The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 124)

[The previous series, 123, can be found [url=]here. This series, 124, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here.]

[This series continues Chapter 12, “Supernature and Evidence”]

[As a reminder, this is the final main chapter of argumentation for Series 100, or for Section One of the whole book. Chapter 13 will be a summary of material covered in Series 100.]

[Entry 1 for “a sieve of curious similarities”]

It might be supposed that Reed (a supernaturalist) will have a radically different set of possible evaluations of my claim that I just created a cloud by supernatural power, compared to Chase (a philosophical naturalist). But to best compare their evaluative options, let me present those options in a topical nest.

I create a cloud with supernatural power, and then call Chase (the naturalist) and Reed (the supernaturalist) to come look at it. I claim to them that I did this with supernatural power.

A.) I am someone who, for one reason or another, often claims what is not true.

A.1.) Chase.

A.1.a.) Chase knows me well; and so knows I am someone who often claims what is not true. Consequently, he has no preliminary expectation to believe me–thus, prudently speaking, he should not believe me.

A.1.b.) Chase does not know me. But Chase is a naturalist; as far as he knows, supernatural manipulation of Nature cannot happen. Why should he believe me? Anyone can point at a cloud and say, “I created that.” Prudently speaking, he should not believe me.

A.2.) Reed.

A.2.a.) Reed knows me well. As far as he knows, such a thing could occur; but he also knows I am someone who should not be trusted. Unless he had good prior (or other concurrent) grounds for accepting my word (which I have not provided in this example), there is no good reason why he should be expected to believe me. Prudently speaking, he should not believe me.

A.2.b.) Reed does not know me. At this point, it’s a toss-up; but I think he would be justified in a fairly agnostic stance, reserving judgment until he finds or receives more evidence (which, in practice, could amount to provisionally discounting my claim, of course).

[Entry 2]

Now for another main option:

B.) I am someone who usually tells the truth, or someone who would not be expected to invent something like this in my circumstances.

B.1.) Chase.

B.1.a.) Chase knows me well. It would therefore be quite fair for him to conclude that I believe what I am saying; but he has no good reason to deny his naturalism on my mere say-so. And, after all, a cloud is pretty much a cloud. His most reasonable conclusion would probably be that I am mistaken. (Medically, psychologically, coincidentally, whatever.) Let us go further: he gives me a medical/psych exam and (assuming no exam-rigging presumptions based on my claim vs. his philosophy) I receive a clean bill of health; meaning that he has good grounds to believe I saw the cloud form when I wished for it to form. And the chances that an atmospheric phenomenon of this sort would spontaneously arise at that point in time (when I wished for it) are remote. But, even the most remote possibility is better than what Chase thinks is impossible. So, although he may have a much greater respect for my belief now, he should go with that which he thinks is at least possible (if improbable, following the famous dictum of Sherlock Holmes), and disbelieve me.

B.1.b.) Chase does not know me. He is basically in the same position as option A:1:b–anyone can point at a cloud and claim to have made it through supernatural power. Given his philosophy, he would be justified to disbelieve me.

B.2.) Reed.

B.2.a.) Reed knows me well. He would still have to contend with the possibility that I am mistaken, or even the possibility that I am playing a game with him. But he would be inclined, I think, to believe me; and it would be fair of him to do so. Still, it might be a very cautious and provisional sort of belief. He did not actually see me make the cloud.

b.) Reed does not know me. Basically the same as A:2:b.

[Entry 3]

I could introduce the concept of witnesses now. When Chase and Reed arrive they find x-number of witnesses who claim to have seen me do this. The weight this lends to my claim would usually be positive, but could vary widely according to circumstances.

