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Testing Non-Material Religious Claims

July 19, 2011

Within some of the conversations we have been having in the comment sections the last few days I thought I would change the focus a little and talk about a religion other than Christianity, and focus more on Science of Mind or New Thought. Science of Mind was founded by  Ernest Holmes and the religion practices three spiritual disciplines.

One of the disciplines is a five-step affirmative prayer called spiritual mind treatment. The five steps are:

1. Recognition—know that God is all there is.

2. Unification—know that you are one with God.

3. Declaration—state your word for the circumstance you want to manifest.

4. Thanksgiving—give thanks for your word being acted upon by the Law of mind.

5. Release—“And so it is!”

New thought practitioners “share a set of beliefs concerning metaphysics, positive thinking, the law of attraction, healing, life force, creative visualization, and personal power.”

I have had some experience with the beliefs in this groups as my wife’s family have several persons who congregate at the Edmonton Center for Spiritual Living every Sunday morning to discuss their woo. In explaining the power of their faith I had one family member say to me, “What does it matter if you say that truck is white, or if a 100 people do, if I say it’s black then it’s black!” The same person also tried to convince me that they could light candles with the power of their mind, “if they really wanted to.”

If I had to put their formulations into a nutshell, basically, they access the power in the universe through their oneness with it… and make magic things happen through attraction and the force within them.

All very new-agey, anti-intellectual (which is ironic with words like science and though in their titles), and relying heavily on ignorance and confirmation bias.

So, let’s say that today we are talking about the miraculous and metaphysical claims of these persons. How would you go about establishing the veracity or ‘truthiness’ of their claims? Would this process be any different than a similar investigation into charismatic Christian claims? The claims of those who profess to be involved in the occult? Or would a similar process be viable? What would that process look like and be called? Could the claims of one group be established over another using this process?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 11:25 am

    All I will say is that the existence of this group is proof of your assertion that “everyone you know including yourself values Enlightenment categories and ways of thinking” – NOT!

    • July 19, 2011 11:33 am

      Actually, if you read their literature they go through great lengths in trying to use scientific language to give their faith some sort of modern legitimacy. But someone that already knows everything on the one hand, but makes repeatedly uninformed and ignorant comments on the other wouldn’t have to bother reading their stuff. Just plow straight ahead with the usual non-understanding rhetoric. I would be more surprised at this point if you actually made an intelligent comment.

      Poorly played.

      And I already admitted to you that I needed to edit that slightly to give it better nuance, but like someone who has 100 wars you have to come back to it. On the one hand it is like Plato using writing to express his dislike of writing. these people were inculcated into a society and schools that taught them these categories. So even if they ‘reject’ an aspect of it they still must use the coin of the realm to express their metaphysical understanding. So Laws and Principles, and Quantum Physics are used. That’s what it means Peter: they are so thoroughly immersed in this stuff that even when expressing ignorance they try to use science. Poorly I might add.

      • July 19, 2011 11:48 am

        Scott, why do you always respond to me so aggressively? Why did you bother to write more than your first sentence, and perhaps the first half sentence of the last paragraph? Sounds to me like someone who feels very threatened.

        • July 19, 2011 11:55 am

          Yes Peter I wish that I responded with all of the grace and decorum you have shown me. One, I already agreed you had a point, the sentence needed more nuance, but two, you couldn’t let it go, and three, it had nothing to do with this post.

          I’m not threatened at all, but your poor reading skills that you try to twist into some sort of point are tiresome at best and purposely manipulative at worst. Look at how I respond to the majority of other people here and how they respond to each other, and when you see that time and again you are the one who gets everybody’s frustration maybe, just maybe, all of those persons are not ‘aggressive’ and possibly you might be doing something wrong. Trust me Peter, and I could not be any clearer on this, in any way possible: your woo and poor categories for interpreting reality do not ‘threaten’ me in any way whatsoever.

        • Chris E permalink
          July 19, 2011 1:28 pm

          Peter – you have in the past used ‘the unforgiveable sin’ as a means of squishing criticism of those you supported. Whilst simultaneously not being beyond snide remarks of those theology you don’t like – and couching things in christianese to give yourself an out. Perhaps that’s not how you intend it, but lacking context that’s what it usually looks like.

