Legitimate supernatural claims

I’ve had a number of conversations with theists in which they tell me their beliefs are grounded in evidence, not blind faith. As a scientist, I’m surprised when they can’t offer a hypothetical scenario in which they would change their beliefs. Because that’s the thing about basing your belief on evidence, isn’t it? If you get different evidence in the future, or you develop a new model which explains all your evidence better, you change what you think is the most likely explanation.

Part of the reason this happens, I think, is that these theists don’t have specific, clear ideas about the gods they believe in. Once you nail down a claim, it becomes possible to collect evidence showing that claim to be false.

Does your god always answer believers’ prayers? Does he answer the majority of believers’ prayers? We could actually do studies to test these things (and we have). Perhaps it would be safer to claim that one’s god might answer “yes”, “no”, or “wait” — rendering his answers indistinguishable from no answer at all.

Does your god protect the health and well-being of believers? Does he help and heal believers when they’re going through times of hardship or illness? Does he give believers hardship and illness to test or strengthen them? Does he sometimes kill believers (or, allow them to die) because he wants them to join him in the afterlife? Or does he do a mix of these things, making his interventions conveniently appear identical to chance events drawn from probability distributions we can calculate based on terrestrial, natural phenomena?

I know some theists think they are presenting a clear statement about their god’s nature when they say he “works in mysterious ways.” I wish these folks would just admit that their beliefs are based on blind faith rather than pretend their claims are legitimately evidence-based and testable.

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  1. This makes me think of something one of our professors showed us yesterday: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

  2. A couple observations:
    1. I can’t think of a hypothetical situation in which evidence would change my beliefs… but that’s because evidence must be interpreted. And that interpretation is what would need to convince me that my beliefs are errant. And interpretation is a difficult thing to change. Data/evidence/facts, as Seth Godin has so eloquently shown, change few minds.

    Scientists don’t run into this problem as often when they have specific, clear ideas about a claim. They can collect evidence showing that claim to be false (or true). But even here, as we look back through history, the nagging interpretation thing shows itself again and again. For example, I’m currently going through The Great Courses’ Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution… and over and over again we see how the interpretation of the data worked for a time, until something came along and completely rocked that world. I’m thinking, specifically, of the aether which, even after amazing experiments by Michelson–Morley, still hung around until someone came up with a “new” idea.

    So even having a testable hypothesis doesn’t mean the conclusion will change. Ideas/presuppositions have a tremendous impact on philosophers, scientists, and lay-people alike.

    2. I wonder–and this is me wondering aloud here–if theology is the “science lab” of faith. The questions you raise above a good ones, and have been addressed throughout the ages by theologians. Now, the question of how legitimate one’s theological perspective is is much harder to nail down. I deal with that on a regular basis when I chat with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We disagree on theology, but they are very internally consistent. The question, for me, becomes: Which one best describes reality?

    3. Miracles. Depends on who you talk to. Francis Collins, from what I’ve read, thinks God interacts rarely on this little blue ball. Others–like the wonderful people from my church–experience things otherwise.

    But going back to point 1: When people get well in “miraculous” ways that doctors can’t explain and make absolutely no medical sense at this point in history… what is that? Is that one of those “chance events” that is “based on terrestrial, natural phenomena”? Or is it the hand of God? Your assumptions make a huge difference in those instances. Is that God in the gaps, a fluke, or perhaps something more?

    4. I would say that my faith is not blind. But it may not be “evidence-based” and testable in a laboratory either.

    That’s okay. There are a great many things that are not testable in that way and yet show themselves real, reasonable, and important. Evidence exists, your decision to accept it or not is something else entirely.

    For what it’s worth… which isn’t much, I know [smile].


  3. @Adrian: Major props to the JREF, and to your professors knowing about and telling their students about their million dollar prize. This is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. Interesting that no one has been able to claim it yet, even though potential claimants work with JREF to establish testing conditions that are mutually agreeable.


    1. “Data/evidence/facts … change few minds.” This is a true statement about human psychology, but I don’t think it is a compelling reason to ignore facts and evidence. Even though we have cognitive biases, we should still try to expose ourselves to new and challenging information about reality, and adjust our understanding of reality accordingly.

    2. You suppose that “theology is the ‘science lab’ of faith.” In order to test (ha) this conjecture, I’m going to echo a question I recently read elsewhere: What are some new things that theologists learned about God in the past few hundred years?

    3. On interpreting apparent miracles, you write, “Your assumptions make a huge difference in those instances.” Yes. But why make those assumptions vs. other ones? My answer is: we begin with what we are able to observe and verify. Positing some other explanation and assuming it to be true is not an effective way to understand reality.

    Let’s say (and I’m making these numbers up just for an example) that colds tend to go away after 3-7 days, and on average it takes 5 days to recover from a cold. Patricia gets a cold and prays to Jesus for healing. She gets better after 4 days. Did Jesus heal her, or was that just her cold going away on its own? Does your interpretation change if Patricia prays to Rama, or to a milk jug? What if she didn’t pray at all?

