Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy not birthday to you, happy not birthday to you, ...

Hey, what do you know? Jesus' pretend birthday is coming up again. This dude is really special. The chosen one. The Son of a Gun. You see he's the only bloke who gets to celebrate his birthday on the day he wasn't born! Now that must take a miracle to pull off.

Rewinding a bit, nine months before his real birthday (whenever that was and if ever that was), Jeebus was conceived. Big problem though. No human father. No semen. No fertilization. No chromosomes except mama's. But somehow a zygote appeared which then became an embryo which eventually grew into a fetus. Ergo, Jeebus ought to be the Ever Virgin's clone. Hence, he was a she, and she was a Dolly? On the other hand since the fable says it was Sky Daddy who got Mary pregnant then ... Whoa! We've got a god screwing around with a mortal! Then again, why act surprised? The Babylonian king Sargon (c. 2300 B.C.E.) was born of an ordinary woman and a mountain god. Zoroaster, the Persian prophet who lived in the 6th century B.C.E. was God-begotten and virgin born. Cuchulain, an Irish hero, was the son of the god Lugh and the human female Deichtne. Okuninushi of Japan was one of the numerous sons of the storm god Susanowo and by the mortal woman Kishinada. The Aztec hero Quetzlcoatl was born of the virgin Chimalman, to whom the god Onteotl had appeared in a dream. The Greek god Zeus impregnated such women as Danaë resulting in the birth of Perseus; while the union of the god Apollo and Aria created Miletus. So it happens all the time, ok? Obviously the other gods have had their fill of female flesh. It was the Semitic deity's turn. It was but fair, you know--equal opportunity, no to discrimination, and all that jazz.

We can keep pedaling back all the way to the Garden where slithering reptiles had neocortices (biologists and evolutionists take note!) and so had the faculty of human speech and where an omniscient creator had not an inkling, mind you, of what was to happen next in the script he himself wrote, but then you get the point. This Bronze Age, Dark Age whackology is ten orders of magnitude more ridiculous than the worst trash Hollywood churns out. Which makes you really worry that not a few buy it as nonfiction.

Monday, December 01, 2008

How to turn anyone into a killer

Last Friday shoppers who'd been waiting outside a Wal-Mart for hours burst into the store, tragically trampling to death one of its employees.

Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless.

Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.


Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’ ” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”

The Milgram experiment among others has shown us definitively that ordinary citizens can become torturers and killers if you just nudge them inch by inch, initially asking them to do something trivially bad then gradually making them do worse things. That's how young idealistic recruits into government become bad.

In this case had the wave of shoppers been waiting only a couple of minutes I think they would in fact have become good Samaritans rather than homicidal. In fact they wouldn't have stormed the store in the first place. They would've been civil. It's the pressure of having been in line for hours, almost a full day if we are to believe the quote above, and in the cold(?) that turned these people into savages, as Cribbs describes them. Samaritan or otherwise, when under pressure, under stress, we all move closer to the edge. That said, stress and pressure may be contributing causal factors but they are not excuses. These people are guilty of having killed a person.

Since Cribbs was an observer she might've been closer to the back of the line. You'd expect people who've waited less and were less motivated to come and shop early to be among the more sober ones. Those who came earliest were the most motivated, the most "fanatical", therefore, the most dangerous, the most "savage."

In the aftermath I wouldn't be surprised if some of those shoppers directly responsible will even denigrate the deceased. They might call him stupid for putting himself in harm's way. These shoppers like all of us consider themselves decent, law abiding citizens. The psychological dissonance of having been party to a homicide demands an immediate resolution. In order to regain consonance, to maintain their self-image of being a good person, it is most likely they will pass the buck and blame--to the victim, to Wal-Mart, to the police, to circumstances. Admission of personal culpability/responsibility would be too painful a blow to their self concept. Needless to say, admission may get them incarcerated.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Is Weinberg right?

I have much respect for physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg. He's an atheist and has little qualms in calling a spade a spade when it comes to the irrationality of supernaturalism. But the following oft-quoted statement by him has had me disturbed for some time now.
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

If I read correctly Weinberg is saying that the only way for a good person to do evil things is if s/he becomes an adherent of or a believer in some religion. To put it in another way, Weinberg is saying that without religion good people would not do evil things. I haven't been able to put my finger on it but his assertion just didn't seem right. I am leery of blanket statements such as "_____ is the root of (all) evil." Dawkins said it plainly when he objected to his producers' entitling his atheism documentary Root of All Evil? In interviews Dawkins has averred that "no one thing is the root of all anything." (Unfortunately the producers just wouldn't change the title. The only concession to Dawkins' concern was the addition of the question mark.) Be that as it may, Dawkins uses the above Weinberg quote in his The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2007, p. 249) in a way that implicitly gives the nod to Weinberg. (You've got two very intelligent and eminent scientists here--one making the claim and the other agreeing. I should probably doubt my doubting, shut up and just listen to these giants. But illicit appeal to authority isn't in the critical thinker's toolbox.)

After reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, I've finally found reason for my unease. In this important and very enthralling work for the general public (which I most highly recommend to everyone more than any book I can think of right now) the authors show us how ordinarily good people can eventually commit rather atrocious acts. What it takes is baby steps--continually rationalizing and justifying the almost trivial immoral/unethical deeds that we do. One does not commit a really bad thing overnight (unless, perhaps, in a fit of rage). That takes time. One gradually moves down the "pyramid of choice," moving further and further away from a route we would've taken had we made a different choice when we started our journey. Tavris and Aronson articulate this process:
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs of [sic] both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles from anyone who took a different route.

This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between "us good guys" and "those bad guys." Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment--action, justification, further action--that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles. [p. 33-34]
In the very famous experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram some four decades ago, subjects were asked to deliver an electric shock to a person whenever this individual made a mistake, under the pretext that they were participating in a study on the role of punishment in learning. The subjects were also instructed to increase the voltage level as the person made more mistakes. The subjects weren't able to see this person but could hear him/her, and thus could hear the groans and pleas and cries as the shocks were applied. This unseen "victim" was in fact a confederate of the research team, and in reality no shocks were ever delivered. In front of the subject was an electrical panel with switches. The labels indicated that the voltage ranged from 10 to 450 volts. As the experiment proceeded the confederate deliberately committed errors and feigned various reactions proportional to the voltage levels. The results of this experiment are most interesting and disturbing.
When people are asked in advance how far they imagine they would go, almost no one says they would go to 450. But when they are actually in the situation, two-thirds of them go all the way to the maximum level they believe is dangerous. They do this by justifying each step as they went along: This small shock doesn't hurt; 20 isn't much worse than 10; if I've given 20, why not 30? As they justified each step, they committed themselves further. By the time people were administering what they believed were strong shocks, most found it difficult to justify a sudden decision to quit. Participants who resisted early in the study, questioning the very validity of the procedure, were less likely to become entrapped by it and more likely to walk out. The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self-justification. [p.37]

Thus, if Weinberg is saying that religion is necessary (but insufficient)* for good people to do evil things, then I'm afraid he's wrong. It is in our psychology to justify our actions even if we are mistaken. Self-justification is hard-wired in our brains. Though we may be good we can end up doing bad things, sometimes really bad things, because we have successfully and continually convinced ourselves we have done no wrong while all the while traveling down the road to perdition. Given the findings of social psychology it is plausible if not probable that religion is not a necessary condition for good people to do evil things (even if religion--or certain characteristics thereof--can be--and has been--a causal factor in tipping good people into committing evil).

And rather obviously, we need only find one good person--a nonbeliever--who's committed one evil thing to falsify Weinberg's claim.

That would be the end of my critique were it not for the glaring lack of what "good" and "evil" actually mean operationally. What criteria are we to use in determining whether a person is good or evil, in evaluating which deeds/actions/behavior are good and which are evil? How good is "good," how bad is "evil"? There is a need for clear definitions of these terms, these classes of people and action/behavior. And depending on how these are defined, Weinberg's aphorism may yet withstand falsification. I for one certainly would be most ecstatic if Weinberg's dictum holds.


* in philosophy a necessary condition is one without which some event E cannot occur (but which by itself alone may or may not cause the occurrence.of E). A sufficient condition is one which is necessary and which will cause E to occur. Of course, there may be a number of necessary conditions for E to occur. Taken collectively these will be the sufficient condition that leads to E. For example, a power source is a necessary condition for a lamp to give off light, but it is not a sufficient condition. Another necessary condition is the wire to conduct the electricity to the lamp. Power source and conductor together constitute a sufficient condition for the lamp to light. Given the presence of all necessary conditions the lamp must light. If it doesn't then the sufficient condition was in fact not a sufficient one, i.e., one or more necessary conditions were absent (perhaps there is a switch and we forgot to flip it!). Given that Weinberg says that with or without religion good people will do good things but that it takes religion for good people to do evil things, he is asserting that religion is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. This means that good people who are religious have gained the potential to do evil things, which they would not have had they not been religious.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The wave of change

I am overjoyed that America has chosen its first African-American president. Barack Obama is the man of the hour and for the hour. I'm no fan of Oprah (on the contrary) but she just put in words how I feel today. Upon hearing of Obama's victory, she said that hope has just been born. Most certainly, indeed!

