• Oh, my! Randal Rauser on prayer (God or Godless)

    I recently reviewed Randal Rauser and John Loftus’ debate book entitled God or GodlessI have also responded to Randal’s post on why I am an atheist as well as posting an article critiquing Randal on why he is a Christian. During my review, I noted that I was particularly frustrated at Randal’s prayer chapter.

    Randal’s chapter recounted an anecdote involving prayer. In simple terms, this is it:

    1. Pastor Kent Sparks, living in North Carolina with wife, were pursuing adoption with House of Ruth
    2. No luck in year and a half, so pursued private adoption in Georgia
    3. After adoption of daughter Emily went through, Kent called House of Ruth to leave message to suspend their file
    4. Staff were in meeting to discuss with a client who had chosen Sparks for a child
    5. Meeting ended, staff called Cheryl Sparks to tell her good news – another child for adoption
    6. Cheryl called a friend to ask her for prayer
    7. Kent returned from work and Cheryl asked him to conduct a devotion without telling him of the news
    8. Kent opened Bible and read Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
      When it is in your power to do it.”
    9. Cheryl’s friend later phoned with a Bible verse, Proverbs 3:27
    10. They adopted their second child, Cara

    And this was the main evidence to support his argument that prayer works.

    Kent and Cheryl’s case evinces these same hallmarks of contingency, complexity and specification. While these events are obviously contingent, they are also complex since they involved multiple factors timed together (e.g., Kent’s call concurrent with the adoption meeting), and they included specified information (e.g., two independently confirmed referenced to Proverbs 3:27). Consequently, Kent and Cheryl (and we) are fully justified in drawing the conclusion of divine action in confirmation of the adoption. (p. 142)

    When I read this account and the rationalisation of it thereof, I was staggered. Randal is an intelligent guy who claims he is conversant with cognitive biases and suchlike (I think he has written a book about them). This example is so very easy to dismiss. Let me refer you to the chapter on prayer in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions:

    The subject of prayer provides several problems for the believer, if thorough critical questioning is followed through. Part of the issue of perceived success of prayer is down to religious people interpreting coincidence as divinely purposed, and this is very common. I am aware of this, and am constantly amazed at the amount of seemingly dauntingly huge coincidences that I go through on a daily basis. Most of these are so innocuous as not to even stick in the memory. Usually, this will entail reading a book, and a certain word that you haven’t heard for ages, and then hearing it five seconds later on the television in the background. Wow! Who would have believed it? The problem is, we see things as much bigger coincidences than they really are because we are unaware of the frequency involved in calculating the probability. For example, buying a lottery ticket might mean that the probability of winning the lottery is staggeringly small, say one in fourteen million. However, if you bought fifteen million tickets, then it becomes likely. Also, if you look at the frequency of tickets bought as a whole, then someone winning is a statistical certainty. To translate this across to the word scenario, then the number of words I read or use per year, and the amount of words I hear in the background per year, means that the occurrence of these weird coincidences actually becomes a statistical certainty too. Don’t just look at the incident in isolation, but in the greater context of everything around it.

    Now, as mentioned, these are innocuous cases. However, let’s look at something that happened to me the other day. I am the proud father of newly born twin boys. These two delights give us great joy, and yet they can also be a great challenge. When we introduced them to solids recently, they had a week of screaming the house down at night. This led my partner and me to have some degree of sleep deprivation, as they were waking every two hours to be breastfed. We sat down one Sunday afternoon and discussed this for about four hours. We had all the books out, and were scouring the internet for different routines, opinions and helpful tips. We were fairly stressed, and this was really important for us, especially as the boys were pretty stressed too. After all the talk and worry, we simply couldn’t conclude what to do – there were so many options. It was at this point that, had we been praying people, we would almost certainly have joined hands and prayed for strength and insight; for an answer.

    Giving up, I walked myself down to the local shop for some milk, as we had some surprise guests over for a cup of tea. Just walking out of my local shop as I got there, on a random Sunday afternoon, was a woman we knew from Twins Club. I had never seen her on this road before, or even outside of Twins Club. And there she was. I stood and talked to her for half an hour. She had had exactly the same problem with her twins, gave us a routine and some ideas, and hey presto, we were sorted and so much happier. What were the chances!

