REPLY #8 TO|
"PSEUDOSCIENCE AND THE PARANORMAL"
Boldfaced statements are parts of the original essay (or a subsequent reply) to which the respondent has directed his comments.
Italicized/emphasized comments prefaced by (R) are those of the respondent and are presented unedited.
My replies appear under the respondent's comments in blue text and are prefaced by my initials (MB).
So, if they're not facts, myths, ghost stories, or propaganda, then what are they? There's not much room left to classify them.
(R) How about unsolved mysteries? They have not been scientifically proven, but neither have they been scientifically disproved.
(MB) By definition, any "mystery" must be some phenomenon that is "unsolved". Therefore, the phrase "unsolved mystery" is a redundancy. Just because something is "unsolved" or because the true nature of the phenomenon is unknown to a particular observer does not give credibility to whatever random explanation that the observer seeks to attach to it. It also does not mandate that supernatural solutions must be considered until such time that the existence of *anything* supernatural can be supported.
These cases may have been "examined", but have you noticed that it always seems to be done by people nobody's ever heard of or people who have vested interests in perpetuating belief in the stories?
(R) All of the cases I described to you happened in Europe, so it follows that they were probably investigated by the doctors and scientists that live in Europe. Are you familiar with all the doctors and scientists in Europe? How can you make the claim that they are people nobody's ever heard of?
(MB) Because that's generally true. Science is a worldwide community. An Italian phenomenon does not mandate that it can only be investigated by Italians. Indeed, if it is truly important and legitimate enough, there would be a veritable "rainbow coalition" of scientists from all over the world who would descend on the site of the phenomenon. Any credible results of the ensuing investigation would be published in leading scientific journals and the lead investigators would receive worldwide fame and acclaim for their discoveries. Since none of this is happening in the case of the Lanciano "miracle", since the supporting evidence is weak and since alternative and non-miraculous explanations can be well supported, it is more reasonable to be skeptical.
There is plenty of evidence with which to cast serious doubt upon these stories. Does it constitute conclusive proof? No, but the burden of proof is on those who allege that the stories are true. Simply saying that something happened is not sufficient.
(R) I don't think you're giving credit to the full examinations of these cases.
(MB) What "full examinations"? Cursory statements by unknown investigators who have been hand-picked by the Vatican? If the evidence is so compelling, why hasn't it been opened up for free examination by anyone who is qualified? Consider the impact of a positive result from a truly objective and competent investigation. If Christianity wants proof of its "miracle" claims, they most certainly have the opportunity to gain it.
(R) Nobody is simply saying that something happened.
(MB) ??? Then, what's the point of touting the Lanciano "miracle" in the first place? The only evidence that it actually happened is the say-so of an 8th-century monk. Even if the stuff is real flesh and blood, that is not evidence that it came from any sort of miraculous transformation of a Host.
(R) Physical evidence remained after the miracles and in the case of Lanciano, it still exists. If something physically exists, then there has to be a cause for it to be. There can be differing views as to how it can to 'be'.
(MB) Exactly. I can show you any given substance and make any claim that I want for the origination of the substance. You wouldn't be able to deny that the substance actually exists, but simple existence is not evidence of its past history or origination.
(R) Even if you chose not to believe in supernatural sources for their occurrence, they did, nonetheless, occur.
(MB) How do I know this? All I know for sure is that there is "something" contained in the monstrance in Lanciano that some people claim is the result of a miraculous transformation. If the evidence supports the claim that this "something" is real flesh and real blood, then I will accept that finding. But, such a finding does not lead to acceptance of any supernatural story of how that particular sample of flesh and blood came to be there. Any claims along those lines will have to be independently supported.
(R) The newspapers reported the incident in Fatima, the doctors documented their findings for Lydwine, and the flesh and blood still exist in Lanciano. Are you saying these things are figments of people's imaginations?
(MB) Nope. I'm saying that the supernatural explanations for those things are figments of people's imaginations and that the apologetic accounts of those things are often embellished.
Stare into the sun (or any other bright light) for about 30 minutes and see what happens. You'll experience exactly what these people reported. The light will appear to change colors and spin around and do other strange things due to the overexcitement of the optic nerve.
(R) Have you ever tried to stare into the sun? It can't be done for more than a few second, much less 30 minutes.
(MB) Sure it can. Normally, this can be done when the Sun is low in the sky -- either because of the time of day, the time of year, or the latitude of the observer. It can also be accomplished whenever the atmosphere is hazy, polluted or contains wispy, high clouds. Also, the observers may squint or shade their eyes to aid viewing.
(R) I remember when an eclipse was going to be visible and everyone was cautioned NOT to look directly into the sun for fear of sight damage or blindness.
(MB) A wise precaution although it would require more than a momentary glimpse to produce any permanent optic damage.
(R) My infant daughter got her eyes damaged from looking at the sun and they swelled shut and had to be completely covered for an entire day. There were no reports of eye damage or blindness from this occurrence.
(MB) Children are highly-susceptible to such things. It should be noted that many contemporaries of Galileo examined the Sun with telescopes and were not permanently blinded.
