As a Christian scholar and logic instructor, I often get asked about my thoughts on strange phenomena, controversial theories, and alternative conspiratorial explanations. Through the years I've frequently been asked about such unusual things as UFOs, the apparitions of Mary, near-death experiences, and a host of conspiracy theories such as those relating to the JFK assassination, denial of the Holocaust, the so-called moon-landing hoax, secret societies, and various speculative end-of-the-world scenarios.
Not all of these topics are on the same level when it comes to their rational or non-rational basis and their evidentiary or non-evidentiary support level, but they are all unusual and highly controversial issues. Thus, before accepting any strange and/or controversial idea these topics need to be thought through carefully—lest we affirm belief in something that is false, misleading, or possibly even harmful. Of course from a Christian perspective a believer in Christ should also ask if certain issues and beliefs are biblical and compatible with the Christian worldview.1
However, in this article I want to offer a basic logical checklist when it comes to thinking broadly about unusual phenomena. This list is intended to include basic questions to ask about the viability of strange ideas and beliefs. These questions will not necessarily resolve whether certain controversial ideas and theories should be affirmed, but will help to identify if some phenomenon or belief is problematic in nature. At minimum these questions will serve as a good place to begin a logical evaluation of challenging topics.
Questions to Ask about Strange Ideas and Controversial Theories
Here are five logical questions to ask when thinking about unusual phenomena or peculiar claims:
1. Does the theory hold together foundationally?
Well-conceived ideas and theories are logically sound and internally consistent. Viable explanatory theories avoid self-stultification or being self-defeating in nature (they do not contradict by both affirming and denying essential elements of the same theory). So begin by asking whether the idea, phenomenon, or explanation is logically coherent as a whole. For example: Does the grand theory that extraterrestrial civilizations are visiting Earth from other galaxies hold together internally as a whole?
2. Does the theory comport with the facts?
Good theories and explanations are closely connected to facts. They not only correspond to the known facts, they make sense of the facts by tying them together in a coherent fashion. So ask carefully about the factual nature and basis of the belief, phenomenon, or explanation. Grand conspiracy theories can often make short shrift of the facts. For example: What is one to do with the overwhelming physical evidence and eyewitness reports from various sources (Jewish, Axis, Allied) supporting the factual nature of the Holocaust?
3. Does the theory avoid unwarranted presumptions?
There is a huge difference between presuming to know something and in fact knowing something. Genuine knowledge includes proper justification for one's true beliefs. Solid theories are based upon that which can be proved or verified. So reflect on the basic assumptions behind a theory or belief and ask whether they are well-grounded. For example: When it comes to big government conspiracy theories, can the assumption of the large number of people required to be involved in the conspiracy and keep a secret be reasonably grounded?
4. How well does the theory handle counter-evidence and viable challenges?
Feasible ideas and theories are flexible enough to accommodate possible counter-evidence. The most potent explanatory theories carefully regard the best critiques from alternative perspectives and can answer the challenges. Critical thinking, however, demands that a person fairly consider viable alternatives. Unfortunately, too often people who affirm strange beliefs and conspiracy theories in particular have not considered genuine challenges to their viewpoints. For example: If the moon-landing was a hoax how does one account for the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony supporting it?
5. Is the theory at least theoretically open to falsification; if so, how?
Viable ideas and explanatory theories make claims that can be tested and proven true or false (verified or falsified). Nonfalsifiable claims that cannot be investigated, evaluated, and critiqued carry little rational weight. So ask how an idea, theory, or phenomenon could at least theoretically be discredited. For example: How would one go about falsifying a religious-based apparition?
These are the logical questions that I begin with when something seems strange, unusual, or controversial. They help me to consider the rational and evidentiary basis of a challenging issue. I hope they will help you to think through peculiar topics. And, as a Christian, I invite people to ask these critical questions about Jesus's resurrection.
- For a Christian evaluation of UFOs, see Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples, and Mark Clark, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men: A Rational Christian Look at UFOs and Extraterrestrials (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
- For an Evangelical Protestant evaluation of the apparitions of Mary, see Elliot Miller and Kenneth Samples, The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
- For an article on some of the major big government conspiracy theories, see Kenneth R. Samples, "Thinking Through Big Government Conspiracy Theories," Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, March 1, 2010, https://www.reasons.org/articles/thinking-through-big-government-conspiracy-theories.