    Of course, had I prayed, this would have been bona fide proof that prayer works, that God listens to me, that my faith works. Imagine the joy in God’s works that I would have experienced, and imagine the evangelising I would have done at the church in telling my Christian friends of the ‘miracle’. I didn’t pray, and don’t hold that faith. What to a Christian in exactly the same sort of situation, and who has a real spiritual moment of transcendent evidence of prayer and faith, becomes just another funny coincidence to someone like me. For someone who prays frequently every day, the chances of a ‘successful prayer’ are very high.

    These coincidences happen all the time. But when they happen to a religious person, they take on a whole different religious meaning derived from the religious context. Prayer works for a lot of people who follow a lot of different religions. At least most of those gods don’t exist, so something must be up. “My God and my prayers work, but yours are just coincidences,” seems like special pleading to me. The chances are, in my opinion, that most (if not all) incidences of prayer working can be put down to coincidence. We do and say an awful lot of things every day, and we wish for an awful lot of things every day. Some of them are bound to actually happen.

    Besides, I’ve never seen an amputee grow back their limb after prayer. I have seen evidence of cancer naturally go into remission without prayer. Enough cancer patients get prayed for, for there to eventually be a correlation. Not, may I add, a causal relationship.

     Let me now refer you to Littlewood’s Law:

    Littlewood defines a miracle as an exceptional event of special significance occurring at a frequency of one in a million. He assumes that during the hours in which a human is awake and alert, a human will see or hear one “event” per second, which may be either exceptional or unexceptional. Additionally, Littlewood supposes that a human is alert for about eight hours per day.

    As a result a human will in 35 days have experienced under these suppositions about one million events. Accepting this definition of a miracle, one can expect to observe one miraculous event for every 35 days’ time, on average – and therefore, according to this reasoning, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace.

    Ever since learning about Littlewood’s Law I have been cognisant of coincidences and ‘wow’ moments and I have to admit, I have bloody loads.

    Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once observed, “When I pray, coincidences happen, when I do not pray coincidences do not happen.” Many Christians can resonate with Temple’s wry reference to God’s providence. But atheists demur, charging that such experiences only evince a selection bias that counts the hits and ignores the misses.

    And I would say that Randal’s example simply does not represent a specified complexity which would prove God. Cheryl’s friend is likely to find some such relevant passage, and Kent would have such issues of the adoption at the forefront of his mind whilst choosing passages. As in my own case, things like this happen all of the time to people who don;t believe and don’t pray. They get forgotten, or not even seen as significant in any way.

    Here is an excerpt which I posted on my previous blog to illustrate the point further:

    I have an analogy which I hope will illustrate why at least a lot of examples of alleged successful prayer or interventions of God take place.

    Yesterday I was pumping up the tyres to my twins’ buggy. I have an old bicycle pump which I bought probably seven years ago. I bought it for £3 – peanuts. This pump has been very hard working – two bicycles and a buggy at regular intervals (the buggy particularly often needing pumping up). The pump has worked tirelessly (pun intended).

    For the first time ever, whilst pumping the tyres up to the buggy in the kitchen, I wanted to talk about this pump, and laud its efficiency, reliability and value for money to my partner.

    “This pump is brilliant. I’ve had it for seven years now, and it’s never let me down. I only paid three quid for it and it has been such a good bargain. Basically, it’s genius.”

    And like a Greek tragedy, surprise, surprise. What amazed me was the timing. No sooner had I finished the ‘us’ of ‘genius’ than the mechanism of the pump twanged and it broke in my hands. The two of us burst out laughing at the sheer amazing coincidence of it. The first time, after very regular use for seven years, that I had ever even mentioned the pump, after singing its praises in my over-exuberant manner, it broke in my hands. Really, what were the chances!? It was like there was some supernatural force making that happen.

    It was like there was some supernatural force making that happen… And that made me think.

    Let me now change the analogy around – shift the paradigm. Let me now put myself in the position of being a praying Christian.

