When Pigeons Prayed for Food

If you have ever been involved in an argument about the existence or lack thereof of a god, the odds are you already have come across the efficacy of prayer argument. It goes something like this: I was mired to my waist in a hopeless situation, with no possible way out. I prayed to god for help. Then it all “miraculously” worked out. Ergo, god exists.

From personal experience I came to be under the impression that this argument is a favourite of many believers. Perhaps because it feels more of a thing to be fathomed along the lines of a personal relationship between the one who prayed, and the one who answered. Therefore it must be unassailable by logic. Needless to say, this couldn’t be any further from the truth.

There are many accounts out there that provide cogent rebuttals of the efficacy of prayer argument. However, here I want to focus my discussion on two counterarguments that I feel don’t get the attention they deserve when discussing prayer; namely, the birthday paradox, and the psychological basis of superstition.

The Birthday Paradox

I first learned about this paradox through a course in advanced computational mathematics. As a motivation for the lesson, the professor asked about the odds of finding two people who share the same birthday in a group of 75 people. The guesses given were very conservative. The boldest was 20%, at which half of the class scoffed. The answer turned out to be, lo and behold, 99.9%. We all gasped, probably like you just have, or at least would have in a prefacebook time.

When the professor explained the answer, you could see a couple of students facepalming. The solution turned out to be simpler than we had initially presumed. Yes, there are 365 days in a year, and yes, 75 people looks like a small number in comparison. But how many pairs can you create from 75 people? That is a basic problem of combinations you learn to solve as a 10th grader. The answer is 2775 pairs. From here, it takes you only a few more steps - basic all the same - to arrive to the answer.

Mind you, only students who had underwent rigorous training in some really advanced topics in math were allowed to take this course. And despite the simplicity of the question, their well honed statistical intuitions still failed them, and miserably so. Do you think the average joe - mathematically speaking - is even remotely fit to judge the probability of phenomena that are far more complex?

The Psychology of Superstition

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The second argument against the efficacy of prayer comes from an iconic apparatus of physcology; i.e. the skinner box. If lamentably you don’t know what that is, then simply put, it is a box that contains a lever or button connected to a food release mechanism. A hungry animal, usually a pigeon or a mouse, is placed inside. Initially the animal scampers around in search for food until it accidentally activates the lever and a food pellet comes rolling down into the box. In no time it learns to press down the lever whenever it is hungry. This forms the basis of the training animals receive to perform complex tasks.

Where it gets really interesting, however, is when the lever is removed and food instead is released at fixed intervals of time, say every ten seconds. Under such conditions some animals start exhibiting bizarre behaviours when hungry. One pigeon might spin around itself in a very specific manner. Another would twist its neck following a strict cyclic rhythm. If we are to indulge in a bit of anthropomorphization, we can say that the animals were actually performing something very similar to the rituals that accompany human prayers. This could very well mean that belief in the power of prayer in humans, is only an embellished expression of a behaviour that stems from a subliminal drive.

There is yet a better way to demonstrate this claim: tape yourself watching a football game on TV and see how you will attempt to influence the outcome by shouting at players to pass the ball in a certain direction, or by tilting your head to one side or another in a futile bid to change the trajectory of the ball.

If however at a critical point in the match you leaned to the left and the ball “miraculously” swerved to the left, and as a consequence the game was won by the team you were rooting for. You won’t go about telling people how it all was thanks to your well timed head tilt, now do you? I don’t see why this should be any different from saying something like: “God! Please make the ball change course to the left!”.

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