Healed of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease?

Many Christians (especially charismatic ones) have a certain tendency to see miracles everywhere and fail to consider the existence of the Placebo effect that can easily account for many healings following prayer.

miracle-god

But some things seem to defy material explanations based on mainstream medicine.

In two books of J.P. Moreland, an Evangelical philosophy professor and apologist, I found the following touching story. I entirely trust his honesty.

In his book “Kingdom Triangle” he wrote:

Just a few weeks ago I had an amazing conversation with Nathan, one
of my philosophy graduate students. Before coming to Biola University,
Nathan and a friend were on the Long Beach State debate team and were
ranked fifth in the country, having beaten Harvard and other top schools
in debate competitions. Needless to say, Nathan is a very rational person
not prone to being gullible. Nathan relayed that when he was thirteen, he
was diagnosed with GERDS (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), in which
the valve between his esophagus and stomach did not work properly. He
would wake up at night not being able to breath because of the stomach acid
gathering in his chest and the severe pain that followed. Nathan developed
insomnia — he had to sleep sitting up and did not sleep through the night
for nine years. In 2002, Nathan got married and his wife made him go to a
doctor to investigate surgery. When he did, he was told that he would need
a series of five surgeries and would be on medication the rest of his life.
The next day, Nathan and his wife attended a small group Bible study
at which a missionary couple from Thailand was going to share about their
ministry overseas, a ministry that included miraculous healings. No one at
the Bible study knew of Nathan’s illness. While there, something shocking
happened to him. In Nathan’s own words, “During the Bible study, out of the
blue, the speaker stopped praying for another person, turned and said, ‘Some­
one in the room is suffering from Gastroesophageal Reflux disease.’ This
man had never met me nor could he have known the disease name.”
Nathan went on to say that the missionary described a painful event
that had happened between the person with GERDS (Nathan had not yet
identified himself as the person) and his father when he was diagnosed
with the disease as a young boy (all details of which were unknown to
anyone, including Nathan’s wife, and were accurately described). Nathan
identified himself as the person with GERDS, the missionary laid hands
on him and prayed for his healing, and he was instantly and completely
healed! From that night until the present (about three full years), Nathan
has never had an incident, he has slept through every night since that Bible
study, and the doctor cleared Nathan shortly thereafter of the diagnosis.

 

In his book “In search of a confident faith“, Moreland added some information:

As emotion welled up within him, Nathan relayed to me that at that very moment he was instantly and completely healed!”

I met Nathan’s wife a few weeks ago at a student gathering, and without warning I pulled her aside to ask about the incident. She confirmed every detail of the story to me“.

 

The best materialistic explanation

 

How would a materialist account for this?

It seems extremely unlikely that the missionary would have talked with a close relative of Nathan (or even his father) in order to orchestrate the event.

Otherwise, the missionary’s words of knowledge can only be interpreted as random thoughts generated by his brain. But how likely would he find at that precise moment a man who suffer from GERDS and had a painful experience with his father whilst being diagnosed? Conversely, how likely is the missionary to randomly find the right diagnosis and circumstances instead of, say, “recalcitrant cold”, “lung cancer” or “chronic back pain”?
This type of specific knowledge appears to go well beyond the reach of lucky guesses.

It is worth noting that the missionary not only mentioned that a painful event with the man’s father occurred but also described it in a way that Nathan deemed “accurate”. If the missionary was randomly making things up, it would be unlikely he could provide an accurate description of the incident, as there are countless different types of incidents that could have happened.

Consequently, it seems very unlikely (if not extremely unlikely) that the missionary could have correctly guessed those pieces of information about Nathan.

 

The healing itself is less evidential as cases of spontaneous remissions of GERDS are known. However, it is certainly curious that after having suffered from the disease for nine years, Nathan was suddenly delivered from it after having felt “emotion welled up within him“. The whole encounter seems to have triggered an inner healing.

What we will make of that story depends on one’s prior beliefs. A hardcore materialist will consider this as only an unlikely chain of coincidences.
Someone open to the reality of paranormal phenomena might consider that something really strange took place.

miracle

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Can false memories explain mass sightings of the risen Christ?

Summary

It is widely recognised that the Christian religion could not have emerged without the first Christians experiencing the risen Christ after his death on the cross. These appearances are considered as hallucinations by secular scholars. Mass sightings of Jesus are problematic, however, as collective hallucinations are unknown to clinical psychologists. The world-renowned Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman proposed they can be accounted for through one person hallucinating Jesus and thereafter inducing false memories of having had the same experience in the mind of all other people present at the event. I argued that the experimental evidence presented by Ehrman is totally inadequate to show this is a plausible scenario. It is very unlikely that the testimony of the hallucinating person would be sufficient to make hundred of other persons “remember” having seen and heard Jesus if they had had no such experiences at the time of the gathering.

