A second-best for religion

S’il n’y avait en Angleterre qu’une religion, le despotisme serait à craindre ; s’il y en avait deux, elles se couperaient la gorge ; mais il y en a trente, et elles vivent en paix et heureuses.

–Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques*

As a non-believer, I am inclined to want religion to just go the hell away. It is highly unlikely that this will happen. As one sage once observed, religion is the opium of the people. As another sage observed, life is pain, princess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. No one is ever likely to talk those in pain out of their opium.

What would be better than the status quo and more feasible than universal atheism would be for there to be a hundred “major” religions, distributed among the people such that the largest of them claims no more than four times the number of adherents as the smallest, and the beliefs and practices of which would be the most wildly variable. Life would certainly be colorful then, no one sect would be powerful enough to oppress all the others, and religious liberty might be a worthwhile concept, rather than a club with which the largest sects beat those who live or believe differently.


*“Sixième lettre sur les presbytériens,” URL: https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Lettres_philosophiques. Accessed August 8, 2016. Return to main text.

The “golden” rule really isn’t

Do not do unto others as you would have that they would do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.

–G.B. Shaw, as quoted by J.L. Mackie1

The religious and people who have a soft spot for religion like to appeal to the fact that some version of the maxim called “the Golden Rule” has a lot of interfaith currency, often implying that ubiquity, perhaps even the universality, of the rule implies a core of moral truth achieved by religion or religions. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a religious apologist cite the Golden Rule as an example of how kind and good and decent religions were are their cores.

A popular version of the Golden Rule comes to us from Christian scripture, offered to us by Jesus himself, where, along with a great deal of other advice Christians have spent many centuries somehow failing to follow, he offers this:

Matthew 7:12 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Though as with so many things in Christian tradition, it has been taken from an earlier Jewish tradition (without proper credit, of course). There is an earlier version of the rule, formulated by Rabbi Hillel. As with so many things in Jewish tradition, it comes with a poignant story attached.

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” – Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

I hate to have to disagree with the learned rabbi, but unfortunately there’s a problem. The Golden Rule is substantively empty. John Mackie certainly did not fail to noticed this fact:

The teetotaller may be happy to prescribe universally that no one should drink wine or beer, the philistine that old houses should never be allowed to prevent the construction of motorways or divert their course, the sturdy individualist that social services should be kept to a minimum. e may see little or no moral force in the protection of freedoms whose exercise we would not enjoy, and we may be more ready to regard as vices ways of behaving in which we not want — or at any rate which we do not consciously want — to engage.2

A generalization of Mackie’s point might be something like this: in order to apply the Golden Rule, someone needs to perform an operation which I’ll call the Inference to the Object, that is, figuring out what it is that the would have others do unto them (in Jesus’ formulation) or what it is that is despicable to you (in Hillel’s negative formulation). But the Inference to the Object requires the use of principles and premises that are not themselves part of the Golden Rule, and which furthermore vary significantly across persons.

For the acute of mind, Mackie’s observations should be enough to sink the Golden Rule, but I think that the point deserves to be driven home a bit harder. People are poor listeners, and certain points need to be made over and over again. So here goes: let’s borrow the characters from Amartya Sen’s presentation of the Paretian liberal paradox and update their preferences to a more contemporary issue set. The characters are called Lewd and Prude, and the issue is to whether Internet porn should be banished in their country.

Lewd reasons as follows: I think masturbation is just fine: quick, hygienic, and a pleasurable relief from the strains and miseries of everyday life. Having Internet porn around makes it quicker and easier to masturbate. I would hate to have someone take that away from me, and I would therefore not want to take that away from anyone. Following the Golden Rule, therefore, I am against prohibiting Internet porn.

Prude reasons as follows: I think masturbation is icky and degrading, even though it is pleasurable. If Internet porn is available, I will be tempted to masturbate to it precisely because it is pleasurable. I would hate for someone to make this temptation available to me, and I would be grateful to others if they would somehow make it unavailable to me. Following the Golden Rule, I am in favor of prohibiting Internet porn.

Neither Lewd nor Prude makes an incorrect Inference to the Object in trying to apply the Golden Rule, but manage to reach opposite conclusions in applying it. That’s a grave problem for the rule. (It might be the case that either Lewd or Prude is reasoning from incorrect premises, but if that’s the case then the only way to fix their reasoning is to fix their premises. Getting them to apply the Golden Rule more “correctly” won’t help them.)