That said, I'm amused to discover that among Obama's foibles is his superstiousness. Apparently he has an election day superstition --playing basketball. I presume that given the co - incidence--of having played and won by a landslide--he will carry on with this ritual in the years and decades to come. And let's not even talk about his fantasies about invisible beings in the sky, a being whom he called to bless America.

And so I still have a dream--that within my lifetime there shall be that commander-in-chief of the most powerful country, male or female, of whatever color, who is uninfected by the mind viruses we call superstitions.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Poor Nikki

I just received the following spam SMS (formatting and caps as in original):
Hi there Nikki here

There is only ONE TRUE GOD.

Christians Unity. One Name. One God.

Thanks. :)

I promptly replied:
How about first proving your God and not mine is the real one? If you can't then mine is the true god and religion.

The logical fallacy therein is intentional. I opted to use jujitsu--using the opponent's own flawed reasoning against him.

Fueled by the arrogance and thoughtlessness of texting total strangers (whose religious or nonreligious orientation s/he's totally unaware of), I followed it up with the following long missive:
If you can point to your sacred text so can I. If you underscore the 2,000 years under your tradition's belt, I will remind you mine is 3,000 years older. If you say a billion believers cant be wrong, then count the number who believed the Earth is flat and the Sun and other planets go around the Earth. If you implore me to just have faith, then I shall beseech you to have twice the faith in my god, tradition and holy book.

No jujitsu there. Just sound reasoning in literary trappings in the hopes of enlightening such a naive, parochial, unthinking soul.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

When adults are no more enlightened than their kids

In a city in Mindoro, Philippines, some two dozen students mostly female have experienced "seizures" in the past two months. The Inquirer reports that the children "were crying in pain as they suffered from seizures and shortness of breath in a paranormal [emphasis mine] phenomenon that has left a public high school here petrified and perplexed." The reporter has dutifully conveyed the symptoms to us readers. But how does she know the phenomenon is paranormal? How was she able to make the leap from observed facts to causal explanation? What's her definition of paranormal anyway?

So what could have afflicted these kids? School principal Henry Tungol tells us the students have been "possessed by evil spirits." Yep, the head of the school has promptly diagnosed the children as having been the victims of invisible supernatural entities. How did he come to know this? Through the process of natural ignorance of course. If something puzzles you, if something gives you goosebumps, if you have no medical expertise, if in your omniscience you can't explain it any other way, if all you can fall back on is the tradition of superstition you were raised in, then the phenomenon must be supernatural/paranormal. And if what's before you bathes you with a warm fuzzy feeling, then it must be good spirits, otherwise it's those pesky evil ones. Simple.

The Mindoro "epidemic" reminds me of St. Vitus Dance. A search on CSICOP revealed the following on what was known as tarantism, a disease that supposedly occurred during the summer months of July and August:
Symptoms included headache, giddiness, breathlessness, fainting, trembling, twitching, appetite loss, general soreness, and delusions. Sometimes it was claimed that a sore or swelling was caused by a tarantula bite, but such assertions were difficult to verify because the bite resembled those of insects. The dance frenzy symptoms resemble typical modern episodes of epidemic hysteria, in addition to expected reactions from exhaustive physical activity and excessive alcohol consumption.

The seizures did occur in the last two months, although as to the degree of difference in seasons/climes between Europe and Mindoro I don't know. The article doesn't say anything about "dancing" or any wild frenzied behavior so this may be a totally different type of hysteria we're dealing with here.

Among the various candidate explanations, there is one which for now I don't give high points. We're told that exams were just around the bend. It's possible that some of these high school kids conspired to play a prank on their community and feigned "possession," not least to disrupt exam week.

But whatever the nature of this Mindoro event, the most prudent course of action is to check mundane, natural explanations before even entertaining notions of paranormal, demonic, supernatural, or what have you. We know that children can be mischievous, we know that medical and psychological conditions exist. We work with and from what we know, not from that which has no empirical base to support it whatsoever.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cracker mania

The brouhaha is now all over the blogosphere. Instead of swallowing the consecrated wafer given to him by the priest, a college student took it out of his mouth and brought it home to show some nonCatholic friend of his. Reports say that Catholics are outraged and some have even sent the kid death threats. Looks like loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek have gone out of fashion.
A student at the University of Central Florida says he's now getting death threats after he stole and later returned a wafer representing the "Body of Christ" from a Catholic Mass in Orlando.

The student senator, Webster Cook, originally claimed he merely wanted to show the Eucharist to a friend who had questions about Catholicism before consuming the host.

Cook, who was raised Catholic, said he decided to bring the wafer home June 29 after a church leader tried to physically pry it from his hand. Cook broke Church rules by failing to consume it immediately during Communion and then removing it from his mouth once seated.

The part about Catholics being furious and the scuffle with the church leader is most revealing. Take a second to digest that: Catholics are angry because the host/wafer/cracker has to be eaten but was not. The piece of bread has to be literally put in one's mouth and has to be literally swallowed. Keep in mind that in Catholicism the host is said to be literally the body of Jesus Christ, a being who's both fully human and fully divine (a god). Now go ahead and add two and two together. How much more literal does it have to get to understand that the Catholic Church not only accepts but in fact demands cannibalism and theophagy (the ingestion of gods)? In Catholicism opting out of eating Jesus is, to put it mildly, frowned upon.

This is the 21st century right? Forgive me for being in a daze, but WTF is this "church rule" about cannibalism being one's duty?!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thai woo

Former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has sagely advice for his troubled country:
Be patient with the headache-inducing situation until July 2. Mars moving close to Saturn causes the headache. When Mars leaves, the situation will ease.

It seems Thaksin relies on the heavens a lot:
Mr Thaksin has long placed his faith in astrology. When Bangkok's new airport opened he had the first plane land at 9.19am, which he believed was an auspicious moment. For a while as prime minister he cancelled his weekly press conferences, claiming that Mercury was not in a favourable alignment.

And you thought the Reagans were nutty.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A theistic psychologists's letter to skeptics and atheists

I just learned via psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen that later this year psychologist David Myers' new book, A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil, will be coming out.

The subtitle "Why God is Good" already makes me uneasy. It sounds as if Myers has already decided that the entity "God" exists and he will now just be providing arguments to establish its goodness. Pray he hasn't done so or he gets an immediate thumbs down from atheists.

From the looks of the pdf files of the preface and first two chapters it's going be a small format work and, given it runs only 160 pages, quite a slim one at that. Shouldn't take more than a day or two to go through it all. And if the substance of the excerpts provided is a preview of what is to come, there might not be much meat and food for thought. Sorry to say but my appetite isn't at all whetted. In fact I'm disappointed. I was anticipating much more from a psychologist, particularly good science.

Moreover, I'm bugged by what he says about his theism. In Chapter 2 he declares that among his assumptions is "there is a God." Perhaps he does so later in the book, but I don't know which entity he's referring to. He doesn't describe this "God" in any meaningful detail. Given his "biblical understanding" we can surmise he's talking of the Judeo-Christian deity. But is it that of the Catholic, fundamentalist, liberal, ... or his own trimmed down / souped up version?

Right after stating his assumptions Myers tells us that he believes "we should hold our own untested beliefs tentatively, assess others’ ideas with open - minded skepticism, and when appropriate, use observation and experimentation to winnow error from truth." Moreover, he tells us he "enjoy[s] casting a critical eye on intriguing claims by asking 'What do you mean?' and 'How do you know?'" Well and good. Those are what skeptics, including religious skeptics, would want everyone to learn to do. But has Myers cast a critical eye on his own theological beliefs? Hopefully he addresses that matter.

I also have a problem with his use of "faith." This early, he seems to be already using the word in at least two senses: religious/spiritual inclination and belief. If faith is understood to be belief without justification or belief highly disproportionate to the available evidence, then I for one find faith and reason irreconcilable. In such a context faith isn't reasonable.

I get the impression that Myers gives us thumbs up to the human activity we call religion including the belief in deities (although not all kinds of gods). The problem of course--and I think Myers is aware of it--is that even if being religious (in the Western world) is associated with goodness and happiness, it doesn't imply that the proposed supernatural entities believed in actually exist. Given the lack of any good evidence for them, it would be delusional to believe that they in fact are real, i.e., having faith in their existence isn't warranted.

I may be prejudging Myers. Hopefully there is more intellectually rigorous material in the rest of the book.

When you wish

Wishful thinking is part and parcel of childhood. The brains of the young are still very much in the process of developing "higher" faculties such as analytical thought. Children are credulous (for survival reasons, Homo sapiens may be evolutionarily selected to unquestioningly believe whatever adults say) and are just getting into grips with reality, distinguishing fact from fiction and fantasy. Hence, the young are given great leeway. In fact when they commit errors in thinking, inference, causal reasoning, and the like, we find it most amusing and sometimes even endearing.

But it hardly is charming when adults drag their childhood (or would that be "childish"?) ways into their adult lives [1]. Ironic, but Paul hit the nail on the head: "When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things" (1 Cor. 13:11) [2]. Wishful thinking is unbefitting of an adult. We either do away with it or suffer the ill consequences.

