Friday, February 15, 2008

Don't toss your brain out

About a week ago, in the comment section of one of my blog entries, a woman shared her story:
My husband, a patient with kidney disease, has recently attended Father Suarez's healing mass. I am a skeptic myself, but if he is healed, I will happily throw clear thinking out the window.

As I implied in my curt, if not seemingly cryptic, reply to her, the logic is fallacious. Her implied reasoning as to why she would throw out skepticism and critical thinking is as follows.

Her husband H attended event E
Some unspecified time later H's renal disease is cured
Therefore E was the cause of H's healing.

Unfortunately, she has failed to take into account the other events her husband had gone through besides Suarez's healing mass. Was he taking medication? Was he on a certain special diet? What other treatments was he undergoing? We're also not told whether the particular renal disorder is such that no natural/spontaneous remission is possible or has ever been documented.

Presupposing that H's kidneys do become disease-free, which of the various events in H's life actually caused it? Without investigation we won't know. And even with investigation we might not know with certitude.

Non causa pro causa. This is the false cause fallacy--an error in causal reasoning. In particular, the woman above commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Just because two events are temporally proximal to one another does not warrant the conclusion that one caused the other. For any particular X there are many events that are temporally proximal to it. We can't just pick and choose which one is the cause.

It's quite revealing when she said that she would "happily throw clear thinking out the window." That she would toss her brain out only indicates that she wasn't thinking clearly in the first place. While I commend her for being skeptical, she has quite some studying to do in the area of causal reasoning.

On the other hand, she seems to be implying that if her husband doesn't get well, she'll remain a skeptic or won't believe in the powers of Suarez. Well, good for her, because indeed the lack of cure would mean that none of the events in H's life--including attendance of the Suarez healing mass--led to healing. If the claim of the proponents of a certain treatment X is that X leads to cure, and if X fails to lead to a cure, then such lack of cure falsifies the claim. Thus, the continued presence of renal disease falsifies the claim of miracle healing powers.

In practice of course there are various reasons--licit or illicit--that can be churned out to explain why X failed. Perhaps for X to be efficacious we need twice the dosage we had given our subjects, or perhaps it is efficacious only for those whose disease has not progressed beyond a certain point, etc.

However, in the case of miracles, it boggles the mind how there can exist any constraint that can hamper a supposedly omnipotent and omnibenevolent being from supernaturally curing its own creation. In fact an all-powerful being could most easily restore lost limbs, split conjoined twins, make normal those born with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. If one is all-powerful and all-loving and dispenses miracles, how can it be that the majority suffer from disease and so many die from horrible diseases? Yet the fact is clear. Lourdes has a dismal record of miracles and Suarez isn't some medical Midas who cures everyone he touches (the number of testimonials is less than the number of those who've attended the healing services). Furthermore, in the case of Suarez, there has yet to be a single officially declared miracle1, 2. Moderator of the Companions of the Cross Fr. Scott McCaig admits that. “[God] doesn’t heal everybody and I don’t understand why necessarily.” Martin Rovers, professor of human sciences at Saint Paul University in Canada, offers an explanation:
[Miraculous healing is] a gift and it happens at a time that we’ll never know. It happens to the saint and to the sinner and it happens to the strong and the lowly. The word that people use for that – that’s just mystery.”

Unfortunately, thinking up a reason doesn't mean that the offered explanation is true. And Rovers' explanation is hardly satisfactory--the implicit premise therein that a deity exists and the Christian one at that is not even known to be true (McCaig makes this unwarranted assumption as well). That it involves positing an entity not yet known to be true/real means it's not a parsimonious explanation. And that it assumes miracles to be true makes it doubly unparsimonious (as we have seen it is fallacious to jump to the conclusion that a miracle has taken place on the basis of inexplicability). More importantly, however, Rovers' hypothesis is an illicit ad hoc explanation. It is untestable and unfalsifiable; it can never be known to be true or false. In short it will forever remain in the realm of pure speculation. And that is why it can be relied upon as a psychological crutch by believers. Its nonfalsifiability perpetuates the delusion that miraculous healing is factual.

Finally, calling something mystery or Mystery does nothing to add to our understanding. "Mystery" merely is a stand-in and placeholder for "we don't know." It would be more to the point and in fact more intellectually and epistemologically honest if Suarez, McCaig, Rovers, et al. came out and said, "We don't know whether the supernatural exists. We don't know whether deities exist. We don't know whether the particular god we believe in exists. We don't know whether there in fact are miracles. And so the biggest mystery is whether any of our beliefs has any basis in reality, whether any of the things we believe in are true."

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