The point made here generalizes. For any policy or behavior one wants to recommend, it is going to be possible to find (or, as needed, invent) premises that will make it somehow “required” by the Golden Rule. So viewed, the Golden Rule seems less like a cherished principle of morality and more of a rhetorical stick with which to beat people who disagree with you. Though on further reflection, perhaps there isn’t really that much of a distinction between those two things at all.


1J.L. Mackie, and Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1990 [1977]), p. 89. Back to main text.

2Mackie, Ethics, p. 89. Back to main text.

You lose when you win and you lose when you lose

Don’t make the mistake of marrying the best possible husband, any more than you would make the mistake of buying the best possible car. They’re both likely to cost more than they’re worth to you.

Your ideal mate is probably close to ideal for a lot of other people, too. That means you’ll have to make concessions to win him and concessions to keep him — on every issue from how many children you’ll have to who’s cooking dinner tonight. A perfect husband is a costly extravagance. Most costly extravagances turn out to be mistakes.

–Advice intended by economist Steven E. Landsburg for his then nine year-old daughter.*

In Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître the eponymous Master observes “Tous les jours on couche avec des femmes qu’on n’aime pas, et l’on ne couche pas avec des femmes qu’on aime.” I observe that every day people get up and spend most of their waking hours doing what they do not love and not doing what they do love. The following Venn diagram illustrates an explanation for my observation which I believe will apply to most if not all people.


Think of the things you find rewarding to do. For me it likely means intellectual work — the life of a humanistic scholar and teacher, or pure scientist or pure mathematician. For others it might be a life of artistic achievement, as a writer, poet, musician, actor, dancer, whatever. For still others differently constituted it might involve rearing (their own) children or helping the less fortunate. All of these activities are richly rewarding for most of those engaged in them. They’re “meaningful.” Another thing they have in common is that if you devote yourself to any of them your expected lifetime monetary compensation will be shit. To be sure, in some of these activities there will be a handful of superstars — there will be some musicians like this — who command big returns. These superstars are the equivalent of lottery winners in their respective professions. As we’ve noted before, playing the lottery is not a rational life strategy. In some others like science and scholarship there are some opportunities for a barely middle-class existence, but very few relative to the number of aspirants and such opportunities as there are will be controlled by unpleasant gatekeepers who use them to enhance their own status and opportunities — most of academic hiring is like this. And in others you can pretty much just expect to starve. No one is going to pay you to rear your own children, and almost no one is going to pay even the next Byron to write poetry.

The reason that “meaningful” work is on average so poorly paid as at base the same reason outlined by Professor Landesburg as to why having a perfect spouse is a bad idea. If the work is meaningful to you, then it is highly likely to be meaningful to many, many other people. All the would-be writers, or scientists, or musicians trying to pile in drive down expected compensation to some socially-determined level of subsistence, or perhaps even lower than that.

Only the jobs that suck — ranging from that of the lowest man on the garbage collection crew to that of the slickest attorney fiddling the rules to allow her billionaire clients to pay less in taxes than their servants — are going to pay much to the non-winners in life’s lottery. People with work that needs doing can’t (yet, anyway) just enslave people who can do the work, and so some inducement, usually monetary, will have to be offered to overcome the general sense of weary disgust such work induces.

So if you’re like most people, your life will consist of an ugly choice. Try to do something you love and be poor or do something you do not love and be, well, if not exactly rich than at not poor, or at least less poor. Romantics will tell you to do what you love. But beware! Being poor, at least in a society like the contemporary United States does, not just mean having fewer things than other people. It means being exposed to the contempt and abuse of the rest of money-worshiping society, and having little recourse against such when it happens to you. It also means that even the simplest parts of life will be exhausting — try living without your own car in most parts of the country and see how that works out for you. Sticking with what you love is likely to be a very costly extravagance indeed.

Of course, doing what will make you not so poor is not picnic, either. It means coming home tired every evening and, if you are not good at self-deception, not good at forcing ugly inconvenient facts out of your mind, a follower of the bitter path of hard-nosed realism, you will realize that the spent state in which you are spending your evening will repeat itself over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times, down years and decades until it ceases only in your becoming a corpse, whether a traditional one rotting in the ground or a living one rotting in one of the facilities in which we warehouse our elderly will scarcely seem to matter.