And nowhere are the consequences more tragic than in the area of health. Daily around the world are millions wishing themselves and others into health. A lot of this takes the form of utterances--both audible and silent--directed at invisible entities whose names have been around for millennia: Buddha, Kuan Ni Ma (Kuan Yin), Vishnu, Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Mother Mary (with the intact hymen). Whether a loved one figures in a vehicular mishap, or is undergoing major surgery, or fighting an invasion by pathogenic microorganisms, petitions flow from the minds and lips of "wishers" in the belief that mere wanting/desiring/chanting (coupled with closing of the eyes, bowing of heads, kneeling, waving of lighted incense, etc.) will in fact result in the intended effect (or fervently wishing that the act of wishing/wanting/praying would lead to the intended effect).

The harm of wishful thinking is readily and incontrovertibly apparent in cases when it is the only option taken for a life threatening condition, as was in the following case.
A 16-year-old boy whose parents rely on prayer instead of medical care died Tuesday [June 17, 2008] following an illness marked by stomach pains and shortness of breath, Gladstone police said.... The boy became sick a week ago and -- like all members of the religious order -- did not receive medical attention. His condition worsened Sunday and members of the church gathered for prayer....

If your disease is not the self-limiting type, if what you have is life-threatening, then taking no other measure except faith healing and prayer--i.e., wishful thinking--will make you very ill and may even lead to death. Why? Because it is no different from holding the hand of the afflicted. It is as (in)effective as Native American shaman chants, sacrificing cattle to Osiris, bathing in the waters of some sacred South Asian river, or reciting Tibetan Buddhist verses while manipulating prayer beads. As with all forms of shamanistic and paranormal forms of treating health problems, faith healing has no efficacy to speak of beyond placebo effects.

Two years ago I proposed the following thought experiment. Let's say that your toddler has accidentally ingested a large dose of poison and is doubled up from unspeakable abdominal pain. Which of the following would you do and which do you think would most probably save her/his life?
1. Do nothing. You carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.

2. You sit beside him and assume the lotus position. You close your eyes, bring your brain waves down to the alpha level, and visualize white light dissolving the poison in his tummy. With more blinding white light you clean his entire digestive and circulatory systems. (For Old Agers out there, that's the Silva Method for treating any and all diseases)

3. You rush your child to a Chinese medicine man or a shaman or a chiropractor or a faith healer or a psychic healer or some "alternative medicine" practitioner.

4. You fall on your knees and start praying to Kuan Yin (the goddess of mercy), Allah, Buddha, Salus (Roman goddess of health), Feta (uh perhaps not), Baal, or whichever deity/deities you subscribe to.

5. In addition to #4 you run to the phone and call all your relatives and friends and ask them to pray with you. You also send SMS (text) messages to everyone in your address book to spread the word and get the whole world praying, chanting, lighting incense, ....

6. You rush her to the nearest ER or clinic and have doctors give her atropine (or whatever it is they give to counteract the effects of the poison) or get the poison out of her.

7. Number 6 and then #2, 3, 4, and/or 5. (#3 is done after her discharge from the clinic/hospital, while #2, 4, 5 can be performed while he's being treated by doctors).

If you choose #7, why do you think performing #2, 3, 4, and/or 5 in addition to #6 will or might help.

In cases where only wishful thinking (e.g. prayer, faith healing, Touch Therapy,... ) is employed those with acute, life-threatening conditions don't become better. Thus, in cases where it is employed in addition to proven evidence-based medical care we know that it is superfluous. It's like dancing while the doctors perform angioplasty on your parent--the jig is irrelevant to the arterial stenosis. Remedies based on wishful thinking are as relevant as the ritual performed by one aboriginal tribe, a ceremony which they believe is what causes the sun to rise everyday. Clearly, this society need only have forgone with the ritual for a week to experience disillusionment and enlightenment. Analogously, (if only it weren't so totally unethical) the delusion of FH could, at least on a rational level, be dealt a coup de grâce were we to treat with FH alone those patients with conditions that aren't self-limiting and don't spontaneously go into remission (e.g. acute appendicitis). If only we could perform such an experiment, we'd be able to definitively show FH as nothing but wishful thinking [3].

It's most tragic that children are dying because of parents who so unthinkingly rely on magic to treat them. We've already seen it again and again (among the children who've died from being treated with FH alone are Ava Worthington and Madeline Neumann). The faith healing delusion can and does kill! Will we ever see an end to these cases of manslaughter? Perhaps not. There have been and will always be children in adult's clothings who will believe that uttering words and beseeching silent invisible entities from some other dimension can magically make their wishes come true. It seems that Homo sapiens are hard-wired to fall into irrational thinking, magical and wishful thinking. Thus, until our brains evolve into dispensing with these natural predispositions only education in clear, rational, logical, critico-scientific ways of thinking can lead us off the natural path of muddled reasoning and out of the darkness of ignorance.

We all wish for this and that. But let us harbor no illusions. Wishing with all your heart and all your mind will come to naught. Now that you're no longer a child, do away with childish ways of thinking and reasoning.



1. Interestingly, adults and culture are selective as to which instances of wishful thinking are afforded legitimacy--i.e., not considered to be forms of wishful thinking. Consider, for instance, the proposition "Ask entity X," where X = tooth fairy and X = the god of one's religion. While neither of the two entities are known to be real, one is relegated to fantasy while the other is taken most seriously as factually effective.

2. Since Paul was a supernaturalist, it is clear his assessment of himself was most flawed. Childish reasoning and thinking he most certainly was not able to completely banish.

3. We must not, however, underestimate the psychological power of cognitive dissonance coping mechanisms. Even with irrefutable evidence die-hard believers will still be able to maintain their belief in the efficacy of FH. For instance, in the face of such confuting evidence they may rebut by averring that their deity, say Kuan Yin, had already long ago planned to "bring back home" these very sick people at this time--that's the very reason why they are so ill. Such is the power of the mind to churn up imaginative, albeit unprovable, reasons just to shore up delusions.

Failure of wishful thinking modalities such as faith healing, prayer, animal sacrifices to appease unseen entities will be rationalized with explanations that cannot be tested and proved false, i.e., with nonfalsifiable claims. Thus, if the deity believed in is Apollo, then Apollo does answer prayers and does cure people when prayed to, but when the patient doesn't get well or dies, then it is inferred that Apollo has much bigger plans which we mere mortals cannot begin to comprehend. It is an Apollonian Mystery.

Of course anyone can resort to such a nonfalsifiable claim--a Hindu, a Zoroastrian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian. In each case every deity can be said to answer prayers, implying that all these deities exist, which of course would entail a contradiction. Thus, the fact that your argument or explanation is unfalsifiable and cannot be refuted does not mean you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It probably means you've just created and embroiled yourself in a delusion. Religionists are famous for nonfalsifiable claims and rationalizations. It's a case of making delusions airtight. They begun with a far-fetched, unjustified belief (e.g. there are superpowerful, supergood invisible entities from some other dimension) and then made the beliefs irrefutable by making untestable claims to explain away confuting evidence.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Persist in asking "How do you know?"

I recently discovered that the Philippine Star has daily theological one-liners printed at the bottom margin of the back page. You can't miss it. It's in large type, with a bright yellow band background to highlight it. Some examples: "Persistence in prayer pleases God" (May 3, 2008), "If you fill your heart with God's Word, He'll bring spiritual health to your soul" (June 5, 2008), "God is always in control behind the scenes" (June 6, 2008). Given these claims, we can rule out the possibility that they're talking about the god of the Deists (who neither gave any commandments nor is interested in the affairs of the universe) or the god of Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong or that of theologian Paul Tillich (a nebulous "force" which he defines as, among other things, the "ground of all being,").

But whoever the deity in question may be, what I'd like to know from those who declare and believe in the above declarations is how they know they are so. What method did they employ to discover these "facts"? How did they arrive at their knowledge of these things? Are they just parroting others? Could it be that they inferred them from various older claims, premises which are not yet known and haven't been evinced to be true? Did they merely find them in some ancient text; if so by what means did the author of that text discover their veracity? How can others--like you and me--determine/confirm the claims? (Can we, for example, have an audience with this entity and get it straight from the horse's mouth? What objective tests can we perform?) Or--Zeus forbid--could it be that those who say the above things merely believe and want/wish them to be true? Until the epistemological questions are answered the claims are unsupported and unsubstantiated. And just to repeat an epistemic heuristic: extraordinary claims demand extraordinary quality of evidence in their favor.

And so it is for all other theological claims. The query "How do you know it's true?" invariably exposes the absence of a valid epistemic grounding for the belief. Thus were we to ask, "How do you know that the phenomena 'God' and 'soul' you speak of in the above claims in fact exist and are real?", we would be met with answers that don't at all substantiate the claims. It goes without saying that it would be imprudent or even foolish to believe in anything lacking sufficient justification/evidence. One can choose to believe or one can prefer to believe rather than withhold belief, but there is no rational imperative to do so. In fact it would either be nonrational or irrational to choose/prefer to believe.

