Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Lengthy Interview With Stephen Braude

Many modern critics of Christianity hold a naturalistic worldview or something close to it. They suggest that there's little or no evidence that would challenge their worldview. I think that's often because they're highly ignorant of the evidence.

The radio program Coast To Coast AM recently had a lengthy interview with Stephen Braude, a paranormal researcher and professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland. Go to approximately the nine-minute mark in the You Tube clip just linked, then follow the links on the right side of the screen to listen to later segments of the interview.

I disagree with much of what's said by the host and Braude. I think they neglect a lot of relevant evidence.

But Braude is highly knowledgeable about evidence for the paranormal, and he makes a lot of significant points during the interview. He discusses some of the best cases of paranormal activity that we have (best in the sense of having the best evidence), such as the nineteenth-century medium Daniel Home and Ted Serios' ability to make images from his mind appear on photographs. He also discusses a woman in Florida who has gold-colored brass appearing on her body and on other objects in her presence, among other phenomena. You can see some video footage of this woman, as well as some still shots of Ted Serios' photographs, in a shorter interview with Braude found here. Go to the video titled "UMBC In the Loop: Stephen Braude".

Braude has been in Europe lately, partly to investigate a group in Germany that's been claiming to experience some paranormal phenomena. Apparently, Braude received some sort of grant to investigate it. He said that he has video footage of a table levitation, but some of the more significant phenomena he witnessed weren't caught on tape. He says something about seeing a non-human hand come out of a person's mouth, for example. He seems to be largely undecided about the validity of the group's claims, though he thinks at least some of the activity is genuine. Some aspects of the context in which the group is operating are suspicious (a darkened room, asking people to make noise at particular times during a seance, etc.). But he seems to think there's some evidence for the validity of the phenomena, and he's in the process of doing more investigation.

He said that he's retiring later this year. Apparently, though, he's only retiring from his position at the University of Maryland teaching philosophy. He said that he'll continue researching the paranormal. And he's working on another book.

I'm almost finished reading one of Braude's books, but I haven't read any of his others. From my limited exposure to his material, I have the impression that he underestimates the potential role of non-humans in the phenomena in question. At least in the book I've been reading and in the interviews I've listened to, he says little about God and seemingly even less about demons and angels. He'll mention the possibility of one human mind affecting another or what effect the human mind might have on the world around us, and he discusses such possibilities at length. But he says so little about how other beings, like God or demons, might be involved. (He may take a different approach in other books, for example, but then I would wonder why he says so little about other beings in the book I've been reading and in multiple interviews I've heard. Maybe I'd have a different impression if I read or listened to more of his material.)

At one point during the recent interview, he offers an explanation for why people tend to be afraid when they first witness something like a table levitating. He suggested that people are afraid because of the event's implications about the power of the human mind. That may be true in some cases. But I think a better explanation, and I don't know why Braude avoids discussing it so much, is that people are afraid of a more powerful being, such as a demon, who would do them harm. If human minds in general have the power to do things like levitating tables, then presumably we could respond to what other human minds are doing with the power of our own minds. But what if a more powerful being is doing it? I think that's more relevant to the fear people have.

The involvement of non-human agents seems to make more sense of the evidence in some cases (for a variety of reasons). I'm open to the idea that humans have more abilities than we currently realize. I suspect we do. And I think that's a partial explanation of what we see in the paranormal. But my impression is that Braude is too focused on that aspect of the explanation and is neglecting other aspects.


  1. To piggyback on Jason's point, it's important to distinguish between evidence for the phenomenon and how we interpret the phenomenon. Writers like Braude can be very useful for their case-studies, but how we interpret the phenomenon is a different question. Evidence for the phenomenon doesn't hinge on a particular interpretation of the phenomenon. That's a worldview question. And I also agree with Jason that some paranormal phenomena are best construed in reference to superhuman agency of some sort or another.

  2. What are we to make of the apparent materialization of the gold-brass leaf out of nothing? What is the best Biblical worldview explanation?

