Recently, I have been confronted with some rather significant decisions.  As one who is committed to Christ as Lord and Savior, naturally these are things I have brought to God in prayer, looking for his will and guidance.  At the same time, I have had to think through ramifications of varying options and scenarios and gauge what is the reasonable thing to do given what I believe is consistent with the witness of scripture and the place where God has me currently situated.  In short, I have confronted these decisions prayerfully, with the voice of reason.

Now some might object and believe that we need to rely on what God tells us to do.  That relying on reason and engaging our mental faculties is the same as relying on human wisdom and understanding apart from the spiritual understanding that comes from divine direction.  After all, doesn’t Proverbs 3:5 indicate to not lean to our own understanding, but acknowledge the Lord in all our ways?  Most certainly it does.  But I don’t think that means that engaging in a thought process involving reason is not engaging spiritual guidance.  In fact, I am convinced that God very much operates through reason, too.

As Christians, we are told in Romans 12:2 to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing our minds.   Conformity to the world involves a mindset of identity.   Prior to regeneration, the believer can only follow the mindset that does not set affections on God or his ways (Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 8:7).  It relies on a philosophy of the pattern of this world, which is keeping with human understanding and that which is sourced in self-interest.  The renewed mind understands that life decisions must be filtered through a new lens.  We are subject to a different standard that is keeping with who we are as citizens of heaven, indwelt with the Holy Spirit who provides illumination on how to bring life into alignment with God’s will and ways.  So as we think about life and all of its decisions, we should be in touch with that identity and what is in its best interest.

It does raise the question of how the Holy Spirit works in the faculties of the believer.  Does the Holy Spirit provide guidance by bypassing our thought process and just mechanically gives us answers and directives?   Or does the Holy Spirit invade the mind and influence our thoughts so that they align with the will of God?  I suppose that answer will rest on where one stands on the composition of our humanity, whether dichotomist (body and soul/spirit) or trichotomist (body, soul and spirit).   I also wonder that if we take the position that the Holy Spirit speaks to us separate from our mental faculties, if that means we are responsible for some decisions but God is responsible for others.  That does present some difficulties that I can’t even wrap my mind around at the moment.

I honestly believe that adopting the mentality that divine guidance must come through that ‘small still voice’ or some other form of receiving a direct answer can be counter-productive to an authentic Christian life that must confront decisions on a daily basis – big and small.  I am not saying that God does not operate that way or there aren’t ‘impressions’ that are convictions of a direction that God would have us take.   But he did give us mental faculties to use that should be used to honor him.  If he just gave us the answer, how then would we grow and make choices that demonstrate our love for him?  Moreover, the fact that convictions come in the form of thoughts, I believe makes for a compelling case that the Holy Spirit very much works through out mental faculties, which we then should use for the glory of God in the decisions that we make.  In fact, I am of the opinion that the voice we ascribe to God speaking can actually be the Holy Spirit bearing on our own thoughts, which is what we may possibly hear.

If we are just listening to the voice separate from any type of mental engagement, then what is to prevent someone who is mentally challenged with proclivities towards distorted thought processes from declaring some divine directive that is nothing more than a product of that distortion?  I do believe that God can work through mental illness but that doesn’t prevent the impact that misunderstood and misapplied guidance can have those who are subject to that decision.  In fact, I have encountered ministries that I believe were either founded upon the spiritual leadership or run by someone who was mentally unstable.  As one who is not trained in this area, I can only speculate but I would bet money that this is far more prevalent than we probably think.

If the Holy Spirit can operate through the voice of reason, I suspect that the conscience very much plays a role in this facilitation.  The NT writers use the word conscience  (συνειδησις) 29 times and is associated with an inward conviction that aligns with a mindset that our thoughts, words or actions are consistent with our identity as believers in Christ.   The Greek-English lexicon (BDAG) renders the meaning of the word as “an inward faculty of distinguishing right and wrong”.   A few examples are here

Romans 2:15 – in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.

1 Corinthians 8:10 – For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?

2 Corinthians 5:11 – Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.

Hebrews 9:14 – how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

It seems that everywhere conscience is used, it denotes that inward conviction that must bear on our decisions but nowhere denies the existence of decisions or having to think through what is the reasonable and God-honoring thing to do.  But several of the verses where ‘conscience’ is used indicates the need to keep it clear (Acts 23:1; 24:9; 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:16).  It’s why I believe Paul warns that the spiritually wayward will have a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) that prevents subjection to God and his ways and how it can distort decisions we make.

So the bottom line is that I don’t think we should fear the voice of reason or relegate to a product of non-spiritual human understanding.  If our thoughts are filtered through the grid of prayer, scripture and an attitude of subjection to Christ, I believe the Holy Spirit can use them to align with the very direction that God would have us take as we think through what to do.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    55 replies to "The Voice of Reason: Decision Making and Spirit-Led Direction"

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      Great post.

    • Dr Mike

      Don’t mean to be picky but, since you’re in an academic setting, it might behoove you to know the difference in the following.

      Contrary to what you wrote, it does not “beg the question.”

      Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of “reasoning” typically has the following form.

      1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
      2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

      This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: “X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true.”

      Examples:

      “If such actions were not illegal, then they would not be prohibited by the law.”

      “(1) The Bible affirms that it is inerrant.
      (2) Whatever the Bible says is true.
      Therefore:
      (3) The Bible is inerrant.”

    • Dave Z

      I agree, Lisa. A renewed mind is part of being a new creation in Christ, and seeing and understanding things from a more Godly perspective is a result of the spiritual maturity process. And I believe that the most common means by which the Spirit guides us is by influencing our own thoughts, often through scripture, but also in prayer and through other believers.

