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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In this interview J.P. Moreland states that he not only believes they exist, but knows they exist and gives two reasons: first of all, their existence is implied by the overall structure of Christian belief, so if there are reasons to accept that structure (and Moreland clearly thinks there are), then accepting their existence follows as a matter of course. But the second and more interesting reason (at least for the dialog between believers and skeptics) is the abundance of credible accounts of encounters with such beings. Moreland tells a fascinating story of a woman who once went up to him in a church and told him that she had seen three angels surrounding him as he preached. He dismissed her as crazy at first, but then several months later he was going through a tough period emotionally and asked God to send those angels again so that he would know they were real. About a week after that, he received an email from a graduate student saying that in class he had seen three angels surrounding Moreland in the same positions as the woman had described. This graduate student had never seen anything like it, and had not been in contact with the women and Dr. Moreland had never told anyone else about the woman's remarks. Thus Moreland concludes that this coincidence was just too implausible to be merely that.

What's really interesting about this occurrence is that it was inter-subjective: this is not merely a claim about seeing a vision. The two people who witnessed this vision, with specifically three angels in the same specific positions surrounding Dr. Moreland, had never been in touch, and both were concerned that they would sound crazy, which suggests that they aren't particularly gullible. If Dr. Moreland can be taken at his word about the sequence of events and we believe that he did not fabricate the lack of collusion between the two witnesses, then this seems to be pretty serious evidence for a supernatural encounter. I know some atheists will insist that no religious person's account of religious experience can be trusted, and will far more readily believe that there is some falsehood involved than that there was a real encounter with supernatural beings. But this is far from the only such inter-subjective account. As I've noted elsewhere, Craig Keener has been compiling a database with thousands of such reports, which he will discuss in detail in a forthcoming book on miracles. Was falsehood and/or misperception involved in all of them? Even those reported by level-headed philosophers and their graduate students? I find that hard to believe.

Note also that these accounts are very recent, and the eyewitnesses are still around to be interviewed, which is a weakness in the Gospel evidence for miracles often pointed out by skeptics. But if there are credible accounts from the modern period, ancient accounts gain at least some prima facie credibility as a result. Which then reinforces the overall evidence for Christian belief, lending more force to Moreland's first reason for believing in the existence of such beings. In any case, I think liberal theologians were wrong to be so embarrassed by reports of encounters with supernatural beings, and to try so hard to allegorize or 'demythologize' them. Granted that reports such as that of Dr. Moreland raise many questions (what about eyewitnesses to UFOs, for example?) that don't have easy answers, it seems to me that there is enough credible testimonial evidence for supernatural encounters and miracles in general to at the very least cast serious doubt on the presumption of naturalism as the best explanation of human experience.

18 comments:

Hello to All,

Nice quick post.

Although you may not agree with the final conclusion, I posted something similar here:

http://radosmiksa.blogspot.com/2010/02/article-demons-as-proof-of-catholicism.html

Let me know what you think.

God Bless,

RD Miksa
radosmiksa.blogspot.com

It's quite easy to implant memories into the minds of intelligent people under the right conditions; see, e.g., Elizabeth Loftus' research into people who are led to falsely remember having been sexually abused as children. Even the (purposefully?) scant details of the story as presented make it seem like Mooreland was in a highly suggestible state at the time he read the student's email; he easily may have misremembered the woman mentioning things about her vision that she didn't really say. I don't know. The best thing would probably be to track down the parties who actually saw the "angels."

Good Day Mark,

I wonder what you would think of my link above.

Take care,

RD Miksa

Mark, this incident does not concern a retrieved memory of childhood. This is an incident that happened to an adult, in full possession of his mental faculties and having nothing to do with sexual abuse. The details of the woman's vision had been lodged in his memory long before Moreland got the email from his grad student, since he specifically prayed before he received the email that he would get some proof that the angels, as described by the woman, were real.

And keep in mind that strictly speaking the experience was not Moreland's own, so it had nothing to do with his own suggestibility or otherwise. The salient feature of this report is that two people who had never met or been in contact both reported seeing the same vision of angels surrounding Dr. Moreland, and the second vision (by the grad students) occurred soon after Moreland's prayer, suggesting a causal link between the two.

