Monday, August 18, 2008

Try to believe that a monkey is a pumpkin

I visited my parents today. It turns out my mother experienced a minor emergency last night. She had been feeling poorly for weeks but then, late yesterday, she experienced palpitations. My dad drove her to Kaiser. The two of them remained in the emergency room for several hours.

My mom told me that her palpitations were caused by “drug interactions.” I asked her which drugs had interacted. She said, “it was my antibiotics.” I said, well, OK, that’s one drug, but what about the other one or ones?

Eventually (you have no idea), I gleaned from my parents (aka the Costanzas) that mom has been on thyroid medication for decades, and when she started on a course of antibiotics for a dental problem about a month ago, she immediately became ill. Two weeks later, she started another course of antibiotics—for another ailment—and, again, she felt ill, until Friday, when she broke out in a rash. Then came the palpitations last night.

“How do you know it isn’t just the antibiotics?” I asked. My parents stared at me. My parents (aka the Bickersons) then argued for a while about I-know-not-what, but, in the end, they seemed to say that both of these drugs were in mom’s system when she had the palpitations. So there you are.

Naturally, I explained that, no, in fact, there are several possibilities that could explain the palpitations. First, it could indeed be the interaction between the thyroid medicine and the antibiotics. Second, it could be the antibiotics alone. Third, it could be neither the above-mentioned interaction nor the antibiotics; possibly, coincidentally, something else might have caused the palpitations.

“Well,” said dad, “that’s unlikely.” I agreed, but I said that that didn’t mean that the possibility should be ignored. After all, I said, for all we know, there could be something wrong with mom's heart. Even a 1% chance of that is something you need to consider, I said.

(You might wonder why I didn’t just ask them what the emergency room doctor told them. But you’ve got to know my parents to know how unlikely it is that one will find out what the doctor told them by asking them what the doctor told them. Tea leaves or gopher entrails are much better indicators.)

* * * * *

This reminds me of something I wrote a while back about the danger of a tsunami wreaking havoc on the coast of Orange County (So Cal tsunamis?). I had come across a study that had been done, I believe, for the state (Evaluation of Tsunami Risk to Southern California Coastal Cities (pdf)). According to the study, there is a small but significant chance of a tsunami hitting the OC, not only because of earthquakes, but also because of undersea landslides on the Catalina side of the channel, which is very deep. According to the report, there is evidence of historical tsunamis of serious significance along the OC coast. These, said the report's author, are “infrequent.” Nevertheless, “the hazard posed by locally generated tsunami attack [!] is very serious and should be appropriately mitigated.”

The general point here is that a risk might still be worrisome even when it is very unlikely. It is significant if what could occur would be catastrophic.

This seems to be the core idea of “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most famous arguments “for believing in God.” Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) argued, not that God exists, but that it is rational to believe in God. There’s a difference.

Suppose that I have been falsely accused of blasphemy, and I am now in the clutches of Inquisitors. Suppose, further that the Inquisitors will torture me until both I confess to blasphemy and, further, I believe my confession (let us assume that I know that they will kill me in any event). Clearly, under the circumstances, it is rational for me not only to confess but also to believe in my confession, if I can manage that, for it is better to not be tortured than it is to be tortured. That is, even though the belief that I blasphemed is false, it is nevertheless rational for me to adopt that belief (if, again, I can manage that).

A similar situation is said to arise re belief in God. According to Pascal, I will either believe in God or not.

I BELIEVE IN GOD. We’ll start with my believing in God. In that case, there are two possibilities, for either God exists or He doesn’t. If God does exist, that’s good, for (reportedly) God, who is omnipotent, is pleased by those who believe in Him. But what if God does not exist? In that case, nothing good or bad happens. One simply has a false belief. One already has lots of those. No big deal.

The upshot: one takes no chances, really, in believing in God. There’s no downside of any significance.

I DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD. Now consider what happens when one doesn't believe in God. It’s totally different. Again, either God exists or He doesn’t. If He doesn’t, then, if I don't believe in Him, then I have a true belief. So what? I've already got lots of those. I don’t get a prize or anything.

But now suppose that God does exist. Surely there is some possibility that that is the case. Who could deny it? But if God does exist and I do not believe that He exists, then things go very badly for me. The word is that, in that case, I'm in for eternal torment.

The upshot: in not believing in God, one takes one hell of a risk. True, given the poverty of the arguments for God’s existence and the tension in the notion that a perfectly good creator has created an evil-drenched world such as ours, God’s existence may well be judged unlikely. But even a 1% chance of eternal torment is a chance that, as a rational being, one must not take. Meanwhile, there really is no downside to believing in God. So, naturally, the only rational thing to do is to believe in God! (I have taken some liberties here. Pascal emphasized the good of eternal reward, not the bad of eternal punishment.)

Once again, the key motivator here isn’t the likelihood of the negative outcome. One might well argue that that outcome (eternal torment) is very unlikely. The key motivator is the magnitude of the catastrophe involved in the negative outcome.

This makes a lot of sense—until you consider:

Isn’t God liable to get ticked off if you show up believing in Him, not because He reveals Himself in His fine and wondrous workmanship and love, but because, well, you believe in insurance? Imagine finally meeting Him and saying, "Oh, great! It was a real leap believing in you, dude—I mean, c'mon!—but like I always say, you gotta consider all contingencies! Ha ha ha!"