    I am said Christian. I am on my way to work, and am late for an important meeting for the first time. The level crossing that I cross very often is always down. As I approach, I fear it is down. But suddenly, I see it is UP! I race through it thanking God for doing that! Woo Hoo! Now imagine, just before I approach it, I give a little prayer. When it is up, and I race though, I think to myself, “God listened! I won’t be late for that crucial meeting! Thank you God!”

    Now imagine that same crossroad which is always down, is open after a little prayer with my critically ill partner on the way to the hospital. That small amount of time could be the difference between life and death. That same prayer has a massive consequence. Now God really is listening and I will remember that for the rest of my life.

    But let us return to the original event. The pump breaks after an amazingly coincidental exuberant display of affection for the pump. Hey-ho, I forget about it after a week.

    If I was a fervent believer, I would be praying multiple times a day, asking for things very often. The sheer volume of prayer means that many of them, by the laws of statistics, will be ‘successfully acted upon’.

    The sheer volume of things we do every day, every week and every year (considering we are often doing many thing simultaneously – driving to work whilst listening to the radio and thinking of my twins) means that, statistically, HUGE coincidences will happen remarkably often. If you attach a prayer prior to that, a remarkable event will seem to happen at the will of God in answering your prayer.

    And just in case you aren’t convinced, here is an example of me comparing my experience further above to my Christian friend who produced a very similar example and argument to Randal. This is an email I sent a couple of years ago using the same twins example used above:

    With regards to last night’s session in the pub talking of miracles, we used a miracle claim of Colin to steer the talk. Colin has claimed a miracle of answered prayer occurred whose specified complexity points towards it being a miracle. It went something like this (apologies if I misrepresent you here, Colin):

    1. Colin had a specific problem which was affecting him badly with regards to a biblical passage.
    2. He was going away for the weekend to a Christian retreat / party
    3. He, the next day or two, had an image in his mind of a golden sword.
    4. The next day he was in a book shop and the second or third book he pulled out had an image of a golden sword on the front. He opened it to a page in the book which answered all his worries.
    5. He claims this had such a specified complexity as to be best explained by it being a second-order miracle (one that does not violate natural laws).

    Andy and I both came back with some ‘incredible coincidence’ stories. Colin claimed these did not have the same level of specified complexity. I will now attempt to show you that he was wrong.

    Here is the quote from my last book to explain the scenario:

    [I use the quote above to give the case involving the twins.]

    So what we have here is this:

    1. We had a problem that was affecting us which we sought the answer to.
    2. Some surprise guests turned up unannounced
    3. We had run out of milk and I had, at that particular moment, to go to the shop to buy some.
    4. At the shop I met a mother of twins who I have never seen before or since on my road.
    5. She gave us all the answers we needed to our massive relief as she had been through EXACTLY the same issues.

    Now let’s compare these two stories for probability. At the end of the day, miracles deal in probability and specified complexity is merely a reflection of probability.

    First of all, we have the problem. Colin is a Christian, there are many Christians and many have issues with passages in the bible. This problem we had involved not one, but four people, thus the probabilities that must exist to conspire to all of us being there to have that problem are higher. However, as an individual starting point, these probabilities are less relevant.

    The catalyst: Colin had an image over a 2-3 day period which coincided with the cover of the book. We had a situation where we were discussing the problem at length and right afterwards some unannounced guests arrived. The actions of two other people must now be calculated such that the chances of them coming to our door, from living in London, are very low indeed. Suddenly they are there. AND THEN we had to have run out of milk in order for me to need to go to the shop. Just on the catalyst front, my story appears far more improbable, statistically.

    Next, Colin is in a book shop and picks out a book which corresponds to his image. I walk to the shop and find not just anyone, but the EXACT person who had experienced THE EXACT SAME THING, there with her twins. I had and have never seen her there before. Had we prayed, she literally would have been the answer to our prayers. The probability of her being in that exact place at that exact time, of being a mother of twins with exactly the same problem (and for me to need to go to the shops at that time due to milk running out and unexpected guests) is astronomically more improbable that a book detailing information on a biblical passage being in a Christian bookshop full of other Christian books.