Introduction

Those of us who have an interest in unusual, paranormal phenomena that seem to question and event contradict the modern scientific paradigm know there are incidents where a whole group of people pretend to have witnessed something that isn’t supposed to exist.

One good example are the visions of Fatima where groups of people saw on several occasions strange phenomena they attributed to the Virgin Mary.

Fatima_Sighting

One other example of great importance to the philosophy of religion is the sightings of the risen Jesus after his humiliating death on the cross.

jesus-resurrection

According to the apostle Paul, Jesus “appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

The problem is that we have no evidence whatsoever that two (let alone 200) brains can produce the same hallucination at the same time. The corresponding psychological literature just doesn’t exist. In that case, I think that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If collective hallucinations were real, we would have (in 2017) many reports from mental health specialists describing their occurrences in their patients.

What is more, all examples of putative mass hallucinations beg the question by assuming from the outset there are no paranormal phenomena.

 

Can a person’s hallucination create false memories in other people’s mind?

Bart Ehrman is a renowned secular Biblical scholar who aims at explaining the beginning of Christianity in purely naturalistic terms, i.e. without appealing to any miracles he views as incredibly improbable by definition.

Whilst he seemingly first defended the idea that Jesus’ apparitions were due to collective hallucinations, he backtracked from this position in a later blog post.

Instead, he proposed that such alleged mass sightings (and the reports thereof) are produced from a combination of  a single individual experiencing a hallucination with the false memories stemming from the contamination of the minds of other people who were present with him at that time.

For starters, false memories are seemingly real memories that actually do not correspond to what truly happened.

Following the great psychologist Elisabeth Loftus, I find it useful to make a distinction between “ordinary” false memories and “big” (or “radical”) false memories.

“Ordinary” false memories are basically your misremembering things about a real event without distorting its main features. Examples can concern the colour of a car that sped away from the police, the physical appearance of a rapist or having watched a movie about a real catastrophe even if you didn’t.

“Big” false memories, on the other hand, mean that you have memories about an event that never happened, neither to you nor to anyone. Examples are memories of being the victim of satanic rituals, alien abductions, or more mundanely of having been sexually abused by one’s parents even though this never happened.

false-memories

Granted, that distinction is not sharp and there is certainly a smooth transition between both categories. But I find it useful nonetheless. As I argued in another post, whilst “banal” false memories are widespread, “radical” false memories are much less likely to emerge spontaneously. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the latter are spawned by (conscious or unconscious) psychological manipulation such as the assertion by a person of authority that the event (e.g. getting lost in a mall as a child) happened and that she is in a position to know this.

Bart Ehrman’s argumentation

Bart Ehrman begins by presenting a well-known Dutch study exemplifying the emergence of spontaneous false memories.

On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it.  The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer.   The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed.   The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.

Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country.  Among the questions was the following:  “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?”    In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film.   Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students.  In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film.   There was just one problem.  There was no film.

These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film.   Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras.   The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash.   And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film.    Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?

Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later.   None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film.  So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?

Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down).  The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something.  They thought they were remembering it.  They really thought that.   In fact they did remember it.  But it was a false memory.   Not just a false memory one of them had.   A false memory most of them had.

The researchers concluded:  “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.”   In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.”   Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”

plane-crash

This was a memory of a large group of people who all remember seeing the same thing (or nearly the same thing) at the same time, even though none of them saw it.  If you don’t want to call that a group vision, that’s absolutely fine with me.  What I’m saying is that a group of people thought they saw something they didn’t see.  (The difference in this example, of course, is that the people in this study were not all standing together at the time when they had the vision – but we have records of that sort of thing happening as well.)

At this point, it is important to realise that what Ehrman describes is not what I would call a “big” false memory of a totally fictional event. The plane crashing into the building and the tragic death of 39 persons certainly did occur. The test subjects’ mistake was their confusion of their imagining the accident (which they certainly did back then over and over again) with their watching a film capturing it. What is more, the false memories did not emerge spontaneously but through the deliberately misleading assertion of the researchers there was such a film.

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t actually think groups of people all at one and the same time saw Jesus after his death, any more than I think groups of people actually see the Blessed Virgin Mary at one time today.  What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.

Here, I think that Ehrman makes one hell of an extrapolation. The participants in the Dutch study did not remember a supernatural event that did not happen. They mistook their imaginary visualisation of a plane crash with a movie capturing the drama.

As false memory researcher Giuliana Mazzoni pointed out, the emergence of false memories depends on the initial plausibility/probability you attribute to the event.

And merely believing in the reality of a supernatural world does not suffice if you also believe that miracles happen relatively rarely.

