Monday, April 18, 2011

Evidence for Miracles?

A Sandwalk reader, Mike Sherlock, took some exception to my talk on Friday night and sent me this email message. He has given me permission to post it. I don't agree with his position. What do the rest of you think about miracles?
In the course of your talk you asserted that there was no evidence to support miracles, thereby implying that a belief in miracles was a superstitious belief. During the question period I suggested that it might be a good thing if we could concede that our philosophical opponents have a plausible case, notwithstanding the fact that we're bound to believe the case for our own position is stronger. Such a concession would imply that arguments and evidence require interpretation, and that the weight one gives to an argument or piece of evidence may legitimately vary according to a wide range of factors such as temperament, upbringing, what we already believe, what we would like to believe, etc., etc. Insisting, however, that the contest between naturalism and supernaturalism is nothing more than a contest between cold white truth and stark unreason, while it may simplify one's argument, immensely complicates the problem of human communication. The tendency will be to talk about the opposition rather than to the opposition--after all, what's the point of talking to self-deluding fools. Their arguments are only going to irritate.

At the risk of irritating, I will quickly present the case for miracles as a theist might make it:

Hume famously remarked, "A miracle is a violation of the laws of Nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established those laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can be." But we only know that the "experience" against miracles is "firm and unalterable" if we already know that all reports of miracles are false. And we only know that all reports of miracles are false if we already know that miracles never occur. Both naturalists and supernaturalists accept that it is a logical fallacy to argue in a circle, that you must not assume in your argument what your argument purports to show.

Moreover, the theist claims that so far from the case against miracles resting on "firm and unalterable experience," there is a vast amount of unimpeachable evidence in favour of miracles. The question, as John Stuart Mill rightly said, "can only be stated fairly as depending on a balance of evidence: a certain amount of positive evidence in favour of miracles, and a negative presumption from the general course of human experience against them."

Now if it were purely a question of volume of evidence, then the volume is overwhelming. Every century, every race, every culture, every kind of person has contributed to the ocean of testimony bearing witness to the possibility of interference with nature by supernatural power--in other words, we have a situation here that is very different from that of mere logical possibility, like Russell's orbiting teapot. If the explanation of this evidence be in dispute, the naturalist has to provide a series of ad hoc explanations. He explains one incident by hallucination, another by fraud, a third by faulty observation, a fourth by forged documents, a fifth by inaccurate diagnosis and so on. The supernaturalist advances one explanation which covers all the alleged facts. He claims that the supernatural exists and that supernatural beings intervene from time to time in the natural order. He cuts through a tangle of assorted explanations with the sharp edge of Occam's razor: "Explanations must not be multiplied without a reason."

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, as you may know, is a hematologist and an atheist. Some 20 years ago she was asked to provide expert testimony--she analyzed blood samples from a leukemia patient--that was used to advance the canonization of Canada's first saint, Marie-Marguerite d'Youville. She says the Vatican's forensic work in establishing miracles is rigorous. Duffin is also a Queen's University professor and author of the 2009 book "Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World." It was only after the research for her book, which chronicles her investigation into 1,400 supposed miracles, that she concluded that there are things that happen--cures, for instance--that cannot be explained scientifically. Her view differs from the Vatican's in one important area: "I disagree, because I am an atheist, that God did it." Scientists believe there must always be an explanation, she adds. "Even if we don't have an explanation, we're confident it must exist. That is a belief--it is like religion."

Dr. Duffin admits that her rejection of miracles is based on the fourth definition of faith (in my desktop dictionary): "a strongly held belief or theory." Her belief, which she says is "like religion," is that all phenomena are material in origin, and therefore any alleged miracle has a naturalistic explanation, irrespective of whether science can discover it or not. I think that position is honest and unassailable. Note, however, how her position differs from that of Hume, who tells his readers that they needn't worry their minds about any evidence for miracles because he can give them general reasons why they should reject ALL evidence in favour of miracles IN ADVANCE. Not only are there obvious philosophical objections to Hume's attitude, but it is sharply at odds with the scientific method as famously laid down by Francis Bacon. That method requires theory to emerge from the evidence, unguided by preconceived notions--especially metaphysical notions.

It seems to me that all of Hume's arguments only carry weight if you are a convinced naturalist to begin with--usually for reasons that have nothing to do with miracles, such as the conviction that no omnipotent, benevolent Being would create the sort of world that we live in. In other words, Hume's whole argument is underwritten by the sceptic's answer (solution?) to the problem of evil. Fair enough. The problem of evil has always been the main reason given by philosophers and non-philosophers alike for why they can't believe in a personal God. Though not a disproof of supernaturalism, the fact of evil (and tragedy) will always be a powerful suasion for naturalism.

Obviously, not everybody who prays for miraculous healing can expect to be healed. If everybody who prayed was healed then miracles would be accepted as one of the stranger facts of life--such as the evolution of the first cell from inanimate matter. Everybody would believe because everyone would know someone whose prayer had been answered--in many cases their own. If, on the other hand, miracles were exceedingly rare, then they would lose their evidential value even for supernaturalists. The Gospels make it clear that miracles were meant to have evidential value. Here's my favourite passage, but there are a number of others: "Now John had heard in his prison of Christ's doings, and he sent two of his disciples to him; Is it your coming that was foretold, he asked, or are we yet waiting for some other? Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what your own ears and eyes have witnessed; how the blind see, and the lame walk, how the lepers are made clean, and the deaf hear, how the dead are raised to life, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is the man who does not lose confidence in me." (Matt 11: 2-6) There are also Gospel passages to indicate that Jesus did not claim a monopoly on healing, and that miracles could be expected in the future.

