Posts Tagged ‘miracle on the hudson’

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

TO GOD BE THE GLORY By the not-so-reverend bob.

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Five days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a baby was pulled alive from the rubble.  According to CBS News: “Her father knew it was a miracle, saying in French, “Grace of God.  Grace of God!”

At the end of the story we get the actual reasons for this baby’s survival:

“CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who helped treat Michelle, told Smith, “In pediatrics, we say children kind of tend to the extremes. They can get sick very quickly and really crash quickly, but they have amazing reserve and resiliency, and they can compensate for a long period of time. So, again, she was caught in an area where she didn’t sustain any crush injury, and she was able to actually survive not only the rubble, but not have severe dehydration, which is amazing.””

Amazing, yes.  Very near the edge, yes, yet still within the realm of the humanly possible.  But miraculous?

All we can say with any honesty based on the evidence is that blind chance and an impressive capacity for survival put this infant among the living as an enormous natural seismic event leveled cities and villages killing what looks to be nearly two hundred thousand people (the island of Haiti is on an active fault line and — as a geophysicist recently said — “That’s how you get islands”).
Our favorite national religious clown Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with the “Devil” to get out from under the French more than two hundred years ago (blithely ignoring the reality that we live on a cooling, active planet with a molten core.) .  This globe of ours has never required an external cause to rumble, erupt or storm.  And yet believers in the goodness of an all-powerful God are somehow able to assign credit to God for the “miracle” of the handful of survivors that will be rescued from this overwhelming human disaster without ever questioning how this same (supposedly) loving God wiped out the two-hundred-thousand Haitians (and who knows how many equally loved and deserving infants) that didn’t qualify for a miraculous survival!  (I think it was Christopher Hitchens who pointed out the obvious:  it is only the survivors that we hear proclaiming that their faith in God saved them — we hear nothing from the dead whose faith in God was, it would seem, of little help).

When Captain Sullenberger successfully ditched flight 1549 in the Hudson on January 15th of 2009, with no loss of life and only a few injuries among his one-hundred and fifty-five passengers, it was quickly dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson”.  I’m aware of no argument (at the time) with that moniker.  About a month later I got an e-mail from a friend containing a cartoon from Rex Babin of the Sacramento Bee (that was apparently then making the rounds on the web), showing the hands of God gently laying the aircraft on the water, like it were a toy he could so tenderly bring back to earth (suspending, one would assume, the natural laws of gravity, physics and aerodynamics for the “miracle”).


I sent my friend a one-sentence reply: “Where’s the cartoon for the plane that crashed in Buffalo?”  To which he replied: “What???”

For on February 12th (less than a month after the “Miracle on the Hudson”) Continental Flight 3407 fell from the sky (in icing conditions at night) on its approach to Buffalo International Airport.  All forty-nine passengers and crew were killed, along with one person on the ground.  Clearly, if the “Miracle on the Hudson” was proof of the grace of God, the complete loss of Flight 3407 must be taken as a judgement of God.  So who did God kill this time?  An historian and human rights advocate who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda;  and the widow of a Buffalo native who was killed in the September 11th attacks (the widow was on her way to both celebrate her dead husband’s 58th birthday and attend the presentation of a High School scholarship established in his honor).  In the latter’s case Pastor Robinson might say it was because she shook hands with President Obama (she’d been at the White House with other relatives of those killed in 9/11 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole).

I think in order to believe that God held up Flight 1549 with his saving hands, one has to believe that God used the finger of one of those hands to flick Flight 3407 out of the sky.  Or, at the very least, he stood by silent and still as the deadly ice built up on the wings of the commuter jet.  Take your pick.  (Neither speaks well of God’s character or temperament).

How does God, then, deserve credit for the disproportionate few that survive a disaster, but get a pass on the much greater numbers that do not?  Simply put, He doesn’t.

Here’s what really happened to those two flights:

According to the New York Times (the final NTSB report has not yet been issued):

“The airplane, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 with two turboprop engines and room for 74 passengers, is certified for flight into “known icing conditions.” But when the pilots change the shape of the wings, by moving the flaps or other controls, sometimes buildups of ice that were not a factor in an earlier configuration are suddenly exposed to the passing wind and make the plane uncontrollable.”

And so the crew of this plane with ice already building on the wings and windshield (and no assurance that the de-icing boots were functioning properly even though they were turned “on”) dropped flaps and gear on approach and found themselves losing control of a wildly bucking aircraft that soon fell from the sky on an occupied house near Buffalo.

And (according to Wikipedia,) here’s what really saved Flight 1549 or “The Miracle on the Hudson” (as set forth in the citation from The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators as they awarded the entire flight crew a Master’s Medal on January 22, 2009):

“The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was ‘text book’ and an example to us all. To have safely executed this emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement. It deserves the immediate recognition that has today been given by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.”

Note that the people that actually know flying correctly called the actions of the crew “heroic and unique”.  That is a truthful statement well deserved.  Notice that there is no mention of any miraculous suspension of the laws that govern flight.

I might be less averse to our irrational impulse to give credit to God (who — should he by some miracle actually exist — isn’t really earning it) if in that action we weren’t taking credit away from real humans that really do deserve it.  To add to that injury, we dismiss the suffering of innumerable others by writing off the deaths of their loved ones as an “act of God” (or the Devil — same difference).  How can we sit in front of a television and ignore the giant tomb of Haiti as we get giddy with the goodness of God for one infant that was in just the right place (and personally tough enough) to survive being buried alive?  Why not rather honor that tough and tenacious kid?

I would do nothing to diminish the joy of that infant’s father at her rescue.  But neither would I do anything to increase the suffering of thousands of others who will not see their friends and loved ones again.  Attributing natural disaster to divine causes is a ludicrous insult to real and present human grief.  It is callous and cowardly.  It is also factually false.  We have to stop letting such mindless pronouncements go unchallenged.

Living as we do on the planet earth, it is never a question of “if” but merely “when” the next earthquake, tsunami, tornado or airplane crash will occur.  Stuff happens, and it is our fellow humans that will both suffer the loss and come to the rescue.  Irrational and superstitious belief in spiritual causes of natural events only gets in the way of responding as caring human beings (and worse, doesn’t really do anyone any good).

Give me a warm human hand reaching out to really help me over an entire Church bowed in prayer any day.

We may be convinced that we are the believers in the one, true God, and are not among the credulous that occupy the dark corners of the globe (and who are absolute fools to believe the weird stuff that they do).  But that’s what they think about us as well!  (if you had no previous knowledge of religion and were given the task of deciding which religion was “true”, on what evidence could you make your decision?  Number of adherents?  Who has their prayers answered more often?   Who has the most “miracles”?  Who has the best hymns?)

If tomorrow the magma heaving beneath Yellowstone were to erupt into another “super-volcano” (it’s happened before), there would be cheers from billions of Muslims at God’s just and righteous punishment of America  (attributing another purely natural event to cosmic forces).  Pat Robertson would also find a divine cause, no doubt.  (According to the USGS — by the way — we needn’t worry too much about Yellowstone exploding soon).

Ignorance of history and the sciences leaves us ever susceptible to cosmic bullshit from the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design to the (literal) hands of God taking time out of his busy day (watching over millions dying from starvation, disease and disaster) to gently set a bird-strike crippled jet full of terrified people down upon the Hudson River.

To God be the glory, indeed, for the things he hasn’t done.

In the meantime let’s not waste our breath on prayers and praise that do nothing practical to relieve human suffering.  Here are some practical ways to help:

The World Food Program

The American Red Cross

Non-Believers Giving Aid
bob bless