JR'S Free Thought Pages
Arguments from Ignorance
I find fish mysterious, especially their ability to breathe underwater. It has something to do with water passing through their gills, I know, but beyond that it gets rather hazy.
My finding fish mysterious tells you nothing much about fish and nothing good about me. You will conclude, rightly, that I have failed to look into the matter with any dedication. You will not conclude, I trust, that fish are intrinsically mysterious—that my ignorance is no such thing but, rather, the proper appreciation of the mystery of the fish.
Yet, on matters a little loftier than fish, this is often the moral drawn from ignorance or incoherence. Consider, for example, the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Unity of the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct entities— as suggested by "Trinity." Yet each is God, a single entity—as suggested by "Unity." The doctrine is not that each is part of God, in the way that the fm tuner is part of your three-in-one home stereo. Each is wholly God.
And there's the problem. It takes only the most basic arithmetic to see that three things cannot be one thing. The doctrine of the Unity of the Trinity is inconsistent with the fact that three does not equal one.
It is also inconsistent with the fact that identity is a transitive relation: that if A is identical with B, and B is identical with C, then A is identical with C. If the Son is identical with God, and God is identical with the Holy Ghost, then the Son must be identical with the Holy Ghost. They are one and the same thing. But those who assert the Unity of the Trinity deny this last implication; they deny that Jesus is the Holy Ghost.
The Catholic Church—its pope, cardinals, and priests—agree that three does not equal one and that identity is a transitive relation. So they have a problem. How can the doctrine of the Unity of the Trinity be true when it is inconsistent with these obvious facts?
Well, it's a mystery. That's how. Indeed, it's a strict mystery. Strict mysteries are those that are of the very nature of the thing and which it is both hopeless and sinful to attempt to resolve.1
This response may satisfy the sheep in the congregation but it should satisfy no one with his critical faculties intact. For it simply acknowledges the problem without solving it. The incantation "it's a mystery" does not wash away the intellectual sin of contradiction. It remains impossible that both three does not equal one and that the Trinity is a Unity. If you hold both beliefs, you contradict yourself. One belief must be wrong, and because it is necessarily true that three does not equal one, we know which it is. Cry mystery all you like; it won't stop you being wrong.
The bankruptcy of the mystery ploy is made obvious by the fact that it applies equally to any opinion you care to conjure up, however outlandish. When asked how your idea can be true given that it contradicts everything else we know and that there is no evidence for it, simply reply that it is a mystery. The Unity of the Duality, the Duality of the Quadruplcy and the Trinity of the Duality: they are all equally good candidates for mysterious acceptance, as is anything else impossible or otherwise absurd. Mystery is a completely undiscriminating license for belief. It rules out only what is coherent and well-supported by evidence, which may be why the mysterious is so fashionable with new-agers, who take belief to be a matter for unfettered self-expression.
Claiming that the Unity of the Trinity is mysterious is not only futile, it is dishonest. If you can see clearly that something is false, then there is nothing mysterious about it. The idea that the sun rises in the evening and sets in the morning is not mysterious, it's just plain false. Anyone can see this. And anyone with even the slightest education can also see that the doctrine of the Unity of the Trinity is false. You need only recognize that three can never equal one; or that if John's father is the king, John cannot simultaneously be the king. Most Christians know this much. The real mystery is why they have so little intellectual honesty.
The world abounds with genuine mystery. Most of it is quite local. The mystery of how fish breathe underwater, for example, is local to me and others of equal piscine ignorance. But many are better informed; for them, there is no mystery. Some mystery, however, is universal. What happened in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, if indeed the universe started with a bang, is a mystery to everyone, including those who devote themselves to the subject. The average weight of Napoleon's hair in 1815, though a matter of little concern to most, remains a mystery and probably always will.
Some are greatly impressed by mystery. It gives them a thrilling fit of the cosmic heebie-jeebies. But all mystery, whether local or universal, whether the question is trivial or important, is a mere matter of ignorance. Nothing is intrinsically mysterious. Finding something mysterious displays no additional understanding of it, on a par with discovering that it is green or weighs two grams. It displays only a failure to understand. There is nothing noble in this failure, even if there is nothing shameful in it either. The proper reaction is to keep on studying, or perhaps to give up in defeat, but certainly not to conclude that, because the matter remains a mystery, you may believe whatever you like.
Mystery can help the image. You must be careful what you deem mysterious. The outer reaches of science, the relationship between God and His human creatures—that's the sort of thing. You don't want to embarrass yourself by confessing to finding it a mystery how hot-air balloons stay aloft or why the tides ebb and flow with the lunar day. But keep to the right topics, and a little mystery-mongering can give off a scent of profundity heady enough to make the mind swim.
