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Einzige's Roommate is Not God
2005.11.01 (Tue) 15:25

PZ Myers pointed us to a fresh post over on The Lippard Blog by co-host Einzige, who presents a clever little parable:

You start to wonder about what you might make yourself for dinner when suddenly you are startled by a loud gunshot, followed by what sounds like a body falling to the floor. Rather than getting the hell out of there you somewhat foolishly run to the other room to see what happened. Once there, you see your roommate standing there, arm outstretched, holding a still-smoking pistol pointed at what is now, apparently, a corpse.

Your roommate looks at you and says "Santa Claus did it."

Do you:

  1. Sincerely believe that your roommate is telling the actual truth?
  2. Decide that, because you didn't actually see your roommate fire the gun, you just can't know one way or another whether Santa did it?
  3. Consider your roommate a murderer, and the claim to be the rationalization of a mind that has snapped?

It's a very apt description of three basic mindsets in regard to the existence of superpowered deities: a) the fundamentalist believer; b) the undecided agnostic; and c) the firm atheist.

Eric, a commenter on Einzige's post, had this to say in apparent defense of true believers:

If my roommate was Jesus (were I Christian) or Allah (were I Muslim), etc.; then A would be the appropriate choice. However, since I think most Christians would agree that we share a faith in God, not in men, that C is the best choice since I obviously live with a lying murderer. Or someone working on an insanity defense.

But Eric is missing the point of the parable. The roommate isn't God — Santa Claus is, for the purposes of this parable. And claiming that Christians "share a faith in God, not in men," is a red herring...simply because, in reality, Christians (and other religiosos) are putting their faith in the men who told them that God exists in the first place.

The roommate is those men — either your pastor or reverend or daddy or theocratic dictator...whoever first filled your head with tales of the Super Magic Man in the Sky. The roommate (mortal men) is asking the protagonist (any person) to believe a claim (Santa's existence in the parable, God's existence in the analogy) that not only has no substantiating evidence for it, but seems to have plenty of evidence against it, that you can see with your own eyes. In keeping with the analogy, Eric is incorrect — Christians would choose option A, simply because of the fact that they actually did so in accepting the Christian faith.

That's why it's called a "parable," Eric — don't take the story literally. Understand the context.

Eric does, however, seem to thoroughly understand that belief in God is not a "reasonable" (as in rational) choice:

There's nothing that says Christians (or other religious folk) are obligated to give up reason (accepting of course that there are some unreasonable things we do, such as believe in God).

Exactly, Eric — and in the parable, your belief in God (and his all-powerful capabilities) translates to a belief in Santa (and his all-powerful capabilities), which means that in the parable, you would choose option A.

Hey, we've got no problem with people who choose to hold irrational beliefs and acknowledge their irrationality in that respect. We just think Eric missed the boat in his interpretation of the parable.

A high-five to Einzige and the Lippards for that post. Oh, and a shout out to Rockstar, who mentioned ass gnomes in his comment! Regular readers know that we've got a soft spot for ass gnomes. Just below the colon.

—•—

If you've got any comments on the parable, head on over to the original post on The Lippard Blog and post 'em there.


— • —
[  Filed under: % Bullshit  % Religion  ]

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Comments

Eric Wallace, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 01:01 [Link] »

I've read a number of these kinds of posts on the web in recent months, and inevitably a certain archetypal character always appears: the unicorn, the Santa Claus, the...ahem...ass gnome. I suspect these arguments are more designed to recruit agnostics into the atheist camp than to convert actual theists (which they surely won't do).

It seems to me the missing piece is that there are not really any questions requiring such a fantastical creature for explanation (though I admit I don't have a clue what the function of an ass gnome would be).

But even I (an atheist) will admit that there are some questions---our improbable presence in this universe, the mystery of consciousness, free will, etc.---that are somehow larger, more profound, than who shot somebody in a room, or are there little demons making my radio work.

Of course any sane person (even a Christian!) is going to suspect the roommate of foul play, because we know something about guns, and we know something about human behavior. There's no mystery there. God is an explanation for the mystery. I don't personally find it a very satisfying explanation, but I do have some sympathy for the agnostic position.



HBloom, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 08:58 [Link] »

Santa is god, yes (in the parable). And to choose A would be to trust the irrational claims of a murderer; however, this quaint parable, as plain as it is, only flies in the face of all of the bogus institutional religions that we have inflicted on each other as humans. The parable's conclusion is not atheism... rather, the conclusion is that it would be idiocy to follow the beliefs of our fellow human beings when those beliefs fly in the face of mounds and mounds of evidence and are based on extremely poor and outdated storytelling.

This parable does not say that atheism is incorrect, but it certainly does not make the argument that it is.

Wouldn't it be great if Santa was god, though? At least he works one nite a year!!



