Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 2 (Imaginary Numbers and the Power of Prayer)

In the previous instalment, I set up a framework to decompose the various aspects of the "God" concept into "assertions" that could be evaluated relatively independently. Using this framework, compound claims can be broken up into their constituent assertions, and we can tell whether disproving one assertion automatically invalidates the others or not. On a personal note, I'm gratified that it upgrades my position of agnosticism from a rather embarrassing "I do not know" to "I know exactly what I have proved to be false and what I have not".

In this post, I want to talk about another case of compound claims by theists that results in a logical error on the part of the atheists. A frequently-stated atheist position is the inefficacy of prayer. The argument goes that since God does not exist, all prayers directed at God are a waste of time. Therefore, a true atheist must not pray. To my mind, this argument also seems over-reaching because it involves a non sequitur. To wit, God may not exist, but prayer may still be useful for some neuroscientific reason that we still don't understand. Disproving the existence of God does not automatically disprove the efficacy of prayer.

As an analogy, the square root of minus one does not exist, but it would be silly to assert that it is a waste of time to solve mathematical equations involving such "imaginary numbers" merely because they don't exist! On the contrary, very useful results have been obtained, notably in electronics engineering and electrical circuit design, through the use of imaginary numbers.

We know that "faith moves mountains". We have heard of doctors curing patients with placebos, and sometimes with nothing more than their confident word. We know of people who achieved stupendous tasks under the stress of a crisis, and who could not repeat the feat later once they realised how "impossible" it was.

The mind is a very powerful thing, and neuroscience constantly surprises us with what it is capable of achieving.

Opposition to prayer is another trap that atheists have fallen into because of a logical fallacy. They have accepted yet another of the theistic compound claims at face value and failed to break it up into separate assertions to be dealt with independently. The compound claim of the religious ("God answers the prayers of all those who believe in Him") could be thought of as being composed of the following assertions:
  • God exists
  • We should pray to God with faith
  • If we have faith, our prayers will be answered
It may well be that the third statement is independently true regardless of the truth of the first and second statements.

In other words, the "magic" ingredient may be faith itself rather than the object of that faith. Somehow, the mind may be organising itself and influencing others in ways that bring about desired results. We need more research into prayer. A rejection of prayer merely because of its traditional association with a being whose existence is doubtful may be an illogical position, and could be costing us many free benefits.

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