    As I was pointing out to Colin , I don’t think there is often an understanding of the massive improbability of coincidences like mine, and there is often a desire to make the calculations for probabilities which seem to involve purpose much lower due to intuitive belief that the events are purposes. At the end of the day, If Helen and I had held hands and prayed before my friends came to the door, that chain of events would have seemed more powerful, I posit, than Colin’s miracle claim. Heck, I would have been praising the Lord!

    Using Littlewood’s Law, of course, we know that highly improbable events take place with alarming regularity since the frequency of things we do and experience is phenomenal. Littlewood calculated you would experience a ‘miracle’ once a month.

    Thus I hope to have shown that massive coincidences happen regularly and have just a low probability, and often lower (as in this case), than many religious miracle claims. Just because there is no perceived purpose does not mean the probability is any higher.

    So, given these points, I think that Randal’s case is exceptionally weak. It certainly does not evidence God. Think of all the ways in which prayer could work which would leave one with no doubt. The complexity which Randal invokes is simply not strong enough or specified enough to do what he wants it to do. Only if you overload it with copious amounts of cognitive bias. Again, we could talk of growing back limbs and what have you. What do we have instead? Events which look extraordinarily like coincidences.

    Category: NaturalismPhilosophy of Religion

    Tags:

    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Very well done man. I think a corresponding issue is to bring up that not only do these types of crazy coincidences happen to atheists, but they also happen to believers of conflicting religions.

      We can find many stories of Mormons, Muslims, and Hindu’s all praying for things and then miraculously having it happen. Would their answered prayers be evidence of their intra-contradictory faiths as much as it is for Christians?

      Given this plus the fact that such events happen for atheists as well be enough to show that the most likely explanation for this is that such “answered prayers” are not miracles?

    • Clare45

      Some heart attack victims do worse after being prayed for: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060403133554.htm

    • Honest_John_Law

      That is an interesting sequence of events that Dr. Rauser referenced in support of the apparent claim of divine action in response to prayer. Here is another interesting (abbreviated) sequence of events:

      http://www.historymole.com/cgi-bin/main/results.pl?theme=10016856

      1347 CE The beginning of the Black Death (1347-1351) which appears during a time of economic depression in Western Europe and reoccurs frequently until the fifteenth century. The Black Death is a combination of bubonic and pneumonic plagues and has a major impact on social and economic conditions.

      1349 CE 3,000 Jews killed in Black Death riots in Efurt, Germany.

      1349 CE Jews are massacred at Nuremberg in Black Death riots.

      1352 CE The Black Death by this year had killed (an estimated) 25 million people in Europe alone.

      During that period, how many specific prayers of men and women and children throughout Europe might we imagine went unanswered as millions of people became ill, suffered and died? Considering that an estimated 25 million died in Europe, it would be seem reasonable to estimate that many millions of specific prayers went unanswered.

      Let the ad hoc reasoning by apologists commence now…

    • Dear Jonathan,

      Congratulations! Your article has been selected to be an object of satire by The Tentative Apologist. You should be receiving a link to your prize in the next 24-48 hours.

      Sincerely,

      The Tentative Apologist Team

      • I am looking forward to it. Perhaps…

      • John Grove

        We await the response from the master of rationalizations.

      • I find it hard to understand how you could satirise a point which broadly says “believing in such miracles is a case of thinking it a miracle when the probability is so low; your probability is not low enough.”

      • First of all, Randal, your attempt at satirisation does nothing but try to belittle me in a rather disingenuous manner.
        You accuse me of not understanding your argument and then fail to pick up on my main point or even reference it.
        IF I HAD BEEN A CHRISTIAN AND PRAYED then I would have assigned purpose and specified complexity to those events. These sorts of events happen all of the time. I didn’t pray, and such events would be forgotten. So your whole diatribe seems ill-thought out and rather petulent sounding.
        Furthermore, if you want to look at it statistically, you need to know ferquencies of the sorts of things that happened to the Sparks, otherwise you build a castle in the air, with no empirical foundations. It IS anecdotal. There is no scientific rigour to it WHATSOEVER.
        Let’s have a random stab at it being a 1 in a billion chance.
        So, let’s look at Christians. Just over 2 billion in the world. How many intersecting events happen each day to each one? Well, perhaps 10, 100, 1000, or 10,000. This is the basis of Littlewood’s Law. We now have 20 – 20,000 billion events happening around the world A DAY. Multiply that by a year, 5 years, 10 years or so on.
        So, imagine the sheer volume of opportunity for such events. That such seemingly specified complex events happen is A STATISTICAL CERTAINTY. Are you justified in positing a divine agent for this? No, because Ockham’s Razor and the idea that these would happen with an agent or not on probability means that that you do not need to multiply the entities.
        Tjhat I have to spell this out for you is a little annoying. I can see I will have to write another post.