Rockstar, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 09:55 [Link] »

D'oh! Forgot to drop a link to the ass gnome post! Dudes, I use that one all the time. The "where do you draw the line" comment was one of my favorites...



Rockstar, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 09:58 [Link] »

Oh, yeah -

I was talking with a friend last night, and we decided that if Eric's wish came true (Jeebus was his roommate), would this scenario not be hilarious? I mean, walk into a room, see Jeebus holding a smoking pistol. A surprised look on his face. Then he says Santa Claus did it. LOL.



Uber, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 11:16 [Link] »

'-our improbable presence in this universe, the mystery of consciousness, free will'

I think you have some wishful thinking here. Our presence in the universe is not unprobable, it's actual probabilty is 1. We're here.

Consciousness is not really a mystery. Remove the brain or damage it and it's gone. Now how it occurs internally inside the brain is a mystery. But other animals are conscious as well.

Free will is a concept no theist has ever answered decently with an omnipotent,benevolent God. So it's not really worth addressing here.



Eric Wallace, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 13:44 [Link] »

Uber,

Our presence in the universe is not unprobable, it's actual probabilty is 1. We're here.

I wasn't really trying to make a mathematical statement (though there is apparently some debate about your interpretation even in the mathematical community). I'm just saying that the naturalistic explanation for our presence, which rests on the particulars of the laws of the universe, the happenstance of a planet capable of sustaining life, and the vagaries of a stochastic evolutionary history, strike many as implausible. The anthropomorphic principle, which is really all we materialists have, is not very satisfying to a lot of people.

Consciousness is not really a mystery...[H]ow it occurs internally inside the brain is a mystery.

Ummm....yes, that's the mystery.

Free will is a concept no theist has ever answered decently with an omnipotent,benevolent God.

You can answer anything with an omnipotent God, that's why humans invented one. The theists answer is that God gave us free will, end of argument.

My point is that no one has answered the question. But it still remains a fascinating question, unlike the "who killed the guy in the other room" question, which is not.



Grendel, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 16:02 [Link] »

Eric, I believe it's not meant to be a 'fascinating question'. I believe it was intended as an illustrative parable concerning how we investigate our universe, how we interpret the observations we make of our universe.

Personally, I do find it absolutely fascinating that some people, placed within the context of the offered parable, would choose A to remain in compliance with existing religious beliefs -evidence be damned -rather than take the very short and very easy path to true enlightenment by electing option C as the best avenue of investigation of the observations.

I am also fascinated by the practice of assuming at least complexity and at most supernatural causes whenever we find something we don't understand. I am mystified as to why anyone would consider our existence "improbable" when we are standing right here existing despite that assessment, lol. What we know is that life is inevitable where the required conditions exist, and the 'mystery' of consciousness is slowly being unraveled as we speak.

Eric, are you sure you're an atheist and materialist?



Fan-man, 2005.11.02 (Wed) 16:42 [Link] »

C) The roommate is a murderer, seemingly due to the lack of physical evidence against Santa. Physical evidence would have already eliminated choices A and B.

Does Shawn of the Clausian faith object to the use of Santa in such a parable?



Schmitt., 2005.11.03 (Thu) 02:00 [Link] »

Option b.) Seems a much more apt description of nihilists, those who pretend science isn't an exceptionally useful tool of understanding. It's also fairly close to 'God of the Gaps' type believers, those who genuinely think that because we lack full understanding of a natural phenomena, that introducing God to the table of viable explanations is reasonable and sensible.

Agnostics can be, and often are, as skeptical of metaphysical explanations as atheists; many of us don't automatically shrug when there is a class of phenomena we don't understand and suggest God might have done it. What we do is suggest that metaphysical questions are often (though not necessarily - the efficacy of prayer as medical treatment has been debunked numerous times for example,) outside the realms of scientific investigation, or are questions so far removed from the natural world that they are irrelevent.

Both of these are how I approach the idea of theism. We think that it is perfectly possible that God might exist, there might be such a powerful overlord to this business - but until we can drag Him under a microscope; until He takes an active and observable role in our universe, or we develop the means to see what he's up to - so what? The omnipotent God is inherently untestable and so I do not think it will ever become a legitimate issue or scientific explanation.

A lot of atheists may read what I just wrote and protest that this is exactly how they regard theism. There is great ambiguity in the terms 'atheism' and 'agnosticism' - Religious Tolerance has an excellent page examining the different belief structures - and nonbelief, skeptical structures - which characterise these terms. Which one we adopt is usually, I think, shaped culturally, by the stigma attached to 'atheism' or the kind of ideas held by those who call themselves either term. Personally I wished to distance myself from strong atheists - those almost mythical creatures, as difficult to prove exist as God Himself - who I had the misfortune of being the first people to introduce me to atheism.

I'd choose c incidentally.

-Schmitt.



