‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’: Bit of a Joke

Book coverI bought a book lately called ‘Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It’s quite a fun read, although as sympathetic to my evangelical convictions as you’d expect from two Harvard grads from New England. In spite of anticipating some light-hearted hostility, I was nevertheless a little surprised by the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ section. Not because it is surprisingly offensive — it isn’t — but more because it is surprisingly inaccurate.

Pascal’s Wager

The first quibble I had with the book had to do with Pascal’s Wager, about which I have written before (when Dawkins got it wrong). Cathcart and Klein say the following:

‘The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that deciding whether or not to believe in God is essentially a wager. If we choose to behave as if there is a God and we get to the end and it turns out there isn’t, it’s not such a big deal. Well, maybe we’ve lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy the Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s small potatoes compared to the alternative. If we bet there isn’t a God, and get to the end only to find out there is a God, we’ve lost the Big Enchilada, eternal bliss. Therefore, according to Pascal, it is a better strategy to live as if there is a God. This is known to academics as “Pascal’s Wager.” To the rest of us, it’s known as hedging your bets.’ (Pg 100)

Calling the idea represented above ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is a bit like calling Hamlet a book about whether or not to commit suicide. As I tried to point out in my post about Dawkins’ objection to it, Pascal’s Wager does have to do with betting on belief in God as the best strategy, but Pascal himself immediately warns that it is not possible to fake it, which brings him to the actual content of his wager.

God is not likely to be fooled by bet-hedging faith based entirely on greed. You have to throw in your lot wholeheartedly one way or another, and reason, says Pascal, has no solution to the problem of whether or not God and His promises are true. This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to. He is actually wagering that living as a Christian (as a sort of a trial period) — though it seems like a terrible life of restriction and sacrifice — will prove it to be the better bet even in the here and now, which removes a significant obstacle to wholehearted conversion. Perhaps the wager is more like trying to convince Cadillac drivers to buy an electric car (which promises to be rubbish but ends up being fantastic to drive, if only you’ll get behind the wheel).

Apples with Apples

My next issue with the book arose out of a Sam Harris quote, which is as follows:

‘Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or a frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book that he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity that will punish him by fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.’ (Pg 99-100)

Harris has made a living out of publishing clever jibes against religion for a popularist atheist movement, and I suppose (if I’m being generous) this quote is important to the extent that it captures the unfortunate mindlessness exhibited by some Christians. However, I think this quote is actually deeply unfair if applied to Christianity in general, and not on the grounds that some might give, i.e. that other Christian groups have abandoned the Bible’s ‘incredible claims’.

It is unfair because it obscures the fact that different types of belief require different types of evidence. Belief in superpowered dessert treats requires paradigm-shifting empirical evidence. Belief that my wife loves me probably requires some evidence (or at least absence of evidence to the contrary), but some  non-evidential trust. The belief that I love my wife while we’re fighting requires still different ratios of evidence, trust and conviction on my part.

Belief in Jesus is not a matter of swallowing a series of fantastical stories without questioning. Our faith — as we make no end of prostesting — is a matter of relationship. It comes about through being convinced that the Biblical view of the world is true; through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough; and through no small measure of belief that one has had the subjective experience of being met and called by God Himself. There is no evidence for this latter belief, although it forms the most significant part of conversion. So consider the following as an alternative analogy to frozen yoghurt:

Jane gets to know a family in her neighbourhood whose son is away at war. She learns about the son from his parents, she sees pictures, hears of his past and so on. Eventually Jane decides to write to him. He writes back, and in time they embark on a long-distance relationship. Although there are many risks involved, they decide that they love each other, and get engaged. His letters include remarkable tales of bravery and selflessness, and promises of a happy life together once the war is over. The end.

On the basis of this story, I’d like to ask Samharrisites a few questions:

  • What evidence does Jane have that they have fallen in love other than that she has personal experience of it and assurances from him? What proof should she demand? Is her trust in their relationship a fiction because they’ve never met?
  • Is it OK for her to base her trust in his character on the testimony of his family and his writings? Or is she mindlessly swallowing invisibility yoghurt by doing so?
  • If the news is quiet about the war and no tales of valour are being reported from other sources, should she believe his ‘remarkable tales’ or should she doubt him just because naysayers in her home town haven’t seen anything comparable with their own eyes?
  • If he’s long in coming home and the other boys start asking Jane out, should she break her engagement and settle for something immediate with a person she doesn’t love so well?
  • If he never comes home at all and Jane dies a spinster, in love with some dusty old letters, does she become a tragic figure and a wasted life? Or is her love and lifelong faithfulness a worthy enough existence?

