Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sad news from Washington

Like most readers, I love books, bookstores, and especially independent bookstores.

Over the years, when I've visited family in Washington, D.C., I've enjoyed visiting Politics and Prose, my sister-in-law's neighborhood bookstore. It's a great place, airy, with a great selection of books. Even if you've never been there you may know about them from the frequent broadcasts on Book TV of nationally known authors reading from their books.

This week we learned that Carla Cohen, one of the long-time co-owners of Politics and Prose, has died.

During an era when superstore chains, the Internet and the economy led to the closing of thousands of independent stores, Politics and Prose expanded from a crowded storefront with less than 2,000 square feet to a two-story haven with more than 10,000 square feet, including a downstairs cafe.

If you can't make it to the memorial service at the store when it's scheduled, go out to your local independent bookstore and buy a book in her memory.

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Obama, Pascal's Wager, and the Irrationality of Belief

You probably saw or heard of this video of Barack Obama this week. Coming on the same day as the results of the Pew survey that showed that everyone but atheists and agnostics is ignorant about religion, it captured the Religion in America slot for this week's news.

I found the clip interesting because of what it says about Obama and the irrationality of belief. In this case, I go beyond what I generally think of when I think of the irrationality of religious belief, but let's go with that a little bit. To be a rational person, one must arrive at an understanding of reality based on observation and study of phenomena, test the evidence for competing propositions, and apply the rules of logic to understand, as well as one is able, the reality of the universe. Because religious belief is inherently based on faith, the rejection of evidence and observed facts, and the rejection of logic, religious belief is at its heart irrational.

The money quote in Obama's speech is this:
I am a Christian by choice.

This naturally put me in mind of Pascal's Wager. A classic argument for the existence of god, Pascal's Wager holds that, since it is not possible to know for certain that god exists, one should choose to believe in god because the benefits of believing (eternal life in heaven) are far greater than the costs of not believing (eternal damnation).

Setting aside for a moment the fact that there are holes in this argument big enough to drive a Unimog through, (such as, how do you know whether to bet on the existence of Vishnu, Yahweh, the Christian god, and whether the key dictum to follow is the prohibition on wearing mixed-fiber clothes or the prohibition on killing cows), the Wager is not, strictly speaking, an argument for the existence of god, but just an argument that one ought to believe in god as a matter of choice.

This is essentially what Obama says that he does, but, as I say, he illustrates the key irrationality of the supposedly smart Blaise Pascal.

Being a Christian entails a set of beliefs: in the existence of god, the historical existence of the person commonly known as Jesus, in some intimate relationship between the Christian god and Jesus, and, most likely, the resurrection of Jesus. These are all factual propositions.

What Pascal and Obama are saying is that one can choose to believe in certain factual claims. This is a peculiar species of irrationality that bears examination. For the life of me, I can't understand how one can believe in the existence of god by choice than one can believe in the Pythagorean Theorem or the theory of evolution by choice. There are proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem, there is overwhelming evidence of evolution, and that evidence and those proofs are sufficient, if one has the capacity to understand them, to produce the internal mental state we refer to as belief.

You can pretend to believe, or choose to act as though you believe (in Pascal's view you can apparently be so good at pretending to believe that you can trick an omniscient god), but how can you produce that mental state in yourself without understanding the evidence and the reasoning, simply as a matter of choice?

We know that Barack Obama is an intelligent man. In this case, however, what he has demonstrated is that there is a significant area of human thought in which he has no hesitation in depicting himself to the whole world, including his constituents, as one who is also irrational.

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