      But sometimes that “still, small voice” comes along, and sometimes it’s neither small nor still. I have had the Spirit speak loudly a time or two. OK, since you insist, here’s a brief story. I was standing in church, hands raised, eyes closed, heart fully in worship. The congregation was singing “Oh, how I love Jesus.” At the time, there was an area of my life that was inapproprate. In the midst of my singing I heard, loud and clear (but not audibly), “If you loved me you would keep my commandments.” It was like a punch in the gut. Sometimes, God’s voice is unmistakable, even to a conscience in the process of being seared.

      And I understand people have been known to cast lots …

    • mbaker

      Dave,

      My husband and I had a similar experience prior to our marriage. He had gotten a Sunday off to go to church with me, even though it meant he had to get someone else to work for him. He was a railroad service engineer, so it wasn’t like just anyone could take over for him.

      It so happened we were having communion that day and my pastor preached a real soul searching sermon about taking us Christians communion lightly. It really convicted him, and he did not go forward to receive the elements. This really disturbed me, so later at dinner I asked him why. He said he could not do it because the Holy Spirit had convicted about continuing our relationship without marriage. I really admired him for that.

      So I asked him if that was a statement of faith or a marriage proposal. He said to consider it both. So, we were married a few days later, and have been happily so for 6+ years. I think we have to stick with God’s will first, whether it be through the conviction of the Holy Spirit or through reason, or through both. And I think it is both more often than we care to admit.

      Thanks for a well thought out and thought provoking post, Lisa. If it were not for my husband thinking deeply about where we were going, because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit appealing to what he already knew was right, our marriage would not have been possible.

    • C Michael Patton

      “In fact, I have encountered ministries that I believe were founded upon the spiritual leadership of someone who was mentally unstable.”

      Are u talking about me? 🙂

    • Lisa Robinson

      Oh man, I really needed that laugh. Thanks 😀

    • Lisa Robinson

      Dr. Mike, you’re right. I changed it. Thanks for the catch.

    • Oun

      I may contribute my penny’s worth, writing in haste:

      CMP said at the bottom of his post. “So the bottom line is that I don’t think we should fear the voice of reason or relegate to a product of non-spiritual human understanding. …”

      Well, reason IS essential. Reason is not something there to put restriction or restraints on us. ‘Reason’ seems to me to be what bricks are made of for the road we walk on in our journey. Rm 12:1 says we live on our daily existence with our bodies as living sacrifice to God (in contrast Judaic ritual of sacrifice with animals killed, etc.). That’s our sacred service to God 24/7/365. Paul used a descriptive ‘LOGIKOS’ – thoughtful in BDAG, but, for me, it is more like ‘in harmony with reason’. Of course, here ‘body’ (SWMA) is not same as ‘self’ which many English translations render it. It represents the whole of what we do with our body – thinking, talking, touching, walking with feet, doing with hands, seeing, hearing, feeling – all things we do with our body.

      H.S. will empower (‘resonate’) our spirit to make us in tune with God. As if a tuning fork resonates on the same frequency. Our spirit is driving force for our being (soul) to use the body. Nothing will be work of H.S. unless it is based on God’s word (as in the Bible). Nothing to do with practice of spirituality, mysticism, or shamanism (i.e. tongue speaking, slaying by the spirit, etc.).

      God’s will is what God wants (for us to do). It will be known when we are in [tune] with God. Then our life will be life of joy, of thanks; life of breathing oxygen from God (prayer without ceasing). How is it possible? – only if we pick up our cross each day to deny our self being our master – dying to the cross at every circumstances coming upon us. Then our Lord will truly have lordship over us and everything in our life will be according to God’s will.

    • Gord

      Some reallly great thought has gone into this post, and I thank you for it. On a similiar, if hyper-simplistic note, I have challenged worship leaders that it’s easy to connect sponteneity with the guidance of the Spirit, but let us not forget that the Spirit can and does speak as loudly in the planning process.

      Thanks again,
      ~G

    • Rick

      Good post. This brings to mind the discussions (debates) about business models for ministry and other apparent “non-spiritual” practices. One must ask if the Holy Spirit does not use such methods.

    • Wolf Veizer

      It might serve the discussion well to explore more thoroughly what we currently know about the brain and the manner in which thoughts are processed.

      For instance, why is it assumed that hearing a “voice” or thinking a series of thoughts implies someone telling/showing you something? There is ample reason in neuroscience to believe that non-self identified “voices” or thoughts can/do indeed arise from within the physical processes of the brain. It even appears possible to induce such experiences by certain brain lesions and electromagnetic stimulation.

      The question becomes why you feel “responsible” for the initiation of some thoughts, but why others arising from the subconscious are attributed to a voice/identity other than your own.

      Perhaps what is most terrifying to contemplate is the damage that one can cause by assuming his/her subconscious is actually the voice of an authoritative outsider.

      It is very, very important to be aware of the subconscious role in thought processes before using the kind of language here.

    • Gord

      To Wolf,
      I agree when you say “It is very, very important to be aware of the subconscious role in thought processes…”
      I’m not certain where to begin splitting this hair, but it is probable that God chooses to speak to us through the voices we know best.
      If an idea comes to me “from God”, and you say the idea is a result of a natural brain process and a connection to my subconscious, how are they any different? After all, my subconscious and my brain patterns are exactly the materials God created and the tools he gave me with which to communicate. In fact, the question might be asked how else would we expect the Spirit to make Himself heard?

      The point I’m clumsily trying to make is God set the natural order into place, and so being able to explain through good scientific process how a thing works in the natural world, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work that way exactly because God designed it to. I appreciate science as a passionate exploration of God’s creation.

      Also…I think there may also be value in considering that the important question is not whether a decision is made BY ME or BY GOD but instead whether it is GOOD or NOT. Is it true? Is it beautiful? Does it align with scripture and good sense and can other believers affirm it? And in the end–does it glorify God? These are the questions to ask! Just because everything that comes from God is good does not mean that everything that comes from me is bad.