Christianity is much more like the long-distance relationship and not at all like the evidence-demanding frozen yoghurt. We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

Jane’s story is not beyond belief. I’m sure people like her have existed in human history. We accept it readily enough without demanding proof, because we can relate it to our own experiences and to a long history of similar events. Yet real-life Janes have only one life. She does not have the luxury of assurances that things will work out or any ‘do-overs’ if they don’t. In the same way, this is our only life and this is the one-and-only human history. We don’t have the luxury of multiple worlds in which we can observe God’s track record or the likelihood of incarnations and resurrections. These things have happened in our history or not. Their uniqueness in history doesn’t make them more or less possible. So we take God at His word and wait patiently. If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.

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24 thoughts on “‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’: Bit of a Joke

  1. lambskinny says:

    Hope you don’t mind, I ‘pressed this’ which I’ve never done before. I believe your post (i.e. link) is now posted on my blog, GRACE PARTAKERS.

    Thanks for writing!

    God bless.

    Carley

  2. Lesang says:

    Question (this is more theological than philosophical): Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 says if Christ was not raised then we are of all men to be most pitied. And you say “If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.” but I find this confusing. Are you saying that the ‘pity’ here only applies to the truthfulness of the reality of the next life? Or is it actually talking about the reality of both this life and the next? If the latter is the case (and I think this is the Biblical position*), then Pascal’s Wager is perhaps wrong? After all faith is not just a matter of betting on odds?

    I also get a feeling that, even though Pascal may be emphasizing ‘experience’ more than ‘odds’, he is still encouraging some form of mystical (existential?) or statistical decisionism.

    In a nutshell, I think we still have the task of finding or figuring out what the truth is (i.e. ‘the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, and the EVIDENCE of things not seen’) , instead of merely turning our lives on odds. From my amateur understanding on E. Kant or even Kierkegaard, I think Pascal’s wager is very close to the philosophies of these two thinkers who, I think, stray from the Biblical worldview**. Basically, Kant’s agnosticism regarding the noumenal ‘realm’ is very fancy, and perhaps understandable, but I think it goes against various Bible passages such as Romans 1 talking about the ‘evidence’ of God in creation and therefore not ‘unknowable’ (I personally think Kierkegaard’s existentialism is very similar to this).

    The problem with these types of Pascalian/Kantian/Kiejergaardian arguments is that they end up reducing ‘God’ (except Kant who didn’t believe in him) to the ‘god of the gaps’…

    I actually think the metaphysical ‘problem’ of struggling with sincerity within the wager is created by putting emphasis on rewards. Turning the discussion to the ‘problem’ of desires is only compounding the problem as that makes the decision existential rather than moral, factual and sincere.

    As an apologetic Pascal’s Wager fails, as a polemic it is brilliant as it shows the statistical and existential absurdity of non-Christian belief.

    *One thing that the Bible is very clear on is that Christianity has benefit for BOTH this life and the next. The Bible also teaches that the alternative of hell and the Bible not being true has seriously sad consequences for mankind for BOTH this life and the next (i.e. we will be living without certainty regarding the present and without hope regarding the future).

    **For Pascal to say that ‘more than a guess’ (i.e. Scripture, etc) is involved here is very insufficient, especially since he does this only in passing and after he has basically discredited the role of reason in determining faith.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Lesang.

      Good comments. Perhaps Pascal did adopt a view that made God untouchable by reason for the same reasons given by Kant. I’m not sure; I’ve not thought about that very carefully. What he does say in his essay is that God is infinite and we are finite, and that seems to be his major reason for excluding the possibility that we can work out for ourselves anything useful about Him.