To me, the incidence of miracles seems just about right--except, of course, when one could use a miracle oneself. But the naturalist is bound to think otherwise. An interesting example is Emile Zola, self-proclaimed father of French naturalism (in literature). He wrote a novel, entitled "Lourdes", during the research for which he had a chance to meet Marie Lebranchu (Miracle #16, 1892) at the Medical Bureau of Verifications. In his novel he altered the facts. Having depicted Marie Lebranchu as a hopelessly ill person, using the name of La Grivotte, he made her die on the train home! Yet, she lived in perfect health until 1920. Zola, unable to explain the cure at Lourdes which he had investigated, stated, "I do not believe in miracles: even if all the sick in Lourdes were cured in one instant I would not believe in them." Interestingly however, after witnessing several healings he no longer dismissed the evidence: "No, I do not, or, better, I cannot believe in the Lourdes miracles. What I have seen is amazing, grandiose and moving to the utmost degree, but ultimately explainable by the natural laws."

Interesting too is Jacalyn Duffin's response at the end of an interview on CBC's "The Current" (Oct 15/10 - Pt 1: Brother Andre; 13:50 minutes in). The interviewerconcludes by saying, "It does shake your faith as an atheist, I'm guessing?"
"Oh yes it does. And it makes me very happy."
She's not contemptuous of miraculous healings, whatever the explanation, and I'm betting that she's not contemptuous of those who believe their cause is supernatural--despite the fact she remains a naturalist.

http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2010/10/oct-1510---pt-1-brother-andre.html

I realize that anybody who wants to remain a naturalist must steadfastly resist the idea that "miracles" ever have a supernatural cause, however impressive the evidence. I respect that attitude, and think it can be justified by one's personal response to the problem of evil, by the fact that we don't know everything about nature, and by the fact that many strange things happen. But the conviction that miracles don't happen is not one that is rationally binding on everyone.


79 comments :

  1. Hey, Mike, maybe your post would have worked better if you had actually provided evidence of a miracle instead of just talking about how Maybe Possibly Someday A Real True Miracle Could Happen And Where Would You Naturalists Be Then?

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  2. Not going to attempt a complete critique of the thing, but I'll address one point: the claim that the naturalist's debunking of miracles is ad hoc and complex (because it varies with each instance), whereas the supernaturalist's acceptance of them is explanatorily simple, as she invokes only one cause for all -- the supernatural. But if in fact it's true that every culture has miracle stories, then the supernaturalist's explanation is not simple: it will vary according to which god, saint, nature spirit, psychic energy or whatnot, is the usual explanation for "weird stuff" in that culture. Moreover, gods themselves are not simple -- they're generally seen as bigger and better humans, and therefore at least as complex as humans are.

    Mr. Sherlock has given us a typical example of using "God" or "the supernatural" as a pseudo-simple pseudo-explanation.

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  3. Mike Sherlock is way off base. His arguments do not hold.

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  4. Since there are clearly experts on miracles among the clergy and other religiously inclined folks, perhaps we should compose a body of these people. Any data that is observed anywhere to not conform with our current knowledge would then have to be reported to them diligently. They would weigh in on whether this was a miracle (not to be investigated lest we squander precious taxpayer monies, or worse be blasphemous by peering under the veil of some deity) or a legitimate subject of inquiry. In fact, i challenge Mr. Sherlock of enlightening us right now by setting down the rules by which this esteemed fellow will make such judgments.

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  5. The case for miracles is indeed plausible, in the sense that a plausible argument is "well-spoken and apparently, but often deceptively, worthy of confidence or trust" or "superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious".

    The claim for miracles is not even logically coherent, to the extent that miracles have effect on the material world they are in the realm of naturalism and can be investigated by evidence based rational inquiry.

    As for the "evidence" presented, this is a typical "god of the gaps" argument.

    Just because science can not currently explain (or even be bothered to waste valuable resources trying to explain) various spontaneous remissions, bleeding statues, images of the virgin mary on cheese sandwiches and the backsides of dogs, etc., etc., ad nauseum does not mean that the theist explanation is true.

    The claims made by theists for miracles are no different than claims made by those who have been abducted by aliens, had rectal examinations by extra-terrestrials, had their cattle mutilated or know where JFK and Elvis currently reside. The onus on on the ones making the claims to provide evidence, there is no onus on anyone else to disprove such claims. The default position is to assume that such claims are false until sufficient evidence is provided.

    The studies that have been done on supernatural claims, for example on the efficacy of prayer, going back to the one conducted by Francis Galton in 1872, Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer, (conclusion "If prayerful habits had influence on temporal success, it is very probable, as we must again repeat, that insurance offices, of at least some descriptions, would long ago have discovered and made allowance for it.") to more recent studies all show no effect between prayer and the wished for outcome.

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  6. I'm not familiar with Duffin's book, so I have to assume that your reader's characterization is accurate. But depending on how many miracles she analyzed (according to your reader, 1400) and how many she found to be unexplainable by science (a much much lower number, I would assume), she is jumping to conclusions if she says these are inexplicable by science. Unless one has an unreasonably optimistic view of what scientific investigation into purported miracles can establish (with the usually limited resources that are invested, and with the limited information available about the particular case, and the incompleteness of current scientific understanding), one shouldn't expect all purported miracles to be explained in this way. Even if there is no inherent mystery anywhere, if you have a sufficiently large sample of purported miracles, you're going to find some that you don't have a clue about how to explain.

    In other words, as long as the available explanatory tools are not complete or you don't have all information, you will get false positives regardless of whether anything really miraculous went on in your sample. Unless you have reason to believe that your methods are flawless and will always give you the correct scientific explanation if it exists, you shouldn't conclude from a few cases you can't explain that those were miracles.

    So it seems Dr. Duffin has a very optimistic view of her knowledge, critical faculties, and the degree of completeness of the information available to her. Now, if the 1400 purported miracles were selected from first-hand reports with no or little preselection, if she found hundreds of unexplainable events I would be surprised enough to look closer into how competent she is.

