Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can't find your car keys? Pray to Saint Anthony.

Some years ago, the excellent Catholic magazine Commonweal published an essay of mine that examined (and dismissed) the evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer. As a balance to my argument, the editors invited responses in the same issue from John Wright, a Jesuit theologian, and Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California, best known for his Darwin bashing. Wright suggested that in questioning the efficacy of petitionary prayer I underestimate the power of the biblical God; Johnson averred that I overestimate the power of science. Both Wright and Johnson plumped for a personal God who exists outside of nature and intervenes at will to answer prayers.

Wright offered a theology of prayer so fuzzily contrived that it can be neither proved nor negated. Our prayers are always answered, he said, but since God gives us only what he knows is best for us, the answer to our prayers may not be exactly what we ask for. Which says exactly nothing. Wright bases his faith in the efficacy of prayer on the "divinely inspired" Bible, which he quoted profusely to buttress his position. But this merely assumes what he wants to prove; namely, that there is a personal God who intervenes in human affairs.

Johnson dragged out the standard argument for intelligent design: Some aspects of life on Earth are so "irreducibly complex" that they cannot possibly be the work of natural causes, and require for their explanation an interventionist designer. And if God intervenes in the course of evolution, then surely he can intervene to answer prayers.

Well, true enough. But the vast majority of working biologists are not convinced that any aspect of life is "irreducibly complex." Johnson's faith in intelligent design comes down to what Richard Dawkins calls "the argument from personal Incredulity": If it seems impossible to me, then it must be impossible. Which sort of defeats the whole program of science, which has a history of confounding incredulity.

Johnson then turned to what he considers to be the flawed philosophical underpinnings of science, and quoted the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin. "We have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism," writes Lewontin. "It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Johnson called Lewontin's statement "remarkably candid," as if he had caught out the famous Harvard biologist confessing an embarrassing sin. But of course, Lewontin's faith in materialism has been part and parcel of science since Galileo. (Philosophical materialism embraces all forms of purely physical matter and energy; naturalism is perhaps a better term.) The vast professional literature of modern science can be searched everywhere without finding a single reference to miracles or divine intervention. Every successful working scientist accepts materialism as a matter of course, within the context of her science. This is certainly no secret; nevertheless, the Phillip Johnsons of the world love to lash scientists with that presumably naughty "M" word. He writes: "If you are going to define science as applied materialist philosophy, then of course you are going to end up with a materialist creation story, one that excludes the possibility of a personal God who created us and answers prayers."

And, of course, he is right. Why then do scientists aver so earnestly the materialist philosophy? Because it works. It works astonishingly well. It should not even be necessary to argue the point. The entire panoply of technological civilization demonstrates the success of the materialist principle. Modern medicine, the space program, computers, electronic communication: all flow from the decision not to admit supernatural agencies into our explanations. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how science might be possible if we did admit miracles. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that [your materialist assumptions have] been validated by scientific testing," warns Johnson. No scientist makes this mistake; Lewontin explicitly states that nothing of the methods of science compels us to be materialists. Rather, scientists are materialists because only in that way has the game been possible to play. To reject materialism as the organizing principle of science is, implicitly, to revert to the spirit-ridden culture of our ancestors, sumped in magic and superstition.

But Johnson is right in this: If it could somehow be decisively demonstrated that a true miracle has occurred, or that God has answered prayers by controverting the course of nature, then the materialist assumption is in trouble. But no such evidence exists. If I pray the sun will shine for the family picnic next week, and the sun shines, this is not exactly compelling proof of the efficacy of prayer. All -- yes, all -- of the so-called evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer is anecdotal. Anecdote is not evidence. Nor is personal incredulity. For every averred miraculous intervention of God into nature, Ockham's Razor offers a simpler, less exotic explanation. And just because science cannot yet explain everything that happens does not mean that naturalistic explanations are impossible, only that we have more work yet to do.

Does a naturalistic philosophy exclude true religious feeling? Most certainly not. The monotheistic personal deity of some world religions, for all protestations to the contrary, is merely an intellectually spiffed-up version of Zeus. Once we get beyond the idolatrous notion of a personal, interventionist God, then we can begin to open our minds and hearts to the inexhaustible and inexpressible hidden God of creation.

Further Reading

Michael Behe, the author of Darwin's Black Box and champion of intelligent design, has a new book on the subject, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Evolution. Sean Carroll has a devastating review in the June 8 issue of Science.

The link under "evidence" above is to Dr. Gil Gaudia, About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles. If Medscape asks for log in, try Googling the article.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.