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I have previously asked two questions about the "Skeptic's Prayer":

Upon reflection, I find that while complete certainty regarding the validity of this form of prayer may not be fully established, I'm highly persuaded that a reasonable case in favor of the legitimacy of the "Skeptic's Prayer" can be constructed based on Scripture. However, I encountered an article articulating a distinct set of objections to the prayer. The author, an atheist, contends that the prayer falls short of fulfilling the criteria for a valid scientific test. I will quote the first paragraphs of the article:

A Response To “The Skeptic’s Prayer”

Robby Berry

“The Skeptic’s Prayer” is a tract taken from the Handbook Of Christian Apologetics, by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. I first learned of the tract when Jeff Lowder posted it to the Usenet newsgroup, alt.atheism. What follows is my response to the tract.

Introduction
The following prayer is based on Jeremiah 29:12,13: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Concept
If you are an honest scientist, here is a way to find out whether Christianity is true or not. Perform the relevant experiment. To test the hypothesis that someone is behind the door, knock. To test the Christian hypothesis that Christ is behind the door, knock.

How do you knock? Pray! Tell Christ you are seeking the truth– seeking him, if he is truth. Ask him to fulfill his promise that all who seek him will find him. In his own time, of course. He promised that you would find, but he didn’t promise a schedule. He’s a lover, not a train.

There is a serious problem with this “scientific” experiment. Suppose you try the experiment, and nothing happens right away. How long do you wait until you conclude that the experiment has failed to reveal the existence of God? If nothing happens, is it because God does not exist, or because God simply hasn’t gotten around to answering yet, or because God is for some reason unable to contact us, or because God does not wish to contact us, or because of some other reason?

But, you man reply, I don’t know whether Christ is God. I don’t even know whether there is a God. That’s all right; you can pray the prayer of the skeptic.

Skeptic’s Prayer
“God, I don’t know whether you even exist. I’m a skeptic. I doubt. I think you may be only a myth. But I’m not certain (at least when I’m completely honest with myself). So if you do exist, and if you really did promise to reward all seekers, you must be hearing me now. So I hereby declare myself a seeker, a seeker of the truth, whatever it is and wherever it is. I want to know the truth and live the truth. If you are the truth, please help me.”

If Christianity is true, he will. Such a prayer constitutes a scientifically fair test of the Christian hypotheses– that is, if you do not put unfair restrictions of God, like demanding a miracle (your way, not his) or certainly by tomorrow (your time, not his). The demand that God act like your servant is hardly a scientifically fair test of the hypothesis that there is a God who is your King.

The rest of the article contains language that may be perceived as too offensive, and including it would also make the quote excessively long. However, the gist of the objections presented in the article can be summarized as follows:

1. Lack of Specific Criteria for an Answered Prayer: The Skeptic's Prayer lacks clarity on what specific results would indicate an answered prayer, making the experiment vague and inconclusive.

2. Absence of Scientific Methodology: The tract claims to present a scientifically fair test but fails to adhere to the principles of the scientific method by not defining clear criteria for success or failure.

3. Rejection of Specificity as "Unfair Restrictions": The authors dismiss the idea of specifying criteria for an answered prayer as "unfair restrictions," but this rejection of specificity hinders the experiment's meaningfulness and objectivity.

4. Ambiguity in Recognizing God's Revelation: The experiment does not provide a clear definition of what circumstances or events would constitute God revealing Himself, leaving room for subjective interpretation.

5. Failure to Exclude Alternative Hypotheses: The experiment does not account for alternative explanations for an answered prayer, such as luck, psychological factors, or other supernatural forces, leading to potential misinterpretations.

6. Skepticism as a Positive Sign: The author suggests that the attempt to frame religious claims within a scientific context, as seen in the Skeptic's Prayer, reflects a shift towards skepticism, which is "slowly but surely taking the place of faith."

