The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Experiments on Prayer

There have been a number of published experiments testing the proposition that prayer aids sick people. Early ones claimed to see an effect, but later ones claimed no such effect leading to arguments and polemic. It seems to me, however, that from a Jewish perspective, such experiments are doomed to failure for their premise is faulty.

These experiments generally work as follows. The experimenter takes a sample of ill people and divides them into two groups. One has people praying for them, the other does not. The experimenter then looks at the survival rate of the two groups. Should it be the same, it is claimed that there is no effect. Should the group being prayed for do better, it is claimed that prayer is efficacious. I suppose that should the control group do better, it would be claimed that prayer is dangerous and should be stopped immediately. Whatever the outcome, the conclusion is founded on the assumption that the two groups are equivalent, and that any statistical difference in their outcome is a result of being prayed for.

Leave aside the twiddles and flourishes and the details of the experimental protocol. Never mind whether it matters that Jews are praying for Christians, or vice versa, or whether athiests or agnostics should be included either as the ill or the prayers, or any other such details. The experiment is fundamentally flawed from the moment the ill people are divided into groups. In the interests of not biasing his results, the experimenter uses some "random" method to divide the patients into groups. Perhaps he pulls names from a hat, or balls from a lottery machine. Or, more likely, a computer is involved. Whatever the case, the intent is that the two groups be completely equivalent so that the result can be attributed, or not, to the effects of the prayers.

But, remember, the very premise of the experiment is that there possibly exists something, call it "God" for convenience, who can be influenced by "prayer" to change the outcome for the sick person. What is the nature of this "God"? I don't know what the experimenters were thinking, but the G-d that Jews know of is omnipotent, omniscient, and ever present; directly involved in the day to day running of the world. So, when the experimenter "randomly" divided up his patients, was it not G-d who actually determined which group they would go into? And was it not already known before Him how long each would live, and what the effects of the prayers would be? So, then, was it not the case that the results of these experiments would be exactly, precisely, what G-d wanted them to be, whether positive, negative, or ambiguous? Perhaps there ought to be a theologian on the granting panel next time someone proposes to run experiments on G-d.

3 Comments:

Blogger Rebeljew said...

This is precisely the argument that the "anti" forces used against equidistant letter skips. Given Hashgacha Protis, the control is no more random than the experiment.

10:55 p.m., March 25, 2006  
Anonymous JS said...

"So, when the experimenter "randomly" divided up his patients, was it not G-d who actually determined which group they would go into? And was it not already known before Him how long each would live, and what the effects of the prayers would be? So, then, was it not the case that the results of these experiments would be exactly, precisely, what G-d wanted them to be, whether positive, negative, or ambiguous?"

Right -- so prayer doesn't work. If God already knows beforehand, as you suggest, then prayer can have no impact one way or the other.

2:22 p.m., July 06, 2006  
Blogger The Observer said...

Well, you can't conclude that either. In a sense, and this gets into some complicated theology, G-d knows whether the prayer will be accepted or not.

4:03 p.m., July 07, 2006  

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