Saturday, March 09, 2013

Poker and prayer

[SAM] HARRIS: I would put it at impatient rather than angry. Let me respond to this notion of answered prayer, because this is a classic sampling error, to use a statistical phrase. We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations.

Although his argument is very compressed, I think he’s claiming that Christians mistake some incidents as answers to prayer because outcomes that roughly match our prayers stand out; those are memorable–whereas we forget or ignore all the prayers that went unanswered. So the effect of prayer is actually random. Odds are, there will be apparent answers to prayer every now and then, but that’s coincidental.

Let’s examine his argument.

i) To begin with, if God exists, is there good reason to think he will always give Christians whatever they ask for? Does the fact that Christians don’t always get whatever they ask for make apparent answers to prayer suspect?

In fact, if God exists, there is good reason to think he won’t always give Christians whatever they ask for. For instance:

7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt 7:7-11).

Many readers stop at vv7-8, disregarding the caveats in vv.9-11. This is a qualified promise. The underlying principle is that God won’t give you harmful answers. If you ask for something that’s bad for you, God won’t answer that prayer. God gives good things. Beneficial answers.

As impetuous or shortsighted creatures, Christians can unwittingly pray for things they wish God would refuse them if they only knew the consequences of their misguided request.

ii) Next, let’s take a comparison. I’m not expert, but I doubt most gamblers who play casino poker cheat. I say that for several reasons. It takes a lot of skill to cheat the casino. Most gamblers lack the skill to pull that off. Casinos are very wary of cheaters. They have cameras trained on poker tables. They have minders eyeing the tables. The dealer is on the lookout for cheaters. Casinos are very familiar with the tricks of cheating at poker. And it’s risky to cheat. If you’re caught, you will suffer. It takes a very wily, intrepid gambler to successfully cheat the casino:

So I expect that only a tiny fraction of gamblers cheat at casino gambling. Moreover, my illustration will still be valid as a hypothetical, even if, in reality, cheating was commonplace.

Suppose Sam Harris is caught cheating. Suppose he defends himself by saying:

“No, I didn’t cheat! You guys are guilty of sampling error. You only notice apparent examples of cheating, but you never keep track of all the times that players don’t cheat. It’s statistically inevitable that some player, some time, somewhere, will get very lucky. But that’s a random coincidence!”

I doubt that excuse would talk him out of a custom pair of cement shoes. The fact that cheating at casino poker may be statistically anomalous doesn’t mean there are no real cheaters, or that cheating is indetectible.

By the same token, even if answers to prayer were rare, that doesn’t mean their recognition can be dismissed as a sampling error.

iii) Finally, Harris’s argument is a two-edged sword. If his reasoning applies to apparently answered prayers, then, by parity of argument, his reasoning applies to apparently unanswered prayers. What about failure to recognize answered prayers? Prayers that apparently went unanswered, but were answered in ways we didn’t recognize because we expected the answer to take a different form? If it’s possible to mistake an unanswered prayer for an answered prayer, it’s equally possible to mistake an answered prayer for an unanswered prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Confirmation bias and some other related psychological phenomena would make it more likely for the believer to mistake unanswered prayer for answered prayer. But it would also make it more likely for the skeptic to mistake answered prayer for unanswered prayer.