The skeptic meets the demon

Posted on 02/24/11 44 Comments

After presenting my first person account of putative demonic oppression, Atheist Missionary offered the following hypothesis: somebody slipped acid into my sushi (the kind of acid that makes you hallucinate, not the kind that burns you). It may have been a somewhat tongue-in-cheek suggestion but broadly speaking it is possible. It is just enormously unlikely.

Ray Ingles makes a more concerted effort to rebut the supposition that a malevolent supernatural agency did in fact oppress me. To begin with, he quotes my claim that even if I did undergo sleep paralysis that does not mean the source of that sleep paralysis was not a malevolent supernatural agency. It seems that he concedes the point from a Christian perspective but nonetheless adds: “But can you blame others for invoking Occam’s Razor there?”

Blame? No. If somebody believes they have very good evidence that non-physical agencies cannot exist then they need to seek a reductive explanation. I don’t blame them for that. But how good are their reasons for believing that non-physical agencies cannot exist? Do they have an argument to the effect that consciousness must be physically embodied?

Next, Ray goes on to defend the case that I did experience sleep paralysis. Again he begins by quoting me: “The biggest problem with diagnosing the case as sleep paralysis was that I had been awake for twenty minutes or more.” Since sleep paralysis is the time lag of REM atonia after someone has waken up, the fact that I was awake and fine seems to defeat this possible explanation. 

But Ray suggests another possibility: “And there’s no chance you had started to fall back to sleep in that time – that half-dreaming state where sleep paralysis is most likely?”

Is there a chance? In a broad sense sure. For all I know there is also a chance I was abducted by aliens from planet X-542. But we need to focus not only what is possible but on what is plausible (and ideally, probable). It is not probable that I fell back asleep. Nor, I would contend, is it remotely plausible. Remember that this began with me (a) waking from a vivid nightmare and then (b) hearing an audible voice coming through the door, a voice which sounded just like an old man announcing his presence. Believe me, hearing this voice brought me into a maximally lucid state. I was terrified (understandably I think) by the experience and was listening with great intensity for any further sound from the other side of the door, including the creaking of floorboards that would signal the movement of a human person. Under those conditions is it plausible to suggest I suddenly drifted back to sleep?

I should add that I have only had experiences like this three times in my life. This was the first time. Two weeks later I had a similar experience, although I would be willing to concede that that second experience was sleep paralysis. (But I wouldn’t concede it was only that.) And I had a third experience one year later. Again, I would not concede that the third experience was sleep paralysis because (a) I could move my arms a limited distance (about a foot off the bed) but no more and (b) that third experience was accompanied by the sound of screaming. Anyway suffice it to say prior to going to Japan I had never experienced such things and thus, I think one could say, there is no evidence that I was especially prone to them.

Ray also didn’t offer an explanation for the fact that the year before the young man staying at the church had experienced something very similar to what I experienced. He simply enquired as to the degree that the cases were similar (a reasonable enquiry to be sure). From what I got out of the missionary he too awoke in the middle of the night, was unable to move, and heard voices threatening him. I don’t know if his case could more plausibly be described as sleep paralysis but it is certainly interesting that these experiences were reported two years in a row in one town but at none of the other nine towns throughout Hokkaido where other short-term English teachers were stationed.

Ray responds to the “piercingly relevant scriptural passage” I read by suggesting that I was aiming for the New Testament and “Can you come up with a passage that could not be interpreted as relevant?”

Okay, let’s take Ray up on his challenge. In my own little study I randomly opened my Bible five times (tending toward the New Testament end in accord with Ray’s instructions) and recorded the first verse I saw in each case:

Romans 11:32: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.”

Matthew 6:23: “But if your eye is bad your whole body will be full of darkness.”

Galatians 4:21: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law?”

Lamentations 3:14-15: “I am a laughingstock to all the people, mocked by their songs all day long. He filled me with bitterness, sated me with wormwood.”

Luke 22:49-50: “When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they asked, ‘Lord, should we strike with the sword?’  Then one of them struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear.”

