Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dembski: Prayer Can Change the Past

If you have time to waste, listen to this podcast of Bill Dembski being interviewed about his latest book.

I haven't read the book, but apparently one of his claims is that all evil - even natural evil like typhoons and earthquakes - is ultimately due to human sin. For Dembski, human sin is so corrosive that it has the magical power to have causation backwards in time. While Christians claim to be humble, this seems to be one of the most megalomaniac religious claims of all time: that the ancient physical history of the Universe, which developed over billions of years, is dependent in part on the "sin" of humans today and in the recent past. Earthquakes may have occurred millions of years ago, but they're still our fault.

Another of his ideas seems to be - I kid you not - that the effect of prayer could go backward in time. He cites as an example this story told by Helen Roseveare. When working as a medical missionary, she needed a hot water bottle to keep a premature baby warm. Lacking one, a child at the mission prayed that one would arrive - and that same afternoon, one did. A miracle, obviously, and an answered prayer. Even more miraculously, the parcel had been sent 5 months earlier -- so if the prayer were really effective, its effects would have had to go backward in time.

What do you think of Roseveare's story? If it really happened as recounted (which I doubt, since stories like these are notoriously exaggerated - witness the claims of "leg lengthening" at faith-healing ceremonies - and get more and more elaborate with each telling), then was it really a miracle? Surely people send packages to medical missionaries all the time, and it is not a stretch to think that people would include all sorts of objects that might be useful, including a hot water bottle. And even if it was a miracle, wouldn't it have been easier for their god to simply arrange for the baby to arrive at the usual time, instead of being premature? And how about all the millions of people who have prayed sincerely without relief? Why did Mike Turner die, trapped by a boulder in Wyoming, while his prayers went unanswered?

It's extremely hard, seeing all the suffering in Haiti, to maintain that the Christian god is a loving one. So Christians are forced to develop an elaborate edifice to justify suffering. A more honest and realistic view is that, if a single god really exists, then he's a nasty son-of-a-bitch. I once asked a famous Catholic theologian if anyone had ever tried to develop a theology about the characteristics of a god based on what we actually see in the world: suffering, pain, natural catastrophes, etc. He seemed very surprised by the question, thought about it for a bit, and answered, "no".

Although Dembski thinks prayer might change the past, he also seems to think that once we know that an event has occurred, then there's no point praying about it. But why couldn't his god then change everyone's memory of the past, too, so that no one knew the event occurred, and then change the event itself? The rules for Bill's god seem completely arbitrary.

Along the way, we learn other aspects of Dembski's "thought". He is an old-earth creationist and he also subscribes to the "vaccines cause autism" woo. He believes in a literal Adam and Eve, specially created by his god, but he also thinks that evolutionary biology is compatible with this: biology, according to Dembski, speaks of "breakaway populations" and "genetic evidence" that there was an "initial pair" starting a new population. (This, of course, is not true. Founder effects occur with a small population, not necessarily an "initial pair". And while the genetic evidence points to a "Mitochondrial Eve" and a "Y-Chromosomal Adam", these two people did not live at the same time.)

What do theologians make of his book? No surprise: they lap it up. J. P. Moreland says, "I have read very few books with its deep of insight, breadth of scholarly interaction, and significance. From now on, no one who is working on a Christian treatment of the problem of evil can afford to neglect this book." It seems no idea is too silly for credulous theists to take seriously.


Bradbury said...

What, you don't believe in time-travel? Sheesh, how could you not? Even scientists believe one can go back in time and change the past! See:

(You can decide how facetious I intended to be here.)

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

Recurrent thoughts about creationism, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design, Dembski/Meyer, religion, and
Recurrent thoughts about creationism, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design, Dembski/Meyer, religion, and
Recurrent thoughts about creationism, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design, Dembski/Meyer, religion, and
Recurrent thoughts about...

Jeffrey Shallit said...


If you don't enjoy the blog, why not go elsewhere?

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I'd hardly keep commenting in a blog I don't enjoy. I just felt frustrated because of 4 posts on ID in a row. It's an easier target, I imagine, but a man as clever as you are might consider that this is not a problem that true science is facing; the constant revisiting of this issue may make us all spoiled, forgetting the true delights of real scientific/philosophical problems, such as the "free will" thing, which are harder, but make us grow more. I was missing such nice posts, with nice discussions, oases of thought in a never-ending College vacation.
However, now I remember that this is a voluntary work. You obviously have other things to do, and to pick up new issues all the time must be a hard thing. I, for instance, don't have a blog because of this. And I remember some good bloggers who have quited the blogging, because of lack of time. I hope my not tactful comment is not one more deterrence in this hard labor.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Living in Brazil, you may not understand the threat posed to science and democracy in the US by the Christian Right. The threat is very, very real. Read, for example, Jeff Sharlet's The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power or Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America , or Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science, and you'll see what I mean.

Your comment came across as "Why don't you write about what interests me, instead of what interests you?" If you want harder content, feel free to read the papers listed on my papers page.