    4. Oh boy. First you say that your faith is not (or, may not be) evidence-based. Then you say, “Evidence exists, your decision to accept it or not is something else entirely.” Which is it? And where’s the evidence? Seriously. Please, tell me about it so I can understand reality better.

  4. 1. “Even though we have cognitive biases, we should still try to expose ourselves to new and challenging information about reality, and adjust our understanding of reality accordingly.” Agreed. One reason I enjoy reading your posts [smile].

    2. I’m no theologian, so my “discoveries” are old hat and have come only the last couple of decades… if that, and often from reading ideas already well established. I’d also wager that since theology has been around for many thousands of years, it has a great deal of history from which modern theologians draw. That being said, I think there’s been a some thought and exploration of God’s relationship to man over the last few hundred years. I’m not a very good person to address this with specifics as my understanding is a conglomeration of thoughts passed down to me today. I certainly do not have a good enough grasp of the history of theology to be able to tell you what specifically, say, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, John MacArthur, and A.W. Tozer contributed to the discussion. However, their names are well known to me… and so I assume they made some strides forward.

    The last few hundred years have certainly seen a great deal of discussion and such on how evolution and an old earth play into our interpretation of Scripture and our ideas about the Fall, the Flood, and such. A bit of fascinating work is being done in those fields. Far too little, sadly, as much of the discussion has been commandeered by the likes of Ken Ham…

    3. I was thinking of far more interesting examples than a person praying about a cold. However, data does show that those of faith–irregardless of which one–do tend to heal more quickly. Which is fascinating! But back on track. I was thinking of the times when, say, a child is flayed by the asphalt in a bike accident, rushed to the hospital where the doctors bandage him up and send him home. That night–while the church is praying for the boy–the lacerated skin drops off him and, upon his return to the doctor’s office a day later, is not recognized for the transformation that befell him. Or, the man who was hit by a car, and fell mutilated to the ground–his leg, for instance, broken in three places… among other things. He was taken to the hospital where doctors were unable to do anything for him, so he is brought to the church for prayer. While being prayed for, his entire body is healed–including the shattered bones–and, as his son-in-law tells it–the only reason he did not jump up to praise God was because he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on under the sheet [smile]. Those kinds of things.

    Those experiences do bring up the questions of point 2, which–again–have been tossed around for thousands of years (and, I’m guessing, the last few hundred as well). But cases like these are what I was thinking about when I think of
    “apparent miracles.”

    4. [blinks] Oh my. Sorry! I write this stuff out and don’t proofread–and my mind makes jumps of its own–so the confusion is, again, in my poor writing. I was trying to draw a distinction between a “testable hypothesis” kind of evidence, and an “observable” kind of evidence. Can you put miracles in a test tube and expect consistent results? Nope. But can you look at the history and lives of believers and see evidence of the working of God in and through them? Yes. It’s possible to see that. I know a few who have. I grew up in the church, so my perspective isn’t all that clear. And for the many who have been “burned” by the church–not surprising, seeing as the church is full of people still in desperate need of Savoir, even if they don’t realize it–it’s not surprising that the idea of genuine believers makes them laugh sickly to themselves.

    There is a bunch of other kinds of evidence, to be sure, be it historic, philosophical, or otherwise. But, no, I don’t expect anyone to get to faith by studying supernatural claims in a laboratory. Though, I suppose, it could happen [smile].


  5. Looks like we are on the same page with #1 now, so I’ll set that aside.

    2. I’m not asking for your own discoveries. I certainly wasn’t the one to figure out that protons are made up of quarks, and I don’t even know offhand who was directly responsible for that discovery, but I would point to that as a relatively recent piece of new information the scientific method has given us. What new stuff do we know about God that we didn’t know before? Have theologians figured out where heaven is located? How about improved methods of communicating with God?

    I know the names of a few theologians too, but I think you’re right in referring to them as contributors to a discussion. I think they’re talking about ideas, arguing over interpretations, etc., but I’m not aware of examples in which they actually added newly discovered facts to the discussion. But that’s what it would take for me to see theology as a science.

    3. I am pretty sure that data show that optimistic people tend to heal more quickly than pessimistic people, and religious people probably feel more optimistic because of their faith. Your parenthetical “irregardless of which one” underscores for me that this does not provide real evidence for particular religious beliefs. Those faiths make mutually exclusive claims! If they all work, it must not be the specific claims that are working.

    I would love to see particular well-recorded examples of these more dramatic and improbable healings you mention. In my experience these stories are things someone heard about by way of their neighbor’s cousin’s friend’s exchange student’s pastor who “actually saw it happen!!” which doesn’t sound so compelling to me.

    4. Observation can be a test too. You can predict, “Christians have fewer hardships in life than Muslims,” or “Lutherans have fewer hardships in life than Catholics,” etc. based on a hypothesis that (for example) Lutheran Christians are worshiping the right god in the right way and thus winning his favor. Then we can do surveys and check this.

    You say we should “look at the history and lives of believers and see evidence of the working of God in and through them.” Could you elaborate on what we should expect “the working of God” to look like?

