What Does Appeal to Pascal’s Wager Really Say?

Is This about Me or You?

Imagine this conversation:

Woman 1: So, anyway, at the end of the argument I just told my husband I thought he was wrong.

Woman 2: I can’t believe you said that. Aren’t you afraid he’ll hit you?

When I put myself in Woman 1’s place, I have two immediate thoughts:

1. Not in a million years would I be afraid my husband would strike me for any reason short of his own self-defense if I went violently insane.

2. How long was Woman 2 abused? Is she still being abused?

I wouldn’t expect Woman 2’s comment from a woman who has no history of abuse whatsoever. I suppose I could imagine a situation where someone was under a mistaken impression I was being abused, and was concerned for my safety? But as a general rule, that question would not be raised in seriousness by a woman who is not or has not been in a situation where she’s been battered.

The question, while aimed at Woman 1, actually speaks volumes about Woman 2, and tells us nothing at all about Woman 1.

Language, questions and comments aimed at others actually carry within them information about those who are speaking. Even the most innocent language does this. If I see a friend making a Lasagna, and I see her using cottage cheese, and I ask “Oh, you don’t use Ricotta?” I’ve just said, “I don’t use cottage cheese when I make Lasagna, I use Ricotta.” We spend our conversational time telling people all about ourselves, often without even realizing we’re doing it.

What Pascal’s Wager Tells Me about You

When we think of Pascal’s Wager, we generally think in brief of someone asking “What if you’re wrong?” The stakes generally are “something bad” if you’re wrong (that you’re risking), and either gaining reward or simply avoiding the “bad” if you’re right.

The Wager itself has a host of problems. But that’s not what I’m concerned with here. What concerns me here is what the Wager tells me about the person who puts it forward. When people ask, “What if you’re wrong?,” what are they telling me about themselves? What I hear when they ask this, is purely heartbreaking. And a letter writer recently put it in a way that evoked honest pity from me. Clearly directed to Matt, he asked:

I have watched many of your you tube videos, and from what I gather, you are a very intelligent man and you seem well educated.

But I wanted to ask you a question, just a simple question, perhaps a question that I myself toil with from time to time.

Q: “when the day is done, and you are sitting alone, or lying in bed, do you ever question your decision to be an atheist, are you ever scared at times, do you ever think that you might be wrong or fear what may or may not happen to you when you die”

Now, this question has no real direction, I just wanted to know if you were like so many others including myself, who at the end of the day either have a longing for an answer or experience doubts or concerns about the decision(s) you’ve made.

While he states the question has “no real direction,” it does, like all communication, carry a message — and more of a message than what is merely being asked. It carries that message about the speaker, which I’m describing.

Matt submitted back a very thorough and well-thought-out reply. However, I kept thinking of this letter after I’d deleted it, and this morning I sent by a separate reply myself to the writer:

I know this was directed at Matt, and he answered it quite thoroughly. But I would like to add something. There are a number of people who have reported being horribly tortured at the hands of malevolent alien abductors. I don’t believe these people’s stories are true. They could easily ask me the same question:

Don’t you ever worry about being abducted yourself? What if you’re wrong?

Certainly if I’m wrong, I could also be abducted and tortured, but I can promise you I don’t lose an ounce of sleep on it. I don’t expend a moment’s concern over being a victim of such an event. And I’m going out on a limb to wager that (1) you’ve heard these stories I’m describing and (2) you don’t worry about being abducted by malevolent aliens any more than I do.

If I’m correct, then you have just experienced what I experience with regard to fear of being wrong about god. It’s the indoctrinated believer who fears and who thinks that fear must plague others who weren’t indoctrinated with that same fear. Just as it’s the “alien abductee” who can’t understand why I don’t seem concerned about what these aliens are doing — not others who don’t believe in alien abduction; it’s the person either still in, or still suffering from the side effects of, indoctrination who can’t fathom life without that fear, which was most often burned into their heads as defenseless children. It’s put there as a mechanism to stop people questioning: “Even if you stop believing…you’ll be plagued by fear and doubt the rest of your life…WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?!” But the truth is, as Matt pointed out, and as I provided an example, if you don’t believe, then you don’t believe in the consequence either. And it’s just very hard to fear that which you do not believe exists.

This is why I consider religious indoctrination of children to be abusive. It scars people and they carry that fear of questioning well into adulthood far too often. Nobody should be made to fear asking questions, doubting, or not believing. Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of “true” ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?

