On Martian Vampires

Here is a question I never tire of answering, albeit I am sure others grow tired of hearing it answered:

Let me start out by mentioning that I am a faithful Catholic. I believe in the empty tomb, and I accept that your revelation was the genuine article. I just can’t shake the sense that there is a flaw in the argument “An apparently supernatural event occurred (whether resurrection or revelation), therefore the event was the work of God.”

So, to be clear, I am largely coming from a Devil’s Advocate position here. I don’t actually believe the Resurrection was the work of Martian Vampires. I am trying to understand why an omnipotent god is a logically superior explanation to a potent god.

It doesn’t seem to me that my argument applies in general circumstances like you describe (me-as-robot, or discarding any conclusions in any field), because the hypothetical trickster that I’m talking about is definitely an inferior explanation, IF a non-supernatural alternative exists. In other words, I’m not saying that magical tricksters provide a superior explanation to general observations, I’m saying that they might provide a superior explanation to the existence of an omnipotent God.

[quoting me] A theory that does not contain an ad hoc entity, created only for the sake of argument and abandoned immediately thereafter, is weightier than one that does.

But don’t both theories contain an ad hoc entity? The difference is that yours is infinite and mine is finite. Further, your theory includes the existence of supernatural, superintelligent entities who are hellbent on spreading deceit.

Also, please don’t feel any obligation to indulge this thread any further. I know you’ve got more important things to do with your time.

No, I do not have anything more important to do with my time. I am not a novelist who philosophizes, I am a philosopher who writes novels. You are asking me a philosophical question about a matter of the deepest possible seriousness on the loftiest imaginable topic. I am delighted to write to you. I hope only I do not bore or offend you with my enthusiasm for philosophy.

Let us deal with your points in order:

I just can’t shake the sense that there is a flaw in the argument “An apparently supernatural event occurred (whether resurrection or revelation), therefore the event was the work of God.”

But that is not the argument being made, at least not by me. My argument is that we have a set of facts, and that (1) the theory that God, meaning the entity as described in Christian writings and tradition, produced a true miracle explains the facts with a more coherent hence more rational explanation than (2) the theory that an unknown hypothetical entity of whom nothing is known produced a miracle for an unknown yet deceptive purpose. By coherent, I mean a theory whose parts hang together with greater harmony. By rational, I mean an explanation that appeals to the reason.

Now, if you are attempting to make an argument to show that theory (2) is stronger than theory (1) I am required as gently as I can to point out that you have not yet make any argument at all of any kind. You have introduced no evidence, called no witnesses, and offered no chain of reasoning from assumption to conclusion to give anyone any reason to believe theory (2). In fact, it is not a theory at the moment, merely a speculation.

Let me be completely clear on this point, since you seem not to grasp it. Theory (1) explains certain facts that are otherwise not explained. This does not necessarily mean Theory (1) is true, but it does lend persuasive weight to Theory (1). On the other hand, you have offered no fact, no, not one, which is explained by Theory (2) which is not explained by Theory (1).

In science, or in any disciplined form of thinking, such as theology or philosophy or mathematics, the effort is to discover an underlying simple rule or general explanation that explains the large number of particular cases encountered in life. Hence, when Newton, for example, discovers that the rules governing the motion of the planets and the ruled governing the motion of apples falling to the earth is the same rule, he has found a simple and robust explanation. In philosophy, to use another example, when Aristotle discovers the law of non-contradiction in logic he discovers a rule that applies to all philosophical argument whatsoever, so that instead of a lot of little rules to memorize, there is just the one. In geometry, Euclid reduces all geometry to less than twenty rules and definitions.

All of these disciplines reject the notion of inventing a different ad hoc explanation to explain the class of phenomenon what we are attempting to explain. That rule is called Occam’s Razor, or the principle of parsimony.

In this case, the fact to be explained is: why did I, after being healed of a heart attack in progress by a prayer, have a vision of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ who told me something I was later to read in the Bible but which I had not then read? Now, the possible explanations are

(1) God Theory: that there is a God, in which case prayers could heal the sick since this is one of the things conventionally attributed to God by other people who met or say they met Him; and in which case the vision could be a true vision because God can send such visions for the purpose of saving souls; and in which case the man who wrote the book said the same thing to me as He said to Saint John, and there is no coincidence that He expressed the same thought in the same way.

(2) Dream Theory: It is all a coincidence. The prayer had no effect whatever, I just so happened to be healed in that exact moment. That fact that I had a vision later was unrelated to this event, or was a dream or hallucination caused by stress or fear of death, or was caused by some chemical reaction in the bloodstream, or by some inadvertent material cause. That fact that I had foreknowledge of something I was to read in a book a month later is either also a coincidence, or I had read the passage and forgot I read it, but subconsciously remembered it, and the passage appeared in a dream, which I just by coincidence happened to have at this time.

