Public Challenge To Anyone: How Would You Parse This?

This morning I'd like to write a post about something that happened a year or so ago, something that pops into my head quite frequently ever since it happened.

It was just after eight o'clock when a buddy of mine who is also a published writer and also likes to drink beer called me up with the equivalent of, "Let's catch the bus down to club so-and-so, and grab a coupla' beers."

"Okay," was my immediate response, and that's how this story starts.

Half-hour later, we get off the bus a block or two from the spot, which is situated such that a customer entering the front door from the street will be facing north. It's before 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night. The atmosphere inside the bar felt relatively calm as we were walking through the front door. At the end of the bar, about twenty feet in front of us and five feet offset to the right, were two middle-aged folks – a woman, and a man directly to her left.

No sooner than we'd stepped three feet over the threshhold, the woman – who was facing north with her back towards us and presumably did not see us beforehand – suddenly and very noticeably jerks herself 180 degrees around, makes direct eye contact with us, and says, "Oh, you're here…"

Creepy, right? This comment really put my buddy off, and it didn't do much for me, either. My brain was telling meI'd never seen this woman before in my life, and his reaction seemed to indicate he didn't either. Then again, knowing the brain's ability to fool, I wondered if maybe one of us hadn't been here and possibly met her before, and simply forgotten. It was a rare chance, as we'd only been to that particular bar less than five times, but certainly possible. So out of curiosity more than anything else, I decided to test my theory by chopping her up while I ordered a beer.

She seemed to think we'd never met before either, because she introduced herself thusly: "Hi, I'm (name withheld). I'm a witch, and this is my wizard." She points to the guy to her right, and hands us a book. Oddly, the photo attributed to the author indeed appears to be the guy, who remained silent throughout the entire duration of this incident. My buddy says absolutely nothing to the woman, and indicates with his body language that he wants no part of whatever she's up to.

She asked us if we skated. I said that we did, although not as much as before, and we also got on the topic of writing for a moment, after which she made some sexually provocative comments we all laughed at. This led me to believe she was simply trying to hit on us, so in further attempts to put a figurative wall between us and her, I offered up the fact that I have a girlfriend. She ponders this for a second while giving me a weird stare, then says, "Oh, I can see that you love her very much," or something similar, and asks what her astrological sign is. Only half-jokingly, I replied, "You're the witch, you tell me." She gave me a weird look, and got quiet for a second, then on to the next topic.

We made a few more sentences of small talk, and that was essentially it. After this, neither myself nor my buddy said much else to the woman, who had met up with some guy and was busy flagrantly groping and making out with him. My buddy and I each had four light beers over the course of say, an hour-and-a-half, to two hours tops, on top of full stomachs. And we're both grown men who can drink four beers and not act like incoherent and blundering lightweights.

Later on, the lady walks over to us and hands me a postcard and says, "Email me sometime…" and then talks some more about wanting to write for a project we'd mentioned. I assumed this was either an honest writing advance, or just more flirtation, and put the postcard in my pocket with little more than a cursory glance. My buddy and I left, deciding to call it an early night. We grabbed one more beer each at this spot that was a few blocks' walk from where we were. Then we caught the bus home and were both in around midnight.

The next morning, I pulled the postcard out of my back pocket and flipped it over. This most interesting woman had scribbled my girlfriends' name, spelled correctly, in multiple places on the back of the postcard. Neither my friend nor myself ever mentioned my girlfriend's name. Needless to say, I spent most of that morning trying to reconcile this event with the ways in which today's average philosophical naturalist sees the world.

I realize this is an anecdote, hence scientifically useless, but that's not the point and I don't want anyone to flank me regarding proof. What I want to know is, regardless of what you believe, how would you parse this if it happened to you?

33 Comments

  1. So a witch and a wizard walk into a bar… ;-)
    “She turned me into a newt!”
    *disbelieving stares*
    “I got better!”
    I could go all day with these. ;-)
    When I was a Christian I would have parsed it differently than now. Back then I believed in a spiritual realm that was black and white to the extreme. I would have been extremely skeptical, heck, I was skeptical of Christian “prophets” too.
    Whatever she did was definitely something more than cold reading, cold readers will almost never nail a name on the first try. Did she use your girlfriend’s last name as well? That would be even more impressive. I assume she didn’t share the same name as your girlfriend?

  2. cl says:

    Indeed, a last name would have been even more impressive, as would it have been had she also got her astrological sign. Either way, it was strange. Incidentally, she didn’t have the same name as my girlfriend, although their names did start with the same letter.
    How would you have parsed it as a believer? How do you parse it now?

  3. As a believer I would have seen it as something possibly mystical, maybe even Satanic. Now, I would do the same thing I do at magic shows: I’d say “I have no idea how she did it.”

  4. cl says:

    I totally respect your current position, but if you don’t mind, I have to ask further: To simply describe it as mystical or Satanic doesn’t really explain much. We would still need some mechanism by which she deduced the knowledge. In your former way of thinking, what might you have supposed that was?

  5. Lifeguard says:

    How would I parse this?
    My initial reaction would be along the “magic show” line– I don’t know how she did that, but I don’t believe she has magic powers (although, as I said in another thread, part of me would obviously wonder about it).
    Secondly, I would speculate about how she could possibly have learned this stuff or figured it out to a high degree of certainty. There are possibilities out there based on the story as written: (1) you said you didn’t mention your girlfriend to her, but you did not say that you didn’t mention her within earshot (I drink beer with my friends too, and women tend to come up), (2) she could know your girlfriend, (3) did you leave your friend at all (to go pee, maybe?) in which case he might have had a conversation with her.
    You may have answers that rule those possibilities out, although there may also be other possibilities I haven’t raised. We could go on and on in circles like that. The point, though, is that given the nature of your experience on this planet for X number of years, any one of those explanations would seem more plausible than this person possessing supernatural powers.
    To me at least, that seems the most rational way to parse this thing out. Before you leap to an extraordinary conclusion, you have to rule out the more mundane explanations and temper that with a healthy realization that some people are far more crafty than we may give them credit for.

