Monday, July 6, 2009

For the love of God

Theologians abuse rhetoric and call it philosophy

As I have become familiar with the writing of one of Dawkins's so-called "fleas", Eric Reitan, (author of a book entitled "Is God a delusion?"), it has become increasingly apparent that, while professionally employed as a philosopher, his methods are more those of a rhetorician wedded to a theology that he defends despite all incoming argument. An apologist, in short (which should have been clear from the title of his blog, "The piety that lies between").

The foundation of Reitan's view is that the spiritual experience (experiencing the transcendent, as he typically puts it) strongly, or even necessarily, implies that there is a transcendent order that exists separately from us that we are somehow "tapping into", or sensing by the modality of prayer or meditation.

His judgements are usually couched in smooth equanimity, such as: "True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties."

Who wouldn't want to be "open"? Who wouldn't want to be "humble"? Who wouldn't want to be open to "wisdom", let alone "reality"? The problems, however, are many. First is whether there is any sign of a transcendent realm, and second, even if there is such a realm, whether and how we have access to it, perhaps demonstrated by radical and accurate knowledge. On the other side is the competing hypothesis that points out that brain states like meditation are exactly those prone to imagination and subjective transport, and whose complete dissociation from reality is well-known by novelists, artists, and daydreamers of all stripes.

The modern scientific enterprise has blazed trails into actual reality beyond the wildest dreams of ancient philosphers, mystics, and theologians. Only the Indian Hindus and Buddhists, in their infinite rigor, came close to the vast stretches of time involved in the past eons of earth and cosmos. Scales from the great to the infinitesimal have far outstripped and defied transcendentalist description. Whatever conceptions had previously been floated about origins were fanciful tales (twice-told, in the case of Genesis) plucked straight from the imaginations of ancient poets. If they were in touch with transcendence, it was evidently with transcendent feeling, not transcendent reality-touching.

So not only has the vast knowledge of our current scientific corpus not found a transcendent realm, but those supposedly benefiting the most from transcendent wisdom have ended up wildly off the mark, usually spending their newly-enlightened time authorizing patriarchal systems, damning unbelievers, or creating bizarre food prohibitions (not to mention convenient rules about how many extra wives they could have).

Very well, the absence of evidence does not constitute the absence of transcendence, right? Perhaps the realm properly defined as perpetually beyond the reach of skeptical observation yet exists, and we have a special portal to it through the process of day-dreaming. But brain science has nothing but bad news on this front too. Brains are chemical entities, and either take in sensations from the outside world or compute on those sensations internally. Known modes of sensation have been widened substantially by modern cognitive science and neurobiology (body postion sense, several types of touch sensation, etc.), but no transcendent sensory mode has emerged. Indeed, studies of meditators have shown brain areas activated that made eminent sense in terms of reduced outward sensation and focus on imaginative and bodily inner states.

Again, the fruits of access to the transcendent realm also belie its existence, since one would think that the source of such wisdom would grant knowledge of amazing things- the origins of existence, the ground of all being, and the face of god. Yet the various faith traditions have come up with vastly differing elaborations of all three, almost as if they were making it up as they went along based on vague and common feelings, rather than observing some common and transcendent reality through the portholes of prayer.

One has to conclude that a great deal of humility is indeed in order- humility about transcendent claims. While naturalists, scientists, philosophers and people of good will are open to new findings and ways of looking at the world, the particular one of transcendent transport has proven something of a dry hole philosophically speaking, however beneficial it has been for the arts and for practitioner's health and well-being. Philosophers who insist in the teeth of evidence that there is something "veridical" about what is in essence day-dreaming are not only centuries out of date, but doing a serious disservice to their putative profession.

But hey, it could be worse. One of Reitan's colleagues at Oklahoma State University spends his time counting the number of persons within the person of god. One wonders whether OSU would hire a "philosopher" of Islam, or a "philosopher" of Voodoo, just to spice things up. Still, to see someone of Eric Reitan's eloquence and evident dedication to philosophy take the football of reason so far downfield only to decide to stop at the 10 yard line and call it a win remains disturbing.