Joshua said...

The notion of prayer altering the past but only when one doesn't know about the actual outcome is fascinating. It almost seems connected to the idea some people have that what they personally feel or know about reality influences the nature of reality. But that belief is usually considered "New Age" which is generally considered to be the opposite end of the fringe/pseudoscience spectrum from Dembski (New Age is on the left end for lack of a better term while ID is on the right end). It seems that Dembski's God can only change things if they aren't too blunt. I have to wonder if this fits in with the whole lack of curing amputees.

Also note that fairly old Jewish sources make clear that Jews believed that prayer did not alter fixed things even if one didn't know their outcome. For example, praying to alter the gender of a baby was forbidden after 40 days of gestation since they believed that gender was determined on the 40th day. I think there are similar statements in classical Christian sources but it might take a while to track them down.

So Demsbki now seems interested in saying something so absurd that people who believed in spontaneous generation of mice, that the world was flat, and that the phoenix was a real bird, would still disagree with.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of some of the thoughts that go on with gamblers, of what will affect the outcome of the event. What one does to a lottery ticket after you make the selection will affect whether it is a winner. Maybe even after the winning number has been chosen, if I go through a certain ritual in finding out what the winning number is, that will affect whether I am a winner.

Tom S.

John said...

So Dembski has given up all pretense of scientific credibility then.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Well, I think Dembski would argue that his theological views and his scientific views should be viewed separately. Polkinghorne is an example of a physicist-theologian who seems to have credibility among physicists for his physics work and credibility among theologians for his theological work.

carlsonjok said...

Although Dembski thinks prayer might change the past, he also seems to think that once we know that an event has occurred, then there's no point praying about it.

Dang it. There goes my plan to have the Buffalo Bills win at least one Super Bowl.


Bill said...

If I had a Time Machine I'd go back to that night full of Jack Daniels and peanuts and I'd cancel the marshmallow eating contest. Decades later I'm still sick.

Although, come to think of it, there was this old guy I'd never seen before telling us it was a bad idea.

Of course, we ignored the old coot.

Michael Fugate said...

Roseveare story - coincidence

Dembski's new book - refer to bumper sticker I saw at Michael Barton's blog

"Pick One
a. Evolution
b. Made-up Shit"

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

When one talks about Theology, [s]he must be aware that [s]he's getting in a nobody's Land, where every claim is possible, but the ones we usually make in Science. Not because Theologians don't have sense of logic, but because they abandon the premise whcih says that postulates must be things that are taken to be universally true, such as 2+2=4. When you assume an Omnipotent Agent to be true, prepare to see irreal claims coming true.
Dembski might claim, for example, that his Omnipotent Agent (God, from now on) possesses the quality of Laplace's Demon: he would be "An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed" and "this intellect is also vast enough to submit these
data to analysis", hence "it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom". Pointing "quantum
uncertainty" would be meaningless: God would not create a world in which it would know be capable of foreseeing the future (an unavoidable tautology). There 'must be' other dimensions, unfathomable to our Earthly senses, which could provide him the missing informations. And if he, then, cited Bible's "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!", Hallelujahs would come from his believer listeners.
Therefore, what happens, Dembski might say, is not that God changes the past. He, presupposing the prayers of his faithful servants, would, sometimes, arrange things to
come as an answer to future prayers. However, what has already happened would not be changed: because if it happened, it was so with God's permission, and "this word that goeth out of his mouth, It turneth not back unto him empty".
What about tragedies? Not enough prayers. Not enough sanctity. The earthquake in Haiti, for instance, would be because of Santeria, and stuff. Is God evil? Not at all! The case is that he is JUST, and he cannot let the evil pass unpunished. Certainly preachers announcing the only true Gospel were sent, and rejected, not being the Haitians, then, innocent.

Gingerbaker said...

I called up my local Humane Shelter and was informed that 23 kittens passed away there in the last year.

Curiously, twenty-three is the exact number of times that I masturbated last month. Surely, you don't think....

Reuven Kleinman said...

Though I strongly agree with your justified opinions regarding religion, creationism and similar kinds of harmful stupidities, I just want to mention that in this specific case - influencing the past, Dembski is probably basing his opinion on the paper "Bringing About the Past" by Michael Dummett, who was a serious analytic philosopher (though a devout catholic, a fact which obviously shaped his views, but his arguments and argumentation style are serious) - which can be viewed here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/6450333/Dummett-Bringing-About-the-Past .

Being a careful philosopher, Dummett only argues, basically that YOU CAN'T RULE OUT influencing events in the past as long as you don't know whether they happened or did not happen.

Of course this is challengeable, and Dembski's adaptation of it is not serious, but it is a real valid argument.

Vladimir said...

I've always found a recurring fundamental flaw when debating religion with anyone who is defending their particular faith. Basically, it seems that they believe that if one aspect of their beliefs are true, then it proves all other aspects of their belief system are true. Sadly this also occurs with people who are very science minded.

