In this post I'm going to discuss Stephen Braude's secular alternative explanation for answered prayer, in chap. 7 of his new book, Crimes of Reason (Rowman & Littlefield 2014).
The typical secular dismissal of answered prayer requires the atheist to discount every single answered prayer as sheer coincidence. One putative advantage of Braude's approach (advantageous from a secular standpoint) is that, if successful, he can concede a genuine causal correlation, but account for that naturalistically–by appealing to paranormal resources. Of course, I disagree with his explanation, but that's the set-up.
If telepathic leakage, telephonic influence, and PK [psychokinesis] can occur, then we can see how to explain the apparent (if only occasional) efficacy of prayer causally but without reference to a deity.
This suffers from an obvious oversight. Assuming the existence of psi, that's not an ipso facto naturalistic. Just as God can endow people with normal abilities, he could endow people with paranormal abilities. God could still be the ultimate source of the answered prayer, even if psi mediates the outcome. That would be analogous to ordinary providence.
The potential psychic strategies are obvious enough: (1) Relevant people could come to know our prayers through ESP and respond consciously or otherwise.
i) It's unclear to me why Braude appeals to ESP to account for how second parties could know what we pray for. I daresay that in many or most instances, friends and family become aware of our prayer requests because we tell them our needs and solicit their prayers, in conjunction with our own.
ii) Which is not to deny instances where a Christian feels led to pray for someone else, without having direct knowledge of his situation. There are cases where a Christian will say they were burdened to pray for someone, or the Lord laid it on their heart to pray for someone. They feel a prompting to drop everything and pray for that person. And it turns out the person they prayed for was undergoing a crisis at the time.
Perhaps that's the scenario which Braude has in mind.
iii) Even if we grant telepathy, is that the same thing as mind-reading? The contents of our minds and memories aren't organized like a library. There's no subject index at the back of the book which a second-party can consult to find the right page. Our memories are catalogued by associations. Many of our memories are visual. The significance of the memory is private. What it means to me. I don't see how an outsider rummaging through my mind could interpret what he finds.
Even if a second party had access to our minds, I don't see how he could find what he was looking for. Fact is, it's hard for us to retrieve some of our own buried memories.
Seems to me that telepathic awareness is more plausible in reference to coarse-grained experience, like sensing that another person is in a state of emotional distress.
By contrast, Calvinism charts a straightforward path. God knows what we think because he planned what we think.
(2) We might telepathically or psychokinetically influence others to carry out needed actions.
i) What does that mean, exactly? Subliminal messaging? Planting an idea in someone else's mind? How would we psychokinetically influence others to carry out needed actions? Surely he doesn't mean taking control of someone else's body. That would be akin to demonic possession, which is not a naturalistic alternative!
ii) Even if we grant PK, aren't there are limits to PK? Presumably, Braude doesn't think humans have the psychokinetic ability to change the moon's orbit (to take one example).
Or (3) we could psychokinetically bring about relevant states of affairs (e.g. a change in someone's health).
One problem with that suggestion is that it takes more than mere ability to cure someone. It takes knowledge as well as power. How can you psychokinetically heal somebody unless you know what exactly is wrong with them? An automechanic may have the ability to fix your car, but if he can't look under the hood, he hasn't a clue what needs to be repaired. Braude's alternative amounts to a facile placeholder rather than a genuine explanation.
I imagine most readers would argue that prayers are frequently (and perhaps usually) not answered. For example, when both teams or contestants in a sporting event pray for victory, at least 50 percent of them will not have their prayers answered (I suppose a tie game could be viewed as divine mischief).
i) That's an odd example to illustrate his contention. If only two outcomes are mathematically possible (one winner, one loser), then, by definition, 50% of the supplicants will not have their prayer answered. Given the framework, God can only answer one team's prayers. So unanswered prayer in that situation doesn't require a special explanation. It's not "sporadic." Rather, that scenario places severe constraints on whose prayer can answered.
ii) In addition, there's no reason to assume God answered the prayer of the winning team or contestant. Some prayers are inappropriate. The prayers of both sides go unanswered because, as a rule, that's a frivolous prayer.
iii) That said, there are occasions when God might answer such a prayer. A player may be counting on a sports scholarship. If he loses, he won't go to college. His career is on the line. Whether he wins or loses will impact the rest of his life. Who he marries. Where he lives. Which children he has.
