This blog contains effusive rhetoric and profligate diatribes. Read at your own risk.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Belief: An Analogy

In my signature in one of the forum communities I hang out in, I have a quote that was originally taken from the YouTube channel "The Atheist Experience", in which the guy from the show (I don't know his name offhand, and don't care enough to bother checking at the moment) states "The process of becoming convinced is more complicated than simply an act of will". I really like this quote, and so I'm going to blog for a minute and try to explain why it's true.

Let's say for a moment that I said to you, "The sky is green". Would you believe me? Probably not. Even if you couldn't just look up at the sky and see that it is another color (various possibilities exist depending on time and atmospheric conditions, but green is virtually never an option), you'd probably have a lifetime of memories of a sky which was invariably non-green, and no reason to regard my testimony as more likely to be true than false. Simple enough, right?

Okay, now let's say that instead of telling you the sky was green, I treated you in some friendly manner, won your acquaintance and your trust through several weeks of pleasant and rewarding treatment, and then one day I invited you over to my house (not the house I actually live in, mind, but a theoretical one of which I am the sole owner and inhabitant). While we were hanging out in my backyard having a grand old time, suddenly we heard immense blasting sounds, then saw mushroom clouds rising from the horizon in several directions, and I grabbed you and pulled you down into a well-stocked bomb shelter, about 80 feet long with the door at one end. Locking the blast-proof door above us, I explained to you that I'd always been prepared for the chance that our civilization would destroy itself, and that because you happened to be right there at the awful moment, you got to join me in safety and we'd both stay alive in this 80-foot room as long as possible. (Realistically, there's a good chance that either I or someone I'd choose to befriend would rather commit suicide than commit to living in an 80-foot-room with a casual acquaintance indefinitely, with almost no privacy, but for the sake of the example we'll assume that we both decide we can stomach the prospect of enduring each other's constant company, and intimate knowledge of each other's bodily odors. It's just an analogy, so go along with it for now.)

After several weeks, the last of my light bulbs burns out, or electricity from whatever source I was obtaining it ceases to be available, and I was fresh out of batteries and I'm not about to waste our limited oxygen supply on candles, so we just have to go without light forever thereafter. Somehow, we get by, learning to navigate by sound and touch, and after weeks or months in the neverending dark, we've both completely adapted to living in pitch blackness, our eyes atrophied almost completely through disuse. Then, one day, you fall horribly ill, and can't get out of your bed, which for safety's sake I've placed at the far back of the 80-foot-deep room. I have to bring you all your food, clean up your mess by smell and touch, and render whatever palliative medicine I have available, but none of it suffices to actually make you better, and for still more weeks or months, you never once leave your bed, and I'm your only contact with the world beyond the reach of your arm, apart from occasional sounds or smells. Finally, one day, I announce that the radiation levels have dropped enough that I can go above and try to find you some medicine; from 80 feet away, you see a blinding flash of unbearably intense light, from which you shield your eyes, as I open the bomb shelter's hatch, go up into the outer world, and shut it behind me ("to protect you from being exposed to what little radiation remains; after all, you're not well"). Another such flash, equally impossible to bear looking at, heralds my return, and I say, "Sorry friend, no medicine to be found. I guess you and I will have to stay stuck here forever after all. But don't worry, I've taken care of you this long, I'll continue to do so; you don't have to worry about starving or lying in your own filth, not as long as I'm around. You can trust me completely; I haven't let you down yet, have I?"

If I should then happen to add, "Oh, by the way, the radiation has turned the sky out there green"...are you going to disbelieve me THEN?