  3. MSC,

    I'm not aware of any way to discern that it came from nothing. It could be an interaction between the woman's body or other objects and something else. Or it could involve bringing together other substances without using anything from her body or the other objects involved. (The brass doesn't just appear on her body. It also appears on objects nearby.) In other cases, where there hasn't been verification that a physical object is involved, it may be a matter of a vision or something similar occurring. Some of the phenomena seem to be physical, but some may not be.

  4. MSC,

    I think it is it important to highlight what Steve said. Notice he said *some* paranormal phenomena. This is the cautious position, I think, and doesn't commit one to holding that *all* such phenomena are due to superhuman agency.

  5. I wonder if this avenue of the paranormal would bear on the question of Leviathan in the bible.

    Perhaps Leviathan was a demonic manifestation of some kind (physical/non-physical?) that was witnessed by many back in those times before its destruction by God (Psalm 74:14).

    In the book of Job, God seems to speak as though it is a real thing that existed.

  6. This is a subject, the so-called "paranormal", that doesn't normally get much attention from the church.

    I suppose it's a difficult and wide ranging subject to deal with [e.g. are UFO's physical/spiritual or some combination of both, a mass hallucination, or a pure hoax? Are the levitating tables and assorted oddness clever publicity stunts?]

    At its root this subject ties back to the occult. Occultism has been practiced from the ancient world right through to modern times, and in my opinion folks simply have their head in the sand if they think there's no such thing as actual occult/paranormal/supernatural "powers, principalities and dominions" that exercise some level of influence upon the physical sphere.

    But I have to admit what's always struck me as odd is why the even the best documented reports of supernatural/paranormal displays of "power" come across like cheap parlor tricks.

    I mean, does that kind of "power" really impress anyone? I don't mean to be flippant here, but if someone tells me they have the power to conjure up a demon [or whatever they choose to call it] that can lift a table a few inches off the ground, I'm yawning.

    If the legions of darkness are best able to manifest their mighty works by picking up a table, or causing a Ouija board eye to move around erratically, or else make someone bark like a dog I honestly can't see why folks would be impressed by that sort of display of "power".

    Just sayin'.

    In Him,

  7. halo,

    Leviathan-like creatures are found in other ancient sources as well, and the Bible refers to that sort of creature in more than one way. One passage refers to something that took place around the creation of the universe, while another passage seems to refer to some sort of creature on earth long after creation. It seems that the creature was used in multiple ways in ancient literature. Something demonic might be involved in one case, but not another. As far as the Bible is concerned, the term seems to have been used to describe something powerful, much as we today use the term behemoth. What that powerful entity is varies from context to context.

  8. Coram Deo,

    Some of the phenomena are more significant than what you refer to, but I agree with the larger point you're making. We would expect a more powerful being to be able to demonstrate more power than a lesser being, and what we get from the sort of paranormal activity Braude refers to is much less than what we find in Christianity.

  9. Look at it the way demonic activity occurs in Scripture. Demonic manifestations didn't result in large-scale events. You had a guy who hung out in the cemetery. Guys who were able to beat up people and tear off chains. A guy who was thrown into the fire pit by his demons. Things of that nature.

    Part of it is because demons just simply don't have as much power as Stephen King books would lead you to believe, not because they aren't powerful foes in their own right but because they are limited by God. Furthermore, if only 1/3 of the angels became demons, then there are twice as many angels than demons to wage war against them. Raising a table a few inches might very well be the extent of their powers given such restrictions.

    But the main task of the devil and his minions isn't to perform parlor tricks or even to display power overtly. Satan is a deceiver, the father of lies. Demons are there to deceive. And deception need not take on overt occultic forms.

