Saturday, May 14, 2005

Can a Scientist Believe in Prayer?

What do we really want when we ask God in prayer for something? Say we ask God to heal someone or to protect someone from harm or to give someone wisdom etc., what are we expecting him to do? Well, let's assume that the world progresses along according to its natural mechanisms (things fall when we drop them, etc.) which we seek to describe using physics or science in general. In these requests we want God in some way to change the state of the world from what it would otherwise be, given this natural unfolding of physics. That is, we want God to intervene in this world and perturb its physics.

The key point is that there is a significant difference between getting God to do something and getting a person to do something. A person is a physical being and when he or she acts no laws of physics are broken; his/her actions are all within the system and perfectly describable by physics. But God is not material and hence outside of the natural physical interactions. If he does something that changes the state of the world from what it would naturally be, he must by definition be breaking the "laws of physics," i.e. temporarily changing the natural mechanisms that govern physical interactions.

One reply to this is to claim that God governs the universe and all physical interactions, and hence he can do as he wishes without breaking anything. Well given this claim, the question then is whether God has himself set up mechanisms or rules (which I was calling natural mechanisms or physical laws) that determine the outcome of physical interactions, or if he decides every time two atoms get close how they will interact. The incredible success of physics at describing nature strongly points to there being a consistent set of interaction mechanisms. So whether these are God governed or not, God must break them in order to answer someone's prayer.

Another reply: due to quantum mechanics, given the state of the world at any time, there are many possible outcomes. Prayer asks for God to select a particular outcome of the possible ones. In this way surely it wouldn't be breaking physical laws, but it would still be influencing the world. However, the problem with this is that while there may be many possible outcomes, their likelihood is governed by a probability determined by the wave function. This statistical probability is part of the physics of the system. If this probability is changed by fixing the outcome, then the physics is also changed.

So this is a serious thing: do we really want the laws of physics to be broken or changed by God so that our desires can be satisfied? Is it possible for me to think scientifically, and at the same time believe in prayer causing physical changes in the world? There are surely many scientists that hold onto both, but if they do it is in separate spheres: the lab vs. personal life. Making this separation is a contradiction that many people are happy to live with. Not only that, this power to break the laws of physics within the reach of everyone is very attractive -- a kind of David vs. Goliath power. But if the world is filled with these outside perturbations, then the goals of physics are a lost cause. If anything does not fit the theory, it is probably God perturbing the world, and there is no point developing a more encompassing theory to describe it. This is opposite to the natural mechanism assumption that has lead to the success of physics. Which is one to choose? Clinging to two contradictory world views is surely dishonest, and a truth seeker would not do that.


  1. Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt 7:7-11)

    Dear Daniel, Hope to get back to your previous post, but wanted to give a brief response while it was fresh.

    In a recent work, Jim Sire commented, A Christian is first of all one who affirms the existence of an infinite-personal God, not one who takes the Bible as a revelation of God. A naturalist is first of all one who holds that matter (or matter plus energy in a complex relationship) is all there is, not one who holds to the autonomy of human reason or any other such epistemological notion. As in our previous conversation, I assume the existence of a good Creator God (pre-theoretical, along the lines of Romans 1:18-20) who reveals Himself in the creation most clearly in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (presuppositional w/content seeping in all over the place).

    I am not about trying to prove God's existence. For me ontology precedes epistemology and hermeneutics. Since you are looking at what one does as who one is, let me put it up front. Our family believes there is not only always hope for a child, but also for all in the creation. Hope for change, hope for health. Why? B/c we intentionally choose to live day-by-day framed by the hope of God's gracious hand in the real world. This open system world view has various components including the belief in a good God upon whom a terrific war is being waged by one of His most adept servants. A servant which has brought strife, disorder, death, sickness, and the tensions/difficulties of dealing w/such traumas. One who has brought the whole world down a notch and has not fell short of his recruitment goals taken parts and sometimes close to all of a certain person, people, or place. This is what we believe, find plausible. Are we unintelligent, embarrassingly
    unable to face the world as it really is and thereby projecting our own reality upon it? Some say so . . . but it is what we have found real.

