The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 5: Design Arguments

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 6: Psychics, prayer and the soul
Last modified on Sun Nov 22 22:38:42 2020


This is the sixth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to review his third chapter, Searching for a World Beyond Matter.

This chapter contains four different topics. Firstly, the existence of the soul. Secondly, whether or not there is a vital energy permeating the body. Thirdly, whether there are mental powers such as telepathy or telekinesis. Fourthly, whether or not prayer is effective.

Of these four topics, the second and third aren't really relevant to Christianity, so I will focus my attention on his discussion of the soul and on prayer. Actually, his discussion of the soul is also largely irrelevant to classical theism, since Professor Stenger doesn't seem to understand what the soul is. But I will discuss that in detail below.

His section on ESP gives an overview of experimental data on the subject. I can't comment on the accuracy of what he writes, since I know nothing about the field (and am not particularly interested in learning more). Essentially, the ideas have been studied and rejected by various serious researchers. A few people have set up their own journals, where they publish their own data, but these aren't taken seriously. His discussion looks reasonable to me. In particular, there is one good discussion on p-values, which mirrors my own thoughts closely. P-values are a statistical measure frequently used in the softer sciences, usually as part of a null-hypothesis test. One proposes a hypothesis that is the opposite of what you want to show, and then judge how consistent your data is with that hypothesis, and in particular how probable it is that the results you obtain would occur by chance if your null hypothesis were true. This will come out as a number, which is the p-value. If the p-value is sufficiently small, then you can declare the null hypothesis false and therefore your actual hypothesis true. This whole process has numerous problems (such as it is setting up a false dichotomy, and that there are different ways of analysing the data, so you can keep trying until you hit one that gets a result you can publish). The main problem, however, and the one that Professor Stenger highlights, is that the standard acceptance level, P = 0.05, is ridiculously high. Even ignoring issues with changing the analysis until you find a method that gets a result you can publish, that means that you have a one in 20 chance of getting a false rejection of the null hypothesis. So if you perform 20 ESP experiments, you expect one of them to meet this standard by chance. You then discard the other 19, and claim to have discovered telepathy. (Particle physicists will reject a claim unless it is a one in 10000 chance or better, and even that is liable to be overturned as more data comes in.) And even then, there are other methodological flaws. So I agree with Professor Stenger on this topic.

Vital Energy

His discussion of vital energy is perhaps a bit more relevant, since this was a feature of various traditional systems, such as the Chinese and also the ancient Greeks. It is still believed in by many Chinese people today, and is a key feature of traditional Chinese medicine. However, it is its position in Greek thought, and hence classical and Medieval European thought, which is of most interest. It is not, however, part of Christianity, and when modern medicine was developed and the understanding of the way the body works increased, Christians quickly rejected it in favour of the current understanding.

Stenger's argument against such a vital force is that a) chemical and physical processes are sufficient to account for the observed interactions between different parts of living organisms; and b) no extra or inexplicable radiation is picked up from a living body that is also not present in a dead body, aside from that due to the electrical impulses travelling along the nervous systems. Whatever this vital force is, its effects should be measurable, so even if the tests he described are the wrong sort of thing to detect this vital energy, then there should be some scientific test that would observe it. Professor Stenger discusses one Chinese study which claimed to have observed the Chinese version of the vital energy, qi, and seems to debunk it reasonably well. I'm obviously not qualified to comment on this topic in detail, but I see little wrong with Professor Stenger's presentation here and I would certainly not dispute his conclusions. I have no idea whether or not there are better papers claiming to have observed qi than the one Professor Stenger discusses, but I would be very surprised if there were.

I will, however, make one comment about something that Professor Stenger didn't discuss well. He finishes this section by discussing how energy is conserved, and qi doesn't act like a conserved quantity so it can't be an energy. Firstly, energy can be converted from one type to another, so that qi by itself isn't conserved doesn't mean that it by itself isn't a form of energy if it exists. Secondly, and more importantly, the concept of "vital energy" dates from before modern science. Modern physics has a very tight and precise definition of energy. It is quite probably that the word "energy" in "vital energy," the concept dating from a time well before physicists formalised their own definition, has a very different meaning. Comparing it to the physical definition of energy is thus to commit the fallacy of equivocation. That of course leads us to ask for a precise scientific definition of "energy" in "vital energy." I have absolutely no idea what that would be, but, as I said, it is not anything I have given any thought to, and nor anything I have any particular desire to waste my time doing.

