Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think Humanity Occupies a Privileged Place in the Universe

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that we occupy a privileged place in the universe – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[1]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[2]

The idea that people are arrogant for observing humanity’s privileged place in the universe seems odd to me. It’s odd because first, this push-back seems unaware of the scientific data that shows humanity has a privileged place in the cosmos. The data suggests our place is very privileged indeed. It is also odd because second, data is just data. To claim data as “arrogant” is simply mistaken. If the data did not support the conclusion that our position in the universe was privileged, then maybe you could make a case that this claim could be arrogant.

So – how does the scientific data support the claim that we are in a privileged spot in the universe? It does so in at least two ways.

1. We are Positioned for Scientific Discovery

The scientific revolution started in the 16th century, and has relied on some very specific sets of circumstances that most individuals have probably just accepted as a given. And yet, the fact of their existence is striking. The Copernican Principle has often been understood as the point when mankind and our cosmic home was found to be mundane. This was not the point Copernicus was originally making. And the more we learn about the universe, this mundane interpretation of the Copernican Principle is harder and harder to sustain. 

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Philosopher of Science Jay W Richards have amassed a surprising body of evidence that shows that the fact that humanity is here now at this place and time, and we are physically capable of making scientific discoveries, is the result of an optimal balance of competing conditions (just like any humanly designed system). We are equipped with mental and physical capacities, and we are unusually well positioned to decipher details about the cosmos. We are therefore exceptional in our existence and in our ability to do science, and we sit at the optimum location to do that in cosmic terms. Surely this requires an explanation? [3]

What do they mean by an optimum location?

  • We inhabit a planet with a moon that stabilizes our orbit and climate. The relative sizes are perfect for allowing us to see solar eclipses. The moon is travelling away from us, and this capacity will be lost in an estimated 250 million years’ time. Yet we are here now to take advantage of our conditions to do science.
  • The earth’s surface is a data recorder. Ice cores store ancient data about CO2 and methane levels and allow us to correlate nitrate spikes to past cosmological events in the universe.
  • Planetary earthquakes and plate tectonics allow us to map the planets interior, and also maintain a planetary crust that sustains the carbon cycle and a life permitting ecosystem on the planet.
  • Earth’s magnetosphere shields and protects the atmosphere from solar wind.
  • If our gravity force was weaker, our atmosphere would leak away. 
  • If our atmosphere was thicker, it would be harder for us to see through it to do astronomy.
  • Jupiter and Saturn are our solar-system’s vacuum cleaners, protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, and also acting as a source of material for us to study dating back to the formation of the solar system.
  • Our sun is at a particular size right now making it stable. It is unusual and contributes to the earth’s habitability and our ability to do scientific analysis.
  • Our position in the Milky Way galaxy is higher significant for us. We are actually sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy. If we were any closer to the centre, our night sky would be so bright it would obscure light from distant stars. 
  • We are also at the right time in planetary history for astronomical discovery. This will not always be the case during the Earth’s history. Big Bang cosmology predicts accelerating expansion of space, causing distant objects to fade from view from Earth. But at this very particular place and time in cosmic history, we are here to observe them.

Of course, you could reply that we are just lucky and we just happen to exist at this time and place. This seems to me to be the wrong way to interpret the scientific data. Why?

Well, consider the activity and development of the sciences. These are only possible because of these and many many more highly specific parameters that have very particular settings. Are we going to accept this rich prime location to perform scientific study, while at the same time passing our position off as the result of blind chance? We do not leave any part of scientific analysis to chance. So why is it fitting to leave the precise conditions allowing us to do our science to blind chance? We are sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy, and surely that demands an explanation.

The naturalist may dismiss these notions. Not because he disagrees with the data, but because the interpretation of the data does not fit within his limited, naturalistic box. And – probably because he doesn’t like to think about the possible implications of the conclusion that we were put here to allow us to use of minds to study nature.

If the universe did exist for a divine purpose, how could we tell? Surely the answer is – look for the existence of some incredible coincidences within nature. Perhaps, the optimum balance of competing conditions just like the ones Gonzales and Richards point to.

2. We Live Within a Finely Tuned Universe

Physicists have discovered that the incredible coincidences just keep on coming as we look closer and closer into the fabric of the universe. 

It turns out that for our universe to exist at all requires a highly precise setting of many initial conditions that are themselves independent. Each of these initial conditions is sometimes described as being like a very precise dial that can take different values. If even one of those dials was to be set slightly differently, our universe would cease to support the existence of life. 

