Scientificity and religious phenomena

25-02-2022

It seems necessary to us to clear up some common misunderstandings about “scientificity” in matters of faith. Scientific are all statements or findings that relate to the time and space whole of which we are a part and that can be proven by repeatable tests or observations, as well as the logically resulting conclusions. From this definition one can immediately deduce that the statement “God does not exist” cannot be a scientific conclusion, since one cannot make experimental observations of something that does not exist and, moreover, God is by definition not subject to the laws that govern observable reality. One can only work with unprovable assumptions of the type: “If God exists, then …”. However, our illustrious Flemish philosopher, the late Etienne Vermeersch, was very confident of being able to accomplish this impossible scientific tour de force in an “Opus Magnus” (sic). Maybe God thought it was enough? The master plan to put an end to God’s philosophical right to exist died in any case, together with its author, a “painless death” (1).

In contrast to non-existence, the possibility and even the probability of the existence of God as the sovereign creative authority can be derived indirectly but logically, namely from the complex laws that govern the reality known to us (2). But that’s largely all. Since God’s “Being” is not subject to the limitations of time and space, we can derive little or no “scientific” inferences from it. To science, the ultimate origin of all that we know is and remain something like an unattainable celestial body, or an untraceable “creation and/or decision center”, whose existence can or may be presumed, but cannot be proven by a known scientific method.

More generally, we see that some of the realities that affect us are not or difficult to treat scientifically, because they belong to other domains of knowledge such as intuitions, emotional world, visions, or belief. Everything that falls under this is therefore not automatically “unscientific”, because that presupposes that they cannot be compatible with science. For a scientific assessment of it, it is appropriate to use nuanced qualifications, such as “not (or difficult) scientifically demonstrable”, “scientifically (whether or not) probably” and the like. Such domains are not only frequently, but even necessaryly part of our human thinking and decision-making processes. Also reasoning accepted as “purely scientific” is often subtly influenced, contaminated, or possibly even based on unfounded (or not well-substantiated) assumptions or propositions. Objectively speaking, one can only call ‘unscientific’ that which can be conclusively shown to be incompatible with existing scientific knowledge. On the other hand, we must be wary of the “scientifically proven” qualification label. It is all too often used to impose one’s own views with a cheap authority argument, often referring to statements of authorities, known or unknown.

Miracles

Directly observed signs of God’s existence are called miracles. For Christians, the most important of these are the birth of his Son and his apparitions after his resurrection.  Miracles belong primarily to the religious world of faith, and in any case, they are not randomly repeatable phenomena. They can therefore only achieve a certain degree of scientific acceptability to a limited extent, insofar as they can be demonstrated and recorded using certain techniques, e.g., through instruments, photography, or well-documented medical findings. The Catholic Church has already acknowledged quite a few miracles, but this has always happened only after extensive and thorough research of sources, testimonies, and findings. A lasting proclamation of faith is no more served by the spread of cheap miracle stories or fantasies than by a straitjacket of pseudoscientific criticism.

From the scientific side, skepticism about miraculous events prevails (often rightly, but not always). Scientifically one can only confirm that miracles do not comply with the known laws of nature, but it cannot be proved that there are no exceptions to those natural laws, due to unknown underlying natural causes or supernatural forces (which govern the laws of nature themselves). True scientificity is characterized by the awareness of its limits. The more we know, the more we see what we don’t know yet.  In recent years, we have also seen an increasing interest in “paranormal” phenomena from a scientific perspective. From a religious point of view, it is encouraging that we can deduce from the continued success of recognized places of pilgrimage (also in these hyper materialistic times) that the belief in miracles is anything but dead. Articles on this site that discuss miracles provide an opportunity to go into more detail on this subject (3).

Applying the above to the topics covered here, we must conclude that many renowned religious experts squeeze almost dutifully into the aforementioned pseudoscientific straitjacket. Curiously, this seems to be mainly the result of an exaggerated concern for their scientific reputation.  As a result of this cramped approach, a large proportion of today’s theological thinkers, consciously or not, are busy carefully sawing off the branches of faith on which they are seated.

