NDE – Responding to the Dying Brain Hypothesis – Part 2

In my first blog post, I described the NDE phenomena and argued a physiological explanation does not adequately account for the testimony of NDErs. Lack of oxygen, and changing brain chemistry does not adequately explain NDEs. But what about the field of human psychology? Can we explain the supposed out of body experiences (OBE) in psychological terms?

I’m going to argue that psychology alone is insufficient to account for a few particular evidential examples of OBE. There are so many of these sorts of veridical accounts in the NDE literature. For example, check out the scholarly, peer reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies for much more. So, I think we can begin to draw the conclusion that human psychology cannot account for NDEs either. This blog explains why.

Responding to Blackmore’s Psychological Dying Brain OBE Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic dying brain theory explores psychological causes of the OBEs that are very often described by NDErs.

As a matter of course, she says the brain constructs environmental models used by the subject to understand their world and place within it. Sensory input is interpreted in the construction of these models. Subjects hold multiple models simultaneously and intuitively select the most stable and appropriate model of reality. Consequently, an OBE does not involve the leaving of the self from the body. Rather, because the dying brain experiences failing sensory input, it copes by choosing an alternative model driven by memory and imagination instead.[1] Blackmore claims our memories occur from a birds-eye view, which explains why OBEs proceed from that vantage point.[2]

She justifies her brain model argument claiming that model switching occurs in cited instances of a subject’s sensory deprivation leading to hallucination experiences.[3] Yet for her theory to explain OBEs, it also must account for the subject’s birds-eye view. Her claim that memories proceed most often from a birds-eye view lacks justification. She cites a memory study by Nigro and Niesser (N&N). Serdaheley observes N&N distinguish two memory types. Field memories proceed through our personally observed experience, while observer memories proceed from an external vantage point. Field memory seemed more common than observer memory in the N&N memory study, and while observer memories were emotionally detached, field memories involved vivid emotional recall.[4] Consequently, Blackmore finds no support for her claim that observer memories are more common in the N&N study. She therefore has not accounted for the classical, birds-eye OBE viewpoint.

Blackmore tries to account for OBE observations during NDErs unconscious state by highlighting instances where apparently unconscious subjects retained residual sense experience. Senses combined with imagination may explain how the subject constructed an imagined memory of their situation. She cites an instance during resuscitation where the subject remembered a nurse giving him a procedure, he mistakenly interpretated as an injection. She suggests unconscious subjects retain touch or hearing awareness and build these into imaginary models.[5] This may explain why unconscious patients appear to remember their resuscitation by medical personnel. Yet Blackmore’s theory assumes residual touch and hearing are sufficient to construct a picture in every case. Dr. Miguel Quesada recounts an OBE patient who could describe the shape and colour of the medical instruments used while unconscious during her operation. She was unfamiliar with the instruments, and their colour was not mentioned during the procedure.[6] Neither residual touch nor hearing can account for this. Further, if OBEs are caused by residual sense stimulation, why are none reported from the prone position? OBEs are always described from a birds-eye view. Serdahaley opines that, if Blackmore is correct about residual sense experience, surely some NDEs would involve the subject looking up into the faces of their carers or relatives, rather than always looking down on them from above.[7]

When assessing the positive experiences NDErs have, Blackmore says it comes from realizing, “the self was only a mental construction … that can be let go. There never was any solid self and there is no one to die.”[8] Yet this claim conflicts with her idea that there is no self. If there is no self, then who is concluding there is no self during an NDE? It sounds self-refuting to claim a subject realises that their self does not exist. More generally, it is unclear to me how one can gather knowledge about an experience from a naturalistic worldview ontology. Blackmore’s naturalism is evident in her discussion about the brain modelling reality, and she rightly concludes on naturalism there is no self. But in this case, she has an epistemological problem. If people have thoughts and beliefs about NDE experiences, this means they have intentionality because there is an aboutness related to these thoughts. This intentionality requires one to have a mental state from which to consider beliefs. But Blackmore’s naturalism only allows sensory inputs to a brain that builds models. On this naturalistic ontology, there are no essences, no intentionality, just interpretation without the possibility of knowing.[9] Scott Smith concludes that on naturalism, knowledge becomes impossible, and so the NDErs knowledge of their experience cannot exist under Blackmore’s ontology. Yet NDErs do have knowledge of an experience that has enduring effects upon them, suggesting Blackmore’s naturalistic worldview is inadequate.

Consequently, Blackmore’s physiological and psychological dying brain hypotheses fail to account for NDEer experience. She also fails to account for many veridical NDE cases as well. For example, Serdaheley interviewed a subject who experienced an OBE while an assailant strangled her on the beach. She found herself observing the scene from above her body and watched as he fled the scene on a beach path she had never used. The path was identified, an individual was placed there at that time, and was subsequently convicted of her attack.[10] If Blackmore is right OBEs result from dying brains, how do we account for this woman’s ability to observe her attacker’s escape while lying unconscious on the ground? I would argue the dying brain theory generally fails to account for veridical NDEs like this one.

In the next blog post I will explore more veridical NDE evidence. I will discuss the phenomena of shared NDE.


[1] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 173 – 175.

[2] Ibid., 177.

[3] Ibid., 70 – 71.

[4] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996, 43.

[5] Blackmore, 125.

[6] Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, (Durham: IANDS, 2016), 24.

[7] Serdaheley, 45.

[8] Blackmore, 263.

[9] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 152.

[10] Serdaheley, 46.

Near Death Experiences – Responding to the “Dying Brain” Hypothesis

Medical science today can bring people back from the brink of death. In the last fifty years, doctors, philosophers, and theologians have been studying a phenomenon called Near-Death Experience (NDE). This is an altered state of consciousness some people experience when close to death, and also when in a completely flat-line physical state, or clinically dead. Doctor Raymond A. Moody did the first major study of thousands of these reported experiences, publishing the first book on NDEs in 1975 – Life After Life. Moody notes that, while NDEs are in some senses a modern phenomenon, resulting from medical advances in technology and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he also finds evidence of them occurring in ancient Greek philosophy from thousands of years ago. Plato’s Republic recounts the tale of Er who was apparently killed in battle, yet revived during his funeral, and told the tale of leaving his body and entering the afterlife before returning. Democritus founded atomic theory, and in his fragmentary surviving writings, show an interest in many “returning from the dead” stories.[1] NDEs have been happening throughout human history it seems.

