That’s the only conclusion I can draw, after reading Professor Larry Moran’s latest reply to my post, No evidence for God’s existence, you say? A response to Larry Moran. More on that anon. I will, however, note for the record that Professor Moran has backed down from his original assertion that there is no evidence whatsoever for God’s existence. He now writes:
When I say there’s no evidence for the existence of god(s) I mean that there is no “evidence” that stands up to close scrutiny… That brings up the question of what defines “valid evidence.” The short answer is “I don’t know” but I know it when I see it.
“I know it when I see it.” Hmm. Where have I heard that one before? Oh yes – Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used the phrase back in 1964, when attempting to define “hard-core-pornography.” Justice Stewart’s definition made for poor law, because it left the ultimate decision of what constituted “obscenity” up to the whim of the courts. Professor Moran’s definition leaves the decision as to what counts as valid scientific evidence in the hands of one man: himself! A rather subjective criterion, wouldn’t you agree?
Professor Moran’s startling silence on the origin of life
I also note that in his latest reply to my post, Professor Moran, who is a well-respected biochemist, had not a word to say about the origin of life, despite the fact that a leading evolutionary biologist, Dr. Eugene Koonin, has calculated that the odds of even a very basic life-form – a coupled replication-translation system – emerging anywhere in the observable universe are astronomically low: 1 in 1 followed by 1,018 zeroes, on his extremely generous “toy model” of the primordial Earth. (By comparison, the number of atoms in the cosmos is only 1 followed by 82 zeroes, so even if there are lots of Earth-like planets in the universe, it won’t help matters much.) Dr. Koonin’s calculation can be found in his peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life, Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15. To circumvent the difficulty, Dr. Koonin posits a multiverse, but there are several problems with that hypothesis, as I pointed out in my recent post, Professor Krauss Objects (February 3, 2015):
The multiverse hypothesis faces five formidable problems: first, it merely shifts the fine-tuning problem up one level, as a multiverse capable of generating even one life-supporting universe would still need to be fine-tuned; second, the multiverse hypothesis itself implies that a sizable proportion of universes (including perhaps our own) were intelligently designed; third, the multiverse hypothesis predicts that most of the intelligent life-forms that exist should be “Boltzmann brains” that momentarily fluctuate into and out of existence; fourth, the multiverse hypothesis predicts that a universe containing intelligent life should be much smaller than the one we live in; and fifth, the multiverse hypothesis cannot account for the fact that the laws of physics are not only life-permitting, but also mathematically elegant – a fact acknowledged even by physicists with no religious beliefs.
I was hoping that Professor Moran would provide a detailed critique Dr. Koonin’s calculations in his latest reply, but none was forthcoming. On the basis of these calculations, coupled with the multiple failings of the multiverse hypothesis, I can only conclude that the origin of life points to its having had a Designer of some sort – a point which Professor Moran still refuses to acknowledge. To his credit, however, he has recently conceded that “We don’t know how the first information-containing molecules arose and how they came to be self-replicating,” and has also declared himself to be skeptical of the “primordial soup” and “RNA world” hypotheses.
The fine-tuning of the universe
If the universe is really “fine tuned” for the existence of life — and that is disputed by many scientists — then why does that constitute evidence of gods? We could not possibly find ourselves in any universe that was not compatible with the existence of life. If this universe arose entirely by accident then we would still be here discussing the meaning of evidence.
Nowhere in his post does Professor Moran name the “many scientists” who dispute the fine-tuning of the universe for life. For those readers who are interested, I would strongly recommend cosmologist Luke Barnes’ online essay, The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life. I’ve read many rebuttals over the years, but I have to say that Dr. Barnes’ rebuttal of the scientific objections to fine-tuning is absolutely devastating. At the end of his magisterial essay, he writes:
We conclude that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life. Of all the ways that the laws of nature, constants of physics and initial conditions of the universe could have been, only a very small subset permits the existence of intelligent life.
