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Proofs for the NON-existence of any supernatural beings

By Nanook - Posted on 14 November 2010

[Nanook is talking with Father Vincent.]

Indirect test of the supernatural - God answers questions

“OK. I understand all that. But I’ve actually thought about this some. I think there might actually be a way to do it.”

“You do? OK. Now it’s my turn to keep an open mind. What way have you thought up?”

“Well, it’s actually not a direct way. I couldn’t think of a direct way to do that. But I thought there might be an indirect way. While we can’t look into the supernatural world to make observations, beings in that world could reach back to us. So, can’t we talk to God, for example?”

"Sure. I’m sure that God can hear us and even read our minds.”

"Right. So, if God would cooperate with us, we could ask Him questions and he could give us responses. That would qualify as a way of communicating with supernatural beings, right?”

"NEAT! Very clever, Nanook. I like that. So, what kind of responses would these supernatural beings give us?”

"Ugh??? Right?? That’s actually not as easy a question as I first thought. I did think about that some too. Sure, God could respond in many ways. He could shoot down lightning bolts, right? He could make clouds of smoke and fire come out of volcanoes, right? He could cause earthquakes and floods, right? Don’t you agree?”

"Sure. I completely agree that He could do those things. But they also occur as natural events. So God would have to time them in a special way that they couldn’t be natural. But why would he go to such extremes and do any of those things just to answer some simple questions?”

"I know. That’s why I said this was not an easy question. Why would he want to do any of those things just to answer a question that we might ask? Earthquakes and floods are just too extreme to be reasonable. Why wouldn’t he just open up a small hole in the sky and say, “YES” or “NO”. Why wouldn’t he just hang a magic scroll in the sky with the answers to all the questions asked the previous day. It’s so ironic that they call all the huge destructive natural events like earthquakes and hurricanes, acts of God, which kill so many people.”

"Very good comments. And these are all very relevant observations. Why, indeed, I’d also ask to all of them. Why does God always have to deal with us with such drama. Your suggested approach would be so easy if God would just communicate with us in a simple way on our level.”

"I know. And yet, we have some examples of how God is supposed to have communicated in the past. For example, in the Old Testament, there are many very simple and straightforward cases where God sends down angels to talk to people. They talk in the same language people are used to. They talk with words that people know and use sentences that make logical sense. But these days, when people say that an angel did one thing or another, it’s always so mysterious. I mean, why doesn’t an angel just have a regular TV show and answer the questions of the week or meet with various religious leaders?"

"These are the right kind of questions to keep asking. In the 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth, there have only been a handful of, quote, “verified” events. These kind of events are so important that the Church very thoroughly researches them. If they believe they are verified, they call them miracles. But even those are ‘mysterious’, as you said. And, unfortunately, they have only been verified by people in the Church who, shall we say, have a vested interest in believing they happened. Like the appearance of the Blessed Virgin to the children at Lourdes. Why so mysterious and why always so lacking in communication?”

"So, I guess you’re saying that my method of transcending the supernatural boundary could work.”

"Yes. Completely. Unfortunately, God doesn’t seem to be cooperating in a way that would make it practical. And that raises so many other questions about why God needs to make this process so mysterious for us. Why would He want to do that? The pieces just don’t fit together.”


"So, what about all the situations where miraculous things happen in response to people praying? Can’t those be considered answers?”

“Don’t get caught by Single Sentence Logic. Think about your own experience. I’m sure you’ve prayed for things. What’s your batting average with that?”

"Hmmm... Actually . . . erratic. There are times when things have happened that I thought only could have happened through supernatural intervention. But, so many times, nothing happened or the opposite thing happened.”

“The Church has an answer for that, right?”

"Sure. ‘God works in mysterious ways.”

“Well? Isn’t that a good answer?”

"I used to think so. But then I thought about it from a different angle. I guess I was studying probability and it made me start to keep track of things. I came to the conclusion that even if there were totally no supernatural intervention, a lot of the things I prayed for would still happen.”

“Precisely! This is the whole mental process that leads people to believe in astrology and fortune tellers. It’s called SELECTIVE MEMORY. “

Investigating prayer

“So, let’s talk about PRAYER. What do you think about that?”

"I pray all the time.”

"OK. And does it help you?”

"That’s a good question. Sometime it works great. Other times, I’m not so sure.”

"Give me an example of a time when it worked for you.”

"OK. When ever I lose something, I pray to Saint Peter. I say, “dear Saint Peter, come around; something’s lost and can’t be found.”

"OK. And then what?”

"I keep saying it until I find what I’m looking for.”

"Did you ever think that you could just keep looking until you found it and not say anything?”