That’s the choice most of you will face.

And if you have children, that’s the choice most of them will have thrust upon them, thanks to you.


*[I stupidly forgot to put in this note when I first wrote the post, and am correcting that now.] See Steven E. Landsburg, Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life. (New York: Free Press, 1997), pp. 216-7. Back to main text.

Documenting a consolation of old age

A little while back I pulled from an historical novel a quotation, supposedly from Sophocles, about a certain consolation of old age. At the time, I was (typically) to busy to track it down to see if it was genuine. The answer appears to be that it sort of was. It’s from a speech attributed by Plato to Socrates. See Plato, the Republic, 1.329b, 1.329c, and 1.329d:

{329β] …νῦν δ᾽ ἔγωγε ἤδη ἐντετύχηκα οὐχ οὕτως ἔχουσιν καὶ ἄλλοις, καὶ δὴ καὶ Σοφοκλεῖ ποτε τῷ ποιητῇ παρεγενόμην ἐρωτωμένῳ ὑπό τινος: ‘πῶς,’ ἔφη, [329ξ] ‘ὦ Σοφόκλεις, ἔχεις πρὸς τἀφροδίσια; ἔτι οἷός τε εἶ γυναικὶ συγγίγνεσθαι’; καὶ ὅς, ‘εὐφήμει,’ ἔφη, ‘ὦ ἄνθρωπε: ἁσμενέστατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥσπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεσπότην ἀποδράς.’ εὖ οὖν μοι καὶ τότε ἔδοξεν ἐκεῖνος εἰπεῖν, καὶ νῦν οὐχ ἧττον. παντάπασι γὰρ τῶν γε τοιούτων ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ πολλὴ εἰρήνη γίγνεται καὶ ἐλευθερία: ἐπειδὰν αἱ ἐπιθυμίαι παύσωνται κατατείνουσαι καὶ χαλάσωσιν, παντάπασιν τὸ τοῦ Σοφοκλέους γίγνεται,[329δ] δεσποτῶν πάνυ πολλῶν ἐστι καὶ μαινομένων ἀπηλλάχθαι….

My Greek sucks to the point of near-nonexistence, but happily the Perseus Greco-Roman texts collection provides a translation.

But in fact I have ere now met with others who do not feel in this way, and in particular I remember hearing Sophocles the poet greeted by a fellow who asked,[329c] ‘How about your service of Aphrodite, Sophocles—is your natural force still unabated?’ And he replied, ‘Hush, man, most gladly have I escaped this thing you talk of, as if I had run away from a raging and savage beast of a master.’1 I thought it a good answer then and now I think so still more. For in very truth there comes to old age a great tranquillity [sic] in such matters and a blessed release. When the fierce tensions of the passions and desires relax, then is the word of Sophocles approved, 329d] and we are rid of many and mad masters. [Faustus — notes omitted]. trans. by Paul Shorey.

Well, if I’m unfortunate enough to reach old age, I can at least hope that Socrates was right.

A photographic moment in my moral development

When I was perhaps eleven years old or so I remember perusing a book of World War II photographs from Life magazine when I found this photograph.


The caption I remember (I cannot claim that my memory is necessarily veridical because all human memory is vague and plays) was something like this: “A little girl lies dying after the bombing of Coventry which has already killed her parents.”

That’s heavy to lay on an eleven year-old boy, at least as long as he is not a complete brute (I wasn’t, even if many are). I felt a sense of sick shock thinking this little baby girl, so gravely wounded that the whole top of her head including one of her eyes had to be covered in bandages, probably in terrible pain and lying dying surrounded by strangers in a wartime hospital, without even the mercy of a mother to comfort her. The image was nightmare fuel for me for some time thereafter, and in years subsequent it has returned to me in flashes of anger when have to listen to the blatherings of optimists and the spinners of popular theodicies. One almost wants to scream at people at times. “Look at this little girl! What could possible justify this?” The image might have also buried a nugget of antinatalism in my consciousness: if one of the possible fates a child can have in the world is this, then how can you justify having one?