20 comments:

  1. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. And this from a philosopher of "better illusions." Your naturalism is simply another form of faith and nothing more. Beyond that little “fact,” it is less rational than others because it posits the idea that a strong belief in what one knows to be an illusion is a good thing. The last time I checked, not even witch doctors were that irrational. Now that is disturbing.

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  2. Comment copied from Reitan's blog...

    ##

    Patrick said...
    Burk and Eric, I have a question that is a little off topic: Have you guys read the book "Irreducible Mind" by Kelly et al (2007)?

    If not, I highly recommend it.

    ##

    This is a very apposite suggestion, citing possibly the most comprehensive work available that seeks to poke holes in naturalistic accounts of brain function, thus making room for the possibility of supernatural explanations, which would be the first step (but only a first step) towards the plausibility of taking transcendence seriously in the way Eric Reitan wishes to.

    I have not read this book, but a substantial trail of coverage on it is available on the web. Please see this review, noting additionally its link to the topic of "explaining away". This book appears to be the last stand by a couple of psychic phenomena researchers (interview here), and better titled an approach to a nineteenth century psychology, than to one of the twenty first century (note the fringe media it is popular in- Esalen, Skeptiko.com, Institute of Noetic Sciences, etc. Stigmata, reincarnation? Please. This is not to say they are necessarily wrong, but that this campaign has very strong signs of crack-pottery, similar to AIDs-not-caused-by-HIV, classical ESP research, and the like.

    For instance, they make much of supposedly inexplicable mind-body connections. But naturalistic science has very little problem with any of these issues in principle, since the brain is an endocrine organ, while the body is full of nerves. Just because our conscious mind doesn't have a clue what is going on in our stomachs does not mean that other areas of the brain don't either, and can't give us unconscious inputs about it, as well as sending signals to the body in reverse.

    The isolation of brain vs body is one of the many illusions of consciousness evolved for the entirely practical reason that consciousness is a precious resource, not to be wasted on monitoring our livers from minute to minute, but rather to be devoted to tasks of greatest moment and computational complexity- the physical and social challenges of the outer world.

    But as the interviewees state, the future will indeed tell, via evidence collected empirically. Brain science, which I attempt to blog on from time to time, is making great progress and continues to deepen the naturalistic paradigm in volition, memory, consciousness and related areas. My view is that consciousness will be solved by these approaches within a decade or two (though of course not to the satisfaction of dedicated "irreducibalists", as has been true in evolution as well). Likewise in philosophy, leading lights are going in the same naturalistic direction, such as Searle.

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  3. If I may go on a bit...

    Reitan states: "The question is whether it would be undue hubris to attend to the naturalist explanations of the [spiritual] feeling, which explain it AWAY as non-veridical, and then say, 'That MIGHT be correct, but that is as much an interpretation of the experience as is the view that the experience is some kind of mystical encounter with something beyond the world of ordinary experience. And the experience FELT more like the latter. Since my life somehow makes more sense, feels more integrated, when I judge it to be precisely THAT, I choose to live in hope rather than in the fear of being duped.' "

    To make an analogy, Reitan's position is like a dreamer waking up and extending the "hope" that all his dreams have been true/veridical, vivid experience being presumptively veridical. He sits down and works through their plots, and agrees that those that disobey basic rules of causation might not have been real, but declines to use inductive reasoning to doubt the truthfulness of his other dreams, being "open" to the possibility that they point to true events as yet unproven and likewise undisproven. A sort of "hope in the gaps" position.

    It is a curious skepticism that extends credulity to mental processes such as dreaming, prayer and meditation as "possibly" veridical because they "feel" so veridical, while retaining the most extreme skepticism versus basic physical principles of causal closure (particularly within our human, terrestrial world) and conservation of information and energy, in favor of the "possibility" of a supernatural realm specially constructed and defined to escape empirical engagement while (however weakly) satisfying the mental "possibilities" given such credence above. Such skepticism seems more biased than humble.

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  4. A couple of thoughts

    "dreaming, prayer and meditation as "possibly" veridical because they "feel" so veridical"

    Ultimately, isn't life all about feelings?

    However, I agree with you that Eric sets up a false dichotomy between materialism and spirituality. A solid spirituality should not be threatened by materialistic descriptions. I see them as two ways of looking at the same thing.

