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J. P. Moreland's Wonmug illustration

Here is an interesting illustration offered by my friend J. P. Moreland:

In medicine, we all know what a placebo is. It is an innocuous substance that doesn’t really do anything to help an illness. But the patient’s false belief that it works brings some mental relief. Unfortunately, a placebo works due to the naive, misinformed, false beliefs on the part of the patient. Sadly, the placebo effect is not limited to medicine. Many people have worldview placebos — false, naive, misinformed beliefs that help someone because they are living in a safe fantasy world of their own mental creation and not because of the truth of the beliefs themselves. To see why this is sad, consider the fictitious story of Wonmug.

Wonmug was a hopelessly dumb physics student attending a large Western university. He failed all of his first semester classes, his math skills were around a fifth grade level, and he had no aptitude for science. However, one day all the physics students and professors at his college decided to spoof Wonmug by making him erroneously think he was the best physics student at the university. When he asked a question in class, students and professors alike would marvel out loud at the profundity of the question. Graders gave him perfect scores on all his assignments when in reality he deserved an F.

Eventually, Wonmug graduated and went on for his Ph.D. The professors at his university sent a letter to all the physicists in the world and included them in the spoof. Wonmug received his degree, took a prestigious chair of physics, regularly went to Europe to deliver papers at major science conferences, and was often featured in Time and Newsweek. Wonmug’s life was pregnant with feelings of respect, accomplishment, expertise, and happiness. Unfortunately, he still knew absolutely no physics. People hated Wonmug and mocked him behind his back, yet being oblivious to the truth, Wonmug was as happy as could be.

Do you envy Wonmug? Would you wish such a life for your friends? Of course not. But why? Because his sense of well-being was built on a false, misinformed worldview placebo. People who disregard truth and simply care if a religious idea works, are worldview Wonmugs. If they are willing to be Wonmugs, they should be pitied because they don’t take their lives seriously.

Comments (33)

Dr. Beckwith,

Do you envy Wonmug? Would you wish such a life for your friends? Of course not. But why? Because his sense of well-being was built on a false, misinformed worldview placebo.

I've gotta say; if anything, objectively speaking, this argument strikes me as being of greater benefit for the atheist rather than for the Christian who can be said to be merely confirmed in their beliefs by the concurrence of others, however seemingly out-of-touch with reality they would seem (at least, this from the lense of the atheist, of course).

In fact, most athiests would count the benefits from such spirituality as being a placebo in itself; alluding to the seeming positive benefits the believer has obtained from such things as prayer.

In other words, certainly, faith & reason working together is paramount; however, keep in mind there is no substitute for the Spirit & the Grace by which our Faith is made possible.

I think you have to look at it in context, Aristocles. Moreland is using the illustration as an answer to a particular patronizing type of response that some unbelievers make to believers: "It's fine for you to be religious if your religion makes you feel better/works for you." Moreland is trying to make religious people or people considering Christianity unsatisfied with this way of looking at things. No, it isn't fine to believe a falsehood just because it "works" to make you feel good. Truth matters. So both the non-Christian and the Christian should care about what is true.

Lydia,

Moreland is trying to make religious people or people considering Christianity unsatisfied with this way of looking at things. No, it isn't fine to believe a falsehood just because it "works" to make you feel good. Truth matters. (my emphasis)

That's just it; under the gloss of the athiest, the "falsehood" would be the superstitions the Christian believer (supposedly) subscribe to and the fact that though we may feel we've experienced the movement of the Spirit in ourselves and its consolation; the atheist would simply dismiss such as mere placebo effects arising from our superstitious beliefs, which is but our placebo that "works to make you feel good".

Hence, to them, "Truth Matters" and most insist it is their duty to inform us so -- that this is indeed the case.

Thus, we cannot underestimate nor, worse, overlook the very workings of Grace that make Faith in Christ possible in the first place in the case of the Christian believer.

