Sunday, February 03, 2008

Clear thinking: Suarez and the dead

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. After this, therefore because of this. I've dealt with this fallacy several times before but it's such a common pitfall in causal reasoning that even priests--supposedly trained in philosophy--fall into the trap.

If I click my heels three times and it starts raining, did my Dorothy act magically cause the floodgates of heaven to burst open? If my alarm clock rings and the sun rises did my clock cause the sunrise? (Interestingly, there was a tribe that believed that if it didn't perform its pre-dawn ritual the sun would fail to rise and mankind would be doomed.) What if I pop a tablet of paracetamol (acetaminophen) and my headache disappears minutes later? Did the pill cause my headache to up and go?

Patently, heel-clicking and alarm clocks don't cause rain and sunrises. But even in the pill example, it would be fallacious to claim with absolute certitude that the drug licked the headache. At best--given that we know from clinical trials that paracetamol is efficacious--we can say that it probably did. Why the lack of surety? Because for all we know the headache was on its way out even before the pill started having any effect. Depending on their etiology, some headaches are self-limiting and transitory (and need not be medicated).

I hinted above that supposedly well-educated people such as Catholic priests are hardly very smart people. Well, given that they really honestly believe that invisible and undetectable superheroes and supervillains exist in some realm outside the universe and that pieces of bread they chant over magically turn into the dermal and muscle tissue of a 2,000-year old Middle Eastern male, I think we have enough evidence to say they're not very smart at all.

Now there's this bloke by the name of Fr. Fernando Suarez who claims to have, unwittingly, raised someone from the dead [1].

The Canadian woman was declared dead by doctors at the Ottawa Civic Hospital some eight hours before Father Fernando Suarez arrived. With doctors present and ready to harvest her organs, the Filipino-Canadian priest who was then a seminarian, prayed over her. She opened her eyes and lived. Suarez was stunned. “Let me out of here,” was all he could say. The woman is now well, Suarez says, and has resumed her normal life.

Are you convinced that Suarez and his prayers caused the "resurrection"? If so then the following is yet another option for bringing your loved ones back if and when medical science fails.

Years ago one of the local dailies reported that a woman who'd already been sent to the morgue came back from the dead. While her supposedly lifeless body was being prepared, a mortician or some other person took the opportunity to sate his carnal cravings. But much to his consternation the deceased suddenly had life breathed back into her. The report says the family of the "resurrected" filed no criminal charges since this necrophiliac of sorts had somehow been responsible for bringing their loved one back to life.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because event A preceded event B, does not imply that A caused B.

Can we outright dismiss Suarez and necrocoitus as causing resuscitation of cadavers? No. Can we test whether they are causative? Yes!

Going back to our rain example, what if I go to different parts of the world and whenever I click my heels it begins pouring within a couple of seconds? What if this happens even in deserts during seasons when no rain is expected? Well, then there would be some reason to suspect a casual link. I say some reason to suspect because we'd still need to perform formal experiments to rule out chance and various other confounding factors.

Now apply that to Fr. Suarez and his Lazarus act. And for that matter to necrocoitus. If Suarez in fact possesses powers to bring the dead back to life then all we have to do is to have Suarez pray over several dozen or hundred corpses (properly scrutinized and diagnosed as really lifeless) and start counting how many of them come back to life. Likewise with intercourse with cadavers, if anyone cares to do that test.

It is quite conspicuous that Suarez has not reported any other such miracle. Are we to assume this is the first and only corpse he's prayed over? One single episode is not enough to establish a causal link. You would need to be able to replicate the results many times to attain some confidence. Suarez has jumped the gun and already reached a conclusion.

I wonder if Suarez has ever considered coincidence as an explanation. If not then he shouldn't consider it either vis-a-vis necrocoitus. Perhaps he should include that in his act (as added insurance).

So how did these two dead people come back to life? That would be a most intriguing question, if we actually were certain that the two women were in fact dead to begin with. But the most parsimonious explanation is that they weren't; that their status had been misdiagnosed. They had been pronounced and presumed dead when in fact they weren't. We'd first have to rule this mundane hypothesis before even entertaining fanciful notions of resurrections (or for that matter, aliens out in space zapping the dead with their Miracle Life Ray).

And this is a rule of thumb that's not at all ingrained in the religious or believers in the paranormal: Occam's Razor. Entities should not be multiplied without necessity. In short, keep things simple. And simple here means don't assume or include new phenomena in your explanation/hypothesis, phenomena that are not known to be true/real, phenomena that have not been tested/confirmed to be so. Thus, supernatural and paranormal explanations and those that involve extraterrestrials are not parsimonious because they assume the existence of entities which are known to be true. The misdiagnosis explanation, on the other hand, is simpler than these. We know that misdiagnosis happens all the time. And misdiagnosis of death is something that has occurred in the past. Quite common before our lifetime, it still is with us even in this age of hi tech medical instruments and equipment (just a couple of examples: woman wrongly diagnosed as dead, misdiagnosis of death shocks rural town). There is even what is known as "return of spontaneous circulation" (ROSC) or the Lazarus phenomenon whereby blood circulation of a presumably dead patient spontaneously returns even after resuscitation efforts have ceased. While currently lacking a scientific explanation, we know that this phenomenon exists.

It is rather unfortunate that Suarez ostensibly lacks skepticism and the critical thinking skills necessary to put the various events in his life in perspective. Simple tests would be enough to falsify the belief that he has supernatural powers. But as in the case of faith healer Benny Hinn, despite an investigation that has already falsified his claims of being able to heal, he still continues to delude (and dupe) the multitudes who come to his services, and likewise the diseased, disabled, and desperate still flock to him like innocent little children mesmerized by the Pied Piper's performance. I'm afraid the same will be true of Suarez. The quick, the easy, the free, and the magical are far more enticing than the tested and the true. When it comes to winning the hearts of people, science must hand the game over to quackery. It is only when objective results become the criterion does science win hands down. The bottom line is what really works, not what we believe or want to believe works.


