Monday, January 19, 2009

Skeptics and the paranormal

The paranormal is an interesting category. One dictionary definition says that paranormal is anything that is beyond scientific explanation. In this sense it’s a loaded term, and implicitly defines “normal” as those things which do have scientific explanations. It’s often defined as anything supernatural, or which appears to defy natural scientific laws. It often includes things like ESP, telekinesis, astrology, ghosts, and so forth. It also usually includes UFOs, which is interesting since UFOs are not really considered to be supernatural, but rather aliens from other planets.

A 2005 Gallup poll indicated that over 70 percent of Americans believe in one or more of a list of ten paranormal phenomena. Items which Gallup included in the evaluation were (along with the percentage of Americans who believed in each): ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%), spirits of the dead returning (32%), telepathy (31%), clairvoyance (26%), astrology (25%), communicating with the dead (21%), witches (21%), reincarnation (20%), channeling (9%). The survey indicated that Christians are somewhat more likely to believe in one or more of these things than non-Christians (75% to 66%), though not by a huge margin. It should be noted that the options for each item were: believe, not sure, don’t believe. Thus there was a group of people for each item who were agnostic with respect to that particular item.

There were some very interesting results when the data was analyzed. The poll showed no statistically significant difference in the percentage based on demographic categories. Thus, the percentage was about the same regardless of age, education, gender, race, or region of the country. Naturalists often insist that belief in “superstition” (which for them includes anything having to do with religion, the supernatural, or the paranormal) is something which education eliminates. It’s only ignorant and unlearned people that believe in such things. Well, at least according to Gallup that’s another skeptical myth. Level of education is not a factor in belief in the supernatural (readers may also want to refer to my post on Christian Intellectuals). This also presents a challenge to another persistent skeptical myth, namely that religion will eventually disappear to be replaced by human reason. Of course, this has been the skeptical belief for at least the last 200 years. The 19th century was probably the zenith of rationalism. The 20th century saw not a decline of religion, but a resurgence. As of yet the 21st century shows no sign of this trend reversing, and every indication that it will continue. But the skeptical utopia of a world without religion is such a compelling vision for some people that apparently facts don’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, three questions asked by Gallup were omitted from the final analysis because they were determined to not be paranormal. These were: psychic or spiritual healing (55%), possession by the devil (42%), and extra-terrestrials (24%). The reasoning for the omission of healing was that “The healing powers of the mind have been demonstrated empirically, reflected in the power of placebos, among other examples.” This is interesting reasoning. The reality of the placebo effect was one of the topics covered in The Spiritual Brain by Denyse O’ Leary and Mario Beauregard. The authors, however, take this as strong evidence that the mind is more than just a product of brain function, but actually has power to produce effects in the physical world. That Gallup omitted the question because in their opinion it has been demonstrated empirically to actually exist is somewhat startling, given that there is no naturalistic explanation for it. But it actually shows the bias of the pollsters – the paranormal isn’t supposed to include things which have been proven to be real! But this is simply begging the question (arguing in a circle).

Their reasoning for omitting possession by the devil was that they determined that it was impossible to know how many people took this literally or not. This is another rather strange conclusion, since the wording of their question was if people believed “that people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil.” It’s hard to see how someone could answer yes to that question but think of it only metaphorically.

Finally, they excluded extraterrestrials because, in their words, “although definitive scientific evidence of such visits is lacking, in principle the existence of extra-terrestrial beings and their ability to visit earth are subject to empirical verification.” Now, I do see the point of excluding extraterrestrials if "paranormal" is understood to mean "supernatural." But Gallup's reasoning is that paranormal should only include things which are not even verifiable in principle. But surely at least some items on the list may be subject to such verification, such as ESP, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Psychic or spiritual healing was removed from the list precisely because it has been verified! But it is also true that many of the items listed are really not verifiable. However, if the paranormal only includes things which can't be verified even in principle, then how should we categorize such beliefs as the multiverse (the belief in many universes outside of our own), or belief in dark matter and dark energy? These are normally considered to be in the realm of science even though it's questionable whether any of them can be verified empirically.

Friday, January 16, 2009

There's "probably" no God?

You may have heard of the atheist advertising campaign in the U.K. headed up by noted atheist author and science popularizer Richard Dawkins. A group of atheists headlined by Dawkins purchased advertisements for the sides of London city buses which say, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This was supposedly a reaction against religious ads on buses which some atheists found objectionable.

The case raises many interesting issues. For one thing, it's interesting that a group of atheists says there's "probably" no God. The traditional definition of atheism was that it was the belief that there is no God, not that there is "probably" no God. In other words, an atheist under this definition wouldn't say there is "probably" no God, but that there is no God, period. It would be like defining a theist as someone who would say there "probably" is a God, rather than that there just IS a God. The fuzzy middle was occupied by what were called agnostics. These would be people who would say they don't know if there is a God, even though they would likely act in practice as if there were no God. Some would hold the position that you shouldn't believe in God unless there is indisputable proof that God exists.