Put it yourself to the test

To understand what I mean by that, consider the last time you participated in a party with your friends. Go to them ten months later and tell them:

Do you remember the male exhibitionist who showed us his genitals, disturbed the whole celebration and had to be driven out of the room by the security personal?”

whereas in fact there was no exhibitionist who interrupted the festivities.

How would your friends react to your assertion?

Would they spontaneously say: “Oh yeah, I do remember him! This was crazy!” ?

I bet you 1 million of Euros that virtually none of them would say this.

They wouldn’t even say: “Ah okay! Actually I don’t remember this but it’s  quite possible.

No instead, it’s very likely they would stare at you in utter disbelief and tell you: “Did you take LSD back then?” or perhaps somewhat more politely: “No, that definitely didn’t happen. You must confuse this with another party you took part in“.

Of course, all your friends believe in the existence of exhibitionists.

exhibitionist

The problem is that merely mentioning this to them does not suffice to radically change their reliable memories of the real event and they know they would remember it clearly if something that unusual had truly happened.

At this point, it is important to realise that most experiments about “big” false memories (such as those of getting lost in a mall as a small child) don’t make you radically misremember an event you really experienced but make you remember an event that never happened altogether (most often at an undetermined date).

Application to the sightings of the 500 “brothers”

Suppose that the 500 brothers (and most likely sisters) were gathered in a meadow while listening to a talented preacher. They felt deeply emotionally moved by the words he spoke. 499 of them did not experience anything supernatural and returned to their family’s homes after the end of the event. One person (perhaps with a schizoaffective disorder) sees the resurrected Jesus speaking to the crowd for 15 minutes and sharing bread with them before rising back to the clouds and disappearing.

Now suppose that this person talked to twenty of the brethren two years after the event and told them: “Do you remember that while Brother X. gave us this amazing sermon, the Lord appeared and stayed with us for more than ten minutes?“.

For the same reasons I gave above regarding the exhibitionist interrupting the party, I think it is very unlikely they would answer: “Oh yeah, that was fantastic!” or even “No, but you’re probably right”. Instead, chances are they too would stare at him in disbelief. Or they would consider he was experiencing a private revelation.

When Bart Ehrman writes: “What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.”

he is going far beyond what the experimental evidence warrants.

Perhaps, ten years later, some people who believed that the person’s hallucination of Jesus was a private revelation mistakenly believed that their own experience of a private revelation happened at the same time. But I consider it very unlikely that all 500 brethren would come to radically misremember the event in this way.

 

Conclusion

I am not perfect and my PhD is in chemical modelling, not cognitive psychology. Nevertheless, based on my knowledge of the appropriate literature, I consider it very unlikely that the hallucination of one person would be enough to convince 499 other ones they experienced this as well at the same time even though they actually didn’t see or hear anything.

The Dutch study quoted by Bart Ehrman is a false analogy as it concerns a source monitoring error about a real event.

To prove me wrong, you would need to show me the positive results of experiments involving a radical false claim similar to the interruption of a (real) party by an exhibitionist who had to be driven out of the room. I strongly doubt this is possible.

That said, it is quite possible that false memories played some role in the emergence of the Christian religion. But there are limits to such explanations.

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On the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after his unjust death stands at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Jesus_resurrection

If materialism is true, it goes without saying that the prior plausibility of a corpse coming back to life through random physical processes is extremely small.

However, some atheist apologists go farther than that and argue that even if God existed, the probability of His raising Jesus from the dead would be incredibly low.

 

Atheistic philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder (who is a nice, respectful, well-articulated, intelligent and decent man) put it like this:

B3: Approximately 107,702,707,791 humans have ever lived. Approximately half of them have been male.
B4: God, if He exists, has resurrected from the dead at most only one person (Jesus).

B3 and B4 are significant because they summarize the relevant evidence about God’s tendency to resurrect people from the dead (assuming God exists). They show why the resurrection has a low prior probability even for theists. Once we take B3 and B4 into account, the prior probability of the resurrection is less than or equal to 5.0 x 10-12. In symbols, Pr(R | B1 & B3 & B4) <= 5.0 x 10-12.

 

I shall reformulate his argument in a simpler way while emphasising a most problematic hidden assumption.

  1. From the 100 000 000 humans who have ever lived under the sun, none has been resurrected by God’s mighty hands.
  2. Consequently, the probability that a human being chosen at random gets raised from the dead is less than 10-11.

3. God would be as interested in resurrecting Jesus as he would be in resurrecting a random human being.

4. Hence the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection is less than 10-11.

Although premise 1) might be begging the question against claims of miracles, I shall accept it as true.

Premise 2) is totally uncontroversial. So what truly stands in the way of the conclusion is premise 3).

