The Mind: What is qualia?

1 08 2011
In my first installment on the mind, I discussed the question, “what is consciousness?”  One of theattributes of consciousness that I discussed was that of qualia (kwal’ ee ah) or the qualitative aspect of consciousness.  I mentioned that these are the states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them.  These sensations include sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.  Each sensation like a pain, an itch, a tickle, etc., is known as a quale (kwal’ ee).So far, it seems like this idea would be fairly uncontroversial, but it actually presents many challenges and has been rejected by some philosophers as nonsensical.  These would be philosophers who hold a materialist (the world consists solely of particles in fields of force) or physicalist (the belief that all phenomena can be reduced to physical processes and properties).  The question is whether there are phenomena that cannot be accounted for within a materialist or physicalist worldview.  I believe that qualia is just such a phenomenon.

Consciousness is different than qualia, however, consciousness, as I said earlier, has a qualitative aspect to it.  NYU professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, presented an argument that has come to epitomize qualia in his “What it is like to be a bat” illustration.  Nagel argues that if physicalism is true, then consciousness and qualia must be reducible to physical explanations; however, he believes that the subjective experiences that we have cannot be so reduced.

Nagel asks us to think about a bat.  Bats navigate by sonar, or echolocation.  They send out signals that are processed by the bat’s brain to detect objects and to help it maneuver around objects and to detect and capture prey.  This is a bat form of perception, but it is completely different from human perception.  Nagel adds, “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” (1)  Other bat behaviors include sleeping upside down, flying (with their own wings), eating rodents, etc.  And yet, even if we could mimic these behaviors, it would only tell us what it is like for me to be a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

The problem is the same in reverse in that if there was a race of space aliens, let’s say, Martians, who possessed superior intellects to ours, it would be just as impossible for them to imagine what it would like for us to be us as it is for us to imagine what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Another illustration that makes a similar point was developed by philosopher, Frank Jackson, developed the illustration,“What Mary Didn’t KNow.”  In this account,

Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies. (2)

As the story continues, Mary is freed from her black and white cell to experience the world of color.  She knows all there is to know about color, except what it is like to experience it.  She actually learns something that she could not have otherwise learned or known unless she experienced it first-hand.

Jackson argues that there is a type of knowledge that escapes the physicalist’s realm of knowledge.  In other words, Mary could know all physical facts about the universe, but still learn new knowledge upon her release the entailed that physical knowledge is not everything there is to know.

These two illustrations give an idea that qualitative experiences, or qualia, point us to a subjective aspect to ourselves that is not adequately accounted for in a purely physicalist or materialist accounting.  There is a subjective aspect to us, a “what it is like to be me,” that points us to the idea that we are more than just the sum of our physical parts.  There is much more that could be said about qualia, but this should give you a “feel” for what it’s all about.


(1) Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974), 436.

(2) Frank Jackson, “What Mary Didn’t Know,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 5. (May, 1986), p. 291.

The Mind: What is consciousness?

4 07 2011

I’ve spent the past few years reading and studying the topic of the mind, but I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic. Some believe that the mind exists, others don’t. Of those who believe that the mind exists, some believe it to be merely an emergent property of the brain, while others see it as an immaterial substantial part of who we are as people. The mind is a fascinating subject and one worth thinking about, so I will be devoting a number of upcoming posts to the topic of the mind. If it is a real and immaterial part of who we are, as I believe it to be, then it gives indication that this world is not reducible to material stuff alone. If there is an immaterial aspect to our natures, it gives good indication that there is an immaterial nature to reality. I believe the mind gives us a clue to the existence of God and that will be the case that I build throughout these posts.

Let us begin by examining the question, what is consciousness? Although there is no definitive and exhaustive answer as to what consciousness is, we have some ideas as to what consciousness is like. Van Gulick1 describes several elements of consciousness, including:

  • Sentience – the capability to sense one’s environment.
  • Wakefulness – being awake and alert.
  • Self-consciousness – being self-aware.
  • What it is like – Thomas Nagel described this as “something it is like” to be who you are. The subjective aspect of being who you are.
  • Subject of conscious states – having conscious mental states
  • Transitive consciousness – the ability to be aware of many things at the same time or one thing over time.

