Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Problem With Miracles

More than twenty years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer in her vertebrae. She underwent several months of chemotherapy and then decided not to continue with the chemo and to try to control it with diet and exercise and the power of positive thought. The cancer went into remission. At that time no one had ever seen cancer shrink before and so they called it a miracle. To this day my mother believes God intervened on her behalf. This is probably one of the many things that led her to become a minister. Today, however, cases of cancer going into remission are commonplace, far from miraculous. That's one of the reasons we shouldn't be so quick to label something we don't understand an act of God. At one time birth itself was considered an act of God before we understood how a sperm cell interacts with an ovum. Lightning, solar and lunar eclipses, child prodigies, the placebo effect in patients with chronic pain and other illnesses, anyone who survived any type of injury or illness whatsoever, were all attributed to some type of deus ex machina. As human knowledge expands we have taken the mystery out of many of the things we once believed to be miraculous. You'd think we would learn not to rush to judgement and label any gaps in our understanding as "miraculous events" yet the "God of the Gaps" remains and the faithful are still quick to label anything we can't readily explain as a miracle. You'd think they would be more cautious with this approach since, as human knowledge continues to increase, their God of the gaps will disappear more and more. The more explanations man is able to uncover the more God's territory will shrink as there will be less unexplained phenomenon for him to lay claim to.

In Richard Dawkins' bestseller "The God Delusion"(and I hate quoting Richard Dawkins but he doies make a point) he makes this telling observation:

"...One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding...Admission of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science."

One thing I've never talked to my mother about regarding her cancer is the existence of cancer itself and the many millions of people who have not recovered from it and have died of cancer. Was God just looking the other way when they were suffering? Were they not worthy of any divine intervention? Does God have an annual miracle quota? Every time someone thanks God when they win a fight, or a game, or a war, or when they get the promotion or the girl, I always wonder if they believe that God chooses sides? If they think the other guy in the boxing ring deserved a miracle less than they did? If they think God was betting against the other team? If they think that the other guy who was up for the promotion or the girl didn't have enough faith and therefore hadn't earned God's favor? So, if they're the one who's cancer goes into remission, and meanwhile there's some terminally ill young girl who dies in agony in the next bed, how do they rectify that with their faith? When they are the other guy who didn't win the fight or the game, or the war, or the promotion, or the girl, do they think that God wasn't on their side that day? As a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, "You always hear people thanking God when they win. Why don't you ever hear anyone blame God when they loose? I'd love to hear a post-fight interview where someone says, 'I blame Jesus for this loss'". Giving God the credit for a win but blaming yourself for the loss is like taking all the credit when you win a fight and blaming your trainer when you loose. Credit and blame have to go hand in hand.

These "miracles" seem to be extremely arbitrary. As Victor J. Stenger repeatedly points out in his book "God:The Failed Hypothesis", "The world looks just as it would be expected to look were there no God." In fact, as I have pointed out often myself, it is only when you add God into the equation that everything ceases to make sense. Why some people die and others live, why some people suffer and others don't, why some people prosper while others fail, while evil befalls the good and good befalls the evil, these all cease to make sense once you introduce and intelligent creator. Then you have to say things like "God works in mysterious ways" and "Our finite mortal minds are incapable of understanding the infinite mind of God." In other words, God's ways make no sense. For example, in Matthew 7:7 Jesus says:

"Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

So, we pray when we or our loved ones suffer or lay dying and wonder what went wrong when they don't improve because in the bible it says that anything you ask for in the name of the lord Jesus Christ will be given to you yet still our loved ones perish despite our prayers. So we pray for understanding. Yet, were you to eliminate the idea that there is some omnipotent loving father figure who answered prayers with miracles, it would all make sense.

"Of course no one answered my prayers, because there is no God."

"Of course good people suffer sometimes and bad people prosper sometimes, because the universe has no morality and makes no moral judgements. Man does."

"Of course some people die while others live. It's all arbitrary with no one guiding it all."

Makes sense.Add God with his miraculous interventions into it and it gets all confusing and leaves us crying in church pews screaming out "Why?" to the listless heavens.