Psychologically, it is intriguing to note that while most people will be skeptical were you to tell them that a new animal species has been discovered, say, a whale with legs and feet, the same people will not blink but instead swallow hook, line, sinker, and even fishing pole when you tell them there exists an invisible, undetectable entity that is over 14 billion years old, one that has an understanding of chemistry, biology, and physics that surpasses a billion Einsteins combined, that has perfect telekinetic, telepathic and clairvoyant abilities, that can speak and understand any language (past, present and future), including all animal talk, and one which wants you to verbally communicate with it regularly but more importantly enjoins you to share with it part of your income every Sunday through human delegates (albeit self-appointed). Thus, while we would expect that the more implausible (the more outrageous) the claim the more skeptical people are, in reality, it doesn't follow. The fact is there are very implausible, extraordinary claims for which there is no good evidence whatsoever that people believe in through and through (quite unthinkingly).

How do you know I'm telling the truth were I to say that I always carry a million Euros--cash--on me wherever I go? Why is it that your gut reaction is to be skeptical? How do you know that you've really been cured by a Touch Therapist after she repeatedly passes her hands 3 inches above your body for several minutes? How do you determine the efficacy of this treatment modality? And even prior to that, given our fund of anatomical/physiological understanding, how do you know whether Touch Therapy is even remotely plausible? How do self-proclaimed "alien abductees" know that the bruises and marks on their bodies were really caused by extraterrestrials and not by some other means? How do you know they've explored and ruled out all other possible explanations? How do you know that goddess Kali is real, alive, and is truly out there somewhere in some dimension? How do you know she isn't? If you don't know she isn't and can't ever prove she isn't, then how do you know that some other deity (perhaps your own) is the real one if the reasons for saying it exists and is the real one are no better, no more persuasive (much less conclusive) than those for Kali?

How do you know it's true? How do you know when you should believe and when you should remain skeptical, how much to believe in claims and how much to question them?

How do you know?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ducks unlimited

It's one thing when the man and woman on the street trips and makes a logical booboo. It's brow-raising and elicits incredulity when someone with acronyms suffixed to their name commits a rudimentary fallacy.

Woodson Merrell, MD is a "board member of the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct, a member of the American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, New York State Medical Society, and New York County Medical Society, and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at ... the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons." You'd think that with such stature he'd know better than Tom, Dick and Harry. Unfortunately, Merrell is into "integrative medicine" otherwise known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), a phenomenon that before its marketing makeover was known simply and unobfuscatedly as quackery.
The same set of practises that was called quackery or fringe medicine in the mid twentieth century was renamed "alternative medicine" in the 1960s and 70s. The term "complementary medicine" was coined during the 1990s.... Further rebranding has given rise to the notion of "integrated medicine." (Rose Shapiro, Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All, London: Harvill Secker, 2008, p. 1)

However, Merrell's plunge into quackery isn't the error I'm referring to. James Randi reports that, "In an interview with the American Pain Foundation, Merrell said:"
We use whatever is safest, gentlest, and most effective for the patient regardless of what tradition it came from. As much as possible, we use an evidence-based approach, but certainly would consider an herbal remedy that's been around for twenty-five hundred years – that's a significant enough empirical trial.

Merrell was already was on track with the "effective" and "evidence-based" bits, but that last clause sabotaged his entire credibility. Given his argumentum ad antiquitatem, it may be that he doesn't really understand what evidence-based medicine is about, why randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial (RCT) is the gold standard of medical research, that bias is the number one enemy of objective testing and that the twenty-five-hundred-year "empirical trials" he's alluding to are precisely loaded with such biases.

James Randi elucidates on the fallacy. He's addressing Merrell:
Doctor, the idea of a Flat Earth has “been around” far longer than that, and was tested countless times; the Earth always looked flat, everyone knew that! The fact that a really bad idea has been around for centuries, doesn’t make it correct, it only makes it old. Yes, many, many, herbal remedies work very well, and were discovered by experiment, long ago: digitalis, aspirin, so many remedies we still use today. But we don’t use them because they’re old, we use them because they’ve passed the “evidence-based” trials that you mention are advisable when “possible.” For half a century, calomel was raved over as a cure for just about everything, and doctors prescribed it freely – until they noticed that not only the ailment went away, so did the patients. They died from mercury poisoning, because calomel is mercurous chloride…

In the same issue of Swift, Randi shares with us yet another fallacy (an epistemic one) from the producer of the television program "Healthcast." In one of its episodes the show featured Tong Ren (Chinese origin perhaps?), a quack treatment that essentially consists of "tapping on a doll with a small hammer." After seeing the show, a skeptic wrote and complained to producer Laura Stebbins. As part of her reply she wrote:
Hundreds of people from all over the world have testified that this therapy has helped them...

Hundreds of people have also testified that arsenic, bloodletting, cupping, Laetrile, healing touch, ... have helped them. But there is no objective evidence that any of these are effective. In fact your eyes probably (and rightly) popped when you read "arsenic"--some things that people swear by are in fact downright harmful. Actor Steve McQueen availed of Laetrile (among other snake oil) for his cancer, and yet Laetrile contains a non-insignificant amount of cyanide.

Perhaps Stebbins is unaware that a thousand testimonials is as good (or bad) as a single one. There are very good reasons why the FDA and medical researchers don't accept and don't rely on testimonials or even case studies as evidence for the efficacy or safety of any treatment modality. They are so laden with confounding factors (including the biases we talked about above) that anecdotes are completely useless as evidence. At best they are starting points and incentives for further research.
If one person can commit the fallacy of false cause, so can a hundred. If one piece of evidence is invalid or unreliable, many more pieces of invalid or unreliable evidence don't make the case any stronger. This means that the many testimonials offered by practitioners or users to promote a favorite therapy generally don't prove much of anything--except perhaps that some people have strong beliefs about certain treatments. (Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About Weird Things:Critical Thinking for a New Age. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999, p.203)

In other news, Yale University is going to the ducks. It now has an Integrative Medicine program and in April held its first annual Integrative Medicine Scientific Symposium. I think there must've been a typo there. They must've meant "Ist Annual I.M. Pseudoscientific Symposium." There! Now we've done away with the oxymoron.

I'll have Dr. David Colquhoun introduce the premier woowoo during the symposium.
David Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is founder and director of the Integrative Medicine Center (IMC) at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut. He is also an associate professor, adjunct, of Public Health and director of the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

That sounds pretty respectable. But he is into not just good nutrition, exercise, relaxation and massage, but also utterly barmy and disproved things like homeopathy and ‘therapeutic touch’.

In his talk, Katz rallied for a "more fluid concept of evidence." In other words do whatever is necessary to make sure that candidate modalities that flunk the exam still get to graduate and be certified. This includes accepting case studies and anecdotes as objective evidence for efficacy. In his speech Katz brings up various treatments (e.g.., CoQ10, vitamin therapy, homeopathy) and the lack of solid hard evidence for them and yet he defends them--lamely--with the aphorism "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Indeed if I can't see radio waves it doesn't mean they aren't there. However, if treatment X is in fact ineffective then there's nothing else to witness but absence of efficacy! (Likewise with any other claim: if Y doesn't exist and isn't real then you won't find any evidence for Y.) Needless to say, believing that X works (or that Y is real) until good evidence is at hand is unwarranted.

Colquhoun on Katz's speech:
Dr Katz goes through several different trials, all of which come out negative. And what is his conclusion? You guessed. His conclusion is not that the treatments don’t work but that we need a “more fluid concept of evidence.”

Dr. Steven Novella summarizes the Katz approach: "When studies of 'alternative' modalities are negative, proponents want to change the rules after they see the results." When former Chair of the Society of Homeopaths Felicity Lee was asked why she still practices homeopathy after the best studies have shown it to be no better than placebos, Lee replied that science and RCTs aren't suited to testing homeopathic remedies (although when questioned as to why this is so, Lee was stumped).

On the other hand, should a battery of independently performed RCTs unquestionably show that the modality works, the quacks would accept the robust design and methodology and hail the trials as definitive proof. In other words, these CAM and IM practitioners want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to keep their belief whether the evidence is positive or negative. I find psychiatrist M. Scott Peck's observation of psychiatric inmates cogent. According to Peck, in effect these people say, "Don't disturb our delusions." Merrell, Katz, Lee, and other proponents are not loonies. But they're certainly grossly deluded (clinically defined as continuing to believe even in the face of overwhelming rational arguments/evidence to the contrary).

In the same talk Katz describes medical schools' emphasis on evidence as indoctrination. Colquhoun calls this "a pretty graphic illustration of his [Katz's]deeply anti-scientific approach to knowledge." It can't be emphasized enough: there is no other way to test the efficacy of therapeutic modalities except through scientific means, the best and most reliable being the RCT.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

More than a touch of bias

Just got wind of a 3-year Stanford University clinical trial that's underway to study the efficacy of Healing Touch (HT) [1]. What is HT? It's very much akin to Therapeutic Touch (TT). Duh! Ok, ok. It's basically a laying of hands on the sick. In TT the hands don't actually touch the person. In HT, the hands can be in physical contact. Both techniques are said to be based on the manipulation of some human "energy field." Here's how one of the researchers of the Stanford study describes the basis of HT.
"It's based on the belief that our bodies are surrounded by a field of energy and our bodies themselves are a denser form of energy," [Kathy] Turner said. "The belief there is that once the body's energy is cleared and balanced, our bodies have the innate capacity to heal themselves."