I am a pretty creative fellow but I do not see any of these verses as having relevance to the trial I was facing. I would commend you to replicate this study. It is easy enough to do. Get a Bible and open it randomly and see what you come up with. 

Finally, Ray asked whether the town was at a high elevation. No, it was a small town on the coast about an hour and a half east of Tomakomai.

To sum up, it is easy to explain any phenomenon with innumerable possible explanations. But we need to seek explanations that, given the total set of data we have, are minimally plausible and hopefully probable. Relative to my background set of beliefs and all the details of the case I think it is probable that this was in fact a case of demonic oppression. Others may hold a prima facie skepticism about the existence of non-physical agencies, but unless they have very strong evidence that such agencies are impossible (and if so I’d like to see that evidence) I would hope they would concede that the details of a case like this render the interpretation I offer at least plausible.

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  • Walter

    One tangible benefit for those of us in the service of Satan is that we have a good night’s sleep. I have enough beauty rest to knock Fabio out of work.

    (I have been told that I am in Old Scratch’s service as a person who is skeptical of orthodox, trinitarian Christianity)

    It is surprising that you have been molested by Beelzebub since the Triabloggers have assured me that you too serve the devil. :-)

    • randal

      Well not all the Triabloggers believe in I am in service to the Dark Lord but those who do could always claim that I wasn’t apostate in 1993. No wait a minute, that wouldn’t work because of the perseverance of the saints.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I should add that I have only had experiences like this three times in my life.

    Apparently I slept-walked once when I was very young. Then, nothing… until one week when I was about fifteen. I woke up from sleepwalking three times; Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

    Since then, nothing. And my wife would notice if I got up from bed in the night.

    The fact that this was isolated to a period of time in your life doesn’t rule out sleep paralysis, I’m afraid.

    • randal

      “The fact that this was isolated to a period of time in your life doesn’t rule out sleep paralysis, I’m afraid.”

      Of course I’ve argued that this wasn’t sleep paralysis. But even if it were, surely you would admit that if I experienced this type of phenomena on a regular basis that would be an undercutting defeater (to use technical nomenclature) for the belief that this particular instance was supernatural occurrence. Since I had never experienced this type of phenomenon before I don’t have to deal with that undercutting defeater. And thus the case I am putting forward is stronger than it would have been otherwise.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        I dunno about ‘stronger’. I’d grant ‘not weaker’, though. :)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I can rationalize at least two of them.

    Romans 11:32: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.”

    A promise of mercy from God despite the original wickedness that left you open to spiritual oppression.

    Matthew 6:23: “But if your eye is bad your whole body will be full of darkness.”

    A warning to get your spiritual act together to be in shape for further attacks. Can be comforting in that it prescribes a course of action.

    Lamentations 3:14-15: “I am a laughingstock to all the people, mocked by their songs all day long. He filled me with bitterness, sated me with wormwood.”

    A bit of a stretch, but: A warning of a spiritual dry spell, where you will feel under attack and mocked for reporting the incident. But hey, Lamentations. Things got better for Israel eventually.

    So, I’m batting roughly .500…

    • randal

      Gosh, I think those are all enormous stretches, like fitting round pegs into square holes. By contrast, the text I read was about an individual facing a specific oppressoin and being assured that through the experience he could know Christ’s abiding power. That’s not only a round peg in a round hole. It’s a philip’s screwdriver fitting the screw perfectly.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    If somebody believes they have very good evidence that non-physical agencies cannot exist then they need to seek a reductive explanation. I don’t blame them for that. But how good are their reasons for believing that non-physical agencies cannot exist?

    Not quite my point. Occam’s Razor is about ‘multiplying entities beyond necessity’. We have good evidence for embodied consciousness, sleep paralysis, and nightmares.

    So the question becomes, is your story good reason to multiply our entities to include disembodied consciousness? You see the difference, I assume.

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      I’m guessing that Randal means that he believes there is good evidence for disembodied consciousness. If that is true, then “sleep paralysis” plus “nightmares” is perhaps adding more entities than necessary (or at the least, is no fewer entities.)