In the much discussed STEP project (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer) which included six medical centers, including Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, 1,802 patients were prayed for over a fourteen-day period starting the night before receiving coronary bypass graft surgery.

The patients were randomly and blindly divided into three groups. 604 received intercessory prayers after being informed they might or might not receive such prayers, 597 did not receive prayers after being told that they might or might not receive such prayers, and 601 received intercessory prayers after being told they definitely would be prayed for. None of the doctors knew who was being prayed for in the first two groups. The published results showed that in the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayers, complications occurred in 52 percent of patients who received prayers versus 51 percent of patients who did not. However complications occurred in 59 percent of those patient certain that they were being prayed for. Major complications and thirty-day mortality rates were similar across the board. The authors of the study concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery. Again, these results are consistent with what you would expect to find if there were no God. Trying to fit God into this scenario requires some intellectual sleight of hand.

As the hilariously named yet thought-provoking article "Why Won't God Heal Amputees?" points out, wherever a case exists where an irrefutable miracle is possible it has not occurred. There would be no rational explanation for the spontaneous regeneration of a limb. This would be an incontestably miraculous event yet:
"Prayer does not restore the severed limbs of amputees. You can electronically search through all the medical journals ever written -- there is no documented case of an amputated leg being restored spontaneously."

In fact, if the STEP project had worked and been duplicated with the same results over and over again, that would have been irrifutable evidence in miracles. Yet it didn't and so no such evidence exists. As the author points out, whenever there is no possibility of ambiguity no miracles ever occur.

"...By looking at amputees, we can see that something is wrong. Jesus is not telling the truth. God never answers prayers to spontaneously restore lost limbs, despite Jesus' statements in the Bible....Let's imagine that you have cancer, you pray to God to cure the cancer, and the cancer actually does go away. The interesting thing to recognize is that there is ambiguity in your cure. God might have miraculously cured the disease, as many people believe. But God might also be imaginary, and the chemotherapy drugs and surgery are the things that cured your cancer. Or your body might have cured the cancer itself. The human body does have a powerful immune system, and this immune system has the ability to eliminate cancer in many cases. When your tumor dissappeared, it might be a coincidence that you happened to pray. Drugs, an immune response or a combination of the two might have been the thing the cured you.

How can we determine whether it is God or coincidence that worked the cure? One way is to eliminate the ambiguity. In a non-ambiguous situation, there is no potential for coincidence... When we pray to God to restore an amputated limb, there is only one way for the limb to regenerate. God must exist and God must answer prayers. What we find is that whenever we create a non-ambiguous situation like this and look at the results of prayer, prayer never works. God never answers prayers if there is no possibility of coincidence."

So what am I trying to say? That there is no such thing as miracles? No. I'm trying to say that given the lack of any credible evidence for miraculous events, given the very real evidence that loved ones perish despite prayers and that a great many things that were once considered miraculous are now easily explained and that what we call miracles seem to happen arbitrarily at best with no correlation to the amount of faith a person has or how much he is prayed for or how good a life he has led, given the fact that lightning bolts strike churches as often as strip clubs and bars, miracles are highly improbable and belief in them is entirely illogical and unwarranted. So, am I then saying that God does not exist? No. What I am saying is that given that there seems to be no morality either in nature or the universe itself, given that theories exist to explain much of what we once attributed to God and that there is no reason to assume that everything we now consider to be miraculous will not one day be scientifically explainable, given that events that we call good and events that we call evil seem to occur randomly and without any intelligent guidance behind it, given that these events seem to make less sense when seen through the eyes of religion rather than through science, the belief in a God is illogical and not warranted by the evidence. It is highly improbable that a God who hears the prayers of man and responds with miracles exists though it cannot be said that such a God is impossible.

So should we abandon belief in miracles and stop praying? That's for you to decide. If you are just looking for something to do that makes you feel less helpless in the face of tragic events over which you have no control then it is probably harmless and to that I would simply say: "If it feels good. Do it!" If you are praying in lieu of working to find a solution with the expectation that your prayer will solve the problem on it's own, then I would just ask you to imagine what the world would be like if physicians had not looked for viruses and infections and antibiotics and vaccines to cure them but rather relied on prayer instead. Imagine what the world would look like if everyone turned to faith in God rather than the surgeon or the Pharmacologist. Imagine what it would look like if faith governed the course of human progress rather than science. But first turn off your computer. No miracle created that either. Science did that.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

What If You Died Tomorrow?