Second, if this reasoning works for the Christian God, isn’t it likely to work for other religions’ gods too? If so, does reason then compel us to believe in all of the gods? But do the religions allow you to employ a “cover your bets” strategy? I think not. For one thing, gods tend to be “jealous”—at least that’s the word on the street.

Finally, are beliefs really things you can choose? Go ahead, choose to believe that a monkey is a pumpkin, I dare you!

Can’t do it, eh?

Well, I guess if you had enough time to really mess yourself up, you could probably just manage it.

I do wish theists would be clearer about just what they expect from people with regard to belief. Some theists seem to think that nonbelievers are ipso facto sinners. Occasionally, I call them on this. I say, "OK, just what am I doing wrong? It's not like I don't want to believe in God. I do. (I want justice as much as anyone, and, well, there doesn't seem to be justice in this realm.) But, dude, I've got to have a reason, and it's got to be a decent one. It can't be a leap of faith, 'cause I am a rational being, and I am not going to make some totally daffy move that places me in exactly the same category, rationally speaking, as Shirley MacLaine or Kathryn Kuhlman."

Unfortunately, at this point, I usually start getting the pseudoscience shuffle. That's when I'm told that "if my heart is truly open," if I will just set aside my pride, then God will somehow enter me and do the do. Yeah, so, later, when it doesn't happen, they've got that one covered. I'm a sinner; I'm not worthy.

Reminds me of the physicist who was pretty sure that psychic power is real. He found some kids who were reputed to have psychic ability, so he tested them. But no abilities were revealed.

So naturally, he backed off, started changing his tune. Right?

Wrong. He did the shuffle. He had a "Eureka!" moment. He had discovered, he said, that psychic ability is shy. That is, when you test it, it goes away!

So, again, I want to believe in God, but I am aware of no good reason to believe in Him. What am I supposed to do here? Tell me that! And don't be giving me the shuffle!


Andrew Tonkovich said...

Thanks, Blue. But would you please do a similar lecture on religion, which I not only do not believe in, but argue does not really exist. Just because people call it something doesn't mean it exists, right? So that religion, which is a name for some kind of social organization of believers (in something which also doesn't exist) becomes an accepted, acceptable label for a behavior, a practice misidentied by not only them, but us. Sheesh. I like superstition. (Well, no, I hate it, but you know what I mean: I like to call religion superstition, which is closer to what it is, no?) I propose, for instance, that the IRS offer tax-exempt status to superstition organizations and abandon the religion label. They ought to do that, monkey-pumpkin-wise, right, and immediately? Thanks, prof.

Anonymous said...

Friend of mine just sent me the following via e-mail, which seems relevant here:

"In the spring 2008 issue of Philosophy and Public Affairs there is a new paper by NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel entitled "Public Education and Intelligent Design." In the paper he argues that intelligent design is a rational position, that in fact it is science, that scientists and philosophers have incorrectly tried to squelch discussion of ID, the courts have gotten things wrong, and that ID should be discussed in public schools. In other words, it's a very common-sensical position, argued by a prominent philosopher who happens to be an atheist. (You may remember that Nagel reviewed and panned Dawkins' God Delusion.)"

I should add, to be honest, that I just received my friend's e-mail, thought of Big Blue, and posted this comment before I checked out what he says about this article.

I know, I know. Your response, if like the last time you discussed ID, on DtB, is "(Yawn)" But I'm still trying. (God knows, I am still trying, out of Charity, even though I make pointed comments, etc...)

Roy Bauer said...

I will try to get up to speed on this latest Nagel wrinkle when I can. I did peruse the web a bit--and I'm familiar with Nagel (went to hear him speak at UCI many years ago; read many of his essays).

Do keep in mind that

* Nagel is an atheist. He is not suggesting the ID is a good argument.

* Nagel seems to be criticizing a kind of hostile view to ID that, in his view, goes too far. But that's not the same thing as a defense of ID as an argument.

* Nagel is just one philosopher among perhaps a hundred of equal stature, almost none of whom seem in a hurry to agree with him. (Obviously, the worth of his view should be determined by its merits/arguments. But, until we can do that, we shouldn't get excited about this.)

Perhaps for different reasons (I'm not sure yet), I have long thought that Dawkins is much too hostile and does go too far in his rejection of theism.

As I said, I will try to get up to speed on this when I can.

for me, the crucial question is: is ID a good argument? Nothing about this Nagel business suggests that it is. As near as i can tell, Nagel's point seems to be more in the nature of: those who rule out this kind of reasoning as beyond the pale are mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Blue said, "As near as i can tell, Nagel's point seems to be more in the nature of: those who rule out this kind of reasoning as beyond the pale are mistaken."

Right. That was why I mentioned the article here. Nagel's point seems relevant here, and to your discussion of ID on DtB.

Hope your mom is OK.

Anonymous said...

How many people sincerely believe anything like "a monkey is a pumpkin?" Real fair comparison with religious belief.

Roy Bauer said...

5:47, you completely missed the point. I was making no such comparison. The point is that it is not so easy to choose to believe what you already believe to be false. I was focusing, not on the mindset of believers, but the mindset of nonbelievers who seem to be told to believe something that, as far as they can tell, is ungrounded (and likely false). I can no more choose to believe in God (given the state of the evidence/arguments) than I can choose to believe that a monkey is a pumpkin.

Good grief.