We all tend to filter incoming data in accord with our presuppositions. This is nothing new to this blog. I have griped about the confirmation bias before. And it is a feature discussion in my new book. But here I’d like to focus on a specific issue: inexplicable events. We’re talking the equivalent of supernovae in the Ptolemaic skies. How do we react to those events? Is our ready filtering of the data that they often present justified? With this in mind I offer the following example.
An inexplicable event
I have a friend, a successful and educated professional. Let’s call him Gronk (not his real name). Gronk is a highly intelligent, critical thinker. He is also a Sikh. About fifteen years ago Gronk’s grandmother passed away and he travelled to India for the funeral. At the time Gronk had not been back to India for a number of years. So he arrived in a city and went to sleep at a relative’s, prepared to travel the next morning for the few hours’ journey to a neighboring town and his grandparents’ house.
That night Gronk had a dream in which he was at his grandparents’ house talking to his grandmother. In the dream Gronk was aware that his grandmother was deceased and he was speaking with her post-mortem, but as it goes in dreams you often take the extraordinary as rather mundane. There is nothing unusual about the dream thus far. Anybody could suppose that Gronk was simply having a dream about his grandmother because he was thinking of her. But one thing was unusual. In the dream the floorplan of the house was very different as were the furnishings in it. It looked nothing like it had when Gronk had last visited it years before.
Of course there is nothing necessarily unusual about that either. Dreams often have a habit of muddling things up. Except that the next morning when Gronk arrived at his grandparents’ house, the floorplan and furnishings were exactly like Gronk had dreamed they were. Thus when he entered into the house he could tell his grandfather where to find things based on how they appeared in the dream. Although Gronk’s grandfather was not shocked at all by the dream but took it in stride in accord with his background worldview, it shook Gronk and his rather narrow post-Enlightenment worldview to its core.
The first impulse for many people is to treat the account as a “mere anecdote”. This is a slippery ascription, for while anecdotes are short, engaging and often amusing (though not in this case) stories that are based on true events, they often become fictionalized over time. Thus to call something an anecdote often has a whiff of “factually dubious”. But I have interviewed my friend and as I said he is a highly intelligent person who would be disinclined to fabricate or embellish things over time. Nor does he know what to do with the story. He treats it as an anomaly. He hasn’t spent time building a theology on it or milking it for profit or gain. Rather, it sits there unembellished and difficult to synthesize with other beliefs he holds. I find his testimony credible and thus to have evidential force. I believe he really did have the dream and it really did occur as he said. So what then?
One obvious avenue is to offer reductive, naturalistic explanations. Obviously this would be appealing if he had an encounter with his grandmother and the further details concerning the house were not correct. But Gronk got the details bang-on. Moreover, he insists that he did not know his grandparents had remodelled and even if he had, he had never seen the remodelled home. So these details are hard to explain in conventional reductive ways.
One might want to appeal to some kind of notion of created memory. Maybe Gronk simply dreamed that there was a red couch and there was a new red couch and based on that one coincident detail he gradually fabricated (albeit unintentionally) more details. This strikes me as very implausible. For one thing a central part of Gronk’s account is his initial astonishment when meeting his grandfather at knowing so many details, not just picking out one red couch. To offer this kind of explanation seems to me a classic case of the medieval astronomer ignoring the supernova.
Perhaps one could posit a natural extra-sensory sense which was somehow active in this moment though I have no idea what could be sufficient to explain the details has Gronk presents them. Anything short of astral projection would seem to fail to explain the case. And few naturalists I know would be content to posit out of body experiences!
But if this case is uncomfortable for naturalists, it also presents a puzzle for Christians. Remember, it happened to a Sikh. And in the conversation Gronk’s grandmother doesn’t say anything like you might expect to hear from the rich man in the famous Lazarus parable. Rather, they had a warm conversation about her life, death, family affairs, and taking care of grandpa.
A Christian has an obvious resource to explain the case that is not available to the naturalist: malevolent spiritual agencies (i.e. demons). On this view it is possible that the devil and his minions wanted to deceive Gronk and his family by presenting an inexplicable event which confortably confirmed many of their beliefs, albeit indirectly. Thus by doing so the demons would lull them into a false sense of complacency about the truth of their religion.
Certainly from a Christian perspective this would be possible. But is it a plausible reading of the case? Or does it seem to be as question begging as the naturalist’s appeal to chance?