Why on earth should we assume that Jesus was only a random human being to God? This probability seems unknown to me unless one makes assumptions about the divine Being, i.e. one engages in theology.

(The are good articles written by professional philosopher of science John Norton explaining why epistemic ignorance cannot be represented by a probability distribution [1], [2], [3])

Lowder seems to be aware of this. A (godless) commenter wrote:

“Your estimate of 5.0 x 10-12. assumes that Jesus is a typical human. But if not, if B1A: Jesus is the second person of the Trinity is true, P(B2) becomes much higher, possibly of order 1. In that case the relevant unknown is P(B1A | B1). While that may be small, I doubt if it’s anywhere near as small as 5.0 x 10-12.”

His response was:

“There are not any reliable statistics for the reference class of men who are the second person of the Trinity. Thus, the reference class that must be used is the broadest one for which we have reliable statistics, viz., men.”

But this is clearly begging the question.

  • Why should we  assume that Jesus was a random human being to God?
  • Because this is the only way we can approximately calculate the prior probability of his resurrection.
  • And why should we assume that this value approximates anything if we don’t know whether or not he was just an ordinary man to God?

So I think that unbelievers cannot argue from ignorance here. They should instead give us positive grounds for thinking that Jesus wasn’t special to God.

jesus

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Can we define the truth of materialism?

In a previous post, I explained why I believe that materialism (the belief that matter is the only reality) cannot make sense of the truth of materialism.

The Red Spider Nebula: Surfing in Sagittarius - not for the faint-hearted!

My reasoning was hard to follow and this prompted me to try to reformulate my argument.

Platonism and Nominalism

According to Platonism, abstract objects not existing in space and time (such as numbers, mathematical operations, concepts such as “everything“, “nothing” etc.) are real and  necessary to talk about the world.

For instance, while considering the sentence

All roses in my garden are red

rosengarten-seppenrade

a Platonist will consider the words “all” and “red” as examples of abstract objects (or universals) which determine its truth or falsehood.

A Nominalist rejects the existence of abstract objects which are considered to be useful human conventions.

According to them, the above sentence can be rephrased as

“Rose number 1, 2, 3…. and N have roughly the same colour as tomatoes”

thereby seemingly doing away with the indispensability of abstract concepts.

It is important to realise that the plausibility of Nominalism stands and falls with its ability to reformulate such statements without the use of any abstract objects.

If abstract objects can be shown to be indispensable to give a meaning to a true sentence describing the real world, Nominalism is false.

What is the truth of materialism?

Materialists MUST be Nominalists as they reject the existence of anything not located in space and time.

At face value, the truth of materialism can be expressed in different equivalent ways:
Everything is material
There is nothing immaterial
If (any object)* A exists, A is material

If (any object)* A is real, A is material“.
…………..
But is there a way to formulate this proposition without (explicitly and implicitly) appealing to any abstract entities?

It seems to me that in that specific context, all words I have underlined are abstract entities or require the meaning of abstract entities such as existence.

The sentences “there exists no such thing as the concept of existence” or “the concept of reality is not real” appear self-contradictory to me.

Note that I am not saying that the underlined words cannot be interpreted nominallistically in other situations.

But here it seems impossible to me to express the truth of materialism while only appealing to material entities.

If I’m right about that, whenever we assert the truth of materialism, we must resort to non-material concepts. In other words, if the truth of materialism is meaningful, non-material concepts must be meaningful as well.

Conversely, if non-material concepts are meaningless, so is the truth of materialism.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the  truth-value of  materialism, that is to say the state of affairs of the world that would make it true.

Suppose that 2 billions years later, our highly advanced descendants feel confident that they know everything that exists.

Would the state of affairs corresponding to materialism simply be: “Object 1 is material, object 2 is material…object N is material“?

No, for it must also include “And objects 1 to N are everything that exists” or ‘”there is nothing else than objects 1 to N”.

It thus appears that as an ensemble, objects 1 to N must have a non-material property (namely that of exhaustiveness) that is not localised in time and space and cannot be identified with any set of interacting primary particles.

Therefore, the impossibility of defining materialism without relying on immaterial concepts goes hand in hand with the impossibility of it being true.

The Cosmos of materialists
The cosmos in a nutshell. Materialism implies BOTH that the entities in the oval are material and that the oval is all there is. This property of the oval is non-physical in that it cannot be localised in time and space.

I’d be interested to learn if you think I’m wrong and that you know such formulations which do not merely shift the problem. Of course, one solution of the issue might be to use more modest definitions of materialism that do not try to convey the idea of “nothing else”.

Footnotes

*Some might object that the sentence

If (any object) A is real, A is material

can simply be formulated as

If A is real, A is material.