  6. Pine says:

    Wow… she has Derren Brown’s act down! If you haven’t seen any of this guy’s work yet, please do yourself a favor and download or youtube a couple of Derren Brown videos.
    While it appears at first like she has completed some great mystical act, in fact she performed an excellent cold read mixed in with some magic (not mystical but show magic) and showmanship. After reading this, watch a Derren Brown video called “messiah” in which he shows these techniques and explains exactly how they’re done. (not that you or I could do it, just as knowing “how” to paint [via watching Bob Ross] does not equate to being a good painter)
    First she did something to catch you off guard. She said something you did not expect. This is a classic way to get people to let their outer defense walls down. She started to analyze you Sherlock Holmes style and from everything you said and did she gleaned more and more information about you.
    Also working for her were the sexual advances and the fact you were in a bar. If you were drinking, then you were both trying to keep your wit despite the alcohol (which normally leads to the opposite effect) and trying to be cool and calm in light of her advances… which means you may have inadvertantly slipped information without realizing it.
    Anyway, long story short, this was a classic cold read. People who believed in mediums and psychics are not all simpletons. There are very convincing thieves and liars out there who have mastered this. “But… she got the name…” you might be thinking. Simple. It’s the same difference between the card tricks I do with my kids, and the card tricks the professional magicians do.
    There are pleanty of books on cold reading if you want to learn more. “Tricks of the Mind” is kinda an all-around introduction to mental tricks and games written by Derren Brown. It’s a good read…
    So, because of his arts and experiences Derren Brown says that despite a childhood which revolved around Christianity, he has now ‘overcome’ his beliefs. I would say that people who ‘disprove’ the supernatural by explaining these parlor tricks are the same people who ‘disprove’ God exists with evolution. Just because we can explain the way things are done does not necessarily negate certain spiritual or supernatural influences which may or may not exist.
    To really freak yourself out… watch “Evil this way Comes”. It’s a live show of Derren Brown… he tells random people from the audience their names as well as other things about themselves.

  7. cl says:

    Lifeguard,

    My initial reaction would be along the “magic show” line– I don’t know how she did that, but I don’t believe she has magic powers (although, as I said in another thread, part of me would obviously wonder about it).

    See that’s one thing I don’t get about skeptics sometimes. It often feels like skeptics chide believers for being too quick to ascribe an unexplainable event to Providence, yet skeptics are often equally quick to relegate said event to coincidence. I don’t think you did exactly that here, and I’m mainly thinking of a few other commenters and bloggers in particular, but what I’m getting at is this: If you don’t know how she did it, then why exclude the possibility of genuine magic out of hand?

    There are possibilities out there based on the story as written: (1) you said you didn’t mention your girlfriend to her, but you did not say that you didn’t mention her within earshot (I drink beer with my friends too, and women tend to come up), (2) she could know your girlfriend, (3) did you leave your friend at all (to go pee, maybe?) in which case he might have had a conversation with her.

    1) might be possible; I would have to be able to literally recall the entire content of our conversations. The next day perhaps, now – impossible. 2) can be excluded, and my friend was so shook by the lady that I honestly believe we can exclude 3) as well. I’ve pressed him on it, many times. And certainly, as Pine suggests, there are other possibilities.

    given the nature of your experience on this planet for X number of years, any one of those explanations would seem more plausible than this person possessing supernatural powers.

    But this assumes we can quantify the plausibility of a person possessing supernatural powers – which could be anywhere from 100% to 0% and by default must inherit the same set of epistemological difficulties as the task of positively identifying an allegedly supernatural event – so I have to reject it as a just-so statement.

    Before you leap to an extraordinary conclusion, you have to rule out the more mundane explanations and temper that with a healthy realization that some people are far more crafty than we may give them credit for.

    Certainly, and to this day I wonder. I know what makes the most sense to me, but I have to ask: Let’s say we could encounter a scenario where all mundane explanations for a mysterious phenomenon could be reasonably excluded. Okay, well this seems to happen in science all the time, right? Does that make the mysterious event “potentially supernatural?” What I’m asking is, although people can and do say it about anything and everything from shadows to toast – at what point is it reasonable or rational in your opinion to say, “Guys, we’ve got something potentially miraculous here?”
    Pine,
    Although I enjoyed your response, I must say, I’m not convinced. Yes, she said something that caught us off guard, but it actually encouraged me to raise my defenses, not put them down. Same for my buddy. Yes, we were drinking, but not upon our initial meeting. At least, my friend and I hadn’t been drinking at all when we initially met. I can’t say the same for her. You seem positive nothing extraordinary happened; myself, not as much so. Believe me, the extent of our conversation was so short and isolated that your story is harder to believe. I suppose I’ll only really know for sure when and if somebody shows me.

    I would say that people who ‘disprove’ the supernatural by explaining these parlor tricks are the same people who ‘disprove’ God exists with evolution. Just because we can explain the way things are done does not necessarily negate certain spiritual or supernatural influences which may or may not exist.

    And I would say that’s a spot-on assessment. I’ll check out some Derren Brown videos too, when I get to a computer with Flash.