All the facts fit the God Theory without any need for to invent any ad hoc explanations to force them to fit in. The reason why God answered the prayer and sent the vision and told me about the future was because He can, and His motive is to save my soul by winning my love and loyalty to Him, which is what all accounts of Him say is His prime motivation. There is nothing left unexplained and nothing that fits only awkwardly into place.

But, alas, the problem with the Dream Theory is that it does not fit the facts. It is an ad hoc explanation. It rests on assuming everything which in the God Theory forms a simple and coherent pattern is a coincidence. There is no history of hallucination in my family. There is no explanation as to why the hallucination struck at that particular time and with that particular content. It just kind of happened. So we have to make a second ad hoc explanation to explain that this happened to be a hallucination concerning Jesus rather than Thor, whom I frankly would have far preferred to have seen. There is no explanation as to why the hallucination was not random like a dream, but instead told me a month ahead of time something I would later read in a book. We have to assume a third ad hoc explanation, a trick memory that forgets and remembers things just when convenient for the theory that it do so, or a time-travel form of psychics allowing me to see the future, which power just so happens to vanish except when needed for this theory.

From that time to this, I have had no additional foreknowledge of things not yet known, no additional random coincidences of prayers not being answered, no additional hallucinations. This vision did also did not fit the pattern of hallucinations, which can be determined by studying real hallucinations: I have a brother in law who suffers hallucinations. They do not have the coherence of what I experienced. They are random, nonsensical, dreamlike. His hallucinations do not answer philosophical questions about the dilemma of free will versus foreknowledge. Mine did.

You see the problem? Dream Theory also has no predictive power. Occam’s razor cuts it out. If God Theory were true, then additional prayers to God on additional occasions would also heal the sick. And in my case, in my life since, they have.

Now, your theory, that Loki, or the Vampire Cyborg of Mars, or something else called Monster X arranged all these events and reached into my mind and heart and traveled through time to tell me about something in a book I had not yet read, all deliberately done so as to deceive me. This theory has all the defects of Dream Theory but with the added problem that while the ad hoc things used in Dream Theory are known to exist, the entity postulated in this theory has no properties and no definition aside from the fact that nothing whatsoever is known about it.

So, I can argue that hallucinations cannot accurately tell me the wording of a phrase in a book I will not read until a month from now, on the grounds that we all know that hallucinations cannot travel forward in time to see what books I might read, and then backward through time and tell me one of the lines out of chapter five; but Monster X we do not know whether he can travel through time or not, since by definition we know nothing about him.

Dream Theory appeals to the reason because we know hallucinations exist. We know coincidences exist. We know that slips of the memory exist, when an honest man thinks he recalls something but he actually met it earlier and forgot it.

Monster X Theory does not appeal to the reason because we do not know Monster X exists. We have no body of phenomena which cannot be explained without positing Monster X.

Monster X Theory is something you made up just now only to argue this point: and then, as I said, you did not argue it. You only asked what would happen, hypothetically, if you did argue it. I answered that you would have to meet the burden of proof. You would have to produce evidence. You would have to call on witnesses. You would have to offer a chain of reasoning from some agreed-upon assumption you share with the skeptic you are trying to convince.

But you have done none of these things because you can do none of these things. You cannot produce evidence to prove that Monster X exists because Monster X is defined by definition as that about which we know nothing, not even whether or not he exists. Hence, by definition, the Monster X Theory will never be a theory, and there will never be a good reason for you or for I or for any man to believe that theory.

You will never, not once, not ever, never use the Monster X Theory for any purpose other than philosophical conversations like this. You will never sit down in an automobile, assume that Monster X has the ability to switch on which side of the street you should drive, but is deceiving you, and therefore you act on that assumption and drive on what looks to you is the wrong side of the road, knowing you have been deceived and now you are actually driving on the correct side.

The rule of parsimony says that if two explanations have the same explanatory power (such as Kepler’s oval orbits versus the Epicycles of Copernicus) chose the simpler. Reduce your number of assumptions. An Ad Hoc theory does the opposite. It increases the number of assumptions. Hence, it is the opposite of scientific thinking. It is an attempt to invent extra elements to a theory that does not fit the observed facts in order to satisfy a preconception.

A scientific theory tries to explain the known facts. An ad hoc theory tries to explain away the known facts, that is, force the facts into a preconceived theory (where they do not naturally fit) by adding linking material or extra elements.

