I ain’t afraid of no Holy Ghost
Following up on something The Aspirational Agnostic posted recently (part two here), I’ve been mulling over an idea that I hadn’t really considered before, about whether psychics, the paranormal and other crazy stuff can provide evidence in support of God’s existence, the idea being that if there’s something that isn’t explained by rational investigation, it increases the chances that there might be other things out there, beyond the bounds of reality as it appears. I like that idea, and I can see the sense in it, but I think it’s fair to say that I have something of a different approach to the subject.
Cards on the table – I don’t believe in the paranormal. After a brief period of curiosity about ghosts and unexplained phenomena when I was younger, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in it, and have subsequently become a lot more confident in that position as I’ve discovered rational, mundane explanations for more and more mysteries. That goes double for psychics (who rarely seem to come up with anything that even qualifies as a mystery) and a whole lot of other supernatural hokum. In fact, I think the evidence weighs so strongly against this sort of supernaturalism that my typical reaction to any new claim is to assume it to be false, and look for proof of that.
On reflection, I found that my attitude to supernatural claims from the church is much the same – suspicion and provisional disbelief pending a comprehensive debunking. I can’t be sure whether this is due to a scientific mindset or knowledge of a large number of such claims which turned out to be based on speculation, misunderstandings, exaggerations, or simple fabrication. If asked directly whether supernatural events can occur, I wouldn’t deny the possibility outright, as I don’t fancy the challenge of proving a negative, but I’d evaluate the probability as vanishingly small and argue that if they occurred with any sort of frequency, they’d be natural, not supernatural.
I’ve sometimes told myself that I’ve got unreasonable standards of evidence, and that effectively prejudging the issue like this betrays a closed mind. But I never have any such qualms when I apply the same criteria to other supernatural claims. As far as I can see, another story about someone whose leg grew slightly when he was prayed for is on the same level as another story about someone who took a homeopathic remedy and was instantly cured of a cold – the same thing has been claimed so often that it makes no sense to devote any serious effort to investigating it. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the latest claim is a baseless as the previous ones.
But that still leaves me with a problem. While I don’t want to rule out something I can’t disprove, I’m effectively denying any possibility of being convinced by demanding a substantial body of evidence to balance the enormous weight of non-supernatural events and false claims of miracles. Fair enough, but as stated above, anything that occurs with that sort of frequency is surely moving away from the supernatural towards just natural, so probably wouldn’t qualify.
So I’m caught in a bit of a bind. I can hold open the possibility of occasional supernatural influence in cases that haven’t yet been debunked (a sort of expansion pack for God of the Gaps, a position I’ve always found very suspect), or I can dogmatically reject that possibility, despite the logical impossibility of disproving it. Most of the time, I seem to straddle the two positions, acknowledging the general possibility, while denying the specific, but that’s not a very satisfactory position. Actually, it’s entirely unsatisfactory, being exactly the sort of woolly middle ground I’d like to move away from, but I can’t see another more robust option.
Maybe the answer’s to stop worrying about watertight logic, but I can’t see myself doing that any time soon! Russell’s Teapot probably opens up a relevant and productive line of thought, but while I find Russell’s reasoning intellectually satisfying, I find it very hard to apply to beliefs I grew up with, which are shared by family and friends. Maybe I really am a cowardly appeaser after all.