Sunday, August 12, 2018

Betting on a dark horse

There are different approaches to Christian apologetics. One approach is evidential. I don't mean in the brand name sense of evidential apologetics. I just mean in the generic sense of stressing the evidence for Christianity in contrast to the evidence against atheism or other religious options. And that's a that's a very important approach. There's much more direct and indirect evidence for Christianity than the average Christian (much less the average atheist) is aware of.

But suppose we turned that around. Suppose for argument's sake that Christianity appeared to be false while atheism appeared to be true. Suppose the apparent evidence for atheism was overwhelming. In that case, would it not be irrational to continue to preach, pray, go to church, sing hymns, read the Bible, and so on?

Consider an analogy: Suppose the odds are 30-1 that if I bet on Secretariat, I will win. The more money I put on Secretariat, the larger my winnings. Would it not be irrational for me to bet on a dark horse rather than a proven winner? 

All things being equal, that would be irrational. If it's just a comparison between the odds of Secretariat winning in contrast to a dark horse, I'd be crazy not to bet on Secretariat.

But here's a wrinkle. The owner of the race track loses money if I bet on Secretariat. The payout isn't cost effective for the owner of the race track. So he abducts my kid brother and threatens to cut his toes off if I bet on Secretariat. If, on the other hand, I bet on a losing horse, he will release my brother unharmed. 

Is it still crazy for me to bet on a dark horse? If I'm really pissed off at my kid brother, that might be a dilemma. But seriously, I'd put my money on the long shot because the basis comparison isn't the odds of me losing but the odds of my kid brother losing his toes. Let's shift to a real life example:

I had a disease I had never heard of before: myelodysplasia. Its origin is unknown. If I did nothing, I was astonished to learn, my chances were zero. I’d be dead in six months...There was only one known means of treatment that might generate a cure: a bone-marrow transplant...Even with the perfect compatibility, my overall chances of a cure were something like 30 percent. That’s like playing Russian Roulette with four cartridges instead of one in the cylinder. But it was by far the best chance that I had, and I had faced longer odds in the past...One after another, I popped 72 of these pills. It was a lethal amount. If I was not to have a bone-marrow transplant soon after, this immune-suppression therapy by itself would have killed me. It was like taking a fatal dose of arsenic or cyanide, hoping that the right antidote would be supplied in time. Carl Sagan, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” Parade Magazine (March 10 1996).

Sagan bet on the dark horse. On the one hand, if he let nature take its course, he'd be dead in six months. Even even if he underwent aggressive cancer therapy, he might die from immunosuppressant drugs, and the bone marrow transplant only had a 30% chance of success. Not to mention the excruciating pain of the medical procedures.

Was it not irrational for Sagan to gamble on the long shot? Was it not irrational for him to undergo what was in all probability a futile course of treatment? But of course, that wasn't the basis of Sagan's comparison. Sagan wasn't making an abstract comparison between the chances of cancer treatment succeeding or failing. Rather, he was making an existential comparison between life and oblivion. He didn't believe in life beyond the grave. For him, this life is all you get. For Sagan, the existential criterion overrode the evidential criterion. 

By the same token, the choice between Christianity and atheism isn't a disinterested choice between different alternatives. For these have drastically different consequences, if true. Even if atheism was the odds-on favorite, it would still be irrational–supremely irrational–to be personally invested in that alternative. Sometimes it's foolish to bet on a winning horse. You're better off if you bet on a dark horse. If there's a slight chance that the underdog will win, there are situations in which the long shot is far the shrewder bet. 

1 comment:

  1. 1. I suppose it's similar to someone who is trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with no one and nothing else in sight. Only stretches of water as far as the eye can see. There are scant resources to survive. Perhaps a few days' worth of food and water. That's it.

    However, he has a flare gun. His only hope is firing off a flare in the hopes someone might see it and come to his rescue. It would be reasonable for him to fire the flare gun. The chance of rescue, however vanishingly small, is better than resigning himself to certain death, which would be what would happen if he decided never to fire off the flare gun.

    Likewise, even if reality overwhelmingly indicates atheism, nevertheless, atheism spells certain death. By contrast, no matter how dismal the prospects for rescue, Christianity means everything if rescue arrives. Firing off the flare gun is eminently reasonable.

    2. Perhaps the atheist would retort there are many different "Gods" to which one could appeal for rescue. So which "God" do we call upon for rescue?

    For starters, we can rule out any and all "Gods" created from primordial matter (e.g. ancient Greco-Roman gods, Egyptian gods, Hindu gods). The true God was not created out of anything, for then he wouldn't be a true God, but the true God created all things including matter.

    For another, James Anderson in his book Why Should I Believe Christianity provides a step by step argument to narrow the options down to the God of the Bible.

    However, suppose we don't know which God to call upon. Nevertheless, calling upon almost any God is still arguably better than doing nothing, i.e., calling on no God whatsoever.

    (An exception might be a non-theistic religion like Theravada Buddhism. However, even still, Theravada Buddhism is arguably an improvement over atheism because at least reincarnation and nirvana offer something rather than nothing. That said, Buddhism isn't a viable option that's in play; it is falsified on other grounds.)