Imagine a blind man called Henry who, during his appendectomy, has an electronic device secretly planted deep in his ear by an mischievous surgeon called Richard. This device has the capacity to transmit sound to Henry whenever Richard wishes from nearly any location.
A few days later, Richard, hiding behind a postbox, transmits a short message while Henry is slowly tapping his cane along the sidewalk.
This is the first time that Henry has heard a voice other than his own in his head. He knows that others who have heard voices have ended up institutionalized.
Nonetheless, he is curious, and reaches down to the sidewalk.
“Left.” comes the voice again.
Henry obeys and reaches left to discover a $100 bill that Richard has left there. Henry is quite stupefied by this new source of knowledge, and goes home to ponder the enigma. He wracks his brain for an explanation, but finally drifts off to sleep.
The next afternoon while walking to the barber, he hears the voice again.
Henry taps his cane to the right, and finds himself in an alley.
Henry reaches down to find another $100 bill.
This same event occurs week after week with Henry becoming richer, placing more confident in the voice, and eventually losing interest in discovering the mechanism behind this source of knowledge. He goes out every day expecting to find another $100 bill.
Does Henry understand the source? No.
Is Henry warranted in his confidence in this source of knowledge? Yes.
Why? Because it works. The voice has demonstrated predictive power. This predictive power has led to a precedent that warrants continued confidence. As successes mount, Henry’s confidence increases. In this, confidence is inextricably tied to successes. The goal is to limit confidence to exactly the level of the strength of the precedent of successes.
Henry would not have been justified in placing complete confidence in the voice at day 3. Nor would Henry be justified in doubting the voice on day 1000. Henry’s confidence is solely tied to the history of the voice’s successes and failures.
Now imagine that Richard had never left any money on the sidewalk. Imagine that every day Richard (or Henry’s own subconscious mind) spoke in Henry’s ear “I promise you’ll find money if only you’ll reach down”.
And imagine a gullible Henry who reaches down every day only to find nothing…until after 3 years, he feels the ridges of a 50-cent piece on his finger tips.
Now what is Henry warranted in believing? A person with an understanding of probabilities would not attribute finding the 50-cent piece after 3 years of failure as being causally related to the voice, but rather as a rare event that had fallen well within the range of probabilities. However, as Henry is a gullible soul and unschooled in probabilities, he might attribute the “success” to the voice, and continue to stoop in search for the promised money in vain…until probabilities again connected his fingertips to another coin.
What is the point of this mental exercise? It is to show that we are only warranted in placing confidence in sources of knowledge that have a proven track record of successes that reliably out-perform chance. Knowledge of the mechanism is unnecessary. This has given those who claim that there are inscrutable or intractable immaterial sources of knowledge the opportunity to test their claims without need of an explanation of the mechanism. Such claims are fine…if accompanied by successes. However, to protest when others demand to mathematically and scientifically examine the success rate of the claims is improper.
This is what is actually happening today. Theists claim that their god answers intercessory prayer for the infirmed. So scientists have set up experiments to test this claim. The theists generally quietly wait for the results without confidently predicting the success that, if biblical promises of answered intercessory prayer were true, would most certainly follow. If, by chance, the study were to show a significant positive effect, they would no doubt immediately proclaim victory. Then, from my experience with the reasoning of theists, they would ignore or denounce any replicated studies that show the inverse.
However, evidence of successful intercessory prayer is nowhere in sight.
The Harvard study
An excerpt from the conclusion
CONCLUSIONS: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
So how are theists responding?
They are invoking the insular “god cannot be tested” clause. The god who makes claims of answered prayer, power over sin and wisdom somehow does not fall subject to the scrutiny of statistics. I’ll let readers assess the warrant in invoking this convenience.
Herein lies the absurdity and danger of “faith”. Once an individual has placed undeserved confidence in a source of knowledge, his reasoning faculties are no longer available to assess evidence; they are monopolized by the convoluted defense of an undeserving failed source of knowledge.
“Faith” requires no training. It comes easy. It is the default mode for those who can not or will not school themselves in critical thinking.
Critical thinking, in contrast, allows us to test sources of knowledge for successes, and only when a precedent of successes has been properly established for a given source are we warranted in our confidence in that source.
“Faith” fails. Claims of immaterial causation have failed, and to a degree and consistency that warrants their removal from any serious consideration. The amazing successes of scientific methodology that we currently enjoy are what have led to our confidence in its continued successes. The predictive power of scientific methodology has been rightfully earned, while spotty “successes” of intercessory prayer fall neatly within the range of probabilities. The “hits” of intercessory prayer are remembered and are presented as testament to the power of a god. The “misses” are simply ignored, forgotten and excluded from any honest analysis since the notion that there is no deity who can intervene in our lives is emotionally untenable.
Is our objective to approach truth? Then let’s place our confidence in what works rather than falling as credulous prey to the specious claims of faith-mongers who have not a single credible success to their name.