Joe believes in god, just like you do.
One day Joe is driving in his car. He heads onto the onramp for the highway and starts accelerating. As he does this, he muses on the perfect curve of the onramp, that all he has to do is lock the wheel in place and the car goes correctly.
He muses on what would happen were he not to pull out of this curve. The car would describe a perfect circle until it hit the barrier at sixty miles per hour. If he unbuckled his seatbelt he'd be catapulted through the windshield and probably impale himself on a tree.
And then he'd be with Jesus.
As his car reaches the highway, Joe levels out the steering wheel and continues driving just like any other day.
I will inevitably get someone who doesn't read this paragraph and tells me that god condemns all suicides to hell. Those of you who point this out are completely missing the purpose of the exercise.
What I want to do is make a distinction between belief and expectation, and the scenario I present is merely a more graphic presentation of an incredibly simple dichotomy that crossed Joe's mind for just a moment before his defenses slammed into place and he forced himself not to think about it.
For those of you for whom the suicide thing is a sticking point: Joe hears a little voice that fills him with warmth and light and makes him feel all fuzzy inside that tells him that if he lets go of this glass of sacramental wine, it will not fall and stain his new white carpet, but it will float in the air.
Joe carefully puts down the wine glass on the table.
Why does Joe behave this way? He believes in god. He believes that God speaks only the truth, and that an eternal paradise awaits him on the other side of death. So why does he behave
no differently from the rest of us?
I'd put forth that expectation is so much stronger than this kind of belief that we either have to clarify what we mean by "belief" or admit that the word has no meaning whatsoever.
I should, at this point, admit that when I say "belief," I'm substituting that word for a recursive concept: belief in
belief. Joe doesn't drop the wine glass, or crash the car, or any one of a myriad behaviors that would be logically
consistent with belief in a christian god, but logically in
consistent with survival and prosperity if there were no god.
Joe knows that when dropped, things fall and wine stains carpets. And that hitting a solid barrier at 60 mph hurts a lot.
Joe tells everyone he believes in god. He goes to church and goes through all the motions, but there is a wall in his mind between where he tells himself that he believes in god, and the rest of his brain that lets him function in reality. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he finds it laudable to behave as if he believes in god, and finds it inconvenient and uncomfortable to behave this way if he doesn't convince himself that he believes in god.
Steve suffers from a similar mental handicap as Joe. Steve says he believes that there's a dragon in his garage. I talked to Steve the other day, and said "that's so cool! Dragons are awesome, can I see it?'
Steve said to me, "It's an invisible dragon."
"Okay, how about we go there and we'll just listen to it breathe," I asked.
"It's inaudible, too."
Said I, "Okay, then how about we go in there with a gas spectrometer and measure how much CO2 it's putting out as it breathes?"
Quoth he, "The dragon doesn't need to breathe."
And I spake unto him, "How about we go there and just throw some flour in the air, and we'll be able to see its outline."
Steve said to me, "the dragon is permeable to flour."
It's amazing, isn't it, how Steve knows exactly which results he'll have to explain away in order to sustain his claim that the dragon is there. It's almost as if he knows there's no dragon, but thinks, perhaps, that it's so important to be seen to believe in the dragon
that he's convinced himself, even though his expectation of the outcome of every test always points toward "no dragon."
Now suppose I were having this conversation with Joe, or perhaps Joe's conservative uncle Cletus. Cletus is a Young Earth Creationist. I ask Cletus to come with me to Mexico to examine the rock stratification that the dinosaur-killing meteorite left in that huge-ass crater sixty-five million years ago.
Notice that Cletus doesn't say "Okay, let's do it, and while we're looking I'll show you the decayed remains of the saddle that Adam fashioned for his pet Triceratops."
Cletus says "That was put there as a test of faith."
Note that when I ask Cletus why his wife died in the hospital after that drunk driver ploughed into her, despite his prayers for her to get better, he doesn't say "I don't know, let's examine that in the face of the idea of a just and loving divine."
Cletus says "God works in mysterious ways."
That one, at least, is understandable, since it was a tragic accident, whatever we may think of Cletus' racist politics. But Cletus is not piecing together observations to form a coherent model of the universe, a map that matches the territory. If Steve's map has a big blank space that says 'Here Be Dragons' and Joe's map is perhaps to accurate for his own comfort, Cletus' map is positively Escherian.
Neither Cletus, nor Joe, nor Steve, are behaving rationally. They are deliberately not thinking about things that make them uncomfortable. They're deliberately handicapping their ability
to think. And the worst part? They don't really believe what they're selling. They just wish they do.
Carl Sagan's Dragon In The Garage parable here.
Inspiration for this post on this blog and largely from these posts
and my apologies that it's practically a repost of three or four of those essays mashed together.