After this poor start, Professor Moran’s attack on the fine-tuning argument continues to go downhill. Moran’s comments reveal that he has completely failed to grasp the logic of the fine-tuning argument. He flippantly dismisses the argument on the grounds that “[w]e could not possibly find ourselves in any universe that was not compatible with the existence of life.” But this remark is utterly beside the point. For proponents of the fine-tuning argument do not argue that because we happen to live in a life-friendly universe, therefore it must be designed. Rather, what they argue is that because we live in a universe which would be incapable of supporting life if its fundamental parameters were even slightly different, it is reasonable to infer that our universe is a put-up job. This inference would remain valid, even if it turned out that there were other, unknown values of the constants of Nature which would allow universes very different from our own to support life. The philosopher John Leslie explains why, using his now-famous “fly-on-the-wall” analogy:
If a tiny group of flies is surrounded by a largish fly-free wall area then whether a bullet hits a fly in the group will be very sensitive to the direction in which the firer’s rifle points, even if other very different areas of the wall are thick with flies. So it is sufficient to consider a local area of possible universes, e.g., those produced by slight changes in gravity’s strength, or in the early cosmic expansion speed which reflects that strength. It certainly needn’t be claimed that Life and Intelligence could exist only if certain force strengths, particle masses, etc. fell within certain narrow ranges. For all we know, it might well be that universes could be life-permitting even if none of the forces and particles known to us were present in them. All that need be claimed is that a lifeless universe would have resulted from fairly minor changes in the forces etc. with which we are familiar.
(Universes, Routledge, 1989; paperback, 1996, pp. 138-9)
The fact that Professor Moran displays such a poor understanding of the logic of the fine-tuning argument indicates that he has neither read widely nor pondered deeply on the subject. His dismissal of the argument merely reflects his ignorance of it.
Finally, Professor Moran grumbles that the fact that life arose “on one small insignificant planet near the edge of an otherwise unremarkable galaxy” looks “pretty haphazard” to a non-believer like himself. But surely the most salient fact here is that life arose anywhere in the universe at all. The question of which planet (or planets) it arose on is of secondary importance.
Professor Moran’s “conspiracy theory” regarding a historically well-attested miracles
But the most ridiculous part of professor Moran’s reply relates to the occurrence of miracles. In my post, I focused on one particularly well-attested miracle: the levitations of the St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was seen levitating well above the ground and even flying for some distance through the air, on literally thousands of occasions, by believers and skeptics alike, in the seventeenth century. I referred curious readers to a biography by D. Bernini (Vita Del Giuseppe da Copertino, 1752, Roma: Ludovico Tinassi and Girolamo Mainardi), as well as an online article, The flying saint (The Messenger of Saint Anthony, January 2003), by Renzo Allegri. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Chronicles recount, as we have already said, that he need only hear the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint before going into an ecstasy. He used to let out a wail and float in the air, remaining suspended between heaven and earth for hours. An inadmissible phenomenon for our modern mentality.
“To doubt is understandable,” Fr. Giulio Berettoni, rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph of Cupertino in Osimo tells me “but it isn’t justifiable. If we take a serious look at the saint’s life from a historical point of view, then we see that we cannot question his ecstasies. There are numerous witness accounts. They began to be documented in 1628, and this continued until Joseph’s death in 1663, i.e. for 35 years. In certain periods, the phenomenon is recorded to have taken place more than once a day. It has been calculated that Joseph’s ‘ecstatic flights’ took place at least 1,000 to 1,500 times in his lifetime, perhaps even more, and that they were witnessed by thousands of people. They were the phenomenon of the century. They were so sensational and so public that they attracted attention from curious people from all walks of life, Italians and foreigners, believers and unbelievers, simple folk, but also scholars, scientists, priests, bishops and cardinals. They continued to occur in every situation, in whatever church in which the saint prayed or celebrated Mass. It is impossible to doubt such a sensational and public phenomenon which repeated itself over time. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In my post, I warned against using miracles to support the claims of one religion against another, but I added that miracles like the levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino – which could be prompted by St. Joseph’s hearing the name of Jesus, of the Virgin Mary, or of a saint – certainly constituted evidence for God’s existence.
And what was Professor Moran’s reply to this mountain of evidence? To deny its very existence! In his own words:
If I were to accept the claim advanced by Vincent Torley then this would, indeed, constitute evidence that something very weird happened back in 1630. But I reject the claim. I simply don’t believe that people actually witnessed Joseph of Cupertino flying through the air. It’s not a fact. It’s not evidence.
This is a case where an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence. You can’t just rely on what people say they saw because if that’s all you need then there must be fairies at the bottom of the garden. And UFO abductions would be real.
The meager evidence for alien abductions
Let me note for the record that alleged “memories” of UFO abductions typically appear only under hypnosis, and that in the vast majority of cases, these abductions involve only one individual. After checking out some of “the best” alleged cases, I was able to find one case, the Allagash Waterway abduction of 1976, which involved four people. Here are the relevant details:
This famous case from 1976 involved four men who claimed to experience the same abduction, a secret they almost took to their graves.