I suggest you watch the whole interview, Dr. Moreland fills out a lot more context than the brief summary I provide in this post.

This comment has been removed by the author.

"Mark, this incident does not concern a retrieved memory of childhood. This is an incident that happened to an adult, in full possession of his mental faculties and having nothing to do with sexual abuse."

You're certainly right about this: there's no childhood repression going on. But I'm not sure how it's supposed to matter. The point of the Loftus thing was that, in a sufficiently suggestible state, we can be led to "remember" practically anything. The idea that anyone could actually forget the trauma of a parent's sexual abuse, had it actually happened to one, is psychologically absurd; yet people have been coaxed into recalling vivid but utterly fictional details under the influence of a psychoanalyst giving them the right "encouragement."

"The details of the woman's vision had been lodged in his memory"

Really? That wasn't in your story. In fact, from the description you (and Moreland in the video) provided, it sounds like he just casually dismissed the woman as loony at the time, and allowed the better part of a whole year to elapse before bothering much about the angels again. Again, I don't really know; maybe it really was lodged deeply in his memory the entire time, although it does sound like you're just guessing. On the other hand, I'm not sure even this matters! For even memories we take to be "lodged in our heads" can sometimes be warped under the strain of emotion and time.

"And keep in mind that strictly speaking the experience was not Moreland's own, so it had nothing to do with his own suggestibility or otherwise."

Well, according to you, Moreland was undergoing a lot of inner turmoil at the time. Enough so, in fact, that he felt the need to beg God for validation of of a crazy person's (or so he had thought) miracle. Not only would he be distraught, then, but he'd already be motivated to find evidence for the miracle. That's a fairly good recipe for retrofitting memories to whatever looks like it could serve as evidence. (Which is, incidentally, why married couples in the middle of a bitter fight often give drastically different versions and/or chronologies of what led up to it, even though it had happened just a few minutes prior. Imagine couples arguing over events that happened eight to ten months past!)

I should perhaps be more candid, though: I'm not entirely discounting Moreland's story as evidence. I think it is evidence. But I think it's pretty low-quality evidence.

RD,

I certainly couldn't guess at non-supernatural explanations of the events narrated in your link, if they indeed happened. The incredibly fanciful nature of the report makes that basically impossible (and admirably, too, I might add). I'd just have to point to the incredibly sketchy and gullible-seeming tone of the story, and point it out to similar cases. They verified the girl was speaking Spanish and Latin? How did they distinguish it from pareidolia? She possessed superhuman strength because it was hard to hold her down? Uh, all right. Many of the details ("contempt for religion") are of course easily acted out. Telekinetically throwing stuff across the room? Hmm, that's a hard one. But rather incredible: similar reports about poltergeists (rather than the demonically possessed) performing such feats have been revealed as pure imagination on the part of overeager adults participating in the fantasy.

Maybe you'd find this link informative: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/exorcism_driving_out_the_nonsense/ . All of Joe Nickell's stuff on the paranormal is really good.

Good Day Mark,

Thank you for replying. Just a couple of quick points:


“I certainly couldn't guess at non-supernatural explanations of the events narrated in your link, if they indeed happened.”

At least you admit this, which is both a start and an honest assessment of your capabilities.


“The incredibly fanciful nature of the report makes that basically impossible (and admirably, too, I might add). I'd just have to point to the incredibly sketchy and gullible-seeming tone of
the story, and point it out to similar cases.”

It is both interesting and telling of your presuppositions that this is what you see in the report, especially in light of this fact from it: All the facts presented here are true and verifiable by the multiple and highly credible individuals involved in her care...during the course of her lengthy and thorough evaluation, she was eventually seen by this writer, a board-certified academic psychiatrist, who was asked to provide a medical and psychiatric opinion. And: Because of the complexity of this case, we assembled a team to assist. At varying points, this group comprised several qualified mental-health personnel, at least four Catholic priests, a deacon and his wife, two nuns (both nurses, one psychiatric), and several lay volunteers.

So many first-hand witnesses, who are willing to come forward and verify the story, makes it extremely credible. As a police officer, I would be overjoyed to have so many eye witnesses in the case of other events, and yet you are still unwilling to consider them credible. Interesting....