        • “First of all, Randal, your attempt at satirisation does nothing but try to belittle me in a rather disingenuous manner.”

          I’m not belittling you and there’s nothing disingenuous. I’m pointing out that your invocation of coincidence over meaningful agential action has no criteria. And that allows you in principle to invoke coincidence as an explanation for any event which otherwise appears to be meaningful or involve an agent. Complaining about being “belittled” makes you look rather thin skinned. And that’s ironic given your critique.

          “You accuse me of not understanding your argument and then fail to pick up on my main point or even reference it.
          “IF I HAD BEEN A CHRISTIAN AND PRAYED then I would have assigned purpose and specified complexity to those events.”

          So what? That just shows that our interpretation of events is relative to background sets of beliefs. As I pointed out in my critique, I wouldn’t interpret the event you provide as divine action because it lacks specification. And that does leave it in the coincidence file alongside the Jimmy Buffet case I referred to. Bottom line: the fact that you would choose to interpret an event as coincidence doesn’t undermine the justification of anybody else in interpreting the same event as meaningful. And that means that your critique doesn’t even get going.

          Look at how you still fail to identify any criteria restricting the application of “Littlewood’s Law”. You’re as vulnerable as ever to the satirical critique that so angered you. Consider the case I provide in the chapter of a sign spelling out “Happy Birthday”. This event is not only contingent and complex but also specified, and thus it warrants an inference to meaningful intelligence. Mutatis mutandis for the Sparks case, at least relative to the background beliefs of a theist or Christian.

    • KINGJEHOVAH

      TAM APOSTASY 2013

      youtube.com/watch?v=_ErqizZ7IvA

      ,,,..,.,.

    • Daydreamer1

      My only thought here is that next to the towering evidences of the ancient world, of weather and natural disasters, of design in nature, of life itself – Christianity now has to use anecdotes and stories that happen to everyone.
      Nice story, but everyone has a few of these. I’m opting for Zeus to explain mine. Mind you classically Yahweh always had a nice beard too.

      • Daydreamer1

        Hi Randal,

        Thanks for the link.

        I like stories like this. They are heart warming. Me and my wife circled around each other for many years without bumping into each other and it was funny to realise how close we had come so many times. The romance of seeing it in the sense that the universe was pulling us together is not beyond me. That’s a little different to the serendipity of your story, but it does make me think. Even without design the nature of people and our lives does mean that there will be attractors like occurred between me and my wife – these attractors are free to be romanticised and because of them me and my wife are pretty perfect for each other and it is funny to see how close our lives had been many times before we met.

        Let me ask you, where would you go from these stories to create a bigger proof? I appreciate the problem with small localised evidences. For example, a farmer really might have a UFO land in his field and tell him that he has been chosen to lead humanity in a quest into the universe, but he will have a hard time convincing people – should have a hard time convincing people – unless he has some evidence. The same goes for Joe Blogs and his visit by angels etc. You’re not going to believe my personal experiences, especially if they go against your beliefs, unless I can give you some sort of evidence.

        It seems to me that the next step for these sort of stories is to do a larger scale study against a control. Your claim basically rests on the idea that the frequency of these type of events exceeds the expected natural frequency. That should in principle be measurable even if awkward. As for your claim that these are consistent with the idea of God or the Character of God and so are some sort of evidence for it I can see the first, but unless you can show that they occur outside of an expected frequency I don’t think you have very solid ground.
        Not unless you are willing to say that these sorts of thing can never happen naturally.

        • “Let me ask you, where would you go from these stories to create a bigger proof?”

          As I noted in my response-article to Jonathan, this argument is placed after a battery of arguments for God’s existence. Once we have grounds to believe God exists we can look for putative instances of divine action.