Depending on God's intentions for someone's life, there are situations where he will grant or decline a prayer for a successful performance at a sporting event. But there's no general correlation between answered prayer and which team won or lost.
So if an apparently efficacious prayer isn't simply a coincidence, what needs to be explained is not simply why prayer occasionally succeeds but also why it sometimes (or usually) fails.
i) A problem with chalking up answered prayer to coincidence is that Braude is a proponent of precognition. But those who discount "apparently efficacious prayer" as sheer coincidence typically discount apparent precognition as sheer coincidence.
ii) In principle, it isn't hard to see why prayer sometimes succeeds and sometimes (or oftentimes) fails. Answered prayer has a ripple effect. God will decline to grant a prayer request if the consequences are detrimental. If it will do more harm than good. What's the long-term, overall impact of an answered prayer? Who will benefit? Who will suffer? Do the good consequences outweigh the bad consequences?
I'd also say, speaking as a Calvinist, that God answers prayers consistent with his plan for the world. He won't grant a prayer request if the answer would derail his plan for the world.
Psychic functioning wouldn't be the sort of thing we call forth just to meet the demands of psi research or other overt solicitations, such as police investigations, seances, or for the purpose of entertainment…
i) Braude has to interject this disclaimer to explain away the hit-and-miss character of his paranormal alternative. He thinks the supernatural interpretation of prayer is problematic because answered prayer is so "sporadic." Yet his paranormal alternative is equally sporadic.
On the face of it, he's solving one alleged problem by recourse to a parallel problem. Prayer has a hit-and-miss record. But psi has a hit-and-miss record. So his naturalistic alternative seems to be just as "random" in a different way–even though he appeals to personal agency.
ii) There is, moreover, another explanation for the haphazard character of psi. What if psi is something we can't summon at will because that's not a human ability? The exercise of psi is sporadic because it isn't ours to command. Rather, our role is instrumental. We are conduits of superhuman agents. The reason we can't make it work consistently is that we are being used by another agent to further his aims rather than our own.
If so, then the secular interpretation of prayer as a ritual for invoking our psi capacities actually makes some sense of prayer's mixed and rather underwhelming record of success. By contrast, if we try to explain the efficacy of prayer in terms of divine intervention, then many might feel that we need to tell a variety of ad hoc, convoluted, and antecedently implausible stories about why a presumably loving God withheld his grace from us all those times our prayers were not answered–not to mention why the prayers of apparently conspicuously wretched persons seem to have been answered instead.
i) One problem with that objection is that he doesn't even state, much less defend, what makes these "ad hoc, convoluted, and antecedently implausible stories." We don't even know what he has in mind.
ii) I don't think it's hard to explain, at a general level, why God answers some prayers, but not others. Answered prayer is not a closed system of discrete, self-contained effects–where the effect of answered prayer terminates on the immediate objective. Rather, answered prayer is both an effect of prayer, and a cause of subsequent events. Answered prayer generates a chain-reaction. A cause produces an effect. The effect, in turn, becomes a cause producing another effect.
An obvious reason why God might decline to answer many prayers is because they would have deleterious results down the line. Collateral damage. Even little changes in the present can snowball into immense cumulative changes over time.
It's the law of unintended consequences. Because I'm shortsighted, when I pray I can't foresee all the repercussions of God answering my prayer. But God can.
iii) Another basic problem with Braude's alternative is that he speaks in such vague generalities. It's too abstract. He doesn't test his claims against specific candidates for answered prayer. Let's take some examples from Scripture. Clearly, Braude doesn't believe these examples. But for the purpose of this discussion, I'm using them to illustrate certain kinds of answered prayer. Can Braude's model account for examples like that? If not, is he forced to deny that those kinds of cases ever happen?
12 And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”15 Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder (Gen 24:12-15).
i) This is an example of retroactive prayer. By that I mean a prayer in which God initiates the answer prior to the time of the prayer. Minimally, Rebekah has to leave the house before Abraham's servant prayed to God. But it tracks back further in time. Rebekah had to live there in the first place.
