Friday, May 25, 2007

Claims of Evidence by Victor Stenger

Seminar IV. Claims of Evidence (b)

T: Science is supposed to rely on empirical evidence. What about the empircal evidence of religious experience? Throughout history to the present day, individuals have experienced the existence of a transcendent power during prayer or meditation. They insist that what they experiences was no a simple dream but a real oneness with the universe.
A: Why should we believe them?

T: Are you saying they are lying?
A: No, in most cases they are probably not lying. But it still could be all in their heads.

T: They are witnesses, just like the witnesses in a law court. We base legal judgements on the testimony of witnesses, why can't we base scientific judgements on the same?
A: Many studies have shown the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I, for one, would never convict someone of a crime based on eyewitness testimony alone. It has to be supported by physical evidence, like DNA. Since DNA testing, many convicted people have been found innocent.

T: Let's get back to the relgious experience. Physical evidence has been found, in brain scans, which show that something unique happens in the brain during religious experiences.
A: Yes, and they have even been induced by electromagnetic pulses in the brain. As I said, it could be, and indeed looks as if, it's all in the head. The mystic never returns from his or her trance with information that could not have been there all along. Why don't they come back with predictions that can be tested? Not a single psychic or mystic predicted the 9/11 tragedies (though many may claim so after the fact).

T: What about out-of body experiences (OBE)? I have heard of a controlled experiment where a woman lying on a table was able to read numbers on a shelf above her head, not visible from the table. She said she floated above her body and read them.
A: I know of that experiment. It turned out that she could see the numbers reflected from the glass of a wall clock.

T: Dr.Larry Dossey has documented many cases of OBEs and other evidence for spiritual claims in his best-selling books. In one case, he reports that a blind woman floated up out of her body during surgery and was able to read the name tags of the medical staff in an adjoining room.
A: Dossey admits he made up that story.

T: And, how about Near Death Experiences (NDE)? People have been revived after being clinically dead and talked about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and a very general, pleasant experience that has convinced them not to fear death, that there is a world beyond.
A: First, they were probably never really "dead" or else they would not have been resucitated. And, as in OBE, they bring back no revelations that can be later tested. The "light at the end of the tunnel" is a common experience of oxygen deprivation and observed in the laboratory, such as in high-g centrifuge tests of jet pilots.

T: You spoke earlier about predictions. I agree that predictions are a major way to test scientific theories. Well, the Bible and other scriptures have their predictions too, called prophecies. Many authors have documented their success. Take one example: hundreds of Old Testament prophecies foresaw the coming of Jesus.
A: Prediction is meaningless when they are made after the fact. How do you know that the stories in the New Testament were simply written to conform to those in the Old Testiment?

T: The New Testament stories are not inventions, they are facts confirmed by witnesses.
A: Witnesses, right. What about the all the prophecies that never happened, like Jesus telling his disciples that he will return to Earth and establish his kingdom before all of them were dead? But let us not get off into the endless debate on the Bible. I want to stick to science. In science a prediction has to be made ahead of time, before the predicted event happens. And, it has to be risky. Not a simple triviality such as "The sun will come up tomorrow." Risky predictions have been successfully made thousand of times in science, not once in religion.

T: What about the Bible Code? Michael Drosin was able to predict the assasination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin including the year it would happen. He and others have found many other predictions coded in the Bible.
A: Statistics experts have shown the the skip-sequence method they used will produce many apparent correlations by chance. They have shown similar concordances in other long books beside the Bible, such as Moby Dick and War and Peace. Drosnin's Rabin prediction was very vague and not very risky. given the violence in the Middle East. It was not published until after the fact and he admits that the date prediction was made while "Israel mourned Rabin."

T: But they quote very high odds against chance, thousands to one.
A: These calculations have been shown to be wrong. The fail to account for the data selection that was done in their analyses.

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