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


PZ Myers’ Morality

2 01 2010

You may not be familiar with PZ Myers; however, he is one of the vocal new atheists out there ranting against the existence of God, and Christianity in particular. Myers is an associate professor of biology at University of Minnesota, Morris and publishes a blog by the name of Pharyngula.

I recently came across a post by Myers entitled I’m so sorry for you, Indiana in which he comments about an interview given by Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana where Daniels addresses the topic of morality and Christianity that Myers says was “embarrassingly bad.” Daniels makes the point:

To me, the core of the Christian faith is humility, which starts with recognizing that you’re as fallen as anyone else. And we’re all constantly trying to get better, but… so I’m sure I come up short on way too many occasions.

Myers responds that he believes the “core of Christianity has never been humility , but arrogance.” Why does he draw this assessment? Simply because Christianity claims that we can know and have a personal relationship with God. In fact, he believes that all this Christian talk about being fallen sinners is false modesty. What Myers is claiming is to know the minds of every single Christian living such that he knows that any claim of being a fallen sinner is really just the false modesty of an arrogant person! It seems that Myers, who denies the existence of an omniscient being, is somehow claiming to be one. I’ve often heard that those who deny the existence of God will find a replacement, oftentimes in their own mirror.

Yet, the point of this post is to discuss Myers claim that morality doesn’t need to be grounded in God, but can simply be grounded in man. In fact, Myers makes the audacious claim that there “is no eternal standard of right and wrong.” His claim is that standards change with time. Really what he is claiming is that there is no objective standard of right and wrong.

Myers has already, in his post, castigated the Bible for justifying slavery and God for ordering the slaughter of women and children. Even more, he claims that equality was an ideal of the Enlightenment rather than Christianity. He claims that a 1st century B.C. Judean priest would be calling for the wrath of Jehovah on the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson “who lead millions into a life antithetical to ancient Jewish custom.”

Myers, however, has a different answer from Daniels and other Christians when it comes to morality. He says,

I’d answer differently. In the absence of a god-given absolute morality, all that matters is how we treat one another in this one life we have. What flows naturally to me is not brutality, which requires an absence of awareness of the suffering of others, but recognition of the fact that my fellow human beings really are my equals: we’re all going to die, we only have these few brief decades of life, and who am I to deny someone else the same opportunities I’ve been given?

My question to Myers is if morality is not grounded in anything objective or eternal, then why is his answer any better than Daniels’ or Hitler’s for that matter (he also refers to Hitler in his post – for what would a discussion of morality be without invoking Hitler?) Who says that it matters how we treat one another? On what basis does he consider suffering to be bad? We would all agree that not all suffering is bad as many of us willingly expose ourselves to suffering when we go to the dentist or college or even to a football game in temperatures that are below zero (I grew up in Green Bay, WI and did this on a number of occasions). So, obviously suffering is not a universal wrong, on what basis does Myers determine some suffering to be wrong?

Now, I am not saying that these behaviors are right, simply saying that when Myers rejects objective standards, he must then defend why I should consider his standards to be binding on me or anyone else. If morality is not grounded objectively, then he is merely expressing his opinion, or maybe the opinions of a group with whom he happens to agree, but he is not expressing objective morality.

Myers is holds to what is known as hard atheism, in other words, he holds a belief that God does not exist. He says, “There are no gods, no objective enforcement of a benign morality on us.” Since there is no God (or as he says, gods), then that means that we need to figure out our own morality. Myers says that we “should build our morality on reason.” But how is this done? How do we figure out what is right or wrong based upon observation and reason alone without an objective basis against which to test our reason. It is like measuring without an objective standard by which to measure or reasoning without an objective truth by which to check our reason. Whose reason reigns supreme?

C.S. Lewis spoke about this in his book Abolition of Man when he speaks of the Innovator in values, the one who tries to arrive at moral values through reason alone. He explains that reason can be broken out into two categories. First is practical reason which “confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved…are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.” He says that the Innovator will not take this alternative as it seems too much like objective morality. So, it seems that Myers must explain what he means by reason. Maybe he takes Lewis’ second alternative, which fits better with an evolutionary framework, that of instinct.

This seems to be the only alternative left for the naturalist as reason would require some sort of plumb line against which to assess our reason. There has to be an objective standard or reason will be left to the individual’s own judgment. However, instinct leaves us no better off, for we would ask, whose instinct should we trust? How do we know who is more highly evolved and therefore whose instincts are more trustworthy if we have no objective standard against which to measure?

You see, Lewis had it right 65 years ago when he wrote this Abolition of Man, yet, somehow the new atheists still haven’t figured out that reason alone cannot get one to objective morality. Unless we are all using the same external standard to measure weight, length, height or depth; unless we are using the same mathematics and rules of logic (which themselves are not arrived at by logic, but simply known to be true); unless we trust an objective external ground of logic which itself is eternal and to which we are bound, then morality is simply a matter of one’s tastes and preferences and nothing more.