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  7. I would say that we do have a single explanation for miracles: Type I error; that is, for every test of any phenomenon, there's always the risk of thinking we've detected it, when in fact it's just a random accident. People want to find miracles, for whatever reason, so mentally screen every event for the possibility that it's a miracle. The rate of miracles seems incredibly high until we look at the vast number of things that happen every day where a miracle could occur and doesn't. This especially applies when it's a case of: "Person A prays to a saint/has help from a faith healer" and miraculously gets better, since we haven't tried to control for how often that happens without praying to anyone.

    Further, this theory easily explains why there are so many occurrences of miracles throughout history, in all cultures: random error. In fact, it fits better than any theological model: why would we expect to see miracles appearing in all cultures if only one of their theological models could be right?

    The nice thing is that the Type I error model can make testable predictions: The base-rate of miracles occurring within some area of human experience should depend on how much daily experience people have in that area, due to encounter rates. However, the fraction left inexplicable after testing should fall the most rapidly within areas of human experience that are well-understood on a mechanistic level, such as simple physics or chemistry, and should remain higher in areas where the mechanisms are extremely complicated or poorly studied. I haven't seen a study that does this, but there's no reason historians of science and religion couldn't do something along these lines.

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  8. Mike Sherlock writes:

    Every century, every race, every culture, every kind of person has contributed to the ocean of testimony bearing witness to the possibility of interference with nature by supernatural power

    It's true that there have always been, and will always be, things that can't be readily explained. And people have always had a tendency to ascribe such things to supernatural agents. That, however, is pretty poor evidence for the actual existence of supernatural agents.

    Continuing:

    If the explanation of this evidence be in dispute, the naturalist has to provide a series of ad hoc explanations. He explains one incident by hallucination, another by fraud, a third by faulty observation, a fourth by forged documents, a fifth by inaccurate diagnosis and so on.

    Yes, but we know beyond any reasonable doubt that hallucinations, fraud, faulty observations, forgeries, etc. really exist. That's not the case for supernatural agents. We also know of many, many cases where apparent miracles were later proven to be due to such explanations. Even the Catholic Church recognizes that most supposed miracles have mundane explanations.

    Thus, the Occam's Razor argument is exactly backward. The naturalist isn't invoking any unnecessary entities. He merely invokes explanations that are already proven to apply in at least some cases. The supernaturalist is the one trying to invoke a novel entity - the supernatural agent - that is not conclusively proven to exist.

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  9. I read Dr. Jacalyn Duffin 's article "Medical Miracle" in Saturday Night Magazine in 1997. If I remember correctly, Duffin was asked to examine two blood samples from the same (anonymous) patient. The first sample showed evidence of leukemia; the second sample showed no evidence of leukemia. Duffin did not say a miracle occurred, just that the patient, who had prayed to d'Youville, no longer had leukemia. The Church used Duffin's report to complete its investigation into miracles performed by Marie-Marguerite d'Youville.

    Just because medical science, at this time, cannot explain how or why the cancerous cells disappeared, this does not mean that it will not do so in the future.

    Saint making is very expensive, and most of the money comes from the faithful. The faithful would be better off if they donated that money to medical research.

    PS Marie-Marguerite d'Youville is not Canada's first saint; she is Canada's first Canadian-born saint.

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  10. As a strict naturalist, if I witnessed anything claimed to be 'miraculous' I would be looking for a natural explanation. Anyone claiming it as evidence of the supernatural would need to convince me of two things: that a supernatural realm exists, and that it can interact with the natural realm.

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  11. Is it just me, or is the author of the letter basically arguing in favor of using a weakly defined and vacillating definition of "miracle". Under the rational of the author, "miracles" seem to be degraded from events that could only reasonably be explained to have occurred due to some form of supernatural intervention, to any statistically rare event.

    Take the authors example of spontaneous regression of cancer. These are extremely rare events, but they also:
    1) Occur with statistically reproducible frequencies,
    2) Occur (in many cases) through understood biological mechanisms

    Not exactly miracle country; they're just statistically rare events occurring stoichiometrically.

    I also think the author misunderstands the scientific rejection of miracles:
    I realize that anybody who wants to remain a naturalist must steadfastly resist the idea that "miracles" ever have a supernatural cause

    To the contrary, we don't reject supernatural causes due to philosophical grounds, we simply accept that there is no empirical evidence to support the existence of supernatural causes. Parsimony is an important scientific principal - and in the absence of direct evidence for supernatural events the conclusion that rare events are simply that - rare events, and not supernatural events, is the most parsimonious answer. If rarity is the sole standard that miracles are judged by, then every rain drop that hits your thumb-nail on your right hand is a miracle; the chance of any particular raindrop hitting your thumbnail is many billions of times smaller than the chance of a cancer patient undergoing spontaneous regression...

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  12. Rather easy response: None of that entire statement contains one shred of actual evidence.

    It contains allusions to self-reported ideas. For example, Dr. Duffin's work shows that she cannot, using retrospective and comparative methods, define a reason for the apparent change in a medical condition. The fact that the interview speaks of 'shaking her faith [sic] as an atheist' is irrelevant. All that matters in science - or any good academic endeavour - is evidence. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There isn't even mundane evidence in any of Mike Sherlock's post via Larry.

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  13. Seems like one long exercise in name-dropping, question-begging and straw man beating.

    If the definition of "miracle" is an event without explanation, then miracles happen every day and are of zero interest to anyone but the terminally bored. Of course, that isn't what most people use as a definition of "miracle". For most the definition is more along the lines of "a seemingly exceptionally improbable event that only supernatural intervention can explain."

    Of course there can be evidence for such miracles. Unfortunately, absolutely everything can be used as evidence for such miracles, even evidence that refutes that the event ever happened! After all, if it didn't really happen then it was a miraculous vision. Miracles are utterly worthless beyond their entertainment value and their use as a tool to ensnare, enslave and manipulate.

