Tom Gilson

The Rationality of Spiritual Battle: An Irrational Answer

My series on spiritual battle has drawn some fire. The question I’ve been asking is whether it is rational to believe in the possibility of hostile spiritual forces. A blogger who goes by the grievous nom de blog “Forever In Hell” seems to want to show how much more rational the so-called “scientific” answer is. For example:

Oh, dear. Allow me to explain something about science to you, dear. According to science, all existence is within the natural realm. Things exist outside the natural realm we can observe with our own eyes, for example, at the subatomic scale, but all things exist in the natural realm. Therefore, the very concept of things existing in a place outside existence is antiscience. By definition.

Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear. How do I answer that? I don’t. Not yet, that is, for there is more. I’ll come back to it, I promise.

Earlier in his blog post he quotes me and answers,

(A.) The first good reason is that the reality of the devil is far, far less important than the reality of God.

Some reality is more important than other reality? Really? Do you have any idea what reality means?

That’s why no Christian tradition that chooses to pay a whole lot of attention to Satan.

what? That’s not a sentence, that’s a clause. Also, plenty of Christian traditions choose to focus pretty heavily on Satan, going by my google reader anyway. I’ll admit these people aren’t exactly mainstream, but they do exist.

Yes, I do have some idea what reality means, and I think some aspects of it are less important than others. That’s not hard, actually; illustrations are rather too easy too come up with. For example, what’s more important to you, knowing (the reality of) your spouse’s/significant other’s/mom’s name or (the reality of) the name of whoever was nominated for, but lost, Best Supporting Actress in 1959? I know, I could “[go] by my Google Reader” (Google search, actually) and look it up. That would be an appropriate use of the tool, unlike the use FIH made of it. But it’s just not that important to me.

I also know what a sentence is and what a clause is, and that what FIH calls a clause is just a typo, with the word “that” mistakenly included. I know how to capitalize first words of sentences (a mistake FIH makes more than once). And although I have made the mistake of writing awkward or ungrammatical sentences often enough, I do try not to do it (“Some reality is more important than other reality?”) within a paragraph or two of correcting someone else’s writing. In fact, unless provoked, I hardly ever correct others’ writing (see below). Some aspects of reality are not that important.

Continuing:

Still it is the case that Jesus cast out demons from many, thereby healing them from physical, mental, and spiritual infirmities. Those of us who take Jesus seriously must take demonic activity seriously. I’ll come back to that later in this series.

[citation needed] other than the bible, of course.

That’s not a sentence, that’s a fragment. It’s also a double failure to capitalize. More importantly (for stylistically there’s nothing seriously wrong with a sentence fragment in that context), it’s a failure to notice that in the portion he quoted I acknowledged there was more to be said on the subject. That should not have been hard to find. (Should I have promised a citation would be forthcoming? Would that have helped?)

(C.) Blaming Satan for bad things might just be another instance of irresponsible blame-shifting. “The devil made me do it” is never a good excuse. “The devil did it” is just as bad when it’s used to shirk accountability. We need to take responsibility for what we can do in the world.

So, Satan is real, doing his thing, demons possess people . . . but it’s never Satan’s fault, that’s just blameshifting. Look, either demons can take control of your body causing every different kind of infirmity, or they can’t. pick one.

That’s a failure to recognize modal distinctions. I said it might be blameshifting. There’s also a false dichotomy in there: the two options he offers are not the only ones that exist.

why doesn’t anyone ever provide scientific proof of demons? I mean, if demons are physical enough to cause physical symptoms in human beings, why can’t you provide proof of their existence and the mechanism of their action on the human body and mind? We have access to marvelous diagnostic equipment like MRIs, CAT scans, EEG machines, etc. Why hasn’t evidence of a force capable of wreaking such terrible havoc on humans ever been found?

You’ll find no answers in Thinking Christian’s article.

Well, for one thing I haven’t gotten to my positive evidences yet. At the end of my article I wrote,

As I close the second part of this series, I acknowledge that what I’ve done so far has been mostly negative. There are times and reasons when it’s better not to claim that spiritual battle is going on. There are frequently good reasons to be doubtful about it, but so far we haven’t uncovered any good reason to believe it’s always irrational to believe spiritual battle is going on. But that leaves open the questions of whether there is any positive reason to believe that spiritual battle is a reality, and under what circumstances we could safely conclude that our circumstances are best explained in the light of spiritual battle. I’ll write more on those questions later.

Can you read, FIH?