The men were fishing in a canoe in northern Maine when they saw a gleaming UFO with an 80-foot diameter and changing red, yellow and green colors. According to the men, the UFO swooped down and beamed them up with their canoe in a blinding light. They came to several hours later not remembering anything after their abduction, but began to have frightening nightmares. They all underwent hypnosis and revealed their kidnappers were not from Earth. All of the men also took lie detector tests about their claims and passed.
Once again, the memories only surfaced only under hypnosis, and we are not told to what extent the four men’s accounts corroborated one another. A skeptical reviewer pithily summed up the poor state of the “evidence”:
A decade after a weird fishing trip, a severe blow to the head makes one of the fishermen suspect he’d been abducted by space aliens. Not just that something weird had happened; he went in believing UFOs were at the heart of it. “Evidence” was then collected by the least reliable method, hypnosis, and the four received some money and a lot of fame. I don’t know what happened that night, but I do know that a story has got to be a lot stronger than what they’ve got to convince me of the existence of space aliens, flying around and kidnapping people.
The massive documentary evidence for St. Joseph of Cupertino’s levitations
By contrast, the levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino were witnessed by thousands of people, on thousands of occasions, over a period of 35 years. Allow me to quote from a blog articleWhy Levitation? by Michael Grosso (October 8, 2013), who has done extensive research on the saint:
By chance, on a trip to Italy some years ago I acquired a 1722 biography of St. Joseph of Copertino.
I had read accounts of St. Joseph’s levitations in a scholarly essay by Eric Dingwall and also in Herbert Thurston’s book, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism. Eventually I began to read Domenico Bernini’s biography of Joseph, which Dingwall had cited as being rich in sworn eyewitness testimonies of the saint’s phenomena, which included more than levitation. I delved into the critical literature and assembled my own thoughts on the subject in a forthcoming book, The Strange Case of St. Joseph of Copertino: Ecstasy and the Mind-Body Problem (Oxford University Press). Joseph’s performances were never dubious sightings; they were show-stoppers, and his reputation as miracle mystic man spread all over Italy and then Europe….
The records show at least 150 sworn depositions of witnesses of high credentials: cardinals, bishops, surgeons, craftsmen, princes and princesses who personally lived by his word, popes, inquisitors, and countless variety of ordinary citizens and pilgrims. There are letters, diaries and biographies written by his superiors while living with him. Arcangelo di Rosmi recorded 70 incidents of levitation; and then decided it was enough. Streams of inexplicable events surrounded the black-bearded friar. Driven by malicious curiosity, even Joseph’s inquisitors observed him in ecstatic levitation during Mass. Their objection to him was not the fact that he levitated; they were concerned with where the power was coming from, God or the Devil?
It is impossible to suppose that all the stories about levitation were part of a Church plot to use miracles to control the mind of the masses. It wasn’t like that at all. The only way to make sense of the Church’s treatment of Joseph is to assume that he possessed these strange abilities in such abundance that there was talk of a new messiah arising. Joseph’s response to his Inquisitor’s was humble and honest. He had to explain that he enjoyed these “consolations” but that he was not proud or pleased with himself for having them. Nevertheless, the Church progressively tried to make him retreat to the most obscure corners of the Adriatic coast, ending finally under virtual house arrest in a small monastic community at Osimo. There was no decline effect in Joseph’s strange aerial behaviors; during his last six years in Osimo he was left alone to plunge into his interior life; the records are unanimous in saying that the ratti (raptures) were in abundance right up until his dying days. The cleric in charge of the community swore that he witnessed Joseph levitate to the ceiling of his cell thousands of times. The surgeon Pierpaolo was cauterizing Joseph’s leg shortly before his death when he realized the friar was insensible and floating in the air. He and his assistant both deposed that they bent down and looked beneath Joseph’s horizontal body, to be sure they weren’t dreaming.
To repudiate the evidence for Joseph’s levitations would be to repudiate thirty-five years of history because the records of his life are quite detailed and entangled with other lives and documented historical events. We would have to assume colossal mendacity and unbelievable stupidity on the part of thousands of people, if we chose to reject this evidence. We would be forced to believe that when the duchess of Parma wrote in a letter that Joseph was the “prodigy of the century”, she was romancing or totally deluded.
