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Culture War Roundup for the week of July 17, 2023

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I had quite the throwback culture war experience this past weekend. While at a family gathering, my dad was cornered by an in-law and quizzed about my “agnosticism”.

He was asked if he had led me to this lack of faith, and was then informed that it’s the patriarch’s responsibility to “get his family into heaven” – a neat little double-duty insult of both himself and me.

I tend to be a very laid-back guy in meatspace, but found myself livid. I’ve been in this family for close to a decade, and the sheer cowardice and arrogance of this exchange was breathtaking. To circle around to one of my direct family members instead of having the cajones to challenge me directly was ridiculous (and in hindsight, what I should have really expected from these people).

We’ve been existing in what I thought was a reasonable detente. As a victorious participant in the Atheism culture war, I’ve been kinda-sorta prepared to have these skirmishes with my wife’s catholic family for a long time. The unspoken agreement was that I go to church for holidays, let you splash water on my children, and don’t bring up anyone’s hypocrisy/the church’s corruption, rampant pedophilia/the inherent idiocy in believing in god.

In exchange, I get to stay balls deep in my excellent wife and should be left alone.

I’ll be the first to admit the excesses of Atheism’s victory laps and see how “live and let live” can slide down the slope into a children’s drag show. But this indirect exchange reminded me that when the culture war pendulum swings back, I should be prepared for the petty tyrants and fools on the religious right to reassert themselves. We’re already starting to see the tendrils of this, even if some of their forces have been replaced with rainbow-skinsuit churches across the US.

For Christian motteziens - No disrespect intended. I'm aware of the hypocrisy of my arrogance in this post, and it's intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek

This post is an interesting little mirror to this sub's CW leanings. Imagine if the positions were reversed with a left-leaning interlocutor instead of a right-leaning one. Say you told a story where they were making snide passive-aggressive remarks implying you were racist. The response you would have gotten would almost certainly be cheering alongside you. I highly doubt they would be as unanimous in their scorn, claiming this post breaks rules, that your previous compromises means you somehow deserve this, or that snide remark essentially saying "we're not your therapist, bro".

The fact that Christianity's cultural side is inextricably linked to the superstitious side is clearly causing some amount of cognitive dissonance. But instead of resolving it (either by severing the two sides, or by rejecting Christianity entirely if doing so is infeasible), this sub... tries to ignore it as much as possible. This sub pretends it doesn't exist, and then gets really conspicuously oversensitive whenever someone reminds them of it.

I think it is not the sub as a whole, rather it is a large but not majority fraction of the sub.

But yes, I do think that there is a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" thing going on with Christianity in this sub. The Christians and other Christianity-supporting participants on the sub generally do not attempt to argue that Christianity is true on the object level, even if they believe that it is. And the rest of the sub generally does not direct the same kind of object level skeptical analysis towards Christianity that it does towards woke beliefs like "disparate outcomes between men/women or whites/blacks are mainly caused by oppression".

The sub is a relatively free discussion forum that does not have any specified ideology but leans anti-woke, so there are both a bunch of anti-woke atheists and anti-woke Christians here.

Sure, I'll try my hand.

Let's start with the existence of God. What's seemed the strongest argument to me is just the question, why is there something rather than nothing?

Why does anything exist? What caused the big bang? The only answer that doesn't lead to an infinite regress, so far as I can tell, is that something must necessarily exist. The main candidates for this that I've heard of are a God of some form, or a Tegmark IV multiverse—the extreme of mathematical platonism, where everything possible exists.

(What about just things happening utterly randomly and causelessly? I'd be really worried about that breaking induction—why doesn't that happen again. To be clear, I'm not talking about the constrained randomness of quantum mechanics. What about a loop or an infinite regress? I'd think we can just collect all the terms and ask if that has a cause.)