Eric Wallace, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 02:22 [Link] »

Grendel, it only works as a parable if the phenomenon to be explained is at least in the ballpark with the phenomena that people use gods to explain.

I am mystified as to why anyone would consider our existence "improbable" when we are standing right here existing despite that assessment, lol.

Do you consider it improbable for a flipped coin to land on edge? If it happened, would you still consider it improbable? I assume you would, because you know something about coins and gravity.

We have only one universe, of course, so we can't directly assess our chances of coming about. But from what we do know about the physical processes that lead to our existance, the formation of our planet, the genesis of living things, the evolution of humans, there is nothing about these processes that are "inevitable". We certainly don't know that life is inevitable, nor do we yet know what the required conditions are!

The mystery of consciousness is not about what parts of the brain might be required for it, or how they operate together (though those are interesting questions), but rather why does consciousness feel the way it does. Why does this particular arrangement of matter give rise to something that believes it has free will and contemplates its own existance? I'm sure we will come to know a lot about how consciousness is manifest in the brain, but it's not obvious to me that questions about why consciousness is the way it is are even scientifically knowable.


Eric, are you sure you're an atheist and materialist?

Yes.



Federico Contreras, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 03:23 [Link] »

You guys need a (graphic) photo in the header man.
Something to take my mind off your fearful, terrible ranting eses.

And I also want to know if you're as dapper as PZ myers.



HBloom, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 08:51 [Link] »

I have been following these discussions, both here and at the Lippard Blog and I am more and more amazed at the depth of the converstaions. They are most interesting. I am still confused as to why, at the end of a comment people are still feeling the need to tell us they choose C; or B; or even A.

The parable, and yes, I understand it is just that, a parable, does not lead to a conclusion on an individual's beliefs about god. It only asks whether or not you will believe the sadistic nut job you happen to split the rent with.

There is no brilliance to this "parable". We can have the conversation without it. Why do we need it and at this point in the conversation, why do we continually return to it?



HBloom, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 08:59 [Link] »

Further (sorry, back again), having read some of 2%'s Scores, does it really matter whether you follow one of the obsolete, institutional religions, believe there is some higher power out there that we cannot define, or discount any such power, so long as you don't inflict Santaism, Christiantiy, whatever on those around you?

Is the basis of these discussions that you cannot have a belief in god, institutionalized or other, without infringing upon others?

If not, why are we arguing about something that everyone seems to agree cannot be proven, or disproven?



Fan-man, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 09:00 [Link] »

Don't be confused HBloom. I chose (C) because it is God's will. No, wait...



Grendel, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 11:44 [Link] »

What we know of life comes from our only example of it, here on Earth. And here on Earth, wherever we find conditions suitable for life, we find life. Life, then, is inevitable, governed by the laws of physics.

Via telescopy, we have observed billions of light years distant and millions of years into the past. All of it has only underscored the ubiquity of physical law. Nowhere in time or distance have we seen that the laws of physics as we understand them are different.

I think it is eminently reasonable to hypothesize that the inevitability of life on Earth no doubts extends outward throughout the universe.



HBloom, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 12:22 [Link] »

Ha.



The Two Percent Company, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 14:39 [Link] »

We certainly recognize that this is a drastically oversimplified story, and that many shades of grey have been eliminated in favor of a more black and white analysis. Each of the choices represents one viewpoint taken to an extreme, in order to illustrate a point. But that's the purpose of a parable. To us, it's interesting that people of various stripes are taking the parable literally, and comparing the "triviality" of the Santa defense to the "gravity" of god's existence. By no means must these two assertions be of the same magnitude — because it is a parable. The whole idea here is to simplify the question and see how logic and reason applies on a more "manageable" scale...and thereby see how logic and reason could apply on the more significant scale. Don't get caught up in the Santa conundrum — it's just a jumping off point.

For us, choice A doesn't so much represent the hardline theist (that is, specifically a religionist) as it does the hardline true believer in some form of organized stupidity (i.e., anything from Christianity to crystal therapy). As HBloom pointed out, choice A more accurately reflects those who willingly set aside reason and logic in favor of a collection of stories told to them by other people.

Choice B speaks to the "extreme" agnostic — which sounds like an oxymoron, but really isn't. This agnostic view is one that we've heard many times — that since we don't have absolute proof either way, we must remain Neutral (with a capital N). Of course, we do understand that many (many!) agnostics don't fall into this camp, and are usually critical thinkers themselves (choice C types, if you will), but that's not the extreme form of agnosticism that the parable was talking about. Frankly, there's (barely) a fine line between most sensible ("non-extreme") agnostics and most atheists; generally the difference is in a turn of phrase as opposed to an approach to knowledge.