The underlying technique is age-old, advocates say, and intends to balance and align people's energy fields so they become "whole in body, mind, emotion and spirit" - although no one knows quite how it works.
And here's how HT is performed.
People remain fully clothed. A lot of it is actual touching, but if someone has just had surgery, the healer can work above the person's body. Healing Touch International Inc. runs a certification program across the country that many nurses take, but it's open to everyone.

[Anne] Broderick, a former corporate executive turned psychotherapist, provides Healing Touch to Lydia Li every week. Both survived breast cancer and took part in Healing Partners at Stanford.

Earlier this month, Li arrived at Broderick's Palo Alto office with shoulder pain and a headache. She lay on a massage table, and Broderick covered her fully clothed body with a white sheet. Broderick, 69, then silently told herself, "I set my intention for the highest good," and began methodically touching Li to the sounds of running water and quiet music, occasionally sweeping her hands above her. At times, she firmly held a foot, knee or wrist. At others, she seemed to play an imaginary piano on Li's back.

Often, Broderick begins sessions by holding a crystal (although she said a "lifesaver on a string" would work just as well) 4 inches above Li and watches it circle over the seven chakras - energy vortices - that run along the length of the body. Clockwise is a good sign. No movement or one that's counterclockwise means the person could use some help getting healthy energy flow, she says.

To most people, a scientific study is a scientific study. And once a study has shown that there is evidence therapy X is effective you'd think that's that; X does work. Well, as with cars, not all studies are of equal quality. You'd of course trust a Rolls and a Ferrari over the China-made Chery. So it should be with clinical trials. And guess what? The Stanford trial is a poorly designed study. It has two major flaws even at the outset. Participants are not randomly assigned to the experimental and control groups, i.e., there is either self-selection--the patients choose in which group they want to be in--or the researchers get to determine the group assignment [2]. Secondly it employs neither single nor double blinding (masking), i.e., the participants know whether they're receiving HT or not and the researchers know which patient is assigned to which group. What all this boils down to is massive propensity for bias and hence unreliability of the forthcoming results. Thus, even at this stage we already know that this clinical trial won't lead to any conclusive findings. In fact should the findings be positive it would be most suspect precisely because of the lack of blinding and randomization--two very crucial factors in any clinical trial that's able to guard against experimental biases.

Another potential problem lies in the control group. If a sham/faux HT procedure is possible then one group ought to be provided this "treatment," just as is in the case of tests of acupuncture where the control group is given sham needling. Therefore, a better designed trial would've involved actors who have no training in HT whatsoever perform the sham HT, with the participants blinded to this fact. If it turns out that patients in the sham HT group fare worse than those in the HT group then there would be good reason to say that there is favorable evidence for HT.

As we said both HT and TT claim the human body possesses an "energy field." Traditional Chinese Medicine likewise claims the body has an energy called qi (pronounced as chi). However, there is absolutely no evidence for this energy field or aura. And in a JAMA study conducted to evaluate TT, the practitioners (most if not all who practice TT are nurses) who claimed to be able to detect and exercise control over this energy field failed to even detect it. Given our knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and given the experiments thus far conducted the plausibility of the theory of both TT and HT hovers around zero.

Be that as it may, the physical presence of someone who commiserates probably does have a psychological (and even detectable physiological) effect on patients. So does a loving touch--a friendly hand clasping the patient's for instance Or for that matter, embrace and companionship by the patient's loved ones. There's nothing controversial or implausible about these. In fact we would expect these behaviors and events to be helpful in some way, even if only to calm the patient and counteract the stressors s/he's experiencing. But let's dispense with all the energy field, chakra, and crystal poppycock.


1. Learned of this study via Now What, Cat? a site that I think is owned by Cathy. I left a short and rough version of this blog entry as a comment. Moderation is active. Wonder if she'll post what I wrote. If not does that mean I'm persona non grata whatever the content of my comment?

2. The SFGate article made a booboo, describing the Stanford trial as randomized when in fact it isn't.

Monday, May 26, 2008

He's baaack!

That deluded priest Fernando Suarez is back in the country. At the end of this month the Pied Piper is leading his flock to Montemaria, Batangas for more imaginary healings. If you're a believer then go ahead, pack up your gear, make a beeline for that mountain lair of his and have an endorphin-enkephalin-opioid rush. Your deity has imbued humans with an innate storehouse of these drugs to give you a high. Avail of it. Be faithful and have faith in faith healing. Be charmed by Suarez. Believe in his curative powers. And feel better. I swear!

Just don't expect your diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, amputated limb, Down syndrome, spina bifida, hemophilia, et be a thing of the past when you come down from cloud nine. That placebo effect you just experienced? It'll wear off soon enough and has no therapeutic value vis-a-vis diseases, as is with the effects of heroin, opium, morphine, booze, and other narcotic substances your deity created but failed to make inherent in your physiology.

Guess I'm really dumb to be a skeptic. Now I'll never be able to enjoy the narcotic, pain-killing, feel-good benefits from delusions of magical supernatural healing and SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine). Drats! Somebody give me a delusion quick! Turn me back into a stupid, credulous, gullible ignoramus.

Sigh. Indeed, ignorance is bliss. And Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in mind, for they shall reap the fruits of the placebo effect."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

God, I.D.

Last week Fr. Fernando Suarez celebrated a healing Mass in Los Angeles, California. Some 14,000 attended. Well you're in for a surprise (or for skeptics, a yawn). Apparently the Christian deity messed up and failed to lick one woman's cancer the first time around:
[Teresita] De la Cruz had been “healed” by Fr. Suarez in a healing Mass in San Pedro, California last year. She attended Saturday’s healing event because her cancer recurred, invading her brain this time.
"ID" used to mean to Inefficient Designer. Now it also stands for Incompetent Doctor.

I've just begun reading Rose Shapiro's Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All. Replace "Alternative Medicine" with "Faith Healing" and the title would be just as spot on. Then again I regard FH as being part of alt med.

Richard Sloan in his Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine delves into the various studies and tells us that not only are there that not many studies on the subject of health and religion but that those which are scientifically sound don't lead to the conclusion that religion (including being religious and praying) has health benefits. However, the lack of any good evidence that supernatural beings or deluded and puffed-up blokes like Suarez or religious beliefs (faith) can cure or have any therapeutic effect (apart from placebo effects) isn't going to deter the thousands (or millions) from seeking and availing of free magical panaceas.

As it's been been said, there's only one type of medicine--one that actually works, one whose efficacy is grounded in good evidence.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jesus says, Mo says

As always the barmaid hits the nail on the head. She tells Jesus and Mo, "You cannot escape the fact that when you say 'God says X' what you are actually saying is 'I say God says X.'"

Believers of various religions tell us in so many words that "deity Y said/did X." As the barmaid explains, the statement is elliptic and leaves out important details: "My imam/rabbi/guru/priest/pastor says...", "Book B says...", "I say..." In short the statement "deity Y said/did X" is merely a claim. Without empirical substantiation it is irrational to believe in it not least because the existence of the claimed entity has not even been shown to be true.

Logically, epistemologically speaking, any statement in the form of "entity E said/did X" is presumptuous unless E is a phenomenon that is already known to be true/real. The antecedent and implicit premise is "E exists." So unless E is in fact known to exist and has been reasonably shown to exist, to be true and real, immediately telling the reader/audience "E said/did X" is misleading.

An example to illustrate: "E performed surgery on author Daniel Dennett." Now replace E with one of the following:

1. Michael Hopkins, M.D.
2. Ahura Mazda (god of the Zoroastrians)
3. Diktab, a doctor from the planet Woptwam located 3 billion light years from Earth.

Clearly #1 deserves the least skepticism. We know that humans exist. We know that humans who have medical degrees have in fact performed surgery. #2 and 3, however, deserve utmost skepticism, and should not be believed in. There is no evidence that Ahura Mazda exists. There is yet no evidence that any extraterrestrial lifeform exists. And of course there is no evidence that there exists the said planet at the specified location, and one that has a population of organisms that have the intelligence and technology for surgery.

#3 is instructive. The more specific the claim--the more details there are in it--the more premises are being offered, the lesser the probability of the claim being true, and the riskier it is for the one making the claim. Thus in #3 the claims include a planet, a given distance, a sentient being (and even perhaps a range of species and their evolutionary lineage), a nonhuman who has medical expertise and knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, as well as the implicit claim that this being was somehow able to travel the 3 billion light year distance (either physically or otherwise) to operate on Dan. That's a lot of claims packed into it.