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  14. Interesting post. Consider this.
    It is a miracle that we can move our hands.
    We all know about the physical material mechanism, involved - the nerves, the brain firing etc.
    But how does your will translate into action?
    How do you impart your intention on the matter of your body, on the matter of your nervous system, on the matter of your brain?

    Try it right now.
    Become aware of yourself sitting there. Now look at your hand and will it to move.
    Don't tell me about the physical mechanism.
    Think about how you direct the physical mechanism.
    And don't waste your time telling me you are just your brain.

    In order to understand miracles we can begin with the miracle of OURSELF.

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  15. Your correspondent has a point, but a rather weak one. Science does not disprove the miracles, but it does give reason for strong skepticism. What always troubled me about miracles, was that the occurrence of miracles seemed to largely dry up once scientific knowledge got to the stage that we could investigate them.

    My personal rejection of religion was based on a lot more than just the miracles.

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  16. There must be thousands of miracles that have happened over the years, assuming the "just about right" frequency that Mike observes.

    Mike, could you point us to one where an amputee has had their limb restored?

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  17. Sure, one could dive into the philosophical weeds to rebut this latest argument from incredulity but it's just as effective to ask the now-familiar question: If there is a god capable of performing miracles, why does that god hate amputees?

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  18. There is no evidence and can never be evidence for the supernatural until supernatural is first and foremost well-defined. If you can't give a reasonable definition of supernatural, you can't even begin to ask what evidence for the supernatural would even look like or what form it would take.

    Hume's definition of a miracle as a "violation of the laws of nature" is probably the most common definition employed by most people today (and probably in Hume's day as well). But this is poorly-defined. Natural laws are descriptive laws, not prescriptive laws. As such, they do not get "violated," they get falsified. If you observe something that "violates" a law, it means the law is false or inapplicable to this phenomenon. It doesn't mean that the phenomenon is supernatural, except in the very trivial and tautological sense that supernatural was defined in this way.

    Just think of historical instances of natural laws being "violated." Mercury's precession did not match well with what Newton's laws predicted. As such, it could've been viewed as a "miracle" or a "violation" of Newton's laws. Imagine the intellectual dead end that would've occurred if all physicists and astronomers just declared this to be a "miracle," rather than considering that Newton's laws were inapplicable or incomplete in this context.

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  19. Every century, every race, every culture, every kind of person has contributed to the ocean of testimony bearing witness to the possibility of interference with nature by supernatural power

    And every century, every race, every culture and every kind of person* has committed fallacies and biases in reasoning. Should this be taken as evidence that there is merit to fallacious and biased reasoning? Of course not. And for the record, you just employed an ad populum fallacy in defense of the supernatural.

    *Yes, that includes me.

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  20. Such a concession would imply that arguments and evidence require interpretation, and that the weight one gives to an argument or piece of evidence may legitimately vary according to a wide range of factors such as temperament, upbringing, what we already believe, what we would like to believe, etc., etc

    Nope a thousand times.

    The author seems confused between objective and subjective and into which category reliable evidence belongs.

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  21. I'm with 'the rat' in that there is no cause for ambiguousness. A claim of a miracle must support the investigation of that miracle. That is to say it is not 'ought' to claim a supernatural world exists and created the miracle which proves your version of a supernatural world. A miracle must be and remain unexplainable by natural and scientific means. If the Abrahamic faiths claim a miracle by their deity, then ALL the other evidence for their deity must stand up against scientific and natural explanation. I say all of it, not simply this bit or that. The questionable nature of such claims means that any weak link breaks the entire chain. We need not break every link so show the chain is broken. Dan Brown's books have lots of real facts in them, but these are simply links which were attempted to be strung together as a chain, a broken chain.

    There are far more 'claimed' miracles than events without explanation after rigorous investigation. Like the many returns of Christ, all miracles that do not stand up to scientific investigation are simply superstition gone mad.

    Even if there are as yet unexplained events, there is no evidence that such were caused by the claimant's deity. Any number of an infinite possible number of supernatural causes may have been at work.

    A broken chain is a broken chain. not good for much but a paperweight of dubious utility.

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  22. (Dr. Jacalyn Duffin) says the Vatican's forensic work in establishing miracles is rigorous.

    Note the qualification, she is praising the forensic work, not the entire process. When we see a woman with cancer undergo conventional medical treatment but then attribute her cure to the intervention of a saint, and we further see this highly questionable explanation accepted by the Vatican in order to facilitate beatification of a highly popular figure, it is clear that the entire process does not meet the high standard of the forensic work alone.

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  23. Just think of historical instances of natural laws being "violated." Mercury's precession did not match well with what Newton's laws predicted. As such, it could've been viewed as a "miracle" or a "violation" of Newton's laws....

    My favorite example, also from astronomy: YECs love[d?] to cite the shortage of solar neutrinos as evidence that the sun does not shine by fusion but by gravitational contraction; hence cannot be 5Gyrs old (implying ultimately the recent miraculous creation of the universe). Real scientists got busy figuring things out, and eventually not only found the neutrinos, but demonstrated the previously-theorized phenomenon of neutrino flavour oscillation. If they'd listened to the creationsts, they'd all have just joined the church and we'd never have known any of that stuff.

    (See the Solar Neutrino FAQ at talkorigins.org for the details)

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  24. Anonymous: "And don't waste your time telling me you are just your brain."

    Well, I am just my brain. But I won't waste my time telling you that. I'd have much better luck trying to convince a wall that 2+2=4.

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  25. A search for Dr, Jacalyn Duffin "Medical Miracle" yield these two relevant documents:

    http://network.nationalpost.com/NP/blogs/holy-post/archive/2010/04/03/saintly-science-when-doctors-and-doubtersare-called-upon-to-prove-miracles.aspx

    http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/World/20110114/pope-john-paul-beatification-110114/

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  26. It is a miracle that we can move our hands.
    We all know about the physical material mechanism, involved - the nerves, the brain firing etc.
    But how does your will translate into action?
    How do you impart your intention on the matter of your body, on the matter of your nervous system, on the matter of your brain?