      On 1Corinthians, I’m really just echoing what you say in your footnote, i.e. that the Christian life is good now and not only in the afterlife. Paul says that we are most pitiable if there is no reality to the hope that we profess, but nothing in what Paul says means that the Christian life is therefore the worst life of all men. In fact, someone who dies with hope and rejoicing experiences a good thing, even if those who know that his hope is false pity his foolishness. So I don’t think there’s a conflict. All Pascal is arguing is that a life lived by Christian virtues is more rewarding than it might appear on paper. The pleasure of virtue is better than the pleasure of self-indulgence.

      I also am not insisting that Pascal’s Wager is a great idea (I’m only moaning that people caricature his wager in a way that his wager essay itself forbids), but it’s not as bad as people make out. His argument seems to be something like:

      1. Odds-wise believing in God is a no-brainer;

      2. Everyone has to draw a conclusion on the matter (‘we are embarked’); and

      3. Yet many or most bet against there being a God.

      In response, he’s merely arguing that people ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (rather than assuming virtue is grim) in the hope that this might be a catalyst to actual conversion. I don’t think he’s really encouraging bet hedging at all, seeing as he acknowledges that God won’t accept faith of this kind. The bet is rather that experiencing the Christian life will prove it to be a better life than the self-lived one.

  3. Richard says:

    Hi Jordan

    Interesting post, and I think I see what you’re getting at. But your “Jane” example might be a little unfair. The very fact that she is receiving interactive letters from the soldier, puts it in a different league to praying to an invisible, non-responsive entity. I would say it would be a closer analogy if she just sent letters off and never received any back. I’d be interested to hear the answers to the same questions in that scenario.

    Regards,

    Richard

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for the response. I think that the ‘Jane’ example is certainly imperfect, but I think it is still better than the comparison of belief in God with verification of straight facts, because it is at least within the realm of relationships. Harris’ polemic is fine for playing to the crowd, but it seems to me to be a category mistake (if I’m not misusing Kant there).

      There are a few things I would offer in response to your comment.

      Interactive letters are of a different order to the Christian life, it is true, but we at least do have a body of writing that we consider to be God’s message to us, and it’s in some ways a ‘long-distance relationship’. This is why it is not too far off the mark as an analogy.

      Interactivity or lack thereof is more complicated. It is not possible to say that God is non-responsive. If there is any historical truth to the work of the prophets in the Old Testament, then there would have been patches in Israel’s history in which there was much more of a sense of reciprocal communication. For us now, some people claim to hear God speak, but as a general rule I don’t put much stock in that. Most Christians, however, do perceive God’s activity in daily life in response to prayer and so on. Strong impressions that some action should be done, ‘coincidental’ ordering of events etc. These are not verifiable, and they’re very much the stuff of everyday life, but why would the God who purports to have created everyday life need to openly break the rules to get His work done? Everyday life is NOT what happens when God is inactive. Even the scriptures in which we put so much stock are acknowledged to have come from people writing in the usual way, and yet we think this to be God’s words too. ‘Ordinary life’ is equally the regular medium in which God works.

      Nevertheless, we could modify the analogy to have her receiving second-hand reports of her fiance’s feelings, or we could indeed have Jane trusting an original set of promises with little other communication and it would not modify much at all. It might make Jane appear a bigger fool for trusting what seems more improbable to an outsider, but this is not exactly unprecedented. ‘A Very Long Engagement’ (Audrey Tatou) and ‘District 9′ (Vanessa Haywood) both share this theme. In the latter, Wikus’ wife believes he’s returning because of an origami flower or whatever, which suggests he’s still out there. Neither of these women are considered unbelievably deluded for waiting for their beloved beyond the call of duty.

      • Richard says:

        Hi Jordan,

        Thanks for your reply. I especially enjoyed the District 9 reference. :-)

        If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that it is as impossible to verify a relationship with a person (proving that one is in love or even just a friend) as it is a deity. And therefore, as we require less demanding evidence for our
        relationships, the same should apply to God. To be honest, I’ve been considering this line of thought for a while.

        But the problem I see is most relationships are by-products of the people in them. I am in love as a result of my wife existing. There is no evidence that my wife exists just because I love her. Likewise, if a person believes in a God, that is by no means
        sufficient evidence to show his God exists.