  8. Pine says:

    cl:
    You said: “Yes, she said something that caught us off guard, but it actually encouraged me to raise my defenses, not put them down.”
    I must disagree with you here. The ‘defenses’ you put up were a different sort of defenses than you normally keep up. Think back to the event. Did your feeling about being at the bar change when she greeted you? Did you feelings towards her change?
    What’s the difference between ok magic tricks and the really impressive ones? Normally it’s whether or not you can figure out the trick. Actually, it’s more than that. It’s whether or not the performer actually convinces you to believe in the ‘magic’ of it all.
    Lucky for you, you did get her name (and number?). I’d keep it as she might be famous some day. :P
    A thought for you to ponder. Why do you think she called herself a witch? Do you think she actually believed she was a witch? Do you think she expected a positive response by assigning this title to herself? What would motivate her to do this?
    I think the Derren Brown videos might help a bit. Watching someone do these things and explaining how they’re done as they go makes it easier to swallow.
    One more thought to ponder. Let’s say I was going to hold a seance. One would expect me to do some things to set up the room, perhaps to say the right words, to bring out the ‘summoning stone’… whatever have you most people would expect an actual action to begin the process. If we understand our actions in the observable world to have an affect on the unseen, why could that not work in reverse? Wouldn’t we almost have to expect it to?

  9. Lifeguard says:

    Cl:
    You wrote “It often feels like skeptics chide believers for being too quick to ascribe an unexplainable event to Providence, yet skeptics are often equally quick to relegate said event to coincidence.”
    Methinks the real issue here is when one is justified in describing an event as unexplanable as opposed to simply unexplained, and I think that’s bound to vary depending on the event. Lady in a bar you’ve been to at least once before– a place you went to, presumably, to drink (which can cloud your memory and judgement)– writes your girlfriend’s name on a piece of paper? I’m sorry, but I’ve seen that sort of thing on stage before, and I don’t think it’s so far beyond the probability of a magic trick that I can justifiably consider it unexplainable as opposed to unexplained.
    Your recapitation post seemed much closer to where you’re trying to go.

  10. Pine says:

    Lifeguard:
    Are you affirming that you believe there are things which are not simply unknown but are, in fact, unknowable?
    To me this seems to be nothing more than a semantics. If you believe that all things are ‘knowable’ then ALL unanswered questions fall into the category of ‘unknown’.
    I think cl’s point still stands either way.

  11. cl says:

    Pine,

    Why do you think she called herself a witch? Do you think she actually believed she was a witch? Do you think she expected a positive response by assigning this title to herself? What would motivate her to do this?

    I think she called herself such because she believed she was a witch, and I would imagine the response she expects depends on who she’s talking to. And I’d guess that like anyone else, what she does is motivated by different things at different times.

    If we understand our actions in the observable world to have an affect on the unseen, why could that not work in reverse? Wouldn’t we almost have to expect it to?

    That’s kind of what I was getting at with the post, and what I was hoping some believers could discuss; any sort of theories about how she may have extracted that data. Also, I wanted some atheists / skeptics to offer hypothetical explanations assuming all mundane explanations could be excluded.
    Lifeguard,
    If I can press a bit further, how would you quantify the difference between an “unexplainable” event and a “simply unexplained” event, so that if I was comparing a set of events, I might distinguish between them?

    Lady in a bar you’ve been to at least once before– a place you went to, presumably, to drink (which can cloud your memory and judgement)– writes your girlfriend’s name on a piece of paper? I’m sorry, but I’ve seen that sort of thing on stage before, and I don’t think it’s so far beyond the probability of a magic trick that I can justifiably consider it unexplainable as opposed to unexplained.

    IOW, it just wasn’t that impressive. I can respect that as a real-world reason why you’d reject genuine magic out of hand in this example.
    However, in a spirit of rational rigueur – are you saying that magic tricks similar to my experience provide reasonable grounds to reject the possibility of genuine magic out of hand? If so, how?
    I guess we’ll have to take each example as it comes, but my gripe is with skeptics whose default position regarding miracles parallels creationists’ default position regarding evolution – denial at all costs. Not saying you personally, Lifeguard, and note that I’m not offering the witch lady as one of my “strong” examples.

  12. Lifeguard says:

    Pine:
    I’m willing to say that whether or not all categories of unanswered questions are unknown or unknowable is unknowable in and of itself. We simply don’t know yet, and likely won’t.
    Further, while I believe some unanswered questions may indeed be unknowable and may leave open the possibility of something supernatural, they have so far failed to convince me that I should believe in such or otherwise arrange my life’s priorities around various theories of supernature. Nor do I believe that the fact that something is unknowable to us as human beings necessarily suggests that a god exists.
    Cl:
    I don’t think that rejecting a magic trick automatically entails a rejection of real life magic altogether (although, for the record, I don’t believe it exists). I used to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but I still didn’t believe a man could make a rabbit miraculously appear out of a top hat.
    As for distinguishing between unexplainable and unexplained I can only say that we’ll only know definitively after the human race has become extinct, and who’ll be around to know then? I’m not just being flippant here– if you stop to think about it, you’re asking a HUGE epistemological question
    that I’d reckon professional philosophers argue about in big long scary looking books with freaky technical titles.
    The best I can do is say that I think your recapitation example is a good place to start. What differentiates recaptitation from a card trick or a potential “cold read.” Unfortunately, today’s not a great day for me time wise, but I would like to get back to you and/or see what you have to say.
    Sorry.

  13. I wish TypePad allowed you to receive email notification of replies.
    Anyway, in my old belief system God granted spiritual gifts and Satan and his demons mimicked them to deceive. If I felt something spiritual was going on I would have thought it was from Satan, since she was a witch, which is of course forbidden by the Bible.

  14. Pine says:

    cl:
    I must admit that there is a possibility that this lady really thought she was a witch; and that coincidentally she was born with the natural ability to ‘cold read’ people with extreme accuracy.
    That said, making a statement like “I’m a witch” is a classic mind control technique in which you plant information through the power of suggestion. This allows you a certain amount of control over the thoughts and memories of the person you’ve targeted.
    This isn’t to say that there are times when I feel that things happen which very much have supernatural causes. I just don’t feel that your experience was one of them. Although, perhaps this woman really does communicate with the devils to gain information on you… only problem with that is; 1) are these demons/devils omniscient?, 2) did the demons have foreknowledge of your encounter and wanting to gain information on you follow you around a bit beforehand?, 3) why would demons or devils work towards the end goal of handing you a postcard with your girlfriend’s name on it? Wouldn’t they want to do something much darker?