          Looks like an extreme case of passive aggressiveness from where I’m sitting.

  2. Paul D. permalink
    July 19, 2011 6:46 pm

    Steps one through three resemble the “theology” of a lot of Christians I know.

  3. July 19, 2011 8:23 pm

    Scott – “So, let’s say that today we are talking about the miraculous and metaphysical claims of these persons. How would you go about establishing the veracity or ‘truthiness’ of their claims? Would this process be any different than a similar investigation into charismatic Christian claims …”

    Okay, let’s.

    Scott, I’m not up to full speed. On the back and forth between you and Peter. Sort of a newcomer. En media res.

    I think Peter’s driving at a valid point. And I think there may be (read: may be) ways to frame Peter’s questions. I’ll leave it with that for now.

    For you (maybe Peter too) –

    Nothing adversarial in these questions – just double checking orientation. You’ve asked questions above that involve religious practices tied to religious concepts, right? – and you know that your questions stop short of testable hypotheses, is this right? – and you’re asking how to move beyond general conceptual and praxis observations and analyses in order to form testable hypotheses, is that right?


    Or are you merely wanting for your own sake to get yourself a more tightly formed heuristic? – say like learning what sort of bounded rationality is level-appropriate for your own questions (even intuitive questions to yourself)? – for example, whether to use an ignorance-based search, or to use a one-reason-stop rule, or to use elimination rules for using multiple-option hermeneutical or pre-scientific interpretations?

    Do you have in mind any level-appropriate next step for your own questions? In your own mind? Just any?

    I take your questions as open questions. No animus involved. Genuine question asking.

    Going to get super-specific in a moment. First housekeeping.

    In the case of metaphysical claims (play along – I know that you may not be using metaphysics in the following way – just play along – this is a clinical rule-out question), Karl Popper said that any – properly formulated – metaphysical truth could never be falsified. A little housekeeping: I think you may (may) be confusing scientific falsification with verisimilitude (‘truthiness’) here. A separate issue, only housekeeping. It doesn’t matter to me how you define these terms. So long as you know your own indices so you can move around in your own lexicon. Back to metaphysics. Would you agree that any – properly formulated – metaphysical claim can never be falsified?

    This is not a throw away question. Because if the claims of those who you observe slide back and forth between metaphysical claims and specific-testable claims (derived or not-derived from their metaphysics – either way), then such slippage becomes another part of your own field notebook. No?


    The difference between your New Age friends and charismatics involves factual/empirical questions, do you agree? If no, then what? – we’re back to level-appropriate conceptual analyses (see all above)? If yes, then the next step is to do tons and tons of further narrative interviews with properly put questions sufficiently to define categories of functional or operational similarities, agree? This will take several iterations, no? Maybe eventually something like factor analysis to let the data from the narratives self-pattern into clusters, no? If not, then what?

    You wanted to move the conversation to a more neutral playing field.

    Try this (for starters only) –

    Miner, M. H. and McKnight, J. (1999). Religious Attributions: Situational Factors and Effects on Coping. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 274-287. – 363 Presbyterians (confessing/active) were tested for coping responses across a range of situations, under multi-sufficient schemata (attributions to God or secular causes).

    The multiple schemata involved God proximal/distal in causing natural effects factored against so-called secular causation. This is only an attribution study. Got it?

    Next, the control group of Presbyterians held theological commitments that should have required them to assert God’s direct control over various natural events. Belief in God’s sovereignty (I hope you know the drill on this dogma because I don’t want to enumerate it).

    Findings – no correlation to divine attribution. The subjects – as a pool – did not uphold their cognitive beliefs in God’s sovereignty by making real life attributions. The subjects presented some arguably adaptive coping effects – that’s another matter. Another study.

    So what?

    This study says what to you? Instead of come-backing that you need more info about the study (then read it for yourself – if you really want answers to so many of your questions, there are thousands and thousands of such studies – jump in!), then can you – can you – enumerate your next question or cascade of questions?

    Or, if you’re not really asking empirical questions, then what? – back to heuristics (see all above)?

    What’s your preferred level of generality and level-appropriate sense of your next questions after this study? You don’t need a technical answer, you can start with your intuitions, okay?

    Mock up your next-questions. And apply. Apply those to your questions above about New Agers and charismatics.

