The Pascal’s Wager Insurance Company

[Just to end the week on a light note, here's a post from the old blog, originally published January 12, 2010.]

I was just thinking: suppose we made financial decisions the way some people would have us make decisions about our souls…

Monday

[Phone ringing]

Hello?

Hi, my name is Morgan, and I’m from the Pascal’s Wager Insurance Company. Do you believe in giant tarantulas 30 feet tall?

Well, no, not really.

What about 50, or even 60 feet tall?

Never really thought about it, actu—

Ever think what one of those things would do if it stepped on your house?

Oh, I don’t

How much would you say your house is worth right now? Just roughly, including all the contents and valuables and other things that would be DESTROYED if they got stepped on by a 60-foot-tall giant tarantula. Don’t forget the car or cars in your garage, too. Would you say about $200,000? $400,000? Half a million dollars? Imagine what it would take to replace your valuable house and possessions if they were stepped on by a giant tarantula. Could you afford to replace it all, instantly?

But there’s no such thing as—

Sir, sir, let’s be honest, nobody knows everything, right?

Well, I—

YOU PERSONALLY do not know everything, right?

Heh, no, not hardly. But I—

In this vast universe of ours, there could be countless worlds we would never see or hear about where giant tarantulas might exist.

Well, if you put it that way, I suppose it might be—

So there MIGHT be giant tarantulas that you don’t know about, right?

I suppose there COULD be some kind of alien—

So giant tarangulas COULD exist. Now sir, all I’m asking you to do is to make a simple risk assessment. Even though you don’t believe there are giant tarantulas, the cost to you if they DO exist could be very high. Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of dollars. Money you don’t have and can’t afford to lose. That’s why we’re offering, right now, for only $75 a month, our very special Stepped On By Giant Tarantulas homeowner’s policy.

Well, I

That’s only $75 a month. Practically nothing at all. If I’m wrong, and no giant tarantula ever steps on your home, then you won’t even miss it. But if I’m right, and your house DOES get stepped on, you could be facing financial disaster. Financial ruin! And living out of a cardboard box, too! A crushed cardboard box, with spider footprints on it. What do you say, sir? Will you do the prudent thing and accept one of our policies?

Well, it IS practically nothing, and the consequences if I’m wrong… [shudder]. How do I sign up?

[boring business discussion snipped.]

Thank you so much, sir. You’ll never be sorry as long as you remember what the risks are, and how much protection you’re getting for practically nothing. Have a nice day.

Thanks, you too.

[*click*]

Tuesday

[Phone ringing]

Hello?

Hello again, sir. It’s Morgan from Pascal’s Wager Insurance Company. Do you believe in giant, carnivorous underground worms more than 100 feet long?

Uhhhhhh…

Explanation vs Rationalization

One of the chief obstacles to understanding is the unavoidable human habit of rationalization. We tend to favor some beliefs, and to resist others, and have a natural tendency to explain away any evidence that leads to conclusions we don’t like. What’s even worse is that most of the time we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. Fortunately there’s a simple rule of thumb that can help us easily separate rationalizations from legitimate explanations.

In a genuine explanation, we describe something in sufficient detail that we can tell what specific, observable consequences would result from our claim being true, as distinct from the consequences that would result if our claim were not true. This makes our explanation testable: since we know what real-world consequences correspond to our explanation being true, we can simply observe the real world and see if those consequences are, in fact, present.

A genuine explanation, in other words, is a tool that helps us distinguish what’s true from what’s not true. Rationalization, on the other hand, has the opposite goal. The purpose of rationalization is to prevent us from telling the difference between a premise that’s true and one that isn’t. The rationalization takes a desired premise, and the observable evidence, and then throws in speculations and supposed extenuating circumstances designed for the sole purpose of making essentially any observed outcome seem consistent with the premise.

[Read more...]

Gospel Disproof #6: Satan

One of the most noticeable flaws in the Gospel story is God’s obvious Superman problem: if the hero is both invulnerable and unstoppable, how do you find anyone stupid enough to oppose him? Too many super powers make your hero “super”-ficial. There’s no drama (and thus no realism) because prospective bad guys haven’t really got a chance.

In monotheistic theology, the problem is even worse. If there’s only one God, and He’s both perfect and omnipotent, then the religion loses its ability to explain the existence of evil. If God can do anything, and if He would oppose evil, then evil cannot exist. But evil does exist, a fact that can neither be denied nor reconciled with a monotheistic God alone.

