WARNING: Philosophic Content Ahead

Yes…this warning is serious.  I’m about to show how big a dork I am by linking  three different schools: advanced physics, philosophy, and economics.  If you haven’t already fallen asleep and you’re dumb brave enough to carry on, consider yourself warned.  This post is also inspired by the belief that one of the worst things to happen to humanity was the Enlightenment.  Though yes, I realize there has been a large amount of good coming from that, there has also been a large amount of damage which is best summed up, in my estimation, in the need to separate reason from belief.*  This study is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but is more a thought exercise for myself and hopefully is interesting to you.  If not, skip it and come back another day when I have the pretty pictures up.

Please note also, dear reader, that this was written in the wake of a conversation regarding atheists not being preachy (which, I have found, is often not the case.  In my experience, many atheists are just as preachy as the annoying Christians they typically complain of for this behavior).  I have my own dissertation on believers’ conversations with non-believers.

Preface

This isn’t really being written to persuade one to believe in divinity – either specific or general.  It’s also not written to persuade one to become an atheist.  I’m writing this more to hopefully bring a bit more civility to the discussion between believers and atheists, which, in my recent encounters, are lacking.

Let us begin by assuming that you are unwilling to believe anything that cannot be proven by science.  Granted, in this case, I’m going to use the actual definition of that phrase and not let people skate by with the definition that is often thrown around – that there are “laws” of science that are immutable.  There are only observed incidents for which we know the outcome, and through repetition of the experiments with the same outcome, we reason that the end result of future such endeavors will yield the same results.  However, a scientist will admit that it is possible (though improbable) that one could jump and gravity not apply.  First when we get into advanced physics (a subject which, no, I am not one of the five people on the face of the planet who actually understand what’s going on because I’ve never taken Calc 8 or Differential EQ, but I’ve read a fair bit of the dumbed down versions) there is no real certainty.  This brings us to Chapter 1.

Chapter 1

Let us consider Erwin Schroedinger (sorry for the “oe” rather than the umlaut…I don’t know how to get special characters…in German, it’s the same anyway…leave me alone) and his Uncertainty Principle.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, if you place a cat in a box with an irradiated sample with enough RADs to kill it.  Schroedinger concludes that until we open the box after beginning the experiment, we cannot say with certainty that the cat is in fact dead, even though we have every reason to believe that it is.  If, as previously stated, we have dismissed all knowledge which we cannot scientifically know, and a scientist (and he’s not the only one to have said this…check out the uncertainty principle…it’s amazing) has basically said this at great length, which admittedly I am not doing justice, we must take it under advisement.

Chapter 2

Let us now consider a concept proffered by Blaise Pascal regarding belief in divinity (in his case, the Judeo-Catholic God).  The summary of his approach can be summarized as follows.  Let us draw a payoff matrix (part one of where Econ comes into this).  Let’s assume that across the top we have, “Believe in God,” and, “Do Not Believe in God.”  Down the left-hand side, we’ll fill in, “God Exists,” and, “God Does Not Exist.”  In the upper left corner of the interior boxes, we can fill in “Go to heaven,” because if you believe in God and He*** exists, it’s only natural (especially in Christian theology) that you’ll be rewarded.  In the lower left corner, fill in, “Lose nothing,” or, if you’re a tither and someone who would actually participate in what Christianity would classify as sin, feel free to write those in (it is, after all, technically an opportunity cost…I’m just not convinced that without a religious moral code, most people would actually try to become Nietzche’s over-man (a concept with which you’ll have to familiarize yourself with because I’m not going to take the time to explain it in context of this article…though don’t rule it out for future ones).  In the lower right corner, write “Gain nothing,” or if you would participate in the sins of Christianity if you did not believe in God, go ahead and write those as gains.  In the upper right-hand corner, write, “Go to Hell.”  Now, again, the payoffs for the top row are only good in Christianity, but you can easily substitute whatever goods there are from other faiths (off the top of my head, Enlightenment and moving down the reincarnation chain for Buddhists, a heaven-like existence for Muslims, etc.).

Conclusions

Again, the purpose of this is not to convince you of one square within the payoff matrix (quite frankly, if the past 4 billion years of human history and many of the greatest minds within that history cannot bring all of humanity to one understanding of the possibility of the eternal – or even its existence – what chance do I have?).  The purpose of this article is simply to ask for a return to respect between the two camps (yes…there are more than two, but big groups are easier to work with) in their discussions with one another.  Ultimately, you can’t criticize anyone for their belief or disbelief from an, “I only believe what can be scientifically proven,” standpoint, because, again, first of all, nothing can be proven, and second, what it really comes down to is an individual’s risk aversion factor – how willing an individual is to either engage in or attempt to avoid risk (and you thought I’d forgotten to bring the Economics into this discussion).

*If you feel that this is, in fact, necessary, may I point you toward Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and one T. Aquinas.

I don’t know whether I expect this post to create a hailstorm of responses or if most of you will have had the sense to heed the warning at the top.  I’m interested either way.

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4 Responses to “WARNING: Philosophic Content Ahead”

  1. Scott Berry Says:

    While I do not speak for all nonbelievers, I certainly applaud any effort to bring civility to any honest debate. We all know that reasonable people have been disagreeing about this issue for thousands of years, and new thoughts tend to bring new perspective. That said I’d like to add some thoughts.

    The other physics part of the uncertainty principle, the Heisenberg one, is useful here. It states roughly that for any traveling partical you cannot simultaneously measure speed and position at any given time. This becomes a problem when to measure one you must interfere with another. Thus the observer effect is experienced. While I don’t intend this as an endorsement of logical positivism par se, I think it becomes a useful response the the more sophisticated take on the Pascal’s wager argument you’ve introduced.

    Arguably the payoff matrix isn’t a way to know anything metaphysical because by observing the metaphysical we necessarily change it. We cannot make a rational decision based on the metaphysical assumptions of the matrix because we change them by considering them. We can’t consider the potential payoff of God vs. No God because we change the lose nothing/lose everything criteria in our consideration.

    Here’s an example, by entertaining both possibilities, we have conceded that there is an equal possibility that God does not exist, therefore any faith we have after consideration of the wager cannot be genuine because it is not based on faith its based on self interest. In consideration we had changed the terms of the decision.

    I do so miss our discussions we really must do this again some time.

    • justamusician Says:

      Your introduction of the Heisenberg principal certainly is applicable, and I’ve never felt that Pascal’s wager was particularly useful in belief, especially not to those who already believe, but I think there’s definitely a possible application to beginning a belief in a higher being. I don’t think you can ever really get to a belief in a specific god through pure reason (despite Aquinas’ best arguments), but I think someone could begin to believe in a god out of self interest and then, through actual consideration, come to an actual faith.

  2. Ethan Says:

    You must be in your second year back in school 🙂

  3. justamusician Says:

    Pretty damn close, E. Technically only my second semester back…but close enough.

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