Our material and existential questions can largely be answered by a combination of scientificity and humanism. But our religious quests yield little if we do not dare to make deliberate, but uncomplexed use of the wealth of religious findings and insights of 2000 years of Christianity. The combination of experiences and logical explanations that this treasure offers us allows us to dig much deeper and reach further into the hidden realities that determine our lives, than a so-called “strictly scientific” approach. The probable correctness (i.e., not the same as the scientific correctness!) of our believing stand points is promoted by a healthy self-criticism.  For their final assessment, we must pay attention to their coherence within the whole of our conceptions, the meaningfulness that accompanies them and the added value they provide for our further spiritual enrichment.

Angels and visions

Instead of dismissing the biblical angel stories as pious fables in advance, they can also be regarded as a form of day or night dreams or visions, which leave an impression on the persons concerned as real as the daily happenings around them and the consequences of which can possibly be established afterwards. The difference with hallucinations is that they are not a side effect of diseases or neural defects, but occur spontaneously in completely healthy, usually spiritually inspired people. This concerns purely spiritual phenomena (so miraculous), which are not produced by the seers themselves, but which manifest themselves very realistically to them. Our times also have plenty of examples of physically inexplicable experiences or situations, which sometimes resulted in “stigmata”, as with the famous Italian Padre Pio.

It is all too simplistic to dismiss all the experiences of seers as chimeras or fabrications. But since as an outsider one has no access to similar sensations oneself, one has to evaluate these phenomena with great caution. This means, among other things, that the angel stories in the Bible should not necessarily all be labeled “really happened”. It is quite plausible that within a community with a strong believe in angels, orally transmitted events were explained or gradually enhanced by the involvement of angels.

Let’s give a fictitious example to explain this problem. Suppose that around the year AD 4000 an edition of the completely lost Portuguese newspaper O Século (AD 1881-1977) is found by chance.  It contains an article by the editor-in-chief Avelino de Almeida, who describes how he was an eyewitness to the miracle of the sun of October 13, 1917, in Fatima. Pieces of other papers also surface, reporting that about 50,000 people collectively watched the sun dance, as St. Mary had predicted. After careful source research, a team of specialists concludes that O Século was an anticlerical newspaper, which was generally considered objective and that the various other fragments tell a largely similar story. Since the researchers do not believe in miracles and they assume that the journalist involved did not do this either, their conclusion is that this is a science fiction story. Their further research then leads to the following “historical” assessment:

The story was published by the author around the time of Halloween along with rigged photos, with the intention of boosting his newspaper’s sales figures by causing sensation. (Some twenty years later Orson Welles also did something similar with his still well-known radio play “War of the Worlds “). The newspaper report was immediately taken over by several other newspapers and provided with additional details. Avelino de Almeida apparently found his inspiration in a prehistoric English sun cult, of which Stonehenge was the center and which was still practiced in his time by some druidic sects. His story was then picked up by Christian faith communities and widely disseminated as authentic. Even today, traces of this can be found in stories that are doing the rounds in conservative circles.

Can this assessment be called “scientific”? Where are the fallacies? What similarities do the conclusions of this fictional research team bear with a large number of conclusions of contemporary historical-critical exegesis?  It is up to our readers to think about this, or to inform themselves further.  On other occasions, the important and fascinating subject of supernatural phenomena will certainly be discussed (4).

(1) On 18 January 2019, Etienne Vermeersch opted for euthanasia after one year of illness.

(2) We talk about this in the discussion of the book of Jean Guitton and the Bogdanov brothers Dieu et la science. Vers le métaréalisme. Paris: Grasset, 1991. (Cf. the Dutch article God en de Wetenschap in this section).

(3)  On this site, only the unexplained events for which there is ample sufficient and solid evidence are treated as miracles (or accepted as possibly of a miraculous nature). This mainly concerns facts that were officially accepted as such by the Catholic Church, either on the basis of direct investigation by an authorized ecclesiastical authority, or on the basis of well-studied and accepted traditions, in particular those from the Old and New Testaments.

(4) See our Dutch article De authenticiteit van de evangelische kindsheidverhalen (The authenticity of the evangelical childhood stories), under the theme “Bijbel” (Bible).

Geef een reactie

Vul je gegevens in of klik op een icoon om in te loggen.

WordPress.com logo

Je reageert onder je WordPress.com account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Twitter-afbeelding

Je reageert onder je Twitter account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Facebook foto

Je reageert onder je Facebook account. Log uit /  Bijwerken )

Verbinden met %s