          • Honest_John_Law

            Randal, if Jonathan has previously declared that believes an entire universe now containing sentient life came into being without the guiding hand of a divine agent, why should it remotely surprise anyone that he disavows any claim of divine agency re. the Sparks case?

            As I mentioned on your blog, I have personally known many Hindus (including highly-educated and highly-intelligent graduates of various Indian Institutes of Technology) that are as capable of thoroughly analyzing events as you are. Many of them steadfastly believe Ganesha has miraculously intervened on their behalf. I imagine you wouldn’t accept their claims, but please correct me if I mischaracterize your position.

            “As I noted in my response-article to Jonathan, this argument is placed after a battery of arguments for God’s existence. Once we have grounds to believe God exists we can look for putative instances of divine action.” – Randal

            You obviously believe your “battery of arguments” for YHWH outweigh Jonathan’s “battery of arguments” against YHWH. Otherwise, your satirical article would appear to be be pettifoggery.

            • Daydreamer1

              Randal,

              All you said then was that having accepted Christian theology you see this as fitting it.

              Everyone sees these events as fitting their beliefs. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen synchronicities used to support all sorts of paranormal ideas that in themselves are incompatible with Christianity.

              Of course ‘nice, fortunate and rare things happen to Christians sometimes’ is compatible with the Christian God – under what circumstances would these evidences you have given not be compatible? They are perfectly compatible with the Flying Spaghetti Monster when they happen (as I am sure they do) to pastafarians. They are compatible with almost everything; that is what makes them very poor evidences indeed.

              Granted, you can use these for a very nebulous universal consciousness, or acting agency – be they trans-dimensional aliens, guardian ghosts from the 811th plane of existence, Ganesha, or the Christian God.
              But please don’t pretend that all the other religions and beliefs haven’t also found reasons to believe just as deeply as you, or that they haven’t interpreted much of the same data as you in favour of their own ideas.

              What we need is evidence that they favour a particular idea, be it the Christian hypothesis, or the coincidence hypothesis, or helpful transdimensional aliens etc. The argument from personal incredulity doesn’t shift many believers from one religion to another – and that is when they already accept that these are not coincidences.

              You have yet again refused to comment on any other possible hypothesis. Yes, we know you are a Christian, but that shouldn’t mean that you cannot think about other ideas and possibilities.

              I asked about how you would go about firming up this single argument, you reply that you don’t need to since you’ve accepted other ones and this is only a ‘tag-on’ anyway. I hope you would be extremely critical of anyone else using an anecdotal evidence in the same way – and that you will continue to hold science to higher standards than some people chatting over a beer in your local pub. It would be bad science to say that an anecdotal evidence was evidence for something if all it did was fit and had not been investigated would it not?
              I appreciate that all you are really doing is saying these things fit, but again, why would they not and how do you imagine you are going to differentiate between a real intervention and a coincidence if you have decided that you don’t need to bother even checking that the rate of these occurrences is not beyond what we would expect naturally?
              (again, your assertion seems almost based on the idea that these things must never happen naturally – that there can be no coincidences. I am not aware of anything discovered in physics or sociology that would not predict that these things should happen now and then. It is all about what rate they occur at – something you are saying you don’t care about)

              Well, if it is only a tag-on that works once you’ve accepted other stuff then I can only think that it is a waste of time trying to use it in a primary sense.

              My advice would be to focus on your core first. If your core argument is not convincing to people then spending time debating an addon that you yourself are admitting does not work on its own is not going to be productive.

              Of course, my other argument is that your core arguments are evidentially weak, which is why your addon arguments struggle.

      • “Anecdotal evidence is an informal account of evidence in the form of an anecdote. The term is often used in contrast to scientific evidence, as evidence that cannot be investigated using the scientific method. The problem with arguing based on anecdotal evidence is that anecdotal evidence is not necessarily typical; only statistical evidence can determine how typical something is. Misuse of anecdotal evidence is an informal fallacy.
        When used in advertising or promotion of a product, service, or idea, anecdotal evidence is often called a testimonial and is banned in some jurisdictions.[citation needed] The term is also sometimes used in a legal context to describe certain kinds of testimony. Psychologists have found that people are more likely to remember notable examples than the typical example.”