    However, I am sympathetic to Eric's position that we are first person observers in this world and to feel we really understand things from a 3rd person perspective is always dubious. Materialistic descriptions are not free from human bias. But, they should strive to be and that says something. But WE are humans, so it's unavoidable. Life is a conundrum - but hopefully a fun one. I suppose faith should work with knowledge - not see it as a threat. Of course "knowledge" isn't always correct though.....

    I also sympathize with the religious position from ethics. Naturalistic philosophy offers no prescription for morality. Can't critical thinking be employed towards any end we decide upon? What are our "metaphysical" (i hate that word, but what's better?) positions concerning right and wrong? Anything we pick can be justified from a naturalistic perspective, can it not?

    I also see a problem with equating scientific reductionism to a reduction in value. If we tear apart faith or religion, can't we also tear apart anything that we enjoy in life? If you enjoy fiction or sports or aesthetics in cooking or design - can't I employ scientific reductionism to devalue your position? I know that faith often seeks to impose a view on others - but that is the abuse of faith.

    I enjoy your perspective.

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  5. Hi, Steven-

    You bring up an important and very common point, about morals. "If we tear apart faith or religion, can't we also tear apart anything that we enjoy in life?"

    The short answer is no. This is one of the greatest canards of religious propaganda, that somehow religion is the guardian and safeguard of subjective experience over remorseless analysis and reduction. Religion is indeed the guardian of magical thinking- the impulse to ascribe to subjective thoughts great powers of action and insight- healing powers and clairvoyant perception accompanied by esoteric insights into supernatural dimensions. These are all inflations of subjectivity that, to various degrees accord with our natures and particularly with the special properties of consciousness and its illusions.

    But think of your eyes. Now that we understand how they work, are we less appreciative of how they bring us the world? Likewise with other things we understand, like the mysteries of human fertility or plant growth. We can take them all with subjective awe and enjoyment at the very same time that we have access to fairly good analytical understandings of their material basis.

    Materialists do not abjure Shakespeare for being false (while being oh-so-true to human nature), or rainbows for being optical phenomena. Subjective phenomena remain rich and moving, even while the limits of subjectivity are rationally circumscribed by a fair understanding of cognitive science, physics, and other empirically-based modes of knowing.

    Subjectivity automatically tells us that we exist- Descartes was right there. It does not tell us what else exists. For that we have to have humility, of which the exemplar turns out to be the scientific method.

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  6. I agree completely. That's why the pursuit of "magical" thinking - seeing life through a lens of possibilities, indulging feelings, experimenting with 1st person consciousness - is still very relevant to me. The magic is already there, it's about conditioning our perspective to realize it. Explaining the human tendency for faith, imagination, etc. does not diminish it - just as it does not diminish Shakespeare. Describing the spiritual in a physical way does nothing to diminish it. Just like describing pain's physical mechanism does little too diminish the subjective experience of it (unless we can pop an ibuprofen, of course!)

    Like a broken record, I"ll point out that trying to force subjective experiences/conclusions on to others is wrong - it's the abuse of faith. Real faith is taking a step everyday in to the unknown - letting go of the need to control - accepting that we can't know everything, but stepping forward anyway. Faith is not belief - Faith is accepting aspects of something that we can't believe. I know this is probably more an Eastern way of seeing faith than a Western way.


    "The short answer is no."

    We'll have to disagree here. I am not defending literalist, fundamentalist religion - but in fighting it, I think we have to be careful not to throw out all subjective meaning in the process.

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  7. I should point out again that I think we are in "agreeance" on Reductionism.

    Scientific Reductionism is great. But it should not be confused with a reduction in value.

    I just want to make that point clear. I am all for exploring through scientific method - I just see it not as a way to get rid of religion/myth but rather as a way to understand it better. After all, everything that the myths seek to represent are still with us. The source is still here. so why use myth at all? Because we're artists, dammit. Scientific rhetoric, while infinitely valuable in study, is not so much on target for communicating meaning. "

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  8. Oh, yes- we are artists. But confusing art with philosophy is a bad thing ... i.e. thinking that what we create was always there to begin with.