  15. cl says:

    First, thanks to everyone. This is a good little chat, and it’s nice to have good little chats now and again.
    Lifeguard,
    If I might address some of what you said to Pine,

    I’m willing to say that whether or not all categories of unanswered questions are unknown or unknowable is unknowable in and of itself. We simply don’t know yet, and likely won’t.

    Perhaps, but that statement remains veridically worthless. Let’s return to the re-capitation example, which you said was “closer to where I was trying to go,” and I agree. DD and his guests advanced the argument that we can’t just jump straight to the conclusion that the re-capitation was a miracle. In a strict sense of scientific or rational rigueur, I agree. However, a truly impartial application of this standard entails that we cannot jump to conclusions and ascribe the event to coincidence or potentially natural causes, either. Would you agree? Either way, this leads to a relevant question: Under what circumstances might miracle discussions become useful?

    I believe some unanswered questions may indeed be unknowable and may leave open the possibility of something supernatural, they have so far failed to convince me that I should believe in such or otherwise arrange my life’s priorities around various theories of supernature.

    Perhaps, and I’m not going to try to convince you either. But don’t you think that although related, those are really two separate issues? The existence of miracles is an epistemological question over whether something exists or not. The implications to our personal lives of miracles existing are entirely different issues each person must deal with should they find it reasonable to believe miracles exist at all. Not incidentally, do you think skeptics might knowingly or unknowingly allow this conflation to interfere with an objective analysis of the epistemological part of the process? What I’m suggesting is a generic skeptical response to the epistemological question of miracles that is inversely analogous to creationist evolution denial.
    To me, you said,

    I used to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but I still didn’t believe a man could make a rabbit miraculously appear out of a top hat.

    I find that hard to understand. Shouldn’t the latter be at least as possible as the former?

    I’m not just being flippant here– if you stop to think about it, you’re asking a HUGE epistemological question that I’d reckon professional philosophers argue about in big long scary looking books with freaky technical titles.

    I don’t think you’re being flippant at all, just responding candidly to the true weight of the question. I tend to agree with you. It is a rather large epistemological question, one that currently lacks and perhaps might always lack a solid answer. I believe that atheists and skeptics know damn well that miracle discussions are epistemological nightmares. I’ve long laughed at those who suppose we can systematically and reliably evaluate a phenomena that are purported to derive from omniscient Consciousness. I’m currently leaning towards the opinion that one person cannot via “facts” or argument persuade another that a particular event was a miracle. I’ve been asked for everything from repeatability to videotaped evidence of a limb growing back. Exterminator’s ant example returns to mind. Would these things really convince people? I doubt it, because there’s always an alternative explanation. Sure, there’s always the possibility of a neurological misfire, and if that won’t suffice, we can just make things up like SMERF’s (Sudden Magnetic Energy Reversal Fields), but how is that any more respectable than what the gullible are doing? I really believe that belief in anything is ultimately volitional.
    And please, take your time. I really want to develop MiracleQuest into something philosophically fresh and useful. Another question I’d like to get people discussing is how might we distinguish between events that require consciousness and events that do not? The Great Pyramid at Giza and photosynthesis are my examples, respectively, but in looking for miracles, I’m looking for something that undeniably reflects Consciousness, because such an event is a much stronger challenge to philosophical naturalism.
    Mike,
    I understand the part about counterfeit gifts, and I’ve heard many a believer say similar things. But they always seem to stop there. Even if we grant the unseen world, surely it’s going to operate with its own rules and laws, and I see no reason to assume Satan beamed the data to her head. What I’m wondering is how that might have happened? Speaking entirely hypothetically, are there other non-spiritual explanations that could potentially involve some sort of overlap in two fields of consciousness? I was within just a few feet of her, you know.
    Anyways, I’m sorry about TypePad’s shortcomings. There’s another area we can have loads of agreement on. :) I’ve been meaning to get TWIM out of here, but the thought of all that menial work is daunting. I’m just glad to have you coming around. This at least suggests that you’re checking my arguments out for yourself instead of believing the hype over at Karla’s; or perhaps you’re ignoring the hype altogether, and if so, that’s even better. I don’t threaten bloggers or spam blogs.
    Pine,

    I must admit that there is a possibility that this lady really thought she was a witch; and that coincidentally she was born with the natural ability to ‘cold read’ people with extreme accuracy.

    I guess I should just ask: Do you believe in witches? If so, how do you define a witch?

    That said, making a statement like “I’m a witch” is a classic mind control technique in which you plant information through the power of suggestion.

    Certainly, the social ice-breaker “I’m a witch” can be a mind control technique, but is it always? If she really is a witch, it’s just a matter-of-fact statement.

    I just don’t feel that your experience was one of them.

    I honestly don’t expect anyone except me and my buddy to. We’re the only ones that ever felt the experience at all, besides her and her friend. All you have to go off of is my second hand story. I’ll be unleashing some other examples in MiracleQuest and we’ll see how those get parsed.

    Although, perhaps this woman really does communicate with the devils to gain information on you… only problem with that is; 1) are these demons/devils omniscient?, 2) did the demons have foreknowledge of your encounter and wanting to gain information on you follow you around a bit beforehand?, 3) why would demons or devils work towards the end goal of handing you a postcard with your girlfriend’s name on it? Wouldn’t they want to do something much darker?

    Now we’re on the street I’m trying to drive on. Okay… although an interesting question, 1) seems irrelevant. They would only need to know my girlfriend’s name, and I can think of easy ways they could acheive such sans omniscience. 2) seems plausible, but I wouldn’t even say we need to go that far. Presuming they’re around at all and either personally or geographically bound (or some combination of both), they could easily already have known the pertinent data for some time. 3) seems difficult to answer, as proclaiming knowledge of another’s motive is always speculation, even when evidence exists. But I would say that they were “working towards the end goal” might be presupposing a bit. The event might have very well been the spiritual world equivalent of some gremlins in a bar having fun. Spontaneity occurs in the physical, why wouldn’t it in the spiritual?