In this blog series I am going to argue that naturalistic explanations for NDEs fail to account for the evidence surrounding the cases I assess, and they aren’t sufficient to account for the cumulative weight of testimonial and veridical NDE evidence. Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic “dying brain” hypothesis claims NDEs occur within a dying individual’s head, they are not instances of a soul departing the physical body. First, I’ll discuss her physiological argument, then I will assess her psychological argument. I will argue Blackmore’s argument does not adequately account for testimonial and veridical evidence of particular NDEs. I will then discuss the important veridical phenomenon called “shared NDEs” and finally, I will assess how I think NDE reports are consistent with a Biblical view of life after death and can therefore withstand challenges from NDE skeptic Christians. I conclude that NDEs complement a Christian view of life after death.

Defining Near-Death Experiences

An NDE is an event sometimes reported by people who return from either a near-death or complete clinical death state. Three hundred million contemporary cases exist from Near-Death experiencers (NDErs) of different ages and cultures. Jeffrey Long surveyed over six hundred NDErs to identify common elements in their experiences. Over fifty percent reported an out-of-body (OBE) experience where consciousness apparently left their body. They experienced heightened senses, encountered an unearthly kind of world, and met a mystical light, spiritual beings, or previously deceased relatives. They described a love and beauty that was hard to articulate. This group also recounted a decision during the NDE to return to their body. Under fifty percent of NDErs experienced an OBE involving tunnel traversal, a life review assessing how they had impacted others in life, and a one-way barrier.[2] Long also reports NDErs are profoundly changed by their experience, becoming more loving, and knowing decreased fear of death.[3] In a small number of cases, Long encountered evidence of frightening, or hellish NDE experiences.[4]

Responding to Blackmore’s Physiological Dying Brain Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who engages with NDEs from her naturalistic worldview, seeking to ground them in physiological and psychological terms alone. Physiologically, she observes the human brain requires oxygen to function, and at some point, the oxygen supply to the brain of a dying person will cease. Eventually, the brain enters a state of oxygen deprivation called anoxia. Studies on fighter pilots show that under extreme G forces they experience G-LOC, temporary acceleration induced anoxia.[5] Blackmore suggests the effects mirror NDEs; unconsciousness, having an OBE, vivid dreams, and seeing loved ones.[6]

NDEs may be like the effects from anoxia, yet fundamental differences exist. First, unconscious G-LOC subjects encounter living loved ones, while NDErs report only meeting dead relatives. If the NDE is due to anoxia close to death, surely comforting images of living relatives would appear, not dead ones. William Serdahely opines the dying brain hypothesis fails to account for these visions of dead relatives.[7] Second, the clarity of a subject’s anoxic experience differs from the average NDE. Blackmore’s G-LOC study records during unconsciousness, the anoxic subject displays total incapacitation followed by a period of confusion until consciousness returns.[8] Anoxia causes confusion that impairs human perception.

Chris Carter describes high altitude mountain climber studies that match the pilot G-LOC studies. As the brain loses oxygen, disorientation and confusion occurs, and one’s capacity for completing tasks is impaired.[9] Yet Long’s NDErs experienced complete loss of brain function combined with extreme clarity of thought and heightened awareness during their NDE. Dr Pim van Lommel observes during NDE, “there … [is an] inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.”[10] This suggests anoxia differs fundamentally from the NDE experience. Carter supports this conclusion with Allan Pring’s testimony. Pring experienced both high altitude anoxia and an NDE later in life. Assessing both experiences, he concludes, “there was no similarity. On the contrary, the whole [NDE] … was crystal clear and it has remained so for the past fifteen years.”[11]

However, a more fundamental challenge to Blackmore’s hypothesis comes in Vicki Umipeg’s case. She died in a sudden car accident and experienced a vivid NDE that she recounted upon resuscitation.[12] In her case, the brain had no time to succumb to the chemical changes caused by anoxia before her NDE began. This reinforces the conclusion that these oxygen deprived brain states are quite distinct from the NDE experience, so the physiological dying brain hypothesis fails to account for this NDEer testimonial evidence.

In part two of this series, I will respond to Blackmores psychological explanation for NDEs.


[1] Raymond A. Moody, “Near-Death Experiences An Essay in Medicine and Philosophy,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, John C Hagan III MD, ed, (University of Missouri Press, 2017), 11-12.

[2] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife The Science of Near-Death Experiences, (New York:HarperCollins, 2010), EPub edition, 5 – 20.

[3] Long and Perry, 50.

[4] Jeffrey Long, “Frightening NDEs,” Evidence of the Afterlife – Supplementary Material, accessed 3rd November, 2021, https://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence/Frightening_NDEs.htm.

[5] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 57.

[6] Ibid., 59 – 60.

[7] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996.

[8] Blackmore, 57 – 58.

[9] Chris Carter, Science and the Near-Death Experience How Consciousness Survives Death, (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2010), 162.

[10] Van Lommel, “Consciousness Beyond Life,” quoted in John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 326.

[11] Fenwick and Fenwick, “The Truth in the Light,” quoted in Carter, 168.

[12] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 232 – 233.

Thoughts on Dune and Messiahs

Denis Villeneuve and his team have finally begun to bring Dune to cinema in a way that is fitting. It is years since I read the book, but experiencing this film brings it back in a vivid and compelling way. I can smell it. This is a movie that you live through for its 155-minute running time. You can see, feel, and breath in the fabric of this story in a compelling and satisfying way. One of the real successes here is in taking a complex, politically woven novel, yet presenting the important themes in a clear and interesting way.

Frank Herbert wrote the original novel and it was published in 1965. He has brought together many ancient political, religious, and economic strands from the history of human civilization and woven his story through it giving his fictional world a real weight.

The Dune Wiki says that the religious themes of Dune are mainly derived from Islam, and the language inspired by Arabic.[1] The Middle Eastern influence is clear. But the life of Paul Atreides is a Messiah story that recalls the stories that are rooted in ancient Judaism and fulfilled by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Set Islam aside for a moment. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Dune.

Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, or Muad’Dib. These words identify the Dune universe Messiah figure who will lead people to true freedom and is expected by both the Fremen on Arrakis and the Bene Gessarit. In his blog, Scott Smith identifies links in Dune to the Hebrew Kabbalistic term Kefitzat Ha’derech.[2]

Paul is the son of a king (or Duke) and he comes to a people who are repeatedly abused and colonized. The Fremen of Arrakis are reminiscent of the Hebrew people, colonized by the Romans, and visited by the Messiah Jesus. Yet while the Jews expected a military Messiah, and the Fremen of Dune expected and got the same in Paul Atreides, Jesus of Nazareth is anything but a military figure. Like Jesus, Paul is expected and tested in the desert. Unlike Jesus, the people recognize him when he arrives on Arrakis. The film captures these themes really clearly.