    But we do not believe in magic. God the Father is not a heavenly emergency button to push to release the power of the Spirit like Emperor Palpatine's ability to disperse of problems/enemies. Prayer is an obedient acknowledgment that we are not self-sufficient. Through prayer, we offer ourselves in a personal relationship to the Father, to receive His grace, discernment, and direction as we acknowledge our inability to live self-sufficient lives. To obediently live in His cosmic lens, not our single frame shot which focuses on the external at the expense of the heart. Prayer in alignment w/the will of God changes the us, changes the world, but even w/the Scriptures, the People of God, circumstance/experience, our understanding of God's will is limited. Answers to prayer give joy and glory to God, perceived by humans thru the eyes of faith, i.e., lives offered to God in holiness, love for God.

    The complexity of the creation declares the glory of the Lord thru what is: coming from somewhere (vs. nothing or each particle responsible for its own existence), displaying order (vs. disorder or even nothingness), our inability to re-create out of nothing. We are not God, but are in the image of God, also personally interacting w/the creation, alongside its' uniformity of natural causes w/in an open framework. As such our work leads to worship as we come face to face w/the beauty of God in creation whether explored in the natural and responsibility as it is applied/archived. Prayer in the lab is seeking to know how to understand, steward our resources and those w/whom we work side-by-side as we reorder creation day-by-day, by God's grace in a redemptive direction. More later as time permits, as much is taken by prayer and action w/regard to Eden's health. See our blog for some testimony to God's hand at work.

  2. I'm aware of four different views on the relationship between prayer, God's intervention, and science. I have listed them below, approximately in chronological order. I list my own view last. Finally, I conclude with some random musings on the nature of certainty and theology.

    We can control God's will. Therefore prayer changes things, but science can't exist:

    This seems to be the assumption in many ancient forms of religion, but it still reappears in modern contexts: "If we pray for (revival, wealth, healing, etc.) and believe that we will receive what we ask for, then God will certainly give it to us." Basically this view argues that God is subject to natural or supernatural laws that we (or other gods in the case of polytheism) can understand and exploit. Therefore, the events that we observe reflect some sort of union of multiple wills.

    Science attempts to explain observed events in terms of fixed laws. Therefore, science is only possible if the will of all of the entities involved are also predictable based on a set of fixed laws. This seems to be incompatible with what we means when we speak of having a will. Prayer, on the other hand, is certainly quite effective. However, the outcome of praying is difficult to predict (imagine a really big version of the three body problem).

    I think that this is what many people assume is the orthodox view of Christianity. The presence of statements like the one I quoted above and the prosperity gospel certainly don't help to clarify matters. The evidence in scripture seems to point the other way: divination and idolatry are prohibited, and anyone who understood ancient religion would have seen a lot in the layout of the temple and tabernacle. Sadly, much of this evidence is lost on us because of cultural distance and a tendency to jump over the Pentateuch to get to the gospels.

    Prayer cannot change things, since the universe is run under fixed rules:

    At some point this worldview shifted, and thinkers started to assume that science should proceed as if supernatural causes (including God's intervention) did not exist. As a result of making this assumption science rapidly accumulated a lot of knowledge about the universe. However, it does raise questions about the relationship between science, theology, and reality.

    The most common understanding of this relationship, especially during the enlightenment, assumes that supernatural causes simply don't exist. The theological implication is either that God doesn't exist, or that God is so transcendent that he will not intervene in the world. These theological conclusions aren't compatible with orthodox faith, which is ultimately viewed as a social construct with a very weak correlation to ultimate reality. It follows that prayer can't change ultimate reality unless the effect of prayer can be matched to physical laws. For instance, prayer may have some physiological effect such as lowering blood pressure, etc.

    Prayer cannot change things, since God's will is absolute. Science may or may not be possible:

    At this point, I need to digress and discuss another view of prayer: God may intervene, but his interventions are predetermined in a way that cannot be affected by our prayers. This theory could make science possible if God's will followed a predictable set of guidelines. As in the case of magic, this seems to rely on an unsatisfactory definition of will. It also forces us to play games with almost all of scripture. Exodus 32 is particularly problematic, but the problems run through almost all of scripture.