Whenever an extraordinary claim comes up, we need to automatically ask, How do you know it's true? Just as well we need to ask ourselves what we haven't been told, what the implicit premises are. Many times once we expose these hidden premises the claim immediately falls flat on its face simply because these premises have yet to be shown to be true. Thus with any claim that deity Y commanded or did X, by merely revealing the fact that Y is not yet known to be true, the entire claim comes crashing to the ground.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ethical development

Imagine the following: There is in fact a god or gods. This deity or committee of supernatural beings in fact created the universe, is omnipotent or peri-omnipotent, and has decreed a set of rules for humans to follow. What are these commandments? Well, among the most important ones are: be caring toward others, be fair and just and compassionate, and treat other sentient species with respect. While you are here on Earth you are assured that you will not be punished for any transgression. Neither will you be rewarded in this life for following The Law to a tee.

And oh yes, one more thing. This god/committee has decided that after you die, that's it. You're dead and are no more. Forever. In other words, there is no afterlife. No paradise, no happy hunting grounds, no harem of six dozen virgins awaiting you on the other side. And no hell of any sort either. Once you've kicked the bucket and are six feet under, the gods make certain that bacteria and worms see to it you are irrevocably obliterated.

Now ask yourself, Given that you know with absolute certainty that there is no divinely-caused punishment (nor reward) in this life and that there is no hereafter, would you then go about leading a life of crime? If you're a young man, would you suddenly appoint yourself as the alpha male and ravage every teenage female you run into? Instead of queuing up in a bank to withdraw from your account, would you cut in front of the line and announce a heist? Would you carry around a sword and summarily hack every guy who gets your goat? Would you let your ego become the emperor and allow it rule absolutely?

In educating our children our goal is not teach them to be good only because there's a reward in the offing and to avoid evil only because punishment awaits them. While we employ the carrot and stick with the very young, we eventually want to impart to children the habit of doing good for goodness sake, and to avoid evil because it is bad. We also yearn and hope that in time they do good and avoid evil not because we've commanded them, not because rules, regulations, and laws tell them to do this and not do that, but again because it is good to do good and harmful to do bad. We want our descendants to begin by learning the letter of the law but graduate to understanding the spirit of the law, cherishing it, incorporating it into their very being, and becoming persons who have the ability for ethical thinking and judgment. We want them to be able to think and judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong, and take the appropriate action.

Now there are not many religions that foster such a formation. Buddhism is among the few that easily comes to mind. We need only remind ourselves what the Buddha advised his disciples: "Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves" [1]. You will also find it being fostered in strands of various religions including liberal Christianity. But you will be hard pressed to find it in most mainstream religions, not least because most religions and denominations guard the orthodoxy, are dogmatic and doctrinaire, and are authoritarian in nature. Such conditions necessarily lead to the polar opposite of maturation, independence and self-reliance. Indeed, the ability to unfetter oneself from authority and tradition and then think for oneself is frowned upon, discouraged, and at times even sanctioned.

Needless to say those who are unaffiliated with any religion (or are adherents of religions that have no ethical dimension, i.e., have no moral prescriptions/proscriptions or offer no criteria for ethical decision making) must perforce search for and choose their own ethical system and must actively use their minds in this endeavor. In being on one's own, there is no guarantee or implication that one will acquire excellent ethical judgment skills or that one will be ethical. Nevertheless, there is that freedom to be able to think for oneself and to be eclectic and learn from any and all sources.


Huston Smith, The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, Harper San Francisco, 1991, p. 94.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Faithing all the way

When I asked a Christian friend how her church defined faith, she directed me to the bible, specifically to Hebrews 11:1. Her text follows the KJV: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Since I flunked Shakespeare, I asked her what "substance" in this context means and what "evidence" was being alluded to. Well, she was as stumped as I was. So I hunted down other translations in the hope of finding something in modern colloquial English. Here are the various renditions (site 1, site 2) I found:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the sign that the things not seen are true.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Faith assures us of things we expect and convinces us of the existence of things we cannot see.

Faith is a sure confidence of things which are hoped for, and a certainty of things which are not seen.

Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see.

And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see.

I think the key words are assurance, being sure, confidence, conviction, certainty. If this is what faith is in the biblical sense--being sure of receiving/attaining things that one hopes for, being sure of the reality of things one does not and cannot see (perceive)--then it is quite synonymous with how we usually understand "faith," i.e., a firm belief without evidence or strong belief despite the lack of evidence.

Immediately, however, as with believing in any other thing Hebrews 11:1 runs afoul of epistemology. However sure, confident, and certain we are that what we hope for and what we cannot see is true, our fervent belief tells us nothing about whether in fact we are right or wrong, whether or not what we believe in is true/real. For example, there are adherents of every religion who are die-hard believers. But since many claims of the various religions of the world conflict with one another and therefore cannot be true simultaneously, then clearly faith (belief) does not lead to (an apprehension of) the truth. Surety, confidence, certainty are just that. They do not imply that what is believed in is true, much less make it true.

Given that they planned and trained for years with the ultimate goal of sacrificing their lives, the 9-11 terrorists must be counted among those who had the most faith in their beliefs. However, it's rather comical to conclude that simply because these hijackers firmly believed their deity would reward them with six dozen virgins each for their murderous deeds, they in fact are now wallowing in a sea of young females in some dimension.

So faith is irrelevant to the truth of the belief. But Christians believe in Hebrews 11:1. And some believe in it with all their hearts. But as we have already said believing will not suddenly make that which is believed in true. Merely believing in Hebrews 11:1 or being certain (having faith) that the claim therein is true does not tell us anything about the truth of that passage. The pertinent question for Christians therefore is: Why do you believe that verse? Why do you believe the claims therein? What makes you sure that it is true? Queried, they will almost surely whip out some lame reason (e.g. "because it's in the bible," "because it's God's word") which does not at all justify the belief, or which contains implicit premises that have not been substantiated and known to be true, or which ultimately ends up begging the question (circular reasoning).

I am led to hypothesize that believers are not truth seekers at all. "The truth will set you free" is paid lip service. Instead believers are in the business of taking as truth that which they want to be true and that which they hope for (remember, they cherry pick) regardless of whether or not these beliefs are rooted in reality, plausibility, and rationality. In effect they unconsciously tell themselves: "I like the idea of an afterlife, of spending an eternity with my loved ones, therefore I will hold this belief despite and regardless of ...." "I feel solace and comfort in the idea of a benevolent deity who hears and answers prayers therefore I will continue to believe in it despite and regardless of ...." Preference trumps evidence and rationality. And there's an obstinacy and hard-headedness to it that appropriately deserves the epithet "blind faith." Believers seem to be declaring: I believe this to be true and real whether or not it is true and real.

Faithing in contrast to thinking seems to be prime mover amongst Christians. As the Apostle's creed epitomizes there's an emphasis on believing. Believe and you will be saved. Believe and you will be healed. Just believe. And when Christians run into disconfirming evidence and cognitive dissonance, they just go over the bumps, forget about it in no time, and move on, their belief engine chugging along as if nothing had happened.

It seems to me in order to arrest this runaway train takes a mountain of cognitive dissonance, something their faith can't move or go over or around. But what will actually break the spell (not exactly as Dan Dennett used the phrase) is idiosyncratic for every believer, as stories of deconversion show.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Cherry-picking Cathy the Catholic

The number of variants among believers was brought home to me recently when I confronted Cathy of Touched by a Miracle about my comments on her blog which she deleted, comments which don't contain ad hominems but instead well-reasoned arguments and explanations (see below for the comments I left in her blog, as well as her replies; you be the judge). Apparently, two Catholics may not at all believe in the same thing, leaving us with a number of variants of the Catholic species. And as you will shortly see John Paul 2 and Cathy's beliefs are hardly congruous. Given what the successor of Jesus declares I wonder if heresy would be too strong a word to describe Cathy's obstinacy.

After I discovered the deletions, I wrote Cathy and asked her for her reasons. Since I've suspected that this postgraduate degree holder had poor critical thinking skills and would probably be averse to penetrating analysis (perhaps fearing it would burst her bubble of delusion or those of her readers) I told her that in his encyclical Fides et ratio Pope John Paul 2 declares that faith and reason do not clash but rather complement one another. In fact according to the pope,
It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.

I told her that as a Catholic I thought she would know better than to censor rationality. Well I never received a reply. Instead I discovered she's appended the following to her "About this blog."
This is my sanctuary and not a forum to argue about faith. I respect other people's faith and religion for I believe God is the God of the Universe. Please respect mine. If you have issues about religion, you can write about it in your blog.

The above reminds me of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck's observation in his visits to asylums. Peck relates how when he called the inmates' attention to the first snow of winter, they in effect told him: Don't bother us, don't interrupt our delusions. It looks like Cathy wants me and her Pope not only to not interrupt her delusions, but to respect them.

Poor Cathy. She won't even acknowledge that her god is not the god of other religions (and not even the god of some Christian denominations and sects). And that if she respects the beliefs of those religions then she is subscribing to a form of subjectivism. I really have to wonder if "truth" has any currency in her worldview at all. It almost seems like her religion is just a "feel good" thing bereft of any substantive thinking or intellectual consistency.

