My interesting skeptical reader writes again

in response to this conversation.

Sez he:

Maybe what I’m having problems with is this: it seems like prayer, as you describe is, is not – even in principle – capable of having anything that could disconfirm it. Allow me to explain.

I could envision prayer working in such a way that, given one set of circumstances (how or what or to who or when, etc., etc., etc. we pray for), I could then show someone, “Look, prayer works in exactly the way I’ve described;” and, the flip side of that is that, given that same conception of what prayer is, that a different set of circumstances would allow someone else to say, “Well, prayer is certainly not working in the way you’ve laid out because of X, Y, and Z.” One way or the other, this vision of prayer would either fit what we see on the ground, or not, or only to some extent or not.

But the conception of prayer that you describe doesn’t seem to be like this, at least as far as I can see. Is there any circumstance that you could lay out to me, concerning anything about prayer – how it’s done, why it’s done, when it’s done, whatever specific you could imagine- – such that, someone could legitimately say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t fit how you described what prayer is, something must be wrong somewhere, either with what is being reported about prayer, or the conception of prayer that you described, or something else.”

One other important point: because you laid out a conception of prayer that could be, in principle, shown to be inconsistent with the results of prayer, then, we could legitimately say, “This conception of prayer works because it fits what we see.” Of course, if it didn’t fit what we see, we’d say the opposite.

I suspect you are right. Prayer does not seem to have been instituted for its apologetics value. No doubt for many folks, of course, it has contributed to faith (“It’s a miracle! An answer to prayer!”) But typically such moments depend, in part, on other factors already being in place. When Satan proposes prayer as an apologetics tool (“if you are the Son of God, ask that these stones become bread”) he is brusquely refused with among other things, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Christian tradition is (maddeningly for the expermental mind) notoriously resistant to the proposition that God can be examined in a lab. So “prayer trials” with controls and subject and such like are a famous waste of time. God won’t play and if he won’t then we shall learn nothing by that route. That is probably one of the reasons St. Thomas never attempts to use answers prayer in his five demonstrations. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in answered prayer. Just means he doesn’t think prayer is something you can prove from reason.

I suspect, though I don’t know, that Thomas probably regards prayer as a matter of supernatural revelation, not of natural reason. If so, then like all other aspects of supernatural revelation, we are talking about something that *cannot* be proven by natural reason, nor disproven either. Thomas’ rule of thumb is that supernatural revelation cannot be proven from natural reason–You can’t figure out from natural reason that God is a Trinity or Scripture is inspired by the Holy Ghost or the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus or Christ was raised from the dead in a glorified body. But what you *can* do is answer all the objections that natural reason might have to these propositions. In short, Christianity really is a *faith*. But it is a faith that transcends, not contradicts, reason. If I am right, prayer is a thing like that. It can’t be proven, but all objections can be disproven.

There are, of course, moments in Scripture that look an awful lot like “competitive prayer trials”: Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal for instance, when the prophet places a bar bet that God will light the sacrifice soaked in water and Baal can’t (“Hey! Maybe he’s asleep or taking a leak!” jeers Elijah.) That sort of experiment works if God complies with the prayer. But since he usually *doesn’t* comply all we can say is that we are faced with a choice between a) God chose not to show up or b) there is no God to show up. Without further information, there’s no reason to privilege b) over a) or vice versa.

All that said, the Tradition does commend, if you will, experimental (in the sense of “experiencing”) prayer. Jesus says that the one who does his will will know whether he comes from the Father. So among other things, the Church says, “If you are unsure whether Jesus is the Son of God, what could it hurt to try a) praying as he instructs us to do”, b) asking him for the gift of faith, c) looking at the basic arguments, not simply for the existence of God, but the deity of Jesus and d) trying your hand at doing the stuff Jesus says to do?” That would, of course, entail reading the gospels and such to find out what that is, but it seems like a start.

You note what’s happening here. Prayer is not being proposed as a “proof” of anything. Rather, it is proposed as simply a way of “stepping into the traffic”: getting into the normal practice of the covenant life Jesus is already engaged in with his Church. The confidence of the faith is that, as you do that, things start to get clear.

Not sure if that scratches where you itch. What do you think?

By the way, just by way of thanks: Thanks. You are a pleasure to talk with.