Contemporary skeptics now frequently take the position that atheism is simply the absence of belief in God, rather than the presence of disbelief in God. Under this definition, anyone who lacks belief in God is an atheist. It's an interesting move, because it virtually eliminates the category of agnostic altogether. You don't have to hold the belief that there is no God to qualify as an atheist, you just have to not hold the belief that there is a God. Some who call themselves atheists actually argue passionately that this just is the definition of an atheist, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot (atheists, I've noticed, like to call other people idiots. In my experience they do this more than any other self-identified group. But that's another story).

The next issue is how Dawkins and his fellow atheists determined the probability of God's non-existence. One of the basic principles of probability theory is that you go from the known to the unknown. Say, for example, I want to determine the probability that I will be struck by lightning. I can start by finding out how many people get struck by lightning in a given population size, divide by the total population, and come up with a probability that any one person will be struck by lightning. But this really doesn't tell me if in fact I will be struck by lightning or not. Even though it's highly improbable that any one person will be struck by lightning, it still happens to some people.

So how does one calculate the probability of whether or not there is a God? After all, we know that some people will get struck by lightning. But when Dawkins and company say there "probably" is no God, they mean something different than if they were to say, "you probably won't be struck by lightning." They don't have a calculation to show that out of X number of possible universes there are Y number of gods, so therefore in our universe there probably is no God. What they really mean is "we don't think there is a God", or that the statement "there is a God" is likely false. This is a statement of opinion rather than of fact. If I say, "you probably won't be struck by lightning", that is a matter of fact that can be mathematically demonstrated. This makes the use of the word "probably" in the atheist ad somewhat misleading. This is especially so since Dawkins is a scientist and probability has a specific meaning in science and philosophy which is different than the meaning in the bus ad. It would be more accurate for the ad to say, "we don't think there is a God", but such an ad would doubtless be even less persuasive than the existing one. It's interesting to note that you may be struck by lightning anyways in spite of the low probability. It's likewise true that the statement, "there probably is no God" leaves open the possibility that, even from their standpoint, there might be a God. They just find it unlikely.

Going back to the question of why this group find the existence of God to be unlikely, we know for starters that Dawkins believes that there are good and complete naturalistic explanations for everything, and that therefore God is not necessary as an explanation for anything. Traditionally God has been appealed to as the explanation for various phenomena, but no longer. Science has made rapid and impressive progress in many areas over the last few centuries, so God is now out of a job, so to speak. It's still possible that there is a God, but there's no need to appeal to him as an explanation for anything in the observable universe.

But is that really true? Are there good and complete naturalistic explanations for everything in the universe? Dawkins (along with many others, of course) believes that Darwinian evolution fully accounts for the biological diversity on this planet. This is important to keep in mind, because some people mistakenly believe that evolution seeks to account for life in general. It does not. Darwin's theory (and its successors such as the neo-Darwinian synthesis and others) only seeks to explain the origin of species. It does not explain the origin of life itself. Nor does it explain the origin of the universe or the origin of consciousness (though some have made brave attempts at this latter). In fact there are no widely accepted naturalistic explanations for these phenomena, and there may be growing doubts about the adequacy of Darwinian evolution to even explain biological diversity. There are certainly many holes in Darwinian theory which have yet to be resolved in spite of the oft-heard pronouncement that "evolution is a fact."

But the belief that science will ultimately provide a naturalistic explanation for everything is nothing more than a statement of faith. Specifically, it's a statement of faith in two things: first, that nature really is all that there is, and second, that science will eventually explain it all. Both of these propositions are, in fact, highly implausible, and the second is almost certainly false. More importantly, neither of these statements are provable. It's impossible to prove that nature is all that there is unless one were to possess literally all knowledge. But no finite being could ever know that it possesses all knowledge. Only a being with infinite knowledge (such as God) could ever possess all knowledge and know that it possesses all knowledge. Thus naturalism can really never be proven. The second statement, that science will eventually explain everything, is almost certainly false. First, there are empirical limits on the ability of science to explain everything. These limits can be found in things like quantum theory and chaos theory just to give two examples. There's also Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics which, when applied to physics, shows that science can't explain everything even in principle. So naturalism is every bit as much a statement of faith as theism or any other belief system. Moreover, it has the decided weakness of not being nearly as good an explanation for the observable properties of the universe as theism. The statement "there probably is no God" rests on highly dubious foundations.