    But it can. I mean, suppose you got up one night and your coffee table was floating across your living room. I daresay that would change your outlook for the rest of the day. And because it doesn't happen often, you can't really tell other people since they'll think you're crazy. That's going to seriously mess up your brain, especially if you're a materialist! You'll begin to doubt everything since you'll think it was all a trick in your brain (it can't be an immaterial force), and yet your brain is all you can use to interact with the real world. Soon enough, you won't know what to believe about anything anymore, and if the demons start whispering in your ear, why who knows what you'll end up doing?

  10. I'd expect evil spirits to basically string the gullible along with teasers rather than roll out the heavy artillery. Give them just enough to get them hooked and keep them hooked, but always leave them hungry for the big payoff that never comes.

  11. My oldest son loves to have a big camp-out with his friends every year for his birthday. The first time this happened I told "true ghost stories" from a few interesting secular books I picked up and it seems to have become a big hit with them because they've begged me to do it every year for the past several years now.

    I always preface it with biblical teaching about the spiritual world and his friends have a ball trying to figure out how the paranormal stories are best explained by the truth of the scriptures. They don't always figure out a good solution, but the final message is that the Bible is always accurate and these stories are not. After all, that's what this boils down to.

  12. It is interesting that the Egyptian magicians using their "secret arts" duplicated serpents with their staffs, duplicated blood in the Nile and frogs, but could do no more (Exod. 8:18). In either case, what they did do had at least the appearance of forming material and even living entities ex nihilo. Unless I am missing something this does not seem possible in a Biblical worldview. It seems some deceptive arts are truly deceptive. Beyond that, I have trouble understanding what is actually taking place in such instances.

  13. Okay, I've waited all day and nobody else has asked a question about the elephant sitting in the room, so I'll cut bait and fish.

    ...full preterists need not reply here...

    What about the copious prophecies in Revelation regarding amazingly powerful, Hollywood-hyper-violent, and by applying a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutic, physical demonic manifestations that are to be unleashed upon the earth during the Tribulation judgments?

    Is it possible/plausible that at least a part of the 2 Thess. 2:7 "restraint" is upon said demonic powers?

    I see bottomless pits being opened up, fallen angels being unchained, and demon hordes riding roughshod over the corpses of those who they're slaying.

    I mean, maybe for now the powers, principalities and dominions are sort of like captive bears who are forced to ride unicycles and wear silly hats, but if they had half a chance they'd slap your head completely across the big-top and turn your still quivering torso into a breakfast taco.

    Sorry for the graphic imagery, but for some reason I have breakfast tacos on the brain.

    In Him,

  14. I think the second-to-last paragraph in my original post was written poorly, and some people might take it to mean something other than what I intended. I've edited it and merged the edited version into the last paragraph. The rest of the post is the same.

    What I intended to say was that something like the involvement of demons would make more sense of some paranormal cases. I went on, in the next paragraph, to explain that I think human phenomena are involved in other cases. But that second-to-last paragraph seemed to imply a broader demonic involvement than I intended to suggest. I've removed most of that paragraph and have changed it into one summary sentence that begins the last paragraph. My original intention was to briefly summarize some of the reasons why I think something like a demonic explanation would make more sense in some cases. But some of the issues involved are too complicated to summarize in that manner, and I think what I wrote could too easily be misunderstood. The summary sentence I've added to the last paragraph is good enough for the purposes of this thread.

  15. MSC,

    You and I may be on the same page on this issue, but let me explain where I'm coming from and why I responded to you as I did above.

    We have good evidence for the involvement of physical objects in some cases. I've cited the example of the Florida woman and her brass. Since we have good reason to conclude that physical objects are involved sometimes, we should be careful in using a term like "deceptive arts". Some skeptics of the paranormal argue that some sort of deception is occurring on the part of the human who's supposed to be involved in the paranormal activity. But demonic deception is different than human deception. The human deception argument is unlikely in some cases, so we should try to avoid leaving people with the impression that we're suggesting human deception when we actually have demonic deception in mind. We should be clear about what sort of deception we're referring to.