        And there are plenty of examples where people believe a relationship is present where there is none (And I’ll spare you the obvious Sandra Bullock movie reference). Imagine Jane told you she was in love with your son, the soldier, who had been MIA for years and whom she had never actually met, nor conversed with. As real as that relationship may be to her, it would not show that he was still alive. For that, I’m sure you would need more compelling evidence.

        Best regards,

        Richard

      • Jordan Pickering says:

        Hi Richard,

        I agree that Jane’s beliefs about her relationship would not function as objective proof of anything. As with scripture, the letters in which she puts her hope might be a cruel fiction, her hope might be misplaced. In fact, my original analogy (or the questions about it anyway) hint at a bit of ridicule from the pragmatically minded. Nevertheless, no one should be telling Jane that her hope is irrational, damaging, irresponsible, or a denial of logic, reason and the structure of the universe. To the degree that the circumstantial evidence supports the existence of her relationship, it is reasonable for her to believe that it exists. I don’t expect that people should take Jane’s faith as proof that the soldier is alive and in love with her, but I’d also expect that people shouldn’t expect her to have to empirically prove the existence of her relationship just because the circumstances are exceptional.

        As I also suggested, we have no grounds for saying that God’s way of relating to the world is exceptional. ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ as another commenter said. The only way we could actually know whether God’s ways with people are extraordinary is if we had data from other divine-cosmic and divine-human relationships. To say, ‘God’s way of working with the world is out of the ordinary’ assumes that one knows how He ordinarily would operate, and that is clearly beyond our ability to know.

        So, yes, Christians have a wealth of circumstantial evidence (but no proof) supporting claims to a relationship that cannot objectively be observed. But to say therefore that God does not call people into relationship with Himself (especially on the grounds that we assume that we know what that ought to look like) is hardly reasonable either. Harris’ demand for invisibility-yoghurt proof calls for data of the wrong order and on the basis of assumptions about God that he has no grounds for possessing.

        Regards,
        Jordan

  4. Hephaestion says:

    We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

    You can’t claim, on the one hand, that your god is involved in the universe (perhaps performing miracles, giving help to favourite football teams and armies, finding you a parking bay, whipping up a tornado, saving you from cancer, and generally performing “actions”) while on the other hand claiming that this entity is beyond empirical study. These are mutually exclusive claims. If your god is in any way an interventionist god then he/she/it can be studied (like it or not).

    Subjective experience means almost nothing. It doesn’t matter how many people think that they’ve seen Elvis – all that we can take from these millions of people is that they honestly believe that they have seen Elvis, nothing more. As wonderful as our brains are, they are prone to so many problems (confirmation bias, preferring stories over statistics, faulty memories, not appreciating the role of chance in our lives, etc) that we simply cannot trust them to be reliable, objective observers of reality.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      If your god is in any way an interventionist god then he/she/it can be studied (like it or not).

      I agree with Dawkins that if God acts, He acts within the empirical world, and therefore is theoretically subject to scientific statements. This is merely to demonstrate that one cannot keep God safe within a non-overlapping magisterium. But there is a vast difference between saying that and what I am saying (and Pascal too, for different reasons). If God were to speak audibly to me in a ‘Samuel, Samuel’ kind of way, it would be an act theoretically open to scientific study, but how would you go about doing that? God stands outside the universe and His interventionist actions are unrepeatable. How do you scientifically test history and subjective experiences? My relationship with my wife is a daily stream of subjective experiences that pour into history, but none of it is accessible to scientific testing, and none of it ever will be unless I grant it whatever access it’s limited vision can have. So no, my statements are not at all mutually exclusive.

      Secondly, subjective experience means almost nothing as proof for sceptics. It means almost everything in relationships. I did not and would not claim that people’s experience of God proves anything whatsoever. But it is not for that reason insignificant to the individual.

      Also, you can and must and do trust people’s opinions and experiences all the time. There simply isn’t the time to work everything from first principles. Most knowledge is based on trust. And if you can’t trust the brain, who can you trust? I’m hard pressed to find a basis for epistemology among what you’re saying. The best we can do is to figure out as well as possible who is trustworthy.

      • Hephaestion says:

        So no, my statements are not at all mutually exclusive.