Dune Reminds Me – We Are Looking for a Messiah

This reminds me that humanity has a history of expecting the divine. So many ancient mythologies and religions down through history have pointed to a coming deity – just like Dune does. J Warner Wallace has helpfully listed many of the characteristics of these religious deities:[3]

The deity is:

  • Predicted, like the birth of Zoroaster, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from royal heritage, like the Greek god Adonis, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from unnatural means, like the Hindu Tibetan deity, and possibly Paul Atreides.
  • Protected as a child, as the Buddah’s parents may have done.
  • Faces temptation, like Krishna the Hindu deity.
  • Is identified with shepherds, like the Egyptian god Osiris.
  • Possess supernatural power, like Quetzalcoati the Mesoamerican deity.
  • Active in engaging humans directly, like Tammuz the Mesopotamian god.
  • A teacher of  human followers, like Serapis the Graeco-Egyptian deity.
  • One who recognizes the need for a sacrifice, like Shangdi the Chinese deity.
  • One who faced a judicial death, like Dionysus the Greek and Roman god.
  • One who establishes a divine meal, like Mithras the Persian and Roman god.
  • One who has the power to defeat death, like Heracles the Greek god.
  • One who offers eternal life to their followers, like Zalmoxis the deity of Getae and Dacian.
  • One who will judge the living and the dead, like Thakur Jiu, the Santal deity.

I guess we can add Paul Atreides to this list.

Jesus is the Ultimate Messiah

There are similarities here in these deity figures between these ancient religious figures and Paul Atreides of Dune. Frank Herbert was inspired by human religious tradition, so this is expected. But even more, there are similarities between the attributes on this list and Jesus of Nazareth. Wallace observes that, rather than joining this list as yet another humanly invented deity, Jesus is different. He uniquely possesses all the characteristics found in so many ancient mythologies. He embodies and personifies mankind’s expectation of God.

This similarity with mythology was the thing that kept C S Lewis back from accepting Christianity for many years, until his friend J R R Tolkien helped him see that Christianity is not just another fictional mythology to add to the list. Rather – it is the mythology which is true, being rooted in history and real events.  Later in his life, Lewis wrote this:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous different that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are man’s myths … Christianity is God expressing himself through what we call “real things.”[4]

I loved Dune part 1, and I recognize the power of myth. And I think it – like the many compelling fictional myths that have come before it – point ultimately to the true myth of Jesus who meets all of mankind’s needs for a Messiah. The one who finally makes us free men and women, free from the weight of mankind’s rebellion against God, free from guilt and shame, free to experience life in the future as God intends..

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” Galatians 5:1


[1] Religion | Dune Wiki | Fandom

[2] Scott Smith, Theology of Dune, The Scott Smith Blog, The Theology of Dune (thescottsmithblog.com).

[3] J Warner Wallace, Person of Interest, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33-35.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Idea of the “True Myth” | Russell’s Inspiration Daybook (wordpress.com)

Book Review: A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles

J P Moreland’s new book is quite remarkable. I’m not a fan of the book’s title. It sounds a bit “off the wall” to me. The book content, however, is anything but.

JP has chosen to speak cogently to a couple of audiences. First, to an audience of Christians who may have lost the expectation that God would ever intervene in the natural world in a supernatural and measurable way. Maybe because they think bible kind of miracles ceased a long time ago. And at the same time, Moreland also challenges the natural presuppositions of atheists who roll their eyes at such a notion to begin with.

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

JP speaks to his audience by addressing fundamental matters of philosophy and worldview. What is epistemology, and what does it mean to know something? What should we make of the common atheist response to miracle claims – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Spoiler alert – when you are talking about the activity of an agent (God) you cannot expect agents to always behave the same way. You need to judge their activity on a case-by-case basis. Appealing to natural law in an attempt to refute miracles is just wrong headed. So – the improbability of an event does not require extraordinary evidence to establish it. Further – the probability of the evidence for the event and the reports of the event occurring must also be factored in given the scenario that the event did NOT in fact occur. And in the miracle cases given in this book (and countless others) the likelihood of this is vanishingly small. You don’t need extraordinary evidence (whatever that is) to sustain belief that the miracle occurred.

Why Should People Pray?

JP addresses some common struggles believers and non-believers face when it comes to prayer. If God knows everything anyway, then what is the point of praying about something? This common conundrum misunderstands the issues of free will and the omniscience of God. Here, JP points to de ray and de dicto distinctions. The bible’s view of this problem is misrepresented if we assume we must take the de ray line – which leads to hard determinism. This is incorrect because our evidence suggests human beings have free will – we are not determined. If you need to try to convince me otherwise then – I am sorry – you tacitly assume I have the free will to choose to believe or reject your argument! Returning to the issue of God knowing everything, the de dicto distinction is the most adequate approach to understanding this. De dicto says it is not God’s knowledge that leads to the event. Rather, the event that occurs is the one God foreknows. Also, wouldn’t a perfect good God prevent evil occurrences whether we pray or not? This misunderstands God’s purposes – God is working toward a greater good in all circumstances. This will often be at odds with our limited view of the good outcome, and often involves our relationship with him.

Veridical Miracle Claims and the ID Principle

He also devotes a large chunk of the book to veridical claims of a supernatural nature. These stories are not just recycled from unknown or remote sources. Rather, before including them in the book, J P has done the work of tracking down the people involved, hearing their stories first-hand, and establishing confirmatory evidence where he can. Some of them are taken from his own life. Others are from the lives of others. For example, he recounts an instance experienced by the parents of his friend Ruth Henderson. Having spent many years as missionaries in Venezuela and Spain, they returned home to San Diego. Unfortunately, their low financial income meant they had no pension to draw from, and so they were broke. They lived in a small apartment and worked low paid teaching and pastoring jobs. Yet they dreamed of living in a proper house with a white picket fence. So – they prayed about this. They visited a nice property that had just lowered in price and found it to be perfect for their needs. While visiting the property, they had to admit to the real estate agent that they had minimal funds for a down payment. So, the agent phoned the sellers there and then to ask whether they would reduce the price again. While they were all standing in the property, there was an unexpected knock at the door. The agent opened the door. A man stood there from a cell phone tower company. He had been knocking on doors in the area because he needed to build a tower in this area and was willing to pay the house owners 10,000 dollars a year for thirty years for the privilege of using their back yard. A deal was done, and the bank agreed to give the couple a mortgage based on the commitment of the tower company. Miraculously, they got the house they asked God for.[1]

This example is like many of JP’s miracle stories. Its amazing and it sounds like God might be providing in response to a real need. But we have also to ask – how do we know this wasn’t just a coincidence? Here – JP applies a principle first put forward by Bill Dembski, and this ID principle is used today in many fields (not just biology) like insurance, law enforcement, and forensic science. The ID principle states that whenever two factors are present, investigators are rational to conclude that the event is the result of an intelligent agent.

  1. There was a small probability of the event happening
  2. The event is special, it is remarkable for reasons other than the fact that it actually happened.