But this brings me to a wider point. Professor Stenger states that we have a good understanding of the mechanisms of life in terms of physical and chemical processes. This is not inconsistent with the idea that there is something such as "vital energy," if "vital energy" is to understood as a general name describing at least some of those processes. There is certainly a difference between a living body and a corpse. Yes, ultimately, the same physical laws describe both of them, but what the physical laws predict should occur depend on the circumstances, and the circumstances are different. There are physical and chemical process which occur in a living body which don't in a corpse. So we could just define "vital energy" as the sum total of those processes. And I am not convinced that the ancient writers wouldn't have done so, had they known what we know today about the body but if they still wanted to hang onto their philosophical categories. Their science was far more rudimentary than our own, but that doesn't mean that their general concepts are not still applicable: all we are doing today is filling in the details which they couldn't understand.

Now, I am not defending the concept of "vital energy." All I am doing is pointing out that it is harder to dismiss than Professor Stenger realises. For example, an early definition of gravity might have been "a mystical energy field which makes things drop down when you release them." Then Newton came up with his laws and his precise definition of gravity, and after him Einstein. Do these later scientific explanations contradict the ancient definition? No. All they do is provide more details. They are not rival descriptions of gravity, but complementary. They still say that gravity makes things fall down. Professor Stenger assumes that the modern biochemical model of the body is a rival to the "vital energy" model. That need not be the case; it could just be a more precise description of the same thing. That doesn't mean that every concept of "vital energy" is consistent with modern science; if it is used in a pseudo-science to make predictions that are invalidated or contrary to biochemistry then it should be rejected. (I would argue that traditional Chinese medicine is such a pseudo-science.) And maybe the same process can be applied to every ancient treatment of "vital energy." But showing that the concept itself, in isolation of the framework developed around it, is inconsistent with modern science rather than just a primitive rephrasing of the mechanisms we hold to today is a much harder task than Professor Stenger realises.

Of course, even if this is true, the modern scientific understanding of life is far more detailed and useful than any ideas about "vital energy." Just adding the words "vital energy" does nothing to enhance the discussion. So at best the concept is redundant, and at worst it is incorrect. So I agree with Professor Stenger that it ought not to be considered. But I think that he was wrong in assuming without discussion that the two descriptions must be in conflict. There are other ways of looking at it.

The soul

Now we get to a topic which is certainly relevant to Christianity. Christian theology teaches that we are body, soul and spirit. Soul and spirit are both immaterial. The soul in particular is associated in some way with life. For example, we read,

And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin (Genesis 35:18).

It also seems to be related in some respects to our rational nature, and our passions and will. It is our souls which bless, and our souls which hate.

And David said on that day, "Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack 'the lame and the blind,' who are hated by David's soul." (2 Samuel 5:8)

(Admittedly, I don't know Hebrew, so can't verify that the word is a good translation in those verses.)

The New Testament uses the word in a similar sense.

"And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." But God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Luke 12:19)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Greek word used here is psyche (ψυχη). But scripture isn't specific about its definition (other than it is in some way related to our life and in some way the seat of our character and desires and controls our bodies), so we have to turn to other classical sources. Aristotle defined the soul as

We are in the habit of recognising, as one determinate kind of what is, substance, and that in several senses, (a) in the sense of matter or that which in itself is not 'a this', and (b) in the sense of form or essence, which is that precisely in virtue of which a thing is called 'a this', and thirdly (c) in the sense of that which is compounded of both (a) and (b). Now matter is potentiality, form actuality. ...

Among substances are by general consent reckoned bodies and especially natural bodies; for they are the principles of all other bodies. Of natural bodies some have life in them, others not; by life we mean self-nutrition and growth (with its correlative decay). It follows that every natural body which has life in it is a substance in the sense of a composite.

But since it is also a body of such and such a kind, viz. having life, the body cannot be soul; the body is the subject or matter, not what is attributed to it. Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of a body as above characterised. (Aristotle, De anima, book 2)

We can also turn to Christian writers. Aquinas, not surprisingly, follows Aristotle,

For it belongs to the notion of a soul to be the form of a body.