      In grace,
      ~Gord

    • Wolf Veizer

      There is a massive difference between ascribing your subconscious thoughts to an impartial, all-knowing and prescient being and recognizing that it is the product of an inherently imperfect biological system.

      Recognizing the latter restricts one from claiming any salience beyond the innumerable factors which aversely affect subconscious decision making. Claiming the former opens the door for appeals to authority and foreknowledge which, if false, may give undue credence to very faulty decision making.

      It’s thus not reasonable to gloss over the difference when the two paradigms have very different implications.

    • Jordan

      I wonder if Lisa or Michael, or anybody for that matter, could unpack this for me:

      “I suppose that answer will rest on where one stands on the composition of our humanity, whether dichotomist (body and soul/spirit) or trichotomist (body, soul and spirit).”

      At the risk of sounding completely ignorant, I don’t really understand how a dichotomist or trichotomist view has bearing on how the Holy Spirit speaks to us.

    • […] Lisa Robinson on decision-making and Spirit-led direction. […]

    • rayner markley

      I wonder how the Holy Spirit works through reason. There may be little difference between our own reason and the Holy Spirit working through reason. Reason is still reason, after all.

      Reason, not conscience, is what we use for decisions like career choice, vacation plans, or what brand of cell phone to buy. But if decisions like those become complex, then intuition may be involved, and the Holy Spirit may have a role to play with intuition.

      And you’re not alone, Jordan. I’d like to learn about that too.

    • Gord

      @Wolf,
      You make a good point about the implications of the differing expectations. I don’t think I’m in disagreement with you, so long as we can still say that just because we can identify that the source of an idea is an identifiable subconscious does not in itself automatically mean the decision is either good or bad and thus it still needs to be measured against external benchmarks such as “common sense” (if applicable), agreement among peers, God’s will for us as revealed in scripture, etc.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response,
      ~Gord

    • Wolf Veizer

      The subconscious can make “good” or “bad” decisions. That is without dispute.

      But if the neurology of subconscious thought is sufficient to explain the origin of these phenomena, why suppose an additional factor? Or if we do, why not Zeus, Ahura Mazda, or Osiris?

    • Lisa Robinson

      Rayner and Jordan,

      I was merely trying to address how the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our physical make-up. Rayner, I think you note some important yet interdependent distinctions that comprise how our decision making process works. But more importantly, how the Holy Spirit works within that framework, which is what I was trying to address even though admittedly, it is somewhat speculative.

      I think our view on the composition of our humanity sways how we believe the Holy Spirit operates internally. If the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our spirit and the spirit part of us is separate from the soul (brain/mind), then that presents the idea that the HS can work independent of our thoughts. If on the other hand, we see the immaterial part of us (the dichotomist position) comprising all of the factors that produce reason, thoughts and emotions, then gives stronger support to the HS operating through all the components that constitute that immaterial part of us, since it all works in tandem. I personally believe there is somewhat of a mystery here. I hope that makes sense.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      “Why not Zeus, Ahura Mazda, or Osiris?”

      If you are trying to compare the God of Christianity to the likes of these can you say false-equivalence?? There is at least universal agreement among scholars that the individual who Christians claim to be God existed. Now whether or not he was truly God is of course the issue.

      Now if you’re simply asking how can we know which God? That is of course the question we all must ask. Personally when attempting to step out of my experience and think about it objectively (which is obviously not completely possible) I start with the question of whether or not God exists at all and then work from there. Finding God to be philosophically necessary I then find Christianity to provide the most evidence that the God of Christianity is the true God in addition to offering what is in my opinion the most coherent worldview and explanation for why things are the way they are (creation – fall – redemption motif).

    • Wolf Veizer

      At what point in this process did you arrive at the conclusion that the neural circuitry implicated this specific God in the thought process?

      Or was this an assumption you made once you accepted the entirity of the paradigm?

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      I think simply put if one accepts, whether it be based on evidence, philosophical arguments, experience, or some combination thereof, that Christianity is true this is going to lead to a natural inference from that belief that God has an effect upon thought processes.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      If one accepts that Christianity is true I think it is a natural inference that God at the very least can affect thought processes.

    • Wolf Veizer

      Perhaps that should be sufficient, now, to emphasize the points already made:
      1. That such speculation should probably be withheld until coming up to speed with current state of knowledge in neuroscience.
      2. That the distinct differences in the rooted implications are vastly different, despite the ease with which those differences continue to be glossed over.

      It is also probably easy to see why many academics struggle to respect the epistemic “humility” of Christians. While simultaneously decrying the arrogance of scientists (who generally readily admit when they are beyond their field of expertise), Christians happily speculate about the most profound and unsubstantiated claims in a field (I.e. Neuroscience) which they admit to being totally unfamiliar with.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,
      I’m not sure what you mean. The question is not whether or not natural neuro-chemical reaction can cause one to hear, see, or think whatever. The question is 1) is this always the case, and 2) does God work through these natural processes. To say that something that is natural cannot also be supernatural is from the Christian perspective of God to set up a false dichotomy. Christianity has always held that God is at work in both the miraculous and the natural.

    • Wolf Veizer

      Either the origin of subconscious thought is necessarily and sufficiently the result of the brain’s biology, or it is not.

      Pick one. The former, you necessarily refute your own argument. The latter, and we draw full circle – because you’d have an explicit breakdown in neural causal closure. (In which case a single example would cause a revolution in medicine, neuroscience, and physics. Or do you also assume closure breakdown as part of your assumptive package as well?)

      So which is it?

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      “Either the origin of subconscious thought is necessarily and sufficiently the result of the brain’s biology, or it is not.”

