“There is NO WAY I could have known that.”

Question from James:
I’ve been a believer since childhood but recently I’ve started to ask myself whether I truly believe in Christianity or not. I find the arguments against it very compelling, but I have seen and heard a few things that I can’t find any explanations, except the work of a God.

First, I’ve met people who supposedly had these visions about others. In those visions they could see details about someone else’s life, like their past, things that no one would have a clue about. For instance I know of a guy who just met a couple and instantly knew, by revelation, theirs names and the names of their relatives and how they got to know each other, all of that full of details so that no one would suspect it wasn’t a real revelation/vision. I know there are a lot of people faking theses things, but I truly believe these folks I know were at least honest in believing they’ve got a gift from the Lord. So I’d like to ask you guys if you can think of any explanations for what I have described. I no longer think that religion makes sense, philosophically speaking, but how can these, “supernatural” things happen? Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Leaving aside the charlatans, a lot of people do think they’ve had genuine visions and premonitions. For most people (including me at a younger age) it’s little things, like seeing details of their car before they bought it, or talking as they play cards and drawing a number immediately after saying it, or guessing that someone’s future child will have blonde hair. Some people have more remarkable stories to tell.

Many of these can be explained through coincidences, which happen all the time because the number of possible coincidences on a given day is higher than the probability of any given coincidence is low. Many more stories are simply untrue and spring from imperfect memory, particularly memory-of-memory. If you get fuzzy on how you know something or when you learned it, you might start to remember having used (or simply thought about) that knowledge before the point when you think you acquired it.

If you have one of these stories, in the back of your mind you know people will consider three different possibilities:
1. that you had a moment of genuine clairvoyance for some indiscernible purpose,
2. that you don’t realise that you gained the knowledge some other way, or
3. that you’re just plain lying.

You might believe #1, but you know that if people think #2 or #3 it won’t reflect well on you, and that if either were actually true then you’d think less of yourself. So there’s an obvious pressure to make the story more convincing every time you tell it, and subconsciously people gradually give in to that pressure. The conviction in the voice becomes greater, little details are exaggerated or made more convenient. If the changes are small enough they’re not even remembered as changes, you literally edit your own memory and they’re just the way it always was. Give it enough time (a few months can be enough) and you end up with a profound airtight declaration that you believe absolutely, that no one can verify and that someone would have to impugn your integrity to reject. You end up daring people to doubt you.

I’m saying that these stories should not be taken at face value, no matter how much you trust those who tell them. Everything I’ve described above is part of the reason why anecdotal evidence, the proper term for such stories, is not legally (and especially not scientifically) regarded as similarly reliable to other forms of evidence. People test it if they can, and if they can’t there’s always a cloud over it.

With that point made, let’s suppose your guy’s story is actually 100% accurate and he really learned about the couple by supernatural means. That would tell us nothing beyond the fact that there is a “supernatural” of some kind. It doesn’t support the existence of any god because the world might simply have some inherent psychic energy which your guy momentarily harnessed. It doesn’t speak to any kind of purpose unless something significant occurred as a result of your guy rattling off this bewildered couple’s details to them like a stalker – and any significant result could still be coincidence. And it gives us no insight on how to reproduce the circumstances and actually be psychic instead of just winning some pointless lottery and getting nothing more than a chance to show off.