From such necessities, Satan is born. He is created, not by a perfect God, but by the narrative demands of the story. We can tell he’s a made-up character because what little we know about him reveals him as a shallow, two-dimensional character contrived specifically to supply God with a suitably threatening adversary. His nature and his personality are defined for him by the role in which he has been cast, and he never strays from that role. How could he? He’s just a character in a story!

For instance, Satan is supposed to be smart. Not just a little smart, but blindingly brilliant, more intelligent and experienced and cunning than any human who ever lived (which oddly enough does not stop ordinary believers from thinking they’ve been out-smarting him on a regular basis for years). So if he’s so smart, why doesn’t he realized that opposing God is self-destructively stupid? Here you are facing an omnipotent and omniscient Deity Who can turn you into dog food just by saying “Alpo.” You’re going to fight that? Duh.

But Satan is going to oppose God. No matter what a real person would do in Satan’s place, his narrative role requires him to be God’s adversary—at whatever cost to himself—and so God’s adversary he will be. He’s not intelligently selfish enough to value self-preservation, because if he were genuinely selfish, he’d realize there were more productive outlets for his talents than wasting them on a futile attempt to undo reality. A real Satan would be too smart to take the role the Gospel wants to hand him.

Or what about his perverse delight in evil? Again, narrative necessity overrides the constraints of ordinary realism. The story demands that Satan hate what is good and love what is evil, no matter how bizarre and unmotivated such affections would be in real life. Ok, so suppose Satan really does live by a value system that is the exact converse of God’s. Should he not, then, seek to lose the battle, to fail in his evil schemes, to behave stupidly and self-destructively, in order to avoid such good things as satisfaction and accomplishment and victory? Evil for the sake of evil ends up imploding from self-contradiction—even super villains have to pursue goals that are “good” as seen from some perspective.

Try as he might, Satan cannot escape the unrealistic and even contradictory requirements that his role forces upon him. The result is a cartoony, shallow charade, a caricature of what a villain ought to be, an unwilling straight man for the hero’s witty jibes. His motivations make no sense. His actions serve no real purpose, not even for himself. He exists purely as a plot device, someone for the Good Guy to be victorious over.

Granted, you can improve on the Gospel’s nemesis. Imaginative believers can take that role and embellish it, though each new storyteller will create a new devil, drawing from their own imaginations and cultural background in order to improve the tale. (Ever notice how the most realistic demons are the ones least suited to the role the Gospel would like to put them in?) But if you go back to the sources, if you go back to the Scriptures themselves, you find only the hollow, monomaniacal stock character, as immutable as he is impossible.

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Creationists blame evolution for poor US science showing

Writing in a guest column for dnj.com, a certain Ned Myers blames Charles Darwin for Americans’ poor scientific literacy.

…American public school students place 23rd in scientific literacy when compared to 34 other developed nations.

A strong case can be made that one reason for this poor showing is that we teach evolution as science. Webster’s dictionary defines science as, “Knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” Macro evolution, whereby one species evolves into another, falls short of this definition. Evolution cannot be considered a general truth because it cannot be experimentally tested or proven by using scientific methods.

Hmm, chicken and egg problem here: is Myers’s scientific illiteracy due to his study of evolution, or are his conclusions about evolution due to his scientific illiteracy? He blames scientific illiteracy on the fact that evolution is taught as science, but then leaps straight from there into a laundry-list recital of standard creationist talking points about why evolution must be false. Not only does he fail to show any connection between evolution and the illiteracy level, he fails to even try.

I mean, suppose it were true, suppose evolutionists like Richard Dawkins were scientifically illiterate, and only “scientists” like Jonathan Wells (cited in the article) were scientifically literate. Myers is “up” on all the creationist literature. He’s done his homework. He ought to be scientifically literate by now. So shouldn’t he realize that his claim (evolution causes scientific illiteracy) needs to be supported by valid studies? Shouldn’t he be conducting (or at least citing) studies that compare students of creationism with students of evolution (plus a neutral control group of, say, physics students) to see which population scored higher on scientific literacy tests?

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First Amendment? FL Lt. Gov has better idea

Speaking at a so-called “Faith and Freedom Coalition” rally, Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll is unhappy that people in America are allowed to say mean things about Christianity and to enjoy a secular government.

“You know the Bible says faith is believing in what is not seen. Today unfortunately, many in the media would like nothing better than to ridicule Christians,” Carroll lamented.

“They promote ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ they place doubt in the public’s mind that Christ was not risen, and they condemn the ‘Passion of Christ’ yet they sensationalize stories that call for the end of prayer in school and removing the name of God from our countries pledge.”

Stupid freedom of speech. Stupid freedom of religion. Why can’t the government just say that Jesus is Lord, and anyone who disagrees can go to hell (after life imprisonment, of course)?

