I promise this is the last I’m going to write about The God Delusion. I’ve been trying to move on, but I keep thinking about this, and I think it’s worth developing a bit further. I’m feeling rather unsatisfied with my reaction to the books I read – not because I’ve changed my mind, but in a strange sort of way because I’m not sure if I could have changed my mind.
I’ll try to explain what I mean. The arguments both for and against God can seem utterly compelling if you have the right mindset or presuppositions, and completely ludicrous if you have the wrong ones. On most subjects covered by these books, I can easily imagine myself taking a position on either side of the debate, simply by starting from a different place. I suppose that might be because I don’t have a settled starting position at the moment, but I’m not sure if that really explains it.
For example, there’s the argument from first cause and the standard question in response “Who created God?” I can see at least some sense in either position, and over the last few years, I’ve held all sorts of views on this subject, always (I think) in line with my wider position on the existence or not of God. Basically, I think I approached the argument in such a way as to be consistent with my existing beliefs, either yes, no or maybe, and my various responses always seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.
I reckon this means that issues like this have little effect on what we actually believe, which would be consistent with my suspicion that the staged debates which seem to be so fashionable at the moment rarely trouble anyone’s beliefs; the biggest effect of the exchange of views is to make us realise what we really believe, rather than to change those beliefs.
But having said that, I can’t avoid the fact that my beliefs have changed over time, albeit slowly. Maybe there are certain areas where I’m open to persuasion, where my views don’t simply follow my general conclusions, but drive them. If that’s the case, though, I don’t know what those areas would be. Or is it just that my views creep at the pace of continental drift, too slow to notice, but enough to see a clear movement over time?
It’s also tempting to refer to the cliché that “you can’t reason someone out of a position they weren’t reasoned into.” I think it’s more of a partisan slogan than a meaningful statement, but it’s entirely possible that my beliefs aren’t nearly as rational as I’d like to think, and that what I’m noticing is the effect of post-hoc rationalisation of beliefs I hold instinctively without really thinking about them.
So that’s why I feel unsatisfied. I want to examine different arguments and I like to read a variety of perspectives, but when I step back and think about it, I’m not sure if it actually makes any difference. Obviously, something makes me believe what I believe, but I have no idea what that might be, and I find that a little unsettling.
The first to state his case first seems right, until the other side examines him
- Proverbs 18:17
In keeping with possibly my favourite Bible verse, one of the few that could claim to be self-evidently true, my next project on completing The God Delusion was to read a response to it, to hear the case for the defence. I knew of Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion, and intended to read that as he has a pretty good reputation, but it seemed so flimsy when I picked it up (the text stretches to just 65 pages, and falls short of 80 even with the addition of notes and further reading) that I decided to augment my selection with Deluded by Dawkins? by Andrew Wilson (a comparative shelf-strainer at 112 pages), for no more reason than that it was next to it on the shelf.
Even together, these books total less than half the length of The God Delusion, which surprises me. The authors are clearly confident that their brief critiques will serve to dismiss Dawkins’s arguments, and McGrath explicitly acknowledges that he picks certain points to challenge (he calls them “representative points”, without offering evidence to support this assertion) in the hope that victory on his chosen battleground will be extended to the rest of the book. Seeing that he seems to agree with much of what Dawkins says (including the obligatory insistence that he doesn’t believe in the God Dawkins rejects either), I’m unsure how this is meant to work.
The first thing I noticed about these books is that between them, they seem to manage a full house of the points Dawkins deals with in the preface to the paperback edition, although the “I’m an atheist, but…” views are naturally quoted with approval, rather than being the position of the authors. The second thing was that they both draw on a very similar (small) selection of authorities to disparage Dawkins. Stephen Jay Gould is no surprise, seeing that Dawkins criticises his idea of NOMA at length and is known to disagree with and even dislike him on several levels, but we also see Terry Eagleton, Francis Collins and Martin Rees added to the list. I find it hard to tell whether the similar sources should be put down to a few outstanding critiques, or a lack of alternatives.