Perhaps readers are wondering where one can find the documentation for all of the miracles associated with St. Joseph of Cupertino. I’ve located a short pamphlet entitled, The Life of Saint Joseph of Cupertino by Fr. Christopher Shorrock O.F.M. Conv. (1985) which has this to say on the subject:
A number of biographies of St Joseph of Cupertino have been prepared in the past and give us extensive details of the extraordinary life of the saint. Of paramount importance are the thirteen volumes of the Process of Canonization preserved in the Vatican Archives. In this great literary work we find recounted the numerous testimonies of witnesses (including princes, cardinals, bishops and doctors) who knew St Joseph personally and in many cases were eyewitnesses to the wonderful events of his life. These episodes clearly reveal a man completely open to the transforming grace of God.
And how about this excerpt from an article by Thomas Craughwell in the Catholic Herald (13 September 2007)?
When the Father General of the Franciscans took Joseph to a private audience with Pope Urban VIII, Joseph levitated in the presence of the Holy Father. An astonished Pope Urban said if he outlived Joseph, he would promote Joseph’s cause for canonization and personally attest to this miracle. On another occasion when Joseph was living in Assisi, Spain’s ambassador to the Papal Court brought his wife and a large retinue to see Joseph. As he entered the church to meet his visitors Joseph saw a statue of the Immaculate Conception. He floated off the floor and flew over the heads of the ambassador and his party to the statue where he remained suspended in the air. Then he floated back to the church door, and made a gentle landing. The Inquisition heard about Joseph and commanded him to appear before their tribunal. On Oct. 21, 1638, as the inquisitors questioned him, Joseph levitated.
And here’s an excerpt (courtesy of Eternal Word Television Network) from the entry for St. Joseph of Cupertino (whose feast day is September 18) in The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary (ed. John Coulson, Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1960):
What strikes us immediately is that his miracles kept drawing such crowds that not only was he up before the Inquisition, but his desperate Superiors sent him from convent to convent. Once the Inquisition removed him to a Capuchin friary, where he was kept in strict enclosure and forbidden even to write or receive letters — to his own bewilderment: ‘Must I go to prison, then?’ he said. Yet, at Assisi, the duke of Brunswick and Hanover, after visiting him, abjured Lutheranism and became a Catholic; Urban VIII, having seen him in ecstasy, said that should Joseph die first, he himself would give evidence of what he had seen. Most important, Prosper Lambertini did his best, as Promotor Fidei (‘Devil’s Advocate’), to discredit him, yet afterwards (as Benedict XIV) published the decree of Joseph’s beatification in 1753 and, in his classical work on Beatification, alluded to the ‘eye-witnesses of unchallengeable integrity’ who witnessed to Joseph’s ‘upliftings from the ground and prolonged flights’. It is difficult to see how, if we reject this evidence, we shall ever find any historical evidence acceptable.
Let me repeat that last sentence: “It is difficult to see how, if we reject this evidence, we shall ever find any historical evidence acceptable.” Yet Professor Moran would have us believe that these thousands of people were all part of a massive hoax: the biggest hoax in history. Nobody, he says, saw St. Joseph levitate. If this does not make him a conspiracy theorist, then I can only ask: what does?
The devil, you say?
Now, I am aware that some readers will caution that just because an individual levitated, that does not prove his levitations were divine in origin; they might conceivably be diabolical. But at the very least, they indicate the existence of a supernatural reality, and only a person whose mind was utterly closed would refuse to acknowledge that fact. It is a pity that Professor Moran cannot bring himself to open his mind to the possibility of the miraculous.
Professor Moran cites Sagan’s dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But he never attempts to give a quantitative answer to the question: “How extraordinary must the evidence be?” The evidence for naturalism is, at best, cumulative. Given that the number of discrete events (or elementary bit-operations) that have occurred during the history of the universe has been estimated at less than 10^150, it follows (using Laplace’s famous sunrise argument) that the probability we should assign to the claim that the next event we witness will not be a natural one can be no lower than 1 in 10^~120. Hence if we can calculate that the combined probability of thousands of eyewitnesses hallucinating and/or perjuring themselves about having witnessed a levitation when they didn’t – and remember, back in those days, everyone in Italy really believed that perjury was a sin you could go to Hell for committing – on thousands of occasions is less than 1 in 10^~120, then the hallucination and fraud hypotheses become even more extraordinary than the hypothesis of a miracle, which then becomes the most rational one to adopt. Since the sightings occurred on multiple occasions and a multiple locations, we can treat them as independent events, and calculate accordingly. Thus it is not difficult to obtain a figure far lower than 1 in 10^~120. Take that, Carl Sagan!