The incredible thing is that the laws of physics as we know them depend on the initial conditions of the universe being set correctly. But the initial conditions are not set by the laws of physics. In fact, physics relies on dial settings that are fundamentally mysterious. We don’t know why they are set as they are, but life couldn’t exist in our universe if they were not correct.

Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis give some examples:[4]

  • Turn off gravity and there’s nothing to drive matter to gather into galaxies
  • Turn of electromagnetism and there is no chemistry as there’s nothing to keep electrons bound to their nuclei
  • Turn of the nuclear strong force and there are no atomic nuclei in the first place

These ideas are explored by theoretical physicists. But surely, they are also relevant to the claim being made by the “Dear Believer” video. Do we occupy a privileged place? Absolutely we do, the whole universe is the result of incredible and precise fine-tuning.

The late great Douglas Adams once mused that, “imaging a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly…staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it.”[5] Could it be that our universe works the same way? If the hole weren’t there, the puddle wouldn’t be there. If the universe wasn’t here, neither would we.

Except Adams’s puddle analogy fails to describe the fine-tuning of the universe. The water in a hole will always take on the shape of its hole. If the hole had been different, the water will adjust to match it. Any hole will do for a puddle. However, not just any universe will do for life. It is more likely that a universe would pop into existence for 1 second before collapsing again. Or, the universe would last longer but contained so few particles that no two would ever interact during the history of that universe.[6]

Fred Hoyle, who discovered the incredibly unlikely carbon atom production process within stars, once exclaimed:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[7]

3. Attempting An Anthropic Escape

The common response to the religious implications of the physical fine-tuning of the universe goes something like this:

“We exist. So – what else should we expect from a universe that contains us? We expect precisely these facts you lay out. Namely, that the universe can support us. If the universe wasn’t finely tuned this way, we would not be here to discuss it. So – don’t worry about all this.”

The reply tries to undercut the impact of the incredible coincidences that lead to our existence on this planet. But this anthropic response fails to undercut the impact of the scientific data and its implications. Why?

Well – lets write the anthropic escape response this way:

            If (physical_observers)

            then

                an observer permitting universe

The problem is, this little conditional statement does not answer the question – “why observers in the first place?” After all, this statement as it is written is true whether there are physical observers in our universe, or whether there are no such observers! So, we have not touched the crucial question – why are there observers anyway?

The anthropic response is good at explaining why we do not have a life prohibiting universe. But it doesn’t explain why a life permitting universe exists. In fact, it doesn’t even try to approach that problem. Surely this question deserves some thought and consideration?

4. Summary

As the Dear Believer video states, it is time to understand how the universe really is and to accept this even if it challenges our philosophical presuppositions. Humanity’s privileged place in the universe will deflate the conceits of naturalistic philosophy, and the non-believer will try to resist its implications. And yet if we are committed to truth rather than just supporting our own pet theories, we must honestly face the implications. We have been put here for a purpose.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 08:48.

[3] Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004).

[4] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2016), 91.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitching the Galaxy One Last Time.

[6] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, The Trouble with “Puddle Thinking”: A User’s Guide to the Anthropic Principle, https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.03381.pdf.

[7] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November 1981. Pp. 8-12, quoted in Fred Hoyle, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle.

Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think You Have the Only True Religion

Christianity claims to be the only, ultimately true religion. Jesus is recorded as having said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”[1]

The Father Jesus is talking about here is God, you can tell that from the context of these verses. So – Jesus is claiming to be the only way to get to God. If religion is defined as us getting connected with God, then that’s a pretty restrictive view of religion. Right? Jesus is saying – Christianity is the only correct one. The other religions might be helpful in various ways for people’s lives. But – in the end – they don’t get you to God like Jesus does.

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that any one religion is the only right one – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[2]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[3]

I think we need to make several important responses to this.

Initial Response

First – I agree with their statement that it is time to learn how the universe is. It is important to follow the data where it leads. We must hold lightly to our assumptions if we are going to honestly confront fundamental questions. Because inevitably, we will not understand everything. This is absolutely a helpful approach to take. And – notice – it cuts many ways. It is a call to everyone whatever their persuasion, whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, secular humanist, or whatever.