The first hypothesis seems more likely than the second, because it seems to better explain why I'd find myself in an orderly world. There are many more ways to disorder something than to order them—e.g. there's only one world where the laws of physics continue as usual, but a much greater number where they broke down 3 seconds ago. I'd also be worried about whether things like Boltzmann brains could end up being common enough to harm our epistemology—not in itself a measure of likelihood, but one hurting pretty severely the ability to do epistemology, since again, the law of induction becomes pretty broken. I'm also unsure whether consciousness harms the ability encapsulate everything mathematically, which the Tegmark hypothesis would seem to require.

Let's say there's some a pretty good chance there's some necessarily existent thing out there. What sort of thing might it be? One perfect in every way seems like one of the relatively more likely possibilities, though it might be hard to say what's a perfection. Not sure how to do anything more exact here, but a pretty decent a priori probability is enough to matter, I'd think.

Okay, that's all towards some form of theism. What about Christianity in particular? The largest obstacle, I think, to most people is that miracles seem really unlikely. This is mitigated to a pretty substantial extent if you think that a god exists. Once there's a mechanism to account for miracles existing, that seems to raise the probability a good bit. If you will, it's no longer something beyond some unbreakable laws of physics, since it's something allowed under the true laws of physics that aren't usually in play. (If you still find it hard to believe that this sort of thing can happen, do you also treat the simulation hypothesis as absurd—at least, if it thinks that there could be intervention once in a while.) But in any case, some documentary evidence and some accompanying historical evidence seem rather sparse to believe in a resurrection from the dead. I think the accompanying teachings of the christian scriptures significantly raise the reasonableness of thinking that it took place, since it places it in a context where this is at least something not improbably, where this is the way to accomplish some aims. This is especially the case since descriptions of what took place were written hundreds of years beforehand—see Isaiah 52:13 through to the end of Isaiah 53. The gospels and epistles are also better than average for ancient historical texts in some other respects—they're written not too long after the death of Jesus, within the lifetime of those who knew him when he was alive. Paul, at one point, refers to 500 people who witnessed Christ after his death.

Let's say that all that argumentation fails. There still seem to be reasons that it might be a sensible thing to adhere to, even if you think it's relatively unlikely. Pascal's wager is formidable, for one. Ethics or purpose seem a good bit easier to come by, which, by no means necessary, do mean that those worlds might be ones that you should concern yourself with more.

Let's say that all that argumentation fails. There still seem to be reasons that it might be a sensible thing to adhere to, even if you think it's relatively unlikely. Pascal's wager is formidable, for one.

Pascal's wager is terrible because infinite rewards break game theory.

Suppose I ask you to give me $10 and in exchange I will reward you with $10000. Should you take this wager? To answer this question you could estimate the probability p that I'm telling the truth and calculate the expected value of the wager: 10000p - 10(1-p). If it is positive you should pay, if it isn't you shouldn't. It's unlikely that you will be able to prove that p=0 but it also doesn't matter, as long as you estimate it to be low enough that all you need to know.

But suppose I promise you an infinite reward for your $10. The condition is now ∞p - 10(1-p) > 0 which is always true if p > 0. So, as long as you can't call me a liar certainly you have to enter the wager. What's worse this is independent of the entry price. As long as I ask for a finite price, no matter how large, you have to pay it.

What does this mean? Either we should reject all wagers that involve infinite rewards (because otherwise we would have to take all of them) or, if we choose not to, we are lucky that there are multiple incompatible religion. Because taking one religion's wager means rejecting many other and some of the other will have infinite punishments for rejecting them all of the wagers are undecidable and we are free to choose whichever we want or reject all of them.

Rejecting infinite wagers doesn't suffice, you'd still need to worry about graham's-number wagers.

The correct thing would seem to orient yourself around one of the possible infinite rewards—work out what credibly is the best, weigh competing infinite positives and negatives, etc. I'm not sure what the math would entail, but I don't see why they'd all cancel out.

Also I wanted to point out how bizarre the entry about the wager in the pensées is: it ends with a note that, if this argument (the wager) isn't enough to convince you to believe you should then go to mass every day and the monotonous repetition of the liturgy will make you as stupid as a beast and then you will be able to believe. It seems unexplicably blasphemous to me.