Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Does God heal?

I'm going to respond to philosophical theologian concering prayer and miraculous healing:

i) I agree with him that there's lots of charlatanry and wishful thinking in the charismatic movement. 

ii) I agree with him that his mother-in-law's experience doesn't rise to the level of apodictic proof. 

That said:

iii) He seems to think that in order to credit a miracle, you must first rule out every alternative explanation. But surely that's not our general practice in assessing claims.

Take a missing person report. It's possible that they got lost in the woods and died. It's possible that they were murdered, and the killer concealed the remains. And it's possible that they were abducted by aliens. 

But reasonable people wouldn't say that unless you can rule out an alien abduction, you can't say it's more likely that they went missing because they were murdered or got lost. 

Why does he hold a miracle report to a standard where you must eliminate all other explanations before you are justified in crediting a miracle? He seems to think that unless the evidence for a miracle is unquestionable, it would be unwarranted to credit the miracle. 

But that's not an evidentiary standard we apply to other claims. In general, our explanations for a given event are provisional explanations. We allow for the possibility that that could be mistaken. But we don't make the possibility of error a condition for precluding that explanation, if that's what the evidence seems to indicate. 

Why not say, "In this case the evidence points to a miracle. That's the best explanation, given the available evidence-although it's possible that there's a natural explanation." 

Why does he give preference for a natural explanation unless you are able to absolutely exclude a natural explanation? Isn't he begging the question by presuming that supernatural events are less likely to be true than natural events?

iv) He says:

If healings were far more frequent…then we might have more reason to accept such healing instances as divine in origin.

I don't see how that follows. If healings were far more frequent, then it's easy to anticipate skeptics saying that just proves the placebo effect or spontaneous remission is more common than we suspected. Or that we live in the kind of universe where natural laws make that more frequent.

v) He doesn't furnish any evidence that people who suffer from chronic migraines randomly experience total spontaneous remission. He doesn't furnish any evidence that chronic migraines are responsive to the placebo effect. 

For all I know, that may be the case. But he just talks in abstract generalities. He doesn't furnish any specific evidence to that effect vis-a-via migraines. 

vi) Since his mother-in-law was routinely "in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a healing crusade or [charismatic]worship service," if the placebo effect is germane, why would that be a one-time experience for her? If, moreover, it was the placebo effect, then that would quickly wear off, but in her case, the cessation of migraines was permanent. 

vii) I don't see that the lottery is a good analogy. Although any individual is statistically unlikely to win the lottery, it is set up so that someone is bound to win the lottery. The lottery is designed to produce occasional winners. So that's not just coincidental. Although you have to get luckily to win the lottery, it isn't pure luck.

By the same token, the lottery is designed so that most most individuals will lose. That isn't just bad luck. 

viii) Is "spontaneous remission" a naturalistic alternative to a miracle? Is that an identifiable mechanism? Or is that just what doctors say when they don't have a scientific explanation? Does "spontaneous remission" have any explanatory value. Does that actually explain anything? Or is that a euphemistic way of saying the phenomenon defies natural explanation?

ix) The fact that it happens every so often doesn't ipso facto make that natural rather than supernatural. After all, if miracle occur, they happen every so often. That don't happen all the time. So infrequency is consistent with a miraculous explanation. 

x) Likewise, he classifies improved eyesight as one of those ailments that's subject to spontaneous remission. But he supplies no evidence to corroborate his claim. What does he mean by "improved eyesight"? Does he simply mean someone's testimony that their eyesight got better?

I had an older relative who was diagnosed with macular degeneration. She prayed about it, and her eyesight improved. Her opthalmalogist was stumped. 

Is macular degeneration is subject to spontaneous remission? 

xi) He raises a stock objection which is typically raised by atheists:

Which brings me to a second powerful point against believing in regular divine healing: confirmation bias. I’ve discovered that many people who believe in divine healings can recite a few examples of a person recovering from some disease or disorder. However, what they tend to forget are the many – vastly superior number – of occasions where the person prayed for does NOT get healed. Believers naturally remember the times when prayer has been “successful” and, forgetting all the “unsuccessful” prayers, they seem to have a tendency to think that they therefore have some powerful evidence for the efficacy of healing prayers, when in fact it’s a combination of coincidence and forgetfulness.

a) I might well agree with him that we lack evidence for regular divine healing. 

b) He makes the textbook mistake of supposing that "unsuccessful" prayers cancel out the evidence for "successful" prayer. But that's very careless. 

The identification of answered prayer isn't just statistical. It concerns specificity of need, timing, opportune convergence of causally independent events, &c. As Lydia McGrew recently put it:

There is almost never some crucial, falsifying _test_ that an hypothesis fails and is then no longer rationally believable, particularly if there is a tough web made up of a variety of reasons for believing that proposition. For example, even if you inexplicably stopped hearing from a family member at some point and never heard from him again for the rest of your life and could never figure out what in the world happened, you could well have sufficient _other_ evidence to believe that this family member did exist or had existed. (Old photographs, previous letters or e-mails from him, the memories of other people, etc.) 
Some event can be evidence for an hypothesis, but the non-occurrence of the event may have virtually no value as evidence against it. For example, my receiving a phone call seemingly from my brother is good evidence for his existence, but my not receiving a phone call of that kind is virtually no evidence at all against his existence. This is why arguments from silence are often so weak.

In sum, he's overreacting to his charismatic background. He got his fingers burned, so now he's afraid of matches.

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