7. Overall Ineffectiveness of the Skeptic's Prayer as a Definitive Experiment: The critique concludes that the Skeptic's Prayer falls short as a conclusive experiment for proving or disproving God's existence, emphasizing the need for more rigorous and specific scientific approaches to settle such questions. Quote: "Perhaps someday, real scientists will devise an experiment capable of detecting God and settling this issue once and for all. But the Skeptic’s Prayer isn’t it."

I have two questions:

  • Can we legitimately categorize the Skeptic's Prayer as a "scientific experiment"? Interestingly, the attempt to portray this prayer in a 'scientific' light brings to mind John Lennox's assertion that Christianity can be tested (see What is the biblical basis for John Lennox's claim that Christianity is testable?).

  • What counterarguments or responses can be provided to address the objections raised in the article?


EDIT: More objections to the scientific status of the prayer are presented by many of the answers to Is the Skeptic's Prayer a legitimate scientific experiment? - Philosophy Stack Exchange

2 Answers 2

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If God only kept His promises to people who applied modern methods of scientific inquiry, then everyone born before the 17th century got a pretty raw deal.

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A popular strawman of God

If God were only capable of revealing truth to people with years of highly specific training, we wouldn't be talking about a very powerful (or a very loving) god.

Are all of the billions of humans who lived prior to the scientific revolution condemned for eternity? How tragic to consider that this list would include Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and...um...Jesus Himself.

This is called man creating god in his own image. Little wonder that people are disinclined to believe in God when presented with such a strawman.

Professor Hugh Nibley contrasted Divine wisdom with worldly constraints very well:

The words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity (The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M..S., 1987), 134, emphasis mine).

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God speaks to the understanding of the individual

As noted by Dr. Nibley (see above), God gets the last word. And He is capable of getting His message across.

Nephi taught that God speaks to people in a manner they understand.

For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding. (2 Nephi 31:3)

The academic training of the individual (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on God's ability to communicate.

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Is it a test?

Yes, the skeptic's prayer is clearly a test. It is an effort to evaluate the truth of a hypothesis.

The broader point, that God encourages people to test His promises, is outlined in my post here (see especially the section He has thrown down the gauntlet).

There is a risk here of conflating the terms test and science experiment. Most of the tests by which we make rational day-to-day decisions are not devoid of ambiguity, do not have elaborate methodology or testing criteria, and fail to fully exclude alternate hypotheses. Perhaps these decisions wouldn't pass peer review.

However, to build on pygosceles' point on a related question, the process that led to powered flight or penicillin may not have passed peer-review either.

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Is it scientific?

This is entirely a question of definitions and delimitations.

One of the fastest growing belief systems in the world today is metaphysical naturalism, and some of its more passionate adherents propose that anything dealing with the supernatural is by definition not science.

Those who adopt this definition of science are conceding that science is not about the pursuit of knowledge of things as they really are. To claim that there's no need to investigate the realm of the spirit because it doesn't exist is simply begging the question. To decide to exclude a category of explanations--such as the supernatural--before evaluating the evidence, is decidedly not scientific.

If their objective is something other than truth they are welcome to their chosen definition of science, but I find much more reason to accept nuclear engineer Richard Scott's terminology:

There are two ways to find truth—both useful, provided we follow the laws upon which they are predicated. The first is the scientific method. It can require analysis of data to confirm a theory or, alternatively, establish a valid principle through experimentation. The scientific method is a valuable way of seeking truth (source).

Additionally, there is value in acknowledging that the scientific method is not designed to prove things. It is designed to disprove things. Leading theories are not theories which have been proven, they are (generally) theories that have survived rigorous scrutiny without being disproven. (There is, of course, some irony in the fact that the "God hypothesis" has been scrutinized more than any other in all of history, and yet it has not been disproven).

Scott goes on to acknowledge this built in limitation to the scientific method:

However, it [the scientific method] has two limitations. First, we never can be sure we have identified absolute truth, though we often draw nearer and nearer to it. Second, sometimes, no matter how earnestly we apply the method, we can get the wrong answer (ibid).

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Is lack of specificity a weakness?

If the goal is to reach the largest possible target audience, no.