    And go from here.



    • July 20, 2011 9:21 am

      That’s a lot of questions, but let me see if I can put it in a nutshell and then we can go from there and make further modifications. It seems to me that:

      Metaphysical or aphysical religious claims are unfalsifiable as the cause or the hypothesis lie outside of the observable realm. However, if the non-falsifiable or hypothetical cause has any supposed observable effect within the observable realm then that effect may be observable and falsifiable. For instance, here is someone claiming Dr. Jesus is a really great dentist:

      While Jesus may be untestable, or the ‘healing force’ which acted on the tooth, in many instances should not the effect in the material realm, if there is any effect, be observable, testable, and falsifiable?

      Not that this wouldn’t lead to an extraordinary amount of work and very likely many cases where ans sort of falsifiability would be difficult: “I have a tummy ache and now I don’t.”

      The same process could be used to study Deepak’s cancer patients. We may not be able to tap into the power on non=locality and the consciousness of the universe–or whatever mumbo-jumbo, word-soup woo he’s serving this week–but if supposedly there is any material effect in the real world there should be some manner to identify and observe that effect.

      If there is never any effect in the real world… then what does that make the aphysical speculation, hypothesis, or wish?

      I might tell you I believe in fairies and they save me whenever I’m in trouble when I chant, “I believe in fairies” and the existence of fairies might be unfalsifiable, but if they never have any real world effect do you then believe in the fairy because I said they exist and that is an unfalsifiable statement?

      • July 20, 2011 12:11 pm

        Scott .. sincere thanks for giving that a go .. crazy schedule, unexpected change work/cases (no clue how long it will take for me to put a fire out) .. cannot even peek at your video yet to see if the Spirit is suddenly a tooth fairy surface chemistry enamel expert, or what? … hey, maybe that dental patient got his teeth knocked out because an en-Spirit-ed supercharged topologically deformed hockey puck oiled at Edmonton … blew plumb through the man’s Pi hole? .. Mouth-goal! .. hockey fans outta keep their mouths shut? … Scott … when I can come back (urgent work) … then, come back here? … this same thread? … or catch up with you over on another thread on your blog? … what’s good form? … later … Jim

  4. July 19, 2011 10:09 pm

    .. nb, background metrics behind the madness, see both first and second posts …

    “Our Aristotelian schools of fish tales .. pumpkin seed sunfish .. who knows what fish think?”

    … on catastrophe (and catastrophe maths) applied to human religious judgments … (don’t want to get this fancy here …)

    … the reference to Thomas Nagel applies to your questions about New Agers and charismatics …

    Cheers, Jim

  5. July 20, 2011 7:42 am

    I think that if somebody wants proof of material claims, the appropriate response is: “it’s a wicked generation that asks for a sign”. Something about the devil tempting Jesus too.

    • July 20, 2011 9:06 am

      J in the context of several posts and comments we are talking about claims from different religions. And the thing you’re failing to grasp is that I’m not asking for a sign but how to establish the legitimacy between several different religions who all claim they can produce signs (almost at will) using a variety of different means. The sign has been (supposedly) given. Proof-texting is not helpful in this discussion.

      • July 20, 2011 2:32 pm

        N0 – I wasn’t saying that seriously, I’m just shocked it hasn’t been dropped yet!

        Q: “So, is there proof that prayer can control God, take away people’s free will, and manipulate the world?”

        A: “Faith is your proof. It’s a wicked AND adulterous generation that looks for a sign”

        Because if you’re not going to quote parts of the bible out of context, there’s almost no point quoting it at all!

  6. July 20, 2011 7:43 am

    Oops , meant to put proof of religious claims.

  7. July 21, 2011 9:19 pm

    Scott – “While Jesus may be untestable, or the ‘healing force’ which acted on the tooth, in many instances should not the effect in the material realm, if there is any effect, be observable, testable, and falsifiable?”

    Scott, picking up our previous conversation. I may post parallel to Peter – asking review. I’m a bit confused here. There’s always an effect. There’s never not-an-effect. For example, Immordino-Yang (neuroscience researcher) is reading mere narratives to subjects. Stories. Story-time. To measure neural correlates of sympathy and admiration. She’s measuring neural effects. And there are cascades of other physical effects all across our bodies too. For all these sermons.