  6. 2. Theology is not science, nor can we approach it in the same ways. That wasn’t my point. My point was that I assume theology would be the place to look for specific claims and the reasons for said claims. Thus, rather than going to a lab and setting up spreadsheets and test tubes, the “proper” place to find answers to the questions you raise above is within the works of theologians. They do the “lab” work of religion, seeking out answers to the questions you pose. And I’m pretty sure there has been some good work done a great many of your questions.

    And, again, with the “new.” Have theologians found anything new? In one sense, I highly doubt it. Even Jesus didn’t really do much that was new. He did things radically different. He pushed some buttons. He even turned people’s ideas upside down, but none of it was new. In fact, He–and His followers–often point back to ancient Scripture to show that they are, indeed, on the right track. So, new facts aren’t going to be around much. That kind of thing is more the domain of Mormons, with whom I disagree on a fairly regular basis.

    3. Agreed: Faith seems to help across the board with sickness, so that clearly isn’t going to be a good place to look for proof [smile].

    The two stories I recounted above are based on what I’ve been told by 1. the guy to whom it happened when he was a boy (the bicycle incident), and 2. my pastor, whose wife’s father was the one hit by the car. I completely agree that the “my wife’s sister’s dog’s former-owner’s neighbor heard of a guy who once almost did something crazy” is not all that compelling. Knowing the people for whom it happened, or whose parents it happened to, is a tad bit more compelling to me.

    4. The view of winning divine favor is a very common religious theme… one that is not shared by Orthodox Christianity or Scripture.

    I’ve heard many stories of non-believers who get to know Christians and end up saying something like, “There’s something different about you.” Invariably, the answer is Christ. The “fruit”–as Jesus calls it–would be love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, and self-control. Those are the things believers should be producing… and when they aren’t–as, sadly, too often I do not–they aren’t walking with Christ. But those few who do change the world.


  7. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    ” If you get different evidence in the future, or you develop a new model which explains all your evidence better, you change what you think is the most likely explanation.”

    The observations of the people I have watched normally do not act this way.
    Sure, it’s nice to think they would; but under control and comparison they do not. They often outright reject the data if it does not lie within ‘acceptable boundaries’. ie with paradigms that are already within reach of their current model (aka belief system).

    The few that allow updating of beliefs, normally on do so if their existing model can be stretched or in other ways allows for it.

    - –
    As for “God” and the Supernatural.
    God: Who is -your- God? Is it the brand that a certain church organisation is selling? Is it the scraps of a partially learned layman knowledge passed down by parents and peers?
    – What aspects and why? How do these things make God [objective] or even God [subjective]?
    - What are the actual attributes? how are they connected to “God” or are they somewhat arbitrarily expect or assigned by random researchers?

    For me, I looked at what claims were made and historical models and noticed three different types of Gods. Primary were difused properties (eg Fertility) and often human cultures imposed or misinterpreted, anthromorphic impressions on them. Secondary are human or living values, again collectively assigned, again having anthrological values and attributes impressed into them (usually the expectations or requirements of their corporate/commercial backers.) The third type are humans or beings elevated to archetypical status, noticable by their origin story or by their completely human actions. (Jesus, and some of the Oriental “bureaucracy”, some of the Odin/Wodin are typical of this).

    A favourite of mine is to show the “Powers of Ten” video, and say “does your god exist here” at each step.

    Again, for me, “God” is the Creative principle and is transcendant. Thus there is a hint of “omnipotence” on a ballrolling type of concept, everything stems from the primogenesis (including god). However “God” is also the summation of everything, thoughout and beyond time; So at the “Omega” moment at the finale of everything, god is all that was and could have been, and thus is “omniscient”. Yet “god” is in everything, the base ‘aethyr’ from which everything springs or is formed, is the divinity of “god”, what is, what, might be, what is not – all three parts of a quantum probabilty – that even after time has moved on, can be said to be existed as a signature existance; both materially and informationally (and emotionally/psychically) these are god, from ‘god’s hand’ so to speak.

    Yet here we live in Plato’s Cave, creating our own gods, making our own universes.

    So the question for me is not “Does God exist?” but “Who is your God?”

  8. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 7, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Oh … and for me, there is no such thing as a “supernatural” event.

    God creates nature.
    Magic is Life/change.

    Supernatural is like a squarecircle. something which only exists as a human creation/tautology.


    ok that’s more rectangular than square, but I suspect you get the idea.

  9. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 7, 2012 at 9:55 pm



  10. Carl de Malmanche

     /  April 7, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Oh hey… Luke?

    I’m just reading the M-M experiment. Where do they prove that Earth (or other massive but relatively slow moving objects) will actually create a bow-wave?

    My understanding ‘thought experiment’ is that if light has speed X, and the star is moving at velocity Y, then two light particles emitted from the same star would theoretically have different velocities (moving in a line on a plane in different directions). One would be Y+X, the other Y-X. While their vector units should be the same c according to Newtonian physics (both are same energy push, both have same ‘mass’).
    I’d do the maths, but I’m not up to forming the equation in non-Euclidean spaces.

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