Such an argument applies not only to human agents, but also divine ones. And – given the context of the events, it would point to the story with the cell tower guy paying the broke couple’s mortgage as an intentional, divine miracle. I have a similar story in my own life, and this ID principle suggests to me that I too experienced a miracle, not merely a coincidence. I wrote about that event here:

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2021/10/18/was-it-a-miracle-that-saved-our-lives/

Conclusion

JP focuses on many more examples of God’s supernatural intervention in people’s lives. He looks at instances of miraculous healing, guidance, evidence for the activity of angels and demons in the world, and the veracity of near-death experiences and what they may tell us about what comes next after we die. He also provides a reading list at the end of the book that points to many other sources like his own that can build our hope and expectation in the existence of divine miracles today.

Many Christian believers are embarrassed by miracle claims. And – many claims made by people can sounds pretty dumb or unlikely. But not all of them fall into this category. When one is armed with the resources JP brings, this mistaken embarrassment can be set aside. We can know – not merely believe – that God is real and still performs miracles today.


[1] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 76 – 78.

Was It a Miracle That Saved Our Lives?

At 2:52pm on October 21st, 1971, a gas explosion destroyed Clarkston shops in Scotland, killing 22 people and injuring 100.[1] Eighty-two minutes prior to this event, at 1:30pm, my mother May Gray strapped my sister and I into our new car. She didn’t realise it, but that day she intended to visit the dress shop at the epicentre of the looming explosion. Unexpectedly, our car refused to start. For 30 minutes, May made multiple failed attempts to start the car. Finally, she gave up and abandoned her shopping trip.

Later that day, my Dad returned home from work. He checked the car, and it started first time. The following day, May started the car without any trouble. Prior to October 21st, and at all times until we sold the car three years later, it never failed to start that way again. The only known exception to its reliability record occurred between 1:30pm and 2:00pm on the day of the Clarkston explosion. If the car had started during that period of time, we would have probably died at the shopping centre. I attached a picture of me and my Dad with the car to this blog. It was a light blue, 1970 Vauxhall Viva.

Miracles and Natural Law

Was the car’s temporary failure a curious coincidence, or can I reasonably claim that God miraculously saved our lives that day? I will use Richard L. Purtill’s definition of “miracle”. Miracles are events caused by God’s power that are temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature to show God has acted in nature.[2] Did a miracle occur for us on 21st October 1971? Scottish philosopher David Hume would resist this conclusion, viewing miracles as violations of unalterably uniform natural laws.[3] Hume, and contemporary skeptics with him, may suppose the car’s failure to start prior to the explosion was merely a coincidence.

However, Hume’s skepticism is problematic. Hume had an empiricist approach to epistemology. He thought people only experience sense impressions, “a constancy in certain impressions [and so] … perception of the sun … returns … as at its first appearance.”[4] Natural laws don’t exist to Hume. Rather, human custom leads us to identify sense impressions as objects. He is therefore skeptical of inductive inference. Scott Smith summarises Hume’s position; we may see three black ravens, but to infer therefore all ravens are black, is knowledge we cannot justifiably hold on Hume’s empiricism.[5] Consequently, because he only experiences discrete sensory input, and rejects induction, he cannot know natural laws exist. Hume is therefore inconsistent to observe inviolable natural law when arguing against miracles.

Today, natural laws are believed to describe what nature does, they do not prescribe what nature must do. Craig Keener observes that, when I drop a pen with one hand and catch it with the other, I am not breaking the law of gravity. Rather, I am intervening in its operation.[6] Purtill defined a miracle as a temporary, divine exception to the normal flow of natural law. It seems reasonable to assume that, if God created nature, he could choose to intervene if necessary. C S Lewis builds on this idea noting that if God fed new information into a natural system, the system would simply react in predictable natural ways.[7] Perhaps our car’s failure to start was a natural response to an intentional exception to natural law.

Anti-Supernatural Bias

Hume’s second problem is that his argument against miracles appears to be circular. Because he defines natural law as inviolable, and miracles as violations of natural law, he rules out the possibility of miracles axiomatically. Consequently, no amount of evidence is sufficient to prove a miracle occurred; Keener says Hume rejects any evidence contradicting his thesis or his anti-supernatural bias.[8] He therefore assumes what he intends to prove; there are no miracles. Arguments like this are logically fallacious by begging the question. Also, Hume may disagree that eyewitness testimony from 1971 supports a miracle claim. He might also suggest my family are ignorant or false witnesses for positing the miraculous.[9] Hume possibly never experienced a miracle himself, but it does not follow my family are therefore ignorant fabricators for supposing occurrence of a divine miracle.

Scientific Proof of Miracles

Contemporary skeptics may follow Hume and challenge me to prove scientifically the miraculous nature of the events from 1971. If I cannot prove a miracle, I cannot claim a miracle; “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”[10] But their challenge fails to meet my definition of miracle. How can one scientifically prove a one off, temporary exception to the normal flow of events? Miracles are non-repeatable, so I cannot use scientific methods to investigate them. Miracles are also exceptions. Michael G. Strauss imagines aliens studying traffic lights to understand how humans control traffic, and they figure out what red, amber, and green mean. Suddenly, an ambulance appears blaring its siren as it zooms through the junction, breaking all the rules. This doesn’t make the traffic law void, rather it shows that rules can sometimes be broken in urgent circumstances, like when people’s lives are at stake.[11] Consequently, if I remain open to the possible occurrence of one-off exceptional events, and I do not trap myself in Hume’s circular anti-supernatural argument, then I can employ scientific tools to explore the evidence from 1971. Having gathered all the data about the motor car’s history, the people involved, and the timing of the events, one can use this data to draw an abductive inference. It is possible that an exceptional event overruled the normal operation of the car.

Is there a God Anyway?

Skeptics may claim we experienced a coincidence of events because no God exists to do miracles.  But it is not clear how the skeptic can prove God’s non-existence. I would suggest the Bible argues convincingly when it says God’s invisible qualities are not primarily seen through miracles, but through nature;[12] the heavens declare the glory of God.[13] If the natural universe we inhabit makes God likely, it seems possible that in certain circumstances, God could make exceptions to nature for his own reasons. Given the powerful, creative, and generous God revealed by nature, it seems reasonable to suppose that as our lives hung in the balance in October 1971, God was able and willing to influence the natural function of the car at the right time to save us.