Both writers also seem to think that Dawkins set out to write an academic thesis, rather than a popular polemic. At least, this is the only explanation I can come up with for a number of complaints, the most bizarre of which is McGrath’s suggestion that Dawkins relies on William Shakespeare as a source, because he quotes Romeo and Juliet to illustrate a point. A wish for accuracy is more than justified, and there are points where they rightly take him to task, but this sort of argument does McGrath no credit.
I found Wilson’s book, which I read first, the weaker of the two. This may reflect the fact that I don’t easily fit into his target audience – he’s a deacon of New Frontiers International’s church in Eastbourne which suggests a very conservative charismatic evangelical approach, and sure enough, many of his arguments draw so heavily on the Bible that they would be better suited to sermons. He makes some good points, but as often as not seems to miss the point Dawkins was making.
To give him credit, he does home in on some areas where Dawkins allows his rhetoric to run away with him a bit. He observes that omnipotence and omniscience aren’t necessarily as contradictory as a strict literal understanding would indicate (although his attempt to bolster this argument with a reference to Biblical inconsistencies left me baffled), and he’s justified in picking Dawkins up on the matter of textual copying. I feel Dawkins would have been on safer ground concentrating his fire on the long period before the NT texts were written down, rather than picking on the relatively minor alterations after that point.
Wilson clearly considers his trump card to be the resurrection, and for which he claims overwhelming evidence and a complete absence of plausible alternatives. To apply his own style of argument, this clearly displays his supernaturalist presuppositions. He returns to this theme throughout the book, finally addressing it in full towards the end, where he states “There are four main theories to explain how the tomb became empty”, dismisses three in perfunctory fashion, then proclaims that therefore, the resurrection happened.
You’ll have noticed the bait-and-switch between the identification of four main theories and the Holmesian conclusion following elimination of three of them. Like all such arguments, he also (while paying lip service to the idea of error) assumes that the gospel accounts are substantially accurate. Seeing that he appears to view evidence as nothing more than a numbers game (at one point, he acknowledges a historical source that disagrees with a gospel account and rules the result a score draw), I find his engagement with opposing viewpoints less than satisfying.
McGrath, on the other hand, never once mentions the resurrection, whether through considerations of tactical strangth or relevance, although he does mention Jesus quite a bit, not least when addressing the accusation of picking and choosing from the Bible. His identification of Jesus as an interpretive framework for troublesome OT texts succeeds in complicating the issue, but not in demonstrating a truly objective standard for interpretation. Despite the much shorter length of his book, he certainly appears to take a much more serious approach to what Dawkins actually wrote, even if there are points where he seems to be attacking a passage in isolation, rather than the book as a whole, something I previously identified as a possible mistake.
McGrath bases his argument on probability on Dawkins himself calling our existence very, very unlikely, and concludes that as we most obviously exist, probability says nothing about existence, so however improbable God may appear to be, he could still exist. This betrays a lack of understanding of conditional probability, and a lack of attention to Dawkins himself, who covered just this in his book. (In the same section on probability, McGrath also strangely attempts to equate a Grand Unifying Theory with God, as both may be considered a sort of ultimate explanation, hoping to skewer Dawkins with a charge of hypocrisy.)
McGrath also attacks Dawkins on the matter of religious violence and extremism, pointing out that the secular Tamil Tigers invented the suicide bomb. I made a note of this very point myself when reading the book, before Dawkins addressed my concerns in Chapter 8. I don’t blame McGrath for picking up on the apparent claims on religious violence in Chapter 1, nor for his disagreement with the later clarification, which still left me feeling that Dawkins was overreaching, but to refuse to even acknowledge this nuance is very poor, and suggests at best a lack of care with the text. This impression is strengthened when he hangs a whole argument on the use of the word “accidental”, whose use Dawkins explains and clarifies, in relation to genes and the origins of religion.
