Philosophy, Religion

What if you’re wrong?

A few days ago, April 20, 2017, was National Ask an Atheist Day. The day is sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance, and is intended to be …

… an opportunity for secular groups across the country to work together to defeat stereotypes about atheism and encourage courteous dialogue between believers and nonbelievers alike. The event is intended to be an opportunity for the general public – particularly people of faith – to approach nontheists and ask questions about secular life.

In the spirit of the day (no pun intended), I offered to answer any questions my Facebook friends had for me. I received a few silly questions, but also a few semi-serious questions. One stood out as particularly interesting to me.

What if you are wrong?

There’s a few different ways to approach a question like this. The most obvious approach, and also the least interesting in my opinion, is to just answer it directly. The short answer is … if I’m wrong then there’s a god.*

*Side note: Saying “if I’m wrong then there’s a god” assumes, of course, that I am saying there is no god, which is technically not true. My position is that I have not seen any good reason to believe there are any gods. I am working under the assumption that there is no god until I see some evidence that there is one, in much the same way I walk around every day assuming that I’m not about to die until I see some evidence that I am. I realize that’s a subtle difference. It doesn’t really impact what I am saying here, but it is worth mentioning.

So if I am wrong, then there is at least one god. That’s it, question answered. But that doesn’t seem like a very satisfying answer to me.

A slightly more interesting way to approach this question, and one that may very well have been intended by the asker, would be to interpret it as asking “What will be the consequences if you are wrong?” And “consequences” are usually intended to mean “long-term consequences”, or in other words, “what happens when you die?”

The answer to that question is much more complicated, and would depend on which god I was wrong about (a part of the question that is often ignored). Depending on which god or gods happens to be real, we each could end up in a variety of different places or states of being:

  • Eternal bliss (Valhalla, Heaven, Nirvana, etc.)
  • An eternal place, good but not heaven (an eternal Earth, Hel, etc.)
  • Eternal torment (Hell, Gehenna, Hifhel, etc.)
  • Temporary torment, until eternal bliss is earned (Zoroastrian hell, etc.)
  • Reincarnation (possibly as a “higher” or “lower” life form)
  • Nothingness (this is also the result if I’m right)

Sometimes, if not most of the time, the question is intended to be coercive. It is meant to try to convince you that there really is a god, or at least that you should believe there is a god. The idea being that your non-belief implies such a horrible outcome that you should really consider switching and becoming a believer. This is a logical fallacy known as an appeal to consequences:

An appeal to consequences is an attempt to motivate belief with an appeal either to the good consequences of believing or the bad consequences of disbelieving.

I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say that whether something has good or bad consequences has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is true. Some things with bad consequences turn out to be true (e.g., If you jump off a building you will be injured or killed, etc.), and some things with good consequences turn out to be false (e.g., sacrificing a goat will not end a drought, etc.). It might be nice to wish for good things to happen. But, as I’ve argued before, you’ll be in a better position to actually make things better if your beliefs reflect reality rather than a wished-for world.

An especially common example of an appeal to consequences is known as Pascal’s Wager, in which the French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, argues that one is better off believing in a god, or at least trying to believe or acting like you believe, even if there is no god. For a deeper dive into that, follow the link above.

But the most interesting approach to this question, in my opinion, has nothing at all to do with the question itself or the answer, but rather the fact that the question is asked at all.

Notice how evolutionary biologist and atheist author, Richard Dawkins, “answers” the question:

You ask me what if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong?

He never actually answered the question. I don’t think he was avoiding answering, though he may have been. What I think is that he was bringing attention to the idea of intellectual honesty, of which philosopher Louis Guenin says:

I describe the kernel of intellectual honesty as a virtuous disposition such that when presented with an incentive to deceive, the agent will not deceive.

Click here for Dr. Guenin’s interesting, if lengthy, exposition on intellectual honesty.

Wikipedia gives a pretty good basic definition of intellectual honesty:

Intellectual honesty is an applied method of problem solving, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude, which can be demonstrated in a number of different ways:
– One’s personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth;
– Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s hypothesis;
– Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another;
– References, or earlier work, are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided.

When we refuse to even consider the possibility that we are wrong, we fail the first of those four expectations, and may fail the second and third as well. When we adopt an intellectually honest stance, we are adopting a form of humility, a respect for yourself and others, and a commitment to the truth, all rolled into one.

It’s based on the fact that we are not perfect, none of us. We rarely have all the facts of a given situation. Our ability to perceive our environment is not perfect. Our ability to reason clearly is not perfect. Evolution does not favor the good, it favors the “good enough for now” or the “slightly better than it was before”. As a result, we are hobbled with this jury-rigged brain that was built over the millennia with short-term fix after short-term fix. The fact is, we are sometimes wrong. Any of us could be wrong about things we believe to be true. For example, look at all the conflicting views we found regarding the afterlife. Surely most, if not all, of those must be false! Even our most dearly held beliefs could be simply wrong. It is important to recognize that fact. In fact, the refusal to recognize that fact can be very damaging (and, as Guenin would characterize it, immoral).

They say the first step to recovery is to recognize you have a problem. Or, as historian Daniel J. Boorstin puts it:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

So I thank my friend for asking that very important question. “What if I’m wrong” is an important part of learning and improving. It is an important part of the scientific method. Abandoning this idea halts progress. And if you are not interested in progress, then please step aside and don’t hold the rest of us back.

At least that’s what I think.

But I may be wrong.


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