Take another example:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there (Acts 10:1-9,17-18).
ii) Assuming this was in answer to the centurion's last prayer, Peter had to begin his trip to Joppa before Cornelius prayed. Notice how the events are coordinated. Peter has his vision at the very same time the centurion's servants are coming to fetch him. The action is synchronized, even though Cornelius dispatched them a day before. In terms of the human participants, these are causally independent events. Their convergence depends on God prearranging the outcome.
But even if Cornelius had been praying this same prayer for years, the answer to his prayer begins long before his prayer. Peter has to exist in the first place. Peter has to survive to adulthood, in an age of high infant mortality. Peter has to be a disciple of Christ. Simon the Tanner must exist. Simon's house must be within commuting distance of the centurion's house. And so on and so forth.
In order for the prayer to be answered, many antecedent conditions must be in place long before the prayer. Peter coming to Cornelius in answer to prayer requires a causal change of events stretch back into the indefinite past.
iii) What is the paranormal alternative mechanism? In theory, Braude might postulate retrocausation. However, Braude is a critic of retrocausation.
Retrocausation suffers from familiar and formidable objections. Consistency and bootstrap paradoxes.
iv) In theory, Braude might appeal to precognition. Perhaps a human agent in the past foreknew the centurion's prayer, or the prayer of Abraham's servant, then, using PK, set in motion a series of preliminaries eventuating in the "answered prayer." Mind you, I float this hypothetical for the sake of argument.
a) There are at least two basic problems with that alternative, one of which I'll address now, and save the other for later (see below). One problem is whether secularism has the metaphysical machinery to drive precognition. Take our knowledge of the past. Our knowledge of the past is caused by past events. There's a chain of intervening events linking a past occurrence to our knowledge of a past occurrence.
But that's precisely where knowledge of the future breaks down. Secular precognition inverts the order of cause and effect. How can my knowledge of a future event be the effect of something that hasn't happened as of yet? How can that be contingent on nonevent?
b) In principle, Braude might say might say PK and precognition work in tandem. The human agent knows the future by influencing circumstances to produce that end-result. He knows the future by knowing the foreseeable consequences of his own actions. And I think there's a grain of truth to that. But it demands more than human agency to pull it off, as I'll discuss momentarily.
c) Apropos (a-b), Reformed theism can account for precognition. God knows the future because God predestined the future, and everything happens according to plan. God providentially causes his plan to eventuate. God can share his foreknowledge with humans. There's a sense in which knowing the future can affect the future, so God's plan for the future includes the affect of disclosing the future to humans.
I'm not appealing to precognition to explain retroactive prayer. Rather, I'm making the point that even if someone like Braude were to invoke precognition to explain answered prayer, that would not be a naturalistic alternative, for precognition only makes sense given robust theism.
Let's take another example:
15 And he blessed Joseph and said,“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,16 the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Gen 48:15-16).
That's a case of long-range prayer. Num 26 records the progressive answer to that prayer. At that point Joseph's posterity numbered about 85,000 males–not counting women.
i) What's the paranormal alternative? Braude might appeal to PK. One problem with that appeal is that Jacob died shortly after his prayer. How can Jacob be using PK to orchestrate events long after he expired? Is that an appeal to postmortem PK? If so, one problem is that Braude seems to have a this-worldly view of psi. He appeals to "living-agent psi" to account for mediumship. That's his alternative explanation to the survival thesis. The medium didn't actually contact the dead.
ii) There's also the question of whether a human agent, assuming he has psi, can manipulate, or even keep track of, the immense number of interconnected variables which must line up in a particular direction to yield the desired outcome. Surely it's easier to see how God is able to choreograph the needed contingencies.
15 And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord and said…19 “So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.”35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh. 37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place (2 Kgs 19:15,19,35-36; cf. 2 Chron 32:20-21; Isa 37:36-38).
i) Does Braude think that psi can do that? It would no doubt be militarily advantageous to recruit psychics who had some awesome destructive power. But does military history bear that out? Why are we still using tanks and bombers if some humans can annihilate armies with PK? Where's the evidence?
ii) In addition, Hezekiah's prayer had a delayed effect. Years later, Sennarcherib's ambitious sons assassinate their father. In context, that, too, is viewed as a divine answer to Hezekiah's prayer.
What's the paranormal explanation? That Hezekiah used psi to seize their minds and bodies to commit regicide and patricide?
When you get down to the nitty-gritty details, it is Braude who must resort to "ad hoc, convoluted, and antecedently implausible stories."