Choice C is, actually, representative of a fairly normal critical thinker — not necessarily an atheist. In the example, there is no "proof" that the roommate committed the crime, but common sense and the immediate evidence dictate that such is the most likely explanation and — rejecting a supernatural cause and the "we can't know anything" approach — the critical thinker lands on choice C. Obviously, if the parable were a literal story — the situation described is, verbatim, the situation at hand — most people would choose C (though certain commenters on some of our other posts would, perhaps, choose B!).

Regarding those big questions about life, the universe and everything...we find it hard to agree with the implication that these questions are so vast and impenetrable, or that no answers will ever be produced through scientific inquiry. As Grendel suggests, the "probability" of our own existence is a non-substantive question — with no knowledge of other life in our universe, or the frequency with which it arises, we are in no position to claim our existence is either improbable or probable. The idea of "free will" is, of course, a human concept; and while it can be enjoyable (in a Matrixesque kind of way) to hunt that particular snark, in the long run it is purely outside the realm of human experience or observation.

As for the advent of human consciousness, well...that might be a question that humankind will eventually be able to answer (or, just as easily, might not). Neurology is still a relatively young science, and before any big ideas are hit upon, we'll need to shake off the shackles of primitive thinking (such as notions of "soul" or "spirit") so we can look at the subject, er, objectively. But again: Matrixy philosophizing won't be what answers the question; scientific observation, experimentation and evidence will be the tool to use.

More generally, there are some questions which are empirical in nature and which, as a result, have a definitive answer...somewhere. Science has answered many of these questions, and will continue to answer more. Of course, we will never answer all of these questions, because as some answers are revealed, other questions will arise — but despite that, science will keep moving forward.

There are other questions, though, that aren't at all empirical. "What is the meaning of life?" (in the non-biological sense) is a good example. Science cannot answer such questions, nor does it try to. As a note: religion doesn't successfully answer such questions, either. Instead, these are questions of personal preference or perception, and hence have no definitive answer. The answers to these questions vary from person to person, and are not in the realm of empirical inquiry. They also have no impact on the external world (i.e., belief in God doesn't make God exist).

Consider asking "Does God exist?" versus asking "Do you believe in God?" — the first question is an empirical one, and the latter is a statement of personal perception. You can rely on empirical observation for the one — and, so far, there hasn't been any positive confirmation — while the other relies on personal opinion rather than tangible evidence.

On another note, HBloom says:

Further (sorry, back again), having read some of 2%'s Scores, does it really matter whether you follow one of the obsolete, institutional religions, believe there is some higher power out there that we cannot define, or discount any such power, so long as you don't inflict Santaism, Christiantiy, whatever on those around you?

Is the basis of these discussions that you cannot have a belief in god, institutionalized or other, without infringing upon others?

If not, why are we arguing about something that everyone seems to agree cannot be proven, or disproven?

To be clear, we absolutely advocate that people can believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how silly or misguided their beliefs may be, as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others. So, as an example, Christians are free to be Christians, no matter what we think of their religion. In addition to our statement that says we respect a person's right to hold such beliefs, we also say:

We plan to forge the unknown into common knowledge, to eradicate bullshit and ignorance — willful or otherwise — and, in general, to fight for truth, justice, and the use of science, reason and logic to further the progress of humankind.

A bit grandiose? Sure. But to us, silly beliefs are a form of bullshit that we feel obligated to call onto the carpet. So, are true believers free to follow their beliefs? Yes. But HBlooms asks "does it really matter" what they believe as long as they don't infringe on others, and to that, we answer "absolutely." In our book, countering bullshit and ignorance always counts.

We do, however, wholeheartedly agree with HBloom's sentiment that:

I am still confused as to why, at the end of a comment people are still feeling the need to tell us they choose C; or B; or even A.

However, we have a different reason for sharing this confusion — namely, that people seem to think they are supposed to "choose" their choice in the parable, when in fact they have already made their choice simply by choosing how to live their lives! If you're a devout believer in any form of bullshit, you've chosen A, whether you meant to or not. If you prefer withholding judgment on any questions of faith, you've chosen B; and if you prefer to rely on substantive evidence and common sense, you've chosen C. Again, we feel the need to reiterate: don't take the parable literally. It isn't about how you would apply your brain to the question of Santa's culpability; it's about how you would apply your brain to supernatural questions in general. That's why we think it's a clever starting point for a conversation. Based on the comments on the original post and on the various blogs that have linked to it, we'd say that it has, in fact, started some very interresting discussions.

Oh, and Federico — no one here is as dapper as PZ. That's just something we've learned to accept.



Fan-man, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 17:27 [Link] »

To say that some felt the need to choose letter C while at the same time proporting those people to be taking the parable "literally," wouldn't you be calling us hypocrites? A literal interpretation of the story would concede belief in Santa Clause, right? The parable as it was stated in the post lacks conclusion (not to mention animals!)-----the lesson, if you will. Yes, people are metaphorically making their choice everyday, but a true parable would conclude leaving no doubt as to what the right choice would be (ie.. "the moral to the story is...") In reality, C is the jury; B is the American judicial system; and A is Johnnie Cochran.
Just like you said that choice C can be derived through critical thinking, I'll bet there are a number of true believers in God that will "choose" C.