    My view: Prayer may change things, science is possible:

    The consensus assumption in scripture seems to be that God's will can be changed through prayer. Unlike magic, the relationship is weak. Specifically, there is no way to guarantee that any fixed form of prayer, will change the way that God intervenes. The conversation with Moses in Exodus 32 is a blatant example of prayer changing how God will intervene. Paul's experience with his thorn in 2 Corinthians 2 is a clear example of God not intervening in response to prayer. As an added bonus, this view of prayer seems to indicate that God has a will that is at least as complex as the one that we observe in humanity (I always get nervous when theology implies that God is less than human).

    Under this view, science is possible specifically because God created us to be rulers of this world. Therefore, God apparently has chosen to sustain this world in fixed patterns. By making this decision, God is refraining from micro-managing events in the world so that we can predict the consequences of our actions (one of Lewis's conclusions in "The Problem of Pain"). Science is the activity of creating and refining models of these laws.

    It is also quite plausible that prayer is effective under this regime. Since the typical set of patterns does not represent God's specific will for every situation, he may be willing to work outside of these patterns. It seems that if these patterns are in place specifically to allow us to rule he would be even more likely to do this when we ask.

    But doesn't this ultimately make science impossible? From my perspective, science is possible, but only if it adopts a stance of methodological naturalism. Nothing in theology offers no way of accurately determining God's will, claims to offer a comprehensive list of the patterns that God follows in sustaining the world, or offers a way to determine that a specific event represents God's intervention outside of his typical pattern. Therefore, we can't determine that an event is not part of God's general pattern. This is a classic case of type I and type II error: appeals to supernatural causes for events that are part of the pattern will deprive scientists of data that they need to refine their understanding of the world. Appeals to natural causes for in-pattern events will create annoying outliers, but the end result will encourage rather than suppress further scientific research. This isn't a great threat as long as science can accept the existence of events that it can't explain. Most scientists that I know are quite happy with these events: they make a good argument for further funding of science.


    There are some problems with this argument. Specifically, scripture never mentions the concept of these patterns (well, maybe Genesis 8:22 and something interesting is happening in Hebrews 1:3). This also doesn't seem to be a very big part of theological thought before modern science, and still seems to be rather rare.

    This does touch on another theory that I've been pondering: the nature of theological truth. At one end of the spectrum we discover truth in theology by ignoring tradition and the world around us and adopting a literal reading of scripture. The problems here are: there are really no literal readings (so many people learn to substitute the grammatical-historical view), much that we now consider heresy was also literal, and the most literal reading of many passages appears to be contradictory.

    Many Christians mitigate these problems with appeals to systematic theology, church tradition, and the community of believers. I'm in favor of this approach. However, I also believe that knowledge of the world (in the case from science) can and should also inform our reading of scripture. Fortunately, some early thinkers in the church also seemed to share this view. These thoughts on the relationship between the will of God, prayer, and science are an example of this reflection.

    As a consequence of this inherent uncertainty both in science and theology, I hold these views rather lightly.

  3. Anyone who works in a lab MUST maintain lab and "life" as two separate worlds. A laboratory (or any scholarly context for that matter) is an artificially constructed context designed to minimize anything that interfere with the phenomena of study. Hence your claims are true for ALL aspects of scholarship.

    An experiment that tests theories of basic mechanics will not be truely successful if undertaken in an environment with air or friction - let alone one with "real" perturbations (e.g. a children's nursery). Any scholar that prays for God to intervene in a laboratory experiment would be being, at best, stupid. In asking for an event specific intervention by an agent they are asking for something that undermines their attempts to create generally replicable evidence.

    No honest scholar really expects their laboratory results to truly characterize the world they live in. And when they do we treat them as if they are bit daffy... The professor who "lives" based on laboratory results and academic theories interacting with teenagers is a staple of old Disney movies - and it isn't the teenagers who seem absurd. [e.g. The Absent-Minded Professor].