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  9. Indeed one might say that our florid creativity is just the problem. We create far more ideas, ideals, models, hypotheses, dreams, concepts, etc. than we can ever test or realize. If we know we are creating things, that is great, and all power to us.

    But if we think our ideas are conforming to external reality (i.e. truth), then there is no way to tell but to go out and test in scientific/empirical ways. If they express another truth- our inner feelings, mode of being, desires, etc., that is great too, but quite another definition of truth, which really could use a distinct label. As you say, life is about feelings. But philosophy that makes claims about "reality" should not be.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. True - What we create can only REPRESENT what was there to begin with. We are great at mixing up our representations for the real deal. But without representations we couldn't talk about it - perhaps even to ourselves. Of course, maybe that wouldn't be so bad......

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  12. "But if we think our ideas are conforming to external reality (i.e. truth), then there is no way to tell but to go out and test in scientific/empirical ways. If they express another truth- our inner feelings, mode of being, desires, etc., that is great too, but quite another definition of truth, which really could use a distinct label. As you say, life is about feelings. But philosophy that makes claims about "reality" should not be."

    I agree for the most part. But I don't see how philosophy can be divorced from feelings. In writing a post we all try to capture, through the symbolism of concept and language, the feeling we are trying to communicate. Does "logical" thinking satisfy a person? "magical" thinking? what satisfies us? But trying to a be a clear window through which reality can shine is a great goal (why? because this idea satisfies me?). Impossible perhaps, but great.

    I think the word you may be searching for is "spiritual". Spiritual reality is subjective in some ways - you may not be feeling the same sense of things that I am right now. But, those subjective experiences are strengthened by communicating with others who have had similar experiences "independently". Through Art, Friendship, etc. This is how Buddhism works, of course. Subjective, first person experiences are independently verified by the personal experiences of others.

    And these feelings are the ultimate point of life. No one makes claims about reality or scientific discoveries, etc. unless it satisfies them spiritually. Perhaps our choices in life are controlled by this spiritual, subjective sense. But our conscious choices alter our spiritual sense as well. for instance, the decision to meditate on compassion will almost undoubtedly change the way your brain works.

    I am rambling, but I appreciate the sounding board.

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  13. Burk, I must sigh in frustration. I wrote a response to you, but it got deleted. I will try writing a response again later on tonight. I just wanted to express my annoyance at having my comment disappear!

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  14. Hu Burk, I wrote a preliminary reply to you in my blog at http://tacoseasoning.blogspot.com/2009/07/to-burk.html

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  15. Hello Burk,

    I also am a critic of Dr Reitan's position on a number of things, including epistemology, but I find numerous things to question here.

    not only has the vast knowledge of our current scientific corpus not found a transcendent realm

    Surely you've seen that old skit where one person is looking around on the ground for his dropped wallet, within the light of the nearby streetlamp, a passerby offers to help, whereupon the first tells him he actually lost his wallet some distance away, but he's looking near the lamp b/c that's where the light is. That's you, here. Science has its specific sphere of ability and bailiwick, and you're expecting it to inform you about things it can't inform you about. Might as well spend millions of dollars running experiments to try to figure out what elements compose the scientific method. Does it react when exposed to heat? When mixed with magnesium? Is it a gas, liquid, or solid at room temperature?


    but those supposedly benefiting the most from transcendent wisdom have ended up wildly off the mark

    According to your artificially-restricted worldview, sometimes. This really doesn't tell anyone anything, it's just a statement out of your bias.
    And sometimes they get it really right, such as when science discovered the beginning of the universe, and theologians had every right to say "Told you so." Sometime perhaps the same will occur with Intelligent Design. Or when Christianity stood against eugenics, which was all the rage of the scientific community at the time. The list could go on and on.


    authorizing patriarchal systems, damning unbelievers, or creating bizarre food prohibitions (not to mention convenient rules about how many extra wives they could have).

    1) By what moral system do you, an atheist, condemn these actions? And why should anyone else care about what you say? What's your authority to speak on such matters?
    2) By what standard do you label these prohibitions "bizarre"? And why would the Papuan headhunter be wrong when he labels your (I presume) reticence to consume pan-seared human brain "bizarre"?