So the definition of the soul that I will use is that it is the form of a living organism. There are different types of soul; for example for mankind the soul is both animal and rational, while for centipedes it is merely animal. A rational soul is also the seat of the intellect as well as of life. The soul relates to a living organism as the form does to any non-animate matter. The distinction between living and non-animate substances is more a matter of convenience (since living organisms have more natural powers than non-living objects) than any sharp distinction in the concept.

Obviously, this definition is not of much use to a post-enlightenment thinker such as Professor Stenger, because he has no notion of what is meant by form. I often distinguish form and matter by saying that form is that part of a material substance that can be represented abstractly, while matter is that part which gives it its physical existence. For example, form contains a description of the structure of the substance, and tells us how the matter is arranged to make up that substance, and what its powers are, and how it might change, and so on. In a living organism, the soul corresponds to the form and the body to the matter. The soul gives the matter its shape, and powers, and thus for a living organism describes the beings capacity for growth, for movement, for sensation and intellectual activity; alongside a host of other things.

One thing that all authorities agree on is that the soul is not corporal, that is to say not material. The idea of something immaterial playing an important role should be familiar to scientists. For example, the precise crystalline structure of a metal is not a material thing (the metal itself is material; but not the description of how the atoms are arranged and interact with each other). And yet it is from this structure that we can determine the various properties of the metal. The soul plays a similar role in a living organism, albeit that living organisms are far more complex.

So with that introduction out of the way, let us turn to what Professor Stenger wrote on the subject.

Professor Stenger begins with a historical introduction, stating that the belief that we are more than physical bodies began in pre-history, and gives a brief historical introduction. Of most interest to me is his treatment of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Hebrews.

Plato placed a "vegetative soul in the gut, a "vital soul" in the heart, and an immortal soul in the head. His most famous student, Aristotle, restored the immortal soul to the heart. Whatever its location, in the common view the soul was a conduit for spirits -- the force that gave a body life and thought.

Just from the quotes above, it is easy to see that this is at best a very superficial discussion of the ideas about the soul in classical thought. His discussion of Plato seems to be based on the Timaeas. The characterisation of Aristotle seems to be superficial. There is a statement in his On Youth and Old Age, which states, "But it is the heart that has supreme control, exercising an additional and completing function. Hence in sanguineous animals the source both of the sensitive and of the nutritive soul must be in the heart, for the functions relative to nutrition exercised by the other parts are ancillary to the activity of the heart." This is the closest reference I can find to Stenger's claim (although it may be that there is something I have missed). But it seems to be inconsistent with his treatment of the Soul in de anima, and the Christian theologians moved away from this idea. If I had room to make one comment on Aristotle's understanding of the soul, it wouldn't be concerning the discussion of where in the body it was located.

In the Old Testament, the soul is life itself, breathed into the body by God. While traditional Judaism does not regard death as the end of human existence, it has no dogma of an afterlife, and a range of opinions can be found among Jewish scholars. Christianity, on the other hand, made human immortality its foundational principle, the doctrine probably most responsible for the long success of that faith.

He goes on to discuss how early Christian writers located the soul in the empty spaces of the head. It would be nice if he had some sources for this. It strikes me as a rather surprising claim, since neo-Platonic Christian theology states that the soul is immaterial, and therefore it is wrong to locate it anywhere. While I am not an expert on the Church fathers by any means, I don't recall that any of those I have read made this claim, and certainly not as the cornerstone of their doctrine. The only reference I can find to such a notion is in the Greek physician Herophilus, who as far as I am aware was not Christian. But perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I can point out a source for this claim. But the majority of the fathers, as far as I can tell, understood the soul is rather considered to be distinguishable from the body and incorporeal, though unable to exist apart from the body. This is similar to the Aristotelian definition I gave above. I should also note that I would not describe the immortality of the soul as the foundational principle of Christianity. It is, certainly, a key doctrine, but only one among many. For example, the ancient Greeks also believed in an immortal soul, though not the Jewish/Christian concept of resurrection. Is this why Christianity endured for so long? Maybe the desire for immortality played a role at the popular level, but at the academic level the more important factors were more likely the consistency of Christianity with rational principles and human nature, its practicality, and that the evidence for it is far stronger than any of its rivals.

