Friday, January 22, 2016

Prayer, physical intuition, and sample selection bias

Unbelievers dismiss evidence of answered prayer as sample selection bias. Christians remember the hits and forget or discount the misses. 

Let's take a comparison. Some great scientists are credited with physical intuition. Examples include Newton, Einstein, Dirac, Pauling, Hoyle, Feynmann, and Witten. They have insights or make predictions based on hunches. And these sometimes turn out to be uncannily perceptive. 

You have the equivalent with great mathematicians like Poincaré, Paul Cohen, and Andrew Wiles. They know the answer before they can prove it. 

Likewise, great chess players have sight-of-board. They can take in the opportunities and liabilities at a glance. 

But suppose we apply the same skepticism to physical intuition–or its counterparts in math and chess–that unbelievers apply to prayer. When we attribute physical intuition to a great scientist, why isn't that just sample selection bias? Aren't we just counting the hits and discounting the misses? Mustn't the predictions they get right be offset by the predictions they get wrong? Likewise, what about the games that chess masters lose? 

So isn't that sheer coincidenxw? Indeed, isn't that the sharpshooter fallacy?

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy takes its name from a gunman who shoots at a side of a barn, only later to draw targets around a cluster of points that were hit. The gunman didn’t aim for the target specifically (instead aiming for the barn), but outsiders might believe that he meant to hit the target.

Now, one might counter by saying, no, it isn't just coincidental, for even though they have their share of misses or losses, lesser scientists, mathematicians, and chess players don't have the hits or wins. So they clearly have something extra going for them that lesser scientists, mathematicians, and chess players don't.

But by the same token, couldn't we make an analogous claim for answered prayer–especially more uncanny examples? 

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