Stephen Braude is a preeminent researcher on the paranormal. Both Jason Engwer and I refer to his work on occasion. The paranormal is antithetical to naturalistic physicalism, so it's a useful foil against mainstream atheism. I've done at least two posts on Braude's book Crimes of Reason:
In this post I'm going to revisit that topic. In chap. 7, he propose a psychic alternative to account for prayer hits and misses. Here's a representative statement:
The potential psychic strategies are obvious enough: (1) Relevant people could come to know our prayers through ESP and respond consciously or otherwise. (2) We might telepathically or psychokinetically influence others to carry out needed actions.
1. As I mentioned before, I don't know quite what he has in mind. Under psychic suggestion, does a person have an inexplicable and irrepressible urge to carry out the needed actions? They don't know why they are doing it, but they feel compelled to do so? Is it like sleepwalking? Although I think there's credible evidence for telepathy, I don't find Braude's explanation in this case to be credible.
ii) But I'd also like to revisit the issue of retroactive prayer. Suppose for the sake of argument that some outcomes are consistent, either with answered prayer or psychic suggestion. They overlap insofar as either explanation could account for that outcome.
Yet are there other kinds of outcomes that can't be explained by psychic explanation, but only by answered prayer? Note, I'm not suggesting that some outcomes are in fact due to psychic suggestion. I'm just discussing what explanations are logically or evidentially consistent with the same outcome. A mistaken explanation could still be logically consistent with the outcome or consistent with the evidence.
I'm exploring the kinds of examples that filter out those cases, so that, by process of elimination, only answered prayer would explain the outcome. And that, in turn, creates a presumption for answered prayer as the correct explanation in the other cases.
Let's consider a hypothetical case. Suppose I wake up one morning, feeling just fine. But mid-afternoon, out of the blue, I suddenly experience a medical crisis. I don't know what's wrong with me, but I'm convinced something is terribly wrong. I dial 911. I'm rushed to the ER. Maybe I have a ruptured aorta, pulmonary embolism. Whatever. The physician informs me that I need emergency surgery.
But there's a catch: I have a very rare blood type, the hospital doesn't have enough units on hand, and it will take too long to have additional units flown in from out of town.
So there's a dilemma. If I don't have surgery right away, I will die. If I wait for the hospital to restock, I will die. It will be too late. If I have surgery right away, I will die from blood loss, because they don't have enough units of my esoteric blood type to transfuse me during surgery. At this point I pray that God will do what's necessary to save my life. I have a wife and kids to support. For their sake, I can't afford to die. Not now.
The physician walks into the waiting room and asks the people sitting there if anyone has that exotic blood type. As luck would have it, three do. They agree to donate, and that's enough to supplement the hospital's supply. So I survive!
Of course, that's a highly artificial hypothetical scenario. Indeed, it might seem outlandish. If, however, we believe in answered prayer, then there will be analogous situations, where wildly improbable things happen due to divine intercession.
Likewise, under Braude's alternative, otherwise outlandish things are possible if telepathy can steer people in the needed direction. So I'm not stacking the deck against Braude.
However, this example, and other examples in kind, poses a problem for Braude's theory. The examples has two crucial aspects:
i) A conjunction of events too lucky to be coincidental
ii) A retroactive component
Even if Braude's psychic mechanism can explain (i), it can't explain (ii). What I mean is this:
In the hypothetical, I had no warning. No advance knowledge of my medical crisis. Yet for people to be on hand at just the right time and place to donate just the right blood, they had to decide to go there or make arrangements to be there long before my prayer, and long before my crisis. It would be too late for me to telepathically influence them to be at the right time and place. For instance, they might be there because they brought a relative. The appointment was made weeks earlier.
Likewise, they had to leave home, drive or take the bus, to be there at the moment I needed them there. But they had to do it before I knew I needed them there. Opportune circumstances had to be set in motion before I had any idea that I'd be needing blood donors for emergency surgery. By the same token, even if they became aware of my prayer through ESP, they can't get there in time. Indeed, people with that rare blood type would normally be scattered hither and yon. For them even to be within commuting distance of the hospital requires prearranged events. Ordinarily, three people with that blood type wouldn't be in the same vicinity of each other.
Of course, this isn't a real life example. So that doesn't actually disprove Braude's alternative. My immediate purpose is to describe a type of case that, if it ever occurs, could only be explained by divine agency rather than psychic suggestion. If there are, in fact, real-life cases comparable to that, then Braude's proposal is a failed alternative.
I'd add that if answered prayer happens, odds are that there will be a subset of cases like that. There will be crisis situations where Christians pray, the outcome is too lucky to be coincidental, yet the outcome depends on an opportune trajectory or convergence of events that precedes the prayer, precedes the crisis, precedes any intimation of the crisis.
Braude's theory won't work in that scenario, because the people needed to carry out the action can't know about it before I do. Preparations must be in place or underway in advance of the crisis, but without advance knowledge, that can't be in progress ahead of time.