Because I am afflicted with curiosity about why people turn out the way they do, I was moved recently to try to recover this little bit of my past. After some disappointments browsing among battered used books I found the image again, much as I remembered it visually but with a caption that somewhat surprised me.

“Margaret Curtis, 2” LIFE said under the picture above in its September 9, 1940, issue “is about to die.” Her mother, shielding Margaret with her own body from a German bomb had been killed, as had Margaret’s father and grandfather.

A year later a friend of the Curtises’ wrote LIFE that Margaret was alive…but was struck dumb, and that her mother was alive, too. That letter caused American neurosurgeon Dr. Henry L. Heyl in London to ask the magazine for help in locating the child for possible treatment. When she was found, it was learned that it was her brother Royston, 7, who was the speechless one. The doctor performed two delicate brain operations, and Royston talked again.1

Well, how very heartwarming. How very Life magazine.

I do not feel misled by my past, however. Even if little Margaret Curtis survived her bombing ordeal, even if she is now living a cozy existence somewhere in England as a 78 year-old grandmother, one knows perfectly well that even there have been plenty of other bombing victims in the world, many of them children just as defenseless and innocent as little Margaret. Going just by Wikipedia figures, which as far as I can tell are not wildly inaccurate (and might even be a bit low), total civilian losses from bombing on both sides in the Second World War are well north of a million dead. I submit that it is statistically improbable that all of them were competent adults who somehow deserved their fates.

I can’t help noting on the Life magazine volume in which I found again the picture of Margaret Curtis appears to contain no pictures whatever of civilian suffering on the “wrong” side of the Second World War. (There are a few pictures of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, but they show only ruined and flattened buildings, not ruined or flattened human beings.) In the interests of historical justice I propose to remedy this deficiency. Here is what is left of a mother and child after the American firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945.


This photograph is also from Wikipedia (accessed July 9, 2016), where it accompanies the article Bombing of Tokyo. Here is the caption:

Koyo Ishikawa (1904-1989) took this photograph. This shows the charred body of a woman who was carrying a child on her back; her back itself was not burned. Taken on around 10 March, 1945.

Somehow I doubt that any heartwarming story about how mother or child were later found alive and well will ever turn up.



1David E. Scherman, ed. Life Goes to War: A Picture History of World War II. (New York: Pocket Books, 1978). p. 75. Back to main text.


Suppose a genie were to offer you the following choice between two possibilities for the balance of your life. You can have either…

The Marriage You Want. You can pick out any person you know and marry ver. (Minor catch: you must pick out a specific person who actually exists. You may not specify a person who fits some list of desiderata and have the genie fetch ver for you, much less create de novo such a person for you if ve does not exist in the world. The genie is not that powerful, or that generous.) Ve will fall in love you as much as it is possible for ver to be in love with anyone and will unhesitatingly consent to your proposal of marriage when you make it. At the moment of your marriage your spouse will love you as much as it is possible for very to love anyone at the start of marriage. Over time, your spouse’s love for you will follow the trajectory that is diachronically love-optimal relative to their psychology. That is, after ten years of marriage, your spouse will love you as much as it would be possible for ver to love anyone after ten years of marriage, after twenty years as much as would be possible after twenty and so on. It is important to note that whatever love your spouse will feel for you will not transcend the limits imposed by ver psychology. If it happens that ve is just not a very loving person by nature, then ve will never love you very much, notwithstanding the genie’s magic. If ve is flighty by nature, ve might be deliriously in love with you on your wedding day but bored and cold, even disgusted, after ten, to say nothing of twenty, years of marriage. What is more, other aspects of your spouse’s identity do not necessarily change. Ve might love you, but ve isn’t going to suddenly start liking your hobbies or your friends or convert to your religion, unless ve just happens to be the sort of person who can be motivated by love to do such things. Not everyone is. Indeed, many people aren’t.


Endless Hot Dates. Imagine a reference class of people you find generally appealing, which you may specify to your tastes and may make as wide or as narrow as you like: cowboys, hairy leather daddies, Asian-American cougars, current Ivy League undergraduate women of above-median physical attractiveness, the entire adult population of Ireland, you name it. (Underage persons are right out, as even genies have some principles.) Once per week, for the rest of your life or for at least as long as your health permits and your interest holds out, you will meet a random stranger drawn from the reference class for a fun afternoon or evening of some enjoyable activity followed by a night of fun, enthusiastic, and consequence-free sex. Perhaps there will also be breakfast the morning. Next week: someone else.