    Try it right now.
    Become aware of yourself sitting there. Now look at your hand and will it to move.
    Don't tell me about the physical mechanism.
    Think about how you direct the physical mechanism.
    And don't waste your time telling me you are just your brain.

    In order to understand miracles we can begin with the miracle of OURSELF.


    If people can ignore the miracle of themselves they will never understand miracles.

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  27. In order to understand miracles we can begin with the miracle of OURSELF.


    This thinking will lead to a bit of an explosion in the number of Catholic saints...

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  28. anonymous writes:

    It is a miracle that we can move our hands....

    Yes, don't try to understand it scientifically so you can waste time doing things like give amputees artificial limbs that respond to their thoughts. No no no, God, the highest moral force in the universe, would far rather you spend time praising him for the miracle of hand movement and praying for the amputee. And if the amputee's not cured, that's just proof of his/her sinful nature. QED.

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  29. It is a miracle that we can move our hands....[etc.]

    While consciousness and decision-making are not well understood, just proclaiming it a miracle is about on par with getting stoned and sitting around saying "Have you ever really looked at your hands? I mean, just *looked* at them?!?!"

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  30. Jud acknowledges that moving our hands is a miracle. And it is indeed.
    It is a miracle that our SELF can direct the brain and body.

    The self is not the mechanism. The mechanism is not the self.

    By the way I am not against understanding the mechanism scientifically. That is also a valuable endeavour.
    But that is not the same as experiencing your SELF.
    You are the experiencer.

    As a sidenote, I notice that Jud and others want to make this into a religious argument. What I am talking about is not religion.

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  31. When you talk about the experience of looking at your hands, you are again talking about the content of experience.
    I am talking about the experiencer. I am talking about you.
    The you that has those experiences.

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  32. I notice no one is defending Hume! But the question is whether miracles are plausible.

    "It's true that there have always been, and will always be, things that can't be readily explained." (qetzal)

    But the question is whether we are dealing with events that we expect to be explicable. We can't explain how light could be both a particle and a wave, but we have no expectation such matters should be explicable. When we are dealing with such matters as healings, we have a good idea what would be expected to happen in nature. So if surprising healings are typically be preceded by prayer, if there is some correlation there, then there is some plausibility to miracles.

    (note by the way that I am not arguing here, that prayer increases the probability of healing)

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  33. Yes, and as I said: we don't currently seem to have a good account of consciousness, and maybe we never will. It's a fascinating topic to investigate.

    Does calling it a "miracle" add anything to the inquiry?

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  34. Eamon Knight writes:

    just proclaiming it a miracle is about on par with getting stoned

    Yep, I'm definitely old enough to remember when we referred to people who talked this way as "acid [LSD] casualties," then a bit later, when some hippies turned to New Agey forms of Christianity, as "Jesus freaks."

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  35. Calling it a miracle is not the issue.
    Experiencing it is the miracle.
    It is the first person experience.
    It is the experience of "you".
    Or it can be said to be the direct, first-person experience of "I am".

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  36. Why do you say that:
    "We can't explain how light could be both a particle and a wave, but we have no expectation such matters should be explicable."

    Are you thinking that ultimately there are some things that are inexplicable to science?

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  37. @lee_merrill We can't explain how light could be both a particle and a wave, but we have no expectation such matters should be explicable.

    While wave–particle duality violates our evolved intuitive notions of how objects interact with each other, the field of quantum mechanics has a lot to say about this phenomenon and uses the tools of mathematics to provide a tentative explanation subject to revision as new evidence is forthcoming.

    To say that any matter is inexplicable because it violates our evolved middle earth (per Richard Dawkins) notions of how reality works is to claim that anything that can't be perceived by our unaided senses is beyond explanation, which pretty much ignores the entire history of science.

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  38. lee_merrill:

    When we are dealing with such matters as healings, we have a good idea what would be expected to happen in nature. So if surprising healings are typically be preceded by prayer, if there is some correlation there, then there is some plausibility to miracles.

    I agree. If the evidence showed that there were occasional events that truly violated what we otherwise consider to be 'natural law,' then we might reasonable conclude that miracles exist.

    Of course, it depends on how one defines the term miracle. But if some faith healer could cause regrowth of people's amputated limbs, simply by praying over them, I'd readily agree that qualified as a miracle as most people use the term. (Whether it was evidence of the supernatural is a somewhat different question.)

    To the best of my knowledge however, there is no convincing evidence for anything like that, and Mike Sherlock offers nothing to make me think otherwise. Rather, he argues that lots of people believe in miracles, and that invoking miracles as a general explanation is somehow more parsimonious than invoking different mundane explanations for different events. Those arguments fail, which was my original point.

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  39. Calling it a miracle is not the issue.
    Experiencing it is the miracle.


    IOW: "Have you ever looked at your belly-button? I mean *really* *looked* at your belly-button?"

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  40. Eamon Knight seems to have trouble understanding what I have been saying.

    He can't understand the idea of the distinction between what is being experienced (eg. a sensation, a thought etc) and the experiencer who is having that experience.

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  41. Anonymous: I understand perfectly. I'm just making fun of you (yeah, I'm a jerk on-line; so sue me) for saying nothing very interesting, while apparently thinking yourself profound.

    Yes, I am aware of (among other things) myself, sitting here having this ineffable experience of "me"-ness -- an experience which is, so to speak, one and the same with the experiencer. Yes, it's sort of weird -- it seems quite superfluous to my actual functioning in the world. I mean, I work with computer systems that have a highly flexible behavioural repertoire in response to real-time events, and as far as anyone knows they have no such internal subjectivity, no ghost in the machine (though how would we know?). So it's not obvious why (or even if) there needs to be a subjective "me" to make my brain and body do all the things I do.