"Well, no. I never thought about that.”

"So, the question at hand is about prayers. Do they work because they make some connection to a supernatural being, and gain supernatural intervention in our world on our behalf? Or do they work because they just keep you focused on the task until you work out a solution yourself. Your experience is a perfect example. Saint Peter isn’t even the right saint to pray to about lost things. You should be praying to Saint Anthony. But that begs the question, which is, ‘does praying work at all?’ There has actually been quite a bit of research done on this topic. Let me read about some of it from Dawkins.”

“Darwin's cousin Francis Galton was the first to analyze scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefore, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest? Galton looked into it, and found no statistical difference.”

"Hold on. Are you saying that people have scientifically tested the effects of praying?”

“Precisely! Let me keep reading.”

“Prayers were delivered by the congregations of three churches, one in Minnesota, one in Massachusetts and one in Missouri, all distant from the three hospitals. The praying individuals, as explained, were given only the first name and initial letter of the surname of each patient for whom they were to pray. It is good experimental practice to standardize as far as possible, and they were all, accordingly, told to include in their prayers the phrase 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications' .
The results, reported in the American Heart Journal … were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other; but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not. Was God doing a bit of smiting, to show his disapproval of the whole barmy enterprise? It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: 'performance anxiety', as the experimenters put it. Dr Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, 'It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?' “

“Let me read another history, this time from Stenger’s book. Page 94.”

“Surely, with the millions of prayers being submitted daily, totaling billions in recorded history, some objectively verifiable . . .positive evidence should have been found by now!
Of course, prayer by or in the presence of a patient plausibly could have some purely natural beneficial effects, such as helping relax an ill person, lower blood pressure, and so on. However, this effect is small at best and indistinguishable from other forms of relaxation that contain no religious or spiritual element.
. . . many popular books and articles have been published claiming that science has shown that prayer has positive healing value. But, once again, we find that none of the reports is convincing… Every published claim of a positive effect of which I am aware fails to satisfy one or more . ..methodological conditions . . . .With all the publicity that attends to prayer studies, it is highly unlikely any good quality study has been missed.
But, to show how important it is to be very tough on experiments, the following study was published, with solid data, but largely as a challenge to those who are too lenient with their results.
’Can Prayer Change the Past? … a study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2001 … [reported] that praying for patients reduced their length of stay in hospital (P = 0.01) and duration of infections (P = 0.04 ). If this was not remarkable enough, the prayers were actually performed AFTER the patients had left the hospital, implying that the power of prayer extends into the PAST as well as the future. . .”

"Hold on now! You’re saying the prayers were said AFTER the patients got out of the hospital? This is nonsense.”

"Why? Didn’t the Catholic Encyclopedia say that for God, there was no time? So, why can’t prayer work retroactively?”

"OK. Hold on now. If you believe this, then you can believe that a person killed in a car crash might also be saved retroactively by prayer.”

"Sure. Why not?”

"Because it’s not logically possible. For example, let’s say ‘Mary’ dies in a car accident on a Thursday. Then all her friends go to church and pray for her on Saturday. And because of the prayer, on the previous Thursday, she is retroactively saved. Her car swerves at the last instant and she doesn’t get in an accident. Then what happens on Saturday?”

"I guess, her friends don’t go to church to pray because there is nothing to pray about.”

"Right! Then why should Mary be saved on Thursday if no one goes to church and no one prays? See. That’s where the logic breaks down. This is the classic problem of time travel, AND, Single Sentence Logic. Sure, in one sentence, we can say ‘prayers on Saturday saved a life the previous Thursday’. But then we have to explain how that event changed the entire universe. Mary didn’t die; her car wasn’t wrecked; the tow truck didn’t come; the car wasn’t repaired; the police didn’t come; the policeman didn’t miss his kids ball game; his kid got a home run and became a major league player, and on and on. See what I mean. If you change just one small thing in the past, the whole of life is affected.”

"Precisely! I just wanted you to think it through out loud so you could see how impossible the situation would be. If prayers worked in the past, then millions of people would use them that way, and the flow of life would be total chaos. We could pray that Jesus wasn’t crucified, for example. If we prayed hard enough, would God stop the crucifixion? But, if he did, there would then be no Christians. So who would have done the praying? What if we prayed for Adam and Eve and God stopped Eve from eating the apple? As soon as Eve didn’t eat the apple, would the whole human race disappear!”

"This is kind of fun to think about, even if it’s total nonsense.”