Hence, while Cathy may call herself a Catholic, she cherry picks what Catholic doctrines she will believe in, what she will espouse, and what she will listen to. Even as the Vicar of Christ himself has told her to value rationality, she summarily rejects this. Thus, as predicted by John Paul 2, she has pitifully slid into superstitious beliefs.


What seems to have prompted Cathy to take down my comments (and her replies to the same) is the fact that after disappearing for a week I sent another comment. Perhaps there was something in there that ticked her off. I'd like to think that sometimes the light of reason can bring people to lash out at that which threatens to pull the rug from under them. Or perhaps she had already told herself that if I ever post a third comment she'd strafe all my posts to kingdom come. Or perhaps Easter Sunday marks the beginning of her spring cleaning, and she was just nonchalantly taking out the garbage--meaning any comment that dare invoke skepticism, logic, rationality, and critical thinking. Seriously though, it now seems clear that it was my last submission that got her goat. Given that she now says her blog is not a venue for debating faith, my excursus on the nature of faith must've made her go into conniptions and triggered the deletion frenzy. What follows are the comments Cathy fed to the delete button.

By me on March 15 in "How do you know if your prayers are answered?":
There's a fallacy in causal reasoning known as post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this"). Given that event A comes before event B, it is fallacious to conclude that A caused B. We all intuitively know that mere temporal precedence is insufficient to conclude causality. Thus, just because I sang right before a downpour doesn't mean that my singing really sucks so much so that the clouds uncontrollably burst into tears.

Applying this to prayer it means that if I pray to entity Z and shortly thereafter I receive what I prayed for, I cannot say whether or not I got what wanted because I prayed. If I pray that I won't meet an accident during my trip and in fact I arrive safely at my destination, I would have to have knowledge that I would've had a mishap had I forgone with the prayer. Only then can I say that prayer was in fact essential and causative. Of course neither I nor anyone else has the luxury of knowing the consequences of "what if I hadn't prayed."

Thus, we cannot say whether prayers are answered simply because what we want or wish came to pass.

As for prayers not being answered, this is more straightforward. Given my above prayer, should the plane or car I'm in figure in a crash, then I can conclude that my prayer did not work. Of course there are an infinite number of explanations that can be offered to rationalize this away. For instance I can say that Z was too busy attending to prayers by other people. Or that Z wanted to teach me a lesson and so allowed me to get nicked. Etc. These, however, are all ad hoc explanations whose truth/falsity cannot be determined, cannot be tested. They are mere speculations to explain away the negative outcome.

By Cathy on March 17 in the same blog entry:
As always, faith defies logic.

There would be no word miracle if everything can be explained by science.

By Cathy on March 17 in the same blog entry:
As Albert Einstein had said:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.

By me on March 17 in "Let there be a miracle":
According to the most rigorous study thus far conducted, intercessory prayer has no measurable empirical effects. Dr. Herbert Benson et al. conducted the Study on the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP). To date it's considered the definitive scientific study/experiment on prayer. It involved 1,800 patients in 6 different hospitals who were recovering from heart bypass surgery. The study and its results appear in the April 2006 issue of the American Heart Journal. To cut to the chase, they found that there was no difference in the rates of recovery and improvements between those prayed for and those who weren't; there was also no statistical difference in the number of deaths between the two groups. In short, prayer did not work. There was, however, an interesting side discovery. The researchers found that those who knew they were being prayed for suffered more post-operative complications. The difference was small but statistically significant. So knowing that one is being prayed for could be hazardous to one's health, which according to one hypothesis may be due to some type of performance anxiety. Intercessory prayer has all but been proved to have no efficacy.

It may be claimed that Fernando Suarez is no ordinary mortal, that he has certain paranormal/supernatural abilities, or that he has a hotline to the Judeo-Xian deity. Thus, unlike the participants in STEP, Suarez may in fact have powers to heal through prayer. This hypothesis can in principle be tested. Here's a rough sketch of how we may test the healing claims. Patients are first diagnosed by medical experts to determine their condition (appropriate lab tests should be performed as well). Medication and various other treatments these patients have been receiving should be terminated in order not to confound the study. This is probably unethical but for now let's disregard bioethical issues for the sake of illustration purposes. After the effects of previous medication/treatments have worn off, Suarez then prays for these people (or performs whatever it is he does). Thereafter, the patients are once more diagnosed and tested. Daily/weekly/monthly medical follow-ups and tests are then conducted to monitor and track the progress/regress of the patients condition. Should we find improvement that cannot be attributed to the medications/treatments that the patients had undergone previously, to the natural course of the disease and the expected variability of severity of its symptoms, to natural regression and remission, to placebo effects, to misdiagnoses, and to any host of known causes/explanations, then we can tentatively say that such improvements may be due to Suarez's healing techniques. We can then perform further studies. On the other hand if we find the patients regress or even die from their conditions then we have falsified Suarez's healing claims. (The latter was in fact the case with healer Benny Hinn after an investigation was conducted. See

I've posted more detailed critiques of the claims surrounding Suarez over at While anecdotes may seem to evince the efficacy of faith healing, it is only via objective testing, studies, and long term medical investigations can we arrive at a determination of the efficacy of any treatment modality.

I posted the following on March 25 in "How do you know if your prayers are answered?" but Cathy never approved it. Shortly after submitting it Cathy took down the two comments I left on her blog:
I'm not sure what you mean by "faith defies logic." But allow me to say some things about faith.

* St. Thomas Aquinas said that faith is inferior to knowledge because it lacks rational justification. Faith, precisely, is belief despite the lack of justification/substantiation/evidence. When we do have good reasons/arguments/evidence to justify our belief, we call it knowledge.

* No matter how much we believe in X our belief cannot make X true (or false). Even if a trillion people believe in X it will not make X true (or false). No matter how long X has been believed it will not make it true (or false). Example: Members of the Heaven's Gate cult very much believed their salvation was at hand in 1997 when Comet Hale-Bopp came within naked eye view. The cult members had so much faith that they went as far as committing suicide in order to board the extraterrestrial ship they believed had come for them. Clearly, even if Heaven's Gate had a trillion members and had been the earliest human religion ever, it would not have made their beliefs in the Hale-Bopp extraterrestrial spaceship true.

* All religions have their staunch believers. Since all religions rely on faith (none of them have any good justification/evidence for any of their theological claims), we are left with a major conundrum if we claim that faith leads to truth: It would mean all the claims, including all the gods of all religions are true/real. That would of course be a contradiction since the beliefs of a lot if not most religions conflict with one another and cannot be simultaneously true. For instance, if the Hindu gods are real then neither the Islamic nor the Xian deity nor gods of a good number of other religions can be real. Thus, merely having faith does not lead to the truth.

* Since religions cannot all be simultaneously true, then it follows that most religious beliefs are false--regardless of how many believe in them, how long they've been believed in, and however much faith has been invested in them. Faith isn't correlated with truth. In fact it is irrelevant to the issue of truth.

You said, "There would be no word miracle if everything can be explained by science." I think you're alluding to the God of the gaps argument (GOPA). In simple terms the GOPA goes as follows: there is currently no scientific explanation for X, therefore X is supernatural or supernaturally caused. The problem with GOPA is that over the centuries things that used to be thought of as being caused by gods are now known to have naturalistic causes. Lightning, earthquakes, disease, eclipses, etc. used to be imbued with so much supernatural overlays. But every high school student now learns about their true nature and causes in science class. So what is currently unknown--what Einstein dubs the mysterious--will most likely be understood and known in the future. What the Einsteins of today don't understand--but are intensely motivated to study--will become common place knowledge to the high school students generations hence. Thus, to call the unkonwns of today "miracles" is in fact simply admitting ignorance of their real nature and cause. But as we've learned from history if we don't know X and call it a miracle we (or most probably our descendants) will almost surely find ourselves wrong.

In logic and epistemology, when we don't know what X is, we cannot conclude that X is Y, where Y is our pet theory (e.g. Y = "a miracle", or Y = "extraterrestrially caused," or Y = "due to psychic powers", etc.) Precisely, we don't know what X is and so the only thing we can say is that we are ignorant of X, of its nature, of its cause. To say that X is Y is to implicitly claim knowledge of X, which of course is arrogance and implies we have omniscience (since we are claiming that X cannot be anything else other than Y, meaning we have ruled out any and all other possible explanations, now or in the future).

Moreover, if we were to say that X is a miracle, then it behooves us to produce evidence that our claim is true. One cannot point to the lack of scientific explanation since that doesn't prove anything. As we said the current lack of scientific understanding/explanation merely means that humans still don't have knowledge of what X is. Furthermore, the burden of proof is always upon the one making the claim. Thus, if I say that X is not a miracle but rather caused by a super-advanced super-intelligent race of extraterrestrials, then the onus of proof is upon my shoulders to produce evidence for what I have claimed. If I cannot then I am merely speculating and my (wacky) claim can be dismissed. Worse I have made a nonparsimonious claim, ie., a claim that assumes the existence of entities that are not known to be true (in this case aliens).