In the best-case scenario, numerous witnesses who are demonstrably upstanding sensible and honest citizens (perhaps even likely to suffer by the claim, certainly not gain much) might convince Chase that he is not being intentionally deceived. Their testimony might even convince him to take a closer look at his core belief (upon which his judgment of the possibility of the cloud’s supernatural formation depends). But as long as that core belief remains honestly accepted as valid (even if he has done ‘the math’ wrong, and just hasn’t found the error or hasn’t carried the math far enough yet), Chase might still properly decide that a spontaneous mass hallucination, or mass lying by people not otherwise known to be liars, or a freak atmospheric phenomenon, or some other (perhaps unknown) grotesquely improbable explanation must be true–because (he thinks) the other cannot be true.

(Footnote: It should be fairly noted, in order to avoid drawing somewhat false comparisons, that due to the complexity of the case for an ‘orthodox’ resurrection of Jesus, some sceptics do present more complex variations of the alternative explanations represented here. The simple sceptical hypotheses here are intended to be commensurate with the simplicity of the incident setup; and keep in mind that I am presenting them as properly rational conclusions anyway. Anyone (on any side of the aisle) who thinks I’m trying to tacitly refute scepticism of claims of supernatural events by this example, or in this chapter generally, has completely misunderstood and misread what I am doing.)

Reed, meanwhile, believes that something like this could happen, and so such ideal witnesses would be good grounds for him to more strongly advocate a good belief in the cloud’s appearance.

[Entry 4, from yesterday Sunday March 8]

Please note that I believe Chase and Reed are each making proper decisions in every one of the situations I have presented. Chase (in this example) happens to be wrong, but it is a very understandable error. In the case of the numerous ideal witnesses, he might possibly be a bit embarrassed–or maybe even honestly relieved!–to be shown after all to be wrong; but he was still making a very prudently proper choice (in my idealized example) given his data. I do not think he would have anything to be ashamed of, given his core belief plus only scanty evidence. (Or, worse, given negative evidence: if the crowd of people asserting my little miracle happen to be obviously untrustworthy and/or likely to gain heavily by lying, then this might count very fairly against my claim!)

Of course, if the truth ever does become clear to him, he could still choose to reject (as far as possible) what he himself has now recognized to be true. But that is another issue for another chapter. (I will be thoroughly considering this behavior, its implications and consequences, in Section Four–primarily in connection to my responsibility as a person.)

This is the type of situation in which most people find themselves, concerning ‘evidence’ of supernatural events (or even often of claims about natural events!) If a supernatural event occurs, it will either be perceptible or imperceptible. If it is imperceptible in its effects (immediately or otherwise), there is an end to the matter. No matter how perceptible such an event may be to me, if it is functionally (according to its characteristics) imperceptible to you, then I do not think you can legitimately be considered unreasonable for not believing it happened. From your perspective, it would be indistinguishable from a lie or a mistake. If, for example, God speaks to me and gives me a message to pass on to you, how are you to tell whether I am lying or mistaken or not? Even if you appeal to a previously acknowledged communication from God, in order to judge my claim to revelation, that’s still done because my experience wasn’t, in itself, accessible as such to my audience. My claim ought to have inferential verification of some kind, to be accepted as true.

[Entry 5, for today]

I think this is why prophets in Jewish and Christian scripture (and to a certain extent in Muslim tradition–and not discounting other religious traditions as well) almost always are portrayed as being able to back up their claims with “attesting signs”. Whether or not those events actually happened, even a sceptical reader should be able to understand why such events would be considered very useful and helpful, especially to a population who lacks access to formal analysis principles. (This same rationale would stand behind the temptation to hoax attesting signs, too.)

For that matter, if the signs were sent by an Entity Who strongly wanted us to establish a personal and loving relationship to Him, I think there would very probably be a sharp limit to how many (and under what circumstances) signs would be given by this Entity. Such events would excite (almost inevitably) fear and wonder; which are not necessarily bad feelings in themselves, but could possibly build up attitudes of cowed submission rather than personal trust and love.

If, besides all this, the sub-entities in question were rebellious to one degree or another (and thus likely to abuse any authoritative power given to them), then an even sharper limit could reasonably be established by the Entity as to where, when and how many attesting signs would be sent.

