Sunday, July 16, 2017

Broken Patterns: A Sunday Rumination

     Imagine a “proto-scientist,” perhaps a Cro-Magnon, whose perceptions are reasonably keen but who hasn’t had much experience of diverse conditions. Let’s call him Smith. (Surprise, surprise.) Smith is inclined toward generalizations, and makes them with a certain naive ease. However, because his experiences have all been within a narrow range of environments, some of those generalizations are dubious.

     Smith has observed many cases of water flowing downhill. From those observations, he has concluded that water will always flow downhill. Eventually, one of his tribe-mates sustains a serious wound – those mastodons are getting uppity – and Smith sees that blood flows downhill as well. As water and blood are the only liquids whose behavior he’s observed, he’s inclined to believe that all liquid will always flow downhill. Moreover, he believes this to be an important conclusion. Therefore, he presses it on his tribal fellows as a case of a natural law.

     It’s hard to fault Smith for having reached his conclusion. His experience is narrowly circumscribed. The Cro-Magnons didn’t have any way to supercool helium, nor would they have any use for it if they had. But if time-traveler Jones, visiting from our era, were to bring Smith to the Twenty-First Century and show him liquid helium flowing uphill, the expansion of Smith’s experiences might shake him rather badly.

     Smith’s original generalization was both honest and, for the conditions he knew, accurate. It might even have been useful, if his tribe was also home to a proto-Thomas Crapper. But it was incomplete. Indeed, had Jones returned Smith to his own time, and had Smith spoken of the incredible impact of seeing a liquid flow uphill, his tribe could not be blamed for dismissing his testimony: “But you can’t do it now, can you?” Irreproducible phenomena are like that.


     One who is unwilling to accept the word of others will necessarily be limited to what he can observe personally. He’ll be inherently skeptical of testimony contrary to his own experience, even if it’s multiply confirmed. He might even reject material evidence of the event as spurious, for how many chains of evidence are truly proof against all objections? Police departments are known to have fabricated evidence, so why not persons of less weighty responsibilities?

     So it is with the hard-core atheist. I speak not of the militant atheist, for his is a different sort of mindset, but rather of him who has “fortified” his atheism, refining its defenses over the years such that no testimony nor evidence can be sufficient to sway him. His is a resistance that – for practical purposes – cannot be penetrated. His door is locked from within.

     That’s why faith is and must always be a personal matter. For any item of evidence or chain of reasoning about some miraculous event, there will always exist an alternative explanation that would do away with the requirement for supernatural intervention. Consider the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal in 1917 as an example:

     Estimates of the number of people present range from 30,000 and 40,000, by Avelino de Almeida writing for the Portuguese newspaper O Século, to 100,000, estimated by lawyer Dr. José Almeida Garrett, the son of a professor of natural sciences at the University of Coimbra.

     Various claims have been made as to what actually happened during the event. According to many witnesses, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to be significantly duller than normal, and to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth before zig-zagging back to its normal position. Witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became "suddenly and completely dry, as well as the wet and muddy ground that had been previously soaked because of the rain that had been falling." Not all witnesses reported seeing the sun "dance." Some people only saw the radiant colors, and others, including some believers, saw nothing at all. The only known picture of the sun taken during the event doesn't show anything unusual.

     Several alternative explanations for the events at Fatima have been advanced. None of them can be refuted, any more than the witnesses’ testimony can be refuted. He who wishes to believe will believe; he who refuses to believe will not. Irreproducible phenomena are like that.


     In the recent, highly impressive movie The Case for Christ, which chronicles Lee Strobel’s attempt to debunk the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after His Crucifixion, a Christian Supporting Cast character at one point asks hardened atheist (and seasoned investigative reporter) Strobel “How much evidence is enough?” It’s an important question for two reasons:

  • The answer will vary from person to person and subject to subject;
  • For some persons and some subjects, the answer is that there cannot be enough.

     As “the Resurrection is Christianity” (C. S. Lewis), Strobel was desperate to refute the story of the Resurrection. He resorted to several alternative explanations of the testimony of the Gospels...and found that each one failed him. The consistency of the descriptions of the events with other kinds of knowledge ultimately persuaded him that the Resurrection occurred as the Gospels testified. Yet at the climax of the movie, when Strobel accepts the veracity of the evidence he’s amassed – “Okay God, You win.” – there’s a tear leaking down his face. It provides a tinge of sorrow that words alone could never capture.

     The sorrow came from having had the cherished, massively well defended belief of a lifetime shatter. The exaltation that came with the acceptance of faith was coupled to Strobel’s realization that he’d been unjustifiably, even cruelly dogmatic about his atheism, including toward his own wife. As a transformative event, I can’t think of one that would be more personal, more painful, or more effective.

     The Resurrection is perhaps the best documented event of classical history. The circumstantials in those documents accord well with what we know about the era, the Roman rule over Judea, and its use of crucifixion as a method of execution. Yet it can still be disputed by one determined to disbelieve it. He could maintain that all the accounts, and any collateral evidence of the event, are fabrications. He could postulate several plausible reasons for those fabrications. And his thesis cannot be disproved. Irreproducible phenomena are like that.


     The Resurrection was a unique event. At least, there hasn’t been another since then. Nor do I expect another. But it broke a pattern: the pattern that says that:

  1. All men must die;
  2. Death is the final life event;
  3. The dead do not return to life.

     Scant wonder that they who saw and accepted the resurrected Christ became believers. Scant wonder that they who accept His Resurrection still do so today. But let that not blind the believer to the power of the mind to explain away that which it refuses to accept. Rather, let it make us gentle toward those who are determined to disbelieve. Their doors aren’t just locked from within; they’re multiply barred and buttressed with huge masses of mental furniture. Even if we could batter them down by sheer force, they would be instantly rebuilt, with extreme resentment as an added barrier. All we can do is to behave as Christians should: at all places, and in all times, and toward all peoples.

     “At all times preach the Gospels. When necessary, use words.” – attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi

     May God bless and keep you all.

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