    And if only an appearance of creating something out of nothing is involved, then why keep bringing up the issue of what's "not possible in a Biblical worldview"? It's not as though the appearance of a physical object carries with it a claim that something has come from nothing. Rather, people are making assumptions that don't follow from the phenomena in question. Some human observers may assume that something has come from nothing, but then you could address that assumption by explaining the evidence against it and by exlaining how something could appear to come from nothing without having actually done so.

    You may agree with these qualifications I'm making. I'm mentioning these things because I think it's important that Christians not follow the dubious path that some skeptics of the paranormal have taken in using human deception to explain things that don't seem to have resulted from human deception. Demonic deception might be involved, but we should be careful to distinguish between the two and to explain what we think is or may be occurring (as far as we can). A demon could do something that some humans perceive as creating something out of nothing, but we can think of ways in which such an appearance could be misleading. And it's not even necessary that the demon intended that interpretation. He could have had other purposes in mind, without intending any human assumption that creation out of nothing was involved. If a demon is trying to persuade people by means of a display of power, then appearing to create something out of nothing wouldn't be necessary. Forming something out of objects already in existence, in a way humans can't, would be sufficient.

  16. MSC SAID:

    "It is interesting that the Egyptian magicians using their "secret arts" duplicated serpents with their staffs, duplicated blood in the Nile and frogs, but could do no more (Exod. 8:18). In either case, what they did do had at least the appearance of forming material and even living entities ex nihilo. Unless I am missing something this does not seem possible in a Biblical worldview. It seems some deceptive arts are truly deceptive."

    i) "Creation ex nihilo" is often used somewhat loosely, but in Gen 1, it has a very specific content. A preexistent, increate Creator makes the world without recourse to preexisting raw materials. And he has to write the recipe for life.

    In the case of the Egyptian magicians, if we take that at face value, they already have a lot to work with. They are creatures. They are a given. The world is a given. The raw materials already exist. And the recipe for life is already encoded in various organisms. So it's not creation ex nihilo in the Gen 1/Col 1:16 sense.

    "How" it happens is still a mystery, but it's not equivalent to God's primary causality.

    ii) I'd also note that in Revelation you have a counterfeit theme. The dark side counterfeits the works of God. It's a pale imitation of the real deal, but it still bears some resemblance to the thing it counterfeits. The dark side has an ability to counterfeit the works of God, with all the limitations of funny money.

  17. Steve,
    I think you captured my thoughts well. No creature, either angelic or human, can create ex nihilo in the sense God did at creation. When I use the term "deceptive arts" I am speaking of the ability of the demonic to give the appearance of creating something out of nothing. In either case, the deception still is of a supernatural origin. In this regard, it is not like human magic where the deception actually has a natural explaination that is hidden from the uniformed observer.

    I would imagine perhaps the "how" of the demonic appearance of creation ex nihilo is to take, as you said, pre-existing raw material (conjuring up all the necessary atomic/ sub-atomic/ molecular material?) and fashioning what is desired, and in the case of serpents and frogs, the necessary DNA.

  18. The host George Noory is definitely a Christian. He's stated clearly he's a believer, though he is always playing the 'spiritual' angle to not turn away his listeners, also he plays along with just about anything a guest is presenting so as not to be seen as intolerant and so on. I.e. he's not doing a Christian interview show, but if you listen enough you can believably hear him saying he is a real believer. He's of Arab background, but Arab Christian and born in the U.S.

  19. The Puritan,

    Thanks for the information. I might have misunderstood some of his comments. I got the impression that he isn't a Christian from multiple comments he made, but that may have been a series of misunderstandings on my part. It's not an important enough issue for me to go back and try to find the portions of the program that I had in mind. You're probably in a better position to judge the issue than I am.

    I'm going to remove my comment about Noory's Christian status from my original post.

  20. Doug Wilson on dragons and flying serpents:

    The Bible refers repeatedly to the reality of dragons and winged serpents and indicates that the devil is one of their number. Modern translators are embarrassed by all of this and try to get by with renderings like jackel or crocodile.

    p102 "Future Men" by Doug Wilson, 2001.