Second – I can’t speak for other belief systems, but Christianity was not founded on the idea that Christians are better than anyone else. Jesus laid down the foundations very explicitly:

  • love your enemies[4] because…
  • you and they are made in the image of God[5] but…
  • your sin has broken your relationship with God, so believe in me and my death and resurrection will count for your sinfulness and make you right again with God.[6]

Christians don’t claim they are better than others. They claim that everyone is of the utmost value, because we are made in God’s image. John Dickson notes that, while the Christian church has a chequered history living this out, history shows that these foundations were a rationale for “caring for the poor, burying the dead, starting hospitals, and even freeing slaves.”[7]

It’s interesting to note that often online, it is the internet atheist who looks down their nose at professing Christians. Christianity and Jesus as its founder has no time for this common superior thinking.

Third – the Bible does not claim the universe was created for humans. Rather, it was created because God is God – he’s creative, powerful, and he made the universe for himself.

“For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[8]

Deeper Response

But having said all of this – I think there is a deeper assumption being made here and it is that it is arrogant for the believer to think they have the only right religion.

Here’s two problems with that statement.

First – ideas are not arrogant. How can an idea possess an attitude all of its own? No – ideas are simply ideas. Following the evidence where it leads isn’t arrogant, it is accepting the unwavering uniqueness and exclusivity of the truth of a situation. In a murder case, there can be many suspects, but only one culprit or culprits. Truth by its very nature is exclusive. We know this. But a truth claim is not arrogance.

Do you know what is arrogant? People. People can be arrogant, because arrogance is a haughty, superior, and rude way of speaking to another person. Now – the Plumbline video voiceover is polite in its use of vocabulary, but I detect a lot of “talking down” to the religious believer in their video. It sounds from the video that the video narrator is privy to some privileged knowledge, and every religious believer on the planet is living in a version of the supposed Dark Ages. To me – that sounds very arrogant.

Second – truth claims are either true or false. Wesaw earlier that Jesus makes a truth claim, that he is the only way to God for people. That claim is either true, or its not. Maybe our culture doesn’t like the sound of this exclusive truth claim, preferring to think that everyone has a bit of the truth about God and no religion is necessarily the right or wrong one. Okay – but notice that this attitude doesn’t make Jesus’ words false. Also – it is itself an exclusive truth claim. The claim that all religions lead to God is an exclusive one, but where does the claim come from? It certainly doesn’t come from the lips of Jesus. Personally, I think we should prioritise what Jesus says on the matter and defer to that.

Also – claiming that all religions are false (as the video seems to do) is also an exclusive truth claim. It seems that on matters such as these, we cannot get away from making exclusive truth claims. And the reality is that these claims are either true or false.

Summary

Is Christianity arrogant? Not at all. It makes an exclusive truth claim like every other belief system on the planet – atheism included. Christian truth claims are not arrogant just like lawyers and scientists aren’t arrogant when they are seeking the truth about a state of affairs.

The question is – how are we going about talking to people about our truth claim? Are we acting in an arrogant way or are we valuing the people we speak to as Jesus said we must?


[1] John 14:6-7, NIV.

[2] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[3] Ibid., 08:48.

[4] Matthew 5:44.

[5] Genesis 1:27.

[6] Ephesians 2:1-5, Romans 5:10.

[7] John Dickson, Bullies and Saints An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33.

[8] Romans 11:36, NIV.

NDE Experiences Complement Biblical Teaching

What happens when we die?

So far in this series I have explored some interesting evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) that seem to suggest we go on – we do not cease to exist. I have argued a naturalistic dying brain theory fails to account for the OBE element of NDEs. Yet those who experience NDEs (NDErs) are most struck by their visit with beings in an unearthly world. Following her NDE, Mary Neale wrote a creed reminding her of what she learned; the truth of God’s promises in scripture, heaven exists, God is loving, daily divine support, and God’s purposes for her life.[1] I think the response of NDErs like Mary suggest NDEs complement the teaching of the Bible in three ways.