Professor Stenger notes that the Christians opposed the atomists, who rejected an immortal soul, and some of whom said that the soul was material. This, of course, isn't surprising: the Christians adopted neo-Platonism because of its similarity to Christian thought. That entails a rejection of Greek atomism. Whether that rejection was a mistake is harder to say: certainly it seemed to be in the nineteenth century revival of atomism. However, the modern description of quantum fields has less in common with the ancient Greek atomists, so equally one can say that the Church was right to reject them.

Professor Stenger next discusses Cartesian dualism, and says that this is how most people think of the soul today. Descartes split reality between the mechanistic material world and the immaterial soul not composed of matter. How these interact is an issue which wasn't solved by Descartes, and which troubles his successors to this day. Descartes rival was Hobbes, who regarded the mechanistic world as sufficient. For the rest of this chapter, Professor Stenger poses the question as a battle between Cartesian dualism and the pure mechanism of Hobbes. In this he sets up a false dichotomy, since he neglects the traditional Christian based on Aristotle. Both Descartes and Hobbes assumed a mechanistic physical world. In the light of quantum physics, this idea should be wholly rejected, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere. Classical Christian theism also rejects mechanism, so can be neither Cartesian nor Hobbesian. And this is obvious. Descartes lived in the seventeenth century, and came up with an entirely new way of looking at philosophy. The mechanism on which he relies perhaps was postulated a few centuries earlier. There was thus roughly 1600 years of Christian thoughts on the soul, including the most important and influential Christian thinkers, and a few centuries more of Greek and Jewish thought, which did not incorporate any of Descartes' ideas.

Professor Stenger then goes on to discuss the scientific research demonstrating that the brain is crucial to our thoughts, memories, and subjective experiences, including the results of modern imaging techniques. I have no objections to make to this discussion. He makes a brief mention of out of body experiences, which he rejects, but too briefly. I am a bit more undecided on this. I have seen some accounts, which seem to offer some evidence for such things (for example, the person undergoing the near death experience becoming aware of things which they could not have observed from their bodies), but I haven't studied the matter in sufficient detail to be able to comment on it one way or the other.

But now we come to the crux of Professor Stenger's claim.

Matter alone appears to be able to carry out all the activities that have been traditionally associated with the soul. No "spiritual" element is required by the data. The implication that "we" are bodies and brains made of atoms and nothing more is perhaps simply too new, too disturbing, too incompatible with common preconceptions to be soon accepted into common knowledge.

But this claim, I would argue, is based on a rejection of Cartesian dualism. The argument seems to be as follows.

  1. We are divided between a mechanistic material body and a spiritual non-material soul separate from it.
  2. The soul, if it exists, in some way controls and influences the body
  3. Scientific explanations only investigate the material world but not the spiritual world.
  4. There is a sufficient scientific description for the workings of the brain, and how our thoughts arise from it.
  5. Therefore the material world alone controls and influences the body
  6. The contradiction between points 5 and 2 can only be resolved by supposing that either the soul does not exist, or it has no influence over our body.

The premise 4 is perhaps more controversial than Professor Stenger suggests. Professor Feser, who knows far more about the philosophy of mind than I do, has discussed this in a number of posts.

I will focus my criticism on premises 1-3. These are based on Cartesian dualism. In a Thomist dualism, the relationship between soul and body is different. Indeed, the definition of matter is different. In particular, the soul, the form of the living being, is the source of the various powers and ends which are observed in modern science. In science, we represent some aspects of the physical world as an abstract formalism. We can then understand this formalism, and deduce things about it. Because the abstraction is in a one to one mapping with physical reality, what we deduce about the formalism is also applicable to reality. But that formalism cannot capture all of reality. That is obvious: no matter how well we can model the human body in terms of mathematical objects, that model will not be a human body. There is thus something concrete about the body which makes it physical and material, and something else which can be understood in an intellect. This I take to be the distinction between form and matter, or, in the case of a living organism, soul and body. Since the soul is just an abstract representation, it can be persevered after death, for example in a divine intellect, and later re-clothed in matter to produce a resurrected body. If this picture is right, then science does not study the matter in isolation of the soul, but it primarily studies the activities of the soul. Thus the studies which Professor Stenger cites have no bearing on the existence or otherwise of the soul defined in this way. I would therefore reject his premise 3. Premise 3 is reasonable in a Cartesian framework, but fails in a classical understanding of the soul. I would also say that premise 1 is more Cartesian than Aristotelian.