And I suppose that’s all I had to say about it?

Non-Prophets 9.9!

Well, here it is at last, gang. Probably the last of the guerilla episodes, as the regular series is set to resume, I do believe, this coming weekend!

Gia Grillo, Chris Conner and I reteam, and end up spending a lot of this episode wagging our fingers at some of our fellow heathens, expressing our dismay at the way some people in the atheist camp got caught up in the wave of Muslim-bashing that arose around the Park51 controversy. While none of us likes Islam, naturally, most of the rhetoric was simple hate speech from the Fox News wingnut camp that grossly generalized all Muslims, even those who are peaceful and loyal U.S. citizens, under the “terrorist” banner. That some atheists actually fell into that trap of emotion-clouded unreason is something we hate to see.

Then we smack around Phil Plait a bit for his “Don’t Be a Dick” speech, and talk about accommodationism vs. confrontationalism.

Not to be a whiner, but holy hell balls this one was tough to edit. But I think the mix is superior to 9.6, even though our different mics and the fact we were basically recording a three-way Skype call means it still isn’t audiophile material by any means. (I apologize for my harsh S’s.) I hope you all enjoy it, and I’m off for a nap. If you’d rather wait for the iTunes feed, Matt tells me he’ll do the necessary admin stuff to get it up on the feed either tonight or tomorrow, so you won’t have to wait days and days like last time. And if you want art for your iPod, download the above graphic and stick it in yourself. With 9.6 Russell told me I inadvertently changed the art for the whole feed by embedding it in the episode beforehand. Durp.

Consider the comments to be an open thread on the episode.

Mail…some days are better than others

“Hi name is not important. I have a comment. I saw your videos on youtube. I don’t like your attacks on the christian faith. I think your program is full of shit. The Atheist Experience just what the hell is that means. As for prove, you don’t need prove to believe or haven’t you figured that out. Let me tell you something. Atheist is the devils work. So go ahead bad mouth god. Your community will be blowen up as long with you garbage or what ever happens. The christian faith is not to brain wash people. That’s just you people spreading lies. Your community is dedicated to nothing and that how it’s going to be.
The man”

Fortunately, messages like this aren’t all that common. We obviously don’t think this represents the bulk of religious thought…but it does demonstrate the results of insular indoctrination and poor education. While this sort of thinking isn’t the norm, it’s not yet completely relegated to the cast-of-“Deliverance”-minority…but someday, it will be.

Open Thread for #679

Here’s the open thread for tonight’s show – have at it!

Here’s a recap of some of the conspiracy theories we’ve received by email in the last year or so. I’ve omitted names and summarized the claims to protect the anonymity of the authors. I see no need to feed anyone’s persecution complex.

  • A guy wrote to us a few months ago with his cosmological model that he claims is better than the Big Bang Theory. He wanted us to review it. When I asked why he hadn’t submitted his ideas to peer-reviewed journals, he said his ideas were too threatening and the scientific orthodoxy wouldn’t let him publish them.
  • Vaccines are a Big Pharma plot designed to keep us from the knowledge that all we really need to prevent disease is sufficient vitamin D3. And maybe some colloidal silver.*
  • 9/11 was an inside job, and the proof is that the US government has previously engaged in conspiracies and genocide. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • Christianity is a big conspiracy designed to keep everyone in line. The leaders of the major denominations all know this, but they are sworn to secrecy. Plus, Zeitgeist.
  • HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. HIV is actually a harmless virus, but Big Pharma and the CDC need you to believe HIV causes AIDS. This is used to control certain segments of the population (gays), to generate profits for Big Pharma, and for genocide. It’s actually the anti-retrovirals that cause AIDS. If you just exercise, take your vitamins, eat an organic vegan diet, and reduce your stress, you won’t die from AIDS. If you actually do die of AIDS, it’s because you made a mistake in steps 1-4.

Most of the people who write to us are pretty entrenched in their beliefs and can’t be persuaded that their pet theory has no merit. The guy with the alternate cosmological model has invested about 20 years of his life in his theory, but he’s never gotten around to getting that advanced degree in physics that would actually qualify him to do this kind of research. Why? Obviously, he’d learn enough to know what utter nonsense his theory is.