Other aspects of consciousness include:

  • States one is aware of – the awareness of having states of awareness or of conscious states. These are also known as meta-mentality or meta-intentionality.
  • Qualitative states – otherwise known as qualia, these are states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them. Whenever we have a sensation (sight, sound, feel, taste, or smell), these are known as quale (kwal’ ee).
  • Phenomenal states – the totality of qualitative states forms the phenomenal state of consciousness.
  • Access consciousness – This concept was developed by Ned Block and describes not the phenomenal state, but whether the sensory information can be accessed to guide the organism.
  • Narrative consciousness – this is more commonly known as the stream of consciousness and refers to the ongoing serial of episodes that string together to the perspective of the self.

Philosopher, David Chalmers wrote:

Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given. 2

Chalmers breaks the problem of consciousness down into the “easy problem” and the “hard problem.” The easy problem is that part of consciousness that can easily be explained by cognitive science, while the hard problem “seem to resist those methods.”3 The easy problems are those of categorizing, discriminating, reporting mental states, attention, behavioral control and other like phenomena. The hard problem deals with issues that are more subjective, like qualitative experience, or as Thomas Nagel described, the what it is like phenomenon. In other words, there is something it is like to be me or a bat or a my dog. These are subjective experiences. We have others as well, including what it is like to listen to Bach, or to eat Jambalaya, or to watch the Packers win the Super Bowl. Each of us will have a different experience in each of these cases. In later posts, I will give more detail on this problem and some of its implications.

Consciousness is an intriguing study and often quite perplexing. Many philosophers over the years have attempted to explain consciousness or, at times, explain it away; at least, various aspects of it. In the coming weeks I will explore many of these aspects, describing how the many of the philosophers have attempted to fit them into their respective worldviews. I will look at what I believe to be the best explanation of consciousness and the phenomena associated with it. I hope you will read on and gain greater understanding of this fascinating field of study. Leave me comments and questions along the way.


1. Robert Van Gulick, “Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available from, Internet accessed on 22 June 2011.

2. David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995, 1.

3. ibid, 2.

Can Science and Religion Peacefully Coexist?

12 10 2010

University of Chicago professor of biology, Jerry Coyne, recently penned an article that appeared in USA Today entitled, Science and religion aren’t friends. In it, Coyne made the argument that “science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.” He cited the several books by New Atheists authors such as, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris which he says have exposed the “dangers of faith and the lack of evidence of the God of Abraham.” I’m not sure what this has to do exactly with his argument that science and religion are incompatible, since these are not science books, but rather deal mainly in philosophy, but we will set that aside for now.

Coyne does go on to assert that science has been nibbling away at religious explanations for natural phenomena, that evolution has taken a “huge bite” our of religion, and that recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls. He states that science is even studying the origin of morality, all with the goal of closing the gaps not yet filled by science.

Coyne acknowledges that Christians have written many responses to these works of the so-called New Atheists; however, he quips that they are merely attempts to demonize these authors while writing them off as “arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.” However, Dr. Coyne sticks to his guns in the midst of these attacks and claims, as a former believer, that it is all “bunk”; science and religion are two are different forms of inquiry. Or, as the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould called them, nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA).

Of course, Coyne acknowledges that there are leading scientists who are Christians; however, he simply writes that off as those who hold “conflicting notions in their heads at the same time.” He compares this to making a case, based upon the rate of infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are “perfectly compatible.” However, he says, it is important to distinguish real truth from that which we only want to be true.

Finally, he goes on to argue that science “works” while religion does not. He says that religion leads to war and strife (citing the World Trade Center attack as an example), while science settles things peacefully. Science is based upon reason, doubt, and questions authority, while religion is based upon revelation, dogma and authority. He says that there is “no way of knowing if it’s [religion] true.” In fact, he asserts, religion calls on people to hold incompatible truths.

To support this point, Coyne gives two pieces of evidence. First, the problem of evil; using the inevitable reference to the Holocaust. How do religious people rationalize the existence of evil and the existence of a loving God? Second, he cites the contrast of how many scientists are atheists as compared to the general poplulation; and the negative relationship between religion and acceptance of evolution as a valid theory. So, let me examine his argument to see whether is withstands scrutiny.

I will state at the outset that historically speaking, the idea that science and religion are incompatible is a fairly recent phenomenon. When we examine the history of science, as I did in a class this past summer, we come to realize that science and religion have been more closely linked than many realize in our post-Darwin world. It was Darwin that was a turning point in the way that science and religion have interacted in our history. We can cite discovery after discovery that were made by people who were not only religious, but were even Christian ministers.

