Retroactive Prayer

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Belief Seeking Understanding asks Are Retroactive Prayer Requests Well-Formed? Normally, I would just have answered in his comments, but they seem to be disabled. Douglas seems more inclined toward a negative answer. He says:

Suppose you go to the doctor, and the doctor says "Well, based on everything I know at this point, you either have x or y. X is somewhat of an inconvenience, but y is significantly more serious." Is it foolish to pray "Please God, let it be x and not y?" If y is the consequence of a lifetime of choices, isn't praying such a prayer functionally equivalent to asking God to zap you into some alternate parallel universe where you had x, from another one where you had y?

Then he anticipates my first thought, which was that he was ignoring God's timelessness:

Don't get me wrong, the God of the Bible openly declares that He doesn't live in time but in eternity, and that He is awesome in miracles and working wonders. But on the other hand, it seems to be part of His program that we experience the consequences of our choices.

First, this isn't just about experiencing the consequences of our choices. That's a real issue for prayer regardless of the retroactive element. A friend of mine plagiarized and then had a disciplinary hearing. He didn't know what to pray for, because he knew he deserved bad consequences for it. At the same time, we often pray for things we don't deserve, asking for God's grace. Is that wrong? Even apart from grace, though, we can't ignore all the prayers that have nothing to do with the consequences of our actions. Am I ignoring the consequences of my actions if I pray that my language-delayed son will begin learning to speak more? Am I ignoring the consequences of my actions if I pray that a sermon will speak to me in ways that I need to hear God's voice? Am I ignoring the consequences of my actions if I pray for someone's salvation? The answer has got to be at least "not necessarily". That makes it at least open that retroactive prayers can also be about things that have little to do with the consequences of our actions, even if you don't keep in mind that sometimes praying for grace is just fine.

Second, divine atemporality gives us all we need to understand what's going on with retroactive prayer. If God is not limited to time, then the past for us is just as present for God as our present is. That means God's actions in our past are simultaneous with our prayers as far as God is concerned. If God doesn't need to wait until we pray to know of our prayer, then why is God limited to answering prayers that haven't yet been prayed? For that matter, you don't even need to believe God is outside time to accept this. All that matters is that God has foreknowledge of your prayer. As long as you don't know whether the prayer has been answered, it makes complete sense to pray for something that's already happened.

The problem with the parallel universe statement is that it assumes you're not in the universe where the prayer is answered the way you want. You may well be in the universe with the inconvenient thing rather than the significantly more serious thing. In fact, if God has answered your prayer, then you are. So God wouldn't have to move you to the parallel universe to answer your prayer in that case.

Ah, but isn't it then not worth praying because your prayer has already been answered? Not really. It may well be that the prayer has already been answered because you're now praying. If the reason the prayer is answered is because you do it, then if you didn't do it God might not answer it. It's hard to think about possibility in these cases, mostly because we're thinking of what's possible given something we're stipulating about the past, but we don't normally think in those terms. The same sort of argument about the future is obviously fallacious. There's some fact about what shirt I'm going to wear tomorrow. The fact that the shirt I will wear tomorrow is already there on me in the future does not make my choice to wear it unfree. The reason we don't care about that fact about the future is because for us it's future.

With backward causation and time travel, our view of the situation gets messed with, but the same principles are there. Let's look at time travel first, and then I'll show how the retroactive prayer case comes out ok. If I travel back in time to kill someone whose death would prevent me existing (e.g. my great-grandfather), it just obviously won't work out that way. The reason it won't is because I turned out to exist. That means I didn't end up killing that person. Is it possible for me to kill him when I'm there in that time with the gun loaded and pointed at him? It's possible with respect to the situation at hand. It's possible with respect to the laws of physics and the physical facts of that moment in spacetime. It's not possible, however, with respect to what's already the case about my past. I in fact came to exist because this guy didn't get killed by me. That means I can't really kill him in that sense.

In most situations we'd be fine saying I could kill him even if I turned out not to. That's because all the facts about my not killing him are about the future. In the time travel case, the one fact that makes us think it's impossible is still about the future, but in this case it's also about my past. That's why we have a harder time ignoring this fact about the future the way we do with decisions about what shirt to wear when there's already a fact about what shirt we'll pick. In both cases there's a fact, and given its truth we can't dso otherwise than we will do. Usually we're right to ignore the future when it comes to what we think is possible. In time travel, it's future but past to us, so we have a harder time ignoring it. If we could psycxholgically get over that, we'd realize that I'm as free in the time travel case as in my shirt case.

So what about retroactive prayer? That's got some features in common with time travel and some very different. The thing in common is that some piece of information tells us what will happen, if we happen to know it. The biggest difference is that we don't know it when praying, whereas time traveler me knows his past. So this element of the retroactive prayer case is more like my choice to wear a certain shirt. I don't know which I'll wear when I have the choice to make, just as I don't know if my prayer was granted when I pray retroactively.

