Miracles and the power of suggestion

According to a story in the New York Times, the placebo effect isn’t just limited to a drug’s expected benefits. People can and do suffer negative side effects as a result of believing they are taking real drugs. It’s called the “nocebo” effect.

In a curious study, a team of Italian gastroenterologists asked people with and without diagnosed lactose intolerance to take lactose for an experiment on its effects on bowel symptoms. But in reality the participants received glucose, which does not harm the gut. Nonetheless, 44 percent of people with known lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without lactose intolerance complained of gastrointestinal symptoms.

In one remarkable case, a participant in an antidepressant drug trial was given placebo tablets — and then swallowed 26 of them in a suicide attempt. Even though the tablets were harmless, the participant’s blood pressure dropped perilously low.

Is it any wonder that people have reported similarly astonishing effects produced from things like God, or demons? Influencing the imagination can and does produce measurable physical effects on the body, even in the absence of the things that are supposed to be causing them.

Something to think about the next time you’re flipping through the channels and find some shiny clean evangelist “healing” people.

A top ten list

Happy Easter everybody—I hope you all have prepared your colored eggs for Astarte, the pagan fertility goddess, and have filled your house with other fertility symbols like rabbits and such. Remember, Astarte is the reason for the season (and even gave it her name, slightly misspelled).

Oh yeah, and some guy died too. I suppose we ought to remember him. So here, by way of holiday celebration, I present the Top Ten Ways the Bible Tells Us Jesus Did Not Literally Rise From The Dead.

If Jesus had been literally and physically raised from the dead, the tomb would not be empty—there would have been a living Jesus in it.
If Mary had seen an angel fly down from heaven, roll away the stone, and tell her that Jesus had been raised from the dead (Matt 28:1-5), she would not have run to the disciples weeping over the missing corpse (John 20:1-2).
If Jesus had been physically raised in a physical body, he would not spontaneously appear and disappear and change his shape to fool the disciples (Luke 24:28-36) and would not have needed to “prove” that he was not a spirit (Luke 24:36-43) by showing him his hands and feet and by eating their food—which angels and the pre-incarnate Jehovah can also do, even though they are supposedly spirits (Gen. 18:1-11).
If Jesus had been physically raised from the dead, still bearing the wounds from his beatings, his crown of thorns, his crucifixion, and the spear thrust in his side, people would have noticed him walking to the room where his disciples were hiding, and he would not have been able to enter the room while the door was shut and/or locked (John 20:19, 26).
The Sanhedrin would not have put a guard on the tomb because they had no reason to expect Jesus to rise from the dead (Matt. 27:62-65, cf John 2:19-21 and John 20:9—even the disciples were surprised!).
If the priests found out Jesus had risen from the dead, they would have worried about Jesus, not about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:11-15).
If Jesus had risen from the dead, the priests would have plotted to kill him again (John 12:9-11) instead of plotting to tell lies about the tomb.
If the priests were going to bribe the guards to tell a lie, they would not have picked an obvious falsehood like “The disciples stole the body while we slept.” (Matt. 28:11-15.) If they were asleep, how would they know? Duh!
If Jesus had literally and physically been raised from the dead, Paul would not have insisted that the body that was raised was a spiritual body rather than the body that was buried, and would not have expanded on this claim by insisting that the “last Adam” (i.e. Jesus) “became a life-giving Spirit” (I Cor. 15: 42-48).

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Why God can’t heal amputees

One of Mighty Timbo’s lost posts addresses the question of why God does not heal amputees. As with the question of why God doesn’t show up, though, he phrases the issue in such a way as to miss the most important aspects of the question.

The Atheist has likely never been witness to a miraculous healing or work of God, and when evidence is provided to him of one will often seek a scientific explanation. If none can be found it will often be labeled as a “fluke”, rather than a miracle, they then look to the miraculous things God didn’t do to prove he doesn’t exist, which is where this question comes in.

Notice how he tries to make it sound like the atheist’s problem, as though there were something wrong with seeking scientific explanations. But the atheist’s approach isn’t really the problem here. The problem is one of consistency.

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God’s evil addiction

There’s an old joke about a woman who keeps hitting herself in the head with a hammer. When they asked, “Why are you doing that?” she replied, “Because it feels so good when I stop!”

Yesterday we looked at Mighty Timbo’s story about how God allegedly healed his wife years after a serious car accident left her disabled and in pain. It’s a great story because it points out a huge flaw in the Christian theology of healing. Think about it. God supposedly could have healed her any time he wanted. He could have healed her a year earlier than He did, or within a few weeks of the crash. Heck, He could have prevented the crash in the first place. Instead, He chose to allow her to be seriously injured and to go through several years of pain and disability, just so that He could take the credit where her suffering finally stopped.

At least in the old joke, the woman was wielding her own hammer, and could stop whenever she liked. But this business of God putting us though sin and suffering and evil just so that it will seem so good when He stops—yikes!

