Michael Okoko's argument against the efficacy of intercessory prayer

Okay, you do see that this is less likely for Palpatine than it is for Luke, right?

“Emperor Palpatine wants to help me”


“Luke Skywalker wants to help me”

You’re saying these are equally likely?

I think it depends on what you’re praying for. But you’re missing the point again. In fact it’s becoming clear you don’t want to deal with it at all. The point is it is people’s own beliefs that make them take action, and their actions that have real world effects. God (like Luke Skywalker) doesn’t have to exist for this to occur. And shouldn’t be given credit for the actions of human beings, who are the one doing the actual work.

Oh by the way, I don’t actually think it matters how likely people think it is that Palpatine would want to help them. I don’t think they’re really doing any sort of estimation of probabilities, I think they’re more expressing a hope for some outcome than a genuine belief that God/palpatine/The Sun is likely to actually take action. In so far as they are genuinely praying, I think that’s enough to inspire themselves to take action. You might even say that the less probable it is that you think Palpatine will intervene on your behalf, the more can that help you realize you have to do something yourself.

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Yeah, sorry, I’m being a bit obscure here - I just want to make sure that you understand how to assign probabilities based on hypotheses. I think you understand that there is a clear difference between the two statements above.

As to whether I’m “missing the point”, it turns out that I’m not, but I won’t be providing the full explanation until I write up the long post I mentioned earlier, from first principles.

To just go into it a tiny bit, the “first principle” here is Bayes’ law, and it turns out that assigning probabilities from hypotheses is THE key factor. So the “Palpatine vs Skywalker” thing is actually absolutely crucial.

But like I said, I’ll get to explaining all that in a later post - please be patient until then!

I don’t think it is crucial at all. The crucial point is not whether you or I find Palpatine an inspirational character. The crucial point is if someone does, can that motivate them to take action? And if it can, to what do we place any credit? Palpatine himself, or the people actually taking action?

That’s a probabilistic statement, no? “IF”?

Anyway, I’m afraid that assigning probabilities based on hypotheses IS in fact the critical point - this is not really up for discussion, unless you want to overturn the entirety of Bayesian thinking. Like I said, I’ll be explaining all this later, but here’s a blog post to maybe get you started:

The whole series goes on for 4 posts - I think it’ll be helpful to you!

Ahh okay, I see where you’re coming from now. I’m afraid you’ve lost track of what we were discussing, so let me clarify.

You seem to be trying to argue about how likely it is that some particular idea is going to inspire someone to even pray. Obviously there’s a reason people pray to the God of the religion they believe in, instead of other Gods, or comic book characters, or some rock outside on the ground.
And further still, I definitely agree that the perceived character of that which is being prayed to, obviously must have a very large effect on whether people are even going to bother praying. Clearly, if the people are genuinely convinced some entity is extremely selfish and unlikely to want to help anyone, they’re probably not going to bother. I definitely agree with you there.

But this is where my problem is, because that’s not really my point for engaging in this discussion.

The very thing that spawned my participation in this thread is that you said that “Now, it should be obvious that God mostly works through mechanisms 1-4.” But it is not at all obvious that God works through mechanisms 1-4. Not just is it not obvious that he does this “mostly”, it’s not obvious he does it in any way at all.
The difference between God existing, and God not existing for mechanisms 1-4 to have their observed level of efficacy, appears to be completely irrelevant. Because all that is required for “Someone who is praying feeling a conviction in their heart to materially help the person being prayed for” is for them to pray and have that experience. God is simply not present in that equation. Only the BELIEF IN God figures there. And then the actions people might then go and take are their own actions and responsibility, aren’t they? I detest this idea of giving God credit for the actions of human beings where God’s purported involvement is completely undetectable.

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Ah, now we’re actually getting into the weeds, where we actually have to write down some equations - again, I apologize for being obscure here, but the whole discussion that you touch on is going to be much longer, and will come in a separate post, as I mentioned before.

For the whole “Palpatine vs. Skywalker” thing, like I said I just wanted to make sure that you did understand how to assign probabilities based on hypotheses, because it actually is important - it forms the key factor in the equations that I’ll be writing down. I think that, if you can distinguish between Palpatine and Skywalker, you should also be able to distinguish between Palpatine and God. Beyond that, I don’t intend the whole “Palpatine vs. Skywalker” thing to have direct relevance to the God question.

Like I said the long post based on Bayes rule will come some time later - please be patient!