    For a slightly more philosophical treatment of this you might want to look at the chapters in C.S. Lewis' Miracles on Naturalism and Supernaturalism - specifically the chapter on Miracles and Natural Laws.

  4. In reply to Tom:

    Christian apologists love to create dichotomies like: people either assume/affirm God exists or assume/affirm God does not exist (which is equivalent to the naturalist definition of Sire). This is convenient since both assumptions/affirmations sound arbitrary, and so choosing the first (and adding a bunch more assumptions on what this God is like) seems not too unreasonable.

    However I think that dichotomy dismisses a much more honest approach. This approach asks: what is the simplest hypothesis that explains the data? (Here "simplest" is meant from an information-theoretic perspective.) From this perspective, scientific laws are scientists answers to what are the simplest explanations of physical phenomena; these answers are simpler (information-wise) at explaining things like lightening, thunder, planetary rotation etc., than other explanations such as demons or gods.

    So with respect to God, one can ask if postulating his existence is a simpler explanation for the physical world than other explanations or not. I don't want to debate that question, but my point is that that is a more honest approach than starting from the assumption that a personal God exists who reveals himself to us.

    I've got to end now, but I'll write more later on the prayer question.

    -- Daniel

  5. Greg,

    You conclude that a scientist has to live with outliers -- that is events that are not only not explainable by known natural causes, but in principle will never be explainable by natural causes (since they are out-pattern events or God-interventions).

    The problem with this is as follows. Say you are a scientist and you discover an event that does not fit current theories, what do you do? One could assume it is probably an outlier (miracle), and ignore it, or one could assume it has natural causes and seek to find an explanation. The former approach held back science for millenia, and the latter approach has lead to the success of science. I expect reverting to the former will bring the end of scientific progress.

    A response might be that science is limited to repeatable events; one can check that it is not an outlier by repeating it. But this is too limiting. There are plenty of non-repeating events that we want scientific explanations of: for example various cosmological events, such as the expansion of the big bang or the formation of the solar system, or other one-time events like the space shuttle explosions, etc. Are these outliers or do they have natural causes?

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  7. In short my answer is that when an individual is acting in the role of a scientist, he or she must assume that the event is the result of known or unknown natural causes. In some situations a committed theist may believe that an act of God (miracle) is the correct explanation, and may even state so publicly. In these situations the individual should make is perfectly clear that they are not speaking in his or her role as a scientist. In addition they should not interfere with scientists who decide to search for natural causes for the event. This is a rather fine line, largely motivated by the current discussions around intelligent design (ID). My inclination is that ID is a valid conclusion for an individual to reach based on his or her reading of the evidence, but should not be construed as as a scientific theory.

    I was trying to allude to this problem in my discussion of type I and type II error, but my explanation wasn't clear. My concern with admitting supernatural causes as scientific theories is identical to the one that you state above: attributing supernatural causes to the wrong events has arrested the progress of science in the past. I also suspect that reverting to admitting supernatural causes would once again arrest the development of science. In theory an over-abundance of outliers could also be a threat to the progress of science (too much effort spent searching for new natural causes), but there are no signs that this is happening.

    I don't think that science should be limited to repeatable events, but here the discussion gets difficult. I must admit that I'm not an expert in the philosophy of science. For competing theories the approach seems to be:

    If the theories make different predictions in certain circumstances, collect data in these circumstances. This often, but not always, takes the form of collecting data from multiple controlled experiments. Data must be collected multiple times to deal with questions like the nature of light (wave/particle duality) where a single experiment would lead to a premature (half-wrong?) conclusion.

    If the theories provably produce the same predictions in all circumstances, prefer the simpler theory.

    In ambiguous cases prefer the simpler theory or the older theory (under the assumption that it is less likely to require revision). While some competing theories are always in this position scientists spend a lot of time forcing them into one of the other categories.

    Science can deal with non-reproducible events under this framework. For example, the theory that modern species resulted from evolution implies that we should be able to find inactive genetic material from older species in modern animals. To the best of my knowledge the competing theories did not make a similar prediction before modern research on genomes revealed the presence of this material. Along similar lines the big bang theory led to the search for variations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In this case the search went on a lot longer than scientists first expected, but there weren't a large number of other theories that could explain other observations, so they still held to the theory.