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  • Matthew

    The thing that puzzles me about most conversations about prayer is the utter failure to regard it as a relationship between two free Persons – one human, one divine. Consider all the reasons a friend or parent might have for answering or not answering a request. I would guess that most of those reasons would be applicable to God. He, too, is a free Person.

    • CJ

      Exactly. My answers are probably inscrutable to my 5 year old unless I explain them, which I don’t always do. Sometimes I just say no so that he doesn’t get spoiled. The tough thing for us is to see ourselves as the five year old vis-a-vis God.

  • Ignatius

    ” I would guess that most of those reasons would be applicable to God. He, too, is a free Person”. As a matter of fact, He is Three free Persons… just saying!

    • Ted Seeber

      Yes but- the three persons don’t seem to be free from each other. Then again, a husband and wife can be described as two free persons- but if they are to have a sustainable marriage, they can’t be free of each other.

  • But since he usually *doesn’t* comply all we can say is that we are faced with a choice between a) God chose not to show up or b) there is no God to show up.

    Or, of course, c) God shows up in ways I don’t expect or recognize.

  • Paul

    Hi Mark:

    There’s a lot in your response that we could talk about about, so my reply below is incomplete, and tentative as well.

    I think you would say that faith is an answer to the objection to believing in prayer – as thing that cannot be rationally or empirically confirmed, and I think you’ve agreed with me on that point – that the concept of the null hypothesis would lead us to. The null hypothesis says that if we can’t demonstrate objectively that prayer works, then there is no reason to suspect that it does work (in objective terms, in the real world, as opposed to something made up in one’s head).

    But perhaps an important reason you believe in prayer is some other aspect of your religious belief as a whole, so teasing out the prayer part will be difficult, if not impossible.

    Then, I’d have to know exactly what you mean by “faith,” and that could be a *very* long conversation.

    • Ted Seeber

      I find the null hypothesis, in and of itself, to be unable to confirm the null hypothesis. That is to say, I can find no evidence of the null hypothesis being a reasonable method for philosophical thought, and therefore, by the hypothesis itself, I cannot assume that it is true.

      • Paul

        The null hypothesis is not a claim in the same way that we normally mean when we say that someone “claims” something. It’s merely a logical device used to clarify what has to be done to prove a (normal) claim.

        • Ted Seeber

          It’s still a circular appeal to authority. Which is of course, another fallacy with a circular logic problem in it’s definition.

          I am *extremely* skeptical of reductioninsm and even objectivity itself.

          • Paul

            How is it a circular claim to authority? First of all, there’s no authority behind why the null hypothesis works. It’s an element of logic. If you want to deny logic, that’s fine, but if that’s the case, our discussion is going to be a difficult one for me to follow.

            Objectivity is nothing more than what, in principle, anyone could verify given a neutral position. There’s nothing to be skeptical about in that.

            • Ted Seeber

              The only reason the null hyposthesis “works” is because people say it works. It’s completely made up, as much a myth as 2+2=4 (which begs the question of what we mean by the symbols 2, 4, +, and =; all of which are axiomatic definitions).

              There’s plenty to be skeptical in objectivity as well, for instance, what do we mean by a person and a neutral position- and in fact, given the biases inherent in the biology of the human species, is it possible to be neutral at all?

              I find most atheists never bother to examine their own faith in such axioms and assumptions- and thus, atheism in general is rather silly.

              This lady puts it MUCH better than I do (link only good for two weeks, though you can probably find Jennifer Fulwiler’s interview on YouTube after that if it isn’t already there):

    • Mark Shea

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by “objectively”. If you mean “Under laboratory conditions and in accord with the canons of the scientific method” then no, prayer cannot be demonstrated objectively. But then again, neither can the fact that my dad loved me. Still and all, I know that fact far better than I know that the Higg-Boson exists. There are huge fields of reality that we know with granite certitude–objective reality, not subjective (read: imaginary and/or hallucinatory) crap–that we do not gain knowledge of by the scientific method. Virtually all of our relationship knowledge is like that. And, indeed, your wife or girlfriend would rightly resent it if you attempted to subject the question “Do you love me?” to laboratory verification. It’s not the done thing. 🙂

