Saturday, 23 October 2010

A blog post from 2020

You may note the date of this blog post is in the future. I've done this because I want to talk about a universe that is different from this one in some respect but with the impression that, for all I know, this universe could become that one. My point is that I believe the universe I am about to present to be a consistent one, one which is not logically contradictory. This universe I dont think will come about, but if it did, I hope this is how I would react.

Intercessory prayers

Ok, you've all read endless ill-informed and idiotic articles. Here is what's happened, why this is potentially the most important discovery in the history of mankind and what we need to do about it.

The experiment is an incredible piece of work. Dozens independent experiments up and down the US and Europe each with a hundred prayed for and a hundred control pupils doing the same exam. Ben Goldacre has gone over the statistics far better than I could have and he's fairly sure this is not a fluke. Now clearly this is far from guaranteed, and we need to expand these experiments in ways I will detail below. But for now, I'd really like to stress that as repugnant as the metaphysical claims may be to many (including me) the result of this experiment is a true fact about the world. Prayer (so far we know only about protestant prayer but more later) has a positive effect on exam results, even if the pupil has been properly excluded from any knowledge about whether the prayer is happening. For now I'd like to take as read that this experiment will continue and that the result will come out the same way, if not I shall be deeply disappointed, but that bridge must be crossed then.

Now, why is this important. One of the many experiments I feel is the most significant, that is the Utah experiment. A priori there are two possible mechanisms for making exam results better, firstly you could make the exam easier (obviously the two kinds of pupils sat the same paper, but you could imagine making the examiner mark more generously), or secondly you could make the pupils objectively do better. Now it seems that the Utah experiment suggests which way this will go. The Utah experiment took 200 pupils from various schools doing a general science exam, this exam was largely multiple choice so there was, for the larger part, no human examiner, the test was marked by computer. And they produce the same result as the bulk of the experiments, which suggest that prayer isn't cheating, the mechanism is to give the pupils a definite skill. Now this is perhaps the most important part of the entire result.

If the result had merely provided a new way to cheat in tests it would have been interesting, and certainly the fundamental physical questions would have been profound. But it wouldn't have had such immediate applications. But this has shown that you can give people positive skill from afar in a novel way. And so here is my list of what I suggest humanity does.

For a start, I am going to invest the larger part of the wealth from my international porn empire in setting up a new Chair of Practical Divinity at Cambridge University, I'll need to raise a lot more money in order to hire the few hundred graduate students needed to break open a wholly new branch of science, but hopefully such donations shouldn't be too hard to come by.

We should do follow up studies to answer the long list of questions this raises.

Is the effect permanent or one time only? Follow up the pupils from the first experiment, does it boost their grades in the long run. For the sake of the result we need to keep who was in which group a secret no matter how hard parents may press us to prove that their kid didn't get the extra help he needed.

Is the effect transferable? I suggest we start with doctors and air-traffic controllers and then move on to every profession where a boost in skill would make humanity more productive or more safe.

What's the best way to pray? One area where the original experiments were sadly lacking was diversity. We need to get more religions involved. Does prayer work better in Latin or English? Do you need to invoke the name of a god or gods to make it work most effectively? If so which one(s)? If not is the act of thinking about someone enough to work or do you need to verbalise a request? Does it have to be a person, can a robot pray? Can you automate prayer? If humanity becoming powerful required a lot of human sitting around talking that would be disappointing, but the alternatives are incredible. The whole sphere of experimental theology is wide open for fundamental results.

What else can prayer do? If prayer just boosts skill that is impressive enough, and there's a lot of neurological work that needs to be done with it. But if prayer can result in goal-orientated changes in the world then it is conceivable that the resultant power could be unlimited. I mean this quite literally, we can imagine that prayer could be so powerful that there could be literally no bound on it, any imaginable future could have a non-neglegable probability. So, we need to investigate the mechanics, starting with simple questions: can prayer lift weights? Many pray for their plane not to crash, it seems pretty reasonable that they might succeed and if so why cant you lift weights that aren't planes? If we can then can prayer violate the conservation of energy? Can we Can we move things great distances? Can we change things from afar?

Towards the more speculative end. Can we cure illness? Can we go the full way and cure death? And if death is to end it would be nice if we could keep the universe in a decent state of affairs. … It almost seems blasphemous, but we need to reconsider the second law of thermodynamics.

And of course there are boring metaphysical questions. Can we identify the power of prayer with a being, if so can we communicate ideas rather than requests? That would make academia a lot easier. Is this power limited to certain types of people? Is this thought of by the power as a gift to us, only to be given to people it approves of? If so we need to rearrange our ways of doing things.

I'm fairly sure there has not been a more exciting time to be alive. There is so much work for us to do, and so much power at our disposal.

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