The Two Percent Company, 2005.11.03 (Thu) 23:57 [Link] »

We're not aware of having suggested that anyone is a hypocrite. We did say that we found it interesting (not "e-ville" or anything) that some people are taking the parable literally, and we were explaining how — in our view — it's perfectly okay for the parable to address a more trivial (in the non-meaning-of-life sense) scenario in order to examine the loftier issues of faith and belief.

The parable does, in fact, leave no doubt as to what the "right choice" should be — as evidenced by the fact that even an evangelical would snort and say, "Well, in that situation, I'd choose C!" We all know, pretty instinctively, what the "right choice" is within the confines of the parable — the lesson to take away from it is that maybe...just maybe...that same right choice is also the right choice when considering the meta-scenario to which the parable is alluding (that being the existence or interference of a supernatural entity). If it's a moral you're after, Fan-man, there's no need to look any further than that.

And yes, there are certainly plenty of Goddites who will opt for choice C, but again: that's within the confines of the parable. In reality — completely absent the parable itself — they have chosen A, simply by virtue of believing in God.



HBloom, 2005.11.04 (Fri) 06:52 [Link] »

Hey 2%,
Well put. I always enjoy reading your responses to comments, almost more than I enjoy your initial rants. I do have one question though:

Does believing in god directly mean that, outside the parable, we are A-ites, even if our own critical thinking has led us to this belief?

The only time there is a moral is when the author of said parable thinks he knows better than most... but in this case, the author missed his mark. Instead of a "parable" leading to a discussion about religion, the author created a story that is actually initiating a discussion on free thinking vs. the controlling influence of environment.... Not sure that is where he wanted to go, but that is where he went.

Yes, it is always helpful to boil down a subject to a crystalized cartoon for discussion's sake and allow the discussion to bring the idea back into the real world. The author simply didn't boil the topic to his true purpose, creating much disarray...

And 2%, you were not being TOO grandiose... no such thing when it comes to a desire to better ourselves and our society!!

Keep firing!



Rockstar, 2005.11.04 (Fri) 09:18 [Link] »
Does believing in god directly mean that, outside the parable, we are A-ites, even if our own critical thinking has led us to this belief?

Yes. Thinking critically stops when you invoke the supernatural. Gawddidit explains everything, and therefore nothing. So it is useless to the critical thinker.

'Faith' means believing in something you know ain't so. - Mark Twain



Fan-man, 2005.11.04 (Fri) 09:37 [Link] »

Nope. 2% and HBloom: I think you looked for something deeper in my last post than what was intended. I agree with you both. No agrument there chaps.
I was joking that a "literal" interpretation of the initial scenario would be insinuating that one believed in Santa Clause, that's all. After a literal interpretation of the scenario as it was written, choosing C would make people natural hypocrites. I get it. We all did. The story can be a metaphor for bigger philosophical issues. Certainly I wasn't suggesting that 2% called anyone a hypocrite directly.
Further, I was again joking that the story in the initial post was not a parable. It's not. As HBloom points out, the author of a parable thinks he knows better than most. The story in question gives people a choice. Yes, we all agree it's an obvious choice, but a choice none-the-less. I like to think of the initial story as a scenario, not a parable. I referred to the scenario early on as a parable to conform----I can be such a lemming.

I like how the choices in descending order outline the thought process a normal person goes through in about .4 seconds.

Right on, "keep firing" and all of that other happy horse shit. It's 72 degrees in Cincinnati today and I should be playing golf... but I'm stuck in here and grumpy as hell.



HBloom, 2005.11.04 (Fri) 11:13 [Link] »

Critical thinking does not stop when the supernatural is invoked. Critical thinking has done a wonderful job of showing the humanity and fiction in today's institutional religions. However, it cannot explain everything, and we are left with scientific inquiry; and for this we need hypothesis.

And, for things that remain untestable, calling one hypothesis better or worse is at best tricky.

Now, god continues to escape testability because it lies just beyond the reach of science... at least for the near future. This is what drives so many bonkers, that even as science expands and explains new and wonderful things, god just moves a bit farther away and remains beyond.

This should not be misconstrued as an argument for any of the existing institutionalized religions. The tough part about institutionalizing is that, like Frankenstein, once created, it spins under its own control and not the creator's.

More importantly, institution is open to scrutiny. That is why we can say that folks who believe the Babble as truth are not thinking critically, but also why we cannot say that whose who still hypothesize that there is some higher power dancing beyond the reaches of our supposings can remain critical thinkers.

And, Mark Twain made that statement in a very specific context, at a lecture, where he was actually referring to a specific group of people and not faith itself. The group, unfortunately, didn't get the message... ask Bush.