Which would you choose? I am quite sure that if my philosophical twin Faustus-ב* had been offered the choice when he was a young man he would have quite unhesitatingly opted for The Marriage You Want. Indeed, at the time Faustus-ב would have confidently told the genie making the offer to just buzz off. Faustus-ב already had the love of the right woman, or at least so it seemed, in his then-girlfriend (call her “Second Serious Girlfriend-ב”) Surely he didn’t need the help of some old genie. At 25 or so, Faustus-ב was a mature, upstanding adult! Committed to such upstanding, society-approved values as love and support for another human being, for life. And perhaps such sentimental slogans as “if you would be loved, be worthy of love.”

At twice the age we think of as young, I’m sure Faustus-ב would settle for Endless Hot Dates. “But wouldn’t you find that empty, Faustus-ב?” Well, yes, of course he would. But as I’ve argued before, unless someone like Faustus-ב experiences lottery-winner-like luck in picking someone out, Faustus-ב would be face a lifetime of experiencing emptiness anyway. With Endless Hot Dates, Faustus-ב might at least have a chance of enjoying himself some before his time comes to sink into the grave.

Obviously, Faustus-ב will immature over the course of his lifetime. That’s what happens as you experience more of the world.

Since I can;’t help but accumulate experiences over my lifetime, I’m afraid I’m immaturing too.


*Faustus-ב (“Faustus-bet”) is very similar to me but lacks certain of my specific life-commitments, hence he is free to make certain choices that might be, shall we say, more character-revealing than the ones that I might actually make. Back to main text.

I guess that’s me too.

I’ve recently been diverting myself quite enjoyably with the opening chapters of Richard Double’s Metaphilosophy and Free Will.1 By a “metaphilosophy,” Double means an interrelated set of views about what the enterprise of what philosophy is, what it can achieve, and the desires we happen to have for philosophy. He identifies a number of different possible metaphilosophies — including philosophy not a pursuit of truth by as a form of edifying literature, philosophy as an attempt to improve human well-being, or philosophy an attempt to find underpinnings for some system of belief like common sense or religion. Double’s own metaphilosophy is something he calls Philosophy as Continuous with Science, which is the attempt to have a system of beliefs that tracks truth as well as possible, whether or not it underpins our common sense, is edifying, or improves our well-being. As he describes it, Philosophy as Continuous with Science sounds a lot like what I have called The Bitter Path of Hard-Nosed Realism. Double gives a number of reasons for why one might be attracted to Philosophy as Continuous with Science, one set of which is disarmingly self-revealing:

Another part of my answer has to do with the vision of the philosopher as the courageous truth-seeker who faces the direst of facts with Stoic detachment. (For me, the persona of W.K. Clifford I derived from reading “The Ethics of Belief” was very moving, though I think Clifford’s argument is hyperbolic and philosophically weak.) Those of us who like Philosophy as Continuous with Science can build a heroic vision of that metaphilosophy which is very ego-gratifying. In addition, one must not underestimate the titillation and ego-boost we receive from shocking lay persons and other philosophers with our uncommonsensical views, especially when we can claim that whole areas of philosophy that others hold dear are based on confusions.2

And reading these words I have one of those “that’s just how I feel!” moments.

That said, there’s also a recipe for intellectual humility in Double. He accepts the Humean distinction between facts and values and, just as I do, rejects the notion that there are any objective values. But when we reject the view that there are any objective values, we must reject the claim that there is anything that we ought to all desire. There are just whatever desires actually-existing individuals happen to have as a matter of brute psychological fact. And since choice among metaphilosophies includes our desires for philosophy, no one can say that any metaphilosopohy founded on a desire that someone actually happens to have is objectively worse than one founded on someone else’s desire.

Double also plausible notes that there are high-level preferences among different possibilities in philosophy (he gives the examples the choices between skeptical and non-skeptical epistemologies, realist versus instrumentalist interpretations of theories, conservative versus liberal ontologies, strict versus liberal requirements on explanation, and whether or not we accept Hume’s principle). These also affect choices among metaphilosophies and philosophies, and it isn’t obvious that there are objective constraints on our preferences among these either.