    Perhaps the realm properly defined as perpetually beyond the reach of skeptical observation yet exists, and we have a special portal to it through the process of day-dreaming.

    Here my response, as a conservative Calvinist type, would probably be different than Dr Reitan's. 'Tis not daydreaming, but rather God speaking.


    no transcendent sensory mode has emerged.

    1) This might beat on Dr Reitan's position, true, but those who actually follow Christian teaching (I wouldn't count Dr Reitan among them; he's a liberal theist, which is substantially different) would simply remind you that God has spoken in a way that humans can understand, and there is no need for, though there is room for, a transcendent sensory mode.
    2) Besides, this still falls under the artificial streetlamp restriction.


    one would think that the source of such wisdom would grant knowledge of amazing things- the origins of existence, the ground of all being, and the face of god.

    Perhaps it does. How do you know it doesn't?


    Yet the various faith traditions have come up with vastly differing elaborations of all three,

    No doubt you also refuse to use any currency in financial transactions, since counterfeits exist. You must lead an interesting, if isolated and austere, life.


    One wonders whether OSU would hire a "philosopher" of Islam, or a "philosopher" of Voodoo, just to spice things up.

    Well, I'm an alum of the Univ of Okla, and that's more or less been done. You really think American universities represent, by and large, bastions of religious and theological conservatism? I'd suggest you pay a little better attention.

    Anyway, nice talking to you!

    Peace,
    Rhology

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  16. Hi, Rhology-

    Let me go in reverse order. I agree that OSU is unusual having such obvious theologists posing as philosophers. That would not, and should not, be countenanced in most departments. Philosophy is love of truth, not love of god. The conflation of the two is no longer tenable, since the very existence of god is highly questionable, and even if existence is considered, comparative religion, even within Judeo-Christian traditions, tells us that the concept is the very opposite of truth- it comprises tribally oriented, artistically elaborated fantasies that approach common ground on only the vaguest level. In other words, there isn't a subject of study there at all, and the whole thing would be better served in a creative writing department, or a psychology department.

    Otherwise, you generally support the idea that we could indeed have special mental contact with the divine, which is reflected at least in the Bible's provenance, if not in our ongoing, widespread, and personal receipt of revelation. And that science has no business saying one way or the other whether our brains can or can not have such capacities, and whether such a realm of psychic supernatural contact exists.

    There is a formal point to your position. Supernatural has been defined in such a way as to elude empirical engagement- to be outside of science (super). But there is always a tiny problem, since supernatural causes are supposed to have physical effects- they create universes, or they contribute to miracles contrary to physical law, or they cause our minds to think receive certain thoughts. So there is always a point at which the super and the real are supposed to interact, and it is at this point that many have looked and none have found.

    For instance, Intelligent Design, in the hands of its most sophisticated proponents, ends up positing a sort of quantum jiggling by which the "designer" subtly influences the path of evolution such that her desired path (to us, presumably) happens, and other paths don't. Unfortunately, statistical mechanics gives us no hope that this occurs. Random processes are still random, whether the behavior of gasses or of quanta coming out of the vacuum. Randomness for these kinds of processes has been demonstrated to some depth, and made into physical laws such as the conservation laws. So there is no support for this kind of mechanism of intersection between super and natural.

    Likewise with the brain- however one slices it, supernatural hypotheses posit some way for data to stream into our minds (or those of the prophets and/or god's scribes) from a non-natural source. This violates the basic physics of energy conservation, so it simply can't happen according to empirically-derived laws of nature, quite aside from the many observations of our minds being definitively coterminous with our brains.

    So, your analogy with the street lamp is not valid, since the place to search for supernatural effects is quite obvious. The search has just gone unrewarded. This is not to say that we have full understanding of all these issues- how the brain works, or how the universe came to be, etc. But it is not hard to look in the right place where effects from the super realm are supposed to impinge on the real realm.. and so far, none have been reliably found. That is why psychic research is so diligently pursued and fervently believed in- it is supposed to provide proof of this supposed interface.