        You’ve already conceded that an interventionist god is, in principle, open to study. Your objection is practical (“but how would you go about doing that?”).

        How does a scientist study something that doesn’t absorb in the electro-magnetic spectrum, doesn’t emit in the electro-magnetic spectrum, doesn’t reflect or interact in any way with the electro-magnetic spectrum? How do you study something that is invisible? By being very, very clever, that’s how.

        Secondly, subjective experience means almost nothing as proof for sceptics. It means almost everything in relationships.

        Subjective experience is important to human relationships, obviously, but not when it comes to an objective understanding of the universe. No matter how earnest, honest and impassioned someone is, when they tell you that Thor *really* does throw lightening bolts it’s not closed-minded to be just a tad sceptical. Granted, such a belief may be very important to its holder, but so what? It tells you nothing about whether the belief is true or not.

        Also, you can and must and do trust people’s opinions and experiences all the time. There simply isn’t the time to work everything from first principles.

        An opinion in the context of a search for truth is an irrelevant distraction. An opinion is not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Some opinions you no doubt find absurd, others compelling? Why the difference? You have to show some discernment.

        Anyhow, you are not asking someone to believe that you had a nightmare about Elvis last night after eating a lot of cheese. You are trying to convince someone that you have a personal relationship with a supernatural, unseen, unseeable, untouchable, unverifiable, all-singing, all-dancing, universe-creating, wrathful, loving, miracle-making, limelight-avoiding, homosexuality-disapproving Super Being that’ll let you to burn for an eternity for not believing in It, and that we should all believe in It too.

        If there is a fundamental belief by which to live your life and inform your every deed, then it had better be based on more than just an opinion or subjective experience (one would have thought).

        Most knowledge is based on trust. And if you can’t trust the brain, who can you trust? I’m hard pressed to find a basis for epistemology among what you’re saying.

        How can we be confident in the things we believe? Epistemology is what the argument between religion and science is all about. The short answer is that we trust science because it works (and the reason why this should be the case is a mystery). Science allows us to test ideas, to keep the good ones and reject the bad ones. We know about sub-atomic particles that barely interact with matter, and black holes that distort the fabric of space-time so much that time grinds to a halt. How can we be confident that such amazing things are true?

        As Einstein wrote, science searches for relations which are thought to exist independently of the searching individual. This includes the case where man himself is the subject.

        It’s not that we can’t trust the brain, period. They are incredible powerful biological computers that have served humans well for at least 70,000 years (in their modern form). It’s just that we now know a lot more about them. Forewarned is forearmed. The scientific method protects us from wishful thinking, from confirmation bias, from preferring stories over statistics, etc. We have to leverage what the brain does well and avoid or ameliorate what it does badly.

        The only trust in science is that the universe is not out to fool us (though we are prone to fooling ourselves). Science is not about trusting people so much as trusting the methods that they employ. We don’t have faith in the scientific method – we trust it because it works. Some scientists are not above lying and cheating, of faking their data – but they will, eventually, be found out.

        If we can’t test whether an idea has some basis in reality, then why should we believe it? If we can’t test whether Thor is real, why should be believe in him? Furthermore, since we can explain how thunder and lightening are made, then the evidence for Thor had better be exceptionally compelling.

      • Hephaestion says:

        The other thing to mention about trust is that it must be earnt. We don’t casually grant trust – the weight of evidence suggests whether or not it should be given.

  5. Hephaestion says:

    …through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough;

    To be plausible an explanation must, by all sensible and reasonable measures, not include ignoring everything we’ve learned about reality over the last 150 years. We know that Adam and Eve never existed in any literal sense (so no Fall, no Original Sin, etc); that there was no Great Flood; that the earth is not the center of the universe; that the earth is 4.5 billion years old; that the laws of nature cannot be bent at will, and so on. Our scientific understanding of the universe, being rigorously tested and hard won, must surely inform our specific beliefs, and do so without contradiction.

    Miracles are, by definition, implausible – they are highly improbable events. The resurrection is an entirely implausible explanation. With a little imagination any number of more plausible, natural and likely explanations can be entertained. The only problem is, these more likely explanations don’t fit the bigger picture which is assumed to be true (indeed, *must* be true), and is even more extraordinary and improbable.

