‘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 someĀ  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.