This is a comment someone left for me on a public discussion forum:
“…you can test supernatural claims.
One such claim is that God intervenes in the course of an illness if people pray for the sick person. If he actually did, that would be a supernatural phenomena.
So you get two groups of sick people and you have half of them prayed for… specifically for a speedy recovery and no complications.
You don’t tell the doctors or patients who is being prayed for and who isn’t. (double blinding).
If the people in the group being prayed for recover faster and have fewer complications than the non prayed for group, you’ve just found evidence of the supernatural. If you repeat the experiment and get the same results, you’ve solidified your initial observation. If another person does the same experiment and gets the same results, that is further evidence and it starts to look like a scientific “fact” that the supernatural is in fact real… If many other folks repeat it and get the same results, a scientific consensus develops that prayer heals.
Unfortunately, this experiment has been done… over and over. No difference in recovery times or rates of complications have been observed. It isn’t that science can not detect supernatural events… it’s that there ARE no supernatural events to be detected.”
The topic I had originally intended to discuss was somewhat different than what this person is addressing but I decided to respond anyway.
I need to start by acknowledging that it is the theists that are primarily to blame for this type of foolishness. They make silly claims about science supposedly proving that prayer works and thus give atheists easy challenges to debunk. But atheists are not excusable either for wasting funds and man-hours trying to debunk the juvenile assertions of every believing nitwit.
So let me bring up a few points to consider on the subject:
- At any given moment there are probably millions of people all over the world praying for something. Why would God go through the trouble of creating a universe where everything works together following very strict laws of cause and effect if He was intending to then suspend those laws every few seconds whenever someone prays? (not to imply he doesn’t interfere at all)
- Imagine a guy in traffic trying to get to work on time praying that God would clear a path through traffic for him. If God were to answer this one guy’s prayer how many other people on the freeway would he have to inconvenience who are probably also praying for the same thing?
- If God’s intention was that human beings have undeniable evidence that He exists He would have provided that evidence Himself. And, since if a god exists that obviously ISN’T His intention, why would we think that we could devise a scientific experiment that would either trick God or force Him to prove His own existence?
It’s hard to believe that any reasonable person would conduct an experiment like this or imagine that its results could provide any useful information we didn’t already have.
So what then is the point of prayer?
Different religious traditions have different answers to that question. In the Christian tradition however, the one thing prayer DEFINITELY isn’t for is trying to manipulate God like one would a TV with a remote control. For Christians, 98% of what prayer is for has to do with the individual’s own relationship with God. It is a time of communion between man and God allowing God to bring man’s heart more in tune with his own. I don’t want to switch into Christian lingo here but it’s important to emphasize that, at least for Christians, the point of prayer isn’t what most people assume it is. Christians realize that God already knows what’s best and doesn’t need us to tell Him what to do. Even if we do ask that God do something, it is only inasmuch as it lines up with His will. (I will get too sidetracked if I go into any more details about the theology of Christian prayer here)
Now let’s return to the question of the supernatural. Since, as mentioned earlier, it isn’t God’s intention to interfere with natural law so as to make His existence undeniable, does that mean He cannot interfere at all?
No. If for any reason He does decide to interfere, there are many ways He could do this and remain undetected:
First, he could affect events so that they happen differently but still naturally. Like if God wanted to protect someone from getting in an accident so He impresses a friend to give him a call. The guy leaves the house a minute later than he otherwise would and the accident never happens. No one ever thinks twice about it but God still interfered with the natural course of events.
Even when it comes to outright miracles like when someone is healed in answer to prayer; this still does not mean that science will be able to prove the miracle happened. To do so, they would need very accurate data of the condition of the person before and after the alleged miracle which seldom exists except for situations where the miracle was anticipated beforehand and scientists had a chance to prepare. But still, even if scientists DID have very accurate data, it still would not constitute proof without repeatability. It could very well just be a fluke.
There are claims of miracles taking place all the time; people getting healed etc. And, if ever investigated, scientists invariably find some natural explanation for how the miracle happened. Is there a chance the scientists are right and what happened was entirely natural? Of course. Is there NO chance that what happened WAS in fact a miracle? There is no way to know that. Remember, there is no way to anticipate or to “repeat” a miracle since nothing we do causes it including prayer. God follows His own agenda and interferes where He thinks best. And this means that there is an awful lot that God can do and still surf below the standard of what would be considered scientifically verifiable.
But if God is trying to hide from us then what’s the point of even taking a god-notion into consideration since we won’t ever know whether he exists or not? The only thing that is certain is that God does not want a state of things where no one would ever be able to rationally deny His existence. How do we know this? Because if a god exists and if his intention was that people know for certain he exists, we would live in a world where his existence would be obvious and undeniable. This does not mean that God will not reveal himself to individuals who are sincerely looking for Him and want to follow Him (according to Christian tradition).
Since someone will bring up people of other religions experiencing miracles and even atheists occasionally surprising doctors and getting well let me mention several things:
- I am not denying that people CAN get well through random natural causes. Someone was really sick and suddenly they got well and God had nothing to do with it. Unlikely occurrences happen all the time.
- There is no reason for God not to answer the prayer of someone of a different religion praying the wrong way or praying to a different god.
- There’s no reason why God would not help someone who isn’t even praying, like an atheist, if He wants to.
Since someone will sooner or later bring this up, why doesn’t God heal any amputees? First, you have no way of knowing for certain that no amputee anywhere in the world or at any time in history has ever been healed. And, what I’ve said this far sufficiently answers that question as well.
Lastly, the argument will be made that my version of miracles is unfalsifiable. What this person forgets is that it would only need to be falsifiable if it was presented as evidence for something. So if I were to make the claim that miracles are evidence that God exists or that prayer works then whatever miracle claim I make needs to be of such a nature so as to be falsifiable. In the absence of such a claim falsifiability has nothing to do with it.
In summary, yes, many supernatural claims HAVE been made and proven false, claims made by psychics, claims about crying statutes of saints, or pictures of Jesus in the clouds or of scientifically verified answers to prayer. Does that tell us anything substantial about whether “…there ARE [any] supernatural events to be detected”? Hardly.