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” as Carl Sagan famously observed. Unless you are religious, of course, in which case you can claim anything while demanding an exemption from reason.

    The things that we actually “know” to be true came about through hard study. For everything that we actually know to be true, there are far more things that are false. We all, almost certainly, unknowingly believe in things that are false. But, given the choice, would you want to know? Would a Muslim person want to know if their beliefs are false? Would a Christian? If you can’t test them how will you ever tell?

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      The idea that the universe is a closed system running unbreakably according to the law of cause and effect is unscientific belief plain and simple. It is theoretically falsifiable of course – the existence of a miracle would show that the system is open – but miracles are impossible by definition, right Mr Hume?

      Yes, the resurrection of Jesus is improbable. Impossibly improbable. As long as probability is being captained by chance. But if there is a Creator, then probability has a captain with a plan and the resurrection is not improbable at all. In other words, as CS Lewis was fond of pointing out, miracles are only improbable per definition if you’ve already decided that the universe is structured in a way that excludes them.

      My actual point in the line that you cited, however, is that the details as presented in the gospels (and the tiny bit of historical infromation from other sources) plausibly fit what we’d expect if there actually was a resurrection — the disciples genuinely believe what they’re saying, the details do not fit cover-ups and deceptions etc. If they were mistaken, they didn’t know it and no one was able to present evidence to the contrary. If you ever let your philosophical model of the universe crack and allow that resurrections are possible if God plans them, then Jesus’ one has convincing historical backing. If you decide philosophically that it’s impossible, which is very closed-minded, I have to say, then there’s no possible evidence that can help you, extraordinary or otherwise.

  6. Hephaestion says:

    This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to.

    Many non-believers don’t actively bet against there being a Christian god in the same way that they don’t bet against Zeus being real. It’s just that Zeus is ignored. A world in which Zeus is real would be very different to the world we observe, and so it is with the God of Abraham. The possibility is so remote as to be unworthy of consideration. Science would have to be wrong on so many fronts (that are held with great confidence) that it’s simply inconceivable that any of the religions are true.

    Pascal might as well have been imploring us to experience Islam or Hinduism, or any of the thousands of other religions that have almost no chance of being true. Not being absolutely impossible doesn’t imply a 50/50 bet.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      A world in which Zeus is real would be very different to the world we observe, and so it is with the God of Abraham.

      Science is supposed to be observing the world as it is, not making judgments about whether the universe is philosophically stacking up to an unknown commentator’s reconstruction of what the world ought to look like with god X at the helm (this would fall under what Pascal meant about God being beyond the reach of human reason — our reconstructions of what God should be like are usually stupid). Seeing as science is based on experiment and observation, it would seem to me to be overstepping its bounds if it has formed beliefs about the supernatural.
      If Christianity is true, all that will be proved wrong is naturalistic metaphysics, I’d imagine, not science.

      Experiencing the Christian life is about moral transformation and self-sacrifice, which looks like a drag from the outside. Pascal bets his friends that the moral life is surprisingly good and their pleasure-seeking life worse. Whether he could have been doing so from the basis of another religion is irrelevant. Pascal is merely removing one of the obstacles to faith — probably the most common one. If God is real, then it means people are not free to live life as they please. People like autonomy (even though they’re bad at it), and therefore resist belief in God. Pascal hoped to expose our flair for being bad at autonomy. If having abandoned your autonomy, you fall into the wooden, long-ignored arms Zeus, that’s your problem. You can lead a horse to water etc.

      • Hephaestion says:

        Science is supposed to be observing the world as it is, not making judgments about whether the universe is philosophically stacking up to an unknown commentator’s reconstruction of what the world ought to look like with god X at the helm.

        None of the rules that we have discovered about the universe make accommodations for an interventionist god of the Abrahamic tradition (or any other “active” god). It may be that the rules we have discovered are in fact wrong – they are certainly incomplete, but our understanding of the world cannot be so wrong as to have missed, say, the existence of Wotan. An interventionist god would make itself known via its interventions (since, after all, people do notice them – or claim to), and our understanding of how the universe works would have to accommodate them.