1) NDEs Do Not Supersede Scripture and the Christian Gospel, they Apply It

First, NDErs almost always experience a being of brilliant light in an otherworldly place who communicates overwhelming love and acceptance to them. This reminds me of Daniel’s vision of God. “His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.”[2] Yet as the Psalmist reminds us, he also cares deeply for us because He, “created [our] inmost being … knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb.”[3] God loves us. The scripture says, seek him and you will find him.[4]

The Christian NDE critic (NDEc) may object to NDErs claims of overflowing love and acceptance. Perhaps it sounds to the NDEc like universalism, the heretical idea that the Atonement is unlimited, applies to all people, and that all men will eventually be reconciled to God.[5] I think this worry is unwarranted. First, because Jesus exhibited deep love in his life; he said, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another,”[6] and Paul taught faith, hope, and love are vital for the Christian, but “the greatest of these is love.”[7] Perhaps the NDE experience is a divine gift to let some people experience the Bible’s idea of this love. Second, the love experienced by NDErs does not supersede the Christian gospel, it seems to illustrate it. Some NDErs like Ian McCormack find themselves in distressing darkness during the NDE and explicitly call to Jesus to save them. Ian describes being drawn out of darkness by the brilliant, loving light.[8] This aligns with the New Testament claim Jesus is the light of the world whose followers will not stay in darkness.[9] It is also illustrative that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.[10] Third, this love is reminiscent of the biblical God because, as J. P. Moreland observes, it challenges human cultural assumptions of highest goods being success, ancestor worship, honour or purity.[11] Rather, the Bible teaches love for God and people is the highest good.

But who or what does the mystical loving light represent? If it really is the God of the Bible, wouldn’t God reveal himself rather than leaving his identity vague and open to interpretation? On the contrary, scripture often reports times when God intervenes in human affairs while leaving his identity ambiguous. God’s angels visit Lot in Sodom but hide their identity,[12] Joshua encounters the mysterious commander of God’s army,[13] and Jesus comes to Israel as the divine Messiah yet many fail to recognise him.[14] An unidentified being of light is not at odds with God’s behaviour in scripture. Rather, it is consistent with it.

2) NDEs Seem Consistent With the God of Scripture Who Knows What I Need

The second alignment of NDEs with scripture comes in the apparently tailored nature of NDE experiences, designed to draw the NDErs toward God. Scripture shows this is the way Jesus engaged with friends and critics. For example, when the rich man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, the text says Jesus loved him and sensed a love for his wealth, so he challenged him to give it away and live a life loving and honouring God instead.[15] Likewise, in his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus saw through their piety observing they honoured God with their lips, yet their hearts were far from him.[16] NDEs seem consistent with God knowing our hearts, engaging with us in the way that will draw us towards himself.

The NDEc might object to the extra-biblical nature of these NDE experiences. Why should only some people have a special divine encounter prior to their ultimate death? Scripture seems to say it is better not to have this, because “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[17] Yet there is nothing in these words precluding a pre-mortem encounter with God. The apostle Paul may have had one of these experiences himself.[18] Surely if God opts to allow such a thing, he is free to do so. The NDEc may also object that Hebrews says we all die once, and then face the judgement.[19] Yet NDErs have not actually died yet, though they were close to their ultimate death. Consequently, because the NDErs remained alive, their NDE experience does not contradict the teaching of Hebrews.

3) NDErs Return With a Biblical Sense of God’s Purpose for People

The third alignment of scripture with NDErs experience is found in the sense of God’s plan for them involving hope, purpose, and beauty.[20] Scripture says our days are ordained by God before our birth,[21] and our lives matter because God has placed eternity in our hearts.[22] Further, God has a plan for us to, “do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.”[23] The NDErs returning sense of divine purpose seems aligned with God’s promises. Yet scripture also teaches the gospel message, God’s plan to save humanity. Do NDErs return with a new appreciation of this? Ian McCormack reportedly did, being instructed by God to “see things in a new light.”[24] A specially arranged, direct encounter with the loving God, and a sense of God’s purpose in one’s life, has transformed NDErs like McCormack to love people and seek to serve them. The gospel is about God welcoming us home. NDErs who experience this “being of light describe a love … [running] towards them [to] embrace them, value them … simply want[ing] them home.”[25] Perhaps NDErs experience the gospel more vividly than most. Further, the minority of hellish NDE experiences reported in Long’s study suggests while God wants no one to be lost, the possibility remains that those rejecting God’s love will spend their afterlife separated from God. NDEs therefore remain consistent with scripture’s teaching.