I think first of Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest who first proposed one of the most successful and confirmed theories in physics and cosmology, the Big Bang theory. It was atheist astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” as a slur against Lemaître’s theory. Hoyle refused to accept the theory, not because the physics and the mathematics didn’t work, but because he didn’t care for the implications – it meant that the universe had a beginning, and he found that a hard pill to swallow. He held on to the steady state model (the universe neither expanded nor contracted, but was in a constant steady state) until the evidence made that position untenable. In fact, there were many scientists throughout history that saw their scientific endeavors as a way to understand the mind of God. So, I don’t see Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria as a valid hypothesis.

Coyne also asserts in the article that we now know that the universe did not require a creator. He doesn’t explain in the article how he knows this to be the case. In fact, one of the only other persons that we know of who has made such a bold claim is Stephen Hawking, to whom Coyne later refers in his article. Hawking’s claims are extremely speculative, based upon M-theory or what is known as “Super String Theory.” Roger Penrose, a former colleague and research collaborator with Hawking and no theist himself, recently said that M-theory is too speculative to even be considered science. To date, it is believed that there are 10500 possible explanations for M-theory, beyond the bounds of what science could feasibly test. Being untestable and non-falsifiable, M-theory is stuck in the realm of metaphysics and outside the realm of physics. Therefore, Coyne’s and Hawking’s statements are overblown and without foundation.

One of the areas that I think is interesting and one to which Coyne alludes is the area of consciousness. Most materialists (those who believe that all of reality is made of matter) believe that the mind is simply a state of the brain, if even that. Some believe that the mind is simply a useful fiction. Whichever position that Coyne and other materialists take, they have a huge problem, that being that if the mind doesn’t exist, or is simply a brain state, then we are completely determined beings. If we are determined beings (without free will) then we don’t make choices or have intentional thoughts (about other things). If we lack these characteristics, then reason and rationality go out the window. Yet, reason and rationality are the foundation of science and the big hook on which he and other materialists hang their hat. So, if Coyne is right and there is no immaterial world (which is what he is ultimately getting at with his argument) then his argument is meaningless as it is just the determined output of his brain, something over which he had no control and for which he cannot verify or falsify for truthfulness. So, if Coyne is right, then he would never be able to know it. Yet he argues so forcefully and persuasively. I think that his argument works against him. He falls on the sword of his own argument.

But, it gets worse. He also argues that the Holocaust was an evil event. But how can we have evil events if we have no free will? How can we be guilty of that for which we had no control? Again, he implies libertarian free will, yet he has no basis for that. Nor does he have a basis for objective good and evil. For, if there is no transcendent standard of right and wrong, then we are merely speaking of preferences. He may not have liked what happened during World War II by the Nazis, but he certainly cannot call it evil, as that implies an objective standard.

Also, if our actions are merely the result of an evolutionary process that selects for survival, then why call behaviors that have survived this selection process evil? We should suppose that they have survival value, otherwise, they would have been selected against. Yet, we read our favorite news sites and they are filled with stories that our conscience would inform us are evil. What’s up with that? How is it that these behaviors survive and yet we consider them evil? I suppose that we merely have to hold these incompatible ideas in our heads if we choose to hold on to the neo-Darwinian model.

As for the number of scientists who are atheists, it is easy to cite statistics of the number of people who believe one idea or another, but statistics don’t determine truth, they only determine popularity, and truth is not a popularity contest. Nor can one assume the truth of macro evolution, which is far from solid science (not to be confused with micro evolution which is solid), and then criticize a group of people who don’t agree with it, even if their reasons are not grounded in scientific arguments. This doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, nor does it do anything to prove his thesis.

In the end, there are good reasons to believe that God exists. Those reasons, partly based on science, include: the origin of the universe; the fine-tuning of the universe; the existence of objective morals; the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the existence of the conscious mind, and many others. Yes, we do use science to give evidence of God’s existence and if Dr. Coyne has a problem with that, he is free to give evidence to explain these phenomena naturalistically. However, I don’t believe that some of these are explainable scientifically as they fall outside the realm of science. Still, science and religion can work together. Science was once even called the handmaid of religion. Whether that is true today, they are still able to work hand in hand as they have throughout history past.

Are You a Practical Existentialist?

19 08 2010

For many years now I have spent a significant amount of time speaking to college students at campuses around the Chicagoland area. What I love about speaking with college students is they are in an environment of idea exchange and they enjoy engaging in thought provoking conversations. I often ask students where they find meaning for their lives and I often get answers in a similar vein; they usually tell me that meaning is wrapped up in what they will do with their lives or with whom they associate. That is the answer of a practical existentialist (whether they know it or not).