      Either the brains biology is necessarily and sufficiently the result of naturalistic processes or its not…

      Ultimately saying that the brains biology in and of itself explains the event only moves the question up a level to what determined the brains biology. From there we basically just keep moving up the question chain to the ultimate question of why is there something instead of nothing. If one answers that God is the unmoved mover that set the universe in motion we CAN (it is of course not necessary if one holds to a deistic view of God) drill all the way back down and conclude that God effects thought patterns. If one accepts that God designed the universe one accepts that he designed the laws which govern it and the way those laws play out. To assume that simply because something can be explained by these laws it means there was nothing supernatural involved is to adopt a paradigm that is foreign to the Christian religion. The laws themselves are of supernatural origin.

    • Wolf Veizer

      Have you abandoned your original argument for its indefensibility? Or was this a deistic defense from the beginning?

      Perhaps we should clarify something, and that will elucidate the actual claim you’re making. “Supernatural” is a meaningless word if you are referring to your concept of a pre-universe establishment of natural law (in this case you may be better off using “pre-determined” rather than “supernatural”, I.e. Such that an event may be “pre-determined and natural”, but not “supernatural and natural”). If, on the other hand, you are suggesting an actual “super”-natural violation/manipulation of these laws at a later time, that is something entirely different. As stated before, you are welcome to suggest this latter option, but it will raise the question of how you defend a breakdown in neural causal closure.

      So again, what is it? Do you assume this as well? Or was this a deist’s defense of physical pre-determination?

    • Oun

      To #28

      Consider using the word ‘supra-natural’ instead of ‘supernatural’. The latter has a connotation which has a very bad after-taste.

    • Wolf Veizer

      In the academic world supra- and super- are generally indexed synonymously for Latin reference to “above/beyond/greater than”, and the subtle difference between the two is scarcely an issue when discussing the current topic (unless a lecture is being given in high 1st/2nd century oratorial Latin).

      In this case, the general reference to “above/beyond,” whether additionally defined to include transcendence or not, is irrelevant, as any such violation indicates claimed violation of causal closure (and thus demands “transcendence”).

      That said the same questions still stand. Is this a deist defense or is there a breakdown of neural causal closure?

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      Couple questions.

      1) Is it possible for God to work in a manner that appears completely natural. I’m no expert but it seems that if God influenced probabilities at the quantum level we would have no way of measuring or knowing that this happened unless it happened quite frequently.

      2) Even if we can explain some “voices” or “thoughts” by natural processes isn’t a a leap to infer from this that it would apply to every circumstance where someone felt the leading of God. Furthermore, doesn’t this commit the genetic fallacy by claiming that because we know how the thought came about it is therefore false (e.g. since the thought that God is leading me to do X came about through naturally explainable processes it is therefore false and God is not leading me)

    • Wolf Veizer

      What is this “feeling” of the “leading of God” you speak of? Perhaps there lies the problem behind the whole misunderstanding being propagated here.

      A mental sensation of “knowing” can be neurologically triggered for a number of reasons, including the technique of cortical stimulation, seizures (from incorrect electromagnetic discharge/excitation in critical regions of the brain), environmental stimulation, etc. It may then be reinterpreted by the conscious brain and correlated to a cognitive belief/assumption. That provides NO reason, whatsoever, to actually claim the cognitive appraisal as the source of that sensation (meaning your claim that a mental sensation of “knowing” is due to your chosen deity is unjustified). There is ample demonstration already available that the environmental and biological context will change what your brain assumes to be the cause of such sensations.

      This is why similar “divine revelations” occur in nearly every religion, no matter how different, and why each believer just happens to have confirmation of a different deity. It is unbelievable how often Christians seem to suppose that these mental sensations are somehow unique to themselves.

      So which is the “leap” of faith? Describing mental phenomena by the clearly demonstrated, repeatable descriptions of known phenomena? Or assuming they originate in a causal mechanism that not only violates known principles, but that we have no evidence for in the first place?

      And you probably aren’t going to find the help you’re looking for by appealing to QM. Even the probabilistic outcomes rendered in a quantum mechanical system ultimately render a completely predictable curve.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      “So which is the “leap” of faith? Describing mental phenomena by the clearly demonstrated, repeatable descriptions of known phenomena? Or assuming they originate in a causal mechanism that not only violates known principles, but that we have no evidence for in the first place?”

      Couple things,

      1. Prima facie both are complete leaps of faith. One position assumes that the natural explanation is ALWAYS the better explanation. This is a presupposition which cannot be proven true or false without becoming hopelessly circular (one cannot empirically prove that empiricism is the only way to know something without assuming empiricism in the first place). It must be accepted or rejected out of hand. The other assumes the existence of a supernatural being which can violate natural laws and in some cases do so without detection. This too cannot be empirically proven. It must simply be accepted or rejected.

      2. To say that we have no evidence for the existence of God is something I would disagree with. However, it depends partially on what one considers evidence. If one considers only the empirical I would agree. There is no repeatable experiment out there that is going to prove the existence of a being that by its very nature is not required to obey the law empiricism tests. There is simply nothing to test because interventions of a supernatural type are by their very nature unrepeatable. On the other hand there other types of evidence in the historical record, philosophical proofs, and personal experiences of individuals, which while not conclusive, do provide evidence upon which to base belief. It’s all about what one is willing to consider as evidence.

    • Michael T.

      Also on the quantum thing. You are correct that QM does render predictable curves. My point was twofold.

      1. God could affect things in such a way that it would, in the scope of millions of events, only appear as a natural fluctuation. For instance if there are a million events and I only influence one of them the odds that the end set would still fall within the statistically accepted range is exceptionally high.

      2. If we did find something that fell outside the range of what was expected would we say “God did it” or “there’s a natural explanation, we just have to find it”. Science of the gaps is as alive and well as God of the gaps.

    • Wolf Veizer

      One must wonder what would become of Christians if they actually applied the (fallacious) intimation that scientific methodological naturalism is somehow no more certain than their claims of supernaturalism.

