Wednesday, 22 August 2012

An experiment designed to be useless

Now that PZ Myers has had his say, Premier Radio's Atheist Prayer Experiment has become wider known. I suspect most of what's been said about it so far (including by me) was without the benefit of actually reading Tim Mawson's paper on which the experiment is apparently to be based.

The paper, titled "Praying to stop being an atheist", was published in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion in January 2010, and is available as a PDF here:

Here's the abstract:
In this paper, I argue that atheists who think that the issue of God’s existence or non-existence is an important one; assign a greater than negligible probability to God’s existence; and are not in possession of a plausible argument for scepticism about the truth-directedness of uttering such prayers in their own cases, are under a prima facie epistemic obligation to pray to God that He stop them being atheists.
It sounds like Mawson is setting up a highly restricted set of circumstances in which his proposal might just have some validity. Or not.

He begins by running through some examples and provisos. He suggests that the atheist considering praying to a God he or she doesn't believe exists is similar to someone in a darkened room who calls out "Is anyone there?" even though they believe they are alone. We get a lot of hemming and hawing around the plausibility of such a belief and the reasons why someone might feel it worth their while to call out, but it all has a flavour of direction, of careful elimination of possible objections, in preparation for declaring some kind of equivalence.
Similarly then, I am suggesting that, as well as agnostics, those atheists who think of the issue of the existence or non-existence of God as an important one and neither assign God’s existence a vanishingly small probability, nor take themselves to have some reason to suppose that their engaging in the process of prayer would lead them to false positives, should engage, insofar as the costs (including opportunity costs; to repeat, this is only a prima facie obligation and there may be other obligations which trump it) are not prohibitive, in praying to God that He remove their unbelief.
That is a typical sentence (one sentence, note). The whole paper is written in this faux-Dickensian style, with an excess of double negatives and subordinate clauses to subordinate clauses, as if attempting to delay the dawning realisation that what Mawson is saying is totally unextraordinary as well as entirely superfluous.

Next we have some exposition on Divine Hiddenness, which is frankly of no help at all. Mawson suggests that the atheist —
...is still justified in conducting the prayer experiment given that the most plausible version of Theism will have as an element that God’s reasons to preserve the general level of hiddenness that he does may be countervailed by prayers of this sort.
Or in other words God might answer the atheist's prayers, or he might not. What, exactly, is that supposed to prove?

Mawson goes on to consider two potential objections. The first is a facile and futile consideration of the utility and worth, in terms of effort and return, of calling out to fairies at the bottom of the garden. Here's one reason why he doesn't think it's worth it:
I do not regard answering the question of whether or not there are fairies at the bottom of the garden as a task of great importance; it has a similar importance, it strikes me, to settling the question of whether aliens with a penchant for leaving crop circles and temporarily abducting the locals are in the habit of visiting the mid-west of the U.S.A.
Mawson should get his priorities right. He's effectively saying that if he had a trivial means of determining whether — despite the inconclusive evidence so far presented — aliens are in fact visiting the Earth on a regular basis, he wouldn't bother. Considering that one of the eternal questions we face is "Are we alone in the Universe?" I think he's being pretty dismissive. He's already based his prospective experiment on the proposition that the existence of God is important. One possibility he ought to consider is that God exists and is an extra-terrestrial.

I might also question his indifference to the possible existence of an entirely unknown species of winged homunculi that nevertheless appear frequently in historical literature. (I would have added that an answer to the fairy-question might also have a bearing on the existence of a supernatural realm, but Mawson has already stated that the fairies he's not going to call out to are entirely natural.) In explaining at length and in detail — two pages of dense explication — why he's not going to call out to fairies, Mawson gives an overwhelming impression of desperately looking for excuses.

The second objection Mawson addresses is the one PZ Myers raised:
If you tell yourself something every day over a fairly long period of time, will it affect how your mind works? I suspect the answer would be yes. Just the act of making a commitment to a religious belief and reinforcing it with daily rituals and reflection is going to fuck up your head. Most of us atheists have defenses against it — I couldn’t go through this without grumbling to myself that this behavior is bullshit, and it would probably end up making me even more disgusted with religion (if I bothered to do it, which I won’t) — but it could affect somebody who is gullible and impressionable. There’s nothing in this ‘experiment’ that could provide evidence of a god, but there is plenty of stuff to show that plastic minds exist…which we already know.
Mawson's response to this objection (obviously not a direct response to PZ, who posted the above on August 20) is to issue a kind of challenge:
Tim Mawson
Again, the analogy of the darkened room seems to me apposite. It may not be unreasonable to suppose of some people that they are so desperate to find a wise old man in the room that they mistake the echo of their own voice for a reply to their quickly-shouted question. Some suffer from schizophrenia in the best of conditions after all and the sensory deprivation attendant upon entering such a room is hardly likely to improve such conditions. But the vast majority of agnostics and atheists can know of themselves, if they can know anything of themselves, that they are not such people. Most people are able, quite rightly, to remove from consideration as a serious possibility that they will mistake the echo of their own voice for a reply to the question, ‘Is there anyone there?’ when shouted into a darkened room. Similarly, I am suggesting, most agnostics and atheists will be able, quite rightly, to remove from consideration as a serious possibility that they will ‘project’ some fantasy and thus generate false positives by conducting the sort of prayer experiment which I have suggested is otherwise prima facie obligatory on them. 
Or to put it another way, "Hey, atheists! You're made of sterner stuff than this, aren't you?"

Towards the end of the paper Mawson seems to be suggesting that the experiment cannot work:
One point we may see now then is that nothing the theist, agnostic or atheist can have experienced during the process of conducting this experiment will have given him or her any reason to believe that this process of praying to God that He reveal Himself is not truth-directed. Just the opposite; anything he or she will have experienced and even the absence of an experience will have simply increased his or her rational estimation of the reliability of this process in putting him or her in touch with ultimate metaphysical truth. Thus he or she will find himself or herself locked into what he or she will have to consider an epistemically virtuous spiral of prayer, one which ever increases his or her rational faith in God or one which ever increases his or her rational certainty that God does not exist.
This doesn't seem rational to me. Is Mawson saying that whatever the results, and whether you're theist, atheist or agnostic (agnosticism doesn't exclude the other two, by the way) you will conclude that the experiment has brought you closer to the truth? In what way is this at all useful?

Finally he comes back to a point he brought up at the beginning, that an atheist should only carry out the experiment if he or she thinks there is more than a vanishingly small probability that God exists. I read this as saying any atheist who places higher than 6.5 on Dawkins' scale should not participate. Many atheists of my acquaintance would be excluded on that basis, as would I. And we're at that point on the scale because we've already done this experiment. Many of us prayed earnestly in our youth, and beyond, with conclusively negative results. We found no evidence for the existence of God, despite repeatedly asking for it. That is why we're atheists.

Mawson rounds off his paper with a well-known quote from Bertrand Russell regarding lack of evidence for the existence of God, and suggests that Russell should perhaps have asked for some. Personally I'm not inclined to go chasing after evidence for something whose existence is not rationally implied in the first place. There's a simple matter to consider — that of burden of proof.
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