    The mechanisms of self-awareness do not seem amenable to analysis by reflection. Being a physicalist, I assume it's caused by my neurology in some way, and the fact that it is altered or destroyed by physical and chemical changes in the brain is evidence for this view (obvious example: my self-awareness is suspended for about eight hours every night, as part of the brain's natural functioning, and there are biochemical correlates to this cycle). But I don't know how neurons can do all that, and I'm not sure we have the language to even ask the question properly (disclaimer: not my field).

    So, self-awareness is a bit of mystery. Does calling it a miracle add anything to our understanding?

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  42. Anonymous said...

    Eamon Knight seems to have trouble understanding what I have been saying.

    That would make Eamon Knight a member of a not very exclusive club to which I must confess to being a member of as well.

    But why hide your light under a bushel Anonymous ?

    Such subtle insights should be imparted in full view of an admiring public.

    Don't let modesty stop you from posting under your real name.

    Trust me on this, you have nothing to be modest about.

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  43. "Rather, [Sherlock] argues that lots of people believe in miracles ..." (qetzal)

    However I believe he was noting that lots of people claim to have experienced or seen a miracle, a good number of them, credibly.

    I've experienced healing a time or two myself, sudden healing, which was surprising.

    And also prayed and not been healed! :-) But then one real positive example as you mentioned, will undo the naturalist case.

    - Lee

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  44. "this ineffable experience of "me"-ness -- experience which is, so to speak, one and the same with the experiencer"

    Almos tall of the time the experiencer is one with the experience (lost in the experience, asleep in the experience).
    But a human can function at a higher level than that.

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  45. However I believe he was noting that lots of people claim to have experienced or seen a miracle, a good number of them, credibly.

    It's the "credibly" part that's at issue. Seeing something you can't readily explain is one thing. That's not the same as credible evidence for a miracle.

    Besides, lots of people think they've seen ghosts, been healed by homeopathy, been abducted by aliens, etc. The sincerity of their beliefs is not good evidence of their validity.

    But then one real positive example as you mentioned, will undo the naturalist case.

    A miracle wouldn't necessarily be proof of the supernatural. Even if a faith healer could regrow amputated limbs using prayer, that wouldn't confirm the existence of a supernatural agent (whatever that term might mean).

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  46. "A miracle wouldn't necessarily be proof of the supernatural." (qetzal)

    Certainly, I was talking in terms of probability. I'm not even 100% certain I am real! The Buddhists and Hindus would say I'm not.

    But I think I probably am. As I think I probably was healed supernaturally. The proof being in the pudding, you may ask God to reveal himself to you if he exists. Prayers for healing may also be accepted.

    Then it's your call as to whether any answer is credible...

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  47. You aren't real, when you are lost in experience, when you are asleep in experience.
    When there is no "you" present.

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  48. Anonymous said:

    And don't waste your time telling me you are just your brain.

    You're just your brain, dude. Just because you don't want to believe it doesn't call the woo-woo stuff into existence, or convince anyone else it has to exist. You have to prove it. What proof do you HAVE that the will isn't a function of the brain, something we know to exist, other than that it doesn't please you to credit it, and so you attribute it to something we don't know exists?

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  49. Anonymous said:

    If people can ignore the miracle of themselves they will never understand miracles.

    When people have ignored miracles is the only time they've stood to actually learn something new and of value about the world around us. All the prayers and oooing and awwing over miracles never developed a three field crop rotation system to feed the world, or a vaccination against smallpox, or put a man on the moon. It was overcoming superstitious religious awe and daring to ask real questions and follow up that achieved, and essentially everything else aside from crusades and pogroms.

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  50. Eamon Knight said:

    IOW: "Have you ever looked at your belly-button? I mean *really* *looked* at your belly-button?"

    LOL, yeah, how many haystacks of it do I have to smoke before this "you are the miracle" stuff becomes compelling? :D

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  51. "All the prayers and oooing and awwing over miracles never developed a three field crop rotation system to feed the world, or a vaccination against smallpox, or put a man on the moon."

    The three items you listed are miracles, aren't they?

    People keep thinking that miracles must be supernatural events.
    But we are surrounded by miracles all the time. We just don't acknowledge them as such.

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  52. Anonymous said:

    "The three items you listed are miracles, aren't they?"

    No.

    "People keep thinking that miracles must be supernatural events."

    Yeah, because that's the definition. That's how we're supposed to be able to tell them apart from the things that happen naturally or that human beings can do all on their own. Expanding the definition to anything you happen to find impressive and want to toss into your god's lap makes the concept worthless. Go ahead and call Saran Wrap, zippers, and 5-bladed disposable razors "miracles" if it floats your boat, but then don't scratch your head when people like me fail to be impressed by religious claims of the "miraculous".

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  53. What does it mean for something to happen "naturally"?
    Is it "natural" for you to move your hand?
    How do you move your hand?
    It is a miracle.
    You know the physical mechanism of brain and nervous system.
    But you do not know how that physical mechanism is directed and controlled by YOU.

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  54. What does it mean for something to happen "naturally"?

    That it's not a "miracle", QED.

    Is it "natural" for you to move your hand?

    Yes.

    How do you move your hand?

    Electrochemical signals are passed from my brain down my central nervous system, from synapse to synapse, to my peripheral nervous system and cause a coordinated set of contractions in muscles there. It took me the first several months of my life to develop this ability, and years afterward to refine it.

    It is a miracle.

    It is impressive upon contemplation, but it is not a "miracle". If the nerves between my spine and my arm were entirely severed, and I could STILL move my arm, THAT would be a "miracle", because it would not be natural.

    But you do not know how that physical mechanism is directed and controlled by YOU.