      Imagine… Walking into the emergency room and telling the surgeon not to remove the ruptured appendix of your dying child – after all, even though every documented case involving these symptoms has been due to physical ailment, it COULD be a supernatural, spiritual source of illness.

      Why don’t we see this (at least not very often!)? Simple. Trying to equate a repeatedly demonstrated, experimentally verified explanation with a supernaturalist guess based on an ancient, pre-scientific belief system doesn’t yield pretty results.

      As an aside, your argument is irrelevant anyway, because you build a straw man, absolutist “empiricism” to chop down. Science doesn’t work like that (as you clearly suggest it does) – that is the dogma you adhere to as a Christian. Because science actually submits its claims to criticism and experimentation (something “revelatory knowledge” in religion cannot by definition do), it encourages exploration. The difference is that in science you have to actually step up and show your causal source if you propose a new, unobserved one. You may not propose an unubserved cause, then get out of trouble by suggesting it isn’t observable to begin with. That would be an epistemic “cop out.”

      That is why you have now been invited these many times to actually make your case. So will you make it?

      You also continue to suppose that it is meaningful to speak of “supernatural” events that are completely, measurably natural in all respects. In that case, you may be interested in knowing there are people who believe it is unicorns that are responsible for the common cold – it just appears that it is always caused by a virus. Is that just as valid a position? After all, who can be so circular as to assume that all colds are caused by…

    • mbaker

      “One must wonder what would become of Christians if they actually applied the (fallacious) intimation that scientific methodological naturalism is somehow no more certain than their claims of supernaturalism.

      Imagine… Walking into the emergency room and telling the surgeon not to remove the ruptured appendix of your dying child – after all, even though every documented case involving these symptoms has been due to physical ailment, it COULD be a supernatural, spiritual source of illness.

      Why don’t we see this (at least not very often!)? Simple. Trying to equate a repeatedly demonstrated, experimentally verified explanation with a supernaturalist guess based on an ancient, pre-scientific belief system doesn’t yield pretty results.’

      Errr… and you are accusing others of straw men arguments? That’s about as far out of reason as I think I’ve heard in a very long time.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,

      1. Christians believe that empiricism is ONE way of gaining knowledge. It’s not like we don’t believe empirical knowledge is valid, however the reason we believe it is valid is different because our starting presupposition (namely that there is a God and that God is the God of Christianity) is different. We believe empiricism is valid because we believe that God created a ordered universe governed by laws that can be deduced. However, we also believe there are other sources of knowledge beyond the empirical. Thus you’re example of the surgeon and the appendix is a straw man to say the least.

      2. I don’t believe my “absolute” empiricist is a straw-man. While science does submit itself to criticism it only does so within the empiricist mindset. Science only accepts criticism from those that already accept it’s methodological assumptions and work within that framework. In order to question empiricism itself one must look to philosophy.

      3. On the comment that one has to “prove your causal source”. The problem with this of course is that if a god did exist (pick a god any god) there would be no way to prove his existence through methodological naturalism. Thus one is left with either rejecting methodological naturalism as the only way to know something (as I do) or reject that there could be a god (which is just as much a leap of faith as anything else).

      4. Finally IF a transcendent, all powerful, all knowing entity does exist doesn’t it seem logical that such an entity would be able to violate the laws of nature and remain undetected if that entity wished to do so?? This may seem like a epistemic cop-out, but to me that God could do this seems inherent in the very concept of God.

    • Wolf Veizer

      1. The surgeon example is actually not a straw man at all. It just looks like that because it’s an actual application of the reasoning you are using here. There would be no reason to suppose a supernatural appendix rupture, just as there is no evidence suggesting divine intervention in neural causality. Unless perhaps you have come up with some evidence you would like to share? Or are you confirming, as indicated previously, that you allow yourself the assumptive freedom to skip having any evidence?

      2. Really? Are you aware of the fact that your philosophical “proofs” for God’s existence are all based on either empirical principles/observations, mental sensations, or both? (Yes, try to search through prime mover theorem, the Kalaam argument, or any others.)

      The scientific stance is non-circular specifically because it is based on observed phenomena. Your stance is actually based on empirical/experiential knowledge, using such “knowledge” to then try and claim that you aren’t. Unfortunately that is self-contradictory.

      3. If you could actually demonstrate a system that shows a breakdown in physical causal closure, you might have a reason to make that argument. Do you?

      4. Interesting. If such an entity existed, and intertacted in undetectable ways, how do you propose we would know about this? And how do you know unicorns aren’t responsible for eating the veggies in your garden? Maybe the transcendent, undetectable kind?

    • Michael T.

      1. Maybe I’m missing something here, but in your example you specifically said that the appendix was ruptured. Thus the only persons who would reject the surgeons help are those fringe groups which have misinterpreted a number of verses to make God into a cosmic vending machine who will give you whatever you want if you just ask with enough faith. As the saying goes under tightly controlled laboratory conditions God is going to do whatever the heck he wants to. It is mostly folk theology which wishes to treat Him as a cosmic vending machine and encourages to pray in such a manner.

      2. I’m not sure that I understand you here. If you are trying to state simply that all philosophical proofs are merely ideas in peoples heads then I of course agree. That being the case are you aware that all your observations and sense perception are merely mental sensations as well?? The question is why trust them at all??

      3. Are you asking me here to do something that I’ve already shown is impossible? You are well aware and I have stated before that there is no empirically repeatable experiment which is going to detect God. To think there would be even if he did exist is absurd.

    • Michael T.

      cont…

      4. Maybe if the unicorn is transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. the unicorn is god!! Kidding aside I love the false equivalence people like to bring up in these types of discussions.

      Despite this I think the ultimate question you are asking through this is legitimate, that being “if nothing else gets a pass from empirical observation why does god”? The answer of course has been stated again and again. God gets a pass on empirical testing for the simple reason that the very concept of god as a transcendent being who is the unmoved mover which put the cosmos in motion precludes him from being investigated in an empirical manner.