This clearly raises questions about the implicit meaning of A.

The sentences

If love exists, love is material

If telepathy exists, telepathy is material

can obviously  not serve as the definition of materialism, although they naturally follow from its truth.

Nor can this role be played by the sentence

If Lyurmur exists, it is material

which concerns a specific entity called “Lyurmur“.

It is because of mathematical conventions and our use to them that we automatically assume that “A” in the original sentence means “any object having that property“.

It thus follows that we cannot do away with that concept in such a manner.

Objections

A creation of human brains

Someone answered that this isn’t a problem as “everything” can be viewed as an abstraction created by human brains.

If that is the case, without conscious lives in the cosmos, materialism couldn’t be true! Materialism would be a fact of the external world that would not be true if there were no consciousness. That’s certainly a very odd position to hold. Many would say it is plainly absurd as one of the main claims of materialism is the denial that consciousness is anything fundamental.
Moreover, if the concept of “everything” is only a useful convention to simplify our daily talks and theory building, then what does it mean in such a situation where it cannot be reduced to anything else?
I think that the following argument can be developed:
***********************************************************************************************
1) If the sentence M “everything is material” is true, then the concept of “everything” must exist either as such or as something reducible to other concepts or objects and not *merely* as a creation of the brain.
2) In that specific context, “everything” cannot be reduced to more fundamental objects.
3) Hence, if M (materialism) is true, “everything” exists as a fundamental object.
***********************************************************************************************
I have argued for 2) above and believe it is very implausible that anyone could reduce “everything” to something more fundamental and do away with abstract objects.
I shall thus take it for granted.
Denying 1) would mean that “A is…” can be true even though A does not carry any external meaning and is only correlated to a bunch of neurons. That too seems very implausible as the proposition “The fountain of youth is material” and “The fountain of youth is immaterial” are both false if the fountain of youth does not refer to a putative object.
Consequently, it is very hard to see how a materialist can consider that “everything” is nothing more than neural currents without meaning while believing that the sentence “everything is material” is true.
Not a noun?
Another person asserted that “everything is material” is perfectly fine for a materialist as “everything” is a pronoun and not a noun. I don’t think this is the case.

For an abstract object not existing in time and space does not have to be a noun in a specific language.
Consider for example the sentences:
0 roses are red
3 roses are red
7 roses are red
9 roses are red
NO rose is red.
ALL roses are red
EVERY roses are red.

“No”,”All” and “every” are as much abstract objects as “3”, “7” and “9” are.
If “0”, “3”, “7”, “9” have no meaning, neither do the four first sentences.
If “no”, “all” and “every” have no meaning, neither do the three last sentences.

“all” and “every” depend on the concepts of everything in the same way as “something” depends on the concept of something.

The sentence “Fijhfhdfgx is blue” is meaningless without a concept of “Fijhfhdfgx“.

What is more, everything in that context can only mean “every OBJECT” as opposed to “every pineapple or “every wild bears”.

So, I still don’t see how “everything” (every thing) can have a meaning here without the concept of everything and the concept of object.

Replacing “every” by an enumeration
Someone suggested I could just replace “every” by an enumeration of all elements making up reality.

I also first thought of “everything” as a summation (U).
If all the materialist was claiming were that the objects KNOWN TO US are material, an enumeration such as
– This laptop is material
– This rose is material
– Donald Trump’s brain is material
….
would indeed be perfectly correct.
The problem is that most materialists also include all potentially unknown object.And as such, the summation (U) will also have to explicitly mention
and all potential objects we know nothing about are material

so that the problem does remain the same.

This seems to be inevitable. Our descendants in 200 000 000 million years would also face the same problem as they too could not rule out the existence of unknown objects in, say, parallel universes.

So I remain convinced that phrases such as “and nothing else exists” cannot be replaced by any combinations of concrete objects.

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 Actually, in order to avoid a tautology (such as ‘all material things are material’), it appears to me that you must allow for the possibility that the object A could be non-material. And as such, A cannot be considered a physical thing of our universe from the outset without begging the question.

My novel on parallel worlds, God and drugs

Here is the introduction to a novel I’ve been writing in English for eons…and perhaps even in some parallel world 🙂

Hier ist die Einführung in einen Roman, den ich auf Englisch seit Äonen geschrieben habe…und vielleicht sogar in irgendwelcher parallelen Welt 🙂

Ceci est l’introduction du roman que j’ai écrit depuis de très nombreux mois…peut-être même dans un monde parallèle 🙂

paralel

*************

Magonland…a world not entirely unlike ours but not completely similar either.

Magonland…eine Welt, die unserer nicht ganz unähnlich ist, obwohl sie auch nicht ganz dieselbe ist.