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Archbishop defies president, society

Bit late, but I wanted to comment on this one. According to USATODAY.com, Archbishop Timothy Nolan (Grand Wizard head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) is putting pressure on President Obama to try and stop his senseless rush towards tolerance and civil rights for gays.

Dolan said the bishops are especially upset that the administration and opponents of DOMA are framing their argument as a civil rights issue, which he said equates “opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination.”

Right, because framing is something that only conservatives are allowed to do, for example by pretending to “defend marriage” and by refusing to address gay marriage as anything other than an attempt to “redefine” it.

Why can’t Catholic archbishops tell the truth about what they hate and what they’re doing to try and stop it? Simple: the Church is using sex to sustain Christianity, and they’re scared to death of losing control of it. That’s why they always refer to THEIR definition of marriage as THE definition of marriage. As soon as there’s any competition for the Catholic definition of marriage, the Church loses an important competitive advantage. They’ve spent literally thousands of years training people to assume that the Church controls their access to sexual fulfillment, and that only the church can provide them with a legitimate outlet for their sexual desires, through the “sacrament” of marriage. Break this monopoly, and disaster ensues, because without the threat of sexual frustration, what’s left to draw people into the faith? The Holy Spirit? Gimme a break!

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Shooting your own horse

There seems to be a new debating tactic among adversaries of the New Atheists, and one Colin Tudge gives us a good example.

Richard Dawkins has no sense of irony. He rails endlessly against fundamentalists yet he defends old-fashioned, Thomas Gradgrind-style materialism as zealously as the Mid-West Creationists defend the literal truth of Genesis. He accuses others of misrepresentation yet he seriously misrepresents religion. Also, which is irony writ large, he misrepresents science, in whose name he is assumed to speak. He condemns the Catholics for filling the heads of children with a particular view of life before they have had a chance to think for themselves – and now, in The Magic of Reality, written for readers as young as nine, he has done precisely that. As somebody said of Miss Jean Brodie, it’s time he was put a stop to.

Sounds like a pretty spirited opposition, right? Full frontal assault, reinforced by famous people (or famous names at least) like Spinoza and Schrödinger, and appeals to both modern science and modern theology. And then there’s this.

Religions do not depend upon their myths and miracles. They are there as illustrations.

Bam.  You’re coming around the first turn, the crowd is cheering, you’re ready to make your big move to overtake the leader, and you pull out a large revolver and shoot your own horse dead. True religion, you see, is religion without the supernatural. All those myths and miracles and such are merely illustrations, not meant to be taken literally. To understand why Dawkins is wrong, you have to understand Christmas without the Virgin Birth and the Nativity story, Easter without the Resurrection, Christianity without Christ. Then you’ll see why Dawkins’ criticisms are off base.

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Gospel Disproofs #4 & #5: Heaven and the Ascension

One of the oldest myths in the Bible is the idea of heaven, the abode of God, as a physical place up in the sky over Palestine. Genesis 1 kicks off the myth by describing the creation of the heavens along with the creation of the earth, with a “firmament” between the two. The fact that this heaven was intended as a physical place is seen in the fact that it holds water and has doors in it, which can be shut to stop any of the water from falling as rain, or opened to make it rain, or opened really wide to make it flood. And if He’s in a good mood, God can even open these doors and drop a little food down for his hungry followers. Not metaphorical food, either—real food you can gather and eat and live on for forty years (or so Exodus claims).

Numerous passages attest to heaven’s physical location as being up above the earth. From heaven, God looks down on men, and when men want to turn to God (usually to ask Him for something) they turn their attention up to heaven. Up there is where the angels are too, and when God sends one or more of them, He sends them down to the earth. In fact, Jacob (aka Israel) happened to stumble upon the very spot where the gateway to heaven was, and in a dream he saw the actual ladder between earth and heaven, with angels ascending and descending it. A very few lucky people even made the trip up to heaven.

The only trouble is, of course, that it’s not really up there.

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The truth will out (no pun intended)

Remember those video recordings of the lawsuit against gay marriage, the recordings that anti-gay activists didn’t want anyone to see? They’re coming out.

Video recordings of the trial over California’s gay marriage ban should be unsealed, a federal judge ruled on Monday.

District Judge James Ware in San Francisco said in a court order that there was “no compelling” reason to keep the digital files under seal.

This is a serious setback for those who believe in the right to harass and oppress others from the safety and privacy of court-protected anonymity. In this case, however, I think the interests of society as a whole outweigh the privileges of the oppressors.