The needle of god in the scientific haystack

In an earlier post, I spoke about studies that looked at claims that god answered prayers. Some of these studies were done by physicians and scientists who were themselves religious, and who presumably would have been immensely pleased if they could have found a positive effect. In fact, as Victor Stenger points out in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the idea that scientists are somehow conspiring to suppress evidence of god’s existence (something strongly suggested by intelligent design creationists) is strange. A lot of scientists are religious and nothing would please them more than to find scientific justification for their beliefs. Furthermore, even if you were not religious, it would be very exciting to find evidence of god. Not only would it open up vast new areas of research, you can bet that Congress and foundations would open up their checkbooks and generously fund efforts to further identify the way that god acts in the world.

I myself am a little bemused by these efforts by some scientists to find statistical needles in the haystack for god’s presence. I understand that when a hypothesis is raised, scientists instinctively think in terms of setting up research protocols in such a way that they can use statistical tests of significance to see if a positive result has occurred. So when someone claims that prayer can lead to healing, the instinctive reaction of a good scientist is to design a double-blind study to test that hypothesis. But stepping back and viewing the big picture, it just does not make logical sense to me.

The reason is as follows. The MWC (‘mysterious ways clause’) is either true or false; either god wants to reveal his presence to us or he does not. If it is true and god does not want to let us know about his existence, then he would surely rig the results of any tests like the prayer ones so that the results would come out negative. If the MWC is false and god does want to reveal to us that he exists, then he does not need to do so in a labored way such that only double-blind clinical tests show effects at the boundaries of the significance level. All god would have to do is to do something openly like stopping the Earth’s rotation.

So people who invoke the MWC as a way of explaining why god does not reveal himself should actually be hoping for negative results from these kinds of prayer experiments so that their beliefs are consistent. In other words, although they believe that god does answer prayers, when experiments like this are done, those who depend on the MWC to defend their belief in the absence of evidence should hope that god would either ignore the prayers in the experimental groups or answer them carefully and selectively in such a way that the experimenters always find no evidence of god’s presence. Otherwise, if statistically significant positive results turn up, it looks like god is not smart enough to thwart the experimenters from revealing his presence.

Of course, one can always create a kind of super-MWC narrative where god has decided to simply tease us with occasional tantalizing glimpses of his existence that can be seen only at the p=0.05 level of statistical significance, so as to keep us in a permanent state of uncertainty. Why anyone would want to believe in such a god is beyond me.

Religious people can invoke the MWC to explain why we don’t see direct evidence of god. But then they should not advance fine-tuning or anthropic principle or intelligent design creationism arguments as proofs and evidences of god.
Either god wants to reveal himself or not. Which is it?

POST SCRIPT: Alan Greenspan, comedy genius

Tom Tomorrow exposes the role that Alan Greenspan played in causing the present subprime mortgage collapse and other disasters.

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

The “introduction” that Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger gave the leader of Iran after the university had invited him to speak there has attracted much attention. Writing in the Nation, Jayati Vora says:

In his statement, combative and unduly vicious, Bollinger accused his invited guest of being nothing more than a “petty and cruel dictator,” of having a “fanatical mindset.” He claimed that this exercise was valuable in knowing one’s enemies and understanding “the mind of evil.”

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