I am Warranted to Claim God Miraculously Saved Our Lives

I think I am warranted to claim knowledge of God’s miraculous intervention on October 21st, 1971. I am rational, and there are good natural arguments for God’s existence. I cannot, however, prove the events were not a coincidence. This remains a possibility. Yet James L. Garlow and Keith Wall observe two helpful points. First, God’s intervention can occur through natural or supernatural events that fulfil his purpose. If the event is also improbable, and is spiritually significant, this suggests God’s possible involvement.[14] Our car’s behaviour seemed highly improbable, and our lives were at stake. Second, Garlow and Wall observe miracles show God’s involvement in nature, and demonstrate his character, resulting in increased faith in God.[15] Following the event in question, my family has experienced this increased faith. Consequently, given the improbability of the event, its spiritual significance, and the increase in faith that has resulted, this suggests our survival that day may have been a divine miracle.


[1] Magdalene Dalziel, Remembering the Clarkston Toll disaster of 1971 – a day Glasgow will never forget, Glasgow Live, 21st October, 2020, https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/remembering-clarkston-toll-disaster-1971-19143705.

[2] Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2018), 27.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R Habermas, In Defence of Miracles A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Leicester:Apollos, 1997), 33.

[4] David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” in R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 85.

[5] Smith, 87.

[6] Strobel, 88.

[7] C S Lewis, Miracles Do They Really Happen?, (London:William Collins, 1947), 93 – 95, summarized.

[8] Strobel, 88.

[9] Geivett and Habermas, 36.

[10] Geivett and Habermas, 30.

[11] Strobel, 167.

[12] Romans 1:20.

[13] Psalm 19:1.

[14] James L. Garlow and Keith Wall, Miracles are for Real What Happens When Heaven Touches Earth, (Grand Rapids:Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 119-121.

[15] Ibid., 64-65.

The Cost to Skepticism

“I simply need proof for God. But you have not adequately given it to me.”

This is a message I get from some folks when they learn I am a Christian. I will even hear it from some people when I’m not even speaking to them. Perhaps I’ve retweeted someone else online, and out of the blue I will suddenly be hit by anonymous demands for proof. Proof for what? Proof that Christianity is true, that God exists.

Skeptical people can sometimes (not always) be outspoken. And I usually appreciate the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. Personally, I think a healthy skepticism is a very positive thing in life. I think it helps us stay grounded, encouraging us to take a careful and thoughtful approach to important matters in life. As I seek to give people reasons for the truth of Christianity – engaging with the thoughtful skeptic is often helpful because it reminds me not to overstate the case that I am making to them. It’s a good counterbalance for me as a Christian case maker. So – I value the thoughtful skeptic.

However – I think there are some fundamental epistemological problems facing the hard line (sometimes called Cartesian) skeptic. What is a hard line skeptic? Well, I’ll define it as someone who demands absolute (or tautological) certainty about a subject. Here’s an example. Imagine I am wrestling with whether or not to make a career change in my life. Also, let’s say I take a hard line skeptical approach to this process. In that case, I am going to need to be absolutely certain of the correct course of action before deciding to take it. That means – 100% certainty. There must be no aspects of the issue – or my decision-making processes – that are unknown to me. And my understanding of the issues must be absolute. There must be no unknowns at all. Does that sound like a high bar to reach when changing jobs? Yup. Ever managed it? Nope.

Here’s the problem for the skeptic. We can only be tautologically certain about a very few minor things in life. Does a triangle have three sides? Is a divide by zero undefined in mathematics? Is there no upper limit to the set of prime numbers? These sorts of issues can be known with absolute certainty. The answer is yes in all three cases. They probably aren’t very important to my life right now though. Yet – the skeptic can find tautological certainty here. But what about elsewhere in their lives? I just don’t think certainty is possible. There’s no way to be absolutely certain about the ethical, aesthetic, political, business, religious, and relational issues we face. These are way too complicated. The hard line skeptic’s bar of absolute certainty can be met in the math textbook, but not in their daily life outside of the classroom.

That’s a problem. But, it’s not the skeptic’s biggest problem.

Let’s now think about the skeptical person who is demanding absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. The person who is constantly saying, “you have not given me enough. I want PROOF!” The biggest problem is – his position is completely self-refuting. It is a position that undermines itself. You see, because we cannot be 100% certain about very much in life (outside of math, for example) that means the skeptic cannot be 100% certain of his/her own skepticism. Yet their position dictates that – to have knowledge – they MUST know something absolutely, at 100%. Consequently, because they themselves cannot meet their own demand for knowledge, this means they cannot even be certain of their own skepticism! This is a fundamental epistemological problem that, if they are thinking rationally, would lead them to abandon their hard line skepticism and trade it in for a less hard line approach to take instead (more about that later).

When the skeptic fires demands (or sometimes even polite requests) for “proof of the existence of God,” I used to say to myself, “oh dear. I must try harder to give them proof.” Now I do not say that to myself. It’s not that I don’t care about the skeptic, because I do care. Rather – I have come to know two things. First – that they are using a standard on me that they cannot sustain for their own skepticism. So – I’m not impressed by their demand one bit. And second – they are asking me for something I simply do not need to do. The Christian is not required to give proof of the existence of God. Rather, they are to give “reasons for the hope they have.”[1]

In their book “How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology,” Dew and Foreman make some really helpful observations about the hard line skeptic’s dilemma.

1 – There are good reasons to think we do know things about the world, even though we do not know everything 100%. Sure, our senses can be fooled. But people have used their sense and mental faculties to perform open heart surgery, to fly to the moon, and to drive to the shops.[2] We can reasonably say we know, even though we don’t know everything. Right?

2 – The tautological, hard-line skeptic’s bar for knowledge is just too high for every subject in life, including whether or not God exists and whether Christianity is true. If we persist with this skepticism, we will find that the number of beliefs we can hold in our lives will be seriously undermined. How can we know something scientifically, historically, or morally if we require absolute proof?[3] That epistemological bar leaves us in a place where we don’t really know anything. It robs us. And that’s not helpful, and its actually wrong (as I pointed out above).

3 – The things we CAN know with absolute certainty are pretty unimportant (e.g. a triangle has 3 sides). The important stuff in life tends to be the stuff I lack absolute certainty for. The issues that really impact me (e.g. what is my destiny in life, what are human beings, is there a God) are issues that we will never fully understand. There will always be an element of doubt here somewhere.[4] But – as I’ve said already – having doubts about something does not disqualify me from claiming that I know something in that area.

4 – It is the nature of the subject in question that determines how we come to know it. If we are thinking about an apple, then our five senses are going to be sufficient to get to know an apple pretty well. However, if the subject is God, then there are many many factors in play here that make this subject different from an apple. So – we need to adjust our expectation about the level to which we can know God, compared to an apple.[5] If the angry skeptic demands, “give me proof,” then I would be tempted to reply, “God’s not an apple, you know.” There may be very good reasons why God does NOT make himself as obvious as an apple in your fruit bowl. Reasons that confer respect by God on the skeptic themselves. But those reasons will have to wait for another blog.