  16. Lifeguard says:

    Cl:
    1) You wrote: “DD and his guests advanced the argument that we can’t just jump straight to the conclusion that the re-capitation was a miracle. In a strict sense of scientific or rational rigueur, I agree. However, a truly impartial application of this standard entails that we cannot jump to conclusions and ascribe the event to coincidence or potentially natural causes, either. Would you agree?”
    Not necessarily, but let me clarify. Assuming we can agree that miracles would have to be pretty extraordinary events, I think it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as “jumping” to the conclusion of a natural cause as opposed to being understandably cautious about attributing a supernatural cause to an unexplained event. Maybe it’s because I was a Catholic, but I always respected the way the Catholic Church at least has a formalized means of investigating miracle claims that involves medical professionals seeking to rule out all possible natural explanations for healings attributed to god or a saint’s intercession. My point is simply that we should be skeptical about extraordinary claims and to acknowledge that, regardless of whether miracles exist or not, there is probably a far greater likelihood that we will mistakenly attribute an extraordinary event to a supernatural cause than the other way around. I just think that’s basic prudence. That being said, yes, I think something along the lines of a recapitation would probably leave me wondering about a supernatural cause– I don’t think I could rationally rule it out on the spot.
    2) “Under what circumstances might miracle discussions become useful?”
    What’s a “miracle discussion” and useful for what?
    3) I wrote: “I used to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but I still didn’t believe a man could make a rabbit miraculously appear out of a top hat,” to which you replied:
    “I find that hard to understand. Shouldn’t the latter be at least as possible as the former?”
    No. If you believe in an all powerful being, then it’s far more possible for that being to raise a man (indeed, himself) from the dead than it is that a mere mortal has the ability to conjure a rabbit, make a coin disappear and reappear in my ear, or turn a one dollar bill into a twenty. At all possible? Maybe. But not necessarily at LEAST AS POSSIBLE.
    4) “I’m currently leaning towards the opinion that one person cannot via “facts” or argument persuade another that a particular event was a miracle.”
    I tend to agree with you. When I believed I used to have these kinds of discussions with an atheist I worked with, and I always walked away thinking “When it comes right down to it, we all encounter the world, and you feel it in your guts. Either the world screams back “God” at you or ir doesn’t.” I still feel that way. Just my answer has changed. This discussion may suffer from the same problem.

  17. cl says:

    Lifey,

    Not necessarily, but let me clarify. Assuming we can agree that miracles would have to be pretty extraordinary events, I think it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as “jumping” to the conclusion of a natural cause as opposed to being understandably cautious about attributing a supernatural cause to an unexplained event.

    So what happens when I say I think it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as superstitious as opposed to being understandably cautious about committing the fallacy of slothful induction regarding the possibility of miracles? Do we call it a day and see if the witch lady is down at the local watering hole? :)

    Maybe it’s because I was a Catholic, but I always respected the way the Catholic Church at least has a formalized means of investigating miracle claims that involves medical professionals seeking to rule out all possible natural explanations for healings attributed to god or a saint’s intercession.

    Now that’s interesting. Any idea where I can find that set of criteria?

    My point is simply that we should be skeptical about extraordinary claims…

    If I can digress for a second, I don’t even agree that we should always be skeptical about extraordinary claims. I think the degree of skepticism we retain should be proportionate to the stakes. I think it’s justified to be more skeptical when the stakes are higher. But that’s neither here nor there, just me challenging a common rhetorical axiom.

    ..regardless of whether miracles exist or not, there is probably a far greater likelihood that we will mistakenly attribute an extraordinary event to a supernatural cause than the other way around,

    I can’t accept that so easily, as it raises its own set of epistemological concerns. On one hand, yes – people used to attribute lightning and fire to the gods, so that people are more likely to mistake a “natural” event as a “supernatural” event appears valid. However, I think it’s possible that we might also mistake “supernatural” events for “natural” ones. For example, why do we categorize spontaneous regression as “natural” by default if we do not know what causes it? This gets us right back to the question I asked: Since as humans we apparently cannot attain omniscience, what human can reliably quantify the difference between “natural” and “supernatural” events? Another problem for me was, your point simply presupposes that miracles are extraordinary events. Sure, that’s a position most people take for granted, but many times, positions taken for granted are the ones that turn out to be wrong. On what reliable evidence might we say that miracle events are extraordinary? How might we compare them to ordinary events in any sort of meaningful way? How might we be sure that what we call “extraordinary” won’t be considered “ordinary” in fifty more years?

    That being said, yes, I think something along the lines of a recapitation would probably leave me wondering about a supernatural cause– I don’t think I could rationally rule it out on the spot.

    That’s good. I have a hard time taking as intellectually serious anybody who says otherwise.

    What’s a “miracle discussion” and useful for what?

    “Miracle discussion” meaning a debate or discussion over the existence of miracles. I want to exhaust every possibility before I conclude for the rest of my life that these discussions are worthless. It seems to me that miracle discussions between believers and skeptics will never go far, because true progress inevitably involves one side conceding to the other, and it’s difficult to keep the goalposts in the ground. That’s the first and primary point of MiracleQuest – to cement the goalposts.

    If you believe in an all powerful being, then it’s far more possible for that being to raise a man (indeed, himself) from the dead than it is that a mere mortal has the ability to conjure a rabbit, make a coin disappear and reappear in my ear, or turn a one dollar bill into a twenty.

    That helped, but even still, what about all the Apostles’ examples? They were mere men, right? What about all that stuff the Egyptians did? What I was getting at was, anyone who believes in the miracle stories of the Bible should have no problem believing that genuine magic exists – and that certain humans can manipulate and use it. That’s reasonable, right?

