May 2013: I was in the UK and suddenly got ill. I had developed tuberculosis. To satisfy my ravenous appetite I ate the potato snack, Pringles, all day long. I’m now cured. Can it be said Pringles cured my TB?
What if I told you the people in my mum’s church were praying for me. Did their prayers cure my TB?
Correlation, the fact that my healing corresponded to my Pringle eating or people praying, is not evidence these things caused my recovery.
Of course what I haven’t mentioned yet is that I was on 9 pills of TB medication a day (at least initially – thankfully the number reduced) and seeing my doctor for 2 weekly check ups for 6 months! The medication had been researched and tested and was the real reason for my cure.
The TV magician/mentalist Derren Brown told volunteers that hidden cameras would film interventions by actors coming into their lives and playing different characters. The video diaries of the volunteers highlighted the strange events that had then happened to them, and some presumed there were lessons they were supposed to learn from these interventions. The truth was, there were no hidden cameras or actors, yet the participants interpreted everyday events as being staged by the TV company. The suggestion made them assign meaning to unrelated events.
In another show Derren spread the false rumor that the statue of a dog in a park was lucky. As the rumour spread, people came to touch the statue and found their luck did indeed increase. Once the belief was there, people became more open to opportunities as they arose and less afraid to take them. And they also assigned lucky events to the statue.
Once we hold the belief that ‘everything happens for a reason’ or that there is a supernatural cosmic plan for our lives, we look for events to justify and reinforce this belief.
Believers want to believe. We all have the tendency to look for patterns in our world and to infuse random events with meaning. Once we have a belief, we justify it by selective observation and confirmation bias. The more justification we find for our beliefs the stronger they become. It’s the reason those who have asked for things from numerous gods and godesses believe their wishes were granted. Sometimes we have lucky charms that we are convinced have brought us luck.
People expect healings through various supernatural or sometimes pseudoscientific causes. All the studies conducted on intercessory prayer have not yielded positive results (in one study those that knew they were being prayed over got worse, perhaps from the psychological pressure to get better).
Does prayer work? It depends what we mean by work. Prayers did not cure my TB. Does it hurt? Probably not, as long as people don’t stop their medication. But knowing people love you, care about you, and are thinking about you, may have a positive effect. Mental well-being can possibly help physical recovery.
Believers circulate anecdotal stories to reinforce their beliefs. Details may get omitted and others exaggerated, whilst other stories rely on our ignorance of the human body.
Can people’s brains survive for hours after they appear to stop breathing? Can hearts which have stopped, suddenly start beating again without medical intervention? Can cancer “suddenly” disappear from our bodies. The answer to all those questions is yes.
We should take great comfort in how resilient our bodies are. And, where medical science does not have an answer, ignorance is not evidence for the supernatural.
Personally I’m comfortable accepting that there might be some things we don’t have answers to yet. But miracles?