Friday, July 23, 2010

It's A Miracle!

This essay is a follow-up to the previous one, about Occam’s razor. Here is an example of a complicated spiritual explanation for something that does not really exist—the ability of a piece of wood to influence the course of events in life. Even within the realm of spiritual assumptions, it is a convoluted piece of reasoning that defies Occam’s razor. It is something that, when the ancient pagans of the Middle East did it, the prophet Isaiah denounced it. Isaiah said, you take a piece of wood, make half of it into an idol and burn the other half in the fireplace—so how can the wood be a god? The reasoning is flawed but it is a commendable ancient attempt to test spiritual assertions by hypothesis testing.

“Occam’s razor” is a philosophical position, attributed to medieval theologian William of Occam (Ockham). It is that the simplest explanation that fits all of the facts is the one that should be accepted. He applied it to theology, but it works in all areas of study. It is one of the foundational assumptions of science.

Religious people have, for the past few centuries, abandoned William of Occam’s theological premise. The reason is that science has steadily put physical explanations of nature in place of spiritual ones. At first it was that the Earth goes around the Sun. Then it was the idea that gravity and momentum, not angels, propelled the planets in their orbits. A few simple Newtonian equations explained as much as a multitude of angels.

One of the biggest examples of a simple natural explanation replacing a complex theological story is, of course, evolution. At the time of William Paley, every species was seen as not only a special creation by God but as evidence that God was good. Even mosquitoes. Evolution replaced “natural theology” largely because one, single explanation—natural selection—replaced thousands of separate acts of design and creation. Why does each species exist? In Paley’s time, each species had its own reason. Ever since Darwin, there has been only one reason: evolution.

But evolution is far from being the only example. If I were a fundamentalist, I would be a lot more worried about psychology than about evolution. Scientists have now explained nearly everything that happens in our “minds” and “hearts” as a physical or chemical process that occurs within our brains. This applies even to the most intense religious experiences (see the earlier essay about the Near Death experience.) Now, we know that these processes, involving neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, and genes occur. In order to believe that a person has a spirit that thinks and feels, you have to believe that this spirit exactly mirrors, in every detail, the functions of the brain. You have to create, without evidence, an imaginary shadow of the brain. Occam’s razor says that, if the brain explains everything, there is no need to invent a spirit that is just a duplicate of the brain.

Occam’s razor, a philosophical position invented by a theologian, has now turned against theology.

Well, here is my story.

I walked into a dark restroom and the lights suddenly came on. It must have been a miracle! Anyplace else and I would have assumed it was a motion detector. But I was in no ordinary place. I was at the Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague. This shrine is an example of how convoluted religious reasoning can become. I have to start at the beginning.

In the late middle ages, there was a wooden statue of a baby boy with royal garments, a crown, and holding a sceptre and globe of the world. To my knowledge, Jesus never did this, at least when he was a child. But this statue was reputed to have special powers if you made offerings to it. After various adventures, the statue ended up in Prague (now in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, there was a Catholic priest from Prague, Oklahoma who somehow ended up with a replica (souvenir copy) of the original statue. He apparently thought that there was some significance in his town in Oklahoma having the same name as the European city, and before you knew it, the replica statue was reputed to have special powers if you made offerings to it.

So here is the line of causation that comes into play if you visit this Oklahoma shrine. 1. Stick some money in a hole at the shrine. 2. The souvenir copy statue projects spiritual energy across the Atlantic to the European statue. 3. The European statue has some influence on the Virgin Mary. 4. The Virgin Mary is obligated to tell her Son to answer your prayer. 5. Jesus is more likely to answer your prayer this way than if you just asked him directly.

Wow. All this was happening less than twenty miles from where I was born, and I knew nothing about it until I was 52.

I considered my options. Nobody was around except the woman in the office behind the gift shop. First, I considered telling her that I had walked all the way from California (on my knees? no; backward? no) just to venerate the statue. But it was obvious that I had not been outdoors that much. Second, I considered using my fake eastern European accent which I learned from Boris and Natasha and saying I was from the shrine of the original statue and wanted to inspect it. But I realized that I did not know the secret catatonic handshake (if I remember correctly, this is the Catholic version of the secret Masonic handshake that my Dad never taught me) and my imposture would be revealed. Third, I considered proposing a statistical study to determine whether offerings to the statue actually increased the chances of having a prayer answered, as in the Benson heart study. But I didn’t do any of these things. I just went home and wrote this.

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