    “When it comes right down to it, we all encounter the world, and you feel it in your guts. Either the world screams back ‘God’ at you or ir doesn’t.”

    Great words. Although I tend to agree with you, I have heard certain atheists frame theistic versions of this response negatively, as if theism were false because “I” can’t “prove” it “to you.”
    Anyways, thanks as always, and please stick around for the rest of MiracleQuest… there are plenty of other examples to discuss.

  18. Pine says:

    cl:
    How would I define a witch? Off the top of my head I would define it as anyone who attempts to gain control over any person or thing by bypassing the natural laws and order established by God. But… that definition really fails to express what I really mean. A witch could be someone who casts spells, or they could simply be someone who manipulates people with smooth speech in order to control their actions.
    How about this; I think of the levels of existence as dimensional. To a cube there are three dimensions; the line, the square and ultimately the cube. I would say that anything without consciousness is a part of the line. Those beings with consciousness yet confined to finite and material bodies would be part of the square. Finally there would be the level of the cube in which a conscious being has, yet is not restrained by, a physical body and in fact dwells in a state very much unknown to us. God would be above and beyond the cube.
    With that poor and lengthy analogy… I would say that when something happens to us, we experience it and try to reconcile it in the square because the fullness of the cube is very much unknown to us. It may be that EVERY aspect of what we experience in the square is encompassed and better explained in the cube, but we simply don’t have enough information to know what that would look like. So while I am content to accept (as applies to practicality) explanations limited to the square, I hold fast to my deepest beliefs that
    better explanations lie within the cube. Not necessarily explanations which contradict, but rather which expand upon our current understanding of the world and the way it works.

  19. Lifeguard says:

    Cl:
    1) You wrote: “So what happens when I say I think it’s a little unfair to characterize someone as superstitious as opposed to being understandably cautious about committing the fallacy of slothful induction regarding the possibility of miracles?”
    Depends on the circumstances. If you say that about someone who refuses to concede that something like recapitation confronts us with at least the possibility of some kind of supernature, then I say “Right on, Cl!” If you say that about someone who refuses to believe a card trick confronts us with the possibility of some kind of supernature, then I say you’re being unfair. People will obviously draw various lines in between, and I can live with that if people are intellectually honest about it.
    2) You wrote: “If I can digress for a second, I don’t even agree that we should always be skeptical about extraordinary claims. I think the degree of skepticism we retain should be proportionate to the stakes. I think it’s justified to be more skeptical when the stakes are higher. But that’s neither here nor there, just me challenging a common rhetorical axiom.”
    I actually think that’s a very interesting point, but aren’t the stakes always going to be higher when we’re talking about supernatural powers? I mean, isn’t the capacity to cause an extraordinary event a pretty high stakes game?
    3) You wrote: “On what reliable evidence might we say that miracle events are extraordinary? How might we compare them to ordinary events in any sort of meaningful way? How might we be sure that what we call “extraordinary” won’t be considered “ordinary” in fifty more years?”
    I sympathize entirely, but I think that entire paragraph suffers from our inability to agree on a definition for miracles in addition to the goal posts issue and the unwillingness of some to make concessions even if just for the sake of advancing the discussion. I suspected this would be a problem when you started posting on miracles, in part, because my first thought for an example of something I consider a miracle is childbirth– a miracle as ordinary for a reproducing cell, as for an acorn, a mustard seed, a humped back whale, or a human being. Even I, an atheist, consider it a miracle, but that’s because for me I use the word “miracle” to mean a rare event I have a difficult time understanding that makes me feel fully alive.
    We could try to go through the various types of events that make me feel that way, tease out the generic formal characteristics, and have a kind of functional definition of “miracles” as Lifeguard sees them, but they are likely going to be different for an evangelical christian fundamentalist. I get the sense you want to do the same for the word “miracle” as taken in the more classic, biblical sense, but sometimes I’m not so sure if I’m right about that. If I am, then I wonder if there’s going to be the kind of overlapping consensus between atheists and theists that you’ll need to get there.
    4) You wrote: “What I was getting at was, anyone who believes in the miracle stories of the Bible should have no problem believing that genuine magic exists – and that certain humans can manipulate and use it. That’s reasonable, right?”
    Agreed. My point was just that such a belief doesn’t necessarily commit you to such a belief in every instance, but I suspect we agree there.
    5) You wrote: “Great words. Although I tend to agree with you, I have heard certain atheists frame theistic versions of this response negatively, as if theism were false because “I” can’t “prove” it “to you.””
    What can I say? When it comes to wisdom, I’m full of it ;)
    Alright… it’s bed time on the East Coast.

  20. cl says:

    Ha! Now there’s irony for ya. Like I said earlier in the post to Mike, “..sorry about TypePad’s shortcomings.” I have no idea why both those comments italicized themselves.
    Pine,
    I liked your cube analogy. It’s very outside of the box, no pun intended! Your comments made me wonder how you would parse the lightbulb example.
    Lifeguard,
    Your response to my 1) was perfectly well-reasoned, I was impressed – and I mean that, you know, in a non-snarkastic way… I agreed with you about the insufficient persuasive ability of the card trick, too, back up in the thread.

    I actually think that’s a very interesting point, but aren’t the stakes always going to be higher when we’re talking about supernatural powers?

    I’d say it depends. If we are merely seeking to prove the existence of something, the stakes should be as low as possible, to minimize the possibility of ulterior motive interfering with clear analysis. When two people clash in debate over the existence of miracles, the stakes of the discussion are raised from the outset, and this is not really favorable to a clear analysis. OTOH, informal discussion like we’re having seems more conducive to progress. higher than either side’s pride is willing to stoop should evidence prove disfavorable. Anyway, I’m getting off topic.
    To get back to what I originally meant by mentioning the stakes angle, we should begin as NULL as possible in evaluating the existence of miracles. But when the religious conman comes along, our higher starting point of skepticism is justified, because the stakes are higher. The existence of miracles may or may not affect us personally. However, the religious conman can. So, I guess what I’m saying really boils down to, Skeptics should begin NULL and remain careful to avoid slothful induction when evaluating the question of miracles, but they are fully justified in their initial bias towards skepticism when other people’s interpretations of reality are involved. I hope that makes sense because I’m not even going back over that one.