If there are multiple ways to get to an answer, artificially restricting one's methods by defining a single, rigid process would be counterproductive. Since I believe God loves all of His children, I am not the least bit surprised that He customizes the learning process.

Would an answer to the skeptic's prayer have to be self-authenticating?

Maybe. That's a separate discussion in its own right, but self-authenticating isn't necessarily a weakness. Seeing color is a self-authenticating experience, but that doesn't mean it is inherently dubious.

However, my experience is that God typically uses things we already understand in order to authenticate and teach us about things we don't understand.

Do I just keep trying forever if I don't get a result?

I find this an unhelpful way to look at the problem.

If I have some small reason to maybe believe, a "particle of faith" if you will (this might come from moral experience, teleological arguments, the conviction seen in a trusted friend, etc.), this can indeed provide motivation to not give up after a few failed attempts, but there's no reason to simply repeat the same process indefinitely.

Let's use a simpler example: if a friend runs some code and it works, describes their code to me, and I rewrite the code...but when I go to run the code it doesn't work, how should I proceed? Especially if my friend's code is still working?

I'd go into debugging mode long before re-running the same code a million times to see if I could get a different result. I'd want to see what is different in the sets of code.

As long as whatever motivated my particle of faith is still there, I have reason not to give up (while rationally varying my method and using what debugging tools are available to me). Pascal's wager may not be a description of mature spiritual conviction, but it at least provides some incentive to start the process of getting there.

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Fundamentally different epistemological claims

In reviewing the back and forth Stack Exchange discussion on running tests and inquiring of God, I see that fundamentally different epistemological claims are being made.

The point of inquiring of God is not to demonstrate to the world the God exists, but to demonstrate it to the individual. God could demonstrate quite clearly to the world that He exists if proving His existence were His primary focus (it isn't).

Let us consider some scenarios:

The clergyman makes a claim, and supports his claim by appealing to documentation that is not accessible to the general public (perhaps because it’s recorded using unfamiliar symbols & language, or because of lack of credentials to enter a library). Other influential clergy collectively decide to support the claim, and sometimes even excommunicate clergy who disagree. Then the general public is expected to believe the claim on the authority of the (newly) unanimous clergy.

The academic makes a claim, and supports his claim by appealing to documentation that is not accessible to the general public (perhaps because it is recorded using unfamiliar symbols & language, or because of lack of credentials to enter a laboratory). Other influential academics collectively decide to support the claim, and sometimes even expel the academics who disagree. Then the general public is expected to believe the claim on the authority of the (newly) unanimous academics.

The claims in these scenarios are supported by documentation, but the lay audience is not expected to believe on the basis of the documentation, they are expected to believe what they've been told by experts. (for those doubting the latter scenario—consider that the number of people who believe in the Big Bang is orders of magnitude greater than the number of people who can actually do the math on which the theory relies)

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The theological claim in James 1:5-6 is of an entirely different epistemological nature:

5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

6 But let him ask in faith (James 1:5-6a)

James makes a claim, and challenges his reader to obtain direct, personal, experiential knowledge of the veracity of his claim. James calls for a test; he does not ask his audience to close their eyes and believe what the experts tell them.

Which approach is more scientific?

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Robby's question,

How long do you wait until you conclude that the experiment has failed to reveal the existence of God?

is merely the expression of impatience. The requirement of patience is not unique to religious propositions. In general it is impossible to know in advance that a strictly algorithmic process will terminate on a given input. This is known as the Halting Problem of computer science and it is practically ubiquitous in all scientific fields. This is a hard science and the proof is irrefutable. The proposition that a given program will terminate on a given input is also in general unfalsifiable, but that does not prevent it from being verifiable.

To answer his objections point by point:

  1. Lack of specific criteria: The skeptic's prayer is sufficiently specific. Knowing God or knowing that He exists is a very concrete and undeniable condition, no less so than verifying that your neighbor exists by knocking his door and seeing him or talking to him on the telephone. The only possible reason to argue otherwise is special pleading because the subject is God. We do not apply this criterion to any other proposition or thing, only God.