Grendel, 2005.11.04 (Fri) 19:28 [Link] »

The question of the existence of God is outside the purview of empirical science for one reason only -it is an unfalsifiable assertion to say that God as defined exists.

Judging whether a prospective question is worthy of further investigation begins in one place: is it falsifiable? If the answer is no, the scientist must walk away.

The traditional assertion of 'God' will never become addressable by science unless and until the definition of 'God' changes into something that is falsifiable. At that point, should it ever occur, you might argue this God, as newly defined, ain't a God no more.

~*~

RE: The Parable, as I stated earlier: "I believe it was intended as an illustrative parable concerning how we investigate our universe, how we interpret the observations we make of our universe."

One might over-simplify types of God belief into three groups: (1) Absolute blind believers, fundie-types (2) 'Reasonable' believers, your generic church on Sunday, nonevangelistic, nonrigid types, and (3) Agnostics and atheists.

It is important to pont out that not even the absolute blindest True Believer behaves in accordance with his religious/supernatural beliefs at all times. He wouldn't live ten minutes if he did. And he knows it (though he'll never admit it to you).

Were Jerry Falwell's appendix to burst, causing him great pain and threatening imminent death if unaddressed, do you suppose he would:

1) Sit down, do nothing, and calmly pray for deliverance, or.......

2) Scream and holler in pain and call 911 as soon as possible?

No... Jerry's gonna call 911, praying only as he waits for the ambulance and as he rides to the ER where totally scientifically and critically minded specialists will save his ass from what, in Jerry's reckoning, Almighty God has visited upon his person).

Afterwards, in recovery, our grateful patient will thank God for saving him, saying nothing about God's original infliction of the burst appendix upon him, and attribute all the glory unto God, ignoring the education, training, experience, and practice of the health professionals who actually saved him.

The point I'm making is that even the over-the-top religious nuts and New Agey paranormalists decide and act precisely as do the critically minded, scientific atheists do 99% of the time.

Jerry Falwell is NOT going to step onto an airplane that he sees has parts hanging off and fuel dripping from a wing tank, trusting God to see him through the apparent peril.

Pat Robertson is NOT going to leave a newly diagnosed lung cancer to the care of God, despite attributing, as he does ad nauseum, all powers in the universe, in fact, the universe itself, to God his-dang-self. Not gonna happen.

People who hold religious/paranormal beliefs are very careful about when and how they behave in accordance with them. They tend to adhere to their beliefs rigidly -when the perceived consequences of doing so reveal no threats to anything they value.

There are some, mostly religious extremists, who will adhere to their beliefs and proscribed practices unto the point of personal harm. I forget the actual sect now (JWs? Christian Scientists?), but there is one sect that eschews medical treatment for illness, and leaves it to God. However, have you noticed that reports of one of their number dying from refusing medical treatment is a pretty infrequent occurence? Surely, if they all followed the dictates of their own religion on medical treatment, they'd be dropping like flies, and the media would be mounting public awareness and concern in hopes of stopping an entire sect from allowing itself to die. That ain't happening because only a very very few of them actually follow through on the dictates of their own religion as regards medical treatment. The number people who will follow their beliefs no matter the consequences comprise an extremely small percentage of the overall number of religious zealots. Sadly, regarding the religious sect that disallows medical interventions, when you read of it in the media, it is often a case of parents holding such beliefs inflicting them on the health of their child, not themselves.

For twenty years I've practiced clinical psychology and counseling in rural eastern North Carolina, a decidedly Southern Baptist area, and former and current bastion of Jesse Helms. Christian fundamentalist beliefs are not just prevalent here, they are the norm. I do not advertisemy atheism around here. If I did I would be regarded as social anthrax, afflicted with spiritual rabies. I've been treating mostly depression and substance abuse issues throughout those twenty years.

Guess what? Among the most commonly heard psychological complaints I hear from Christian fundamentalist patients concerns guilt and shame issues. Over what? The most common guilt and shame producing life event I hear about is abortion. Very high numbers of my Southern Baptist fundamentalist Christian clients are feeling unresolved (and feared unresolveable) guilt over having had an abortion, over having "killed my baby". Of those who cite this particular issue, about two thirds are women, and about one third are the husbands or boyfriends of the women who had the abortions. A few were parents of young girls who'd gotten pregnant and they'd assisted her in obtaining an abortion, felt horrible about it now, years later.

This ties into what I'm saying about the selective way the religious choose which dictates they wil follow and when they will follow them. When the question of abortion is a political issue or a moral issue, they are 100% adamantly, irreversibly against it. When it becomes a personal issue, when they incur an unwanted pregnancy, all of a sudden the stakes are different. The personal consequences of demanding that everyone else must never have an abortion is nil, zip, nada. However, when the personal consequences of refusing an abortion for one's own pregnancy are too negative, they choose differently. They get the abortion, and selectively damn their religious proscription against it. Now, the question matters.

