Saturday, June 21, 2008

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 grĂ¢ce 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.

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