    ..an example of something I consider a miracle is childbirth– a miracle as ordinary for a reproducing cell, as for an acorn, a mustard seed, a humped back whale, or a human being. Even I, an atheist, consider it a miracle, but that’s because for me I use the word “miracle” to mean a rare event I have a difficult time understanding that makes me feel fully alive.

    That’s all good in my book and I tend to agree. I take it a step further and tend to think these processes you describe, while not proofs, are at least compatible with what we might expect were there a God. Of course, skeptics are just as free to view the glass the other way, too.
    But I think what I’m getting at is, the definition of a miracle I’m using for the purposes of MiracleQuest is more along the lines of a biblical miracle like you said, something that suggests Consciousness. My position that nature reflects Consciousness is debatable, and really, it’s just my view of things. However, to return to the re-capitation example, something that spectacular resulting after a prayer seems harder to disbelieve, and is most certainly compatible with what we would expect were the miracle actually genuine. IOW, the re-cap example strongly suggests Consciousness.

    My point was just that such a belief doesn’t necessarily commit you to such a belief in every instance, but I suspect we agree there.

    Yep, I did agree..

  21. Pine says:

    cl:
    Keep in mind that this is hypothetical and not necessarily what I actually belief… but if I were to parse the lightbulb…
    At the ‘line’ level the objects and creatures around the light would react to (or interact with) it, but not comprehend fully how it works. By fully comprehend I mean understand to the degree that they could reproduce the conditions necessary to power the bulb or for that matter be able to reproduce the bulb itself.
    At the ‘square’ level you would find beings with conscious thought processes who very much understand how a bulb works. Their gap in knowledge is as to WHY it works. To clarify, we understand that when filament is heated inside the vacuum sealed glass it becomes bright. We understand that without oxygen the filament will not burn. But we lack the knowledge of WHY filament does not burn without oxygen. We don’t know WHY filament becomes bright when heated. At this level we simply observe HOW things work, without much care or regard for WHY things work HOW we observe them to work.
    The cube level would understand not only that the bulb works and how the bulb works but would also understand (and perhaps be able to manipulate) WHY the bulb works. This understanding would be beyond the square level and while it does not necessarily contradict the line or square levels, it isn’t exactly bound by them either. In this level we understand that a bulb works and how a bulb works, but at any time if we were to manipulate the WHY a bulb works, then the bulb would no longer work and those of us limited to the square or line realm would have no clue HOW to get a bulb to work anymore.
    Hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me…

  22. cl says:

    Pine,
    It made sense to me. It seems to be a turn down NOMA drive, not that I’m saying such is a bad thing. I agree with you that there is a clear distinction between how and why, and that science explains how but not necessarily why.
    Those were some good and thoughtful paragraphs. Don’t be surprised if I come back to them.

  23. Brad says:

    Sorry, my regrets, but disclaimer: I have only scanned the above comments. I have some questions for cl. But first: cl, you might want to revise girlfriends’ in your post!
    – You say your girlfriend’s name was scribbled in multiple places on the back of the postcard. Was the name used within actual writing? (That is, a paragraph or some sentences?) How so? (Specifics!) Or did the witch, let’s call her, just sporadically put your gf’s name all over the place? Was it written at all strangely?
    – What was the apparent purpose behind the scribblings? Were they meant in a ‘see, I know her name’ kind of way?
    – Is the name in the same handwriting as whatever else the witch wrote? Could anything have happened to it between when you took it home and when you woke up the next morning?
    – How unusual of a name would you say your gf has?
    – What does your gf think of the incident? What all does she know about the witch from you?
    – Would you say the fact you and your gf are together – or even just good friends – is common knowledge to a fair number of people? Do any other individuals in the publishing world know?
    – Did the witch give any hint or impression of knowing something you didn’t during your conversations? Could anything she said or asked be construed as reading you or intending to elicit something out of you? Did she change her mannerisms noticeably at any points during the conversation?
    – Has there been any follow-up? Did the witch talk any specifics about what she would write about for your project?
    – Did you ever mention your name or otherwise introduce yourself or your friend? What was the inflection like in her “Oh, you’re here” opening? Does the woman look like the type of girl that would change her appearance every once in a while?
    – Could you better describe her ‘weird’ stares? Did she look like she was mentally parsing information during those moments?
    – Is there anything else relevant or related that she said or did?

  24. Cl said…”are there other non-spiritual explanations that could potentially involve some sort of overlap in two fields of consciousness?”
    I wouldn’t be surprised if telepathy was real. Other critters on this planet seem to communicate in ways we don’t necessarily understand. I’m not saying I believe in telepathy or any other sort of ESP, but I wouldn’t rule it out as impossible. Maybe I’ve enjoyed too much Sc-Fi over the years. ;-)

  25. cl says:

    Mike,
    I like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if telepathy was real, either.

  26. Pine says:

    Please watch the Derren Brown videos already! Not to drone on about it, but I’m anxious to see what you think after you watch some expert cold reading techniques as they’re displayed and explained.