These are people who got pregnant before marriage, or by sexual intercourse with a 'forbidden' partner (extramarital, husband away at war or away on the job, etc.), and the consequences for continuing the pregnancy would be social ostracization (real or perceived), familial strife (mom and dad would shitto learn little Missy got knocked up), and so on.

To their credit, a secondary but major source of guilt and shame was their awareness of their hypocrisy, given their religious beliefs and the fundy pro life position.

It's not my intent to denigrate the fundies with this, but to point out that virtually all the religious nuts and paranormal nuts tout their beliefs from the mountaintop and practice them joyously until when to do so might cost something of value, might put something of genuine value at risk. All of a sudden, they get real pragmatic, real scientific... and when it's all over they revert right back.

Yikes.... sorry about the filibuster. I'm gonna have to cut down to just 8 pots of coffee per day.



Eric Wallace, 2005.11.05 (Sat) 02:40 [Link] »

I suppose I'm one of those commenters who's accused of taking the parable "literally" and thus somehow not getting it. I assure you that I understand the nature of a parable as well as you. As a story intended to teach a lesson, I simply find this one too facile to be of any use. It's not instructive, or even novel. Message to freethinkers: can we get a new parable? I'm tired of reading this one.

However, I take your point regarding using it as a "jumping off point". The follow-up conversation has been more interesting than the parable itself.

Regarding those big questions about life, the universe and everything...we find it hard to agree with the implication that these questions are so vast and impenetrable, or that no answers will ever be produced through scientific inquiry.

snip snip snip...

There are other questions, though, that aren't at all empirical. "What is the meaning of life?" (in the non-biological sense) is a good example. Science cannot answer such questions, nor does it try to.

Well, that was my point actually. Many of those "big questions" fall into the latter category. So I think we actually agree here, though maybe we're putting questions in different categories. Where the human consciousness question lies isn't immediately obvious to me. There is clearly an aspect of it that is empirical (i.e., what structures/patterns in the brain are required to create and sustain human consciousness), which I believe we will answer. But there's a different take on it that's more in the philisophical realm. I don't quite know how to describe that aspect, but it's like asking why does green look green (and does everyone see the same green)?

As Grendel suggests, the "probability" of our own existence is a non-substantive question — with no knowledge of other life in our universe, or the frequency with which it arises, we are in no position to claim our existence is either improbable or probable.

I don't think we're as in the dark as you suggest. We know something about the physical processes involved in, for example, evolution. I'm not aware of any force in evolutionary theory that drives toward a conscious being. In fact, teachers of evolutionary theory often go to great lengths to break down the notion that there are any goals, inevitable outcomes, or "progress" to evolution. I know you're not suggesting that, but your agnostic take seems a little (b)-ish to me (hey, maybe this parable is useful after all!). Personally I think it's fair to say that unless some new evidence comes to light indicating that the evolution of human tricks like a neocortex were somehow heavily pressured for, that we can theorize that our existance is a bit of luck. Just like if I roll a die ten times and get all sixes, I can't say that the outcome was inevitable even if I only do the experiment once---because I know something about the process that generated the outcome.



The Two Percent Company, 2005.11.05 (Sat) 13:12 [Link] »

We're a bit rushed for time today, but we did want to point out a couple of things (and perhaps smooth some feathers while we're at it).

One thing we'd like to make clear: we're not saying that "taking the parable literally" is the same thing as "not getting it" (or vice versa). We just found it interesting that some were taking it that way.

Two — and just a quickie for now, which we'll hopefully expand upon later — while we (as in humankind) know relatively little of the origins of life on Earth, or the origins of the universe itself, we sure do know a whole lot about evolution. And consciousness (which is not the exclusive property of humans) would certainly seem to be a useful adaptation (perhaps one of the most useful), which would win the natural selection lottery. With that in mind, if you're trying to play the odds on humanity's existence, it seems to us that consciousness would be a highly probable occurrence on any planet where life may arise — given the billions of years that have passed since the "beginning" of the universe.

There is, of course, much more to this...but we're off to do some drinking and some babysitting (don't worry — the one of us doing the drinking is not the one doing the babysitting).



Grendel, 2005.11.07 (Mon) 17:46 [Link] »

"Just like if I roll a die ten times and get all sixes, I can't say that the outcome was inevitable even if I only do the experiment once---because I know something about the process that generated the outcome."

This is a poor analogy for the question of the prevalence of life in the universe, a prevalence I personally consider inevitable.

Rolling a six-sided die ten times and getting all sixes is highly improbable on the first try and equally improbable on every ensuing try. However, if you continue to conduct ten roll tests forever or something near to 'forever', rolling ten sixes becomes inevitable. Sooner or later, it will happen.