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Notes:

1. I have doubts about Suarez's mental condition (something I hope to expound on in case I am goaded enough to pursue further critiques). I certainly don't put too much stock on anecdotes by him about himself including this one. I don't know if he's subject to delusions of grandeur, I don't know how much he's into self-aggrandizement, I don't know which parts of his stories are true/false, I don't know if there are confabulations, I don't know how much of it is hyperbole.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well faith can move mountains and father Fernando is just the chosen few and I believe in him. MORE POWER !!!

Anonymous said...

spoken like a true atheist.

here's something. when you can PROVE to me that your proposal of there being nothing else that exists beyond reality? then i'll take your side.

but there's a lot of stuff out there you and science just can't explain. science can only do so much in the physical, understanding the spiritual helps ppl more than you think.

you blame religion for all the petty things and see it at face value. you don't bother to take the time to look around at the big picture. i've read your quotes and it all sounds a little egotistical and arrogant. despite what you've said, no one can prove a damned thing. so what's wrong with believing?

Anonymous said...

wonder if YOU get seriously ill, a life-threatening one, would you seek Fr. Suarez? if you have a strong faith, perhaps you might get healed or with your unrelentable skepticism, the opposite. would be a good eye-opener, indeed!

Edwardson said...

Sorry for this very late reply. I just saw your comment. For some reason Blogger did not inform me when you posted your comment. Now let me address your remarks.

"here's something. when you can PROVE to me that your proposal of there being nothing else that exists beyond reality? then i'll take your side."

First of all what can exist beyond reality? If your deity is real then it is part of reality, right? Or do you have a different definition of "reality"?

Secondly, if what you're asking me to do is to prove there is nothing beyond the universe, then analogously, if you can prove to the world's religions that their supernatural entities don't exist then maybe they'll take your side and convert to your religion.

You see you've fallen for fallacy of illicitly shifting the burden of proof. If I claim that malevolent invisible undetectable gremlins in your brain are the cause of your religious delusion, the burden of proof is upon me to prove this extraordinary claim. You're claiming there is something else beyond what you call "reality." Well prove it. Since no one has been able to, then there is no reason to believe that incredible, far-fetched claim. Likewise with my gremlin hypothesis.


"but there's a lot of stuff out there you and science just can't explain. science can only do so much in the physical, understanding the spiritual helps ppl more than you think."

What is the spiritual? Explain how it is distinct from and can be distinguished from the psychological, from perceptions, from emotions. What tests are there that evince the reality of this thing you call "spiritual"?


"you blame religion for all the petty things and see it at face value."

What are these petty things you're alluding to. What exactly do you mean by seeing them at face value?


"you don't bother to take the time to look around at the big picture."

What's this big picture? And how do we find out whether the big picture you have in mind really is true, valid, correct?


"i've read your quotes and it all sounds a little egotistical and arrogant. despite what you've said, no one can prove a damned thing. so what's wrong with believing?"

Are you saying humans can't prove anything? Or are you limiting what cannot be proved to a certain subset? I believe it's pretty easy to prove that you have blood and that you can bleed. Let me count the ways. Shall we begin with a drop from a 100-storey building?

Edwardson said...

"wonder if YOU get seriously ill, a life-threatening one, would you seek Fr. Suarez? if you have a strong faith, perhaps you might get healed or with your unrelentable skepticism, the opposite. would be a good eye-opener, indeed!"


That's one thought experiment. But I don't think I'd seek Suarez for healing. The problem--even if I go crawling to him--is that I "know" too much. What I mean by that is I've been disillusioned, the blinders are off. Deities, prayer, religion--these are now broken myths. I know of the placebo effect. I know of the danger and illusory effects of subjective validation. I know that even if I get better there's the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, that evaluating the causal factors in my recovery is hardly child's play, that doctors and thorough long term investigations would be necessary. I know that correlation does not necessarily imply causation and a sample size of one would, in the absence of any plausible causal link, be better attributed to coincidence. I know that the plausibility of faith healing is close to absolute zero. I know that there is not one case where faith healing has been incontrovertibly determined as the cause of healing. I know that declared miracle healings by the Catholic Church are at best the product of fallacious reasoning. I know that the best scientific studies have refuted the claimed power of prayer. And I know that even if my recovery ever puzzles the Einsteins of the world, it still would not prove that I got better because of Suarez.

You say that if one has a strong faith then one can get healed. Why does faith lead to healing? How do you know it does? What would be your criteria for determining that someone has been healed by faith and supernatural means? How do you know this set of criteria is objectively correct, robust and reliable?

Anonymous said...

Why do you single out Fr. Suarez from all other known healing priests in the world? I couldn't understand why you are so affected by what Fr. Suarez is doing.If you don't believe in the power of healing, so be it. Just leave the believers with their faith alone.

By the way, you are gifted with the power of writing.... use it in a better avenue.

Good luck!

Edwardson said...

Give me the names of these other healing priests and online articles about them and I'll just as well advertize their inanity on this blog. It just so happens Suarez is the only healing priest I know and is currently hogging the limelight.

You're asking me to leave believers alone? Why don't you leave critics of quackery/delusions and their critiques alone? Why do you care? Well I care about people going and falling for delusions and snake oil. Been there done that. I've been duped, I've fallen for flim flam, I've believed in things which had no evidence for them, I was ignorant of the many logical fallacies and of how to think rationally and critically. I certainly don't want others to make the same mistake, and be taken in by the same ruses and claptrap.