So if Double is right, it is futile to try to seek a once-and-for-all knock-down argument against any (well, at least many) stable philosophical positions, no matter how much you might despise them, because they live at home in metaphilosophical positions other than your own, and facts and logic alone cannot force someone out of that.

A larger implication might be that your philosophy is a function of who you are, of fundamental and perhaps constitutive preferences bound up with your identity.

Double may be right. I still am what I am, though, even if I do manage to learn a little humility.


1Richard Double, Metaphilosophy and Free Will. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Back to main text.

2Double, Metaphilosophy, pp. 53.4.

Elite higher education, that’s the thing

The quote of today comes from former Yale professor of English William Deresiewicz, interviewing one of the most privileged and talented young people America now has to offer.

One young woman at Cornell summed up her life to me like this: “I hate all my activities. I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, I expect to hate my job, and this is just how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.”

From William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 11

Whatever this young woman lacks, it ain’t intellect.

Turn off your radio

A Wager and a Reformulation

Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of a famous argument known as Pascal’s Wager:1 maybe there’s a God and maybe there isn’t, we don’t know for sure. If there is a God and you believe in Him, then you’ll be saved and whisked off (presumably post mortem) to an eternity of happiness, and if you don’t believe in Him, then when you die you really die. You get what utility you get out of life and nothing more. If there is no God then when you die you really die, whether or not you believe in Him, getting whatever utility you get out of life and nothing more. By this reasoning, you should believe in God, no matter how small a prior probability you assign to His existence, because if He exists then the expected utility of believing in him is infinite, and if He doesn’t exist, you’re no worse off than you would have been anyway. So you might as well believe.

Now obviously there are a number of problems with this argument that people have pointed out over the years. It can’t convince a strict atheist (that is, someone who thinks there is a zero probability of God’s existence). The notion of infinite upside utility might be unsound (a possible subject of a future Pyrosophy post!). What if you believe in God, but the wrong God, or the right God but in the wrong way? (Some of you might recall a televised skit in which Rowan Atkinson, playing Satan, welcomes a group of recently-deceased Christians to hell: “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid the Jews were right.”) Can you really just make yourself believe something you don’t already believe, simply by virtue of being persuaded by an argument that it would be to your advantage to believe that? And all in, God might be rather less than impressed with people who will believe in Him principally to save their sorry butts from annihilation.

Noting some of the problems, Gary Gutting, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame2 and a contributor to the generally-awful New York Times blog The Stone, proposes a revision, “Pascal’s Wager 2.0.” (cute) Gutting admits some of the defects of the previous argument but nonetheless claims that, if there were something like a God, it would be very good for us to have some sort of relationship with Him. We ought therefore to do what it would take to open our minds to the possibility of God.

The argument begins by noting that we could be much happier by making appropriate contact with such a power. The next question is whether there are paths we can take that have some prospect of achieving this contact. Many people, including some of the most upright, intelligent and informed, have claimed that there are such paths. These include not just rituals and good deeds but also private spiritual exercises of prayer, meditation and even philosophical speculation. A person’s specific choices would depend on individual inclinations and capacities.

It’s as if everyone has a radio, tuned to the spiritual ether. Some people, the religious, hear God. Other people, whom Gutting calls religious agnostics don’t hear God, but keep their radios turned on and tuned in, hoping someday to hear God.

The wager calls for some manner of spiritual commitment, but there is no demand for belief, either immediately or eventually. The commitment is, rather, to what I have called religious agnosticism: serious involvement with religious teachings and practices, in hope for a truth that I do not have and may never attain.

Gutting thinks a relationship with God would be so wonderful that it would be irrational to turn off one’s radio, on the grounds that there is nothing to hear. “Religious agnosticism demands only that I reject atheism, which excludes the hope for something beyond the natural world knowable by science.” So. for Gutting, the only sorts of people who ought to exist in the world are the religious and religious agnostics.

