'PROVIDENTIALLY, MY DEAR DR DAWKINS!'

John H Williams

(Investigator 108, 2006 May)



Previously I've written about the very human tendency to perceive two completely separate occurrences and assume that they're connected.

The superstitious believe that there are items which are associated with previous and future success, such as 'lucky' charms or numbers. (As a kid, I knew that Sterling Moss's racing cars always carried a number seven, and Moss, having survived a long racing career, might well ascribe it to his choice of number).

It's a harmless and sentimental notion, and statistically invalid. But many are not well acquainted with the laws of chance, and explain certain happenings as being lucky or unlucky, or if they're religious, to the work of a supernatural being.
 
 

DO ATHEISTS NEVER WIN?

I've given the example of winning sportspeople who:

 

AARON'S 'TEMPORARILY HELPFUL' PERSONAL GOD

Regarding the Australian golfer, Aaron Baddeley (Investigator 84, May, 2002). I predicted after his two successive Australian Championship wins in 2000 and 2001, and in 2002 not making the cut, that he'd experience a period of not winning tournaments, despite his declared belief in the intercession of a personal god, but that he'd eventually win again. In the intervening years he hasn't, which might be a severe test of his faith.

However, one oughtn't to assume that Aaron has doubts, due to the often tenacious power of such beliefs, and the capacity of cognitive dissonance to help believers excuse, explain and rationalise. (On the other hand, he's probably made more money in that 'unsuccessful' period than I've made in about 38 years of teaching).
 
 

MAYBE NEXT TIME?

In its extreme form it may be a case of: 'True, the world didn't end, and no alien craft hove to, but it's likely that there was a 'miscalculation' of date, and it'll happen in the future, and we'll have a new date to look forward to'.

Belief often defeats the real and the rational, and the silliness of beings from space saving just you and your like-minded associates doesn't seem to occur to those contemplating 'Heaven's Gate'. In 2001 I taught two adults who were 'a couple', and who were planning a trip to Coober Pedy to live underground during the cataclysms they expected during the coming alignment of several inner planets.

I told them that the gravitational force was miniscule, it had happened previously with no ill effects, but to go ahead with their trip for the experience. They gave me the same complicit and knowing look: another disbeliever not tuned in to what we're smart enough to 'know'
 
 

"YES, HE'S THE ONE WHO KILLED MY WIFE!"

On 3/1/06 there was a brilliant documentary on SBS's Hot Docs series of a real court case. A sixteen year old black American was tried in a Florida court because he'd apparently killed a white female tourist while stealing her hand-bag, witnessed at close range by the woman's (white) husband.

The whole case was a travesty beginning with the 'random' arrest of the boy by detectives who were (to the viewer) obvious thugs and liars. One, a large, black, former grid-iron player had intimidated, threatened and punched the teenager in an attempt to extort a confession.

Amazingly the case was not thrown out in its first days as it would have been in Australia and many other places, mainly on the basis that the boy had been picked up by police a few hours after the murder and brought to the traumatised husband. Asked 'Is he the one?" he'd said, "Yes"!

He was adamant this was the killer. But it was another case of mistaken identity perhaps to do with the shock of seeing his wife's life snuffed out and the difficulty some white people experience in being discriminating about the physiognomy of black faces, as well as the natural desire to catch find the killer. Increasingly we admired the fine skills and persistence of the defending attorney and his researcher, yet they oughtn't have been needed at all!
 
 

DO PEOPLE GET WHAT THEY PRAY FOR?

The other victim (clearly, a fine young man) spent about six months in jail, and, unsurprisingly, had wonderful parents who were very religious (we saw moving scenes in jail of his Dad praying with him, as well as similar scenes in their church).

Could the system be so unjust as to find him guilty? No, a happy ending, with some of the detectives being demoted and 'moved on' (instead of being thrown in the slammer for assault and perjury). The real perpetrator (taller, older and with a criminal record) was eventually found via some more clever work by our 'heroic' attorney, and convicted.

Having quickly and conveniently found a suitable 'perpetrator', the pressure to find the real killer was removed, and, since the 'detectives' were as lazy as they were corrupt, it obviated the need to do the hard work of collecting evidence and searching for that person.
 
 

DOES GOD LOOK AFTER HIS OWN?

The religious family and friends of the teenager might well believe that his acquittal was the work of their god, when it was (to us) a combination of a transparent police conspiracy and the exemplary efforts of the attorney in making this plain to the jurors.

Those who'd prayed but didn't know what had transpired in court might well have their belief reinforced, despite it being clear that 'God looks after his own' is a furphy, mainly due to 'his' likely non-existence.
 