    What you really mean is that the advertised effect does not correspond to the realized effect, right?

    I get that part. Balls-to-bone. I’ve traveled around alongside a fully trained and science-hard-core medical doctor (now dead) whose mission was to follow after the parade of charismatic snake-oil peddlers (both he and I are charismatics) so we could go along after the parades and pick up broken pieces of failed promises of charismatic blow-hards. Doc did real medicine (Indian reservations, for just one example). So what? So I know the drill about failed promises. This stuff is not read-it-in-a-book for me. It’s clinic. Real life. The doctor went looking for Bayesian false positives and negatives after snake-oil faith-healers took down the circus tents and blew town to harvest offerings elsewhere. I want looking to do free care – doc too, free care – looking for increased clinical rates of depression and looking for domestic violence increases and looking at resort-to-alcohol because of failed promises of charismatics.

    Got it?

    This is not book time for me. It’s not internet time.

    It’s clinic. Real life.

    So see my single-line question to you above about effect differences – am I missing something about your point here?

    If I do get it –

    So what?

    Because I’ve been ready all my life to move beyond playing Voltaire in satire.

    Save when I want to play satire of my own. But it gets boring. There’s work to do.

    Don’t you think?

    Voltaire mined the church for satire and parody. A whole career of church satire. Damn good at it. Lifetime worth of church satire and parody material.

    Scott, this stuff will never end. Ever. For Voltaire. For you.

    Mircea Eliade didn’t have time to burn on satire. His Eastern Orthodox predilections about the ubiquity and universal phenomena of hierophanies led him to official editorship of the multiple volumes of the pretty hard-core academic, “Encyclopedia of Religion.” And to authorship of hundreds of serious articles and books on cross-comparisons between religions. Eliade catalogued, chronicled, and made encyclopedia of en-Spirited-phenomena (hierophanies). I note Eliade to you for a reason. Because you moved to cross-religious comparisons in your previous example. Eliade’s data is dated. His methodology needs renormalization. But his data pool is still exemplary of the cross-religious data pool still out there. Ubiquitously.

    What I asked you earlier about metaphysical claims (we can start with metaphysical claims or start with my other questions – or drop all this if you want? – I don’t want to waste your time or mine) – what I wrote was that only a – properly formulated – metaphysical claim can never be falsified. Not just any old metaphysical psycho babble. Only a properly formulated claim.

    We can get to falsification. And verisimilitude. Or just stick with better heuristics for this stuff.

    Whatever you want.

    But for now, do you feel that these particular metaphysical claims (the ones you are putting up) are really – “properly formulated?”

    What am I missing?



  8. Todd permalink
    September 3, 2011 2:04 am

    In response to the question, “So, let’s say that today we are talking about the miraculous and metaphysical claims of these persons. How would you go about establishing the veracity or ‘truthiness’ of their claims?”, I sure know what I’d like to see.

    Given that a religious community is a social entity, it makes sense to apply the research methodology of sociology to validating the claims of the faith. Science of Mind, and other New Thought religions, promises tangible, material benefits – prosperity and health seeming to be frequently cited. So, s well-designed survey might indicate whether or not the benefits actually tend to accrue.

    For example – we might ask “How long have you participated in the church of which you are a member?”, and “how long were you active in the New Thought movement before that?” to establish a baseline for participation. Then, we could inquire about, say, the person’s income before participating and now, the person’s previous and current employment status, and also ask questions regarding improvements or decline in health. (It’d be helpful to get participants to actually volunteer medical records and tax returns, but that might be practically and legally difficult.)

    In my former days as a New Thought adherent, the people I was closest to within that community nearly all needed assistance accumulating enough money to live on. Ultimately, the ministry which I was a member went bankrupt – so, my expectation is that a consistent positive relationship between New Thought beliefs and financial well-being would not be apparent. Most people I knew more than superficially did seem to be in reasonably good health, so perhaps there might be a relationship there; it may not be so surprising that members of a community fostering a positive outlook on life (though arguably an unrealistically positive one) are generally healthier than average.

    Anyway, I’d like to see the results of something like this. It’d introduce real science into Religious Science, and would give the movement a better shot at the level of credibility it deserves – whether that be high or low.

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