(R) I even have personal experience in this issue. In 1993 I was attending a religious conference in Wichita, KS with my sister-in-law.
(MB) What sort of conference?
(R) After dinner one evening, she went outside the convention center for a cigarette and noticed everyone looking up at the sky. She asked what everyone was looking at and they said "The miracle of the sun." She looked at the sun, saw what was happening, and ran back into the building to find me. She took me outside and directed me to look at the sun. When I looked at the sun, I noticed a circular, lightly shaded disc the exact size of the outline of the sun move in front of the sun.
(MB) As should be expected. The sudden overstimulation and fatiguing of the optic nerve produces a secondary negative image of the same size as the object which produced the optic fatigue. The location of the image will coincide with the focus of your eyes. There is nothing at all supernatural or miraculous about this.
(R) At that point, I was able to see colors, one at a time, circling the sun and then flowing off into the sky. The colors appeared one at a time and had a spinning pinwheel effect. She and I looked bare-eyed at the sun for a full 30 minutes.
(MB) Again, this is all as should be expected. Since you were looking at the Sun "after dinner one evening", it would be low in the sky and the intensity of its light would be considerably lessened due to ground haze, the pollution in the Wichita skies, and the extra thickness of atmosphere that the light would have passed through before you observed it. Since you are already predisposed to belief in "sun miracles", it is not surprising that you would interpret a perfectly natural occurrence in this way.
(R) We would turn away occasionally to speak to each other or to direct someone else's attention to what was happening. But when we looked back, the disc would again move in front of the sun and the colors continued to revolve and spin off into the sky. Everyone who was there was able to see it, and everyone saw the same thing from the descriptions that people were saying to each other.
(MB) Of course. Since the human optic structure is essentially the same in all people, it should not be surprising that the same stimulus should produce the same effects throughout a group of observers. Again, there is nothing at all supernatural or miraculous about this.
(R) The colors didn't stop until a cloud moved over the sun (it had been uncovered by clouds until that moment) and the view was blocked. It stopped simultaneously for everyone there.
(MB) No surprise here, either. Remove the external stimulus and the effects produced by that stimulus disappears. How wonderous!
(R) When the cloud had passed over so that the sun was again visible, I tried to look at it again but was unable to. It was too bright and I couldn't keep my eyes fixed on it for more than a few seconds before I was forced to blink and turn away.
(MB) Still no surprises. This is an analogous result to the increased sensitivity of sunburned skin after the victim sits in the shade for a while and then goes back into the sun again.
(R) At that point I became concerned about any damage to my eyes, but I didn't even see a spot (like after a flashbulb), or a blur, nor did I have any swelling or soreness. I tried a couple other times during the conference to see the colors again, but was never able to do it. I've even tried at times since then, but it has never occurred.
(MB) Perhaps the same combination of circumstances has not been reproduced in your subsequent attempts to relive your experience. Heck, one never sees the same sunset twice, either.
(R) How is it possible for a person to stare directly at the sun for that length of time and not have any residual effects?
(MB) Your body's natural reactions will tend to protect you from doing any permanent damage to yourself.
As for the story of Lydwine, I think that the author of the book you read is either pulling a fast one or is guilty of some gross exaggerations.
(R) I hope you also noticed in the description that a book about her life and ailments was written by Thomas a Kempis.
(MB) Actually, that book was not written by Kempis. He was its editor. In any case, this doesn't explain why the registry of saints does not include the more miraculous claims of the story and only recounts things that are very commonplace.
(R) Unless the book is incredibly short (like the few paragraphs in the Catholic Online entry) there has to be a few more details to the story than are listed in the brief description.
(MB) Anybody can take a few short details and embellish them into a much larger story even if he doesn't add any new details. This is why, for example, that the plot synopsis of the average novel can be distilled down into a few short paragraphs without losing the main thrust of the story.
The relevance is that the quote I referenced (quoted verbatim from another Catholic web site) attempts to support the Eucharistic Miracle by drawing a parallel between it and the Shroud of Turin. Since we know the Shroud is a fake, it is likely that anything else that purports to have a similar quality is also fake.
(R) I've checked out the web sites for the Shroud of Turin and written to two people with differing opinions about it and it seems the jury is still out as to whether there is blood on the Shroud.
(MB) No, the jury is in and the verdict is "fake". It's just that many believers aren't yet willing to give up a famous article of faith. Even the Catholic hierarchy still holds that view. Heck, it only took them 400 years to accept the proof that the Earth goes around the Sun. If it takes them a similar amount of time to accept the facts about the Shroud, we should expect a Papal announcement to that effect in approximately the year 2388.
(R) I have forwarded my correspondence with them to you separately. The fact remains that even if the Shroud is proven to be a fake, the Flesh and Blood are not going to disappear in Italy. Their existence does not depend on the existence of any other purported miracle.
(MB) Quite true. However, if a major justification for their validity is that "they are the same blood type as that found on the Shroud" and then the Shroud is proven to be a fake, that adds more doubt to the belief that the Lanciano flesh and blood is actually what it is claimed to be.