    I realize that this approach leads to some uncertainty about the reliability of theories, especially when they take the form of A causes B. After thinking about this for a while, I'm beginning to suspect that there is no way to be certain that any theory is accurate based on empirical observation. Empirical observations of repeated trials in carefully constructed experiments can make a theory highly probable, but never certain. This seems to echo to some of Kant's thinking in his Critique of Pure Reason, but I must admit that the discussion goes a bit over my head. For non-reproducible events we need to be even more cautious. It would be interesting to hear views from someone who is qualified to speak to the issue.

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  9. Greg,

    First in reply to your last paragraph. That's exactly in line with Karl Popper (see his "Conjectures and Refutations" for a good read). One cannot prove scientific theories with evidence, although one can disprove them with conflicting evidence. Rather one becomes increasingly confident in them as the stand up to tests and make successful predictions.

    It sounds like we mostly agree on what a scientist can say -- that his scientific investigation is restricted to investigating natural causes. But then you say, outside his role as a scientist, "[Intelligent Design] is a valid conclusion for an individual to reach based on his or her reading of the evidence". But what exactly is evidence for a supernatural event? I propose that one can never have evidence for supernatural intervention. The most one can say about an event in question is: (1) I have observed the event or have foolproof evidence that the event occured as stated, and (2) I understand the physics of nature sufficiently well to rule out all possible natural explanations. But who can ever say (2)? I expect most people who claim supernatural explanations have either (1) or (2) wrong.

    In the end supernatural claims are generally pure faith claims rather than being based on evidence. Anyone could make those, but in so far as they are made they obstruct any deeper physical understanding of the event

  10. God does not break the laws of Physics but He supercedes them.

  11. Christian friendMonday, May 08, 2006

    If Scientists cannot replicate the miracle in a laboratory, then their theories have no grounds to disprove the supernatural causes for the miracle.

  12. Anyone can formulate theories as long as those theories offer a step by step verifiable explanation for the miracle and they can be replicated in a scientific lab. Otherwise, the supernatural origin of the miracle must be accepted. No question about it.

  13. Then I guess God must do a lot of miracles for a lot of religions. For that matter, why bother doing science when everything could be explained more easily as a miracle?


  14. Hi everyone, may I join the discussion?

    Everything is a miracle in my point of view. The earth, the stars, the moon, the sun, the waters of the ocean, life itself, everything is a miracle!!!

    I lean towards the opinion that God gave us the Creation and He commanded us to have dominion over it. This dominion is not possible without Scientific knowledge.

    So, why is it that we often separate Science from God?

    Science is only a means through which we can understand the world as well as its Creator.

    How often are we amazed at the beauty and fragrance of a flower, at the always old and always new sunrises and sunsets? At the perfect distance that lies between the sun and the earth... a little closer and it would burn us, a little further and it would freeze us... how about the mathematical precision of the laws that control the universe that technological advances possible?

    Such perfection cannot be the result of random and unintelligent choices. How could the sun position itself at such a perfect distance from the earth as if "it" knew that humans depended on it for their survival? The sun is incapable of reasoning. So, there must be a God who knew what He was doing when He placed the sun in the center of our solar system at an exact distance from the earth and all the other planets.

    Science should help us to discover God's secret love letter that He wrote for us when He created all things...

  15. Anon:

    If everything is a miracle, I'm not sure what a miracle is. If a drop a stone and it falls and that is a miracle, then the term miracle is an unhelpful one and we might as well ignore it.

    I won't argue for evolution here, but there are some excellent books on it: for example Richard Dawkin's "The Blind Watchmaker".

    As for the earth rotating around the sun at the "right" distance; indeed if the earth were too far or too close humans wouldn't be on it, like they aren't on Mars. But the universe is huge with innumerable stars, and presumeably innumberable ones that formed like our sun with planets at a variety of distances. Many will not have life, but on ones where conditions are favorable, there may be life. The fact that we're alive and asking these questions means we must be on one of those.