  2. Absence of Scientific Methodology: Failure is that you know with certainty that there is no God (not because you failed to endure in performing the experiment properly or didn't really want to know). Success is that you know with certainty that there is a God. The existence of quarks can be (and has been) proven in similar manner.

  3. Rejection of Specificity as "Unfair Restrictions": Is this not a self-imposed limitation? Of course if we are only guessing at how to approach God, the problem may appear intractable. On the other hand, if God sets the terms, for example, saying, "read this book, pray about it in faith and I'll tell you it is true", then that dispenses with any purported need for the experimenter to impose "unfair restrictions" on God and simultaneously eliminates objections 1 and 2.

  4. Ambiguity in Recognizing God's Revelation: Does anyone know anything for certain? Philosophers debate this. There is identical propensity for supposed "ambiguity" in interpreting any scientific result. If we ask whether God exists, or whether His revelations are true, and we know that He has answered yes, no ambiguity remains. Therefore the question should be reverted to those professing to be scientists. Do they believe they can know anything for absolute certain? If not, the problem is their own doubtfulness. This strikes at the core of epistemology. Either a person can perceive and know something with certainty, or he cannot. If he can, again, there is no problem with the scientific proposition that we can know that God exists.

  5. Failure to Exclude Alternative Hypotheses: The answer to Objection 4 eliminates this. If a person knows something is true he knows it. If you know that 2+2=4 this necessarily precludes "alternative hypotheses". Find someone who debates this, and I will show you someone who is not mentally fit or well. A person who tells you that your neighbor whom you have seen and conversed with does not exist or that you do not or cannot know that he really exists is merely gaslighting you. You know what you know and you do not need anyone else's permission or consensus to know it.

  6. Skepticism as a Positive Sign: True religion welcomes verification, as does all true science, but you have to do your homework first. Peeking at the answer key to pass a test without putting in the effort to learn is a non-starter.

  7. Overall Ineffectiveness of the Skeptic's Prayer as a Definitive Experiment: If the skeptic's prayer isn't it, then what is? It is totally appropriate and adequate to the task, as God Himself invites those who lack wisdom to ask Him for it, and He promises to give it to them. This is an exact framing of an invitation and experimental procedure along with the verification in completely scientific terms. What bothers Robby is that it requires patience and faith. But so does science.

So I would answer that Robby himself doesn't actually believe in (let alone understand) science.

Try to find a canonical definition of the Scientific Method anywhere that does not ultimately depend on both faith and patience. You cannot do it because it does not exist. There never was a scientific discovery that did not require both patience and faith. Is science therefore unscientific?

Can we legitimately categorize the Skeptic's Prayer as a "scientific experiment"?

Yes, absolutely, it satisfies exactly all of the rigorous criteria of a scientific experiment. The only way to debate this is to contend that there is no such thing as certain knowledge, but then there goes science out the window the moment one advances such an argument.

The "Scientific Method" without patience and faith is a pure hoax. The only way to prove that 2+2=4 or that quarks exist is to work it out until you have received a pure and undeniable witness of its truth. Once you do know it, it is fruitless to try to un-know it, and it does preclude alternative hypotheses (that's what knowledge does inherently).

Reason is merely plumbing. As we say in my field of data science and deep learning, "garbage in, garbage out". But if you put good stuff in you can get good stuff out. If you start with knowledge you can gain more knowledge. If you start with doubt you can multiply your doubts. If you begin with faith you can gain more faith. If you sow unbelief you can produce more shoddy reasons for unbelief.

The sowing and reaping of increasing amounts of unbelief does absolutely nothing to falsify the testimonies of millions who sow knowledge to gain more knowledge, and who exercise their faith and receive a reward of increased faith.

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  • Interesting answer, +1. I asked a similar question on Philosophy Stack Exchange here.
    – Mark
    Jan 31 at 1:36
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    Update: thank you for posting an answer over there. Other users have posted answers too, but challenging the scientific validity of the prayer. An insightful clash of ideas is ensuing it seems.
    – Mark
    Jan 31 at 10:47

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