Monday, July 18, 2016

Prayer is not about numbers

Stephen Braude is a leading researcher and analyst of the paranormal. I believe he's an atheist. Not surprisingly, therefore, he regards the paranormal as an alternative explanation for efficacious prayer. I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to take a different tack. I'll begin with some general observations:

i) I think some paranormal phenomena are well-documented. I don't reject that. But there are different ways to interpret paranormal phenomena:

ii) Suppose we think humans, or at least some humans, naturally have paranormal abilities. That is Braude's position.

However, even if that were the case, it doesn't constitute an ipso facto secular alternative to theism. For instance, in Judeo-Christian theism, God designed and created a world in which personal agents and physical agencies have genuine causal properties. That could extend to the paranormal. Their natural paranormal abilities would be a divine endowment, just like their natural normal abilities. 

iii) Conversely, humans who exhibit paranormal abilities might be conduits of paranormal agency. Their ability isn't innate, but on loan (as it were). Spirits (e.g. God, demons) might make instrumental use of humans to mediate paranormal effects. They are merely vehicles. 

According to both (ii) & (iii), the ultimate source of the paranormal ability is still supernatural. So Braude would need to eliminate these explanations. 

iv) Now let's turn to the main point of the post. Braude says:

For any attempt at psychic influence to succeed (whether or not it's prayer), it must presumably navigate through an unimaginably complex causal nexus–a web of underlying and possibility countervailing psychic interactions and barriers. Crimes of Reason (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014), 192. 

He continues in this vein for several paragraphs. The gist of his argument is that we'd expect psychic influence to miss the target more often that it hits the target due to interference from all the other psychic disturbances. And that's why prayer fails more often than it succeeds, on his secular interpretation of prayer. 

In two previous posts I raised some objections to his theory. Now I'd like to raise an additional objection.

Prayer isn't just a case of one person praying for one thing. It varies. Sometimes many people pray for the very same thing. 

For instance, when it became known that Pope John XXIII had stomach cancer, I think it's safe to say that tens of millions of Catholics prayed for miraculous healing. (If anything, that's probably a conservative estimate.) Yet he died in spite of all those prayers.

On Braude's interpretation, this would mean a psychic Blitzkrieg directed at the pope's cancer. It's not reducible to the odds of one person's psychokinetic influence piercing the static to reach the target. Rather, it's like carpet bombing the pope's cancer with psychokinetic explosives. Even if most bombs miss the target, when you have saturation bombing, that greatly raises the odds that one or more will hit the target. Yet in spite of that, John XXIII succumbed to cancer. 

Conversely, Peter Bride prayed over Joy Davidman, and she went right into remission. How did his solitary petition successfully run the gauntlet while tens of millions of petitions on behalf of John XXIII were ineffectual?

Braude's theory can't offer a straightforward explanation for the difference. By contrast, if the efficacy of prayer does, in fact, derive God's will rather than our psychokinetic abilities, then that's easy to explain. For on that view, the number of people who pray for the same thing is essentially irrelevant to the efficacy of the prayer. It's not their combined power that makes it happen. Rather, it's up to God whether the prayer is consistent with his aims. For that reason, one person's prayer may be availing while the prayer of millions may be futile. The efficacy of prayer has nothing to do with the aggregate psychic energy of the supplicants. Rather, it has everything to do with God's power and God's will. 

Perhaps Braude would suggest that while tens of millions prayed for the pope's miraculous healing, that was offset by the psychic counter-influence of people hostile to the papacy. There are, however, problems with that explanation:

i) There were undoubtedly tens of millions of Catholics who prayed for the pope. By contrast, we can only speculate on how many people wished him dead. But I imagine the number is much smaller.

ii) There's no particular reason Protestants would wish him dead. After all, the death of a pope is not the death of the papacy. Popes come and go. There's always a replacement in the pipeline. So nothing is accomplished by hoping that any particular pope will die sooner rather than later. 

iii) Moreover, John XXIII was a very destabilizing figure in Catholicism. If you are hostile to Catholicism, you should wish him well, since he did so much to crack the foundations. 

iv) In any event, I don't rest my entire case on comparing and contrasting the situation of John XXII with Peter Bride. I simply use those two examples as convenient illustrations. But surely you have many situations in which just one person's prayer is successful while huge numbers of people may pray for the same thing to no effect. 

1 comment:

  1. iii) Moreover, John XXIII was a very destabilizing figure in Catholicism. If you are hostile to Catholicism, you should wish him well, since he did so much to crack the foundations.

    Long Live Pope Francis!!!