Is it possible for my prayer to be answered positively given that the negative answer is true? No. Is it possible for my prayer to be answered ignoring any information about whether the positive answer happened already? Yes. The question is whether it's proper to ignore information about the past if you don't know it. Normally, we assume the past is irrevocable and thus don't try to do something that might change it, simply because we can't. But what if our prayer can genuinely lead to a past decision on God's part? Then it seems it is indeed proper to ignore that there might be facts about the past for the same reason it's proper to avoid facts about the future. What makes it come out the way it did/will hasn't happened yet.

So I have no problem with the idea of retroactive prayer, given that we don't know what has already happened. The arguments against it seem to have the same problems as fatalistic arguments that we can't change the future and thus have no freedom to do anything. This means a sort of backward causation is possible (and indeed, if I'm right, happens all the time). It also means prayer can be much more efficacious than most people have even considered.

For further argument along these lines, see Michael Dummett, "Bringing About the Past", from The Philosophical Review 73 (1964), pp.338-359 and David Lewis, "The Paradoxes of Time Travel", from American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976), pp.145-152. Both papers are reprinted as chapters 7 and 8 in The Philosophy of Time, ed. Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath (1993 in the Oxford Readings in Philosophy series. These are absolutely the best two papers in the philosophy of time. Lewis' is the best time travel discussion in existence, and Dummett's is the best defense of backward causation ever published, though it argues only for a divine route of backward causation and nothing about quantum mechanics, which some more recent authors have tried to do.

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TrackBack URL for this entry: http://movabletype.ektopos.com/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/146

Today, Parableman's reflection on Belief Seeking Understanding's pondering whether or not retroactive prayer is well-formed caught my attention. In his post, Jeremy walks very ably through the philosophical underpinnings about prayer, God's actions a... Read More

More On Retroactive Prayer Requests from Belief Seeking Understanding on February 26, 2005 4:42 AM

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7 Comments

One of my favorite biblical verses and one that use for "retroactive" prayer is "Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear." Isaiah 65:24

I have prayed for years for my brother who died in Vietnam in 1969 salvation. I pray that God heard my prayer all those years ago before I prayed it all those years after.

I may be wrong, but I don't think I am, not that my prayer will cause anyone's salvation, but I still pray the prayer.

Hello Jeremy!

I have been besieged with comment and trackback spam, but I'm delighted for the consideration you have given my post, because it shows it wasn't a stupid or trivial question.

Bob Wilhite said "God can, God will, and I'm going to pray until He does."

So Jeremy, what about this: does it make sense to pray for things that have already occured? I mean petitionary prayer here, not merely thanking God for his provision. You write:

"As long as you don't know whether the prayer has been answered, it makes complete sense to pray for something that's already happened."

So suppose the reason that God parted the Red Sea 2500 years ago is because a group of us in 2005 got together and prayed for his salvation of the Hebrew people. This keeps a backward causation and does not require that the past change. So this seems possible right?

Of course, the next question is why we would want to do this. After all, it's already happened, right? Short answer: hell if I know. Petitionary prayer has me more confused than anything in my Christian walk. Being a philosophy TA doesn't help much either.

The real reason there's not much point to it if you already know it occurred is because it's not on your heart to pray. You're not really making a request for something you wish if you know how it turns out.

If we accept the quantum view of the universe, including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, praying for an outcome that must have already occured by now -- but that we don't know the answer to -- isn't necessarily a "retroactive" prayer.

According to quantum theory, some things that we don't know about exist in an undecided state until we find out about them. Our observation collapses the waveform that permits one alternative or the other actually to be true. So rather than asking God to change something in the past, maybe we're asking Him to collapse the waveform in our favor!

That could account for some things, but most wave functions have collapsed at the macro-level long before I find out about them. For instance I might pray that my son will have gotten home from school all right, and my prayer might be after it has already happened, even if I'm not home yet to know about it. The relevant wave functions would have collapsed by then, though, because he himself would know it, as would the bus driver, my wife, and anyone else who interactes with him or observes the bus stopping at my house.

There are other factors that make me hesitate to make a lot of this. Observation in a quantum mechanical sense doesn't require a human observer. According to this interpretation, the wave function collapses when certain physical goings-on that we call observation or measurement happen. Other interpretations exist anyway, and according to one of them the period of indeterminacy is extremely short, with the wave functions collapsing immediately. Some say that the macroscopic world is fully deterministic, even if the micro-world has these indeterminacies. They just don't amount to a real difference at the macro-level, since any wave functions that would collapse before they get a chance to make a macroscopic difference. All the currently existing interpretations are inconsistent with the equations anyway, according to the professor who taught me philosophy of science, so we shouldn't trust any of them at this point.

I had another thought earlier in Borders today. It occured to me that I know that my sins have been atoned for since before the foundation of the world. That means that once I became a believer, I received forgiveness for all of my sins - past, present, and future.

However with this knowledge in full, I yet still ask God for forgiveness when I commit a sin.

My point is that my prayers for forgiveness were answered in long before I even made the request. Yet it was in response to the request that my PR was answered ... Aaaay ?

Raj


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