Magonland…un monde qui n’est pas vraiment différent du notre, bien qu’il ne soit pas tout à fait identique.
For countless centuries, the whole planet has been ruled by the iron fist of the “Grand Consil”, whose manipulative skills have grown so strong that they managed eventually to convince the large majority of Magoners that they live in a democracy and are sovereign over their own existences.

Seit zahllosen Jahrhunderten wird der ganze Planet von der eisernen Faust des “Großen Consils” regiert, dessen manipulativen Methoden so stark geworden sind, dass es ihnen schliesslich gelang, die grosse Mehrheit der Magoner davon zu überzeugen, dass sie in einer Demokratie leben und über ihre eigenen Existenzen entscheiden.

Depuis de nombreux siècles, l’entière planète a été gouverné par le poing d’acier du “Grand Consil”, dont les techniques de manipulation sont devenues tellement matures qu’ils ont finalement réussi à convaincre la grande majorité des Magoneurs qu’ils vivent dans une démocratie et dirigent souverainement leurs propres existences.

manip

But political oppression is far from being the only problem plaguing humans.

Aber die politische Unterdrückung ist keineswegs das einzige Problem, das Menschen plagt.

Mais l’oppression politique est loin d’être le seul fléau affligeant les humains.

Many eons ago, at a time when religions had not yet been eradicated, Ankou, a terrifying drug devouring the bodies and souls of its victims, had been introduced into the world by a powerful sect which disappeared shortly thereafter.

Viele Äonen zuvor, zu einer Zeit als die Religionen noch nicht vertilgt worden waren, wurde Ankou, eine furchterregende Droge, die die Körper und Seelen ihrer Opfer verzehrt, in die Welt hineingebracht von einer mächtigen Sekte, die kurz danach verschwand.

Dans un passé très lointain, alors que les religions n’avaient pas encore été  éradiquées, Ankou, une drogue terrifiante qui dévore les corps et les âmes de ses victimes, fut introduite dans le monde par une puissante secte qui disparut peu après.

junkies

And so did belief in Kralmur, the God of all gods whose glorious return so passionately preached by forgotten prophets never happened.

Und ebenso verschwand der Glaube an Kralmur, den Gott aller Götter, dessen glorreiche Rückkehr, über die vergessene Propheten so leidenschaftlich gepredigt haben, nie geschah.

Et il en fut de même pour la foi en Kralmur, le Dieu de tous les dieux, dont le glorieux retour prêché tellement passionnément par des prophètes oubliés, ne s’est jamais produit.

Despite a wealthy existence, a fantastic girlfriend and a decent job he feels passionate about, Curt Sunbloom no longer wants to live on.

Trotz einer wohlhabenden Existenz, einer fantastischen Freundin und einer anständigen Arbeit, wovon er sich begeistert fühlt, will Curt Sunneblum nicht länger weiterleben.

Malgré une existence aisée, une fantastique petite amie et un travail décent qui le passione, Curt Sunbloom ne veut plus vivre.

gott

Apart from having the same name as his dead father who tyrannized the planet for decades, he constantly feels a deep emptiness in his innermost being that nothing had ever been able to drive away for long.

Ausser der Tatsache, dass er denselben Namen wie den seines toten Vaters hat, der den ganzen Planet während Jahrzehnten tyrannisiert hat, fühlt er ständig eine tiefe innere Leere, die kein Ding dieser Welt auf die Länge hatte vertreiben können.

En plus d’avoir le même nom que son père décédé, qui a tyrannisé toute la planète pendant des décennies, il sent sans cesse un vide intérieur que rien au monde n’a jamais pu chasser pour longtemps.

As rumors of a gate toward another realm surface, he doesn’t hesitate and decides to search for it.

Als Gerüchte über ein Tor nach einer anderen Dimension auftauchen, zögert er nicht und entscheidet, danach zu suchen.

Lorsque des rumeurs concernant un portail vers une autre dimension surfacent, il n’hésite pas et décide de le chercher.

torandererdimension

But at the same time, mysterious lights are beginning to move around in the sky.

Aber zur gleichen Zeit beginnen gerade mysteriöse Lichter am Himmel, sich herum zu bewegen.

Mais en même temps, des mystérieuses lumières dans le ciel commencent a se déplacer erratiquement dans le ciel.

And Ankou seems to be evolving into something more sinister than it ever was.

Und Ankou scheint gerade, sich in etwas zu verwandeln, das noch düsterer ist als es je gewesen ist.

Et Ankou semble être entrain de se transformer en quelque chose encore plus sinistre qu’elle n’a jamais été.

anopu

Soon, Curt finds himself in the middle of a confusing war whose significance might transcend everything he believes in.

