Thursday, August 23, 2007


Demons, levitation and a priori skepticism

First off, read this recent post and the comments (many of them silly ad hominem attacks on Dembski and Behe) over at Panda's Thumb, sparked by a passage from my book The Case for Angels (Paternoster, 2002). Then reading the following response will make a lot more sense:

As it happens, to answer GuyeFaux's question, I am perfectly happy with the suggestion that demons might simply have the innate capacity to cause someone to levitate as what philosophers call a 'basic action' - I was suggesting that it is not levitation per se that skeptics balk at - levitation per se is not physically impossible, but rather levitation without a naturalistic cause. And if something can be levitated by affecting its atoms, and demons both exist and can causally interact with physical things, then of course it is logically possible for demons to cause physical things to levitate. A 'miracle' at one stage remove is indeed still a 'miracle', of course, but I fail to see how noting the possibility of such a thing counts as 'hyper-pseudo-rationalism' - either way I am quite plainly and openly positing a frankly supernatural being supernaturally causing an event to occur - there is no attempt to 'explain away' the supernatural element of the hypothesis here.

The other objections given in these posts to such a one-step remove explanation is that: a) this explanation suffers when Occam's razor is applied - why not cut out the mechanistic middle-man as it were, and b) (from Mike Elzinga) that using the magnetic mechanism would have inevitably been accompanied by other phenomena that were not observed in the case quoted - so the thesis is falsified.

As for Occam's razor, that would be a good point if I had actually been proposing this explanation as being the best explanation, rather than as a mere possibility which made the point about it not being levitation per se being the problem, and not any inherent physical impossibility about levitation being the problem, with believing such a story. Rather, the problem is the supernatural element it contains.

As for the falsification point, (and I gladly admit my ignorance of this scientific field - if you'll excuse the pun - and gladly accept tuition) it would seem to carry genuine weight against using this mediate explanation in this case. Of course, one might propose a miraculous prevention of the side effects mentioned - but that would make the explanation more complex - which brings us back to Occam. So good point epistemologically speaking, although not one which shows the explanation must be false.

Talking of weight, I would have thought it obvious that Dembski meant the term metaphorically and not literally - as in C.S. Lewis's famous sermon 'The Weight of Glory'.

As for the actual case quoted, it was interesting to read the other interviews with LaBar that had been tracked down, which only went to show that LeBar claims to have seen someone levitate at pew height (but not during an exorcism), as well as to have witnessed various other 'classic' possession phenomena, but that he claims never to have seen someone levitate at a great height, as in the Exorcist. He obviously counts pew height as not being very high. Indeed, he also claims to have seen a person who glided across the room on a chair, without touching the ground, during an exorcism. So I fail to see how my initial report is meant to constitute a 'misapprehension of what James LeBar actually said'. It seems perfectly clear and straight forward what he is claiming.

Feel free to doubt his word - note that I do not actually argue that his report is true - but do note that his word is evidence to be taken into account, that there is a fair amount of similar evidence, and that what one makes of this general type of evidence has a lot to do with the worldview one brings to the table in its assessment. Those whose worldview excludes the existence of God, or the truth of an interactionist-dualist account of the human mind, will of course rule out (or all but rule out) the truth of such reports as LaBarr's a priori. Those who believe in God, or dualism, on the other hand, will be more open to their truth. Which is not to say that theists and/or dualists must be gullible about such reports. Such things might be faked, people do lie, people can be mistaken about their perceptions. And this is important, because as LeBar says in the Court TV interview:

'In most cases, people with serious mental illness are not at all possessed by the demon. They may be seriously battered by the demons, they may act in ways that look like possession, but in most cases that's more of a deception, or an attempt at deception of the treatment team. To treat the mental illness, as we treat exorcism, there would be no results at all, no good results. Mental illness needs to be treated as a mental illness, not a spiritual malady.'

The major point of my book is that while there is evidence for the existence of angels and demons - one's assessment of this evidence depends upon one's assessment of wider philosophical issues. And there is an interesting paradox concerning those who demand empirical evidence for belief in demons, which must be be experience of unusual occurrences by definition, but who display an a priori bias against believing any reports of occurrences unusual enough to count as evidence for the demonic! I rather think that the general tenor of the other posts here goes to re-inforce this point.

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