      One thing that might help here just to clarify. When I use the word empirical I am referring here to experiments or observations which are repeatable in nature. So for instance assuming that Lazarus did rise from the dead at the words of Jesus, despite the fact that such an event would be observable it would not be empirical because it lacks repeatability. One is not going to be able to go to a tomb, speak the words Jesus did, and have someone rise from the dead. The miraculous by its very nature is unrepeatable. Maybe this clarifies somethings about the way we are using words, maybe not.

    • Wolf Veizer

      1.Yes, missing or ignoring it. The point is that you have just as much evidence for divinely caused appendicitus as you do for divine intervention on brain processes. So if divine appendicitis is so absurd…

      2. Do you really give up your argument so easily? The concession that science is based on observation, sensation, and brain interaction doesn’t at all weaken it – that is why it correlates so strongly to reality. Your position, on the other hand, becomes entirely fallacious, because your “transcendent” claims are based on physical observations and physical brain sensations.

      3.You have essentially taken yourself out of the argument, and opened pandora’s box, if you admit to being dependent on physical observation and brain sensations, only then to concede that your claim is inherently unobservable… But this leads nicely into our last point.

      4. You continue to misuse terms from philosophy and logic, as if this helps your argument. The unicorn is neither a joke nor a false equivalency. You have actually added multiple conditions to it which aren’t even necessary, so perhaps the original point was misunderstood. Consider a clarifying restatement:

      Given that an entity may be unobservable, untestable, transcendent, acting on the physical world without detection, then we may multiply these unobservable causes in both quantity and quality.

      So, if you accept untested anecdote as legitimate, you are no more justified in your beliefs than followers of Hinduism, Animism, Sathya Sai Baba (who has many more living eyewitnesses who attest to his divine miracles than ever claimed by the early church, but who most certainly is a fraud), and others.

      After all, who says the unicorn miracles, Sai Baba’s miracles, or Vishnu’s divine acts have to be repeatable?

      Lastly, the point is not merely the absolute empiricism you keep attacking. The point is this: it doesn’t work to propose a class of unobserved phenomena to explain a class of observed…

    • Michael T.

      1. While I suppose God could stricken one with appendicitis should He want to, however the cure for such appendicitis would be the same. If that is what you are getting at then no I don’t think divinely caused appendicitis is absurd. I’m just not sure how this would change the cure.

      2. You said
      “The concession that science is based on observation, sensation, and brain interaction doesn’t at all weaken it – that is why it correlates so strongly to reality.”

      Yet IF the only way we know reality is through our observational senses which are simply chemical reaction in our brain why believe that those senses accurately portray to us the true nature of reality??

      3. Let me make it clear here that I was not arguing for the Christian God here (since Christians believe that God has at points in human history revealed Himself). I am rather making an argument about the existence of a god, any god, in general and I believe that the argument holds force. If a god did exist one would have no way of proving it through repeatable scientific experimentation. Furthermore, even if that god did decide to reveal himself in a miraculous manner you’d have a one time occurrence that again could not be repeated. This is the limit of empiricism. It could not find or prove the existence of a god even if one did exist and even if that god revealed himself through one time miraculous events.

      4. Maybe some clarification is in order. I think you are starting at the bottom looking up. You state we have an observed phenomenon which can be explained naturally and end it there. This is fine to an extent, but you are never going to find a god this way regardless of his existence or non-existence (meaning if he did exist you’d never discover it with the tools you are using). I on the other hand am starting at the top looking down having already concluded that there is a god stating how god could act in the natural world.

    • Michael T.

      BTW on number 4 quick. The reason I have done things this way is because that is what the post is on – God’s interaction with humanity. From the start I have been simply arguing that assuming God exists it is possible for him to interact with human thought processes in a undetectable way. My point was not to start a debate about whether or not god, unicorns, or the flying spaghetti monster, actually exist as that would be rather off topic for this post and probably get both you and me kicked out.

    • Wolf Veizer

      You aren’t taking a top-down approach. You can’t, especially given the concessions you’ve made. You are arriving at the concept via a series of flawed brain approximations.

      Furthermore, your argument that this admission of brain-origin disables both of our positions is false. It only disables your position, because you won’t subject your assertions to further verification. The scientific position purposefully, repeatedly, and necessarily subjects itself to verification in the real world. The “intuitions” of the brain are not accepted until they have been rigorously tested in the real world.

      Lastly, it would be an ignorant and dangerous (and more than a bit arrogant) view to suppose that Christians (or any other followers of supernaturalistic assumptions) can or have actually reached some plateau from which they may opine unquestioned on subjects for which they have no evidence.

      To emphasize the original point, using such ignorant/arrogant assumptions to further engender more unecessary and inaccurate assumptions is unjustifiable and dangerous. Especially when it involves telling people their actions might be under the influence of some hypothetical “perfect being”.

    • Michael T.

      Wolf,
      1. “The scientific position purposefully, repeatedly, and necessarily subjects itself to verification in the real world. The “intuitions” of the brain are not accepted until they have been rigorously tested in the real world.

      You are being circular here. The verification of things in the “real world” must still rely on senses which can’t empirically be proven to be reliable since doing so relies on those very senses to prove their reliability. Human senses proving the reliability of human sense is as circular as you can get. See Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) or Lewis’ Argument from Reason.

      2. I believe there is a God who is the creator of the universe. The secondary belief that such a God by the very nature of being God could interact with nature in an undetectable way is fully compatible with the ultimate belief that He exists and created nature itself. While you certainly don’t accept, nor do I expect you to accept, my presupposition that God exists I think you can at least accept that the secondary belief of His ability to interact with nature in a undetectable manner follows naturally from the belief that He exists.