In short, if you theory required that you make up random stuff out of your own imagination each and every time some new event happens, then it is not a bad theory, it is not a theory at all. The Monster X Theory is not a theory at all.

I am trying to understand why an omnipotent god is a logically superior explanation to a potent god.

You will forgive me if a note of asperity enters my tone, but that is not the question you asked. I do not believe that God is omnipotent because I saw His omnipotence. I believe God is omnipotent because of Christian tradition and teaching, and because of certain philosophical arguments you have not bothered to inquire from me.

In other words, I’m not saying that magical tricksters provide a superior explanation to general observations, I’m saying that they might provide a superior explanation to the existence of an omnipotent God.

What reason do you have that would convince a skeptic to prove that a magical trickster explanation is a superior explanation than an omnipotent God explanation for why people like me?

I have defined what, in science and math and logic and philosophy and theology constitutes a ‘superior’ theory: (1) it is not ad hoc (2) it posits the fewest number of entities needed to explain the facts (3) it explains the facts (4) it explains the facts in a coherent, that is, self-harmonious fashion (5) It can be used to predict other facts (6) it reduces complex phenomena to a few simple rules.

So far, you have made an unsupported statement that the theory that all reports of miracles are better explained by positing a supernatural deceiver as opposed to a supernatural truth-teller.

Make your case, please. Give your argument.

I have given you an argument as to why this is not a better theory, indeed not even a weaker theory, but not even a theory at all. Please give me a rebuttal and a counter argument.

But don’t both theories contain an ad hoc entity? The difference is that yours is infinite and mine is finite.

With all due respect, this question betrays that you do not know what the phrase ‘ad hoc’ means. Ad hoc is a Latin phrase meaning “for this”. It generally signifies a solution designed for a specific problem or task, non-generalizable, and not intended to be able to be adapted to other purposes.

In this case, the theory that God sent my vision and my cure and information about a book I would not read until a month had passed is coherent with the axiom that God exists. But also the theory that the universe is created not eternal, is deliberate and not the result of blind natural processes, and so on, coheres with this theory, but is independent of it. In other words, I did not invent God just for the sake of explaining away one and only one set of facts. It is a robust explanation that explains a great many facts, including such things as the coherence of moral reasoning and the harmony between human logic and the laws of nature, and so on. The reports of strange events in 33 AD in Jerusalem are also explained by the simplest and clearest possible explanation: the reports are true and the man who said he was God was telling the truth. Things are as they seem.

Whenever you propose that things are not as they seem, the burden of proof is on your to provide the explanation as to why an openminded skeptic like myself should believe that things are not what they seem?

On the other hand, the Deceiver is something you invented for this discussion which has no application outside this discussion. Suppose I were to believe the Deceiver theory? What comes of it? How should I change my life? Should I stop giving to charity, stop trying to love my enemies, stop answering amateurish philosophical questions asked me by perfect strangers? Should I be rude? To you? If nothing else, your theory has the disadvantage of being against you own self interest to promote it.

Further, your theory includes the existence of supernatural, superintelligent entities who are hellbent on spreading deceit.

This is an argument against your theory, not in favor of it. If the deceivers of Christian theology exist, then the supernatural exists. If the supernatural exists, the natural order is deliberate rather than natural, that is, dependent on the supernatural. This means that those things which have no natural explanation in our world, things like virtue and truth and beauty, are supernatural. But the deceivers of Christian revelation are inferior and subordinate to the one supreme and sovereign power from they rebelled and fell.

There is no such thing as a counterfeit banknote for the country of Ruritania, because Ruritania does not exist. There is also no counterfeiter who is making banknotes of the Confederate States of America. Only counterfeits of real banknotes exist. Likewise, here. No deceiver can deceive unless he misrepresents truth. No supernatural deceiver can be omnipotent, because if he were omnipotent his lies would become truth with no effort on his part. This is because an omnipotent being by definition has reality as nothing but a side effect of the fact of his existence, the way light is a side effect of flame.

Hence, if even one supernatural deceiver were proved to exist, then the principle or sovereign or source of which that supernatural deceiver were a copy or monkey or false impersonation by definition would have to exist. If the shadow of a unicorn exists, then the unicorn exists. If a lying devil pretending to be God exists, then God exists.

I already dealt with this objection earlier. Your silly Monster X might indeed have some motive for going to such great lengths to convert a confirmed atheist to a zealous Christian, because you have defined Monster X to be something that might do anything for no reason. But Satan and his minions are not undefined or unknown. We know their motives. Satan cannot perform a miracle to convert a damned atheist certain to go to hell to a zealous Christian panting for heaven. The theory makes no sense. It does not even pass the giggle test.