“They verified the girl was speaking Spanish and Latin? How did they distinguish it from pareidolia?”

Could be, but the fact that members there spoke Latin and Spanish make it possible that she did speak words from those languages. It is conceited, however, that this is a minor point.


“She possessed superhuman strength because it was hard to hold her down? Uh, all right.”

When you have five people holding down one small female and they have serious trouble doing so, this raises some serious questions. Either she is on drugs (which she was not) or on an adrenaline dump (which she was not as she had been through the exorcism many times before and had no reason to be nervous, worried or agitated.)


“Many of the details ("contempt for religion") are of course easily acted out.”

Granted.


“Telekinetically throwing stuff across the room? Hmm, that's a hard one. But rather incredible: similar reports about poltergeists (rather than the demonically possessed) performing such feats have been revealed as pure imagination on the part of overeager adults participating in the fantasy.”

Let me, for the sake of argument, concede this. What is interesting, however, is that you do not touch on the other supernatural elements—distinguishing between concealed regular water and holy water as well as the levitation—that happened repeatedly and for a long duration, seriously negating the possibility that all imagined it over and over again.


“Maybe you'd find this link informative: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/exorcism_driving_out_the_nonsense/ . All of Joe Nickell's stuff on the paranormal is really good.”

Thank you for the link. I read it thoroughly but found that it, when it is not dealing with the one specific case that it deals with, raises all the standard boilerplate naturalist explanations for these events that never seem to adequately account for the evidence, but just throw out generalities about psychology, etc. As the “skeptic” comes to the table with his own biases and axe to grind, I can hardly few him as objective.

It also might be pointed out that this is not, of course, the sole case that I rest my belief on, but many others, all which cause serious problems for any naturalistic explanation.

Take care,

RD Miksa

"All the facts presented here are true and verifiable by the multiple and highly credible individuals involved in her care..."

Right, but I don't think simply adding this gives the story a great deal of credence. Did the magazine editors go out and thus independently verify the report? Are they really a credible enough news source to believe they would've done a sufficient job?

"What is interesting, however, is that you do not touch on the other supernatural elements—distinguishing between concealed regular water and holy water as well as the levitation—that happened repeatedly and for a long duration, seriously negating the possibility that all imagined it over and over again."

I guess I just didn't find the holy water thing that impressive. The levitation thing I'd lump in with the telekinesis. You're mistaken if you think people in the grips of supernatural hysteria can't imagine they've seen all sorts of implausible things that didn't happen, especially if they're allowed to talk to each other about their experiences afterward and thereby reinforce each other's interpretation of events. But then, it's not like we have the reports of the others. Maybe some video would've been nice...

"Thank you for the link. I read it thoroughly but found that it, when it is not dealing with the one specific case that it deals with, raises all the standard boilerplate naturalist explanations for these events that never seem to adequately account for the evidence, but just throw out generalities about psychology, etc."

I'm not sure what problem you have with this. If it's the case that psychology reveals human beings are sometimes prone make false reports of type X, then showing that this is a report of type X would successfully undermine its trustworthiness. That there are psychological forces at play here is bolstered by other aspects of the report. The fact that Gallagher reports things like xenoglossy straight-up, without showing any awareness of the problematic nature of past xenoglossy cases (sees http://www-personal.umich.edu/~thomason/papers/xenogl.pdf) and without giving us enough information to rule out the same sorts of naturalistic causes, makes him appear, frankly, gullible. Gullible people can accurately report supernatural levitation, I guess, but it's just not very convincing to people who don't already believe such things are possible. Again, though, the point isn't to somehow prove that this report isn't evidence for the claims within, but to make it clear that it's low-quality evidence.

he levitation thing I'd lump in with the telekinesis. You're mistaken if you think people in the grips of supernatural hysteria can't imagine they've seen all sorts of implausible things that didn't happen, especially if they're allowed to talk to each other about their experiences afterward and thereby reinforce each other's interpretation of events


what is "supernatural hysteria?" Shew me a study that proves it eixts.

well it's anytime someone makes a superntuarl claim they are hysterical because there is no superantuarl so they msut be hysterical.

how do we know there is no sueprantaural? well because only hysterical people make cliams about it.

how do we know they are hysterical? Because they are making a supernatural claim.