      • randal

        Certainly Ockham’s razor is always applied relative to one or another data set. Since I already accept the existence of disembodied agencies, it is multiplying entities beyond necessity for me to posit the phenomena I experienced as hallucinations coupled with sleep paralysis like phenomena that occurred when I was completely awake, fortuitously occurring in the same location as very similar events to another individual a year earlier, coupled with a very fortuitious reading of scripture.

        Since Ray hasn’t offered an argument against the possibility of disembodied consciousness I presume he doesn’t have any major defeater (i.e. a trump card) for the existence of disembodied agents and thus my interpretation. As such, I would think he should concede at least that stories like mine from reasonably intelligent, reasonably trustworthy sources provide prima facie evidence that makes it more plausible for someone like Ray that such disembodied agents might exist.

        • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

          This is why I think Ockham’s razor can never really get much traction in religious discourse. I mean, if God is real, then isn’t “God did it!” the simplest answer with the fewest entities just about any time? :-)

          • randal

            But I didn’t say “God did it.” Rather, my claim was that it is reasonable to believe a demonic agency (perhaps “Eddie” from litany of Iron Maiden album covers) did it.

            Even if one accepts the Calvinist’s primary and secondary causal distinction and affirms that God is indeed the primary cause of everything that occurs, that really has no effect on Ockham’s razor because the razor is then concerned with which secondary causal explanations are the simplest. Even if you’re an occasionalist (one who believes there are no efficient causes at all), you can still wield Ockham’s razor by seeking the simplest explanation of occasional causes.

            • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

              I think you read into my comment too much. :-) I wasn’t really making a comment about your experience or about Calvinism.

              I was just trying to say that Ockham’s Razor has a lot of limitations, and that bringing God into an argument isn’t necessarily multiplying entities but often is eliminating them, and that if one’s only goal is to reduce the number of entities, a “God did it” explanation can do the trick, but doesn’t necessarily make anyone happy.

              I can see the connection to Calvinism though, now that you bring it up.

        • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

          Since Ray hasn’t offered an argument against the possibility of disembodied consciousness I presume he doesn’t have any major defeater (i.e. a trump card) for the existence of disembodied agents and thus my interpretation.

          Every consciousness we can reliably interact with has been embodied, and we’re starting to get a handle on how consciousness works, neurologically. The mechanisms we’ve seen so far require a material substrate.

          Now, as to disembodied consciousnesses… I looked into Michael Sabom a bit, but the controls on any NDE study I’ve seen are iffy. I’d like to see something like positive results from Dr. Parnia’s AWARE study (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080910090829.htm)

          Again, embodied consciousness, sleep paralysis, and nightmares are well-established phenomena that seem to account for this situation pretty well. You can postulate entities beyond that, but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t see a necessity to follow along with you.

          • randal

            “Every consciousness we can reliably interact with has been embodied…”

            Why isn’t this begging the very question at issue? What would your criteria for deciding that we have interacted with a disembodied consciousness be?

            What troubles me in your response is there is no concession at all that there is any veridical force to the case as presented. And that, I fear, smacks of dogmatism. Isn’t there some space between rejecting the case altogether and completely embracing my interpretation? Why not say it is intriguing but perhaps for you not yet compelling data? In other words, at what point do first person testimonies like mine begin to count in favor of disembodied consciousness?

            The veridical cases that people like Sabom are concerned with are not merely NDEs but OBEs, and a number of them are quite compelling in my view.

            • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

              What would your criteria for deciding that we have interacted with a disembodied consciousness be?

              Enough interaction to perform a Turing test? (I did specifically say ‘reliably’, I’ll note.)

              What troubles me in your response is there is no concession at all that there is any veridical force to the case as presented. And that, I fear, smacks of dogmatism.

              Honestly, I don’t see a lot of veridical force in the account. It’s not zero, I guess, but it’s not terribly large. Miracles never seem to happen where we can get a good look at them. They strike me mostly like the ‘Face on Mars'; real in a sense, but the interpretation an artifact of perception.

