February 11, 2015

An Appeal to the Gaps: But what if they really saw something?

I want to open this piece with the warning that the subject matter is disturbing. I am not going to go into graphic descriptions of the events, because it is not relevant to the question I am exploring, but the details are on the link provided below. Follow it at your own risk.

On January 16, my local news station ran a story about a Maryland woman who was pleading guilty to the murders of two toddlers.

The two were stabbed multiple times during what their mother and another woman called an “exorcism”.

The two women were convinced that the 18 month old, who was crying, was possessed. They attempted to exorcise the demon. When they were unsuccessful, they determined that the only way to save his soul was to kill him, which they did in a terrible and horrific way.

The two year old child who had wandered in during this was then assumed to have been possessed. When prayer failed to remove the demonic interloper, they went to Plan B and murdered her also.

There were two other children—an eight year old and a five year old—who were also attacked. Thus far, they have been successfully treated although I can’t imagine what kind of psychological trauma that would cause.

This story absolutely wrecked my heart. I’m a mother. My sons are eight and four. The idea of harm coming to them in any way just entirely undoes me. The idea that I myself could inflict such harm, or allow such harm to be inflicted, is simply—I can’t even grasp it.

We can jump into the stories of religious harm and mental illness and everything else present in this story, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I’d like to share a comment form the Facebook post where my news station shared this story.

One young person posted this:

It's a horrible thing obviously coz children were used and killed. But does anyone ever wonder if it's true? That she actually saw things? Not every thing can be explained by scientists or psychologists.

This is, for lack of a better name, an argument from the gaps. Maybe something really did happen, maybe they really did see something—after all, we don’t know everything, right? There’s so much room out there.

My response to that comment was simple:

Just because it can't be explained doesn't mean that the supernatural is involved (or even exists). 
At one point, comets, eclipses, earthquakes and virtually every type of natural phenomenon were not understood. There was no explanation, and so they were assumed to be the work of the supernatural. Today, we have a scientific, rational grasp of them--one that grows stronger all the time. 
That we don't understand something isn't evidence of anything, so I don't personally wonder if she "actually saw something." There's nothing to see. I do believe she was probably psychologically disturbed to an extraordinary degree.

This person continued to argue that we can’t know everything—which I don’t disagree with, honestly. There are limits on most every type of intellect out there. Why is it that we assume that our own will have no limits? I’d honestly be curious to keep exploring until we find it. I want to know what it is that could possible be incomprehensible to us.

But the idea that maybe that something is supernatural simply isn’t supported by the data.

The idea that we don’t understand it, and can’t explain it, and therefore it must be supernatural is, of course, used as a common evidence of the hand of God at work around us.

Victor Stenger once addressed the application of this argument to the origins of the universe like this:

None [no origin theories] can be “proved” at this time to represent the exact way the universe appeared, but they serve to illustrate that any argument for the existence of God based on this gap in scientific knowledge fails, since plausible natural mechanisms can be given within the framework of existing knowledge.

Just because we don’t understand something fully, doesn’t mean that it won’t be understood fully. In the case of these murders, we have a pretty good understanding of mental illness, and the chances that it played a role are hopefully incredibly high. I like to think that that’s the only way someone would be capable of something like this. But it is a natural explanation for the situation—meaning that we need not even consider the supernatural explanation at all.

What do you think? How would you respond?

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