Absent of the Spirit, relying on mere reason alone, is a Christian Witnessing that is done in vain where the materialist will always win.

aristocles,

But what if it is the Truth that helps us and actually causes us "to feel we've experienced the movement of the Spirit in ourselves and its consolation." In other words, real medicine will work because of the underlying science. The Christian armed with Reason would say the same thing -- Christ works because He revealed himself to us and we are lucky to have the historical record of the witnesses to His miracles (especially his return from the dead) to guide us today. This historical record is, of course, open to criticism and critical questions, but good Christian apologetics teach us to answer the critics and the truth of the New Testament. Didn't the Pope himself attest to the importance of reason in his Regensburg Address?

Theophilus,

Reason divorced from Faith serves for nothing.

Convincing non-believers by relying on mere reason alone will not work; however, the very workings of the Spirit though will.

Mind you, it is by the same that you know thus: "Christ works because He revealed himself to us."

You are able to see with eyes of Faith for that very reason.

Convincing non-believers by relying on mere reason alone will not work

Quite honestly, I'm not so much interested in talking about what works or doesn't, as if we're looking for some formula to bring in the converts. A charlatan might well have a way of talking to unbelievers that "works," but he would be a charlatan nonetheless. I witness to the truth of Christianity and to its grounding in historical fact because I believe that to be important, not because I'm looking for a way of tweaking the psyche of the unbeliever that will "work."

is a Christian Witnessing that is done in vain where the materialist will always win.

I'm not sure, Aristocles, if you think that this is true because you think that unbelievers' hearts are too hard to see the truth regardless of the good reasons for it or because you think that good reasons are inherently on the side of falsehood and hence that Christians should shy away from them. If the former, see my above comment. And I would add to that that I do indeed pray when I'm talking to people about Christianity in any context. The Holy Ghost certainly can move people to listen with a receptive heart rather than a closed mind _to the presentation both of the Gospel and of the reasons for it_. If you mean the latter, I cd. not disagree more strongly.

In any event, I'm not entirely sure, Aristocles, that you yet see the point that Moreland is making. There are people out there who have a different slant even from the atheists that you are talking about. These are the fluff-heads or those trying to make everyone around them fluff-headed by saying that the point is what "works" _rather than_ what is true. And a lot of college kids are encountering this. It's supposed to be a way of being tolerant of religion, but it is misguided, and Moreland's analogy shows how and why.

Lydia,

"I'm not sure, Aristocles, if you think that this is true because you think that unbelievers' hearts are too hard to see the truth regardless of the good reasons for it or because you think that good reasons are inherently on the side of falsehood and hence that Christians should shy away from them."

You may want to read my response to Theophilus.

Absent of the Spirit, relying on mere reason alone, is a Christian Witnessing that is done in vain where the materialist will always win.

Do you mean to suggest that materialist/atheist arguments are superior qua arguments? As if to say materialism/atheism is, as a pure philosophical position, superior to theism? Or do you mean by the materialist "winning" that he merely fails (or refuses) to be convinced? You probably think you've made this clear but I ask for one final clarification, if you don't mind. Otherwise, there is no purely philosophical argument that proves Christianity, but then again orthodox Christian thinkers don't say that there is.

G.K. Chesterton said something to the effect that God needed to reveal himself historically, because what He needed to reveal about himself was not simply a set of philosophical propositions. (I think this is in The Everlasting Man.) What is interesting about this point is both that it's true and also that it in no way demeans reason in its connection to faith. Rather, it shows that the reason we shall be using is the sort of reason whereby we know historical truths rather than metaphysical or, say, mathematical ones. So, for example, we could not have determined by reason alone, without God's having in some way revealed it to man, that God wishes to forgive our sins and that they can be forgiven because Jesus died on the cross. For that matter, if Jesus hadn't historically died on the cross, this proposition wouldn't even be true. But that doesn't make any conflict between faith and reason at all. It just points us to the sort of investigation that is involved.

Perhaps the good man who posted this illustration is more subtle than we know.

Mike's right. J. P. could have just as well used the name "Invesco" rather than "Wonmug." :-)

If a patient's symptoms are relieved after taking a pill, how could the patient learn that it was a placebo?

If a patient benefits from the placebo effect, then his mistake was believing what he was told by an authority.