Some of you may be asking, what is existentialism? It is a philosophical system that has been attributed back as far as Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher. This system of belief can be boiled down in its core to the statement, existence precedes essence. The opposite view would be called essentialism and would hold that essence precedes existence. So, for the existentialist, what we do gives meaning to who we are. Our existence determines our essence. Friedrich Nietzsche was another famous existentialist as he pursued his “will to power,” his quest for the overman (sometimes referred to as the superman).

I often hear people say that they determine their own meaning; in fact, it has become a rather common mantra in our days. The question is, can we determine our own meaning and purpose? I obviously don’t think so as I believe that ultimate meaning and purpose always comes from the designer and creator. In our case, I believe that we are designed and created by God who gives us our ultimate purpose and meaning. However, what if we were merely the product of some blind process of natural selection. I say blind (which some evolutionists would dispute) as it is not guided by anything other than events which have no foresight as to what the end result will be (it is hoped it is survival). But, is survival a purpose for a person’s life? I think it can be an outcome, but as a purpose, I think it is a rather hollow one, if it is one at all.

One could always ask, is survival an end or a means to a further end? I don’t think that survival is an end, but merely a means to a greater end (child rearing, experiencing the world, etc.) Then we need to ask the same question of those, “are they ends or means to a greater end?” Let’s take child bearing and rearing. Is that an end or a means to an end? It seems that it is a means and not an end in itself Yes, we enjoy our children, but when we consider child bearing and rearing, we would then have to say that our children have that end as well, as will their children, and their children, ad infinitum. It seems to me to be a means and not an end in itself. We need to consider each of these supposed ends and question whether they are truly ends or simply means to a greater end.

A second question to ask is, what would happen if I lost that which gives life meaning and purpose, could I go on with life or would it all be over at that instance? Most people, when I ask them that question, will tell me that they would go on, which indicates to me that it is not a true purpose or source of ultimate meaning. True and ultimate meaning, when taken away, would and should mean that life is over for us – we have no purpose for living any longer. True, some people feel that at the loss of a loved one; however, even if for a little while, they continue to live and survive. I believe that if that source of ultimate meaning ceased to exist, then we would cease to exist. If we continue to exist after that thing ceases, then it means that we had some other hidden purpose that kept us going.

The Apostle Paul said it well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32) But, as he said earlier in that chapter, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) Paul concludes this chapter by writing, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (15:57-58) Our labor is not in vain because God has created us for a purpose and with a mission, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus said that on these depend all of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40).

Our purpose, as defined by our Creator, is to love him and to love our neighbor. These are ends in themselves rather than means to a greater end. Sure, loving God and our neighbors can produce benefits; however, that is not why we are to love them, we are to love them because that is the purpose for which we were designed and created and we are fulfilling that ultimate purpose. God is relational and he created us to be in that relationship with him and with others whom he has created. That is our purpose and that is what gives us ultimate meaning. So, are you an essentialist, who believes that God defines our meaning, or an existentialist, who believes that we define our own meaning through what we do? Something to think about…

What is True and Can We Tell? Reflections on Inception

12 08 2010

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (1847)

These words, though written more than a century and a half ago, could have been written about Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Inception. This movie, if you have not yet seen it, is a labyrinth of dream sequences of different levels into which the main character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters with his team to implant a thought into the head of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) so that he will break up the oil empire that his father is set to leave him upon his imminent death.

Cobb, an architect by training, left the world of designing buildings to enter the world of designing dreamscapes. He develops his skills to not only extract information from people by entering their dreams, but to also implant ideas, leaving no trace of his having done so. Cobb is approached by Fischer’s competitor and enticed by the offer of being able to return to his home and kids from whom he had been estranged due to legal troubles. To do this, he must go into the consciousness of Fischer through his dreams and continue going deeper and deeper into those levels of his consciousness until he can implant the thought without leaving evidence of his having been there.

The story combines elements of Dante with hints of Freud as the team delves lower and lower into the mind of Fischer, while at the same time, Cobb battles his own memories of his kids and his deceased wife for whom he carries the guilt of her death. The story is a parallel between what Cobb is trying to accomplish in the mind of Fischer and what is going on in his own consciousness. As he goes into the dreams of others and plunges deeper into their consciousness, he can’t help but bring along the memories that haunt his own.