      Now as to whether or not God actually exists as I said that is off the topic of this blog post and I am doing my best not to get drawn into off topic debates as I have been warned for doing so in the past (read the blog rules). If you really want to debate that head over to TWeb or somewhere else and I’m sure you’d find a dozen people willing to debate the finer points of every philosophical argument or shred of evidence that God exists ad nauseum or if you really want to go overboard pick up the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology and write a good response or something.

      The question raised by this blog isn’t does God exist, but rather assuming God exists does He interact with the natural world in scientifically undetectable ways and specifically does He interact with thought processes in such a way.

    • Ken G.

      Michael T,

      Atheists in the 21st century must really be happy to read this. Science has finally driven back the domain of God so far as to make him not only unobservable but even his actions undetectable.

      And Christians wonder why more and more intelligent young people simply scrap the unecessary idea of God? Yet the people who argue for God actually think they’re helping themselves by decrying the sensory/observational nature of human experience, when they are largely unaware of what we know about those systems (via neuroscience, biology, etc).

      For every notch you knock down experiential/observational learning, you put another nail in the coffin of your own belief system… Because you have no other form of evidence or argumentation. (Referencing outside sources does little to aid you either, since you earlier admitted that these approaches are all based on observation and brain sensation as well).

    • Michael T.

      Ken G. and Wolf for that matter,

      1. My point is not to knock down empirical observation or the validity of it in my posts. Rather I am attempting to examine Naturalism and ask if it is internally consistent.

      My point with discussing empirical data is to point out that in the Naturalistic world view one has only their subjective experience of reality upon which to base their belief that their senses produce a valid representation of reality. One can point to other people, but they too are relying on their senses to prove the validity of their senses. This is completely circular. Thus the belief is not internally consistent.

      2. Ken G.,
      I am a 27 year old lawyer who graduated in the top of my class from law school and passed the Multi-State Bar Exam above the 90th percentile of takers (who are already in the 90th percentile). Do I qualify as a smart young person?? or does simple belief in theism defeat any intelligence I may have (or more likely being a lawyer)?

      Secondly you’d be surprised at how many young people I dealt with in law school who were as dismissive about science as they were about religion. I suggest you study post-modernism a bit since it is quite prevalent in my generation and even more so in those younger then myself. Everything including science is pure subjectivity to many young people. Asking when the universe was created is like asking whether you’d prefer a Ford Mustang or a Chevy Camero to these types.

    • Michael T.

      3. I don’t think the actions of God are undetectable in the sense that people don’t know that they occur. Rather it is an issue of repeatability. Let’s say the story of Paul in Acts happened to you. Let’s say you were walking down a road and saw a vision of God which rendered you blind. Some farmer seeing you groping about in the middle of the road decided to take you to his home and after praying over you your sight was restored. Now a true naturalist might search for a naturalistic explanation for this, but I submit that the majority of people who experienced something like this would claim that it was a miracle of God. Of course the problem is in a case like this (likely) no one could reproduce the results (many would probably not even believe you – no medical documentation). God is a transcendent supreme being who is going to do whatever the heck He wants to. He is not some natural force which can be explained by the laws He Himself created.

      It also occurs to me that when miracles, even fairly well documented ones, do occur science immediately infers science of the gaps. There must’ve been an incorrect diagnoses because this disease is universally fatal!! This is just an amazingly good outcome!! There must’ve been a mess up in the medical records because the tumor on that X-Ray couldn’t be gone 6 months later!! etc. etc. etc.

    • Karen

      This topic has so many facets to it! I could testify that if the Holy Spirit speaks to me, it is life changing!
      On another level, with all the various denominations, I see so clearly for sometime, that Jesus meets people where they are at. And I have never seen Jesus try to knuckle people down and change their convictions per denominational beliefs and all that.
      On another level, I have seen the Lord use knowledge and wisdom first for helping people emotionally, but then afterward He healed them.
      I believe in all the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
      And when everything is said and done, wherever we seek to be used by God in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we always must remember that God is Supreme and He Reigns. We do not.

      Also, sometime ago, various people seemed to all at once be talking about “walking in the Spirit”, as the Bible says to do. I believe people realized that in a way, we would be tormented if we were walking in the Spirit by our feelings. I began to see that it was more about standing on the Word and the Promises of God, than our idea of how we feel inwardly…that would be the ultimate roller coaster ride, walking one moment, then not the next, then back and then oh, we had a bad thought, then we had a good thought, then we accidentally said this, oh, then better again.
      But it is about believing.

    • Ken G.

      Michael T,

      You keep running by the science-of-the-gaps line, as if it compared to the God-of-the-gaps argument. It doesn’t. Outside of the approach of supernaturalism, it is actually normal to yield explanatory preference to a known class of phenomena.

      You are obviously not unintelligent, but you seem to be missing the relevant point here. The degree to which you, like many people, are convinced of supernaturalist explanations is largely reflective of

      1. Your ignorance on those subjects and/or
      2. The cultural context in which you were raised, where such poor reasoning may have been acceptable, or where supernaturalist causes could be multiplied without concern.
      Of course its all too convenient to think that ones own religious context just happens to be the right one (sociology has shown us that this is usually the case).

    • Ken G.

      …Cont…

      These same factors play a huge role in why so many Christian converts are either poorly educated, from a cultural or familial context which encourages religion, or both.

      To keep it on topic… You have been all over the map with your arguments over this topic, as have the other posters. It drives home a point that Christians seem to be oblivious of: false religious beliefs are highly malleable, because they are not based on actual divine revelation. Such is your monotheism.

      A clear evolution has occurred between the days of Moses (when all sins were punished in the present by disease, weather, infertility, etc) and Paul (when sins were punished in the afterlife, and God is not spoken of to have any effect on fertility, crop production, or rain frequency).

      Yet in the end somehow, Christians have still convinced themselves that they are following the same, *unique* divine trail.