But despite these criticisms, McGrath does land some telling blows on Dawkins. His examination of Dawkins’s assertion that Jesus perpetuated “out-group hostility” with reference to the Good Samaritan is a welcome corrective, although it would have been much stronger had he engaged with texts like the healing of the Canaanite woman which appear to support Dawkins. He also makes good points on the claim of relentless moral and scientific progress, and most tellingly, he constructs a strong argument on the difficulty of defining a religion, and how it differs (or not) from a worldview.
I can’t finish without commenting on the curious fact that both of these books concluded by speculating that Dawkins may be revealing a lack of faith in his atheism, and that he could even still be searching for answers or open to conversion. I have no idea what to make of this, or how to respond to it. It would be just as valid to wonder if these authors feel the need to say such a thing to shore up their wavering faith in the face of a powerful assault. Unfortunately, it served to remind me that they share a very clear agenda. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it makes it very obvious that these aren’t disinterested responses.
I probably come across as fairly critical of these books, and I suppose I am, but that isn’t the whole story. They make some good points which are valuable in assessing The God Delusion, and even some important corrections, which I’m glad to have read. And while some of the arguments are overstated, the same could be said of Dawkins’s work, which I was quite positive about. I think what I find dissatisfying is that these books are specifically picking on certain points, and purporting to knock them (and by extension the whole book) down. When they don’t measure up to this claim on their chosen grounds, and when they introduce slippery arguments of their own, it’s hard to take them seriously as rebuttals.
I’m still on the lookout for a more substantial response.
Okay, I’m only six years late to the party, but I’ve finally got around to reading it, so here are my thoughts on a book I’ve been avoiding more or less since it was published – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
First, I should say that I read the paperback edition. This may be important, as it included a new preface, which helpfully dealt with a number of common responses to the book (such as “I’m an atheist, but…”, acceptance of religion as a fact of life, and descriptions of Dawkins as a fundamentalist equal to those he criticises), and mentioned that a few other unspecified changes and corrections had been made to the text. I found it a useful addition, heading off common objections before getting down to the substance. In some cases, I think people would benefit from reading this preface more than the actual book.
And the book’s nothing if not ambitious. It attempts to show that God doesn’t (or almost certainly doesn’t) exist, explain why religion is nevertheless so common, deal with common questions about belief and morality, make the case for religion in all its forms being dangerous, persuade that religion should be excluded from education and upbringing, and finally inspire at the majesty of a world viewed from a scientific perspective. Any of these could be the subject of a short book on its own, and a comprehensive treatment is obviously impossible, but the book holds together well within the limitations of space.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to encounter – I had a vague expectation that the book would be 400 pages of angry ranting about sky-fairies – but from the very first page, I was pleasantly surprised by Dawkins’s openness and humour. He marshals his arguments well, dealing with them thematically in a well-planned progression, and both anticipates and deals with possible objections with a perception and understanding that I’d been led to believe he lacked. More than once, I read his arguments thinking “what about…” only to find him addressing my question a couple of pages later.
Dawkins also injects a good amount of balance – he may be arguing his case, but he isn’t just throwing every available weapon against religion. Unlike many outspoken atheists, he recognises the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, even while mentioning that arguments to the contrary have been attempted. And he goes out of his way to defend the Roman Catholic church on the subject of child abuse, giving the scandal a wider perspective which has been generally lacking. He may be arguing a case, but it’s encouraging that he also seems to care very much about fairness and honesty.
It’s often said that Dawkins has an aggressive tone, and I found the section on Intelligent Design to be both interesting and helpful in considering this reputation. ID is most definitely something that Dawkins knows a lot about (he can construct his arguments without ever leaving his area of professional expertise), and it’s a subject on which I (and most moderate believers) would agree with him wholeheartedly. I found him to be very fair and balanced on this, but couldn’t detect any difference in style between this section and the rest of the book, suggesting that any criticism of his tone may be caused by sensitivity to criticism of dearly-held beliefs, rather than an objectively aggressive manner.