              Now, maybe God and Satan are in a conspiracy to keep miracles from ever being solidly confirmed. But in that case, I don’t feel so bad about being duped by superhumanly intelligent tricksters.

              • randal

                I would think the Chinese Room experiment is a good defeater to the Turing Test. Still one could argue that a TT may be sufficient to conclude reasonably there is mind but is it necessary?

                By the way I forgot to mention one detail. The voice also said “Ray Ingles will not believe.” And then it laughed sardonically. At the time I had no idea what that meant… :)

                • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

                  The ‘virtual mind’ reply to the ‘Chinese Room’ thought experiment (the TT can actually be performed now) seems to be a defeater for Searle’s point.

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room

                  A TT may not be necessary, but it’d certainly be sufficient. I’d have to say that your account, and the other accounts I’ve seen, don’t rise to the level of necessity either.

                  • randal

                    “I’d have to say that your account, and the other accounts I’ve seen, don’t rise to the level of necessity either.” If by “necessity” you mean “compelling the conclusion”, then there is precious little in this life that meets that standard.

                    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

                      Not even ‘making the conclusion more probable than not’, let alone ‘compelling the conclusion’. Sorry.

                    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

                      Not even ‘making the conclusion more probable than not’, let alone ‘compelling the conclusion’. Sorry.”

                      How would one calculate the probabilities to make this determination?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    It is not probable that I fell back asleep… I was terrified (understandably I think) by the experience and was listening with great intensity for any further sound from the other side of the door, including the creaking of floorboards that would signal the movement of a human person. Under those conditions is it plausible to suggest I suddenly drifted back to sleep?

    Over the course of an estimated twenty minutes (at night, in relative quiet, when duration cues are minimal), is not “suddenly”.

    Time moves strangely when sleep is involved, and it can be hard to draw a line between sleep and waking. In college, I spent some time learning how to have lucid dreams. Part of it is getting in the habit, while awake, of asking yourself if you’re dreaming.

    I found a good test to be reading something, looking away, then reading it again. If you’re dreaming, the text changes. For a few months I was in the habit of ‘reality testing’, and had many lucid dreams. But… sometimes I’d try to wake up. My success was only middling there; I’d frequently stir myself enough to think I’d woken up, only to essentially shift myself into a different dream.

    Assuming sleep paralysis was any part of this experience at all, we can conclude your neurology was in a mixed state of partial wakefulness. Hallucinations and distortions of the time sense are common in such states, I’m afraid.

    • randal

      Ray, that’s a great test for lucid dreaming! I’ll have to try it some time. I remember once having a lucid dream when I was a kid. I was in a toy shoppe and as soon as I realized I was dreaming I started trashing the place. (Kind of like that one scene in “Zombieland,” except they weren’t dreaming.)

      Anyways, I appreciate your analysis even if I, having lived the experience, have no doubt that I was wide awake the entire time.

      • randal

        I should add that I don’t commend the trashing of toy shoppes, in your dreams or awake. As a kid I had a wicked streak.

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      “Assuming sleep paralysis was any part of this experience at all, we can conclude your neurology was in a mixed state of partial wakefulness. Hallucinations and distortions of the time sense are common in such states, I’m afraid.”

      This reminds me of something my philosophy of religion professor once said. He said that many people feel they are having a spiritual experience while doing drugs, and even if we have a full physical and neurological understanding of how drugs affect us, that doesn’t mean that the person isn’t still connecting to the divine through their drug use. I’m fairly certain my professor smoked a little weed before class to get into a relaxed mood, but I still find his point quite interesting and often keep it in mind.

      I think a spiritual understanding of events doesn’t negate a scientific understanding, and a scientific understanding doesn’t negate a spiritual understanding. While having one understanding may, in certain instances, make the other understanding “unnecessary”, it doesn’t make it necessarily untrue.