      So yeah, I think the question of approaching prayer as a sort of apologetics tool is basically a non-starter. It can’t be done in a lab so it’s not subject to scientific canons. And in any case, God never overrides free will. So even the most miraculous answer to prayer is still subject to the fact that human beings can impose their will and resolute resist facing the possibility that they are wrong. So, for instance, Emile Zola went to Lourdes saying he only wanted to see a cut finger dipped in Lourdes water and healed. When he was instead presented with a woman whose nose and face had been eaten away by tuberculosis making a sudden and dramatic recovery, his response was not, “Maybe I’m wrong” but a statement to the press that “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes healed I would not believe in a miracle.” There is a kind of dogmatic faith to atheism too: Answer to prayer can be real assists to faith. But prayer cannot be subjected to falsification. Specific prayers can, of course. If somebody says, “God revealed to me in prayer that the world will end December 21” then you can falsify that. But you can’t falsify prayer per se because you can’t prove the gigantic negatives “There is no God” or “God never answers prayer”. To the first claim, Thomas provide a rather sturdy case that there is a God. To the second claim, universal human testimony down through the ages offers massive reply that sometimes it looks uncommonly like he does answer prayer. If we cavil that you can’t believe something not proved in a lab, then it seems to me we are caviling that we can’t believe most of ordinary human experience.

      • Paul

        By objective, I don’t necessarily mean in laboratory conditions. I just mean taking into account all the ways that we can be wrong and trying to eliminate them; making sure that alternate explanations really are less likely; and the like.

        I would disagree, by the way, that one couldn’t show (note I didn’t say “prove”) that you dad loved you, in principle. It would be exceedingly unlikely that he didn’t love you if we were able to see all the ways in which you would say that your dad showed his love for you. Any reasonable, objective person would say that it is far more likely that he loved you than not. In fact, we could say that his behavior was objectively that of a person who loved his son. If you’re trying to objectively demonstrate that the feeling he has inside of him for you is a certain feeling, that I would not claim to be able to do. The classic formulation of that problem is the one in which we realize there is no way, in principle, that we can find out if my experience of the color red is the same as yours, even when we both look at the same red apple. Beyond what you observe from your dad, how else could you prove that he loves you?

        But just because I can’t “prove” what someone’s interior feelings are doesn’t mean that I don’t conduct my life exactly as if I could. We really have no other option if we want to be honest. We accept as good enough to get on with our lives that the commonsense, obvious interpretation of a father’s normal behavior toward his children means that the father really does love (have that internal feeling toward) his children.

        In a similar vein, Karl Popper, the great philosopher, once admitted that science can’t really prove anything. It’s not like scientific conclusions are built on bedrock. Rather, they are supported by columns that are driven into a swamp, but they are still driven deep enough down to support the weight (the conclusions).

  • M. Grégoire

    We’re forgetting that prayer can “work”, even if we never receive what we request. Even if there were no God to hear them, intercessionary prayers could have merit.

    For instance, when I ask the Lord to send me my daily bread, I remember that I wasn’t hungry today, and I am grateful; I reflect that so many of the things that I desire are non-essential; I realise the fragility of my life — I can’t count on receiving even the bare essentials tomorrow, since I might be hit by a truck; I realise, on the other hand, how many times I have been blessed far beyond my deserving; I consider those who are presently hungry; and I resolve to exercise my powers in service of the Lord so that neither I nor others shall be hungry in the future. (At least, prayer ought to involve reflection, not merely demands.)

    Some of my most fervent prayers have not been granted, but I believe they’ve made me a better person than I would otherwise be. Maybe there’s a way you could test that.

    • Paul

      When I said a prayer “works,” what I meant was that what is being prayed for (like healing of a cancer) then happens (as a result of God, as opposed to a cancer being healed just because it would have healed even if God didn’t exist).

      • Mark Shea

        This seems to me to posit prayer in an experimental universe with a God and then another prayer in a control universe without a God. In this, the only universe there is, all healings occur due to the will of God. Some are what we call “natural”. But since God is the author of nature, so what? Others are what we call “miraculous” because they appear to us to involve things out of the ordinary course of nature. But there is no such thing as a “natural” explanation that does not, in this universe, trace back to God.