The 9-11 truthers are often a special case of conspiracy theorist. This is because many of them were convinced by evidence that was deliberately distorted or that was interpreted for them by people who simply lacked the qualifications to do so. Once presented with unadulterated evidence, it seems that many are willing to abandon their conspiracy beliefs and accept the conclusion that a bunch of religious zealots really did fly some planes into buildings on 9/11/01.

For more information on the self-justification that drives conspiracy theorists, as well as other a lot of other ways we deceive ourselves, I recommend a book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson called “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”.

Parting shot – in response to the call from Cesar this evening – if you’re interested in what’s been done in the field of abiogenesis since the Miller-Urey experiments, take a look at the book “Genesis” by Robert M. Hazen. It’s an excellent survey of the kinds of research going on and the results of that research, written by a scientist who does that research.

*As I noted during the show, colloidal silver does have antimicrobial properties when applied topically. It does not have similar properties when ingested, which is a good thing. If it did, it would kill your normal intestinal flora and leave you open to colonization by something really nasty – like C. difficile. Oral ingestion of colloidal silver can also cause a condition known as argyria, so unless you want to look like a Smurf, you should probably avoid drinking it.

Theism is the default position?

Michael Ochoa posted a link to a video and asked me to debunk it. Normally, I’d skip requests like this, as I have too much on my plate…but sometimes I get in a mood and just go for it. Here’s the first (and only draft) of a response to the video:

P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions.

This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.

For example, we understand that what we see (or, more accurately, think we see) is not always accurate and that our initial assessment of other sensory data ultimately proves incorrect. Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.

In his example about a mirage, he has no reason to question the mirage until he’s given evidence that it might be false. That’s true and it’s the infant position. However, the instant one becomes aware that one can be mistaken, both in perception and in inferences based on those perceptions one is no longer rationally justified in accepting all initial perceptions at face value.

Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer’s trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn’t have enough information to accurately perceive events.

Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).

Premise 1 is simply a denial of rational skepticism (he even uses the ‘rigid skepticism’ dilemma to underscore this – but ignores the truth about rational skepticism) and is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of propping up the rest of the argument. Rational skepticism holds that acceptance of claims be apportioned to the evidence, whereas this premise ignores the complexities involved in rationally determining if a belief is justified and instead simply attempts to shift the burden of proof by proclaiming that one is justified in accepting one’s first impressions until they are proven wrong.

P2 – The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience.

No, it isn’t. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy – and it’s one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.

We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.
Attempting to call one’s inference of design “initially sensed experience” is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.

P3 – Hence, the belief in a designed universe, which automatically infers a designer, is in fact the default position until proven otherwise.

This directly follows from the first two premises and (given the flaws in the first two) it is unsound. (Nullifying the rest of the argument…)

The fact that he thinks this is where he’ll get the most objections is rather silly. It is only when he asserts that the designer is an intentional, intelligent agent that he runs into trouble, but he doesn’t do that until P4. As this stands, it is a direct conclusion from the first two premises… hence, the “hence”.

P4 – The concept of God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses) is the most tenable explanation for the identity of this designer.

There’s no need to continue until the first premises are fixed, but I’d like to point out how really bad this argument is, so we’ll keep going.
Premise 4 defines a particular god-concept and asserts – without demonstration – that this particular god-concept is the best explanation. Without a demonstration, this premise can simply be rejected.

Additionally, the definition given isn’t simply a theistic proposition. It goes further and without justification. A theistic god need not be “outside the universe” or undetectable and, indeed, many would hold that their god is detectable and operating within the universe.

And here, too, we run into another bit of cognitive dissonance in his argument: outside the universe.

By what right can anyone invoke a claim that any such thing exists? Do we have any direct experience of ‘outside the universe’? Do we have appearance of this? Do we have any initial sensory experience of this? By what right can people assert ‘outside the universe’ or ‘before time’?

C – Hence, Theism is the default position until proven otherwise.

This entire argument essentially reads as:

1. I’m justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.
2. My first perception is to infer design.
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed until you prove me wrong.
4. I’m convinced that the best explanation for the design I perceive is God X.
C. Therefore, belief in God X is justified until proved wrong.

This argument is dishonest at virtually every point and it is nothing more than a denial of rational skepticism and a blatant shifting of the burden of proof. This isn’t fundamentally different than the obstinate theist who claims “You can’t prove me wrong!” – and thus it fails to all of the objections we would launch at that simplified argument.