One can deny the existence of God, as does Myers; yet at the same time, one also is denying the existence of objective morality, along with a host of other ideas and concepts which I don’t believe we can live without. Myers wants to give up God, but still retain all of the benefits of what God brings to us. It is time that he faces the reality that if he gives up God, he also gives up objective morality and has no right to say that anyone is wrong; at best, he can say that he simply doesn’t prefer their behavior and ideas. I will take his displeasure into consideration and go on trusting God and living with the reality of real objective morality.

Are We Merely Creatures of Instinct?

7 09 2009

This week in a book discussion of which I am a part, the discussion centered around Lewis’ discussion of the concept of instinct. What he says is that if we are merely evolved beings then we should operate on instinct rather than intentionality. There should be no oughtness to our behavior, simply an isness. What he means is that we should only be able to describe how a person behaves, not how they ought to behave, as ought would imply that there is a right and wrong way to behave, which cannot come via natural processes.

right-way-wrong-way1Often evolutionists will argue that survival is the result of evolution, and some will take an extra and unwarranted step of saying that survival is the “goal” of the evolutionary process, thus implying a purpose for evolution. I say that this is an unwarranted step as evolution is a blind process according to people like Richard Dawkins and others, and therefore cannot have a purpose or goal. So, survival is just a chance result of the evolutionary process rather than a goal or purposeful end.

What one of our members did to test this idea was to pose a case in which a person (A) had a choice to make between B, C & D to achieve the end of fulfilling a desire (sorry for all the letters, but it is the best way to explain the situation). His instincts were equally divided between the options and he had no history with any of the choices, so he arbitrarily chose B, which gave him fulfillment of his desire. The next time, given the same choices, instinct should direct A to choose B again to fulfill A’s desire, as B fulfilled A’s desire the first time.

Now the scenario changes and the option for B is taken out of the mix of choices, leaving A to choose between C & D. A arbitrarily chooses C, and A finds that C fulfills him even better than did B. The next time, given the choices of B, C and D, instinct should drive A to choose C over B & D.

In these scenarios we are assuming that A does not reason or is not influenced by anything other than instinct. Suppose that A, driven by the instinct to survive, began to steal food from Y who had more than needed to survive. If we are truly driven by instinct alone, we could not say that A has done anything wrong, even if our instincts tell us that stealing is wrong. We could only say that A has done something different from what our instincts would drive us to do. That would include every other behavior that we consider moral or immoral. Those actions would not be truly moral or immoral, just different.

Neither can we determine what actions would have ultimate survival value as we cannot determine how a certain action will impact the future. For example, suppose society judged murder to be an action that impeded survival, yet A were to murder a person who would have become a Stalin or a Hitler should he have lived, that murder would have actually had a greater impact on survival than not murdering the Stalin or Hitler. Yet, we cannot determine who will become a Stalin, Hitler, or Mother Teresa. In other words, we don’t truly know which of our actions will have greater impact for survival and which will not. Yet, to not murder will generally have greater survival impact than to murder. The choice not to abort the unborn should also have greater survival value as well, yet, it has not led us to ban abortion.

The other challenge with the instinct driven scenario is that often we have competing instincts and are left to “decide” between them. I put decide in quotes as we aren’t, in the case, making rational decisions, but somehow our instincts are arbitrating between them and one ends up “winning.” We are told that we have an instinct to survive by evolutionists, yet, we often see situations in which a person will put him or herself in harms way for no “good” reason from a survival viewpoint.

For example, on 9.11.01 we saw the efforts of the NYC fire fighters as they rushed into a burning building that they knew could be hazardous and possibly lethal to them. The higher up they went, the lower the chances of their survival as well as the survival of the victims inside the buildings. Yet, we saw these men and women rushing into the building and up to the higher floors against their instinct to survive. There was no guarantee that their efforts would have led to the ultimate survival of the species or even the improvement of the odds of the survival of the species. So, how does one explain that these people gave their lives and why do we call them heroes if instinct is the driver?

I think the reason that we consider them to be heroes is the same that we consider the person who does what we consider to be immoral to be an immoral person. We know that people act on more than just instinct, we know that they also act based upon reason and that reason is directed by a moral code that exists outside of us. C.S. Lewis calls this the Tao, a shorthand name for what we know to be objective moral values that really exist and by which our actions are judged and which also directs our conscience. We are driven by more than just instincts as we consider criminals to be truly guilty of doing wrong and someone like Mother Teresa to be truly virtuous. We don’t just chalk it up to instinct and leave it at that. We are not indifferent to these behaviors as we should be if we were truly driven by instinct as the instincts of those people would be no better or worse, just different.

