The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
Hi all, Seth Kurtenbach here. A year ago, I made a dramatic shift in my academic pathway. As an undergrad I double majored in English and philosophy, and last summer I finished up my Master’s degree in philosophy. As a result of some scheming, finagling, kicking, screaming, and suave convincing, I transferred over to the computer science PhD programming. Never having taken a computer science course, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I decided to try a bold approach: Faith-based programming.
Software is a weird sort of thing. We often use it as an analogy for thinking about the mind/body problem in philosophy. The brain is thought of as the hardware, and the mind is like software. We might be tempted to think of software as something non-physical. The same program can exist on multiple machines at the same time, and this is really weird. It doesn’t really feel physical.
So I did an experiment. I figured, hey, all these Christian Scientists bet their kids’ lives on methodological naturalism being sort of not useful all the time. What could it hurt to see if prayer could work for this other domain?
My first assignment in computer science was to write a program in C. I had absolutely no knowledge of C. Rather than reading a book about C, I just prayed deeply about it. I even fasted. I prayed to as many gods I could think of and sincerely apologized for praying to what must be false gods (if one of my prayers hit home).
I got a 20% on the first assignment. Those fucking gods didn’t do shit. The 20% was the result of the TA generously imposing a minimum grade on the assignment, since I did in fact turn in what could charitably be considered an “attempt”.
Why didn’t faith-based programming work? The TA’s computer downloaded my assignment, and upon reading the file it put the computer’s physical memory into a certain state. The state was a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, ultimately representing high voltage or low voltage pulses coursing through a huge series of circuits. Those 1’s and 0’s encoded my assignment. Why couldn’t a divine being just sort of fiddle with them a little bit so that they were in the state encoding a correctly completed assignment?
Well, one could have, in the same sense that a divine being could just sort of change the state of a sick child’s cells: it could just sort of zap the viruses, or bacteria, or whatever, out of the cells. Methodological naturalism rules out this sort of procedure for manipulating nature, and it rules out these sorts of explanations for when a child’s cells do change. If we want to change the child’s cells, we try to do it with chemicals, or other naturalistic things that have some sort of mechanistic effect on the world.
Things are just the same for the software. If I wanted to put my TA’s computer in a state encoding a correct and complete assignment, I should have learned C, learned how the data structures work, and written a program that puts a computer in such a state by manipulating the circuits of its physical memory. Even though it seems non-physical, because we feel like we are casting spells or something when we write the program, there is a completely mechanistic process that occurs relating the text to the hardware, affecting the computer’s state.
Anyone who hears of my experiment will probably think, “Of course it didn’t work, you idiot! You didn’t do the assignment!” I’ll bet Christian Scientists and other rejecters of methodological naturalism would even respond this way. That’s because in most areas of our lives, people accept methodological naturalism as the way to go. For some reason, people sometimes relax methodological naturalism and go with supernaturalism in some domains, like matters pertaining to health, the mind, and various problems in their lives.
So while I am grateful that most religious people do not reject methodological naturalism when it comes to their children’s health, I think they engage in the same underlying thinking error, when they pray for God to affect changes in the world that will benefit them or their loved ones.
Praying for a supernatural being to change the state of the world in your favor is no different from my praying to a supernatural being to change the state of my TA’s computer in my favor. The only way to affect changes in the world is to devise and execute a mechanistic procedure to make those changes a reality. The things that make changes are ultimately physical, and ultimately adhere to the laws of nature.
If my faith-based programming experiment was silly, then so is your faith-based world-altering experiment.