Conclusion

Hard-line skepticism of the kind I’ve described just isn’t tenable. It is harmful to us if we adopt it as a stance toward Christianity (and everything else in life). So – what stance could we adopt instead? Well – actually, it is not a different stance at all. It’s the stance we take on everything else in life (whether we realise it or not).

We could take an inductive approach to deciding whether we can claim to have come to know something about God and Christianity. It’s like this. “In a good inductive argument, the truth of the premises provides some degree of support for the truth of the conclusion.”[6] This is the most rational approach to take in our lives. And we probably do it in other areas without thinking about it. We don’t try to reach 100% certainty before taking a decision. We gather evidence, and then decide what level of support for the issue at hand is given by the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, we are likely to go with it.

So – my answer to the charge “give me proof of God,” is to say something like this. It’s not proof you need. What you are looking for is evidence, of rational arguments pointing towards Christian theism. You need to assess the evidence that is right in front of you in a careful way. And then – decide whether there is enough support for you to make a choice. It’s no good demanding absolute proof, when large amounts of evidence are right there in front of you.

Hey – I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I cannot say that I am 100% convinced of the truth of Christianity. But – I am generally convinced based on my personal experience of God’s work in my life, and of my assessment of the historical evidence, and the wider evidence for God in the world. Is that proof? Not that would satisfy an irrational, persisting, cartesian skeptic. But it is a position that is considered, is rational, and is based on experience and argument. And those things seem to me to be a good foundation for saying – “I know God exists, and his name is Jesus.”


[1] 1 Peter 3:15.

[2] James K. Dew JR and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2014), 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Inductive Logic, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, revised March 19th, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-inductive/.

The Cost of the Multiverse

Marvel’s Loki series has built an interesting narrative on the idea of an infinite multiverse. Anything that could happen (including an alligator with a great Tom Hiddleston grin on its face), has happened. This makes for a rich story telling device. It is the way ahead for Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness phase 4 storyline. But there might be more going on here. Fiction is helping to cement the actual physical idea of a real multiverse into the public consciousness. The idea of a multiverse crops up in both science and science fiction.

The multiverse is how some scientists account for the fine tuning of the universe for life – without resorting to God as an explanation. Physicists Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, and Paul Steinhardt have proposed a scientific model called Inflationary Cosmology, while other physicists have proposed String Theory. You cash out the details in different ways, but you end up with:

1 – Our universe is finely setup for life to exist.

2 – There are an infinite number of different universes.

3 – There is a high likelihood of life sustaining universes coming into existence.

4 – We are just lucky to live in a life sustaining universe.

MIT physicist Max Tegmark has gone further to say that, “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically.”[1] If you can think of a structure that is mathematically possible, then because there is an infinite multiverse, that structure isn’t just an idea. It actually must exist! So – hello Gator Loki.

However – there is a big epistemological cost to this idea. Stephen C. Meyer points out the cost in two ways.

The Cost of Our Rationality

The infinite multiverse means that any event- however unlikely – has actually occurred an infinite number of times. One such event is the sudden appearance (through quantum fluctuations of subatomic fields/particles) of a brain with preset memories and an ability to perceive a limited universe. These are called Boltzmann Brains after 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. They pop into existence for a while – and then pop out of existence again.

If physicists posit a multiverse to explain the fine tuning of the universe for life, then this also must lead us to doubt the reliability of our own minds because it is more likely that we are Boltzmann Brains than individuals in a naturally complex and populated universe. And if that is the case – our scientific reasoning abilities, perceptions, and our basis for accepting the multiverse hypothesis are all undermined. The infinite multiverse is a self-refuting hypothesis.[2]

The Cost of Scientific Prediction

If we live in an infinite multiverse, then what can we say about our understanding of the laws of nature? Take the law of gravity for example? Well – we can say that so far – the behaviour of nature is such that the law of gravity leads us to expect certain behaviours. For example, the dropping of an apple from the branch of a tree to the ground. But because anything that could happen must happen in an infinite universe, we must also face the possibility that at some arbitrary point in the future, the natural laws will diverge and begin to behave in unexpected ways. Apple’s can start to fall up, for example. This is because for all we know, the mathematical laws describing the universe are not fully understood by us yet and are controlled by a wider and more general equation that will lead nature to behave differently in the future. We cannot rule out this possibility. But that means we can no longer confidently predict scientifically whether or not events will happen based on our experience of the past. Stephen Meyer puts it this way:

“Scientific explanation presupposes the uniformity and regularity of nature, including the uniformity of the fundamental laws of physics and the regularity of patterns of cause and effect [but] such uniformity and regularity may not characterize our universe, however much it might have seemed to do so up until this point.”[3] We might think we are experiencing cause and effect in nature. But what we don’t realise is that actually, we have been experiencing random fluctuations and nature will behave differently in the future compared to the past. Science as we know it – ceases to be helpful.

Summary

If we accept the thesis that we live in an infinite multiverse, then we must also accept two additional conclusions. We cannot be sure that we are rational, and we cannot rely on our ability to make scientific predictions.

Both of these conclusions undermine the multiverse hypothesis and the practice of science – so – I would suggest we cannot live with these conclusions. They are not logically sound. And so this is a strong reason to reject the multiverse in physics, look for another theory to explain the fine tuning of the universe.

Having said all of that – roll on season 2 of Marvel’s Loki!


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, (HarperOne, 2020), 394.

[2] Ibid., 401 – 402.

[3] Ibid., 396.

Archaeological Support for the Exodus

In my previous blog, I challenged the claim that Moses was a fictional character, a combination of various different characters from fictional mythology. The Usefulcharts YouTube channel claimed in their video that the archaeological evidence did not support the Biblical report of Israelites leaving Egypt, travelling around the desert for decades, till they eventually reached Canaan. I challenged that statement and I pointed out that a few relevant archaeological finds do exist. In this blog, I will list some more artefacts that support aspects of the Old Testament Exodus account.

Why do people claim the Old Testament as fiction? In the 1800’s, the school of higher criticism began to claim that the Old and New Testaments recorded fairy tales. The science of archaeology had not begun at this point, so there was no physical evidence yet to pose a counter argument supporting the Bible. Today – that situation has changed. Archaeological digs are uncovering artefacts supporting many Biblical accounts. Titus Kennedy is a professional field archaeologist and adjunct professor at Biola University. He comments that:

“the degree of historical corroboration between the Bible and the artifacts that have been discovered over the last 150 years is startling, surpassing previous expectations and estimates, and continuing to astonish.”[1]

Titus Kennedy

Higher criticism has entered popular culture today. The Old Testament is viewed by people as fictional and mythological, right? Yet – archaeological digs are uncovering many artefacts from the Ancient Near East which confirm claims made in the Bible. This directly challenges the notion of a mythological Bible. The argument from silence that was made by the higher critics is being shown to be unsustainable. For example, to date the reality of 70 individuals mentioned in the Old Testament have been confirmed thru artifacts discovered by field archaeologists.[2]

Here are four discoveries that are relevant to the Moses account in the Bible:

First – the Papyrus Brooklyn is dated 17th century BC. It contains the names of domestic servants, and some of the names are Hebrew. This supports the idea that Israelites lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus under Moses.[3]

Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah. (Exodus 1:15)

Check out Brooklyn Museum for more details.