Bald befindet sich Curt mitten in einem verwirrenden Krieg, dessen Bedeutsamkeit alles übersteigen könnte, woran er glaubt.

Bientôt, Curt se retrouve au milieu d’une guerre déroutante, dont la signifiance pourrait très bien transcender toutes ses croyances.

transenence

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So, aside from my work as an emerging scientist, this novel is the main reason why I’ve been blogging less frequently for the last months.

Also, neben meiner beruflichen Tätigkeit als Nachwuchswissenschaftler ist dieser Roman der Hauptgrund, warum ich im Laufe der letzten Monate viel seltener gebloggt habe.

En plus de ma profession en tant que jeune scientifique, ce roman est la raison principale pourquoi j’ai rarement blogué pendant les derniers mois.

At the moment,I am undecided as to how to publish it.

Momentan weiß ich noch nicht, wie ich ihn publizieren werde.

En ce moment, je ne sais pas encore comment je veux le publier.

I consider it much more important to be read by many people than to make money out of it.

Ich betrachte es als viel wichtiger, von zahlreichen Menschen gelesen zu werden, als dadurch viel Geld zu verdienen.

Je considère beaucoup plus important d’être lu par beaucoup de personnes plutôt que de gagner de l’argent a travers cela.

In the parallel world I created, English is the common tongue but some people speak in French and other people speak in the Germanic dialect of my region.

In der parallelen Welt, die ich erschaffen habe, ist das Englische die gemeinsame Sprache aber einige Menschen sprechen Französisch während andere Personen den deutschen Dialekt meiner Region reden.

Dans le monde parallèle que j’ai créé, l’anglais est la langue principale mais certaine personnes parlent en français tandis que d’autres s’expriment dans le dialecte germanique de ma région.

So people interested in linguistic might like it 🙂

Also Leute, die an der Linguistik interessiert sind, könnten es mögen 🙂

Ainsi, les gens intéressés par la linguistique pourrait l’apprécier 🙂

mainwilla

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On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.

For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.

Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

The origin of life and intelligent design

origin-life
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.

Extraterrestrial intelligences and  Fermi’s paradox

Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.

Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.

While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Philosopher of science John Norton wrote an article entitled “Cosmic Confusions: Not Supporting versus Supporting Not” where he shows the problems related to the POM.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
and
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.

The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse

fine-tuning

Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.

Many theistic philosophers reason like this

  1. All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
  2. Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
  3. It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.

While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.

Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.

I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.

The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.

Miracles in an infinite multiverse

According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.

But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.

He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.

In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.

This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.

Bolzmann-brain
Bolzmann’s brain

While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.

Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster. flying-spaghetti-monster

But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.

What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.

 

As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.

The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”

This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.

 

The simulation argument

Actually, Dawkins discussed the so-called simulation argument elsewhere.

According to it, it is more likely we live in the simulation of a universe than in a real one.

Far from “debunking” this possibility, Dawkins recognises he cannot show it to be very unlikely in the same way he thinks he can reject the existence of God.

I think another interesting thesis can be formulated.

Consider the following proposition:

“We live in a simulation run by unknown beings who created everything five minutes ago and gave us false memories of the past.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and includes the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know almost nothing.

I don’t doubt that this idea sounds emotionally absurd to most of us.

But can you show it is very unlikely to be true WITHOUT smuggling in assumptions about the real world?

I have searched the philosophical literature but could not find any demonstration which does not beg the question.

I think that you can only reject it pragmatically through a leap of faith that does not rely on reason and evidence.

Consequently, I also think it is impossible to justify all our beliefs through evidence and logics.

We all walk by faith.

 

The atheist in front of God’s throne

Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.

Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:

“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’

This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.

I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.

I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.

But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:

Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.

God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to  develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.

Dawkins: What do you mean then?

God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.

Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.

Conclusion

I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.

I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.

On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”

Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.

But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.

I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.

 

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On God’s hiddenness and the nature of faith

I was recently involved in an interesting debate about the nature of faith in God and the alleged moral guilt of disbelievers.

It revolved around the problem of divine hiddenness: if God really exists and is interested in people believing in Him, then why does He not unambiguously prove His existence?

God's hiddeness
God’s hiddenness: despite all the wonders delighting our eyes and filling our soul with awe, nature remains very ambiguous and conceals its ultimate reality.

The discussion took place in the comment section of a blog post written by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser entitled “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?

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When I wrote Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I had a very short endorser wish-list. That list consisted of folks who were leaders in their professions and exemplars of the kind of irenic dialogue between atheist and Christian that was the book’s reason for being.

Neither Richard Dawkins nor Ray Comfort made the list.