I confess I found some sections rather longer than they needed to be. Maybe it’s an indication that I’m not completely convinced by the idea of memetics, but 50 pages of often evidence-light speculation on the origins of religion seemed to drag a little, and I might have skipped to the next section if I hadn’t been wanting to cover the full text. I’m glad I persisted, because the part at the end covering cargo cults was very interesting, adding a lot of detail to an idea I was familiar with. Obviously, a book of this type will never cater for all tastes or needs, and others will undoubtedly have found this useful, but personally, I’d have been happy to see some ruthless editing in this area.
In some cases, Dawkins appeared to be making a statement which made me sit up and make a note of a quibble or objection, only to conclude much later on the basis of further passages that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying, or that his view was rather more subtle than I’d appreciated. I’d be surprised if I was alone in that, and it should serve as a warning to anyone intending to quotemine his book for ammunition. It could be argued that he should be clearer, and I’d have some sympathy with that, but he covers a lot of ground for a relatively short book, with a style that’s generally more polemic than academic, so I wouldn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Bearing that in mind, there were some points where I thought Dawkins was overreaching. His view that religion is uniquely responsible for all manner of conflict is plausible, but I’m not convinced that all (or even most) conflicts wouldn’t be justified in other ways in the absence of religion. And I can’t let it go that he quotes the NAS statistics I recently picked apart. He contrasts them with the general population, which is a more justified comparison than the prison survey, but depending on whether respondents were questioned on labels or specific beliefs, you can get very different responses, as Dawkins knows. That’s a more recent survey, though, and he goes on to give a lot more supporting data, which makes this a minor infraction.
And there were other areas where I found that I didn’t entirely agree with his arguments. Some of his opinions on various sorts of agnosticism fall into this category, I’m not convinced that a truly deist God is a question science can answer (although this is academic as such a God is functionally useless in the real world), and as something of a pragmatist, I feel naturally drawn towards the sort of strategic alliances and recognition of common ground that he decries in his section on NOMA. But if he argues his case well, as he does, he’s entitled to serious consideration, and I’ll probably be chewing over his views for a while yet.
It’s a good book, probably a great book. It doesn’t offer the final word on any of the subjects it covers, but as a single work covering all of them, it’s hard to imagine anything much better. If I have a complaint, it’s that Dawkins has covered a whole load of subjects that I was intending to address, and better than I would do, so if I write about them having read the book, it’ll look like I’m crudely rehashing his material. That’s not a problem with the book, but from a selfish point of view it’s very annoying.
Today’s sermon was a total car crash – an attempt (I use the word advisedly) to justify Christian belief, predominantly using cherry-picked quotes, false equivalence and bad analogy. Highlights included quoting Richard Dawkins’s view that Jesus almost certainly existed to prove that the Gospel accounts are accurate, arguing that we can’t see gravity or magnetism, therefore God, and bizarrely, associating the rise of both “secularism” (used erroneously to mean lack of belief) and Islam in Britain as if they were somehow related.
But I don’t want to dwell on that, because the details aren’t important, and a weak, flawed argument isn’t exactly unusual in any context. What I found interesting was that with every word, I felt myself moving further away from the church. Every gap in reasoning, every unsupported assertion, every dodgy analogy was like another nail in the coffin of what remains of my faith. But is it ridiculous to wonder why that should be?
I’ve always known that some people are liable to advance poor arguments, whatever their beliefs or lack of them. I also know (from experience, as well as intellectually) that position and seniority is no guarantee of competence. So it’s pretty much a given that any cause or organisation is occasionally going to produce this sort of clanger, even from an official platform – if any use of weak arguments and even logical fallacies proved that the case being argued is actually flawed, I’m not sure there would be a single sound position left on any subject.
So I don’t think that the sun would disappear just because someone used a fallacious argument in an attempt to prove that it exists, which is probably just as well, because such an argument has undoubtedly been made at some point. Nor do I think that this morning’s effort is the pinnacle of Christian apologetics, or that the church is alone in making weak arguments to support itself. And I think it’s reasonable to judge a position based on its strongest arguments, not its weakest. It might make sense to be repulsed by unpleasant attitudes, but this was just poor arguments, so am I being completely irrational in feeling alienated by this sort of nonsense?