Second – Egyptian records show that the Egyptians used Semitic slaves to make bricks. The Louvre Leather Roll records the brick making quotas and potential penalties imposed on the slaves. The Leningrad Papyrus 1116A and a wall painting found in the Valley of the Nobles in Egypt show compulsory labor on public building projects.[4]

You are no longer to give the people straw to make brick as previously; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quota of bricks which they were making previously, you shall impose on them. (Exodus 5:7-8)

For more, refer to Leather Scroll: Quota for Brick-making, 1274 BCE : Center for Online Judaic Studies (cojs.org).

Third – the Dream Stele. An inscription was found between the paws of the Great Sphynx in Egypt. This text was from Pharaoh Thutmose IV, son if Pharoah Amenhotep II. Thutmose IV was not the natural heir to the throne due to the death of his brother, Amenhotep II’s first born son. The cause of death is not recorded in Egyptian documents. But Thutmose IV fabricates a divine promise to solidify his legitimacy as Pharaoh.[5]

You can find a translation of the Dream Stele here – Dream Stele (Sphinx Stela) | Ancient Egypt Online.

If Amenhotep II was the Pharaoh during the Exodus, his eldest son would have died during the final plague on Egypt.

[Yahweh] struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon. (Exodus 12:29)

Four – the Nomads of YHWH. In Sudan, two Egyptian temples contain reference to the “lands of the nomads of YHWH.” They are the earliest known references to Yahweh, the name of God in the Old Testament. They describe nomadic people living in the wilderness east of Egypt who were enemies of Egypt. They lived in tents. Surely, they nomads must have been living like that for a considerable period for the Egyptians to record their existence? The inscriptions are dated to Late Bronze Age, 1300 BC.[6]

For more, refer to Three Egyptian Inscriptions About Israel – Bible Archaeology Report.

The only ancients known to worship Yahweh were the Israelites, so it follows that these nomads were the Israelites prior to their settlement in Canaan after their Exodus from Egypt. The inscriptions show the Egyptians knew about them.

[Yahweh’s] anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years. (Numbers 32:13)

Conclusion

Sure. It is easy to claim the Old Testament is fiction, but it’s becoming harder to justify that claim. If we think that, then we are ignoring an increasing amount of physical evidence that continues to be found today suggesting otherwise. While it is hard to line up an exact timeline, and difficult to match Egyptian and Israelite texts, the physical artefacts suggest a connection exists between them. They record the same events and peoples. Artefacts cannot by dismissed as mythology or propaganda. These and many more artefacts support the historicity of Old Testament accounts like the Exodus from Egypt.


[1] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible 101 Archaeological Discoveries that Bring the Bible to Life, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 239.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 50-51.

[5] Ibid., 58-59.

[6] Ibid., 60-61.

Responding to Confirmation Bias

Sometimes when I am discussing Christianity with internet atheists, the time will come when they kind of throw their hands up in frustration at me. “Oh – you are just blinded by your confirmation bias. I’ve done my best with you.” So – what is “confirmation bias”? Well – it involves cherry picking the best bits for ourselves. It’s about wanting something to be true, and so being unable to see any alternative viewpoint that could call your belief into question. Psychology Today defines it like this:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking.[1]

Now – whenever someone accuses me of confirmation bias, I want to scratch my chin in a skeptical way and say, “Hmmm!” Why do I want to do that?

It’s not because I think I am immune from confirmation bias. I know very well that I am not. The reason I become dubious at this point is because the other person has suddenly started talking like THEY are personally immune from the very thing they are accusing me of – confirmation bias!

Here is the thing – EVERYONE is vulnerable to confirmation bias. Whatever view we take, whether we believe God exists or are convinced he does not. The challenge for people when approaching problems and seeking solutions to them is – to minimize the effect of confirmation bias. And – I have worked hard to do this in my own life. I have not done this perfectly, but I want to do this, and I will continue to work at it.

Here are three good ways to reduce the risk of confirmation bias in life:

First – study multiple sides of an issue. This takes time and effort, but it is invaluable. I have spent the last five years studying for two Masters Degrees and – let me tell you – you don’t get far unless you are willing to listen to other people and be willing to respond to their claims. This builds an important skill, and crucially it helps us to reduce the risk that we will fall into confirmation bias again.

Second – think in terms of arguments. I don’t mean stand up rows with people. Rather, by an argument I mean form your position based on logical premises and conclusions that follow from the premises. I’m not saying you can deduce the truth of Christianity this way. But you can form many many cogent inductive arguments that support Christianity’s claims by appealing to every facet of life. From nature, history, science, etc. You can also form many arguments that call Christianity into question, and when you do that, you can form responses to them. This is what I try to do in my writing. Dr. Heshmat from Psychology Today thinks this is a very healthy way to live, because it develops, “the ability to look at the world without looking for instances that please your ego.”[2]

Third – be willing to have your mind changed on an issue. So, someone might say I simply want the Bible to be true, and so I look for things that confirm that desire in an intellectually plausible way. Well – I do think that so far in my life, my work in exploring the evidence for and against the truth of Christianity – makes my decision to BE a Christian the sensible one. I find excellent evidence across the disciplines to support it, and the arguments against the truth of Christianity tend to be much weaker to my mind, relying on a commitment to naturalistic thinking that is not itself justifiable.

So – yes, I stake my life on the truth of Christianity. BUT – I could change my mind on that if there were excellent reasons to do so. If better evidence came to light, for example, against the historical grounding of Christianity. I could overturn my thinking then. That would be the most honest thing to do. But – it would take VERY strong evidence to get me there, better than the evidence from antiquity we currently have. I am not someone who says, “You could never convince me otherwise.” Hey – I’m just little old me. I don’t know everything. I could be mistaken.

To the atheist, I ask the same. The average atheist I encounter is committed to the non-truth of Christianity and will look for anything to bolster their position, however weak the argument is revealed to be on further scrutiny. I would ask of the atheist the same thing I ask of myself. That some circumstance would exist where they could change their mind on the God issue.