One of the people who did make that list was J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. Schellenberg is an atheist and one of the leading philosophers of religion in the world today. His most important work in philosophy of religion is a powerful argument for atheism from divine hiddenness, an argument that he has honed over more than twenty years. Professor Schellenberg has pushed the dialogue and debate forward with a thoughtful and powerful argument, and all without animus or rancor. Indeed, while I have never met him, I know several Christian philosophers who count him not only an esteemed and worthy opponent, but a personal friend as well. You can visit Professor Schellenberg online at his website here.

All this is to say that I was delighted to receive the following endorsement from Professor Schellenberg for Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Given my goals in writing this book, an endorsement like this is worth its weight in gold, and that would hold even if the endorsement were etched in granite. The first sentence alone provides one of the best introductions to a book endorsement that I’ve ever read:

“There are some whose way of following the first of the great commandments has, in the matter of nonbelief, meant violating the second. In this brief and lively but remarkably full and acute discussion, Rauser shows the way out of this problem. Impressively fair, and writing not perfunctorily but with feeling, he has found a way to express genuine neighborliness both to atheists like me and to Christians who struggle to reconcile love and loyalty.”

Randal-Rauser_Is-the-Atheist-my-Neighbor

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Andy Schüler, a German Atheist reacted to another commentator arguing that rejecting God’s existence is never an innocent action.

Among many other things, he wrote:

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Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people who are open to the possibility of God’s existence and do not resist this truth still live and die as unbelievers. If you interpret the Bible in such a way that the existence of such people is impossible – then your interpretation makes the Bible evidently wrong about this matter (in a way that makes any further discussions impossible, because it forces you to accuse people who claim that they indeed are sincerely open to the possibility of God’s existence, yet also sincerely do not believe that there is a God, of simply lying about this). 

…………………………….

You don´t teach your kid that he or she shouldn’t touch a hot stove by letting him touch it. Or rather – you would be a terrible parent if you did it). And the scripture you refer to depicts God in an even worse light, God is like a parent that is an extremely skilled mentalist and not only does nothing to stop his little kid from touching the hot stove, but rather uses his skills to convince him that he  should touch it!

************

My response follows. Please forgive me for the small pieces of German dialect scattered here and there 🙂

Hi Andy! 🙂
Long time, no see!
(Sit longi Zit hon ich nix meh von dir gehert!).

“Innocence or lack thereof has nothing to do with anything here. Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people are open to the possibility of God existing / not resisting the truth of this, yet still live and die as unbelievers.”

My own view is that people “dying as unbelievers” (or atheists for that matter) but sincerely and humbly striving for justice and love will inherit eternal life whereas people dying as egoistical self-righteous bigots will irremediably lose their existence and be no more.

In all his parables, Jesus never threatened anyone with hellfire for not believing in Him or engaging in sexual immorality but for
1) failing to feed the poor, weak, hungry or neglected
and
2) not repenting from one’s own unjust pride.

Even Paul himself didn’t embrace the whole view often attributed to him in that he wrote

“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11”

If you read Roman 2, it seems quite clear to me that Paul believed in the salvation of righteous heathens dying as such, his other ideas notwithstanding.

It is ironic that those arrogant and unloving fundamentalists who keep preaching about “salvation by faith” and eternal torment are those who are the most likely to miss everlasting life, according to Jesus.

Given that, I find that Schellenberg´s challenges are far less impressive (albeit not entirely unproblematic, of course).

God is under no moral obligation to give clear evidence of His existence to atheists if their unbelief while dying isn’t going to damn them.

You’re quite right that we cannot make a choice about what we deem to be reasonable
(obwohl die Engländer das Wort “decide” sowohl als “entscheiden” als auch als “bestimmen”, “herausfinden” verwenden 🙂 )

Yet, the same thing cannot necessarily be said about our hopes .

Obviously, someone convinced that theism is extremely implausible cannot entertain any hope in that direction.

But what if you’re completely ignorant about whether theism or atheism is true?

Or what if you (as I do) believe there are intriguing pieces of evidence for the existence of a non-material world which aren’t, however, compelling?

It appears quite reasonable to think one can, in that case, consciously choose to entertain and cultivate hope in either direction.

One example might make that concept a bit more palatable.

Consider the proposition: “Our world is actually some kind of simulation run by beings we know nothing about . It all started five minutes ago with the appearance of age.”

Brain in the vat:
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know nothing.

I’ve no doubt that most of us find that pretty absurd on an emotional level .
Yet, I do not think that anyone can show this to be widely implausible without begging the question and smuggling in assumptions about reality. And I spent quite a few hours exploring propositions aiming at rationally dismissing that possibility.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish 🙂 ).

Therefore, I think that in order to ground our entire knowledge and existence, one has to take a leap of faith and make a pragmatic decision (Entscheidung) not based on whatever reasons.

Schene Grisse uss Nordenglond 🙂

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