But don’t expect “scientific proof” for demonic activity. It’s your theory, and not anyone else’s (anyone that matters in this context, that is), that “demons are physical enough to cause physical symptoms.”

Time for school now. Here’s a general rule of argumentation for you, FIH. This rule has a long history, and you can find further discussion on it in your “google reader” under “straw man argument.” If you intend to pick apart someone else’s position, it’s much more effective actually to pick apart their position than to devise your own and pick that apart. For the record, I’m fine with you criticizing, debunking, disproving or whatever you want to do with your own version of any argument you choose. It would be unfortunate for you or for others, however, if you succeeded in confusing anyone (yourself included) into thinking you had said anything about my argument in the process.

The upshot of all this is that when we are confronted by something we don’t already have an explanation for, we know that one does indeed exist. We no longer have to resort to blaming phenomena on invisible people, we have science.

Oh, bless me! A finer faith statement, a more unfounded inductive extrapolation, a more unaware assessment of long-mysterious known phenomena, could hardly be imagined! Science hasn’t begun to explain the timeless human phenomena of consciousness, sense experience, moral meaning, free will, and other universal characteristics of humanness. Science doesn’t explain where the universe came from, either, or why there is something rather than nothing, or the origin of the first life. These are not trivial questions (yes, FIH, some aspects of reality are more important than others). What makes FIH think science has what it takes to explain everything? Since evidence for that belief is clearly lacking, the only answer is that FIH takes it by faith in spite of the evidence.

Confusion abounds as he continues. Witness this next, where he quotes me and responds:

(E2.) We could extend the term science to refer to the body of knowledge obtained through the practice of science. If that is your view, then I say, “That’s fine, but where’s the journal article? Where’s the conference proceeding? Where in the body of scientific knowledge do we see it demonstrated that there are no hostile spiritual forces in all of reality?” There is no such finding. Nothing that has been discovered in any lab, measured by any theory, or enumerated by any equation, has ever contradicted a basic background belief in demons.

Look, when you make an extraordinary claim, the onus is on you to prove that claim. It’s not up to everyone else to disprove it. If you claim that demons exist and they affect humans in a real and observable way, then it’s up to you to provide me with proof of this. If you aren’t going to do so, I am free to completely ignore your claim altogether, and to assume that you haven’t provided proof because you don’t have it to provide because what you claim isn’t real.

Look, when you want to rebut some claim, it would serve your purposes better if you would notice what it is you are rebutting. My claim here was that “science” has never proved there are no demons. It was one step in a series of steps toward a conclusion, where (later) I will come around to providing reasons for belief in hostile spiritual forces. I’m not there yet, as any competent reader could have discerned. Rather I was at the point of analyzing and responding to the claim that there’s something anti-science about believing in demons. The fact that I did not, in the same sentence, prove that demons are real should hardly be taken as surprising. The fact that FIH seems to have thought I should do that is what’s surprising.

Also, logically, you can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove I don’t have an entire herd of invisible pink unicorns in my hair right now, do you therefore think that I do?

Right. That’s the best thing FIH said in the whole article (although if he had specified something about the mass or size of said unicorns, his illustration might not hold).

Anyway, what FIH has said here is very important. You see, the claim has been made by some that science has proved a negative. I have set out to demonstrate that very error. Now, where is it claimed that science has proved a negative? Let me see… if I search hard enough I might be able to find some source claiming that science has shown nothing exists outside the natural realm. I’m using my google reader… and … Eureka! here’s one:

According to science, all existence is within the natural realm. Things exist outside the natural realm we can observe with our own eyes, for example, at the subatomic scale, but all things exist in the natural realm. Therefore, the very concept of things existing in a place outside existence is antiscience. By definition.

How does it feel, FIH, to have provided your own petard with which to hoist yourself?

P.S. to FIH’s P.S.: I don’t feel small and powerless, but thanks for thinking of me.

Series Navigation (Spiritual Battle):<<< Is It Rational to Believe in Spiritual Battle? (Part 2)
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3 thoughts on “The Rationality of Spiritual Battle: An Irrational Answer

  1. Tom,

    Thank you for tackling this subject through this series. It is a topic that I have tossed around in my mind without coming to any solid conclusion. I look forward to the future installments.

    Slightly off topic:

    Why would mass and size hurt his illustration but color doesn’t? Color is associated with certain frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum so the property of ‘pink’ would fall within the natural world and could be easily confirmed or disproved.

    I realize the use of the IPU is meant to be satirical but it comes across as such a weak and trivial attempt to counter faith in GOD.

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