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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"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."

It's a patronising position most "tolerant" religious folk take. Basically they know they're right but will tolerate people believing in the wrong things. It's very much a case of "you do it your way and I'll do it the right way."