Should one keep the radio turned on and engage in religious practices. Well…

The Whisperer in Darkness

Gutting’s argument, to be sound, requires that we partition the possibilities for the universe roughly like this. Either there is a God, who is at least super-powerful and super-wise and super-good (which He would have to be, in order for any relationship one might have with Him to be characterized as necessarily of great benefit to oneself), or there isn’t a God, and the universe is pretty much just what we can observe with science and that we should conclude that the nature of reality is just what physics says it is. But as readers of this blog may have guessed, I think this is a false dichotomy. There is at least one more possibility, which is that the universe is the creation of an at-the-very-least super-evil, super-wise, and super-powerful being, who created the universe as a sort of giant chamber of horrors in order to dine voluptuously off the suffering the creatures trapped therein. Following that brilliant theological parodist John Zande I have hitherto called this being the Owner of All Infernal Names, but I shall henceforth call It the Artifex Atrox, that is, the horrid maker. It has a pleasing comic-book supervillain sound to my ear, and as a comics writer that makes it too hard to resist.

Now in Zande’s understanding of this Artifex Atrox, It is hidden from the view of the creatures in the universe. Can’t have them realizing the foul nature of the universe and committing mass suicide or turning antinatalist, after all.

To ensure that the stream of misery flows uninterrupted…to guarantee that Creation is free to unfold in forever more self-expressive, self-complicating, and creative ways, the Impartial Observer recognizes that existential despair and the potential for organized hostility in the form of self=annihilation must be averted or else the universe would quickly become meaningless or worse, entirely antithetical to its architect and sole reason for existence.3

Zande is probably right, but if he is the Artifex Atrox might be missing out on what is in a way an important opportunity for suffering. After all, thanks to centuries of religion and the urgings of people like Professor Gutting, there are people out there with their radios tuned in, praying, meditating, contemplating sacred texts, doing sacred drugs, fasting in the desert, dancing around naked under the full moon at the summer solstice, what have you. Their radios are on and tuned in. Would it not be fitting for the Artifex Atrox to broadcast across the ether?

Let’s imagine that there is a certain kind of Artifex Atrox, an Artifex Atrox Susurrans, that as Its name implies, whispers to us, or at least some of us. A.A.S. is of course never actually present when It would generate hard evidence of its existence; It withdraws its tentacles immediately whenever pesky scientists and their probing instruments show up, disappearing like supposed psychic phenomena whenever James Randi shows up. But at opportune moments It returns and whispers to people as they pray, meditate, dream. And what does it whisper? There are some rather obvious things: “you must extirpate the heretics by fire and sword.” (See Deuteronomy 17:2-20). “Sexual practice X is an abomination and you must suppress it, even to the point of putting its practitioners to death.” (See Leviticus 20:13.) To the Blues: “Land X is my sacred land, and you must eliminate the Greens therefrom, sparing only the virgins whom you may take as your slaves.” (See Numbers 31:7-18.) And in parallel, to the Greens “Land X is my sacred land, and you must eliminate the Blues therefrom.” You know, religion stuff. Stirring up religious conflict and egging on theocratic oppression are truly marvelous ways of engendering all sorts of suffering, and the Artifex Atrox would be missing a real trick if It failed to do these.

“Ah,” you might say, “but surely we get other things from religion which are valuable. Like hope, for instance.” Yes, hope. Whispering to people that there is hope would be perhaps on of the Artifex Atrox Susurrans very best tricks, because only if we have hope do we carry on. Hope helps us go on living. Hope encourages us to have children. And hope therefore is a remarkable way of making sure the Artifex Atrox gets Its meals in the future. This is the lesson, the real lesson underlying the myth of Pandora. I’ve tried to explicate the lesson in comics format before. In that, I was only following in the footsteps of Nietzsce, in Human, All Too Human.