Professor Stenger takes up the issue again towards the end of his chapter, by noting that many theologians have rejected Cartesian dualism. Of course, many theological traditions never accepted it in the first place, but that thought seems to have passed him by. The people he focuses on consider the idea of emergence; the idea that features can arise out of a complex system that are not merely the sum of their parts. However, Professor Stenger correctly dismisses these ideas: they are still ultimately material processes, and, being based on the basic physical functioning of the body, there is no reason to suppose that a soul thus defined will be immortal. I would agree with Professor Stenger that such views don't really gain anything. If based on mechanism, then they suffer the same issues that he describes. If not based on mechanism, then any success would arise from that rejection rather than the idea of emergence.

Professor Stenger also discusses the subject of immortality. He objects that the precise nature of immortality is unclear in Christianity, and other religions, and has changed over time. What exactly from the brain survives death? If our memories are rooted in our brain, then surely as our brain dies, so do they. He also discusses the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body (which is the mainstream view of Christianity from tits roots in Pharisaic Judaism to the present day, so it is not clear why he also thinks that the Christian doctrine has changed). But he fails to properly understand the doctrine in full, thinking that we are just restored as we are now, including any imperfections. The resurrection body in Christian doctrine is not just our current body refashioned, but restored free from the effects of sin, and thus from the ravages of age and any mental diseases such as Alzheimer's. He states that there is no scientific evidence for the resurrection, but this is asking the wrong question. As discussed above, Christian philosophy allows for the possibility of resurrection, while being consistent with the scientific evidence. Atheist philosophy denies the possibility. So the question becomes solely which philosophy is correct. The idea of a resurrection is consistent with the underlying theist philosophy. This is not proof by itself that it will happen. Some Christians will justified the belief of the immortality of the soul through philosophical arguments (as Plato and Aristotle did), but most Christians would say that the idea of a general resurrection is believed primarily on account of divine revelation.

And Jesus said to them [Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection], "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him." Luke 20:34

For the Christian, who accepts the incarnate Jesus' word as authoritative, this affirmation of the resurrection as recorded in three of the gospels (and John's gospel also affirms the general resurrection, albeit in a different context) settles the matter. Of course, this is no argument for those who don't accept Christianity's claim of the incarnation. But that's the point. You don't say there is going to be a general resurrection, therefore Christianity. You first come to Christianity, accept what it says about Jesus, and as a consequence the resurrection. [This cuts against Stenger's claim that the idea of eternal life is the greatest appeal of religion. You have to be convinced that the religion is true first for other reasons before you can accept the claim that there will be a resurrection.] Saying there is no scientific evidence for a general resurrection is of no use, because Christians (and those of other faiths who believe in similar doctrines) make no claim that there is.

Professor Stenger discusses psychics and mediums, and near death experiences. The issues of mediums is an interesting one for the Christian. The general condemnation of visiting mediums in Leviticus 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:11 seems to speak against their effectiveness, but the story of Saul's visit to the medium in 1 Samuel 28 seems to imply that there is some contact. Or perhaps not; the episode might just describe someone being taken in by the usual trickery used by the witch of Endor's modern day successors. Or it might have been some demonic influence. Nonetheless, I don't think that many Christians will weep too much over Professor Stenger's dismissal of mediums and necromancers.

Near death experiences are slightly different. There are many reports of them, some of which were quite transformative for the people who experienced them. I myself am somewhat neutral on the issue, having not studied it in great detail. There is quite a lot of literature, which seems to be divided on the significance of such experiences. Are they genuinely a glimpse of heaven? Are they merely the last flutterings of a brain starved of Oxygen and starting to shut down? Could they be both? I can't see how a scientific explanation of these experiences can exclude the spiritual explanation. Even if they are just a matter of brain activity, that does not mean that that brain activity is not a response to a glimpse of heaven. I personally would not rely on such experiences as proof of an immortal soul; but neither would I deny them. Professor Stenger just gives a few references which don't do justice to the literature.


Professor Stenger also discusses the effectiveness of prayer, concentrating on a few large scale studies of prayer effectiveness that have recently been made. He discusses a Columbia/Korean study that looks at fertility, a British Medical Journal study of 2001, a 2007 study from Duke university which looked at various different groups of various religions praying for patients undergoing heart surgery, and the STEP project of 2006, led by a team from Harvard, which also looked at heart surgery. The first of these, Professor Stenger claims, showed positive results but had dubious methodology, while the others showed no statistical significance for the effectiveness of prayer.