CONFIRMATION BIAS AT WORK

That a particular god is providential in 'allowing' success, health, wealth and happiness to believers is based on personal, anecdotal and non-statistical grounds, but the 'connection' between a person's success and a lifetime of belief and prayer is so strong to them that 'it must be so'.

That some atheists and agnostics experience similar levels of success, or that some apparent believers are unsuccessful, or do evil acts, such as the churchmen who have sexually abused their flock, are dismissed as irrelevant aberrations. Confirmation bias is notoriously difficult to undo!
 
 

THE 'PROVIDENTIAL' BANANA

In Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mt Improbable (p237) I read a most interesting example of Genesis-inspired providence, of nature having been 'put there' for human benefit.

A creationist had written Dawkins listing what he believed was an example of providence in the form of the banana:

'Convenient' evidence for intelligent design!

The genus Musa is a native of SE Asia. Wikipedia says that it originated in the Kuk swamp in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, around 5000BC to 8000BC. Several species of wild bananas are still found in PNG, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

A long succession of cultivars have led us to the current dominant Cavendish type, one which is vulnerable to the threat of destruction by diseases, due to the fact it lacks genetic diversity.

So, this useful plant was around before 'creation', and it was taken to the Middle East, received its name ('banan' is Arabic for finger), scored a mention in the Qu'ran, and joined the multitude of 'providential' plants and creatures appropriated by H sapiens sapiens.
 
 

MEGAFAUNA ONLY 'PROVIDENTIAL' UNTIL EXTINCT

Those who eat kangaroo meat or who feed it to their pets might think that macropods are providential too, although they may wonder at Noah's family managing to catch and transport a breeding pair and how they made it back 'Down Under'.

The Advertiser's Education Special (31/1/06) has no mention of this, instead offering fossil evidence of 'ancestral' megafauna, three metres tall and weighing 200 kilograms, which became extinct soon after the arrival of the Aborigines. Procoptodon goliah and other giants disappeared, according to Dr Tim Flannery, due to "human hunting pressure".

The time disparity between archaeological and palaeontological findings and the Young Earth/Great Flood is significant. If the former aren't so, why hasn't it been clearly explained why their findings are wrong?
 
 

DID SPINOZA NEVER RIDICULE?

As a skeptic, one would like to follow Spinoza's fine credo: "I have made ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Readers may think that I'm not good at this, and I admit to having a low tolerance for 'arguments' based on the supernatural and the inerrancy of a set of ancient books.

Perhaps the best approach is to use humour to question obvious human inventions such as gods, angels, virgin birth, life after death, limbo, purgatory, heaven and hell. While Rev Andrew Dutney was pontificating on the latter on ABC-891 Radio, a listener from Paradise phoned with these definitions, based on (politically incorrect) national stereotypes:

PROVIDENTIALLY Part II

John H Williams


Further to my article on providentiality: Aaron Baddeley's web site shows that he's been very successful despite his lack of tournament wins. In the 2004 and 2005 seasons he made about US$1.5 million, not including sponsorship.

Baddeley was second in the Chrysler Classic in '04, his best result, winning US$324, 000. He failed to make the cut in about a third of the 58 events he played over the two years, the inverse side to what is clearly a lucrative and successful career, strongly suggesting that this highly talented player receives no supernatural aid, despite the big financial flow!

In the March 2006 National Geographic (Letters), Wesley McDonald of Shamokin, Penn, wrote:

I am a life-long Seventh Day Adventist, a vegan with the occasional egg or two. I'm over 50, and weigh almost what I did when I was in high school. I enjoy aerobic activities, and have few grey hairs. All of these benefits I owe to God, who has blessed me and given me a knowledge of the simple ways to care for my body.

The false logic shown here is a good example of confirmation bias: Didn't Mr McDonald probably rave a strong genetic inheritance? Aren't some non-believing seniors just as healthy?

Those disposed to the providential view may surface during an election campaign, and suggest that voters "prayerfully consider" candidates, "vote with their spiritual eyes open" and call for "righteousness in our nation", as did the Rev Rob Tann of Port Lincoln in The Advertiser Letters on 8/3/06.

Rob is obviously a supporter of the Family First Party, though he didn't name it, while he named the ALP for "undermining the sanctity of marriage by promoting "alternatives". "Abortion", "sexuality" and "religious presence in schools" were mentioned, typical of the religious right, to which I'm strongly opposed.

The SA electorate gave Rob the answer he wasn't seeking, and Labor had a very big win, while Family First won no seats in the Lower House, and even in the conservative seat of Flinders (which includes Port Lincoln) it did not do well. (The FFP did better in the Upper House, winning about 6% of the votes).

The bitter irony is that many of those energetically praying for a conservative right agenda didn't have their prayers answered, while many non-believers did! I am uncomfortable with the involvement of Christian church groups in the political process, and I hope that what exists in the USA never happens here.

http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/