And so vis-a-vis the claim that "X is a miracle":
1. It is a claim that isn't warranted by humanity's current state of ignorance of what X is.
2. to insist that X is a miracle is to imply omniscience (which is hybristic)
3. burden of proof is upon those who claim miracles; they need to produce persuasive evidence
4. the assumption of deities and the supernatural violates the principle of parsimony, more commonly known as Ockham's Razor, first annunciated by the Catholic monk William of Ockham in the 14th century

Friday, April 04, 2008

Does Suraez have a FPP?

Some 25 years ago psychologists Sheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber identified what they called fantasy-prone personality (FPP). The 14 characteristics of FPP are:
(1) being an excellent hypnotic subject, (2) having imaginary playmates as a child, (3) fantasizing frequently as a child, (4) adopting a fantasy identity, (5) experiencing imagined sensations as real, (6) having vivid sensory perceptions, (7) reliving past experiences, (8) claiming psychic powers, (9) having out-of-body or floating experiences, (10) receiving poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences, and the like, (11) being involved in "healing," (12) encountering apparitions, (13) experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams), and (14) seeing classical hypnagogic imagery (such as spirits or monsters from outer space).

According to Wilson and Barber a minimum of six of the above "diagnostic criteria" (if we may call it that) would indicate FPP. We all have the faculty for fantasizing and we all have had fantasies so all of us would have a couple of the characteristics above. In my case #3 definitely applies. But I have no idea of my hypnotizability. I don't remember having had imaginary friends as a child nor having adopted a fantasy identity (although am not sure exactly what that means). I may have on occasion imagined sensations as being very real. On the other hand, How vivid is "vivid sensory perceptions"? An operational definition is necessary. What does "reliving past experiences" mean exactly? As to #8 to 14 I am confident they do not apply to me. Bottom line--I check positive for at least two items while the worst case scenario is that I'm a point shy of the half dozen mark.

Let's see how Suarez fares. Suarez claims to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who also gave him a message: "She told me that I would go to a far away place which was cold and windy, and there proclaim the word of God." In a tv interview (with Boy Abunda) he's admitted to having encountered the devil (I need a reconfirmation on this). Suarez has also had a vision of Jesus "pouring on graces upon him." And, needless to say, he's very much involved in healing. Given these we can safely tick numbers 10, 11, and 12. Because we lack a book-length biography on Suarez, I'm most interested in how he will rate himself on the other items (except perhaps for #1 which would require an actual test by a qualified hypnotist).

It's been suggested that faith healers Kathryn Kuhlman and Benny Hinn have FPP given that their backgrounds show they have many FPP traits. It would thus not be surprising if we find Suarez to be of the same feather. However, I doubt we can settle Suarez's fantasy proneness if we rely merely on Suarez, for I surely am doubtful he would willingly provide the pertinent and necessary information about himself [1]. Too much is at stake. He and his cohorts have invested too much psychologically and in time and effort. Suarez has hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers. He's in too deep. Interviewing relatives, friends, schoolmates, teachers, colleagues, the seminaries that rejected him may be more revealing.



1. Ever since I read about Suarez's past I've been skeptical. For instance he says that at age 16 he prayed over a paralyzed woman and the woman got up and walked. And about a decade ago he prayed over a dead woman who then came back to life. I take these anecdotes with more than just a grain of salt since memory is very much reconstructive in nature--it is nothing close to a videotape that faithfully records events. I am thus very wary of confabulations and embellishments that may have crept in. So much more if Suarez is in fact fantasy-prone. While I don't believe Suarez to be a fraud who's made up all these stories, I certainly would want solid evidence for what actually took place when he was 16 and with the resurrectee. Given these, even if Suarez were to be very open and tell us whatever we wanted to know, I'd be most cautious in taking his answers at face value.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Believers are unbiased and objective

While in a car on a 10-minute ride with, among others, a pastor and his wife, the conversation turned to health and disease. The pastor's spouse (who turned out to be far more voluble than her preacher husband) spoke of the power of prayer and advised the person I was with to pray to God and Jesus to address her various chronic conditions. To show just how powerful and effective entreaties to the Lord are, she related the story of a 60-year old female member of their congregation who had been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Through prayer she completely recovered. It's been five years now and this elderly lady has regained the weight she lost and is in the pink again. Here's where it gets interesting. Without being prompted or asked she nonchalantly added that this woman had undergone chemotherapy and that the prayers helped her endure its nasty side effects. Given the circumstances a confrontation was totally out of the question and so I merely chuckled to myself.

After years of having been exposed to the mindset and the reasoning of those who believe in prayer and faith healing, I'm beginning to see that these people are prone to confirmation bias in some of the most egregious ways possible. Suppose that a patient had undergone a set of medical interventions. Let's say that prayers/faith healing rituals (let's call that P) are then also thrown in for good measure. If it turns out that the patient gets well, believers will attribute efficacy to P. They will thank God and praise the Lord. Interestingly, however, even if P is not initiated, you still have believers chalking up the positive outcome to their invisible leader, but oddly enough not attributing it to the work and effort over the years and decades of the hundreds and thousands of men and women who've contributed to the development and implementation of the diagnostic procedures, instruments, equipment, pharmaceuticals and treatments that were employed. (After undergoing emergency surgery in 2006 philosopher Daniel Dennett delves into this in "Thank Goodness!")

Were we to confront the pastor and his wife with the question, "If the 60-year old woman had not resorted to any medical treatment whatsoever, do you think that prayers alone would have licked her cancer?" I believe they'd hesitate. I doubt they'd glibly say, "Oh yes, without a doubt." I imagine they'd say something like, "God works through doctors." It almost seems to me that for most believers such as the preacher and his spouse it is an accepted fact that science and medicine are part and parcel of health and healing. What they do and have done is to hitch prayer onto the proven efficacy and track record of medicine (and then blissfully and blatantly commit the non causa pro causa fallacy). I'll hazard a guess that for most believers prayers are not there to replace doctors and drugs but rather they're there in the belief that they will assist, promote, or even ensure the effectiveness of the medical treatments. I wonder if it ever enters their mind that P may be superfluous, that the surgery, pharmaceuticals, chemotherapy, etc. may be sufficient, or in the case when even the best of medical technology is ineffective or futile or too late, that the absence/presence of prayers is irrelevant. So how does the pastor know prayers had anything to do with the recovery of his female congregant? What of his other church members who had cancer, were prayed for, but who got worse or died? What does or would that say about the power of prayer?

During services and bible meetings, when members share their testimonies you don't hear them tell such stories as, "I prayed to the Lord. Everyday, for two months, my family and friends all prayed with me. But the Lord did not save my son." With such a story how in heavens' name will the minister and the fellow members utter the mandatory twice-a-minute refrain "Praise the Lord!"? What you do hear are stories that ostensibly confirm the efficacy of prayer, the goodness and trustworthiness of their deity, and other things they believe in. If you do hear a downer as the one above, it will surely be followed by something that will end the testimony on a bright note, even if it's just the hope that things will turn out for the better. And on the off chance that the person testifying doesn't provide it, his peers will. In the world of religion, disconfirming evidence is a (mind) virus that triggers the immune response and is dealt with immediately at all costs.

The end result of exposure to predominantly positive stories, to spins on even negative outcomes of prayer/faith, is confirmation bias. Believers tend to see prayer and faith in a very positive light: Prayer does work and if it apparently doesn't then one's continuing faith is called for, for God's ways are mysterious and he knows best.

You may initially have thought that the title of this blog entry had a typo. But the declarative is there to prod you to supply a question mark. Try asking Christians the questions below. You can wait for their reply to each before asking the next, or you can just fire all questions at once. (It's my guess that the two approaches will elicit quite different responses to question #1.)

1. Are believers unbiased and objective evaluators of the effectiveness of prayer and faith healing?
2. What do you think are the means by which an unbiased and objective assessment can be made?
3. How do you know these means are unbiased and objective?

Using the second method of questioning I asked a Christian friend the first two items. To the first she replied that believers are probably not unbiased and objective, that those who are not fully into religion may be more objective. To the second question she candidly admits she doesn't know what such means would be. I'm of course wondering how she would've replied to #1 had I withheld #2. Would she have been less thoughtful/careful and answered yes?

Question #2 makes the person examine what he takes to be the means by which prayer and faith healing are efficacious. Are they objective and unbiased? #2 can't be answered with a yes or no. It involves thinking and elucidation. It's a question that's bound to give Christians pause. Hopefully the mental rigor, inspection and even introspection involved would lead to the realization that objective evaluation (which is taken to be good in contrast to a biased assessment) is more than just believing and that it isn't some facile, illogical method as with what the preacher and his wife employed.

If #2 was a toughie, then question #3 is a reinforced concrete wall. This is the end of the line for most believers. Stumped, some of them will switch to irrational mode and will let anger end the line of inquiry.

There are those who will contend that there is no objective way to test the efficacy of prayer. Such a claim sounds eerily like that of previous Chair of the Society of Homeopaths Felicity Lee. In her special pleading she claims placebo-controlled RCTs aren't suited to testing homeopathy's effectiveness. Questioned as to why this is, Lee had no answer. So how does she and her fellow practitioners know that homeopathy works? Case studies. In other words, anecdotes by homeopaths. Bottom line is that for alt. med including faith healing the only "evidence" is subjective in nature.