That's really not what I was saying.

Hello Mark,

I have to side with Metacrock here and agree with his assessment.

This is due to this statement of yours:

"Gullible people can accurately report supernatural levitation, I guess, but it's just not very convincing to people who don't already believe such things are possible."


Thus you have a priori established that such things are not possible and so the people that profess such experiences are simply hysterical. Talk about poisoning the evidenciary well with one's presuppositions and bias while thinking one is being objective.

Take care,

RD Miksa

"Thus you have a priori established that such things are not possible and so the people that profess such experiences are simply hysterical."

Look, "supernatural hysteria" was just a rhetorical flourish on my part, not some psychological disorder I was diagnosing him with. If you read my comment more closely, you'll find I'm unpersuaded by his report not just because it entails the supernatural (although that does affect its prior plausibility), but because he comes of as being extremely credulous, and because we have sufficiently many instances of similarly credulous people giving similarly fantastical reports (which of course turn out to be wrong); and because I don't see his sketchy claims having been carefully verified and cross-referenced by trustworthy sources. I also reject them because of the cultural milieu they come out of - the details of demonic possession cases always manage to come off as eerily similar to "The Exorcist," as if all those involved knew what to expect. If you like, I can give you far higher-quality reports of alien abductions.

One other thing I'd failed to mention before. Pointing to isolated incidents of purported supernatural activity, finding no evidenced naturalistic explanation and concluding on this basis that the supernatural is real is bad (or at least insufficient) methodology. There are many reports like these, and so one must always ask oneself, under the hypothesis that the incidents behind them are all ultimately naturalistic in origin, whether we'd expect to find a few "outliers" once in a while that defy our necessarily limited abilities to disprove. (I believe this is the meaning of the saying, "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'.") Maybe that book by Craig Keener compiling a large number of plausible-seeming miracles will manage to overcome this objection.

Thus you have a priori established that such things are not possible and so the people that profess such experiences are simply hysterical. Talk about poisoning the evidenciary well with one's presuppositions and bias while thinking one is being objective.

exactly what I was saying--thank you.

Look, "supernatural hysteria" was just a rhetorical flourish on my part, not some psychological disorder I was diagnosing him with.

O right, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a biased turn of phrase is just a...well...

I think I made my point

Since you say the witnesses are still around, and all you have is Mooreland's word, why not interview the witnesses and substantiate the story from their point of view as well as Mooreland's?

It's not up to anyone but the person making the claim to substantiate it the best way he can, and hopefully by asking nonloaded questions that do not lead the person you are interviewing, so you are getting a record of what they remember and not what you want them to remember. Maybe these people have other miraculous stories to tell as well? Ask them about them too.

And if you can interview anyone else at either event to see what they saw, that would be great too. Maybe more than one person saw something? A light? A reflection?

Can you also substantiate that what either of them saw was indeed an "angel?" What exactly did each person see that they interpreted to be an "angel?" Get a detailed description of what each person saw and then compare notes.

Also according to cognitive neuroscience the brain has mechanisms that see "faces" where there are natural formations, clouds or glare. The brain forms the faces without us being aware of it doing so, that's just something the brain does. It also projects the existence of "mind" in inanimate things, and projects "intentions" in ordinary activities of nature that help or harm.

Were there any related occurances of people claiming to have seen "angels" in that church or at that school?

And why are there strange sightings all over the world and by members of many different religions? Why do Muslim insurgents claim to have seen angels and claim to have seen the bodies of dead martyrs glowing?

There's Tai Chi, Hindu, Buddhist and New Age folks who claim to see balls of light, aetherial bodies, and the like. Even rainbow bodies in Buddhism. The world is strange enough for me to remain agnostic, since you can look for signs and miracles in every religion and find them. Even religions like Mormonism and Moonie-ism. You can also find people of many types and beliefs who had transcendent experiences and who claim they have found the one true faith.

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I doubt anyones gonna respond, but if you want, I blogged about Morelands experience myself:

http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.com/2011/11/fp-morelands.html

I would appreciate any feedback, expeciallly from Ed Babinsky or Mark.

Andy

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