      Epistemic tribalism that can’t keep up with science… (And no, I wouldn’t be surprised by postmodern thought. Its just not that common in those highly educated in the sciences.)

    • Karen

      Just a comment…a tiny thought actually…thinking about maturing Christians, perhaps one thing that builds on a human level for a God seeker, is what people call “boundaries”. To a point, boundaries I think are a healthy human thing that humanly builds in a Christian’s mind.
      For example, see this contrast. A Christian learns how to stop lying because they want to do what is right and not grieve the Holy Spirit. So in time they learn how to deal with life and set up boundaries when people ask them to lie or they themselves are in difficult situations.Let us say a Christian is asked by a friend not to say where she is going to another person.Yes, I will not tell. Then that other person wants to know where she is going.The Christian replies I have been asked not tell or I will not tell or will say something that is needed without lying and without betrayal.And we know what Jesus said about betrayal!!! So, I know about that! But to make a point…A non-believer in contrast has not learned to stop lying because there is nothing preventing it, no God in their life, no faith, no boundaries. So a non-believer asked to do the same thing, will likely answer. No, I don’t know where she is going, when they do know, but the answer was a lie, for it does not matter to them. There is no accountability and so forth.
      The conviction, though, to answer without lying for the born again, new creature, Christian comes from either the Holy Spirit and/or the conscience that God gave that person, but the decision to not lie was their own.
      So, during the course of life that person matures in behavior, while a person who does not work on his faith or spiritual life does not grow at all, and in fact can revert into worse shape by the influences around them. The boundaries they do set up oppose.
      It kind of comes to mind what I believe is mentioned at least a couple of times in the Bible.it is those that have fear of God that find salvation. Why? Because they (already?)…believe

    • Karen

      Another comment…I had a very life changing experience when years ago I was in a church that fell apart. I always took Matthew 5:23 very, very seriously. And this was in my heart. I really did not know what to do about it, but I wondered when will there ever be reconciliation among these people when a mass exodus occurred and the church split?? When. Weren’t we all supposed to do Matt 5:23? Especially, the leaders? My heart was so broken and I took this verse seriously. My heart pecked and pecked, but I did not know what to do. Then some time later an unusual event brought some of these people together, and there I was wondering why people did not say anything or have a great big forgiveness fest? It just didn’t happen but nothing right happened nor nothing wrong.
      So, then a lady speaks with me when I pondered this with her the next day, for I noticed and said to her per Matt 5:23 we can’t fix everything, time does not necessarily heal, and all that, sometimes we just can’t do anything… she said, oh, Karen, Karen it is under the Blood of Jesus. I knew she was on to something, but I asked for Biblical support. 🙂 And I thought about it 24/7 for quite a while, and the Lord showed me in the Word what that really meant. It is about believing and confessing that Jesus really put this under His Blood.

      So, I say all this to say, when it comes to human decision and spirit led, sometimes I believe that Jesus does show us, we can’t do much at times, NOT A THING, but just trust Him that it truly is under His Blood, in spite of the 1,000 plus commandments that are in the NT alone.

      So I believe that Matt 5:23 also shows us sharply that we cannot fix everything, and we need a Savior…is what it is saying as well.

    • Michael T.

      Ken,

      1. “You keep running by the science-of-the-gaps line, as if it compared to the God-of-the-gaps argument. It doesn’t. Outside of the approach of supernaturalism, it is actually normal to yield explanatory preference to a known class of phenomena.”

      There are so many assumptions in this statement I almost don’t even know where to begin. Few things.
      a. This assumes the one holds epistemically to methodological naturalism. Since I don’t hold to methodological naturalism I reject this statement. If a event occurs which appears to be miraculous a possible way it could be natural (i.e. the medical records got screwed up) is just as likely as a supernatural explanation in any given event.

      b. This assumes that that which is “known” is only that which is “known” through empirical methods.

      c. It assumes that the natural explanation is always the right one – can you prove this?

      d. It makes it literally impossible to ever infer something is supernatural even if there were ridiculous evidence such as a giant head appearing in the sky telling us to bow down or die and then striking dead all those who didn’t bow. I could always say it was just the result of really really advanced aliens pretending to be a god and in the view you espouse that must be a better explanation since it is a known phenomenon or at least a natural one which can be understood. Thus you once again display the inherent limitation of empirical inquiry.

    • Michael T.

      2. “These same factors play a huge role in why so many Christian converts are either poorly educated, from a cultural or familial context which encourages religion, or both.”

      a. Your discussion of cultural context and religious beliefs is of course correct to a degree. People who grow up in a religions family are more likely to be religious. However, to infer from this that a cultural or familial belief is false is to commit the genetic fallacy.

      b. You infer causation from correlation here as well. You assume that it is education which leads to lower belief in religion and of course you are correct again to a degree. The higher the level of someones education the more likely they are to be an atheist. However, this does not necessarily mean that education itself is the cause. It could be that the more highly educated someone is the more well off they are and therefore the less likely they are to see the need for God in their lives (it is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle…). Or it could be that God has for whatever reason chosen to reveal Himself to the lowly (God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise….). Or it could simply be the type of personalities which pursue advanced degrees. To make a long story short there are a dozen factors which could be causative of this phenomenon, both natural and supernatural.

      3. “(And no, I wouldn’t be surprised by postmodern thought. Its just not that common in those highly educated in the sciences.)”

      Again you assume causation from correlation. You assume that you prove something by the fact that those who are highly educated in science don’t hold to postmodernism. It could be that knowledge of science made them this way. It is equally likely that those that hold to postmodernism aren’t interested in studying science in the first place. Thus again education isn’t necessarily the causative factor.

      4. Finally to the extent my argumentation has been all over the place it is because I am trying to avoid getting into an off topic debate about the existence of God. So when the debate has gone there I’ve tried to redirect it. We are already off topic now with the merits of methodological naturalism and Christianity.

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