Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Evidence that prayer works

There is some evidence that prayer works (PW)—and I mean this in the straightforward naive sense. Here is that evidence: Lots of people believe that prayer works (BPW). It is more likely that lots people would believe that prayer works if it worked than that they would believe that it works if it didn't work, i.e., P(BPW|PW)>P(BPW|~PW), and so BPW is evidence for PW.

There are at least two reasons why people are more likely to believe that prayer works on the hypothesis that it actually works than on the hypothesis that it does not work.

The first reason is that if prayer works for you, then that's likely to increase your degree of belief that prayer works, as well as the degree of belief in this among your friends.

The second reason is that if prayer works, then that's likely to increase the survival of communities that pray, leading to mimetic selection for prayer. And at the community level, prayer typically doesn't come for free. First, there tends to be a dedicated class of people who pray and teach how to pray—say, a clergy. Second, prayer is often attached to material outlays, whether those of sacrificing cattle or of building temples. Third, prayer takes time and maybe mental energy (though the last one is balanced by the fact that it may be restful). Of course, prayer may also have community cohesiveness benefits independent of whether prayer works in the naive sense. These benefits may be balanced by the costs. But these benefits are also available if prayer works in the naive sense, and are themselves accentuated then (it brings a community together if their prayers are fulfilled). So although the existence of such benefits makes P(BPW|~PW) higher than we might otherwise think, nonetheless P(BPW|PW) will be even higher, both due to a greater degree of these benefits, and due to the obvious benefits of prayer working.

Of course it's a hard question to say just how much evidence the widespread belief in the efficacy of prayer provides for that efficacy. But it's clear that it provides some.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Note: There are other causes why people might believe prayer works. They might be mistaken in probabilistic reasoning, they might be engaging in wishful thinking, etc. But such factors will also be operative even if prayer works. So such factors will raise both P(BPW|~PW) and P(BPW|PW), and will maintain the inequality P(BPW|PW)>P(BPW|~PW). Actually, they may have even more upward effect on P(BPW|PW), since cases where prayer is efficacious will make people more prone to fallacious reasoning in favor of the efficacy of prayer in other cases.

Unknown said...

Interesting. But is there really any good evidence whatsoever (save testimony) that prayer works even MOST of the time? Regardless of the probability of BPW+PW being higher than BPW+~PW, if we don't have good reason to think that prayer works, then who cares?

The probability of many people believing that the groundhog having seen his shadow entails a longer winter (BGL) and the groundhog having seen his shadow (actually) entailing a longer winter (GL) is probably higher than BGL+~GL. But regardless of this, we have no good reason to think that GL. So, instead we're better off trying to figure out why the heck BGL despite ~GL.

Mark Rogers said...

@Tyler...I think the first reason why some people believe in the efficacy of prayer is that they have had one or more prayers answered. For the most part I think you must first find a way to God's Kingdom. Then try to remember that thanksgiving will bring you to the gates of heaven and praise will bring you before the throne of God.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the most serious objection to my argument is simply that many people also believe that prayer doesn't work. This calls for complex and difficult weighing, then.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Yes prayer works! And you don't need any of this darned complicated over everyone's head mumbo-jumbo to explain that. And yeah, I'll give y'all a testimony.

Several years ago, my horse Storm had a bad problem with his leg - atypical ringbone, ossified splint growing into a tendon below his knee, and navicular changes all in the same front leg. Now all this is horse people's mumbo-jumbo which only horse people understand so don't even try. We tried our best to fix what was wrong with him, but there was no fixing what was wrong with him. I was running out of money and when the insurance policy on Storm rolled over, his condition would not be covered. Also, I didn't have the facility where I was boarding that could handle any post operative care. As for post operative care, that animal would have to be drugged out of his gourd for ten straight months to keep him quiet enough for stuff to heal, and with Storm's temperament wouldn't handle that. It was a situation of out of money, out of solutions and out of ideas for me. Kind of like a plane that's out of fuel and out of altitude with the ground coming up. I called up the Marion Dupont Equine Facility in Leesburg Vriginia where I had been taking him for treatment to ask if I could donate him as research animal. That was the only way that he might stand a long shot chance of being fixed. The people there told me they had no openings and so I had to put Storm on a waiting list. They told me that it will be months or a very long time before anything opened up. The last time I drove Storm up to Leesburg, I prayed the Rosary all the way up and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For a lot of people like myself when we take a horse up there it is usually a one way trip. Because what is wrong with the horse is serious enough that he requires an equine hospital, and the pocket book of the average horse owner will not cover the treatment. It is a 3 hour drive one way from where I am at. During those 3 hours a lot of prayers are said, and people come to terms with reality of their situation. As we pulled into the drive of the facility, I sensed that my prayer had been answered. I hoped for a healing, but the vet's assessment was that I was at a dead end. I asked the vet about donating Storm, and the vet told me to check with the people in the office. One of the ladies there told me that there is a new vet looking for a horse like Storm and that it is unusual for an opening like this to come up. And so I donated Storm to the Marion Dupont Equine Facility in Leesburg Virginia. I was out of a bad financial situation. While some people don't agree with what I did and one of my hunting buddies told me that I was being too noble, I should have just put a bullet through that horse's brain like they did on the Texas ranch where he'd come from. Others say that I managed to buy my horse a few extra months of life, which he certainly deserved to have. Some four years after they put Storm down, the technology that would have helped Storms leg was finally in its experimental stages.