There's also another consideration here. Even if the purported flesh and blood is real, that is no evidence that it is the end result of any miraculous transformation of bread and wine. That proposition cannot be verified since the only evidence for it is the say-so of a monk some twelve centuries ago. It is certainly possible that he supplied the flesh and blood himself and presented it to the congregation as a "miracle". Who among the congregation would doubt him?
(R) Let's go over the scientific conclusions of Professor Linoli, the head physician of the united hospitals of Arezzo in 1971. The flesh (1200 years old by then) was identified as striated muscular tissue of the myocardium (heart wall) and had no trace whatsoever of any materials or agents used for the preservation of flesh.
(MB) This does not provide any evidence that the old monk's claim is truthful and that it is the end result of a miraculous transformation. This is the key point in the acceptance of a genuine and meaningful "miracle".
(R) The flesh and blood were both of human origin and were of the same blood type, AB. He noted that if the blood had been taken from a cadaver it would have altered rapidly from spoilage and decay. He also noted that only a hand experienced in anatomic dissection could have obtained from a hollow internal organ, the heart, such an expert cut, made tangentially (a round cut, thick on the outer edges and lessening gradually and uniformly into nothingness in the central area). Although the flesh and blood had never been hermetically sealed, they showed no damage from physical, atmospheric, or biological agents.
(MB) This is reminiscent of the old "ancient astronauts" arguments of Erik van Daniken that purported to explain the pyramids of Egypt and the statues of Easter Island. He just couldn't imagine how "primitive" people could have accomplish those tasks so he invented the story of extraterrestrial assistance. Needless to say, his tales have all been discredited as further research has demonstrated how these tasks could have been performed using only the simple tools available to the builders. Unless Professor Linoli is also a history expert, it's doubtful that he would have considered (or even known) about 1200 year old techniques such as those commonly used in animal sacrifices. Those techniques are lost to us in this day and age. Since they were normally passed down through oral teachings via the apprenticing system, there would be no written record of them for us to study today.
(R) I don't see how a priest could have pulled this one off unless he was also trained in anatomic dissection and had invented a method for the preservation of flesh that is still not known today.
(MB) Many techniques for preserving the dead are known from the past (to include Egyptian mummification) and it's likely that there are others for which we have no records to study. Lost knowledge of ancient techniques is no evidence of the supernatural.
If you are really interested in a bit of hard science on this matter and other similar "miracles", here it is:
First, the reported color of the "blood" doesn't match real blood. Real blood blackens with age -- it doesn't turn ochre nor does it appear rose-colored when backlit.
(R) The blood was scientifically tested in 1971 to be of human origin. If it does not blacken with age, that only adds to the curious nature of its existence.
(MB) Or, to the probability that the findings of the "scientific testing" are either accidentally or deliberately in error. The question could easily be solved by a modern test supervised by world-renowned experts and conducted by multiple separate testing facilities. Why will the Church not invite (or even allow) such a test?
Second, this area of Italy has produced other such blood "miracles" that have been exposed as hoaxes. There are at least two known methods of faking the stuff which is claimed to be "flesh and blood". One uses a thixatropic gel (made by mixing chalk and hydrated iron chloride with a small amount of salt water) and the other uses an oil-wax-pigment mixture that liquefies at even a slight increase in temperature. The apparent reddening comes from light being more readily transmitted through the liquefied substance. It's rather obvious why outside investigators are rarely, if ever, permitted to examine the "miraculous" substances.
(R) Can the mixture described above be tested and have the outcome of being human blood with a blood type?
(MB) Nope, since there's no blood involved. This also contributes towards the likelihood that the 1971 test results are erroneous. Also, let's consider that the 1971 test was commissioned by the Vatican, conducted by people selected by the Vatican, supervised by the Vatican, and the results were published by the Vatican. Real scientific investigations are not conducted that way.
(R) The blood tested to contain chlorides, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium in a lesser degree, and a greater degree of calcium. Proteins in the clotted blood were found to be normally fractionated, with the same percentage ratio as those found in normal fresh blood.
(MB) Without any independent verification, these results can't be classified as anything but allegations. No truly scientific test results are considered valid unless they can be examined and verified by others.
(R) These are the credentials of the investigators: Professor Doctor Odoardo Linoli, university professor-at-large in anatomy and pathological histology, and in chemistry and clinical microscopy, head physician of the united hospitals of Arezzo. Doctor Ruggero Bertelli, a professor emeritus of normal human anatomy at the University of Siena. Also Professor Urbano, the chief analyst of the city hospital of Lanciano and a professor at the University of Florence.
(MB) Like I said before -- who? I can find no papers published by any of these men in any mainstream publication. This makes them "unknowns" in the scientific community. Scientists publish extraordinary findings in prestigious journals.
Brown makes his literary living as a Catholic apologist and has many titles to his credit.
(R) He makes his living that way now, but previously he was a completely secular journalist with no interest in anything having to do with religion or miracles. His career changed after he experienced his own encounter with the supernatural.
(MB) So, then, he's not writing as a "journalist", but as a "proselytizer" or an "apologist".
Created with Allaire HomeSite 4.0 .......... Last Update: 21 Dec 98
Earthlink Network Home Page
Return to "Pseudoscience" essay
Back to Philosophy page