    So if I'm consciously aware of a process, but not consciously aware of the means by which it occurs -- then what I would call ignorance, you would call a "miracle". You see, that's what I'm talking about. Just a few hundred years ago, the order of colours in a rainbow were presented as evidence of a god, because how else would those colours know how to order themselves? Then we discovered the science of optics, understood that what we perceive as "colour" is simply and interpretation of the wavelengths of light, shorter to longer, and suddenly... the whole "rainbows prove god" claims dried right up. The claims keep retreating up a burning ladder of things we don't understand... YET.

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  55. You are focusing on the mechanism of brain and nervous system.
    But that is not what I am talking about.
    I am talking about the YOU that is having the experience. The YOU that is directing and controlling the mechanism.
    The first person experience.
    YOU.

    There is something here that you are overlooking. But you can become aware of it. Maybe not right this moment.
    But in the months and years ahead you will have an experience of the awakening of this YOU that I am talking about. Perhaps for just a few moments.
    Then you will understand.

    There is no use arguing about it now.

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  56. Oh no, barefoot_hiker seems to have trouble understanding Anonymous, just like anyone else.

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  57. Anonymous said:

    You are focusing on the mechanism of brain and nervous system. I am talking about the YOU that is having the experience.

    Yes, I got that. I understand you consider the experiencer as distinct from the experience. Do you get that I don't? There's no evidence that the "you" is separate from body; that mind is independent of brain, rather than a dependent function of it -- and plenty that it is.

    If the mind -- "you" -- are not merely the process of the brain, why does alcohol, a purely physical chemical, impair the moral judgments made by the "you" that is above and apart from your brain and body? How could that be possible? How is that "you" manage language enough to understand your god, but could be robbed of that by a injury to Broca's or Wernicke's areas of your brain? Why do people like Phineas Gage and James Brady undergo profound personality changes after severe brain injury if their personality -- their "you" -- isn't part of their brains, but some independent floating vapour that simply haunts a skull for three score and ten?

    I appreciate you have a metaphysical mindset in asking these questions, but they're pointless questions. There's no basis for asking them. Just because you can think of a question doesn't mean it automatically implies, or even deserves, an answer.

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  58. Barefoot Hiker makes the same mistake that most people make. He thinks that the "personality" is the YOU.

    The You is separate from the experience - whether that experience is a drunken one etc. or not.

    By the way, I am not coming at this from a "God" or religious point of view.

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  59. Anonymous says:

    He thinks that the "personality" is the YOU. The You is separate from the experience - whether that experience is a drunken one etc. or not.

    So in essence, we're left with nothing. Your "YOU" is just an empty word, not tied to anything. It's just something you don't want to, or cant', define, except in the vaguest possible non-definition of "you". It's not anything we can check for, measure, falsify, or confirm. It's just something you insist, for no reason at all, exists.

    And you want us to believe this isn't religious at all, huh?

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  60. You can confirm it. In your own experience.
    It is not something that anyone else can prove for you.
    It is your own first-person experience.

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  61. Anonymous said:

    You can confirm it. In your own experience.

    No, you cant't, and that's the whole point in taking issue with religions and superstitions. Simply asserting something, or getting a nice feeling when you come up with, doesn't establish it as real. Objective, demonstrable evidence does. My personal experience does not include ghosts. It does include a real grounding in the material world, and the realization that things we know are possible today would have been "miracles" just a couple of hundred years ago MERELY because the people of the day were ignorant of facts that are now common knowledge. Yeah, it would be great, I guess, if we were something other than material, lived forever, could flit between the stars, etc., etc. But there's no reason for thinking we are, your credulity notwithstanding.

    You haven't addressed my questions. If souls, or whatever you want to call this incorporeal "you", can think, perceive, remember, and experience self without brains, then what do we NEED brains or bodies for? And how is it that the function of this incorporeal "you" that can do all these things without a body after death is so unaccountably impaired by damage to the brain and nervous system, or by chemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier -- not just in how in interacts with the external world, but in its actual subjective workings... thought, intentionality, motivation, perception, memory, impression? Why should it be affected by these things AT ALL if the brain is just superfluous matter it doesn't even need in the first place?

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  62. Here is an analogy that may or may not help.
    Imagine that you are working a 2 way radio. You can listen and converse through the system.
    If the system is damaged are you damaged?
    Nope, you are not damaged.
    But the damage to the radio will certainly degrade your ability to listen and converse.
    This is just an analogy and there is no point in arguing over an analogy.
    The point of the analogy is to get you to possibly think about this in a different way.

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  63. Anonymous said:

    Imagine that you are working a 2 way radio.

    But you're conveniently ignoring the fact that according to you, I don't need a radio in the first place. Supposedly I'm perfectly capable of communicating by radio waves naturally UNLESS I happened to find myself saddled with a radio, in which case I'm required to depend upon it and its shortcomings, for no reason that you've explained.

    So why the radio in the first place? Why a body with a brain my "me" is something different that thinks and remembers and contemplates and perceives and experiences WITHOUT the need of a brain and a body -- and how is it that those workings, entirely separate from a brain, can be compromised, changed, or destroyed by things that happen to or influence the brain and the body?

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  64. Using the phrase "conveniently ignoring the fact" is insulting.

    Have you observed that tendency in yourself?

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  65. Anonymous said:

    Using the phrase "conveniently ignoring the fact" is insulting.

    No, it isn't. The plain fact is, you CAN'T explain why something you claim is independent of the body and doesn't need it before or after death to do the things it supposed DOES need a body to do during lief, and is affected by it and things that happen to it -- things that are NOT inexplicable if mind simply is a function of brain. You're just playing the "I'm offended" card here to try to change the subject rather than honestly confront the threadbare cloth of your claim.

    Your hypothesis isn't borne out by the basic facts; even a few moments of working through its ramifications demonstrates it to be nothing but the same sort of quaint but pointless game of speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and then insisting whatever answer you fancy is correct.

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  66. barefoot hiker, I think anonymous has more than adequately shown we are not our brains by carrying on this discussion without his.

