Thursday, December 6, 2012


 A few weeks ago I wrote about the sharp shooter logical fallacy (counting hits, ignoring misses), and how people will often apply this to the efficacy of prayer. Well, today I came across another example of this from my own mother as she explained how blessed she is to have a son serving a Mormon mission. I am not interested in completely destroying her argument (which, honestly seems to be pretty unrelated to my younger brother's mission), but I will explain how one of her examples of being blessed is a broader example of a sharp shooter fallacy.

According to my mother: "[Taylor] was able to go 6 weeks early because his Visa came through early. In a recent letter Taylor said that only ONE Elder arrived in the Brasil MTC, the day Taylor originally was scheduled, November 28th. That is because of the Storm (Sandy) that was on the East Coast. Taylor said the storm closed a major consulate office,making it harder to get Visa, so many Elders had to go to the Provo MTC instead of the Brazil MTC. That would very likely have included Taylor."

Now, my brother is the youngest of my mother's 5 sons, and all of us served missions. My youngest brother is the only one of us who left early, narrowly escaping the horrific fate of having to wait a little while. What if the rest of us had had to wait--would this have been a sign of God's contempt for us?

It is obvious that my mother sees this as a blessing, but what of the mothers of the other missionaries who had to wait to go to Brazil? Does this mean God does not care for them as much as my brother, or is at least arbitrarily withholding blessings from them?

What would my mother say if my brother had had to wait with the others in the Provo MTC? Perhaps it would have been a blessing in disguise, which opened doors he would have missed had he gone straight to Brazil. Maybe the blessings of going to Provo instead of Brazil would be greater, in which case my brother would be the one who missed out. Would this prove God loved the other missionaries more than my brother?

I can take this further than mere conjecture, as one of my closest friends found himself in this very position on 9/11, as he had to wait some time before going to the exact same mission as my brother. And what did he say about having to wait? Well, pretty much what I said above--it was a blessing in disguise (he also admitted it was kind of annoying).

I recall several instances, usually at church, where people have said things like, "There are miracles all around us, you just have to look for them." I understand the positive effect this way of thinking can have on a person's attitude and general outlook on life, but how is attributing things to God, which could easily be coincidence, any different than seeing what you want to see? Without explaining how God actually suspended the natural order on your behalf, how can you definitively say, "God did it?"

And aren't miracles supposed to be more than just mundane or even significant happenstance? I thought Jesus healed the sick, walked on water, and raised the dead--all of which are claimed by religious people today! Miracles are supposed to be supernatural. If an unlikely thing occurs, like, say, winning the lottery, is it a miracle? No! Unlikely things do not need divine intervention--they just need time, as the laws of probability tell us.

Going back to the example of my brother, it was rather lucky of him to leave when he did, but I see no reason to think it was divinely arranged--some times people just have things go in their favor. In fact, it would be more remarkable to me if not a single person had some stroke of luck out of the whole experience. It would also be more improbable for unlikely things to never happen; so, would a lack of anything unusual, lucky or unlikely ever occurring for a single person mean God is making it so?


Here is Richard Dawkins using probability to show how coincidences are meaningless:

Here is a video of a guy who left the Mormon Church, in part because he realized God failed to perform miracles as promised (the opposite of the sharp shooter fallacy):

(and this was going to be a quick post....)

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