Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Random World?

One of the most powerful components of the scientific method is to test hypotheses against a null hypothesis. Nearly everyone is capable of rational thought; but scientific thought is a discipline. Nearly everyone can reason from evidence to reach a conclusion; but in science, what we do is to contrast the evidence that we see for the hypothesis against the things that we would expect to see if the hypothesis is wrong. That is, against what we would expect to see at random.

And it is here that the scientific and the religious ways of thinking can perhaps most clearly be contrasted. For example, Herbert Benson and collaborators tested the hypothesis that God answers prayer. Actually, they tested the hypothesis that supplemental intercessory prayer would decrease the rate of relapsing back into heart disease.

In a scientific view of the world, you expect things to happen more or less randomly unless something is causing them to happen non-randomly. That is, absent some physical process, good and bad things will happen more or less equally. One of the things that this could mean in our everyday lives is that we should expect good and bad things to happen to us more or less randomly. As for the other humans with whom we interact every day, some are better and some are worse; and each person is a mixture of good and bad motivations. Therefore, in Benson’s study, one might expect patients suffering from heart disease to sometimes relapse and sometimes not. This does not necessarily mean that heart disease patients would relapse exactly 50 percent of the time; the actual rate will depend on the availability of good medical treatment as well as many other factors. But a scientific null hypothesis would state, in this case, that heart disease patients would relapse to the same extent whether they were being prayed for or not.

This is extremely different from the fundamentalist religious view. To a fundamentalist, the entire world is pervaded by evil, by the works of Satan, and that bad things will always happen all the time to everyone unless God specifically and miraculously prevents it. The fundamentalist null hypothesis is therefore 100 percent relapse.

Therefore, if you pray for someone to be healed from an injury or illness, and they recover, this constitutes evidence, or even proof, that God has intervened and blessed them miraculously, according to religious people.

Actually, there is no direct way to prove which null hypothesis—the approximately 50 percent relapse that scientists expect, or the 100 percent relapse that religious people expect—is correct. The only way to get around this problem is to have a control group. In Benson’s case, the experimental group of patients received intercessory prayer, and did not know it; and the control group of patients did not receive intercessory prayer, and did not know it. The percent relapse of the control group patients represents a measurement of the null hypothesis. It was in this manner that Benson and collaborators demonstrated that intercessory prayer had no measurable effect: one group had 52 percent relapse, the other had 51 percent, a statistically indistinguishable effect.

Fundamentalists have ignored this result and continue to insist that, unless you join their church and give them money, bad things will probably happen to you. God might allow them, or might prevent them. They insist that there is no such thing as God not doing anything; God either prevents bad things, or else bad things happen.

This is perhaps the most basic difference between a scientific and a fundamentalist view of the world: the scientific view that things happen at random unless they are caused, and the fundamentalist view that only bad things happen unless God prevents them. To a scientist, the world has a random background; to a fundamentalist, the world has a background permeated with evil.

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