      For instance, if I tell somebody about a new idea I have, it can be explained completely in physical, scientific terms, but that doesn’t mean that a non-physical “idea” didn’t also get transferred between two people. Reducing an explanation to a purely physical, scientific explanation doesn’t necessarily eliminate the original explanation.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    The random passage I just found was: Will God hear his cry when trouble cometh upon him? Job 27:9 (KJV)

    • randal

      Did you ever think that maybe God is trying to communicate with you? :) Anyway, Ray stipulated the NT end. Job’s in the middle.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Haven’t heard from lordy lately but, rest assured, I’ll be all ears when he comes calling.

    BTW, someone slipped half a hit of LSD into my drink about 10 years ago and I had a trip that makes your experience with the little old man sound tame in comparison. I would love to know how many times that has happened to people unknowingly and they have misread it as a religious experience.

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      “I would love to know how many times that has happened to people unknowingly and they have misread it as a religious experience.”

      Why couldn’t it have still been a religious experience?

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Not that it matters but that post should have read 20 years ago (i.e. back in my colege days)

  • toryninja

    I know Battlestar Galactica isn’t any authority on these sorts of things but there is a point to be made from it. President Roslin uses the Kabbalah plant which causes vivid dreams and visions. These visions and dreams end up being true. Couldn’t it be that drugs don’t always create hallucinations but rather activate the parts of the brain that interact with the spiritual realm?

    • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

      I certainly am always happy with BSG references, and that’s a great one. I think it is one of the most interesting shows for dealing with spiritual issues, and for a great extent because they recognize that science/faith isn’t an either/or proposition.

    • randal

      ” Couldn’t it be that drugs don’t always create hallucinations but rather activate the parts of the brain that interact with the spiritual realm?”

      Timothy Leary is smiling from his grave… It is an interesting thought but the religious benefits of various psychadelic drugs might be a tough sell in your average suburban evangelical church.

  • Brad Haggard

    Randal, this type of argument was the last straw for me for naturalism. I realized that I’d have to argue against every single person who’d had an experience like this just like AM and Ray are doing.

    I understand why they are doing it, but it would weigh down my worldview eventually.

    • randal

      Yes, I think they carry a great weight on their skeptical shoulders. Agnosticism would be a much more reasonable position I would think. Consider as a parallel somebody declaring that there simply can be no particles smaller than a quark or that there could be no more elements beyond the ones listed on our current periodic table. Wouldn’t the better part of wisdom be to remain agnostic pending further study? I can’t imagine why a person wouldn’t take the same “wait and see” view for things like disembodied consciousness. To reply “but disembodied consciousness is supernatural” begs the question since no satisfactory definition of “natural” has been provided.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        “An opinion is what you have when you don’t have the facts. When you have the facts, you don’t need an opinion.” – David Gerrold

        My opinion is that you had a nightmare followed by sleep paralysis. I’m not putting that forward as the only conceivable explanation. More facts might change my opinion, or obviate the need for it altogether.

        • randal

          Of course as I argued even if the underlying physiological explanation was sleep paralysis that wouldn’t mean the event wasn’t a demonic oppression. But the simple point I’d want to stress is that good evidence for x is not evidence that persuades everyone. Your hypothesis is a reasonable one even though many people would reject it as weaker than my hypothesis. Mutatis mutandis for my explanation.

    • Steven Carr

      Happily, no person takes demons seriously.

      If something goes wrong at work, and you claim demons did it, you would be sacked.

      When I say no person takes demons seriously,children are still being killed in Africa as witches, partly because there are people who actually believe in witches , even though they know that their beliefs are costing innocent lives.

      • randal

        Steven,

        The thing I don’t take seriously is your leap from “there is evidence that malevolent spiritual entities exist” to “that kid is a witch. Let’s kill her!”

      • Brad Haggard

        Steve! You’re as adept at changing the subject as ever! How are you doing?

  • JD

    Here’s a good article on the subject:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/sleep_paralysis/

    • randal

      Thanks, I’ll follow up.

  • Nate

    Hey Randal,
    Just came across your blog and stumbled on this post. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis many times since 1997-98, usually during times of high stress and less sleep.

    Your case sounds atypical for SP, based on my experience. I think demonic oppression is a plausible consclusion. My 2 cents~
    Nate

    • randal

      Thanks Nate. I appreciate the input.