        This, by the way, is why Thomists object to “Intelligent Design” arguments as they are typically bruited by ID advocates. ID advocates, as you are doing here, emphasize “exceptions to the rules” as proof of the supernatural. What they often wind up doing is suggesting that living systems are therefore supernatural in origin *as distinct from* the rest of creation. But this is not so in the Christian understanding. A rock as well as a DNA molecule are both designed by God. So the real issue for Thomas in showing the existence of God is not “How do you explain these exceptions to the laws of nature?” but “How do you explain that nature has laws?” He very sensibly argues that the existence of the laws implies a Lawgiver.

        • Paul

          I wasn’t trying to set up an experiment (right now, at least), it was a mere definition so we could be clear what we meant when we said prayer “worked.”

          By the way, the problem I now see with prayer “working” is one that I wrote to Mark in another thread but I think he might have missed:

          “I am not arguing here that God doesn’t exist and is evil. I’m saying that your description of God is indistinguishable from an evil God because your God can allow or cause to happen unimaginable torture, pain, and anguish [by answering a prayer for cancer healing with “no.”]. I’m making a comment that your idea of God is incoherent because you claim he is good but you describe a ssituation in which he would be indistinguishable from an evil God.” (from

  • Ted Seeber

    The real problem isn’t that prayer/God can’t be examined in a lab. It’s that things that *are* examined in labs we can’t be sure about either. The only REAL difference between an anecdote and data- is authority.

    • Paul

      Wouldn’t you say that we can be *fairly* sure about some things that we examine in a lab (and, by the way, a lab doesn’t have to be indoors with folk in white coats with clipboards). Surely we can be more sure that an object falls to the ground when we drop it *because we generalize from our observations* than we can be sure that something is true *merely* because someone in authority tells us so. And, don’t forget that the proper reason to accept what scientists tell us is *not* merely because they tell us or that they are authorities, but because we understand that the process they are supposed to use is the one that gets us the best generalizations from our observations and data.

      • Ted Seeber

        But we cannot be absolutely sure our observations themselves are correct. To verify our observations (make them repeatable) we need to trust an authority (somebody else doing the repeating) and even THEN, we’re still just trusting our own view of the universe affected by our particular physiology is correct. At which point you might as well trust *all* observations and try to make sense out of them, rather than using reducing the data set to some arbitrary set of authorities that you do trust for no reason whatsoever.

        At this level, even science becomes little more than a religion.

        • Paul

          I agree we cannot be absolutely sure that our observations are themselves correct. But rather than rely on an authority (how do we know that authority has any greater skill *for any particular observation) than anyone else? the only way to know that would be to check everyone’s skills at observation for every observation, and then we could confirm the authority’s skill), we rely on the consensus of other observers, and even then we can’t be absolutely sure, but that’s the best we can do, so we move forward.

          However, you should not trust an observation that is wildly different from what others have observed. Note I didn’t say reject the observation out of hand, just be skeptical about it and do some more checking before you leap to conclusions. This shouldn’t be controversial, this is what we all do in our everyday lives. We’re confident that we need to exit a building from the ground floor door and not from the 5th story window because we’re pretty sure about the results if we did otherwise.

          • Ted Seeber

            In this case it’s the “prayer doesn’t work” that is a wildly different observation than 99% of the human race for 99% of the history of our species on this planet, so that doesn’t get you very far.

          • Jared

            But by relying on the observations and consensus of peers, you are implying that your observations are correct by acknowledging that these peers do, in fact, exist. 😉

            ” This shouldn’t be controversial, this is what we all do in our everyday lives.”

            It’s not controversial, but it is why a certain philosophy grounded in science and human senses (naturalism/materialism/scientism) fails as an alternative to faith. Objectively speaking, I have know way of knowing that all the world is [i]not[/i] a figment of my imagination. Science is built on two leaps of faith: That the world makes sense, and that human beings have the intellectual capacity to figure it out.

            Now, if we are merely the result of random forces, it does not seem likely that we have this intelligence. After all, we’re just an ape with a better brain, right? How could we, a random product of nature, possibly be smart enough to figure out nature?

            Now let’s look at the Church’s claim: that the universe was created by God, who is perfect in all ways, including reason.
            After forming the universe, He called life out of the Earth, eventually building up to a special creature: Man, who was created in His image and likeness (ie. given a special intellect and free will). So, obviously, the universe makes sense (which is why St. Thomas Aquinas used the order of the universe to argue for God, and not miracles), and humans can freely choose to use their God-given intellects to figure out how everything functions.

