Thursday, March 18, 2004

A Wrong-Headed Question: In one of my recent debates with a fellow science graduate student, I was asked to comment on the following experiment. If we took 1,000 people with some condition, say cancer, and had a group of religionists pray for them, and took a control 1,000 people with the same condition but ensured that no one prayed for them, could we find empirical proof that God answers prayers?

My immediate response is that this is a wrong-headed experiment. Not the right kind of question to ask. I am tempted to say that for the most part Mormons don't have faith or practice their religion because they want some kind of physical intervention by God. Scientists are obsessed with physical explanations and control to the point of ignoring other things like community, morality, inner peace, and so forth. Nevertheless I do not want to claim that God cannot intervene physically in the world (as long as he does so via natural forces, not some kind of trumping the laws of the universe).

So why is the question a poor one? How would you answer? A couple of responses I came up with:

1) There is no way of developing a sufficient methodology of prayer. You can always say, 'That prayer didn't count because you didn't invoke X or you didn't have faith in Y etc.' Since the methodology is suspicious the results can be challenged. Now a religious person who believes in prayer might have a theory of how it works, and what kind of events count as answers to that prayer. But such theories and assumptions cannot be used by the scientist. In a purely scientific context, then, a prayer methodology is ambiguous, and a religious person can object to the experiment. The two people talk past each other and neither can prove the other false.

2) There is no 1 to 1 correspondence between prayers and answers to prayers. God has his freedom and may choose to respond however he wishes. The actions of other rational agents are very hard to fit into conceptions of natural law; witness the difficulty of sociology etc in developing theories with predictive power.

You may or may not like my responses to this scenario, but it does raise a few interesting points. Should we expect or ask God to intervene to cure people of cancer? Should we instead pray that his Will be done and that everyone feel good about it, be at peace, etc--or is that showing a lack of faith an involved, caring, loving God? There is something problematic in accepting God's intervention on a personal anecdotal level and not being willing to test it at a broader level (though the above experiment is problematic).