This is a question that haunts me. Every day I think to myself "Have I done enough? Will I be remembered?" and every day my answer is negative. I have not written enough. I have not published enough of what I have written. I have not fought enough, trained enough champions, made enough money, or influenced enough people for my memory to last beyond my current sphere of influence. In other words, after I am dead I will only be remembered by those who know me right now and I shall even fade in most of their memories. Their children will not know me. I haven't done enough yet for my story to be passed down through the generations.

So? Why does that even matter? Why should I care?

It matters because I have done a lot of other stuff, namely living, and that living comes with a lot of pain and suffering in addition to the joys and pleasures and so I would like to think that all of that pain and suffering and joy and happiness and pleasure would amount to something that would endure beyond my finite existence. This is the great appeal of religion. It gives even the most worthless among us the feeling that his or suffering might one day amount to more than dust and stench. The after-life is an appealing concept. Be assured that it is bullshit though. You are not going to heaven or hell. Stench and dust and a few brittle bone fragments is all that will be left of you in a few hundred years regardless of whatever fantasy you ascribe to and whatever imaginary friend you worship. So, I would suggest that you start asking yourself the same questions I ask myself every day.

What has your life meant? What good have you done in the world? Will you have an enduring legacy and what will it be? Will your great-grandkids know anything about you at all other than a few faded photographs? Will their great-grandkids? Am I depressing you yet? Good. If you haven't been thinking about this then you ought to be depressed. Now get over your depression and get busy building your legacy.

If you are content to live a mediocre life and then fade into the same obscurity from which you emerged then I applaud you. I envy you. If you are like many people I know and are content simply to have been a good husband or wife and a good father or mother or son or daughter than I am awed by you. You have found a peace that I could only dream of. I wish I could be so content. I wish I didn't care that life was like a computer that you spend eighty or ninety years entering data into only to have the power go out and all of your input erased. I wish I didn't care that there was no save button. Hell, I even wish I was capable of the same type of self-delusion the faithful are capable of. I wish I could ignore all the facts and believe in things that fly in the face of reason. I wish I could believe things simply because I wanted to, because they make me happy to believe in them regardless of whether or not they were ultimately true or at least probable. I wish I could do that, but I can't even understand that way of thinking. For me there is "I know" and "I don't know." There is no "I believe". So what I know is that we die. What I know is that my personality, memory, senses, thoughts, can all be traced to purely physical process originating in a purely physical organ (the brain) which is physically destroyed, decayed, disintegrated, once my heart stops pumping and my lungs stop expanding and contracting. So, any claim of an afterlife is both counter-intuitive and contrary to all reason and evidence. Therefore, it makes more sense to proceed from the very likely and reasonable probability that there is no after-life than the wildly improbable assumption that there is one. Which brings up the question of "What are you living for?" "What's your motivation?"

I live for immortality. That's right. I live everyday to ensure that my influence extends beyond my death. That my thoughts, emotions, knowledge, understanding, and my unique perspective of the world does not end with the destruction of this physical form. I therefore live for art. I live to pass the culmination of my life's experiences and any wisdom gained from those experiences on to others through my writing, through every word I speak and every action I take. I live for art. And for this reason my art must be extraordinary. It must shine above all the others. It must shine brighter and longer. And so I am not there yet. This year I am planning to finish another novel and at least begin writing a book on Humanism and Atheism. I also plan to finalize a mass-market deal for one of the novels I have already written. Next year I plan to write a self-help book and start doing lectures and workshops on maximizing your potential. All of this takes time, unfortunately, so if I died tomorrow it would be with all of that and much more left incomplete. This is why I push myself so hard, because if I died tomorrow I will have failed and everything that I am will have amounted to nothing. How about you? What do you live for and would you be content with your accomplishments so far? And if not, then what are you doing about it? Live each day as if it were your last. Live each moment as if it were going to be the world's only memory of you.