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Does God show up through miracles?

Today I’d like to look at Mighty Timbo’s claim that he has evidence of God, in the form of a miracle that allegedly happened to his wife. It follows the traditional outline for miracle stories, so we can reasonably call this a typical case. And that’s a good thing because it also gives us at least the beginnings of an approach to understanding “miracles” in general. I’m going to go over a few of the general alternatives, and then (unlike Timbo) I’m going to suggest a way that we can objectively evaluate the evidence to find out which alternative is most consistent with real-world truth.

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Consistency with the truth

Our recent (and ongoing?) discussion with Kevin got me thinking about truth and the supernatural. By definition, the difference between a true story and a false one is that the true story is consistent with reality and the false one isn’t. This consistency has two aspects: negatively, consistency means the true story does not contradict reality, and positively, it means that there’s a connection between the events in the story and the events in the real world, above and beyond what’s reported in the story itself.

The the first aspect is fairly clear, and I think most of us think of consistency as non-contradiction. The positive aspect of consistency is just as important, however. Let’s look at an example. In the summer of 2009, a mob of vigilantes demanded that police arrest a goat, on the grounds that he was really a car thief who had transformed himself into a goat upon being apprehended. Was their story true? If it was, then we ought to find connections between the story and the reality above and beyond what was reported. For example, car thieves don’t typically walk around naked, looking for cars to steal, because that’s a sure way to attract unwanted attention! So was the goat dressed in human clothes? If not, where are the clothes?

Goats are easy to lock up, and legal to kill. If this story were true, then it’s describing a suspect who used black magic to make himself more vulnerable to the retributions of the mob. And why would he be stealing cars when he could be using his magical powers to become an overnight celebrity, changing from human to goat and back for astonished audiences around the world? And so on.

In other words, the implications of the story go far beyond the immediate report in the story itself. If the story were true, then there would be a number of other things that would be true as well. Thus, we can check the validity of the report by following up on all the implications of the story. If people report a supernatural occurrence, and their story implies the existence of other facts that ought to be present in the real world, then it’s reasonable and reliable to assess the veracity of the story by checking for the existence of the implied consequences. And that’s what I referred to as “the 7th criterion,” in my review of the six criteria William Lane Craig claims to use in assessing the historicity of the resurrection.

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A prescription for gullibility

We’re approaching the point of beating a dead horse with this miracles discussion, but I do have one last point to cover before we move on. Jayman’s primary complaint is this:

Based on multiple surveys and polls, Keener notes that hundreds of millions of people alive today claim that they have witnessed or experienced miraculous healings… If miracles do not occur today, as atheists contend, then they must believe that each and every one of these hundreds of millions of people are either lying or mistaken. A substantial argument needs to be provided to justify such a belief.

Jayman does not believe that we can really know whether or not all these people are really failing to tell the truth, so for today’s post I want to look at why he thinks that and why he’s wrong.

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Depending on ignorance

This is proving to be a fun week. On Sunday I observed that the Gospel is a story and that we do not see God showing up in real life, attending church, and raising the long-dead. Jayman777 objected to that observation and tried to refute me—by supplying more stories about people seeing alleged miracles. He continues the same attempt in a second post, but like the first one, he only reinforces my original observation.

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Documenting miracles

Following up on yesterday’s post, I thought I’d take some time to explore further the question of how we can observe that miracles do not happen in real life. Some believers like to think that ignorance is their ally, that nobody knows everything, so they’re safe (they hope) in assuming that no skeptic can know for sure that miracles do not happen. Somewhere out in the vast body of things people don’t know—i.e. somewhere out in the great expanse of human ignorance—they can surely find a place to hide some undetectable and unverifiable miracle that is still somehow real.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. If we apply the principle that truth is consistent with itself, we can see that even given the vast number of things we don’t know, we can still establish beyond a reasonable doubt that, for example, we do not see the dead being brought back to life after 3 days or more with no vital signs. We can observe the fact that miracles do not happen. It’s simply a matter of thinking things through.

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Debunking Skepticism

A believer who goes by the handle “Jayman777” has written a blog post taking me to task. He’s not happy with my remarks at Evangelical Realism about how William Lane Craig handles the historical arguments for Jesus.

I have not read this book by Craig but DD’s post contains a few problems common to arguments from skeptics that should be addressed. I will restrict my focus to whether the Gospels are the best sources for reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus and whether the Gospels are generally reliable on historical matters.

Fair enough, I welcome his input. Let’s see what his criticisms are.

DD begins:

Christianity is, above all else, a story. . . . Miracles like healing someone born blind, or resurrecting someone who died three days ago, only happen in the tales told from the pulpit and in ancient parchments.

Notice how it is merely assumed that miracles do not happen in the present. It is hardly surprising that when you presuppose metaphysical naturalism, and you judge the Gospels on this basis, that the Gospels are determined to be of questionable historical value. But what if we take an approach that is neutral concerning the occurrence of miracles?

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