Nolan uses different images to depict this Dante type going down in the life of Cobb as he tries to keep these memories caged up within him, only to have them escape at the most inopportune moments. In the end, Cobb appears to conquer these plaguing visions, but is it too late? That is where the audience is left questioning in the end. Has Cobb returned to reality? Can one distinguish between reality and a dream? Can one awaken a person who dreams that he is awake? Nolan leaves us wondering what is real and true and what is not. Does the spinning top tumble in the end or keep spinning? We may never know…

While this movie is a fun thought experiment, it is not indicative of the world in which we find ourselves. Yes, there are those who would have us believe, as Nolan hints at in this movie, that all expressions of reality that we experience are merely that which our minds produce. The real world, according to these solipsists (for that is what they are called) merely exists in the mind of the thinker and does not exist outside of the mind. To seriously pursue that line of thinking, I believe, would lead a person to madness. To doubt one’s intuitions is to question all of reality as we experience it and that is an endless pursuit downward into the abyss of nihilism.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He spoke as if what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” actually exists and the it was embodied in him. The reality toward which it pointed was the Father, for he said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In other words, our pursuit of truth should result in a restored relationship with our Creator, which makes sense. If we want to understand our meaning and purpose, who better to reveal that reality than the one who created us with a purpose in mind.

In the end, Cobb’s pursuit led him back to the relationship with his children (if you believe that, in the end, he was not still caught in a dream state), and that is a good pointer to the ultimate relationship to which we are called, but only a pointer. One of the benefits of human relationships is to point us to a still greater relationship, the relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul says, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) That is the truth we are called to pursue.

The What and the How

26 07 2010

You are probably looking at the title and asking, “what are you talking about?” Well, this topic came up during a discussion I am involved in on my local college campus. We’ve been discussing the idea of telos for some time now. For those not familiar with the word or the concept, telos means end, purpose or goal. In other words, when the author of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asked the question, “What is the chief end of man?” he was asking, “What is man’s telos or purpose?” The pursuit of meaning has been, I believe, one of the oldest pursuits of man.

So, your asking, what does the title of this blog post have to do with this discussion of telos? Let me explain. The question was asked whether we could tell what a thing was by how it was made. In other words, can we describe a thing, its composition, its features and make up, and determine what it is? Let’s use a hypothetical to try to illustrate. Suppose an alien craft was passing by our planet and something fell off and landed in such a way that it remained completely intact and undamaged. Suppose also that this object was something that we had never seen, made from a material of which we were completely unfamiliar. In other words, it is a completely foreign object to our observers, scientists and philosophers.

Our researchers would take pictures of it, try to determine what it is made from, and try to determine its function. Let’s also suppose that they were able to reduce the material make up to its base elements, all of which were common to the universe, even though the final make up of those elements was unfamiliar (I am supposing that the aliens had some technique to uniquely change the structure of these materials into a unique finished material for the sake of this illustration).

So, we could determine what its make up was, its shape, size and weight, but would that tell us what it was? No, I don’t think so. In essence, we would need to know the intent of the designer to know what it was and what its function was. In other words, we could not determine a “what” from a “how”.

Sometimes, I feel like that is what many are trying to do today. We look at evolutionary theory and theories are constructed as to how some creature developed, or even, some feature of the creature. But, does that description, even if it is valid, determine what that thing is? If we knew nothing else about the feature or the creature, like the foreign object from the alien craft, would merely describing its make up and development determine its telos? I don’t think so. Now, suppose we are the product of purely natural processes, how would we determine our telos, or would we even have a telos? I don’t think that natural processes determine telos. Telos always seems to come from the mind of a designer. Machines obviously don’t think and don’t determine their own purpose.

If we are merely glorified machines, I don’t know why it would be any different for us. In fact, I am not sure what it would mean to determine one’s own purpose and if it could be done, why any purpose, say being an evil dictator, would be any worse or better than determining that you were going to help the poor. After all, given the scenario that one determines his or her own purpose, who could say that the one that he or she chose was wrong.

I don’t see that a how could determine a what. I think that the chief end of man must be determined by the one who designed up and designated our purpose. He has revealed that the chief end of man is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.

The Fatal Flaw in Double Blind Prayer Experiments

16 07 2010

We have all likely seen the reports on these “double blind” prayer experiments. The idea is to test whether prayer “works”. Here is how these experiments work. First, a group of people with longer-term illnesses is identified, usually these people are hospitalized so that results can be tracked. Next, a group of people is identified to pray for these ailing people.