Conclusion

In this series, we have found that:

  • we found here and here that dying brain hypotheses do not account for the NDErs evidence
  • NDEs seem to be somewhat objective because sometimes they are shared by the living
  • Neuroscience gives reason to think that the human mind is only correlated to the brain, and can function when the brain is virtually absent, so its no great leap to suppose mind can exist apart from brain

Further – NDEs are consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We haven’t had time to discuss the fact that those of other religious traditions return from an NDE with their interpretation of a solidly Christian picture of the afterlife, rather than any other religious outlook.[26]

NDEs are common, and as we assess an NDErs account, we must remain open to the possibility that they have engaged in a supernatural circumstance which complements the Bible’s teaching. Taking this willing perspective on NDEs may encourage Christian believers in their hope of heaven, and it may challenge unbelievers to finally choose to believe in Jesus and so orient themselves toward an eternity with Him.


[1] Mary Neale, “Seven Lessons from Heaven,” quoted in Moreland, 214.

[2] Daniel 7:9-10, NIV.

[3] Psalm 139:13, NIV.

[4] I Chronicles 28:9, NIV.

[5] J. R. Root, “Universalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1232.

[6] John 13:34, NIV.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.

[8] John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 138.

[9] John 8:12.

[10] Luke 19:10.

[11] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 217.

[12] Genesis 19.

[13] Joshua 5:13-15.

[14] Moreland, 221.

[15] Matthew 10:17 – 22.

[16] Mark 7:7.

[17] John 20:29.

[18] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[19] Hebrews 9:27.

[20] Moreland, 213.

[21] Psalm 139:16.

[22] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[23] Ephesians 2:10.

[24] Burke, 263.

[25] Burke, 79.

[26] John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 141.

Troubling Brain Scans and NDEs

What happens when we die?

We’ve been talking in this series about the evidence for Near Death Experiences (NDEs). This evidence suggests people have retained vivid conscious awareness following clinical death, and they have gone to another place.

For biological naturalists, this is a hard claim to take seriously. The naturalist will typically assert that we are our brains. “Conscious states are entirely caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain.”[1] Our minds are an emergent property that comes from the physical stuff of the brain, and so when the brain ceases functioning, we cease to exist.

This view of the brain is very common. But that does not mean it is correct. Many people can believe something that later turned out to be false. Right? For centuries, people thought life emerged spontaneously; dust created fleas, rotting meat made maggots, and wheat in a dark place led to mice. It took scientists like Louis Pasteur to show that spontaneous generation was a commonly held, but false belief. Is it possible that the naturalist belief that we are our brains is a contemporary common, false belief also?

The evidence from NDEs argues against the naturalist understanding of mind and brain. If I go somewhere else after death, I cannot be my brain, because my brain has ceased to function. In fact – if my mind is non-physical but related to my brain, and if my mind can exist without my brain, then the claims of NDEs are probably what we would expect. And in this blog series, we have looked at just a few examples from the volumes of NDE accounts that exist.

But how would we be able to tell if our minds were separate from our brains? In our normal experience, don’t we engage with conscious beings who have brains?

Yes – of course. But even if I have only engaged with conscious beings with brains, that does not mean consciousness is GENERATED BY those people’s brains. It could also be that their conscious mind is simply closely CORRELATED TO their brain at this time. Further, there are medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that may suggest people do engage with conscious human subjects who have severely degraded, and even absent brain hemispheres. This supports the idea that mind is not created by brain, rather it is correlated to it.

Evidence from Hydrocephalus

Doctors have encountered instances where conscious people lack a normal, functioning brain. Hydrocephalus is a condition where fluid builds up in the skull and puts pressure on the brain tissue, causing damage to it and hindering personal development. In half of the most severe cases, the patient was mentally challenged. Michael Jones notes this is what we would expect if biological naturalism was right and – we are our brains. However, the other 50% of the severest cases of Hydrocephalus had IQs over 100 and functioned properly.[2]

Brain Scan Showing Hydrocephalus

Neurologist John Lorber has studied hundreds of cases of Hydrocephalus. In one case, he talks about a university student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and an active social life. Yet he had virtually no brain, just a thin layer of mantle a millimetre or so thick. His skull was mainly filled with cerebrospinal fluid.[3] Early onset Hydrocephalus in children has also been studied and it does not lead to degraded development in every case because some patients develop above average intelligence despite drastically reduced brain mantle volume.[4] Lorber has systematically studied a remarkable set of accounts that litter the medical literature and go back a long way.[5] Jones observes that these cases are anomalies if materialist views of the brain are true. Yet if it is right that consciousness is only correlated to the brain, they would be somewhat expected.[6]

Evidence from Hydranencephaly

Hydranencephaly as an even more severe condition involving cases where brain hemispheres do not develop at all and are absent. These patients are assumed to exist in a vegetative state because they lack the brain areas that supposedly produce consciousness.