    On the other hand, it is always helpful to keep the opposing hypothesis in mind- that we are making all this up, gods, unicorns, santa claus, Moses .. the whole ball of wax. This has a great deal to recommend it, since this process is abundantly attested to in history and current experience. Indeed, it is well-neigh universal. See my post this week on Gnosticism.

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  17. Hi Burk!

    The existence of God is actually 100% necessary for the existence, consistency, and possibilty of intelligibility. Just a plug for some different, correct thinking here.
    You say "tribally oriented" like it's a bad thing, yet never answered my question about whence come your moral judgments. I'd like to know that, to be sure, especially since the question touches very strongly on the question of what positions one holds.

    You suddenly agree with me that science "has no business" saying one way or the other, but that's not what your post said. You are of course welcome to change your position.

    You say many have looked and found none, but of course many others (probably many more) have looked and found ample. Let's not be disingenuous here; you have no evidence of your assertion, but rather a blind faith presupposition of materialism, which is ridiculous on its face, which you then apply to theistic positions, lacing it with and high-fallootin' academia talk to intimidate and persuade by itself. But not everyone is fooled thereby.
    Further, this doesn't really touch on any biblical idea of reality, where a few relevant things apply:
    1) God works virtually all the time via means, providential, physical, human, natural, etc.
    2) All people are sinners and suppress their knowledge that God exists (thus, it's expected that many or most people won't be believers in the God of the Bible).
    3) Where God works miraculously, I can't think of a regular, ongoing miraculous series of events, so the tools of study and determination of the miraculous are different than normal scientific inquiry. Indeed, the creation event is a biggie, and it can't be accessed really at all by modern science, without the application of massive assumptions all around.

    So, I guess what I'm saying is: swipe away at Dr Reitan's position with your self-refuting position, and chop it down for all I care; to a biblical Christian it's the cash equivalent of a Mormon arguing down a Muslim, where truth is the currency.

    I love this statement:
    This violates the basic physics of energy conservation, so it simply can't happen according to empirically-derived laws of nature

    Oh, that's really rich. Assume materialism, then show how a theistic idea violates materialism, and proclaim victory!
    That's not substantive debate. I might as well do it the other way and say that God is, and the Bible says so. Booyah, your position is full of it.


    your analogy with the street lamp is not valid, since the place to search for supernatural effects is quite obvious.

    Not if you're dogmatically using ONLY the scientific method to try to access it. You can't even define the sci meth that way; why would I expect you could access whether God is, that way?


    that we are making all this up, gods, unicorns, santa claus, Moses .. the whole ball of wax

    While we're at it, maybe you made up that we exist at all. Maybe you're a brain in a vat. Maybe you're wrong that evidence is a good way to discover truth, that your brain can reasonably discover or even access reality, that your senses report true sensations to you. This is not a double-edged sword, it's an epistemological H-bomb.
    Interestingly, for the empirical materialist like you, who no doubt refuse to believe anythg unless "you can find evidence for it", I'd challenge you to provide evidence you're not a brain in a vat. can't do it? Sounds like blind faith!
    And I'll check on the Gnosticism post, thanks.

    Peace,
    Rhology

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  18. "Where God works miraculously, I can't think of a regular, ongoing miraculous series of events, so the tools of study and determination of the miraculous are different than normal scientific inquiry."

    Yes- I'll say.

    Ever wonder why miracles don't occur anymore? Could it be because critical methods of the enlightenment have sapped people's credulity? Sure- you still see virgin Mary toasts for sale on ebay, and the pope beatifies by the dozen, but real miracles? The world hasn't changed, but people have.

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  19. I don't grant that miracles don't occur anymore, but miracles have always had a specific reason and point to them, one that is redundant during this era.
    You think there weren't skeptics around back then? Jesus' enemies certainly had every reason to rip on His miracles, but had no answer.
    But even if amazing supernatural events did occur today, you've shown me nothing that would make me think that you wouldn't just explain them away - maybe we don't know how it happened or what happened, but one thing we KNOW! We KNOW that it wasn't supernatural, b/c there IS no supernatural! How do we know that? B/c the supernatural isn't material!!!!111

    In other words, that's not too impressive.

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  20. Please check out this set of essays which provide a unique criticism of what is usually called religion.

    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-religion.aspx

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