Still, you can do better. Rather than trying to obscure your prejudice, boldly declare it a virtue. You have no reason to believe what you do, no evidence, no argument. Of course not. This is a matter of faith!
Now you have captured the really high ground. Speak with a hushed and beseeching tone. Let the pain of your sincerity appear in small grimaces as you hold forth. Who but a philistine with no sense of the sacred, no respect for your deepest convictions, would expect you to provide evidence?
How scrumptious to be faithful! But utterly irrelevant to whether or not the opinion in question is true. Whatever the finer feelings associated with faith, no matter how elevated those who indulge in it, from the point of view of truth and evidence, faith is exactly the same as prejudice. Declaring an opinion to be a matter of faith provides it with no new evidential support, gives no new reason to think it true. It merely acknowledges that you have none.
When pressed, the faithful often claim that faith is required because man is incapable of knowledge in this area. This is wonderfully self-abasing: Oh God, you are so big, and I am so small, and all of that. But this self-abasement is also self-defeating. To say that knowledge is impossible is to say that, on this matter, all opinions must be mere prejudice. It doesn't improve things to call your prejudice faith.
Indeed, declarations of faith are generally self-defeating. Some-one will claim this status only for those opinions he cannot defend. No one ever declares his shoe size a matter of faith or his mother's sex, or the atomic weight of gold. The moment someone declares an opinion to be a matter of faith, you ought to know what to think of it.
(3) Odds On
The most famous argument for believing something for which you have no evidence is Pascal's Wager. Pascal claimed that it is rational to be a Christian even though the evidence available makes the position quite improbable. Because if by chance Christianity turns out to be true, then you win everlasting salvation. While if it is false—if there is no God and no heaven or hell— then you are no worse off than the correct atheist. On the other hand, if you refuse to believe, you will go to hell if you are wrong and be no better off if you are right than a Christian who is wrong. An atheist can never win, and he might lose badly. But a Christian just might win, and he can never lose badly. In other words, no matter how improbable the truth of Christianity, it's always the best bet.
There is nothing sanctimonious about this. On the contrary, it is rather tawdry. I wonder if someone who had somehow managed to make himself love Jesus on the basis of this calculation would find that love reciprocated. He certainly wouldn't if I were Jesus. But it is a matter of little concern, since Pascal's argument is not all it is cracked up to be anyway.
Note first that what is rational to believe has here been separated from what you have any reason to think true. That is the whole point of the argument. Pascal's Wager is thus irrelevant when the question is whether or not God exists. Pascal's Wager attempts to show that Christianity is the best bet however unlikely its truth.
Nor, however, does the argument work on its own terms. It does not show Christianity to be the best bet. By the method of Pascal's Wager, any other doctrine that attaches everlasting bliss to agreement and everlasting agony to disagreement does equally well. The choice is not, as Pascal tacitly assumes, between Christianity and atheism alone. The choice must be made between all the different religions according to which adherents go to heaven while everyone else goes to hell, Islam, for example. Pascal provides no grounds for being a Christian rather than a Muslim. The choice between them is a 50:50 bet.
Worse/Islam is not the only heaven and hell rival to Christianity. There is also Blytonism: the view that only those who worship Enid Blyton as the creator of the cosmos will go to heaven, the rest to hell. Admittedly, I just made up this religion. But it is a possible religion. Why should only those religions that have so far been made up receive the benefit of Pascal's Wager? Had Pascal lived in 2000 b.c. he might have come up with his wager, and it wouldn't then have been Christianity that it defended. Nor should anyone object to the lack of evidence for Blytonism. It is the starting assumption of Pascal's Wager that the doctrine in question—Christianity, Islam, or Blytonism— lacks evidence sufficient alone to warrant belief in it.
Once you see that Pascal's Wager supports equally not only Christianity, nor even all established religions, but all possible heaven and hell religions, the game is up. For infinitely many such religions are possible. Which will you choose? Choose any one of them and the chance that you have made the best bet is not 50:50 (i.e., 1 in 2), it's one in infinity: this religion versus all the infinitely many other possible heaven and hell religions.
Each possible religion, including Christianity, is but one ticket in a lottery with infinitely many tickets. Each bet has an equal chance of being best: i.e., an infinitesimal chance. And an infinitesimal chance is no chance at all. Without some evidence, every religion is an equally hopeless bet.
1. Along with Papal infallibility, the notion of the strict mystery and its application to the Unity of the Trinity was settled upon at the Vatican Council of 1869-1870.
From Jamie Whyte, Crimes against Logic