  27. cl says:

    Brad,
    I just typed a half-hour’s worth of replies to you, and stupid-ass TypePad software completely ate them. That’s what I get. I know better than to use their stupid little text box.
    Sorry Brad, I’ll rewrite the comment later.
    Pine,
    I just watched “Subliminal Advertising.” First off, I would’ve crafted the slogan as, “Animal Heaven: A Place Fur Dead Animals,” but that’s just a creative note. :)
    But really though, as a skeptic at heart, and someone who’s worked in Hollywood production before, sure, much of Brown’s work is theatrically impressive, but as with Criss Angel, I have no proof that Brown’s techniques aren’t just scripted.
    Second, welcome to confounder city. How do I know Brown hasn’t just meticulously studied these advertiser’s techniques? Perhaps they’re so predictable that there’s no magic at all, and perhaps that shows a bit of my bias against advertisers. :)
    Also, frame 2:23 where Brown says, “Time up gentleman” revealed a facial expression that to me was suspect, but really, there’s not much else to go off there. I just got the impression in that frame that Derren already knew. This doesn’t necessarily mean he must be a fraud, either.
    Rationally speaking, the concepts the advertisers came up with were pretty predictable. I mean, it’s not like they were going to sketch out car concepts, right?
    It also irked me that Brown didn’t define “subliminal persuasion.”
    Even with all that said, we’re back to my original question. How would you parse this?

  28. Pine says:

    CL:
    Well… I was a little skeptical at first as well. But then I picked up Derren’s book and tried a few things out. I know that experiential knowledge holds little sway in our world… but even I was able to develop some of his techniques and experience success.
    One the line level… well there wouldn’t be a line level for this one I guess.
    At the square level we know what we must do in order to gain information from others through manipulation and are able to glean specific information through careful enough observation.
    At the cube level there may be other proceses and influences which cause these things to work the way they do. There may even be spiritual forces which cause these things to work, and there may be alternate methods of gaining this information available through contact with those spiritual beings.
    To make it practical…
    Samson had great strength because of God’s empowerment. This does not mean that everyone who has strength has aquired it because of God’s empowerment in the same was Samson did. This also does not mean that direct empowerment from God is the only way to gain strength. We know we can work out to gain strength, but if we thought that this was the ONLY way to gain strength then we would miss out on another category of strength altogether…

  29. Brad says:

    @Pine:
    I’m familiar with a lot of Derren Brown’s youtube-documented works. My favorite was the induced robberies. But, right from his site, he “seemingly” predicts and controls behavior, and uses “misdirection and showmanship.” As CNN and BBC can attest to, his Russian roulette game was staged. Although I have no doubt some number of his activities are “real,” keep in mind his main purpose is to promote skepticism indirectly – which explains why he was happy his roulette was found to be a hoax.
    Additionally, Derren Brown cold reading =/= other people cold reading. You’ve got nothing more than a suggestion on the table as it stands.

  30. cl says:

    Brad and everyone else I’m really sorry about TypePad’s quirky nonsense and I’m honestly busting their balls as hard as I can to get this fixed. If I had time, I’d just code my own forum up. That’s one thing I really like about Ebon’s site. And, I’m sorry I still haven’t re-typed the last comment TypePad’s composer decided to digest. I will, but the weather’s nice and I’m busy. Additionally, I never thought of the angle you offer above – that Brown’s main purpose is to promote skepticism. And to tie it all together, Brown cold reading doesn’t entail witch lady’s, but I did appreciate Pine’s suggestion to evaluate Brown, and I learned much from talking about this with you guys..

  31. Brad says:

    Yeah, in many of the videos I’ve seen he ends his segment by explaining how too many people are too hasty to jump to irrational conclusions or sentiments, often involving supernatural and religious themes and topics. I think I first brushed up against this when Derren “reconverted” a room of nonbelievers (highlighting emotional manipulation), and then again when he tricked a woman into thinking she was being affected by voodoo powers.
    In another cool scenario, he had sent correct predictions as to the winning horses in a series of horse races to an anonymous woman, helping her win lots of money. The explanation was that he sent predictions corresponding to all possible combinations of horse race winnings in the whole series to individual people, so one of them was bound to win throughout the entire thing and make it on camera.
    Finally, another of my favorites is when he plays nine expert chess players (two of them grandmasters) simultaneously and wins against four of them, loses to three of them, and stalemates with two of them. The explanation offered: first, he had a delay built into the rules so he didn’t have to respond to an opponent’s move until he moved around the tables; next, he mentally differentiated eight of them into pairs of twos, (1-5, 2-6, etc), and he acted as a mediator, which essentially pitted four the the players against the other four; and lastly Derren had to play the last one on his own, the least strong of his opponents.

  32. cl says:

    Re Brown tricking a woman into thinking she was being affected by voodoo powers, did he actually make the converse claim that she was not? If so, I’d say he’s just as guilty. The other two scenarios you describe are interesting as well..

  33. Brad says:

    Brown started off with,
    “We all get stuck in our belief systems, however sensible we may think they are. To me, the New Age community is particularly guilty of not testing or challenging what it claims. And it was this in mind that I invited a young woman to [?] forest.”
    I couldn’t discern what the name of the forest was. (Unfamiliar words are hard to parse from audio – thank you brain.) Tangentially, I don’t like the phrase “belief system.”
    The following was the climax, so to speak,
    Derren: “Can you talk?”
    [No response – although she opens and closes her mouth dumbly. Derren then sits down on a tree trunk – as they are out in the middle of a forest clearing.]
    Derren: “See for me, it’s all about … questioning, I think, and not taking things at face value. Kay, at the moment you can’t speak, but the only reason why you can’t speak is that you believe you can’t speak, because of what I’m telling you. And the interesting thing is that if I tell you you can speak, all that does is give you permission to question that belief, and then you find that you can speak, don’t you? … Yeah?”
    [Pause]
    Woman: “Yeah…”
    Derren: “Because what we believe isn’t necessarily real. I mean this certainly isn’t a real voodoo doll. And even the real voodoo dolls we used for healing, not for putting curses on people. But what I did, I got you to invest in that belief …”
    Derren also explains that the woman’s ring he supposedly put into the fake voodoo doll was actually not there: he didn’t put the ring in the voodoo doll at all. The ring was on the woman’s hand the entire time. [Cue the cool reveal music.]
    I don’t know if she was an actor or not, but it’s still good showmanship, methinks.

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