Conclusion

In my blog and my podcast I work hard to present arguments rather than just asserting statements. For example, I am not interested in something like, “God exists. Change my mind.” Ok – it’s a popular meme. But its entirely unhelpful. Why? Because it’s about one person with confirmation bias – asking another person to unconvinced them!! This is not a helpful approach to discussing anything. We need to deal in the currency of arguments. And the stronger the argument, the healthier the opinion and the better the discussion. Good, cogent arguments are healthy, and when we think in this way, we resist the temptation of confirmation bias.

Back to internet atheists. The irony is that everyone of these people I have ever spoken to wants to convince me that Christian belief is wrong and God does not exist, or at least there’s not enough evidence to claim that he does. And so anyone who says he does (me) is automatically suspect. Well – my response to this is – enough with assertions. I have read enough internet atheist assertions (like – ‘there is not enough evidence that gods exist,’ or, ‘there’s no evidence the events in the gospels occurred.’) These are bare assertions. Let’s see your argument and let’s be willing together to examine the assumptions of your argument, weigh those assumptions, and have your claims challenged in a rational and respectful way. And when we do – lets recognize together that what we are doing is very good and healthy. Because it challenges the tendency toward confirmation bias in us both.


[1] Shahram Heshmat, What is Confirmation Bias?, Psychology Today, April 23, 2015, accessed 23rd October 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias.

[2] Ibid.

What do Neanderthals Tell Us about Human Uniqueness?

Both archaeology and palaeontology give evidence for hominid creatures that lived before human beings. For example, the species called Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) seems to have existed between 200,000 years and 30,000 years ago in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Almost thirty complete skeletons have been discovered.[1] Evidence of Homo sapien (Human) civilization dates back to about 80,000 years and so there is an overlap between Neanderthals and humans in ancient history and there may even be some evidence of interbreeding between these two species in our contemporary human genome.[2]

It is often said that there is an evolutionary connection between Neanderthals and humans. But what if there was a fight for dominance between Neanderthals and humans? Either could have survived. What if both species fought for survival and it just happened to be that the humans won? I think there is good evidence to suggest both these ideas are wrong.

A big reason for saying that is that there is a massive difference in the capability of the first humans in comparison to the Neanderthal. While Neanderthal capabilities were very basic and appear to remain consistent for 100,000 years or more, when humans suddenly appeared they had capacities that far exceeded everything that had come before. Human exceptionalism is evident, the human super-predator, the unique being who is made in God’s image.

 

Use of Fire

There is evidence of charcoal and primitive hearths in Neanderthal sites. But does this mean Neanderthals mastered pyrotechnology? Not to the various researchers who recently concluded that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of natural fire when it became available to them. They used it when it presented itself, rather than had mastery over it. But humans were uniquely able to create and curate fire in a sophisticated way.[3]

 

Creation of Tools

It appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive when making spears. Does this suggest complex cognitive behaviour? The method they used is thought to be very basic and naturally occurring. They would not have to discover a precise method for distilling the tar. Also, when we compare the Neanderthal behaviour to current Chimpanzees and observe they too produce spears from tree branches using a six step process, make stone tools to open nuts, form insect repellent and exploit wildfires. So the Neanderthal behaviour isn’t so exceptional compared to Chimpanzees. [4]

Human behaviour is much more sophisticated, involving analysis of different tar production methods and choosing the most efficient production method for the maximum production yield. Human cognitive ability was superior to Neanderthals.

 

Cooking Food

Humans have always had the capacity to gather, but also to cook our food and to use implements. Based on some chemical residue at a Neanderthal site, Smithsonian paleoanthropologists concluded that the Neanderthals also cooked. But – age could have resulted in the sort of chemical residue. Worse, no grinding implements have been found to prepare matter for cooking, and there is evidence that they had not mastered fire. So – it seems we lack evidence that Neanderthals intentionally cooked their food.[5]

 

Use of Medicine

Humans do medicine. It appears that Neanderthals consumed plants that had no nutritional value, but had anti-inflammatory properties. So perhaps they did have a primitive type of medicine. But so do chimpanzees, who will eat certain leaves to cause vomiting to rid their digestive system of parasites.

 

Cave Paintings

There are many sites dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. But Neanderthals were dying out by then. It seems more likely that humans were the cause of the case paintings. Painted shells have been found which are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Again – this is around the time Neanderthals were disappearing. “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable. ..currently there is little compelling reason to conclude that Homo neanderthalensis was a symbolic creature in the same sense as modern Homo sapiens.”[6]

 

Symbolic Thought

Many studies have shown evidence suggesting Neanderthals lacked the cognitive sophistication of humans. For example, anthropologists notice human societies have the concept of division of labour, specialization based on sex and age. This promotes economy and allows human society to thrive in harsh environments.

The evidence suggests Neanderthals only hunted large game. By way of contrast, humans hunted a wide variety of creatures and developed many types of tools to assist them and clothing as well. This suggests a division of labour in human society that was lacking in the Neanderthals. It is thought that an inability to divide labour in this way led to small population groupings in fewer locations and the eventual demise of the Neanderthal species.[7]

 

The Use of Language

There is disagreement about whether Neanderthals could speak. Anatomical features remain inconclusive and while the Neanderthal genome appears to contain certain key genes, this doesn’t mean they used language. Animals communicate in many ways, but they don’t use syntactical language in a sophisticated way as humans do.[8]

The evolutionary paradigm doesn’t explain the appearance of language. Often it is linked to the ability of the species to vocalize and make sounds. But humans have a language capability that is independent of vocalization. Vocalization is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for language. The best way to study the appearance of language seems to be through evidence of symbolism and symbolic cognitive capabilities. And this is unique in the record to the human species, appearing around 80,000 years ago. While basic Neanderthal capabilities remained consistent for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its language capability appears suddenly.

 

Conclusion

There seems to be a good argument to suggest that humans are exceptional, of a different order from the start. So the idea that humans competed with Neanderthals for survival does not seem to be supported by the evidence. Neanderthals were very limited in their abilities, and when the human super-predator arrived, there was no comparison between them. This is consistent with the Biblical teaching that man alone is made in God’s image – the imago Dei.

Also, the evolutionary ideas of gradual improvement struggle to account for the large sudden appearance of human sophistication. Combining this with the related but different anatomy of human and Neanderthal species, it seems that we must make the data fit the evolution theory rather than the data suggesting an evolutionary connection between humans and Neanderthals. And this is not a good way to explain anything.

 

[1] Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed, (Covina: RTB Press, 2015),184

[2] Rana and Ross, 267

[3] Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.

[4] Fazale Rana, Did Neanderthals Make Glue?, Reasons to Believe, January 10, 2018, accessed July 22, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue.

[5] Rana and Ross, 315

[6] Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 81, quoted in Rana and Ross, 319

[7] Rana and Ross, 321

[8] Rana and Ross, 323