These types of studies, in addition to trying to determine whether prayer works, have been used as evidence for and against the existence of God. The U.K. radio program, Unbelievable?1, recently featured a discussion between U.S. atheist and professor of physics, Victor Stenger and British Christian and statistician, David Bartholomew on the issue of whether double-blind prayer studies prove or disprove the existence of God.

Bartholomew took the same position that C.S. Lewis took during his lifetime, that these studies prove nothing regarding prayer or the existence of God. Gregory and Christopher Fung quote Lewis as saying, “The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions…Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.”2

One of the most recent of these studies, conducted by the Harvard Medical School, was The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP). The study, conducted over 10 years, with the cost of $2.4 million, produced the kind of results that C.S. Lewis would not have been surprised to see. This study included over 1,800 patients with heart conditions requiring surgery. The patients were divided into three groups: one group knowingly received prayer from a group of Chrisitans; the second and third group were told that they may or may not receive prayer; with one receiving prayer and the other not. The first group for whom prayers were offered to their knowledge, actually did worst of all, followed by the group that didn’t know that they were receiving prayer but actually did. The group that did the best was the one for whom no prayers were offered by the research prayer group.

The researchers were actually not surprised by the results as they suspected that the first group might have felt pressure to get better knowing that prayers were being offered. Evangelicals have offered other reasons for the results, such as that many of those who didn’t receive prayer from the research prayer team probably did receive prayers from family members and friends. However, I would like to add another idea to the mix.

Even though these are double-blind experiments, there are actually three parties involved, and the third party cannot be blinded to the study. Of course, God is that third party and God is fully aware of what is going on in these experiments. Victor Stenger asserted on the radio program that God would want to answer prayers for those who are sincerely seeking him, he would want to make himself known. Stenger argues that a God who hides himself cannot exist. He says that a good God, a moral God would not deliberately hide himself from people who are open to the possibility of his existence. Stenger says that given positive results of this type of prayer study he would immediately return to the church of his youth, the Roman Catholic church.

I have a few things to say about this argument. First, I don’t believe that God hides himself from his creation. The Apostle Paul tells us in the first chapter of the Book of Romans that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (v. 19) Paul explains that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [we] are without excuse.” (v. 20) This hardly seems to be describing a God who “hides” himself. On the other hand, I do believe that God keeps an epistemic distance from his creation so as not to force us to believe, and this may be to what Stenger is actually referring.

The main issue is that God is not necessarily interested in our believing that he exists. What, you ask, God doesn’t want me to believe that he exists? That is not what I am saying. God could make it very clear to all creation that he exists in any number of ways. But, what would that accomplish? He would have a world of people at a point in history who know he exists; however, would that mean that he would necessarily have more people who trust in him? I don’t think so. In fact, many would come to resent God forcing himself upon his creation.

Suppose that the government came along and decided that they would choose who your spouse was going to be, do you think that the knowledge of your intended spouse’s existence and selection would cause you to love him or her? No, in fact, many would resent being told who to marry and many would resist that union. So why, given the irrefutable knowledge of God’s existence, would it lead Victor Stenger or anyone else to love and trust in him? People, especially Americans like Stenger, don’t like being bullied, and that is just how many would take this kind of imposition of God into the lives of his creation.

I, like the Apostle Paul, think that there is enough evidence for God’s existence for those who are open to honestly considering that evidence. I think that the evidence is quite good for God’s existence and am laying out some of those evidences this Summer in a class that I am teaching. However, this same evidence is rejected by people every day. In other words, God is not going to force the issue, but he is willing to make himself known to those who diligently seek him out.

So, let’s scrap these prayer experiments and remember that God is not a cosmic vending machine. We cannot simply put in our prayer token, push a button and look for that packaged answer to prayer. God is a person who is fully aware of what is going on with these studies and what impact would come from giving positive results. It is interesting that these studies sometimes do produce results that some interpret to show that prayer “works,” yet still, unbelievers make excuses as to why the study was flawed. So, I would beg to differ with Dr. Stenger and say that no matter what the results, it won’t change in what a person puts his or her trust. It may make them more likely to pray, but not more likely to trust in the God who hears those prayers.

1. Unbelievable? 3 Jul 2010 – Is God a failed hypothesis? Pr 2 – Victor Stenger vs. David Bartholomew
2. What Do Prayer Studies Prove? Gregory and Christopher Fung, Christianity Today, May 15, 2009


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.