You intend to show, using Bayes’ theorem, that God is actually responsible for people’s own actions when they pray? Okay. I’ll be waiting.

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Yes that was highly irrelevant to my arguments. There is no doubt that medicines work (as long as there is high quality data showing efficacy), but it is irrelevant because the efficacy of a drug is independent of IP. If you have a headache and you are a Christian, you could choose to pray or not pray before you down an analgesic. It doesn’t matter whether you pray or not because analgesics have been shown to provide headache relief.

So if you are going to argue that IP prayers are answered when someone recovers after taking a drug, then you must provide data to show that that recovery was due to IP. This is what you have brilliantly failed to do. See the full quote:

This is highly irrelevant to my argument. The question is not whether medicines work, rather, its whether IP improves the clinical outcomes of patients. You have clearly missed this. Take a step back, go through the OP again and respond appropriately.

I will keep on pressing you to provide the necessary data to support your claim. If you don’t lay it out for all to see, then your claims remain vacuous. Spoiler alert: there isn’t any.

Its perfectly consistent David. I have consistently demanded you provide data to show that IP works alone or through any of the mechanisms you have listed, but you have consistently failed to comply with my demands.

No David, I perfectly understood what you meant by material help and I clearly stated that they were independent from IP, but you dear sir, have clearly misunderstood my demands here, which was to show me the rigorously derived figures supporting the efficacy of IP in clinical practice.

This is a bold claim. What scientific fact have I failed to acknowledge?

I stopped taking you seriously a long time ago. You brought with you an aquarium full of red herrings.

I would really love to see how you would spin the results of that article I linked. Even the author of that article reached a conclusion at odds with his own data. I suspect you have fallen into the same trap. Go on, take the plunge, I will do everything possible to get you out.


Oh, you’re still here? Look, I had perfectly reasonable conversations with multiple other people in this thread. But for you, like I said before, there are some basic steps you need to make further conversation possible.

Again, the three steps are the following:

First, acknowledge that you were not being self-consistent.
Second, acknowledge the simple scientific facts that I brought up earlier.
Third, acknowledge that you misunderstood “material help”, and re-read my first post with that in mind.

I hope you take these steps. The first of these form the basis for all other discussions that we could potentially have.

That’s it. I am done having this discussion with you, until you provide the evidence I need.


Coming back to this after some time.

Is it not plausible under mechanisms 1-4 that the ‘leaving it in God’s hands’ factor might be as likely to prompt human inaction?

Hey, didn’t notice this post here. But you make a really good point!

And, by the logic we’re using, if this really turned out to be the case, that would certainly be evidence against intercessory prayer, and against the probability of God’s existence. After all, we wouldn’t be able to say much in favor of IP or God, if prayer in fact had the opposite effect of what’s advertised in the Bible!

Conversely - and this is an important point, one that’s often missed by skeptics and atheists - if that turned out NOT to be the case, if prayer really worked as advertised through mechanisms 1-4, then that would be evidence FOR the effectiveness of prayer, and the FOR the existence of God. The two arguments are two halves of the same coin. And this is not really debatable. If A is evidence for H, ~A is evidence for ~H, as a straightforward application of Bayes’ rule.

And this is where I start to go into the long, full discussion that I kept alluding to throughout this whole thread. I’m afraid that I’ll have to push it off again, as I intend to write a full post about it on my blog. But just to get us started, we know that mechanism 4 (placebo effect) is positive and real. Again, we can keep our reservations about exactly how effective it is, but there’s no doubting that its primary effect is to make the patient feel better.

As for mechanisms 1-3, it’d be hard to argue that their net effect is negative - after all, almost every Christian has materially helped someone in response to prayer, probably just within the last month or so. There’s literally billions of such examples.

Of course, you can find counterexamples as well, where foolish Christians relied on God for a miracle and neglected to help their fellow humans. The world is big and there’s a lot of Christians out there, so someone, somewhere will say something silly, like claiming that they don’t need to wear a mask because God will protect them or something. But I’d say that such stories are clearly the exception, given that they’re set against the positive examples in the daily life of everyday Christians, and that the Bible clearly teaches against such thinking on numerous occasions.

So, yes, I agree that a negative consequence, through inaction or whatever other secondary effect, is certainly plausible. But I do not think it likely as a net effect; not remotely. And I’m willing to risk applying the results of this investigation onto my beliefs about God and the effectiveness of prayer. Again, given that there are literally billions of positive examples, and that I can spend hours writing out the examples that I have for myself personally, I do not think this is much of a risk.