To take the STEP study as an example, they took about 1800 patients and divided them into roughly three groups. One of those groups was informed that they were definitely prayed for. Another group was told that they might have been prayed for, but in fact weren't. A third group were told that they might have been prayed for, and were. Two Roman Catholic and one Protestant groups did the praying. The rate of recovery was roughly similar in the three groups (in fact, a little bit worse in the first one, but not to statistical significance). The conclusion was that the prayers were ineffective.

From Professor Stenger's description, these studies avoided all the obvious methodical mistakes. So the result should be taken seriously. The question is does it actually prove anything?

My feeling reading Professor Stenger's account is that he misunderstands divine activity, and in particular how prayer is purported to be effective. For example, in his discussion of the 2001 study (where some prayers were said after the patients were released from hospital), he commented

Secondly, we showed that nothing in modern physics suggests a physical basis for the type of backwards causality being suggested.

I would agree with him about quantum physics here, although some authors have suggested backward causation as a means of understanding issues around entanglement. But he is treating prayer as though it were mediated through quantum physics. In my book, I argue that the laws of physics we study are a description of God's sustaining of the universe in the approximation that God is impartial (or indifferent) to human affairs (for example). That assumption leads to various consequences, including the locality of substance causation, which, together with time ordering, implies that that future substances cannot affect the past. But that assumption is only an approximation. If you believe in one of the major theist religions, it is an approximation which might be true in most circumstances, but which sometimes dramatically fails. God is free to do things differently, which includes responding to a prayer with some sort of miracle. Since God is timeless and omnipresent, it makes little difference to Him when or where the prayer is said. When people claim that prayers after the event might have influenced the event, they are not appealing to quantum physics, but to God's sovereignty.

And this is my main problem with all these studies. They seem to work under the assumption that it is the prayer itself which performs the healing. It is not. It is God who performs the healing. God is not a machine, where if we push Him in one way, then we get the result we want. One possible reason why most of the time there is no healing is related to mankind's rebellion against God. Our ancestors were presented with a world where God would continually protect and heal us, but it came with the condition that we laid aside any pride and feeling of self-sufficiency. Or, we could choose pride, and the appearance of independence of God, but have to put up with things breaking down and going wrong. Whether this story is to be taken literally or allegorically, if Christianity is true, we are in a constant state of rebellion inherited from our ancestors. It is not just Adam and Eve who rejected God's purposes and intentions, so does our generation. So God respects that choice. To do otherwise would violate the good of our freedom. He lets us get on with things as best we can (or as badly as we actually do). A prayer is (among other things) an individual act that rejects that rebellion. It is an acknowledgement that God, not ourselves or nature, is sovereign, and a submission to that fact. If performed with sincerity on both parties, God can act without violating our free choice to rebel. That is not to say that God will act. It is God's free choice, not only taking into account the people involved but the wider circumstances.

These studies seem to be assuming that prayer is effective in itself, without divine action. Say a prayer, and somebody as a direct consequence gets magically healed, or at least there is a better chance that somebody will be healed. Just like pushing a button on a fruit machine, and you sometimes hit the jackpot, which you will never do if you don't play. But there is a mechanism directly connecting the button to the jackpot. But prayer is not like that. It is not the prayer which heals, but God who heals, sometimes in response to prayer. Sometimes through a miracle, and other times through normal physical processes (both of which come from God's direct action, in theism).

And this leads to the main problem with such studies. In an experiment, you need to have control over all the relevant factors. You can then isolate your experiment off from the rest of the world, and see what happens when you change one of the imports. The outcome is measured, and compared against a theoretical prediction. But in these studies there is a major factor, God's sovereign choice, which is out of the scope of the experiment. If I were asked to pray for some random person I had never met, then maybe God would answer that prayer and maybe He won't. Its His choice. Equally, if I were to spontaneously pray for somebody I know, then again God has the choice to answer the prayer or not. In both cases, God would take into account the wider circumstances, which would include whether the prayer was said for the right reasons. Is the prayer a heartfelt declaration of God's sovereignty and surrender of pride, or am I just praying because I am being told to, for somebody I don't personally care for, by somebody from Harvard? It could well make a difference.