The inability to disprove something doesn’t make it a justified default position. You can’t disprove the claim that there are clones of every one of us living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy – but that doesn’t mean that we’re justified in accepting it as the default position.

It is trivial to demonstrate that our initial perceptions are often mistaken and we have a pretty good understanding of why some people see the appearance of design – and why their inference of intelligent design in nature is unsupported, at best, and incorrect, at worst.

And even if we didn’t already understand how so much of this was wrong, sticking your fingers in your ears and demanding that someone prove you wrong is a childish argument – no matter how you try to dress it up.

In which Insane Clown Posse reveal themselves to be, in fact, insane clowns

So by now most of you who get around on these here intarweebs know that we’ve all been having fun with this on Facebook and elsewhere all day. There is some amusement value to be had that Insane Clown Posse, a group of shitty hip-hip poseurs, have thrown back the curtain to reveal that they are actually shitty Christian hip-hop poseurs, and it was all part of a cunning plan. Surely this takes both the realms of Christian pop culture and hip-hop culture to all new levels of metashittiness.

But what I have to thank frontman Violent J for (did the “J” stand for Jesus all this time — who knew?) is his instant creation of a new online meme, the likes of which 4chan would die for. It all comes from these hilarious lyrics to their song “Miracles”…

Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying and
getting me pissed.

Pure gold. “Fuckin’ [insert any noun you can think of], how do they work?” And atheists now have a new meme with which we can mock fundamentalists for pretty much the rest of our lives. “Fuckin’ flagellum, how does it work?” “Fuckin’ trees, how do they work?” See? This shit practically writes itself, yo.

Brief Comment on Intercessory Prayer

I got into an exchange with someone who insisted that prayer offers people something “inside”–even if it’s not true that it actually changes anything in the real world. Ironically, I agree, which is why I think it’s horrible. Here’s an analogy inspired by the dialog:

Intercessory Prayer, a hypothetical: I put an ad in the local paper saying I am retired, but have experience and contacts in the business world and can help people find work. They need only drive out to my house–an hour outside the city–and bring me their resume and talk to me about their work history for 30 minutes. I don’t charge anyone a dime.

You are a reporter and you’d like to do a story on me and the inspirational work I’m doing. I meet with you and you ask me how it works. How do I help these people find work? I say, “Oh, after the applicants leave, I throw their resumes and vitaes in the trash. I don’t actually do anything to help them find work. I just like knowing that I provide them with a sense of hope and inspiration that things might improve for them–since they believe I can help them. In fact, I was a bus driver all my life and have no real business experience at all.

Am I a kind, caring helpful person offering a benefit to people? Or an asshole who wastes their time? Remember–it only takes 2.5 hours of their time, and they’re still looking for work on their own. But am I helpful or a dick?

In the context of the church–organized religion–they do charge for this “service.” And in addition, there is a story in the news just about daily of parents who didn’t seek medical help for their children because their churches teach that god will heal if it’s His will–and a doctor is a demonstration of a lack of faith in god.

So, let’s redo the scenario above to say I tell people to give me 10% of their net worth if they want me to take their case, and that in some cases I tell them that I won’t help them unless they cease all other independent job hunting.

Again–helping or hurting? Kind or asshole?

Is this really hard?

Some updates

Hey all. I know there hasn’t been a lot of activity here in several days. Sorry for that, I guess life has us all occupied at the moment. But you folks have done a fine job keeping the home fires burning here, especially as we’ve got a new theist who’s turned up in the thread below. So go have a look at that conversation if you’re so inclined. It could end up rivaling the thread we recently had with Parture, aka Troy.

Just to bring you all up to speed: No AETV tomorrow, due to that stupid pre-emption thing. But I hope you’ll all be excited by the news that the geek trio of myself, Gia Grillo and Chris Conner have recorded one more guerilla Non-Prophets show, right before the resumption of the regular series. I hope to have it fully edited by tomorrow night or so, and up on the feed early in the week at the latest. This one will be a bit shorter than the nearly 2½-hour epic we recorded in July, and we deal with some more current topics of interest. In particular, we air our views on the recent rise in accommodationism and the “don’t be a dick” flap.

Back soon. Until then, play nice (I expect the more mature of you to be off and running with “don’t be a dick flap” jokes), and clean off your knives and put them away neatly before bedtime.