        Seeing as science is based on experiment and observation, it would seem to me to be overstepping its bounds if it has formed beliefs about the supernatural.

        The only boundary for science is reality.

        Science does not deny the possibility of the supernatural, it’s just that on closer inspection no explanation of a phenomenon has thus far required it. Some things were believed to be of supernatural invention (such as fossils and rainbows) but were subsequently shown to be a natural consequence of the laws of physics. And, in order to employ the supernatural in an explanation it would first have to be clearly defined.

        Pascal bets his friends that the moral life is surprisingly good and their pleasure-seeking life worse.

        So non-Christians are immoral hedonists, while Christians are good? Nice hypothesis.

        But what does the evidence have to say about behavior and religious belief? How about this from the Journal of Religion and Society:

        “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.

        Whether or not God is real, belief in such an entity does not confer better behavior. We can and do behave responsibly and reasonably without believing in a supernatural Judge, Jury and Executioner.

        If God is real, then it means people are not free to live life as they please.

        So if God is *not* real then then they people are free to “live life as they please?” What does that even mean? Does it mean we can choose to ignore the laws of nature? Does it mean we can choose not to follow rules of grammar? Does it mean we are free to drive on the wrong side of the road or ignore traffic lights? Does it mean we are free to eat chocolate cookies all day? Does it mean we are free to ignore our innate moral sense?

        Everything in the universe follows rules, and animals are no exception. Why do chimpanzees form a social hierarchy? Why do birds fly in a certain formation? How do ants build such complex colonies? We all instinctively follow rules that have been shaped by countless years of evolution.

        None of us gets to simply live out a fantasy because there are consequences to actions, and there are logistical, financial, legal, ethical and neural constraints.

  7. LeeEm says:

    It’s good to see you’re all seeking. Keep it up boys – keep doing your homework and hopefully the truth will reveal itself to you. Kali Kai Agathos.

  8. Richard says:

    Hi Jordan

    I think you’re being unfair to Harris. You’ve already stated that one can’t prove God exists as there is no objective evidence. If all some people seem require to believe is an emotionally subjective relationship, then that equates to not requiring objective, scientific evidence. Which makes Sam Harris’s statement perfectly valid.

    I can’t help but feel your “relationship” argument attempts to complicate an area which is really quite straightforward.

    Regards,

    Richard

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Hi Richard,

      That’s not quite what I’m saying. As with any relationship, there is plenty of objective evidence for faith in Jesus, but most of it is historical or circumstantial or unrepeatable. As such, it does not function as scientific proof. My issue with Harris is that he pours ridicule on ‘believers’ for their absence of scientific proof, but he does not acknowledge that scientific proof can only be had for a reasonably small range of things. Not everything can be submitted to scientific testing (none of history, for example), but it is not for that reason irrational to hold to non-scientific beliefs (a belief in Napoleon, for example). In other words, it is a false dichotomy to say that things that are not scientifically provable must be subjective, emotional vaguaries (In fact I would consider my relationship with God to be largely unemotional). The majority of things that are of personal importance to people (such as relationships) are not actually scientific, and most great science has no importance to daily life (relativity and quantum physics come to mind as being of no interest to most people). For this reason, I think my illustration was appropriate.

      Some people may believe in God for purely emotional reasons — that is their concern — but that is not to say that all faith is based on emotion. Harris is not right to demand scientific evidence when the thing to be proved is not of that order. The only way God’s existence could become a matter of science is if He ‘came out of hiding’ and subjected Himself to examination, but then I suspect that we don’t know what we’re asking (and we probably have a mental image of Him in human form — though maybe slightly bigger and whiter — leaving a kibbutz also housing Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa). I’d argue that we can’t assume that we know what kind of being God is and what He should be doing to prove Himself, we have to make do with the ways in which He is supposed to have revealed Himself, which is relationally, in history, in Christ and in scripture.

      So I’m not sure why you consider my relationship analogy to be difficult. It seems a simple way of demonstrating something that actually is rather complicated. The problem with Harris’ straightforwardness is that he’s over-simplified the matter and hammered it into an invalid category. That surely disqualifies his view from the ‘simplest is best’ rule of thumb?

      Thanks for writing. I appreciate the help and input,
      Jordan

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