Saturday, March 28, 2009

Do we give the supernatural power?

There have recently been a number of instances of mass hysteria in South African schools. In this episode, about 51 pupils in one school were admitted to hospital, behaving if they were "possessed by demons", and in Pretoria 25 pupils were treated for hysteria.

Every time something like this happens, there is much talk of Satanism and demon possession. This is understandable. Such events are incredibly scary and mysterious, and they seem to confirm the common belief that there is a supernatural realm, consisting of supernatural creatures and magical forces, that has influence and power over us. Some African cultures, for example, hold the belief that traditional medicines (called muti), prepared by witchdoctors, can be used to ward off evil, curse adversaries with bad luck, or assist in finding love.

As a skeptic, I've always been quite fascinated by episodes of mass hysteria, claims of demon possession, and stories of curses and spells. Two things have always interested me: (1) the fact that such episodes are generally experienced by specific people who share particular beliefs; and (2) that such episodes can be controlled by 'secular' interventions, such as medication and counselling.

Regarding the first point: I've spoken to a few of my black colleagues about the use of muti in their respective cultures, and one thing that has arisen in these conversations is the perception, among those I've spoken to, that muti isn't very effective on white people. One has to ask why this is the case. Most whites don't consider belief in muti as part of their culture, so could it be that muti only 'works' for those who believe in it?

The second point revolves around something like demon possession. In the past, demon possession was quite widespread, but now we know how to control epilepsy with medication. One has to ask: why are demons scared by few pills of Epilum? Could it be that possession is not caused by the supernatural, but by chemical problems in the brain?

I've often wondered if the supernatural does indeed have power over us. I think it does, but humans are the ones that give it power. In other words, the power that magic, demons, ghosts, and spells have over us doesn't stem from the supernatural itself, but from our belief in such things.

What do you think?


Nikeyo said...

I have to agree. Supernatural powers, if they do exist, seem to only have power if one gives it such. But it seems people can give power to sugar pills also. If people doubt also the power of medicinal agents, at times it won't effect them either.

The power of doubt and the power of belief seem to be quite real. Whether attached to supernatural or non.

The Spear said...

Well it is real! Satan exist! Just look what he made Hansie and Joost do!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I believe that our brain, being our CPU, can create many problems in our psyche and in our bodies.

Unfortunately, I don't have any scientific evidence handy. But we have long known of the placebo effect, which is the same thing. You believe something and you make it happen.

We can never underestimate the power of our brain.

Karla said...

Sure we can imagine things and call things supernatural that are really natural. Sure there are frauds out there. But there is also a real supernatural world. I have seen miracles that cannot be explained by any power of the imagination or positive thinking. I have seen an arm grow out an inch and a half before my eyes coming even with the other one as I stood inches from the person. A person I know well. Many who knew this person to have the short arm were amazed when they saw her demonstrate that they were now equal. I have been instantly healed of a major sinus infection and upper respiratory congestion when I did not expect to be, it surprised me so it wasn't positive thinking. Someone prayed for me and I was instantly healed.

Westerners rely so much on our technology and medicines that we have become almost immune to seeing the spiritual world. I think we would be negligent to ignore the rest of the world that is very aware of the spiritual powers. The peoples of the rest of the world have no doubt about such things, they see and tap into demonic powers all the time. And they are usually very willing to leave that behind for the greater Spirit of God.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Karla

Thank you for your comment. I acknowledge and respect the miracle experiences that you have had, and I know these have touched you deeply as an individual. So please don’t take offence of what I’m about to write – I’m not focusing on you as an individual. Rather, I want to share with you my own thinking about miracle claims in general. As I’ve said before in this blog, I don’t deny that miracles never happen; there is a lot about this universe that we don’t know about or understand. Rather, I often wonder what the actual cause is of those experiences.

Someone who argues that something has a supernatural cause because it can’t be explained is providing a contradictory argument. The person is basically saying: “I don’t have an explanation, therefore I have an explanation (i.e., the supernatural is the explanation)”. An unexplainable event can have a myriad of possible causes, so it is premature to automatically say that it has a supernatural cause. In other words, an unexplainable event – such as a miraculous healing, is not necessarily a supernatural event. Rather, an unexplainable event is simply an unexplainable event; no more, no less.

In order to for someone to convince me, they need to show that (1) the event happened as claimed (eg, with video footage, doctor’s reports, X-rays, etc). But even if they convince me that a miraculous event happened, they will also need to show that (2) it has a supernatural cause (by testing and considering alternative causes, and providing a logical causal link between a supernatural entity and the event). Step 2 is more difficult, I think, because a person will first have to show evidence that the supernatural entity exists in the first place. In other words, a miracle event can’t be considered as evidence for God, it can only be considered as evidence that something unexplained happened.

Hope this explains my thinking in more detail, and thank you for popping by.

Paulo said...

To the author: Absolutely. It is our belief in the supernatural which gives the supernatural any power.

Under Duress said...

Read C.S. Lewis on Miracles for a purely logical defence of the possibility of miracles and the supernatural.