena.

The effect would be natural, but science could never conclude that a ghost or a fairy had caused it. You are right that if anything beyond nature affects it in some way, then the effect could theoretically be studied, but I'm not sure science can say anything in terms of a cause.

For example, what if testable science never discovers a natural cause of the Big Bang or fine-tuning of the universe. Will science then say that God did it? No, because that goes beyond the scope of science. Cosmologists have made allusions like that in recent decades, but that is not a scientific statement.

Anette Acker said...

BeamStalk,

Have you thought about what a miracle it is that the universe is accessible to the human mind? Even though it is vast and awe-inspiring, we can understand it scientifically and mathematically. And if the universe didn't operate according to predictable laws, this would be impossible. So the order itself is indicative of design, and especially in the context of fine-tuning.

If miracles happened constantly, would that be more evidence of a Creator than an ordered universe? And yet we do have access to historical evidence for one spectacular, theologically significant miracle: the resurrection of Jesus.

Y = X said...

An example from mathematics. Cantor's theorems on infinite sets caused a stir amongst prominent mathematicians. Even a mathematician as great as Poincare had problems with his work.

If the axiomatic basis for your belief system differs from mine then differing intellectually honest (logical) conclusions can be made. However, if there is evidence that one of your axioms is wrong and you ignore this evidence then you aren't being intellectually honest.

A person can be intellectually dishonest in a more subtle way. Suppose you have a reasoned argument for proposition A. Your reasoning follows a syllogism. Let's call this syllogism B. If you reject B for arguments whose conclusions you don't like then you are being intellectually dishonest.

My question to you Annette, is why do you reject the ascension into Heaven by Mohammed but not the resurrection of Christ? According to the Koran the ascension of Mohammed is an historical fact.

Anette Acker said...

Y=X,

Great to hear from you again! How have you been?

A person can be intellectually dishonest in a more subtle way. Suppose you have a reasoned argument for proposition A. Your reasoning follows a syllogism. Let's call this syllogism B. If you reject B for arguments whose conclusions you don't like then you are being intellectually dishonest.

I fully agree with you, and I think that is very common. We are governed by will and emotions as well as reason, especially when it comes to a central question like the existence of God. I think this is a big reason why people arrive at different conclusions.

It is rare to look at it as objectively as we should and believe what is true rather than what we want to believe. But that is what we should all strive for.

My question to you Annette, is why do you reject the ascension into Heaven by Mohammed but not the resurrection of Christ? According to the Koran the ascension of Mohammed is an historical fact.

What kind of historical evidence supports that claim?

In my next post, I will discuss four facts that are accepted by about 75% of historians, and together they strongly point to the resurrection of Jesus, because there are no viable naturalistic explanations. (Ludemann hypothesizes mass hallucination.) But instead of getting into that here in the comments, I'll just write that post.

Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Y = X said...

Hi Anette. I didn't think you'd remember me. I'm doing fine. Thank you for asking. I trust likewise with you. I hope so.

I will wait for your post and agree that it would be pointless to post a response to my comment at this time. I made the comment in the vein of something to keep in mind and how I view the area of intellectual honesty.

I do feel that all of us are intellectually dishonest from time to time. I've come the conclusion that most humans (myself included) reason in order to justify our conclusions and not the other way around.

In reference to the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, I question this since the historians who have done scholarship in this area are biased by western cultural influences. Would a Shinto, Japanese trained historian come to the same conclusion when looking at the information? I'm skeptical.

Again, I don't intend that you respond to this comment. It's just something to perhaps think about if you are so inclined.

Anette Acker said...

Of course I remember you. We had a lot of discussions during the first few months that I commented on Atheist Central.

As for your point about historical biases, the attempt is to be as objective as possible. Of course that is not entirely possible, but some NT scholars actually have biases in the opposite direction, and they still accept at least two of the four facts. Gerd Ludemann accepts two and Bart Ehrman has in writing accepted all four (although he backtracked during a debate after finding out that Hume's argument against miracles had been refuted with Bayes' Theorem--I'll go into that in a later post).

Whateverman said...

Annette asked Beamstalk the following question: Have you thought about what a miracle it is that the universe is accessible to the human mind? Even though it is vast and awe-inspiring, we can understand it scientifically and mathematically.

Here's the thing, Annette: the universe is also accessible to the minds of squirrels. They know how to avoid danger, they understand the change of seasons, they have the ability to survive by feeding themselves, etc.

I'm not being facetious: all animals have some understanding of their environment. Can a squirrel conceive of quantum mechanics? Probably not, but this doesn't mean that the mind of a human being has no limits.

Perhaps we, too, are unable to understand certain things. We certainly lack knowledge about lots of stuff, and this should give us pause. While a squirrel's mind appears to be limited, there's no reason to suggest that we're not similarly hampered.

---

As a deist, I see the human ability to understand deep physical mysteries as "evidence" that we're more than just animals. However, I have to concede that if I look closely at this idea, I can't really justify it. Crows and chimps and elephants use tools like we do; bacteria evolve to gain abilities they did not previously have; a dog's sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than mine is. Everywhere I look, I see other species's abilities that match or surpass my own.

And if I'm honest with myself, I have to wonder that if they had enough time and some luck, could they too eventually understand the dual slit experiment?

Honest answers include "maybe" and "I don't know". These answers are what keep me from believing too strongly in the miraculous nature of our abilities

Anette Acker said...

Hi Whateverman,

I agree with you that the universe is accessible to the minds of squirrels. They know that every time they drop a nut it falls to the ground. So yes, they do understand about cause and effect, which is a foundation for the scientific method. Without cause and effect, we couldn't understand the universe, and neither could squirrels.

My point was not so much that it is amazing that our minds are capable of understanding the universe mathematically and scientifically, but the fact that the universe is such that it is possible in the first place. Albert Einstein said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."

My point was that there is a tendency to think that an ordered universe that functions according to cause and effect militates against a Creator, but why should it? That is the best environment for creatures like us who need consequences for our actions, and it is what makes the scientific method possible.

That's not to say that God doesn't answer prayer, even in miraculous ways, but it does mean that miracles are rare. Do you think that if a personal God existed He would answer every prayer with a miracle? If that were possible (it may not be because people would pray for contradictory things), it would mean that we would have a lot more power than we could responsibly handle.