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  67. barefoothiker:
    "honestly confront the threadbare cloth of your claim".

    Have you noticed that you often insult people who you disagree with?
    It is something to observe.

    This applies to Jud as well.

    But as long as you are attached to yourself then you cannot see these things.

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  68. Have you noticed that you often insult people who you disagree with?

    It is something to observe.

    This applies to Jud as well.

    Sheesh, lighten up. This is the Internet.

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  69. Anonymous said:

    Have you noticed that you often insult people who you disagree with?

    I've noticed that you change the subject to the nature of the debate rather than its substance when you've run out of the latter.

    Getting back to the matter at hand: there is no corroborating evidence that the experience of self-awareness is anything other than the workings of sufficiently sophisticated brains; it's almost certainly not limited to humans. That's what this is about. The only reason to insist the "you" that experiences everything else is, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, something other than that is to construct an artifice upon which the continuation of personality after death (and the attendant relationship with a conjectural creator god dependent upon it) is predicated.

    But as long as you are attached to your fantasy, you will REFUSE to see these things.

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  70. Insulting others is one of many things that keeps a person from experiencing the "You" I have been talking about.
    There is a connection.
    That is why I have mentioned it.

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  71. Anonymous writes:

    Insulting others is one of many things that keeps a person from experiencing the "You" I have been talking about.

    So is logical reasoning. Oh damn, that was another insult!

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  72. Sarcasm, as well as insults, is
    one more of many things that keeps a person from experiencing the "You" I have been talking about.

    People have their choice. Indulge in insults, sarcasm etc and put up internal obstacles within yourself to wakening to the "You" I have been talking about.

    Or make an effort to move from the lowest part of yourself to a higher level.

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  73. Right: fail to lay out a coherent hypothesis for discussion; just sit back and superciliously reply "No, you're wrong!" to all comers; whine when people get a bit insulting; pronounce us all too unenlightened to understand the Great Truth you can't manage to quite describe.

    The only step left is for you to do a good flounce, verbally shake the dust from your feet, and proclaim your departure.

    Go ahead -- you can do it.

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  74. Eamon Knight, are you talking to me or to Jud.
    What you are saying has no relevance to what I have said.

    Do you notice that you use insults and sarcasm also?
    As I said - those are obstacles to experiencing the "You" that I am talking about.

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  75. Anonymous said:

    Insulting others is one of many things that keeps a person from experiencing the "You" I have been talking about.

    That sounds like something out of Peter Pan or an old Twilight Zone episode.

    Unfortunately for your quaint, woo-filled thesis, I do experience self-awareness. I just don't attribute it to magic... magic whose strange dependence on matter when you require it, and independence of matter when you don't, you have yet to explain. Instead you try to change the subject by talking about me. I suppose I should be flattered, but I'm a clear enough thinker to see through a smokescreen.

    Sarcasm... keeps a person from experiencing the "You" I have been talking about.

    Explain how. Bonus points if you can do so without mentioning chakras, auras, or pseudo-scientific appeals to quantum mechanics.

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  76. Anonymous, on behalf of myself, and (presumptuously) Jud and Eamon, let me round up the fine points of your supposition.

    A) Personality/mind/soul/identity (is there a preferred defintion, BTW?) exists independent of the brain.

    B) It survives death, and may pre-exist life as well.

    C) It does not need a brain to think, know, realize, remember, experience, emote, or recognize God or others; it does not need eyes to see, ears to hear, or a body to move about. All this is true after death, and presumably, before life. However:

    D) For some reason, this same entity DOES require a brain to think, know, realize, remember, experience, emote, or recognize God or others; it DOES need eyes to see, ears to hear, and a body to move about DURING life: all to the extent that damage to the brain or its chemical inebriation alter or even destroy this entity's otherwise fully independent mental faculties; moreover, the loss of sensory organs deprives this entity of knowledge of the outside world it otherwise has after death without those organs.

    Now. If this "entity" is, in fact, the accretion of processes of sufficiently sophisticated brains in humans and other animals, all of this is easily explicable. If your independent entity principle is correct, then reality is inconsistent with reality (strikes me as unlikely), or else your supposition has serious problems that it doesn't explain.

    The walkie-talkie analogy fails because it does not explain why this entity has the analogous walkie-talkie abilities WITHOUT that equipment after death (and possibly before life), or what becomes of these natural abilities during life such that the use of walkie-talkies (i.e., brains and bodies) become necessary at some point (that point being life).

    Now hopefully, you don't find any of that insulting, so you need not focus on how you're being abused by us, and simply focus on demonstrating how your model fits as well with the observations as ours does, which you have not done so far.

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  77. barefoot hiker, instead of making up a bunch of things and attributing them to me, just go with what I actually have said.

    But I can see that you are not actually interested in what I am saying so why are you using up your time on this?

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  78. Anonymous said:

    barefoot hiker, instead of making up a bunch of things and attributing them to me, just go with what I actually have said.

    Well, I'm sorry, but no... you don't get to come on here and demand that no one deconstruct your ideas and reveal their logical upshots to you simply because you don't want to be confronted with their inconsistencies and inadequacies. You've floated an idea that, however much you might like it, does not jibe with objective observation in the real world. You're free to believe it, of course, but if you come around here waving it as a flag of truth, you have to accept that it's going to be shot at and suffer a few holes and scorches when it's met with opposition.

    Now, once again, you've sidestepped the issue and the question. Once again, you've refused to address the holes in your hypothesis when they're pointed out to you. The mature thing to do in this case is either to explain the inconsistencies such that they are no longer inconsistent with reality, or to admit that, okay, it was a nice idea, but clearly it doesn't hold water. You won't do either. You just keep insisting that, despite its thorough rubbishing, it's still a perfectly good idea and the problem is all with us.

    Well, no. It's actually all with you, and your refusal to deal with reality on its own terms.

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  79. I have made no demands.

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