Brain Scan Showing Hydranencephaly

Yet studies have been done on children suffering from Hydranencephaly who exhibit traits of consciousness. In some cases, they express themselves, display evidence of the experience of feelings like pleasure and joy, and they smile and laugh.[7] They are awake and responsive, can distinguish voices, and do not appear in a vegetative state. The British Medical Journal observes Hydranencephaly usually presents with severely delayed milestones during early childhood.[8] What is fascinating however is that development is delayed, not precluded due to a lack of evident brain hemispheres. Children without brains are slower to develop, but they do develop. One boy lived for many years and was able to interact with his family and his environment even though medically speaking there was no brain present in his skull.[9] Again, this situation is anomalous if the brain generates the mind. But if mind and brain are merely correlated, we would probably expect cases like this to sometimes occur.

Conclusion

This blog series has assessed some of the evidence for NDE’s which suggest that people have left their bodies at certain times, often close to or in a state of flat line clinical death, before returning from that state afterwards. Skeptics will argue that because the human mind and the brain are essentially the same thing, this clearly is a physical phenomenon, the dying brain. Yet we have seen why that conclusion does not satisfy the available evidence.

In this blog, we have summarised medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that suggest that human consciousness is not necessarily dependent on a complete brain anyway. If we are resistant to NDEs because of a biological naturalist view of personhood and the brain, I would suggest in the light of these cases, we need to rethink our position. If people can be conscious without a complete brain, then surely it is at least possible that human consciousness can go on once the physical body has died.

What about the theological implications of this? Are NDE claims at odds with the Bible’s teaching about life after death? Do they sound more mystical than Christian? We will pick up that important subject in the next instalment.


[1] John R. Searle, Mind A Brief Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 79.

[2] Near Death Experiences: Irreducible Mind (Part 5), Inspiring Philosophy, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnTVPCwPjhI.

[3] Lewin, R, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” Science, vol. 210, no. 4475, 19080, pp. 1232-1234.

[4] Berker, D. E., Goldstein, D. G., Larber, J. Priestly, D. B. and Smith, D. A. (1992), “Reciprocal neurological developments of twins discordant for hydrocephalus,” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 34: 623-632, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.1992.tb11493x

[5] Lewin.

[6] Inspiring Philosophy.

[7] Aleman, Barb & Merker, Bjorn. (2014), “Consciousness without cortex: A hydranencephaly family survey,” Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Normway : 1992), 103. 10.1111/apa.12718.

[8] Hydranencephaly: a rare cause of delayed developmental milestones, BMJ Case Reports, published 2013,  accessed 4th December, 2021, https://casereports.bmj.com/content/2013/bcr-2013-009589.full.

[9] Bill Baskervill, Boy Born Without Brain Proves Doctors Wrong, AP News, 13th July, 1989, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/08099b98348a930469a232b9250f1509.

Shared Near-Death Experiences

People who experience near-death experiences (NDErs) describe a process where they apparently leave their body and observe their surroundings externally – an out-of-body experience (OBE). But is this an objectively real event? There have been many reports of this down through the ages. Some of them have even involved situations where the NDErs come back from their experience with information that they should not have.

I described two of these in my previous blog.

  • a patient understanding medical procedures.
  • a victim of attempted murder reporting details of her attacker’s escape while unconscious on the ground.

These are interesting because they are evidential. They go beyond just claims of an NDE. They allow us to argue that the event actually did happen because we have confirmatory evidence that it happened.

But surely If NDEs were real, it would be great if we could have evidential cases that involved multiple witnesses who could agree what happened. If we had multiple witnesses, then surely that would make a strong case that NDEs are objectively real events, rather than personal brain events or hallucinations. There are two types of NDE that make this strong case for us.

Shared NDEs

Here, a healthy person sees the NDErs transition out of their body and observes other aspects of the NDE experience. On return, the NDErs and the witness confirm what they both experienced. The experience therefore cannot be purely subjective because two people experienced it.

Jan Price was out walking with her husband in 1993 when she was bitten by a dog and began to feel very ill.[1] They called the paramedics when they returned home. Jan was placed on a gurney by the paramedics, and while on it she had a cardiac arrest that was described by the ambulance crew as almost fatal. It lasted 4 minutes.