I’m still working through that question, but at the risk of sitting on the fence, I think the answer’s both yes and no. The arguments of a particular person at a particular time have no bearing on the strongest arguments available, and it would be irrational to lower my opinion of the strength of those strong arguments in response to a weaker argument. It could possibly be justified on the grounds that this betrays a person’s weakness in evaluating arguments, but if all groups contain people who make weak or fallacious arguments, the effect of identifying one more should be negligible.
Where I think my reaction may be rational is in relation to the personal and relationship aspects of belief. Christian belief tends to revolve around communities within the church, and a certain amount of weight is typically placed on the life and experience of Christians, not least in the context of apologetics. Even the most liberal church, where outrageous claims of miracles would be severely doubted or rejected outright, will be full of people who place value and evidential weight on their personal experience of God, however nebulous, and that experience will be considered a good reason for believing.
If the people who speak of their experiences of God in my local church show themselves to be bad at evaluating the strength of competing claims, whether in the context of arguments or evidence, it casts doubt on the validity of their experiences and interpretations of them. Making a weak argument doesn’t weaken better arguments on the same subject, but it does suggest that the person making the weak argument may not be a reliable interpreter of other events, and their significance. That sounds like a plausible reason for my reaction, with only one problem – I don’t think I’ve put any weight on the reported experience of others for some years.
So I’m torn – I’m feeling an ever stronger pull away from the church, but that’s a confusing, and possibly irrational reaction in the context. It seems ludicrous that my search for an intellectually satisfying answer is being driven by instinct and irrationality, but that seems to be the way it is. Which is quite odd and slightly unsettling.
Photo by Xurble, used under Attribution License
Phineas Gage was an unlikely person to provide any sort of theological insight. He was only an unremarkable foreman working on the mid-19th century railways of the US, but he was responsible (albeit indirectly) for discoveries and breakthroughs which I think are very relevant to present-day theological discussions. However, I would advise you not to attempt to replicate his “research”.
Gage’s moment of fame came on the 13th September, 1848. He was leading a gang preparing the ground for a track to be laid in Vermont, when there was a terrible accident. An explosion propelled a tamping iron (a long iron bar just over an inch in diameter) out of the hole he was preparing, and straight through his head. Incredibly, he survived, and his experience would prove to be the inspiration for whole areas of research into neuroscience.
Despite having a substantial part of his brain scattered over the Vermont countryside, Gage appears to have remained conscious throughout and was coherent enough to tell a doctor arriving on the scene “here is work enough for you.” After treatment, he was physically able to continue his life much as before, but he was very different mentally, his personality having changed profoundly after the accident. Where he had previously been a reliable and trustworthy employee, he seemed to have taken on a completely different, more impulsive personality. Dr John Harlow, who treated Gage following the accident, described the changes:
The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”
There is a lot of unsubstantiated and inaccurate myth surrounding Gage, and there have been recent suggestions that by the time of his death in 1860, he may have developed coping strategies to deal with the loss of whole areas of his brain. What we can be sure of, though, is that the loss of a substantial part of his brain profoundly affected his personality, and his unorthodox and unintentional experiment opened up a whole world of neuroscience.
Gage’s extraordinary experience led to the discovery of areas of the brain which served particular functions. Since then, we’ve been able to identify where our impulsive, controlling and instinctive brain functions are located, and much more besides. Most interestingly from my point of view, we now know that there are parts of the brain which are strongly linked to religious belief and ecstatic experiences.
That’s not to say that we fully understand the way our brains work, but we know enough to pose some very difficult questions for naive theological views on salvation. Whether you believe in salvation by works, faith or a mixture of the two, modern neuroscience represents an awkward challenge. If someone’s beliefs and behaviour can be completely changed by damage to a particular part of their brain, it seems strange to hold them responsible for those actions or beliefs, and to determine their eternal fate on that basis.
In fact, if our brains can be shown to effectively govern our character, beliefs and behaviour, there’s no need for any sort of damage or accident – we’re a product of our physical neurological makeup from birth. So are people with highly developed “religious” areas of their brains favoured by God even as they’re growing in the womb? Hardline Calvinists may find it easy enough to accept this idea, but it doesn’t sit comfortably with most other theologies.