But wait, is that a mistake?

Similarly, how would Wonmug ever know that he was being deceived? After all, everyone he encounters tells him what a great physicist he is. Should Wonmug dare rely on his own experiments and reason, or should he believe the authorities?

How does Moreland know he is not a Wonmug?

If education is something you get rather than something you're given, then he'd know.

If education is something you get rather than something you're given, then he'd know.

But that's no help at all. How does Monmug, or Moreland, know whether "got" or was "given" his education?

Robert, if it is actually _impossible_ to tell whether one has good reasons to think one's conclusions are true, then the unbeliever is in as much trouble as the believer. It's not as though unbelievers acquire their beliefs by pure reason which they can directly see to be correct but believers acquire theirs in a process that is opaque to examination. There is plenty of just "taking it as given" in the skeptic's worldview as well. That would be okay as far as it goes if he had good reason to believe that those from whom he was taking it were reliable. But it would be even better for him to do some seeking for himself rather that taking his secularist religion purely on authority.

Frank,
"Invesco": that's good.

Robert:

The difference is between education and indoctrination.

Indoctrination is when you're told what to think. Education is when you learn how to think. If you know how to think, you'll know what to think. Unlike Moreland, Wonmug has never learned how to think.

In other words, knowledge is possible, even for Wonmug. It's possible -- but he hasn't got there yet. And it is a getting, not a receiving. If you have only what others gave you, you don't have an education.

thebyronicman,

If you believe you can rely on mere human genius alone (whether it be wit, rhetoric, etc.) to convince the non-believer about the Truths of Christianity without any assistance from the Advocate, you are seriously mistakened; what's worse, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons (cf the sermon by St. Francis of Assisi on "vainglory").

To make the point clear, it is by the Spirit that conversions are made even possible; if people think that it was solely because of them that the conversions happened, they are fooling themselves. These folks are either engaging in some vainglorious pursuit (rather than converting for Christ) or a means by which to validate their own beliefs by converting other folks to their own.

Robert,

If a patient's symptoms are relieved after taking a pill, how could the patient learn that it was a placebo?

Well, if it were my own clinical study I were conducting, it would be a "double-blind" test so that even the administrator of the test wouldn't know in addition to the patient. I know too many participants who would successfully bribe the administrator to give them the actual test drug itself.

If a patient benefits from the placebo effect, then his mistake was believing what he was told by an authority. But wait, is that a mistake?

Actually, there are too many things wrong here.

The main purpose of administering the placebo for a certain number of participants in a study is so they can serve as the control group to inquire into the efficacy of the test drug. Its atual objective is not to decieve.

Similarly, how would Wonmug ever know that he was being deceived? After all, everyone he encounters tells him what a great physicist he is. Should Wonmug dare rely on his own experiments and reason, or should he believe the authorities?

Well, it depends entirely on what context you are attempting to address here.

If I were him, having worked in research once before and had I my laboratory still, I would perform a chromatographic analysis of the stuff that was administered to me to see if it were anything but a "sugar pill".

As to authority, does this mean if you were sick, you wouldn't actually visit a doctor for his medical expertise but instead would conduct your own experiments to find out what's wrong with yourself and actually attempt to heal thineself?


How does Moreland know he is not a Wonmug?

Very good question indeed --

I can practically engage in subsequent experimentation to demonstrate the truth of mine own scientific hypothesis; however, the Truths of Christianity? (For that, this would take the eyes of Faith which is only made possible by the help of the Advocate.)

If folks insist they can convince me of the Truths of Christianity just by proving Jesus historically existed, that wouldn't necessarily prove to me that things written about him such as his Resurrection and the Miracles he supposedly performed were true.

What about other religious figures in other faiths that did also exist historically wherein similar things had been said about them?

that wouldn't necessarily prove to me that things written about him such as his Resurrection and the Miracles he supposedly performed were true.

What about other religious figures in other faiths that did also exist historically wherein similar things had been said about them?

