Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are Christian Miracles Just Manifestations Of Human Psi?

I recently received the following in an email:

I spent a little while searching through the topical index and the archives of Triablogue and couldn't find an answer, so I thought might ask you. Basically, I'm looking for work that would respond to a non-Christian interpretation of Christian miracles as all the result of human psi (i.e., not a materialist non-Christian view), e.g. telepathy, telekinesis, etc. . Have you addressed this in one place before? (If so, I'll look more. I don't want to make work for you.)

Here's my response:

I have a vague impression that the subject has been addressed at Triablogue in the past, but I don't remember any particular post. I wouldn't spend much more time searching the archives if you haven't found anything yet.

I was going to address the issue last year in my series on Craig Keener's Miracles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011). But the series was interrupted by my father's death, which changed my plans. I finished the series without discussing everything I'd wanted to address. The post on psi ended up not being included. If you're interested in reading Keener's material on the subject, see note 275 on page 542 and page 638, for example. He only addresses the topic briefly.

A Christian once told me that he knew somebody who acknowledged that Jesus rose from the dead, but didn't want to become a Christian. This individual argued that the resurrection could have been produced by Satan or some other source other than God. Similarly, many early Jewish and pagan opponents of Christianity attributed Jesus' miracles to Satan, magic, or some other non-Divine source. The suggestion that Christian miracles come from psi is a variation of the broader objection that we have no reason to attribute the miracles to God.

I'll make the following points for now, though much more could be said:

- We should be focused on what's probable, not what's possible. We don't have to be able to rule out the psi theory with certainty in order to conclude that it's a less likely explanation.

- If somebody thinks there's no argument for preferring either view, the psi theory or the traditional Christian position, we could still judge between the two on some other basis. If the Christian view intuitively seems more likely, that intuition could serve as a tiebreaker. And it doesn't seem that many people have the impression that humans possess a latent power to perform miracles like the ones done by Jesus. Rather, most people attribute such actions to God, Satan, angels, or some other non-human source. Most critics of Christianity will argue that Jesus didn't perform the miracles or that he performed them, but that Christians are wrong about what Jesus taught or what God was communicating through Jesus, for example. The view that Jesus performed his miracles by some sort of latent human power seems to be the position of only a small minority. The proponent of such a view not only has to overcome any counterarguments that are offered, but also has to overcome what seems to be a widespread consensus that people don't have such psi capabilities. I would argue that the burden of proof is more on their shoulders than ours. They're trying to overturn a widespread human intuition.

- If these psi abilities are possessed by humans in general, then why are they so much more widespread and of a higher quality in Christian circles (as I've argued in my series on miracles last year and elsewhere)? The truthfulness of Christianity would explain the discrepancy. What would explain it from the perspective of a psi theory? Why would somebody like Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, or Paul make such advanced use of psi, while other individuals didn't? I'm not aware of any psi explanation that would be comparable to or better than the Christian alternative.

- We have grounds for believing in the existence of God independent of Christian miracles, such as philosophical arguments for his existence. A series of questions arise as a result. Does it seem more likely that God would or wouldn't communicate with us through special revelation? If it's more likely that he would, yet even miracles as advanced as Christianity's can be dismissed as human psi, then how would we objectively verify that a message is from God? Is it just a matter of subjective perception? The traditional Christian view that God has given us special revelation and a means of objectively verifying it seems more likely. And if there is a God, how likely is it that he would allow Christianity to keep falsely making claims to speak for him accompanied by such advanced psi to support those claims? Furthermore, even if we were to view the miracles of Christianity as the result of human psi, what should we think of a God who would frontload the universe in a way favorable to Christianity? Isn't that just a circuitous way of arriving at the conclusion that the God of the universe is the Christian God? If human psi has persistently been better utilized in Christian circles than elsewhere, then even a view that perceives Christian miracles as psi can lead us to a Christian conclusion. If Christian beliefs and practices are so good at utilizing psi capabilities, then that's a significant argument in Christianity's favor.

- I mentioned independent grounds for accepting God's existence, such as philosophical arguments. What are the independent grounds for accepting such advanced psi capabilities? There's good evidence for lesser psi, but why should we think the alleged more advanced forms of it even exist? Isn't it preferable to attribute advanced miracles, like those of Jesus, to an entity we already have good reason to believe in rather than such an unsubstantiated alternative?

1 comment:

  1. I’ll add my 2¢:

    i) If miracles were the result of human psi, shouldn’t they be more prevalent?

    ii) Even if some miracles were the result of innate human aptitudes, that’s consistent with a Christian worldview. It simply pushes the ultimate cause back a step. God created us (or some of us) with this natural ability.

    iii) Conversely, there are some investigators (e.g. Kurt Koch) who think that paranormal abilities have a supernatural, albeit demonic origin. When you learn about the family history of the affected individual, you find out that an ancestor dabbled in the occult. So this is a hereditary, occultic ability.

    iv) Ironically, I think super-psi is an effort to make the paranormal more naturalistic. Although Braude is usually responding to critics who think the paranormal is too “out there” to take seriously, I think he himself considers communications with the dead (much less demonic possession) to be too “out there” to take seriously. As a secularist, he wants to make the paranormal as this-worldly as possible. So, in a way, he’s doing to Chris Carter what, say, Shermer would do to him.