We celebrate the heroes of 9.11, those who have given their lives for our country in war, and many others who made conscious choices to resist the instinct to survive as the highest good and chose instead to put their lives on the line for the good of country and those who were in need.

Men Without Chests

31 08 2009

Men Without Chests is the intriguing title to the first chapter of C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man.  It is not only an intriguing title, but it is a compelling topic in today’s culture where we are told to tolerate lifestyles and ideas, but not truth or necessarily, people.

Abolitoin of ManLewis begins the chapter with the discussion of a book, a real book by real authors; however, he masks both the name of the book and the names of the authors as an act of kindness toward them, a kindness, although undeserved, is displayed out of Christian charity (this is my interpretation, not his).  Lewis writes, “I shall refer to these gentlemen as Gaius and Titius and to their book as The Green Book.  But I promise you there is such a book and I have it on my shelves.” (2)

The book was intended to be a book on writing and literary style, yet, as Lewis points out in this chapter, the book turns out to be a insidious book of philosophy.  Lewis discusses a portion of the book in which they discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poet and philosopher, who wrote of a couple of tourists viewing a waterfall.   One says that the waterfall is sublime while the other says that it is pretty.  Now, since we don’t use the word sublime commonly in our vernacular, let me give you the definition: impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.

My wife and I have had the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls years ago and I will tell you that neither of us would have described the falls as simply, pretty.  To do so would have done an injustice to the grandeur of the falls.  The same could be said of the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, the Grand Canyon and many other natural wonders of this world.  Coleridge as well endorsed the observation of the first tourist and rejected that of the second.

This is where Gaius and Titius step in to introduce philosophy to the conversation.  They tell the reader that the tourists were not making an observation about the waterfall itself, but an observation about their own feelings.  Lewis quotes Titius as saying, “When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.  What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.” (2)

In other words, we are not making objective observations about a thing, in fact we cannot, we can only express the feelings or emotions brought about when observing a thing.  I called this insidious on the part of Gaius and Titius and here is why.  In the name of teaching the proper use of the English language, they are implanting ideas about the world into the heads of school children in a somewhat subversive manner.  They are not coming out and telling them that they are discussion philosophy and a worldview, they are merely slipping it in the back door, as it were, in the guise of an English lesson.

Gaius and Titius go on to give another example of this in the fourth chapter of their book where they take an advertisement for a cruise line and again slip in philosophy under the cover of English composition.  The ad encourages the reader to buy a ticket to sail the “Western Oceans where Drake and Devon sailed” seeking the adventures and treasures of the Indies.  Lewis criticizes the ad as a poor piece of writing, but criticizes Gaius and Titius for not only overlooking the poor writing, but instead focusing on the idea that the cruise ship won’t sail were these adventurers sailed and that any treasures that they bring home will be metaphorical.  In other words, instead of dealing with the grammar and syntax, these men attack the philosophical and literary underpinnings of the ad.  Lewis points out that they could do the same with Wordsworth and many of the other great writers in literary history as most of them used metaphor in their writing.

CS LewisLewis explains that up until recently our emotions and observations were connected to something real, something objective.  Our observations could be judged to be right or wrong as they were compared to the reality of that which was being observed or judged.  He explains that every culture had an understanding of a good that is beyond the physical world and that is objective in nature.  He illustrates this by using the Chinese concept of the Tao, “the reality beyond all predicates”, or as Plato called it, the forms.  Again, he uses the Tao not necessarily as a reference to Chinese thought, but to a concept that he says spans all major worldviews and that represents an objective reality beyond the physical world.  Readers can get tripped up on this concept and I will say that I am not in full agreement with Lewis’ presentation of this concept; however, it is helpful in understanding that there is a reality beyond this physical world that can be understood and grasped by us.

It is those who not only deny this reality but also convince others that this reality is no reality at all that Lewis calls men without chests. These people claim the title of intellectual and yet set out to destroy.  In destroying a person’s confidence in being able to grasp objective truth and in the very existence of objective truth, these people destroy hope, meaning and purpose in the person’s life as well.  If there is no objective truth, there can be no real meaning to life.  Morality becomes a quaint concept with no grounding in reality.  The Apostle Paul said that if the reality of the resurrection does not exist, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32)  In other words, if there is no hope beyond this world, we might as well live it up in this world as it is all we have.

Yet, Paul says the same thing of these people that Lewis says of Gaius and Titius, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’” (v.33) Paul tells us that there is a reality beyond this physical existence and that Jesus is the demonstration of that through his death, burial and resurrection.  So, let us heed the words of Paul:

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.” (vv. 57-58)