Correct me if I am wrong, it has been a long time that since I have taken a science class that was not centered around the binary/digital world, but I always thought that the difference between a scientific law and a scientific theory is that a theory is observations that have not been empirically proven, where a law has been.

If that thought is correct, then even if some scientist theorizes that time travel (forward or backward) is possible, it could just be a false observation. If it ends up false, then the whole idea of time traveling prayers ends up debunked anyway.

Here is another interesting thought...the concept of religion came from humanity trying to make sense of sense of the world he lives in. At some point in the evolution of our ideals part of humanity decided, "Well this is about as far as I want to think about it, write this stuff down and we will call it the truth of god (any religious text). The rest of humanity continued trying to make sense of the world, and we have the birth of science, and they decided to write this stuff down and call it the "truth of our world." One difference is that science maintains the humility to say, "Oops! I was in error, that is not how things work, so lets change ideas that we hold true." Thus we all know the Earth is not flat.


Jeffrey Shallit said...

I always thought that the difference between a scientific law and a scientific theory is that a theory is observations that have not been empirically proven, where a law has been.

No, that's not correct - at least, that's not how the terms are used by scientists.

A theory is a coherent statement meant to explain a series of observations of the natural world. We speak of "the germ theory of disease", "Einstein's theory of relativity", "Darwin's theory of evolution", etc.

A law has no formal definition. It is often used to refer to a theory that has a simple mathematical statement. So we refer to "Boyle's law", "Hooke's law", etc.

But this usage is not consistent at all. For example, Einstein's theory of relativity is quite mathematical, yet it is not usually referred to as a law. On the other hand, "Dollow's law" is called a law, despite not having a simple mathematical statement.

Filipe Calvario (from Brazil) said...

I've thought that the difference between law and theory was like in Vladimir's definition for a while. The words "law" and "theory" (even in Portuguese, "lei" and "teoria") are really suggestive in that way, albeit it is wrong, as Shallit pointed.
However, mistakes aside, I think that the fundamental point is that one group of assertions may have internal logical consistency, but that is not enough to be given credit in practice; such group of assertions must be related somehow to phenomena in our Universe to have some applicability. As Tim Minchin said, in his poem Storm:
"Science adjusts it’s beliefs based on what’s observed;
Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved".
By the way, that is a MUST: http://bit.ly/12uzmn
You won't regret watching it, I think.

David said...

Following up the reference to Michael Dummett, the thesis of backward causation is not that you can change the past. Rather,the claim is that a cause can follow, rather than precede, its effect. Advocates of backward causation don't dispute that the past can't be changed. "The past would have been different without the future cause" and "the future cause changes the past" are two very different statements. The latter implies, as the former does not, that there is a past time at which events with contradictory properties occurred.

Anonymous said...

A friend suggested that this backward causation sounds like the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. According to this doctrine, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was immaculately conceived before the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, as well as before Mary consented to become the mother of the Redeemer.

Is Dembski allowing Catholic doctrine into his theology?

Tom S.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"The past would have been different without the future cause" and "the future cause changes the past" are two very different statements.

It sounds to me like this is based on a very naive, intuition-based view of time.

David said...

Suppose, absurdly, that my writing this post causes JFK to be assassinated on Nov.22,1963. This is to claim that if I hadn't written the post, he wouldn't have been assassinated. It is not to claim that the following two statements are true: 1) Until January 21, 2010, it is false that JFK was assassinated on Nov.22, 1963; and 2) On January 21, 2010 and subsequently, it is true that JFK was assassinated on Nov.22, 1963. Only the latter claim involves changing the past. This seems to me a real distinction, and I'm not seeing how it rests on a naive view of time. This isn't to say that backward causation doesn't rest on such a view of time: I'm not defending it but just trying to indicate its standard meaning in philosophy.

Mark said...

Reminds me of Schroedinger's pussy, very New Agey.

Is there a threshold magnitude for earthquakes being evidence of pissed-off god? Do aftershocks count? How about free oscillations of the Earth; do they just reflect God's musical talent?

Anebo said...

I once asked a famous Catholic theologian if anyone had ever tried to develop a theology about the characteristics of a god based on what we actually see in the world: suffering, pain, natural catastrophes, etc.

He must not have been a very good theologian. The answer to you question is the Gnostics. They (and that's simplifying a bit since there;s a wide diversity of Gnostic thought), believed that the god described in the OT as creating the world and persecuting the Israelites, etc., really did do those things and therefore was evil and fallen. He is completely material and completely evil, and made the world and particularly human bodies to to act as prisons for a few sparks of real divine light (i.e. souls) that had fallen down into the material world from the real god who lived outside the cosmos. The real divinities there would occasionally send messengers down here to tell people how to escape. These included the serpent in the garden of Eden and Jesus.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

David: what evidence is there for backward causation on a macro scale?

David Gordon said...

I don't know of any evidence for backward causation, on either a macro or micro scale.