So how does Professor Stenger respond to arguments of this sort? He proposes two objections. The first one is that prayer is spiritual rather than material. Here he responds that it nonetheless is meant to have observable effects, which should be testable. Secondly, prayer is difficult to control, in the sense that you can't be sure that there aren't other people praying for the people in your study. I don't see that he answers this objection which he raises. But he doesn't discuss the main objection that there is no direct mechanistic link between the prayer and the healing (if any healing occurs).

Is it possible to test prayer scientifically? I do not think so, at least in most cases. Certainly you can measure the effects of prayer, for example by comparing medical records before and after the prayer related healing. But this is just anecdotal evidence. Except in the cases where the healing would be impossible except by a miracle, then it means little. How do you prove that the healing was an act of special providence rather than general providence? And what about failed prayers? That one prayer worked doesn't mean much unless you also know how many prayers didn't work, and you can compare that against the rates of those who weren't prayed for. Failures don't tend to be counted outside a controlled study. But neither can we rely on controlled studies, because, as I have described, the very fact that the prayer is part of a controlled study rather than spontaneous might affect the result. And such statistical studies don't answer what we need, which is the individual causes of the healing in individual people.

There is another way of overcoming the problem of selection bias. There are certain people and places particularly associated with healings or other miracles. Miracles tend to cluster around particular people or places. Some of these are no doubt charlatans, but others are genuine. We could, perhaps, select some such people, and retrospectively test their claims. Even then, it will be difficult to say anything for certain.

So scientifically proving the efficiency of prayer is very challenging. It is one of those situations where the the fact that you are performing an experiment, rather than just observing what happens in nature, in itself might affect the result. All we have left is anecdotal evidence. That evidence might not mean much on the grand scheme of things, but it does matter to the people involved, especially if they have a sequence of answered prayers. Do prayers get answered? I think most Christians, particularly the charismatic Christians, would say "Yes; not always, but more often than an atheist might expect, and not necessarily in the ways we expect" based on their own personal experience. Even if the event is explicable through natural processes, that does not mean that the prayer wasn't answered, because God is in control of natural processes just as much as supernatural processes.

So, in short, it is very difficult for Christians to prove to an atheist's satisfaction that prayers are answered -- except in those cases where the event is impossible by natural means. But it is also impossible for atheists to prove that prayers aren't answered. The belief that we can conduct experiments on God, put God into a laboratory and poke Him in certain ways in order to see if it produces a result, is just arrogance. It is precisely that sort of pride which, according to Christian doctrine, separated us from God in the first place.


In this chapter, Professor Stenger discusses such topics as the soul, immortality and prayer. But he is limited in that he doesn't understand what Christians mean by these terms. With regards to the soul, he seems to be fixated on either a Cartesian dualism, or a Chinese style vital force. He ignores the classical concept which works through physical processes rather than in addition to them. For immortality, he discusses near death experiences. Here I am not convinced that he discusses them particularly well, but the Christian (and Jewish) doctrine of a general resurrection is not dependent on them. Christians base their belief primarily on the word of Christ. The idea of the resurrection makes sense in Christian philosophy, and classical philosophy in general. But the proof comes from the testimony of Christ. Obviously one first needs to be convinced that Jesus is Lord and God to accept this, but no Christian has argued otherwise. Christian apologetics does not begin with the promise of eternal life. Eternal life is not the Christian's first goal, but instead the Christian hopes for a restored relationship with God and that human pride should be replaced with agape. So apologetics starts discussions of human sinfulness and thus our need for God, and of Jesus' divinity and thus the authority of the Christian scriptures. From that, you work through the substitutionary atonement as the solution to the problem of sin, Christ's victory over death, the Church, and after various other doctrines, at the end, we come to the general judgement and resurrection. It is a key part of Christianity, but one that is ultimately dependent on the rest of the Christian belief. And with regards to prayer, Professor Stenger again has a poor understanding of the Christian understanding. Instead he seems to think that it is a mechanistic process, which can be boxed off from God's wider purposes and studied in isolation. So once again, this chapter falls short of what he claims of it.

Next time, we move back onto more familiar ground (to me), and a discussion of miracles and the beginning of the universe.

Wigner's Acquaintances

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How many gospels are in the New Testament?