But the final issue this ad raises is the conclusion: "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It's a strange conclusion in some ways. It would be as if I were to say, "when you die you're going to cease to exist and that will be the end of you, so don't worry about it!" That seems to be a probable cause to worry, rather than giving me cause not to. Presumably Dawkins and company mean to say that you shouldn't worry about things like judgment and life after death though their ad doesn't specify that. But again, this seems rather one-sided as it replaces one set of worries with another. A universe with no God is very different than a universe with a God, and I see no reason why a God-less universe is one in which there are fewer reasons to worry. On the contrary, belief in God also typically includes a belief that life is ultimately meaningful and purposeful, that injustices will ultimately be made right, and that goodness and truth will ultimately prevail. Not so with a God-less universe. If naturalism is true then justice or injustice (if those words have any real objective meaning at all) simply are, and that's the end of it. Ultimately it won't matter. People who have been treated unjustly in this life will die like dogs and cease to exist, with no hope of redress. It might be easy for an Oxford professor in a (relatively) free country like Great Britain to say "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," but most of the world is not so privileged. Most of humanity has fared rather more poorly than that, and according to Dawkins's belief system, that's just too bad for them. Their lives were ultimately pointless anyhow. But to say to people like that "now stop worrying and enjoy your life" seems rather callous, not to mention nihilistic. It would be better to say, "now make the most of your ultimately meaningless and futile existence, you poor bugger!" But I suppose that wouldn't make for a very good bus advertisement, either!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Religion and Self-Control

A study by a University of Miami psychology professor found that religion is a significant contributor to health, longevity and achieving goals in life. Findings such as these are not new, as other studies have demonstrated the measurable positive benefits of religion. The author of this particular study, Michael McCullough, suggests that the reason for religion’s benefits is that religion encourages self-control. In another article he's quoted as saying, “The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention.”

Self-control is, of course, an important characteristic in Scripture. It’s listed among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, and is one of the seven qualities that are highlighted in 2 Peter 1:5-7 as being of integral importance to developing a life that bears fruit. The big question is what is self-control if naturalism is true? For if naturalism is true, then our behavior is determined by the complex inner workings of our brain, completely beyond our control. In fact, under naturalism there is no “we” (or “I”) to control anything. There is no “ghost in the machine” (to cite Gilbert Ryle’s famous put-down of the belief in the soul), there’s just a machine. Whatever self-control is under naturalism, it’s not a self that controls the body’s urges and desires, or chooses to behave in ways other than what those desires dictate.

The classical view is that we are more than just our bodies, and hence we are able to make choices that are contrary to our physical desires and urges. If McCullough is correct that self-control is the essential trait that religion develops and that results in positive benefits to adherents, then one wonders how he would explain what self-control actually is. McCullough’s aim seems to be to study religion from an evolutionary standpoint, which is to say from a naturalistic standpoint. My guess is that he’s simply assumed a commonsensical concept of self-control without asking whether that concept is compatible with a naturalistic view of the world or not. It’s not, but that doesn’t seem to come into his thinking. Self-control only makes sense if there is more to us than our brains and bodies, if there is a ghost in the machine. Otherwise the machine just runs by itself, however its wiring or programming dictates.

So one problem for the naturalist is how we can have self-control if we are nothing more than complex biological machines. But there is another problem. How can something which is (from the naturalistic standpoint) not true be so beneficial? From the naturalistic standpoint it appears that it’s better to have false beliefs than true ones. But if this is so, then how can the naturalist account for an evolutionary development of things like science if we aren’t wired in such a way that true beliefs are advantageous to us? In other words, if evolution has given rise to creatures which survive and thrive better with false beliefs, then how can a naturalist trust his or her own belief-forming faculties with regard to things like evolution? It’s a conundrum from which naturalistic philosophers have been unable to extricate themselves, though many seem blissfully unaware of the problem.

In his book God: The Evidence, former outspoken-atheist-turned-theist Patrick Glynn also pointed out that religion has huge positive health benefits. For Glynn, it became impossible to square this with a naturalistic worldview. The mind and the body appear to be designed to function best with a religious worldview. This is perfectly consistent if the religious worldview is true. But to suggest that homo sapiens has evolved to function best with a religious worldview even though naturalism is true requires a lot of creative explanation that ultimately seems forced and contrived. It also undermines confidence in any of our beliefs, including the naturalist's belief in evolution. And there’s still no way to coherently account for something like self-control, let alone how such a thing can have positive benefits for anyone, if naturalism is true.

In an interesting twist, McCullough found that only people who were outwardly religious (as in being involved with religious institutions and behaviors) showed higher self-control. Just having a “spiritual” view of the world didn’t help promote self-control. It also doesn’t seem to help if one just attends church but isn’t really a believer. It’s only the true believers (what McCullough terms “intrinsically religious”) who show higher self-control, not the “extrinsically religious” who just go to church for perceived social benefits or out of habit or tradition.