Aristocles, there are excellent answers that can be given to these questions, but I get the feeling you aren't all that interested in them. For example, it's surprising to many to find out not only that the "similarities" between Christianity's claims about Jesus and claims from other religions are exceedingly weak. Moreover, there is no comparison in strength of historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and for, say, Joseph Smith's being given golden tablets by the angel Moroni.

I think it is quite a shame when Christians do the work of anti-Christian skeptics for them by casually tossing out, as if they are unanswerable, skeptical cheap-shots. Thos who do so think they are being devout by showing that Christian belief is not rationally grounded and hence is somehow _better_ than it would be if it could be rationally defended. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lydia,

You continue to engage in gross mischaracterizations of my views by your selective quotation of my remarks. Whereas before, I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Now, it seems completely deliberate.


EXAMPLES:

1. "is a Christian Witnessing that is done in vain where the materialist will always win."

...when I had actually said: "Absent of the Spirit, relying on mere reason alone, is a Christian Witnessing that is done in vain where the materialist will always win."

2. "that wouldn't necessarily prove to me that things written about him such as his Resurrection and the Miracles he supposedly performed were true. What about other religious figures in other faiths that did also exist historically wherein similar things had been said about them?"

...when I had actually said: "I can practically engage in subsequent experimentation to demonstrate the truth of mine own scientific hypothesis; however, the Truths of Christianity? (For that, this would take the eyes of Faith which is only made possible by the help of the Advocate.)"


I suggest you read my response to thebyronicman:

If you believe you can rely on mere human genius alone (whether it be wit, rhetoric, etc.) to convince the non-believer about the Truths of Christianity without any assistance from the Advocate, you are seriously mistakened; what's worse, you're probably doing it for the wrong reasons (cf the sermon by St. Francis of Assisi on "vainglory").

To make the point clear, it is by the Spirit that conversions are made even possible; if people think that it was solely because of them that the conversions happened, they are fooling themselves. These folks are either engaging in some vainglorious pursuit (rather than converting for Christ) or a means by which to validate their own beliefs by converting other folks to their own.

If I were Frank, I'd feel ignored.

Dr. Bauman & Dr. Beckwith,

Sincerest apologies -- I just feel that too often these days, folks take for granted of how significant a role the Spirit plays not only in the lives of actual believers but in the conversion of non-believers (although, there is actually an on-going conversion that takes shape in believers as well, but that's a whole other topic altogether), ironically treating the Spirit as some abstract idea rather than an actual "Somebody". There are folks who mistakenly believe conversions happen/can happen by mere human machinations alone.

Yet, out of respect for both of you, I cease further inquiry into this.

Ari,
No apology is needed, especially to me.

The questions you have been dealing with are fundamentally important and ought to be carefully considered -- no doubt. But I wonder if they are what this posting is about.

Ari,
To be clear, my previous entry was in no way a criticism -- not at all.

The Holy Spirit is a person. I have made it very explicit that I believe he plays a role in conversions, and in a different thread I discussed explicitly how this might work, but I don't think, Aristocles, that you and I have the same idea of what that role is.

(I repeat)

Frank:
"Invesco": That's good.

Well, Frank, I tried.

I kept googling "Wonmug" and "Invesco" last evening. All I got out of it is that "Wonmug" is a cartoon character who is stupid and whose name is a takeoff on "Einstein" and that Invesco is an investment company. Sorry, chaps. I'm just too dense to get the joke, or I'd express appreciation.

The Daily Double

For $2000, the answer is....

"They occupied the seats at Invesco Field in Denver two weeks ago."

Who is Wonmug?

Correct.

WHOA!

And here, I thought it was Evangelization!

Dr. Bauman, u da man! Subtle, indeed!

Frank da man -- he thunk it up

True that. (Ok, enough with the adolescent-speak.)

Yet, upon inspection of the thread yesterday, you're the one who caught on immediately.

However, I must say, if you gents refuse to heed the wise counsel of Europe, Canada and, in fact, the much enlightened Russel Brand MTV generation who declare that Obama must win for the sake of the United States and, more importantly, for the sake of the world; then, you are no better than the awful lot who supported "that retarded cowboy fellow".

/end sarcasm

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