The entirety of the universe comes as close to that 'forever' as it gets. By all we know -life is inevitable. The combination of factors required to support life is not that complex and is undoubtedly replicated all over the universe, which consists of billions upon billions of planets and billions and billions of years' age, a mathematical 'forever's' worth of rolls.



The Two Percent Company, 2005.11.16 (Wed) 13:54 [Link] »

So many comments, so little time...here's our two cents.

HBloom poses a question which cuts to the heart of an issue that may be the source of some friction:

Does believing in god directly mean that, outside the parable, we are A-ites, even if our own critical thinking has led us to this belief?

We think we've added to the confusion here by not clarifying our semantics. A big part of the debate in this thread seems to lead back to the simple fact that nobody wants to be an A-ite — because it's pretty obvious that the A-ites are being painted as the "bad guys," the non-critical thinkers. Similarly, B-ites seem to be frowned upon as, well, rather ineffectual wusses. Hey, that's the way the parable reads.

However, it is important to note that, in reality any individual person can be an A-ite on one issue, a B-ite on another issue, and a C-ite on a third issue. Believing in a god (a definitive A-ite position) does not, in and of itself, classify you as an A-ite with regard to every belief you hold, or make you a general A-ite, so to speak. Humans — and human behavior — are far too complex to be boiled down to such an essence; that may work for literary characters, who often represent a single point of view on a single issue, but real live humans face a multitude of issues, and any one human can approach each issue in a fashion entirely disparate from his or her approach to all other issues.

The upshot: it appears that the phraseology of the A-ite/B-ite/C-ite classification is a bit misleading. If someone preferred chocolate ice cream to vanilla, we would be more likely to say "she prefers chocolate ice cream" than we would be to say "she is a chocolate ice cream preferrer" or "she is a chocolate-ite" — in other words, the choice of A, B or C is an action, not a label, and we should probably avoid using it to "label" people. Rather than "he is an A-ite," we should be saying that "on the issue of the existence of the Christian God, he has chosen approach A." We ourselves don't go with C on every issue — in fact, on some of the non-empirical issues raised in this thread, we're split between approaches A and B!

As Grendel states:

It is important to pont out that not even the absolute blindest True Believer behaves in accordance with his religious/supernatural beliefs at all times. He wouldn't live ten minutes if he did. And he knows it (though he'll never admit it to you).

We agree. It's not about classifying an individual's behavior across the board — we doubt any of our readers would be consistently A, B or C in response to every possible question, nor should they be. Different questions require different approaches. It is which approach you choose with regard to specific questions that tells us more about your thinking and behavior.

Rockstar makes a pertinent assertion:

Thinking critically stops when you invoke the supernatural.

Exactly. For thinking critically to stop, it has to start somewhere. Everyone is capable of critical thought at some level. However, it is on those issues for which you employ explanations with no evidentiary basis (such as supernatural explanations for concrete issues) that you choose A.

In answer to HBloom's specific question, however: if critical thinking — that is, actual observation, evidence, and deduction — led you to conclude the existence of God, then no, you didn't choose A. You chose the C approach. However, since in real life there has so far been no supporting evidence for a god's existence, then for practical purposes, anyone who has arrived at the conclusion that such an entity exists has chosen A. Show us some solid, rational evidence for the existence of a god, and we'll alter our conclusion — but not our thesis — accordingly.

Does this mean that no critical thinker would ever hold a belief in some form of "higher power," or that (conversely) no believer could be a true critical thinker? We don't believe that's necessarily so. You see, with no valid evidence or verified observation either directly supporting or directly refuting the existence of a deity, there's simply no place for a critical thinker to start from. Such a belief would have nothing to do with critical thinking — but it's not a question of "suspending" critical thinking, it's just that this is one of those "metaquestions" where critical thinking simply isn't a viable approach: it just doesn't apply. Note that the lack of evidence that we refer to above only applies to a very narrow band of possible beliefs — for example, it doesn't cover the collected beliefs of most organized religions.

Also, in our opinion, Einzige's parable doesn't really pose the question: "Does Santa exist?" Instead, the question is: "Is Santa responsible for this particular and tangible series of events?" In this regard, the analogy we draw from these allegorical choices is not the question of God's existence, but rather God's interference in the natural processes that scientists study — i.e., evolution. With questions like this, there is evidence and observation that contradicts the proposition of a deity who directly interferes in natural processes, at least in the grandiose way that true believers would like us to believe.

To us, the paramount problem arises when folks claim that they are applying critical thinking to arrive at the conclusion that "god exists" — because such a claim is simply untrue. There can be no conclusive critical thought without evidence and observation. To be clear, though, there's no "shame" in choosing A or B when there's truly no way that C can be applied. So, true believers, believe what you like, and enjoy that freedom, but please: be clear about how you came to hold it.




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