McCullough suggests that secular people could get the same results even if they don’t believe, which is a strange suggestion since it seems to contradict his own findings. But he says, “People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values. Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”

Umm, okay. Except this is obviously rubbish. McCullough seems to think that it doesn’t matter what values you pick: just pick anything that’s important to you, call it “sacred” and watch as the self-control magically develops. It’s hard to see how this sort of intentional self-deception would work, especially since McCullough’s own study appears to indicate that it doesn’t. In such a case the person is only substituting his/her own preferences for a divine moral standard. How about if someone’s value is maximizing their physical pleasure or becoming wealthy while doing as little work as possible? Would these values promote self-control? Even in principle how could such a standard help develop self-control when it’s simply the person giving their own desires and interests the status of being sacred? The very idea of self-control presumes that one is denying their own immediate desires for a higher goal or purpose. It seems clear that the person has to believe that value or purpose has come from a higher source, even if their belief is mistaken. But to just make up your own "sacred values" seems pretty useless.

Never mind that McCullough could have discovered the importance of self-control just by reading a New Testament. But modern psychology seems to have a way of demonstrating that what those ancient writers had to say so long ago is a timeless wisdom that occasionally even modern unbelieving scholars are forced to notice when they’re paying attention.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In God We Trust

For many people (I’m thinking of Americans of course) this slogan is nothing more than words written on their currency. God has no bearing on their daily lives, and the idea of trusting in God is a foreign concept. But many of these same people DO trust in the very money on which these words are inscribed. They think if they only had more of it, they could be secure. Talk about trusting in God is cheap. What we really need is a goodly nest-egg for our retirement years, and financial security for today.

Thus, shakeups in the financial world can cause major panic in people. “What if our life savings are wiped out?” “What if our financial institutions fail?” To whom will we turn for help? It seems that many people want to turn to the government for a handout or bailout. The government, after all, has lots of money to spare. Isn’t that right? (Never mind for the moment that the government’s money is actually money that was taken from the people that earned it in the first place). Don’t we just need a bigger social safety net? It’s times like these that are good opportunities for re-evaluating our priorities. Where does our trust really lie? Is it in our currency? In our financial institutions? In our government?

I was interested to see that the New York Times (a rag which I generally disdain for ideological reasons) reported a dramatic increase in evangelical church attendance since the stock market began its sharp decline last September. The article cited a study by David Beckworth that showed that growth in evangelical church attendance spiked by 50 percent during every recession cycle between 1968 and 2004 (note this is the percentage of rate of attendance increase, not the growth in actual attendance). Mainline Protestant churches declined during the recession periods, but not by as much as during the non-recession years. The Times article gives anecdotal evidence that the same pattern is occurring this time around. Interestingly, Gallup released a poll in December that challenges the overall pattern, saying that church attendance showed no discernible increase at all during 2008. But that’s another story.

The idea that too much wealth is a bad thing is certainly biblical. In Proverbs 30:8-9 we read “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Likewise the New Testament is not kind towards trusting in riches. James 5:1-3 gives a taste of it: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”

During the Methodist revival in England, John Wesley saw the danger of increasing wealth leading to a decrease in spiritual fervor and vitality and warned against it. Many of the Methodist societies consisted of lower class people. After these people were saved their lifestyles changed dramatically. They became more industrious and hard-working while at the same time they gave up vices like drinking, smoking and gambling. As a result, they also became more prosperous. This in turn tended toward spiritual apathy.

This was not only true of the early Methodists, but has been a repeated historical pattern in church history. According to tradition, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas was once visiting Pope Innocent IV in Rome. The Pope proudly showed him the treasures in the Vatican and said, “no longer can we say, ‘silver or gold have I none.’” To which Aquinas replied, “yes, and neither can we say, ‘rise up and walk.’” The allusion of course is to Peter and John healing the lame beggar outside the temple in Acts 3:6. The repeated cycle of church history has been of God’s people becoming wealthy, drifting from God as a result, and then being brought back to Him after a time of humbling.

In a very real sense the current financial climate might be the best thing for the church in America. American evangelicals have poured countless millions of dollars into big, expensive facilities with attendant maintenance costs and so forth. We’ve become experts at slick fundraising methods, using the same techniques and gimmicks as the world. It’s not hard to see that our priorities have gone awry. Times like these may be the wake-up call that many people need to show them where their trust really lies. As Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Someone shared with me recently that he had fallen on hard times and that it was possible he would be losing his home. At the same time, he praised God saying that he had never been closer to the Lord and he was happy in Him. What a great testimony! It reminds me of the words of the prophet from Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

These are, I believe, some of the greatest words of faith from the Bible. Regardless of our circumstances, do we still trust in God? Or do we really trust in those pieces of paper on which those words are written?

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.