            It seems odd, in this day of “SCIENCE vs. RELIGION!!!” that the Church’s view of creation fit perfectly with the necessary assumptions of science, and that a materialistic view of science would seem to cast doubt on one (human intelligence), but that’s how it’s playing out.

  • sibyl

    Interesting to talk about prayer “working”. As if it was a means to something. At root, prayer is a communication (or even a communion) between man and God, a spiritual communication that has many, many facets, and is not merely a human petition for alteration of the material order. In a sense, to ask if prayer “works,” a better thing to consider is what a praying person becomes. In other words, what about God’s demands on the soul who comes before Him in humility and trust? What sort of person does a praying person turn into, the more he prays?

    At root, faith has to pre-date any true understanding of prayer. Imagine that you’re sitting in a hallway, looking at someone talking through an open door to an unseen other who is out of sight in one of the rooms. Now, you have not, yourself seen or heard the unseen person. You must take it on faith that the person you see in the hallway is actually talking TO someone. You simply will never get anywhere by trying to listen to the seen person’s requests and then see if they are answered through some visible means. Rather, if you doubt whether there is anyone there, and you don’t trust the seen person’s testimony that he is indeed speaking to someone real, then you can either A) go up to the doorway and look through it or B) call out to the unseen other, asking who he is.

    Where that analogy breaks down is, that in the case of prayer, the unseen Other has the power to make you see Him but also the power to hide Himself. My advice to a person interested in prayer but who does not believe in God is to open his mind to the possibility that a knowing, listening Other could be contacted through human desire. If you cannot admit that possibility, you cannot honestly be persuaded otherwise.

  • Paul

    Sure, I’m open to that possibility. Haven’t been persuaded yet. Lots of things make it seem highly unlikely to me, but I’m open to it. It would be very cool in a number of ways for that to be true. However, it seems more likely that the person talking is having a conversation with themselves. Richard Feynman, the great scientist, once said, “The easiest person to fool is yourself.”

    • Ted Seeber

      But doesn’t that cut both ways?

      At which point, the entire idea of objective evidence itself becomes impossible.

      • Paul

        Can you explain what you mean? I think you think that “objective” means “absolutely correct.” That’s not the case, it’s merely as good as we can get, and so we act accordingly, and dang if it doesn’t work the vast majority of the time.

        • Ted Seeber

          If the easiest person to fool is yourself, and that’s true for absolutely everybody else on the planet, then objective evidence isn’t just not sure- the entire universe becomes a shared delusion. That is the truly logical conclusion of reductionism- the reducing of all evidence to nothing.

      • Paul

        I think understand what you mean about cutting both ways, and I completely agree. Both atheists and theists are open to fooling themselves.

        But, in that case, what can we do? We have to arm ourselves with the best practices that might have a chance against fooling ourselves. We have to be educated about critical thinking, and logical fallacies, and the like. I ran across this the other day: The Ten Commandments of Good Thinking ( Also,

        • Ted Seeber

          But those aren’t the best practices, not from the long point of view.

          These 10 commandments fail because of Commandment #8:
          8. Avoid fallacies, Particularly the trinity of appeal to tradition, authority and popularity.

          Which of course is broken by the appeal to the authorities of and

          Even the definition of a logical system is an appeal to authority as much as the Catholic Catechism is, or tradition is. The bias against tradition, popularity, and authority is in and of itself a circular definition.

  • Paul

    Also: in general, we atheists think that believers are not humble enough about their epistemology, that they are too quick to jump to conclusions, based on mere appearances. To give you an idea of how absolutely convincing false appearances can be, remember that the chair you are sitting in is not solid, it is mostly empty space. As we all are.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Also: in general, we atheists think that believers are not humble enough about their epistemology, that they are too quick to jump to conclusions, based on mere appearances. ”

      Which is what atheists do all the time. Pot calling the kettle black much?

      ” To give you an idea of how absolutely convincing false appearances can be, remember that the chair you are sitting in is not solid, it is mostly empty space. As we all are.”

      Yep. Which just points to the existence of souls- but of course, you atheists jump to the conclusion that the false appearance is the only false appearance.