Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does this make sense?

A number of months ago I began thinking about a series of posts on belief. I want to start from the beginning with "Is there a God?" and "What is God?" and see where it goes. I know that a lot f greater minds than I have already pondered and written on the subject, and so much of what I write will be my understanding of others' work.

But before I even get that far I'd like to spend a moment pondering whether it is even a useful question to ask about God. These days, so called "new atheists" deride the whole idea that we should (be allowed to) think about God. They dismiss the whole concept as useless.

I would maintain that there are several important reasons to be concerned about the existence of God.

Pascal's wager.

Blaise Pascal based his logic on probability theory, specifically expected value. Here's how it works.

Let's say I want to decide whether or not to play the NJ Lotto Pick 6 lottery. I can calculate the odds of winning, which are 49 choose 6. That's a mathematical shorthand which works out to one chance in 13,983,816 of winning (let's call it 14 million to make things simpler). But is that good or bad? It depends on the payout. As I write this, the jackpot is $2.7 million.

That means 1/14,000,000 of the time I win $2,700,000 and 13,999,999/14,000,000 of the time I lose $1. So the expected outcome is (2.7 - 14)/14 or $-0.81. In other words I can expect to lose 81 cents on each ticket by playing the lottery. Or, to look at it another way, if I bought all possible tickets I would spend $14 million but only make $2.7 million (meaning I would have lost $0.81 per ticket). I should not play.

If the jackpot were $27 million, however, my expected outcome would be (27-14)/14 or $0.93. In other words, I could expect to almost double my money (if I played enough times - obviously for a single ticket I either win or lose).

The principle is that a large enough payout makes it worthwhile to play, even if the odds of winning are small. Pascal applied this to theology. He claimed that if you don't know whether God exists, it is a good bet to behave as if He does. Pascal's reasoning is that if the probability that God exists is anything greater than zero (in other words unless you can absolutely prove He doesn't exist), the benefits of heaven vs. hell so far swamp the small price of living a moral life that it pays to live a moral life.

Now, this is not a perfect description of the problem. For one thing, the wager assumes that we are "justified by works alone" which is anathema to Christians (including Catholics). However, it does show why it makes sense to determine whether or not there is any probability of God's existence (and heaven and hell).

Abstract knowledge

It is in man's nature to know things, even if the knowledge is not immediately applicable to his situation. For instance, astronomers study the early universe not because it is useful for their lives per se, but because it is interesting, and who knows what may come out of this information in subsequent generations.

One of the things that amuses me is how many people will defend that Steven Hawking talks about the origin of the universe, but deride theologians doing the same thing. At least the theologians are using metaphysics to try to answer a metaphysical question. Hawking is using physics to try to explain metaphysics. The best he can possibly come up with using those tools is "turtles all the way down"*, which, ironically, is a phrase Hawking himself uses to ridicule Thomas Aquinas' unmoved mover. Apparently as brilliant as he may be in physics, Hawking does not even understand the basic concepts of metaphysics.

I'll be debunking Hawking in a future post, but my point is that even many atheists believe the question of God's existence is important (even if their methods of answering the question are flawed).

* BTW in his latest book Hawking does exactly that. He states that space-time is created by gravity. Gravity, of course, is a curvature of space-time.

Discovery of universal truth

Relativists will tell you that there are no universal truths (except, the truth that there are no truths). So, given that they have thus demonstrated that there is at least one universal truth, can we discover more? Is there an underlying meaning to it all? If not, there's certainly no reason to read blogs. If there is, then the question of interest is "what is truth?"

Understanding humanity

Most people throughout all of history have had a belief in God. Some scientists believe that the human brain is "hard-wired" for a belief in God. Given how much effect God has had on humanity, it makes sense to study the existence of God even as purely a phenomenon to understand how humans think.

It is interesting (in a sad way) to note how the secularists who claim that our lives should be ruled by sex because our brains are wired for it insist that religion should be abandoned because our brains are wired for it. If sex is useful, then so is theology.

Finding joy

Everybody wants to be happy. There are innumerable self-help books out there to help you to find happiness. Yet study after study has found that the most joyful, peace filled, contented people in the world are those who devote their lives to God. If knowing God is a path to happiness, then it becomes personally advantageous to find out.

I'm sure there are many other reasons, but these are a few I came up with for wanting to find out if there's a God even if I didn't already know what I know about Him.


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