"That’s why I brought up this example. This report caused a lot of controversy. What Leibovici was trying to show was that the randomness of small amounts of test data, just due to chance, could produce results that seemed sound, but were completely FALSIFIABLE. That is, the test results, even thought they had good statistical values, could still produce a provably wrong answer. And how can we prove it was wrong? Because we don’t have a logical explanation to explain how anything can work BACKWARDS in time. The ultimate point being, we have to be very strict about thinking we’ve found proof. And to date, NO rigorous study has found proof that any prayer works.

Because this is such an important issue, let me read about two more studies.”

“The Duke Study… In a three-year clinical trial led by Duke University physicians, the effects of intercessory prayer and other so-called noetic therapies such as music, imagery, and touch therapy were examined for 748 patients in 9 hospitals in the United States. Twelve prayer groups from around the world were involved, including lay and monastic Christians, Sufi Muslims, and Buddhist monks. Prayers were even [sent] to Jerusalem and placed on the Wailing Wall. Patients awaiting angioplasty for coronary artery obstruction were selected at random … and sent to the twelve prayer groups. The groups prayed for complete recovery of the patients. The clinical trials were double blind: neither the hospital staff nor the patients knew who was being prayed for.
The findings, reported in the journal Lancet, showed no significant differences in the recovery and health between the two groups. The result for touch therapy was also negative, while the other techniques showed ‘some promise.’
It is notable that this study was not conducted by a bunch of ‘closed-minded skeptical materialistic atheists’ but rather physicians of religious faith who personally believe that alternatives to conventional scientific medicine are worth pursuing. There can be little doubt what, in their hearts, they wanted to see. The lead author, Mitchell Krucoff, was ecstatic when the FIRST results started coming in. . .he told a media outlet:
‘We saw impressive reductions in all of the negative outcomes - the bad outcomes that were measured in the study. What we look for routinely in cardiology trials are outcomes such as death, a heart attack, or the lungs filling with water - what we call congestive heart failure - in patients who are treated in the course of these problems. In the group randomly assigned to prayer therapy, there was a 50 percent reduction in all complications and a 100 percent reduction in major complications.’
But as the significance of the data improved, the situation turned out otherwise. Since he signed the paper, Krucoff is now apparently satisfied with the published conclusion that NO EFFECT OF PRAYER HAS BEEN OBSERVED.
A coauthor of the Lancet paper was Harold Koenig, who directs the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University in which Krucoff and other coauthors are participants. Koenig is the author of over a dozen books on healing and faith. There can be no doubt that Koenig, also a person of faith, would like nothing better than to announce the discovery of evidence for the supernatural healing power of prayer. But Koenig is an honest and competent scientist who is not going to make such an announcement until the data warrant it. I have communicated extensively with him and find we have little disagreement on the fact that, after extensive experimentation, any positive benefits of prayer and other religious exercises that may be currently indicated can be understood in terms of physical processes alone. He is also in agreement with Bishop's and my refutation of the claims of efficacy for retroactive prayer.
The STEP Project… Perhaps the definitive work is the mammoth STEP project (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), a collaboration of six medical centers, including Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, lead by Harvard professor Herbell Benson. This study, lasting for almost a decade, involved 1,802 patients who were prayed for over a fourteen-day period starting the night before receiving coronary artery 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 informed they might or might not receive such prayers, and 601 received intercessory prayers after being informed they definitely would be prayed for. None of the doctors knew who was being prayed for in the first two groups. Two Catholic groups and one Protestant group carried out the praying. It apparently did not occur to the investigators to also include a group of atheists thinking nice thoughts.
The published results showed that in the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52 percent (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51 percent (304/597) of those who did not. Complications occurred in 59 percent (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52 percent of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer. Major events and thirty-day mortality were similar across the three groups.
The authors concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery … but CERTAIN knowledge of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications. The later effect somewhat surprised the investigators, who speculated that these patients may have experienced higher anxiety, perhaps thinking they were so desperately ill that they needed to be prayed for.
As was the case for the special powers of the mind termed "psychic," studies of the supernatural powers of prayer have so far produced no convincing results. If prayer were as important as it is taken to be by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, its positive effects should be obvious and measurable. They aren’t. It does not appear - based on the scientific evidence - that a God exists who answers prayers in any significant, observable way.”

“Precisely! People need to believe they are special. They need to believe that some powerful supernatural power is watching over THEM to calm their fears of the hazards they face in life. This is such a powerful drive that they will see answers around every corner even when there aren’t any answers there.”

"OK. I agree. So, where does this leave us?”

Give up on verifying supernatural reality

"Well, without a reliable communication channel directly to God, or even to any other being in the supernatural level, we have to acknowledge that verifying the supernatural is something we just don’t know how to do.