While one paramedic was applying CPR and the other was preparing the paddles to shock Jan’s heart, her husband John saw her slowly rise out of her body. She did not look like an apparition, she was fully fleshed, wearing a beautiful green gown. Jan later reported that she had an OBE at that same moment. She was later able to describe the resuscitation procedure used on her by the medics.

John also recounts that during the NDE, their dog Maggi who had died three weeks before suddenly appeared beside the gurney and looked at him. John was shocked. Jan’s description matches. She talked about moving to another space where Maggi appeared before her. The dog appeared as she did when in physical form, only younger and more vital. She was as real to see and touch as she had been in the physical realm. Jan and Maggie walked for a while in these different surroundings and talked together mind to mind. “Without spoken words we shared memories and deep feelings…my heart overflowed with gratitude for the opportunity to have this reunion – and see my loved one so joyously, vibrantly alive in what can truly be called paradise.”[2]

On her return, Jan also discussed aspects of the paramedic’s activity that she could not have seen from her body’s prone position during resuscitation, but could see from an elevated OBE position. One paramedic concluded, “Jan had an out-of-body experience, because she gave us too much information that she could not give us. Where her husband was standing, what I was doing.”[3]

In a shared NDE like the one John and Jan experienced, a second person objectively observes the same things that NDErs experience, particularly the observation that the NDEr is a localized, nonmaterial entity separated from the physical body.

Apparitional NDEs

In this class of NDE, the NDErs visit and communicate with another living person while out of the body, and both accounts are subsequently verified as consistent.

Critical care physician Doctor Laurin Bellg describes one such case that occurred in one of her patients in 2011.[4] She shared this case with the audience of a professional seminar at The Monroe Institute (TMI) in 2014. You can watch the recording of her talk on Youtube.[5] She was treating a patient who was dying of cancer, gravely ill, yet still conscious and able to clearly engage with family members and hospital staff. This lady was tragically estranged from her son because of things he had done 25 years previously that had damaged the family. Even during her terminal illness, the woman felt great animosity to her son.

One particular day, the son was sitting in a bar which was near the hospital. He was drinking, sad about the imminent death of his mother, regretful at the mistakes he made. He desperately wanted to reconnect with his mom before she died.[6] He looks up to suddenly see his mother coming into the crowded bar. Immediately he feels confused. She’s sick in bed, so how can she be here? But he’s also elated at the prospect of meeting with her, so he stands up, intending to greet her. His vision is blocked for a moment by patrons of the bar, and when he can see the door again, his mother is gone.

Dr. Bellg reports the dying woman is asleep in her hospital bed at this time. She wakes up later that same afternoon. Her daughter is sitting with her at her bedside, and the women says to her daughter, “I had the strangest dream. I saw my son in a bar. He got up and started to come to me. I got scared and woke up.”[7] Later that evening, the daughter spoke separately to her brother who told her about sitting in the bar that afternoon and seeing his mother arrive, and then disappear. The daughter was the one who put the pieces of this surprising event together and recounted it to Dr Bellg, who later spoke separately to the dying woman and the son and confirmed these details. Sadly, the dying woman and her son did not reconcile before her death.

In her presentation, Bellg recounts the details and notes that the bar involved is across the road from the hospital. She says there’s no plausible way the dying women could get out of her bed. Yet it is so surprising that:

  • the dying woman described walking towards her son, seeing him crying, then seeing him stand up.
  • the son described actually seeing him mom, it seemed to him she was physically there. He describes getting up, and starting to walk towards her.

Like the shared NDE, the apparitional NDE shows that this is not merely a subjective experience perceived by a dying individual. It is also an event perceived objectively by a healthy person, and the two perceptions match. This is compelling evidence for the reality of NDEs.

But what if I simply cannot believe NDEs are real events?

Many people struggle with the idea of NDEs because they cannot get past the assumption that they are their body. Their mind and their brain is essentially the same thing, so there is no self or soul to leave one’s body. This naturalistic approach to understanding the mind-brain problem is an assumption. Surprisingly, it is challenged by medical science. And I will talk about that in my next blog.


[1] Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die, (Durham: IANDS, 2016), kindle edition, loc 109 – 112.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Patient NDEs in the ICU, Laurin Bellg, critical care physician, at TMI Professional Seminar 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdScjvc14xE, at 31:08.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 256.

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.

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 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.