Finally, if this Entity was also the IF–the Independent Fact of reality upon which everything else is based, including Nature–and if the IF was supernatural; then at the level of the system we call Nature, ‘natural’ events would be by default the ‘norm’: this is why Nature could be distinguished as one system and not another. Thus, effects introduced into this system by the IF, other than what we might call ‘maintenance’ effects (normally below our threshold of perception), would be relatively rare purely by Nature being, per the supernaturalistic hypothesis, an established and distinct subsystem.

Of course, I have not yet argued positively for any of this. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see, that if certain conditions could be established, then the frequency, circumstances, and types of ‘obvious’ miracles–obvious interruptions or supercessions of the natural process–might easily follow an inferable pattern.

Whoops! I double-posted an entry here originally, so I’m deleting it (and leaving behind an explanation for what happened.)

[Entry 6; next to last for this series]

Let me jump ahead quite a lot, for a moment: it does not surprise me in the least (once I have thought the situation all the way through) to hear that God sends obvious miracles at what He (not necessarily I) would consider to be lynchpins of history; nor does it surprise me to see a lack of obvious activity (setting aside what I may think of as suspiciously convenient circumstance!) in my own general vicinity; nor that there should be few prayers of mine granted in an obvious and immediate fashion; nor that missionaries in underdeveloped regions should report a higher incidence of obvious miracle than either they or I find in already heavily Christianized societies (even if increasingly apostate ones) such as the United States and most of Europe; nor that the reports of Christianity’s spread through 1st Century Mediterranea in the face of strongly established religious/state conflicts of interest should include reports of an unusually high incident-rate of miraculous activity; nor that as the burgeoning Church becomes stronger over time, such activity begins to drop off in the reports; nor that such activities are reported to be lesser in scale than the reported activities of the founder of Christianity himself.

Nor would it surprise me much if real miracles are granted by God to people who are not believing altogether correctly about doctrines; or even to people teaching correct doctrines but otherwise rebelling against God!

(Footnote: “Lord, Lord, we have done prophecies and exorcisms and other great signs in Your name!” “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord’, when you do not do what I say?! I never knew you. Depart from Me, you many doers of injustice!” (Matt 7:21-23; Luke 6:46) Correct doctrine, and even attesting signs granted by God, are not sure evidence that a ‘Christian’ is truly following God: a warning that I, the hyper-doctrinaire, had better take seriously!)

[Entry 7; finale for this series of entries]

I easily grant that particular instances of these reports should always be up for discussion (and also debate–which is the only way a sceptic has of entering into discussion, I remind my brethren!) And I also grant that elements of this pattern can be explained in other ways. I even grant that the total pattern can be explained in other ways. Yet the general pattern that emerges from my own tradition and experience, does also fit the inferred pattern I find emerging (subordinately) from my metaphysic. And this increases my confidence, that by following this particular tradition, I am on the right trail.

(Footnote: The chain of inference goes: if my argument, beginning in Section Two, is deductively valid (and if its presumptions are accurate as to the facts), then my speculations about how God would operate in our world will fall into a general pattern that will be accurate with respect to His intents (although shy of detail). This, if my argument is correct, is what I may confidently expect God to do. A tradition of God’s behavior that matches this expectation of mine, would therefore be a tradition seriously worth my time and effort to pay attention to; even though the historical accuracy of the tradition would be a further issue still to be judged according to historical criteria.

This will be the shape, and goal, of the remainder of my book, beginning in Section Two.)

As I have said, however, this is jumping ahead quite a lot; it may be only of direct interest to my Christian (and perhaps other theistic) fellow-believers. My non-Christian readers, especially if they are not supernaturalists, should very properly have a different perspective on the subject of miracles as ‘attesting signs’–after all, it’s one thing to appeal to attesting signs as evidence of a claim, but what if the claim is about the properties of the ‘attesting sign’ in the first place?!

So, regardless of what I may be currently sceptical of, and putting myself back into the place of someone sceptical of what I believe, what kind of evidence would I accept as grounds for changing my mind to belief instead?

Next series: evidence from reasonable scepticism to reasonable belief]