More than that, it calls the very existence of a soul into question. If who we are is dependent on the state of a single organ, then what we think of as “us” – what we’d imagine to be reflected in a soul – is no more resilient than the biological wetware it runs on. If the brain dies, we die. There may be ways of dancing around this, but I think our understanding of the brain raises very difficult issues for religious belief, and those issues are likely to become starker as the science develops.
And the catalyst for so much of this knowledge was the unlikely and unwitting figure of Phineas Gage. If you want to make your own contribution to neurology or theology, though, I’d suggest academia as a safer route.
[He] uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts – for support rather than for illumination
- Andrew Lang
If there’s one thing I dislike about Twitter, it’s the way some people seem to repeat the same handful of slogans in support of some cause or another over and over, with occasional variations here and there. I usually tune them out, but there was one that did the rounds recently which caught my attention:
If every #atheist left the USA, it would lose 93% of the National Academy of Sciences but less than 1% of the prison population.
That sounded like quite an interesting statistic, but it also sounded a little bit suspicious, so I thought I’d do some digging. It turns out that this claim, or similar ones, can be found all over the place, but – surprise surprise! – the full story is a bit more complicated than that.
First of all, the figures for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and prison inmates come from different (and slightly dated) sources. This appears to be the survey of NAS beliefs, dating from 1998, and this looks like the source of the prison stats, as at 1997. That may not sound like a big deal, and it isn’t really, but it’s not trivial, either. If nothing else, it means that the statistics were collected around 15 years ago, at different times with different methodologies, which makes any comparison tricky.
The NAS survey asks whether the scientists believe in a personal God, allowing the three options of belief, disbelief, or doubt. The prison statistics cover religious affiliation, and exclude those giving no response, so immediately, there’s a clear difference. Affiliation is related to belief, but it isn’t the same thing. It’s possible to feel a connection to a religion – an affiliation – whatever your beliefs. There’s also the question of whether an atheist or agnostic would typically respond at all – they don’t have a religious affiliation – so they may well be over-represented in the excluded “no answer” group.
My next quibble is that agnostics are being treated differently in the two datasets – they’re counted as honorary atheists to reach the 93% figure for scientists, but within the prison population, where agnosticism wouldn’t qualify as an affiliation and augmentation of the atheist/agnostic figure would be undesirable, they’re absent completely, most likely either excluded in the “no answer” group or allocated to whichever church or religion they feel some sort of connection with. In any case, given that they’re counted as effective atheists in the 93% quoted from the NAS stats, the absence of an “agnostic” category for prison inmates should ring alarm bells.
In addition, I have doubts over whether the prison statistics accurately reflect reality. It’s commonly understood that a profession of some sort of faith is helpful in prison, thanks particularly to the religious prejudices that can be found on parole boards. This shouldn’t be news to atheists, as it’s the sort of institutional religious discrimination they often complain about, with good reason. Nevertheless, despite the obvious risk of underestimating the atheist prison population, these figures have been taken as the final word – dare I say “gospel” – on the number of atheists in prison.
And of course, even if it’s clear that there’s a significant difference in the theological positions of scientists and prison inmates (which I believe there is, despite the methodological flaws), that proves nothing about the truth or otherwise of those positions. To claim that it does is to engage in an argument from authority (or possibly argumentum ad populum) on a massive scale. Of course, some people who quote this statistic are happy to acknowledge that they’re just playing around, but most of the time, there’s no indication that correlation may not indicate causation.
I understand that there are reasons why atheists (especially in the USA) feel a need to justify their existence, to give reasons why they’re valuable to the country, and not the divisive, unpatriotic troublemakers they’re often portrayed as. I understand that this sort of statistical jiggerypokery is more often defensive than offensive. But this sort of weak and easily-countered argument doesn’t help to make the case that atheists are rational in their approach.