Die Hoffnung. – Pandora brachte das Fass mit den Uebeln und öffnete es. Es war das Geschenk der Götter an die Menschen, von Aussen ein schönes verführerisches Geschenk und “Glücksfass” zubenannt. Da flogen all die Uebel, lebendige beschwingte Wesen heraus: von da an schweifen sie nun herum und thun den Menschen Schaden bei Tag und Nacht. Ein einziges Uebel war noch nicht aus dem Fass herausgeschlüpft: da schlug Pandora nach Zeus’ Willen den Deckel zu und so blieb es darin. Für immer hat der Mensch nun das Glücksfass im Hause und meint Wunder was für einen Schatz er in ihm habe; es steht ihm zu Diensten, er greift darnach: wenn es ihn gelüstet; denn er weiss nicht, dass jenes Fass, welches Pandora brachte, das Fass der Uebel war, und hält das zurückgebliebene Uebel für das grösste Glücksgut, – es ist die Hoffnung. – Zeus wollte nämlich, dass der Mensch, auch noch so sehr durch die anderen Uebel gequält, doch das Leben nicht wegwerfe, sondern fortfahre, sich immer von Neuem quälen zu lassen. Dazu giebt er dem Menschen die Hoffnung: sie ist in Wahrheit das übelste der Uebel, weil sie die Qual der Menschen verlängert.4 Hope.—Pandora brought the box containing evils and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, a gift of most enticing appearance externally and called the “box of happiness.” Thereupon all the evils, (living, moving things) flew out: from that time to the present they fly about and do ill to men by day and night. One evil only did not fly out of the box: Pandora shut the lid at the behest of Zeus and it remained inside. Now man has this box of happiness perpetually in the house and congratulates himself upon the treasure inside of it; it is at his service: he grasps it whenever he is so disposed, for he knows not that the box which Pandora brought was a box of evils. Hence he looks upon the one evil still remaining as the greatest source of happiness—it is hope.—Zeus intended that man, notwithstanding the evils oppressing him, should continue to live and not rid himself of life, but keep on making himself miserable. For this purpose he bestowed hope upon man: it is, in truth, the greatest of evils for it lengthens the ordeal of man.5

Readers are invited to imagine other things Artifex Atrox Susurrans might whisper, perhaps has whispered, to you!

Now I have asserted before and I shall assert again that it is far, far more likely that the universe comes from an Artifex Atrox than from God, based on the obvious and manifest massive misbalance of suffering over joy in the world. So now Gutting’s wager doesn’t look so good. There’s some very tiny probability that if you do the religion thing and turn on your radio, you’ll have a relationship with God which would be good for you. But there’s a much larger probability that you’ll be hearing the whisperings of a kind of Artfiex Atrox, and that’s going to be very bad for you — and for others whom you can reach. Weighing the balance of probabilities favors turning off your radio.

But perhaps the Artifex Atrox does not whisper?

The Color out of Space

Now as I’ve written Zande is probably right to characterize the Artifex Atrox as having no presence in the universe, even that only detectable in dream states. The Artifex Atrox is thus not Artifex Atrox Susurrans but Artifex Atrox Absconditus. If that’s the case, one could reasonably then ask, what’s the harm in being hopeful about God, leaving one’s radio on?

It’s this: human beings are very bad at actually perceiving noise as noise and emptiness as emptiness.6 How else to explain the persistence of religion? If you tune your radio to an empty frequency what you’ll hear in only squeals and static, but if you have the right, religious cast of mind you won’t only be hearing that for long. Thanks to wishful thinking and confirmation bias you’ll be hearing the whispering even when there is no whisperer, no less than all those people who are constantly seeing the Virgin Mary in their waterstained plaster and the face of Jesus in the grilled cheese sandwiches. And since what you’re actually hearing are just the products of your own mind, what you’ll be getting back are you, including naturally all your bigotries and greeds and lusts and power-hunger, here transfigured from the Voice of You into the Voice of God. Gutting may engage in smug praise (really self-praise) when he insists on the “upright, intelligent and informed” character of religious believers, but the fact is that all those theocrats and genocidaires of the Hebrew scriptures (see supra) seemed equally clearly to be hearing the Voice of God.

It seems, indeed, whether the Atrifex Atrox is Susurrans or Absconditus; either way, It has succeeded in arranging matters so that we are hearing the whispers whether or not there is any whispering. However clever of the the Artifex! All condemnation to It!

Turn off your radios. It’s the only path to mental hygiene.


1For a much more thorough treatment of the argument, see the article on Pascal’s Wager in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Alan Hájek. Back to main text.

2That place with football team, remember? Now go out there and win one for the Gipper.. Back to main text.

3John Zande, The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator. N.P.: John Zande, 2015, pp. 21-2 Back to main text.

4Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister, Sec. 71 (1878). Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7207/pg7207.html on May 30, 2016. Back to main text.

5Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans Alexander Harvey. Sec. 71. Accessed from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/38145/38145-h/38145-h.htm on May 30, 2016. Back to main text.

6The literature on the relevant biases and cognitive failings is vast, but a good book-length beginning would be Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Reason in Everyday Life. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008). Back to main text.