    • Peter

      I’ve read this and I’ve read Randal’s reply. In my field, evidence presented that is based on personal experience rather than a systematic analysis of data is called ‘anecdotal’ so I don’t think that label is too unfair. I don’t think appeals to coincidence are unfalsifiable either. Researchers address appeals to coincidence every time they talk about ‘statistical significance’. It’s a matter of separating signal from noise. If Randal is able to source stories from many friends with many decades of experience of praying and looking for signs and pick the best one, that’s a lot of noise (particularly if any fortuitous, religiously-themed concatenation of events counts). It’s also worth noting that even small biases in recollection can also make coincidences seem more impressive.

      • Honest_John_Law

        Nice post.

        If Randal fervently believes God intervenes and answers specific prayers, he is certainly free to conduct a double-blind experiment using a statistically significant sample size and then carefully document the results. If he does, I should like to see the results.

        • Peter

          I have thought about an analogy to have a go at expressing this better…Suppose there was a listening device at in Jonathan’s home that picked up a stream of letters (“abdzmnsa…”) from some source in outer space. Most of the output was by agreement noise, but some people argued that sometimes the letters were being sent by an intelligent agent at the other end. The intelligent agent, it was thought, could occasionally replace random letters with letters of their choice. One day it was discovered that some of the output included “everyonelovesthetipplingphilosopherblog”. This is specific (relates to Jonathan), and complex (long). Does this means we should conclude it was a message? I think it would actually depend on rather more. For instance, it would actually be quite weak evidence of agency if the machine printed out a million letters a minute, had been running for 50 years, and the message was found after a computerised word search of various words relating to Jonathan’s life. More noise mean’s its harder to discern genuine signals. That’s my issue with the case under discussion here. The more coincidences that could be interpreted as miracles, and the larger the population sampled, the greater the chance of false positives if you’re not careful…

          • That is exactly my point. It is all moot if you don’t know the frequency.

            Which is why I brought up the number of Christians and the number of events to which Randal paid no heed.

            • Peter

              Two further points to complete the analogy:

              1) Worldview doesn’t matter much here. Even if we are certain there is an agent at the other end you still need to be wary about false positives.

              2) Your argument (from your twins example) is essentially to pull up a tape from a machine that is genuinely random and show that it produced similarly improbable “messages”. It tells us that the data generating process is just noisy.

          • Honest_John_Law

            I thought you expressed your argument well the first time, and the example re. the listening device was also clear.

            BTW, as I referred to studies re. prayer, such a double-blind study to observe the possible effectiveness of intercessory prayer was done at the Mayo Clinic in 2001. The results concluded that intercessory prayer apparently had no significant effect on the patients.

    • Marc Lüttingen

      I’m an agnostic Christian, and I think it is NEVER possible to prove that a miracle occured.

      Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that tomorrow I see with my own eyes and with numerous other witnesses an amputee being healed after a prayer, would that show that materialism is false?

      Not at all, for there are two explanations compatible with materialism which are not implausible.

      1) we live in a multiverse including an infinite number of parallel universes. Boltmann’s brains are going to pop into existence in quite a few places due to the random movements of atoms (actually even in an infinite number of places!).

      Therefore, everything which is physically possible (however unlikely) is going to happen.

      The healing of an amputee is physically possible.

      Hence it’s going to occur an infinite number of times.

      We just happen to live in one of the universes where it has happened by chance.

      2) we are part of a simulation of very advanced aliens who, for unknown reasons, like to play with us or to carry out experiments.

      Before screaming “God Did It!!!” apologists should be able to discard this two possibilities.

      In that respect, all have failed lamentably.

      This is why I believe evidential arguments based on (extreme) improbabilities are doomed to fail.

      I’d love to hear your take on that.

      By the way, Brian Greene explore this in his book “The hidden reality”.

    • Pingback: A demarcation principle for Miracles | Third Millennial Templar()

    • Pingback: Loftus has written some cracking books | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: SIN welcomes “The Odds Must Be Crazy” to the network (with a piece by me!) | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Pingback: Pray for Paris...? Seriously? Think about it! • A Tippling Philosopher()