I’m especially pleased to see that Hemant Mehta has picked up on a recent Pew Forum survey which (while potentially just as flawed in its own way as the 1997 figures) suggests that the true proportion of prisoners who are atheists may be significantly higher than 1%, giving a figure of 10%. It would be nice if that was reflected in future claims.
Whenever a lottery’s in the news, one thing you can be sure of is that you’ll see a lot of snarky comments about people being gullible or bad at maths, and generally allowing the commenter to feel superior to the irrational drones who buy lottery tickets, which invariably sets me off on one of my hobby-horses. I don’t play the lottery, but I think this attitude is unhelpful and inaccurate, and here’s why.
First, a quick rundown of the statistics. The expected return on a gamble (because let’s be honest, that’s what a lottery is) is a weighted calculation of the probability of different winning outcomes multiplied by the values of those outcomes. In normal circumstances, the expected return for a lottery is easily determined from the proportion of each ticket which goes towards the prize fund. That will always be less than 100% of the stake, for reasons which should be obvious, so if you started with a fixed fund and played every week, sooner or later you’d run out of money.
When a lottery’s big news, it usually means (as in the recent Mega Millions case) that there’s a large “rollover” jackpot on offer. Even though the normal odds are weighted against ticket buyers, the addition of a large sum from the previous week’s prize fund can tip the balance towards the players. The odds of winning don’t change, but the rewards do. The precise calculations vary from lottery to lottery, but the addition of an effective subsidy from the previous draw improves the expected return dramatically. It may even be possible, if you restrict yourself to rollover draws, to play the lottery without running out of money from your hypothetical fixed fund.
That’s not the full picture, though, because no one plays in the long-run. Even the longest-lived person will still be a short-term player in gambling terms, because of the extremely long odds against winning a big prize. That doesn’t change the maths, but it does make it important to consider the value you place on different outcomes.
If you could buy a £1 ticket that gave you odds of exactly 1 in 1 million of winning £1m, most people would probably buy it, even though the expected return is only to break even. But if you asked someone to quantify the pleasure (or utility in economics-speak) they’d get from £1m, they’d be incredibly unlikely to value it a million times higher than having £1, as that would value each pound equally, which people don’t do in real life. You can test this yourself by considering how you’d feel about finding a pound coin if you were a) completely broke, or b) a millionaire. The utility gained from £1 is diminished the richer you are.
But utility cuts both ways. The reason why people would buy into that £1m draw and play lotteries with much worse expected returns is that gambling can also bring great pleasure even without a win, either through the possibility of a big win, or (though this doesn’t apply directly to lotteries) through the thrill of competition. We often spend money on intangible things which give us pleasure without being accused of irrationality, and if sufficient value is placed on the utility gained in this way, it may be considered rational to play the lottery after all.
All of which brings me (at last) to Pascal’s Wager. It’s received a lot of justified criticism on several different fronts, and is often regarded (not least by me) as a notorious pitfall to avoid in argument, rather than an attitude to aspire to. But I wonder if it’s possible to get some understanding of belief by approaching Pascal’s Wager from a different angle – in the way I analysed the rationality of lotteries.
Let’s leave the question of heaven and hell to one side – what’s the utility of belief in this life, or in lottery terms, is the playing as important as the winning? Is it possible that – for some people at least – belief in God would make sense whether it was true or not, as long as they believed it to be true? Could there be people for whom the utility gained in this life through belief exceeds the utility lost as a result of time and money invested in those beliefs?
I think there may be something in this, but it’s worth distinguishing between two sorts of rationality – the economic sense of maximising satisfaction or utility, and the scientific, logical sense of drawing justified conclusions from the available evidence. A given belief may fulfil either, both or neither definition, but I’m looking at this in a purely economic sense.
I’m the sort of person who cares about propositional truth, so I’ve always been puzzled by people who believe things while giving no indication that they’re all that bothered about whether their beliefs are actually true. Thinking about lotteries and railing against the facile mockery of people who play them suggests that this approach may not be as strange as I previously thought.
Maybe it’s rational after all, just not necessarily my sort of rationality.