Feb 05

The Problem of Sincere Believers

A common claim by theists is that God values our freedom and, as such, can not make his existence obvious. Such obvious grandstanding would rob us of the choice to freely choose good acts, so they say. Yet, a fairly simple problem arises.

1. Very sincere believers exist who are virtually certain about various “facts” about God – his existence and the content of at least some of his desires, to name a few.

2. These sincere believers, after coming into their sincere belief, make a variety of choices.

3. When they do so, no one, to my knowledge, claims that these sincere believers are not making free or valuable choices.

4. Therefore, a dilemma arises. Either the sincere believers are lying about their convictions or virtual certainty about God does not affect our ability to make free or valuable choices.

A further point to be made here is that these sincere believers don’t even always choose “good” acts. So, to seriously suggest that we would become some kind of automaton if given a great deal more confidence in God’s existence seems patently false. If you are talking to a Bible-believing Christian, the case becomes even stronger. Satan is a particularly powerful example in that he knew with certainty that God existed and still rebelled. Of course, people can explain away Satan as mythological (and rightly so) or Moses, Abraham, or even the disciples. Thus, we are left with the problem of sincere believers as one that can’t be explained away, like stories in the Bible.

Dec 10

Is God required for our safety and security?

The group American Atheists has been on the offensive lately regarding a Kentucky law that raises First Amendment concerns. The law requires citizens to acknowledge that “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” Further, Homeland Security officials must acknowledge this publicly through plaques and other displays. Failure to comply with this law carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. The law’s sponsor, State Representative Tom Riner, is also a practicing Baptist minister.

The criticisms I have read thus far focus on the constitutionality of such a law, and rightly so. It clearly doesn’t pass the Lemon Test, especially when you read Riner’s comments. His motivation is obviously the promotion of his religious beliefs.

I’d like to focus on another area, however. While I think it is important to recognize violations of the First Amendment, we should not forget to also examine the reasonableness of legislation. If a law is absurd, then we shouldn’t have to rely on gaining agreement about divisive interpretations of the First Amendment. So, I want to examine the central claim of the controversial legislation. Is God required for safety and security?

I can see two ways to potentially answer this question affirmatively—God can either be a necessary condition or a sufficient condition to achieve safety and security. Unfortunately for Representative Riner, neither of these holds up to scrutiny.

A condition is necessary if, without it, some consequence would not be possible. For example, the temperature being below 50°F is a necessary condition for water to freeze. Without a low temperature, water will not freeze. You obviously cannot make ice cubes from water that is greater than 50°F. However, it is not a sufficient condition because the temperature could be 45°F and the water still would not freeze. A condition is sufficient only if it guarantees some consequence. So, the sufficient condition for water to freeze would be for the water to be at or below its freezing point.

Here’s one more example just to hammer the point home. A necessary condition for being an even number is that it cannot end in 1. So, 1, 11, 21, 31, and so on cannot be even numbers. However, a sufficient condition requires an even stricter rule because there are other options that will still give you an odd number. For example, a number could end in 3, 5, 7, or 9 and still would not be even. A sufficient condition for an even number would have to be something like, ‘any natural number that is divisible by 2.’ This would guarantee that any number meeting that condition would be even.

Now, let’s turn back to Tom Riner’s statement. He implies reliance on God must either be a necessary or sufficient condition to achieve safety and security. If reliance on God were a sufficient condition, then that would mean every state or nation that openly relies on God must be safe and secure. This can quickly be dismissed. Very religious countries that have made similar public statements in the past, including the United States, have undergone brutal wars. Perhaps most notably, the countries of Europe from the 12th Century through the 19th Century were engaged in incredibly brutal wars. These included the Hundred Years’ War, the War of the Roses, the Eighty Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Napoleonic Wars. These all involved explicitly religious countries. Some of the conflicts were even brought on because of publicly stated religious affiliation. The Thirty Years’ War, which completely devastated Europe, was fought due to differing religious proclamations. Clearly, publicly stating you rely on God does not guarantee your safety and security. Thus, it cannot be a sufficient condition.

But can it be a less restrictive necessary condition, meaning not everyone who proclaims this will in fact be safe but you won’t achieve safety and security without it? Again, we have several counterexamples, especially in modern Scandinavian countries. These countries are highly secular and have very high rates of atheism. Yet, they also have avoided much of the international violence of the past 200 years and their domestic violent crime rates are significantly lower than the U.S. They are as safe and secure as any modern nation.

Even if a biased Christian judge (and this is known to happen) overlooks the clear religious preference shown by such a law, there are still grounds to challenge it. It is absurdly false, and factual inaccuracy seems like as good of grounds as any for removing a law from the books.

Nov 19

Questions for an Atheist

I contribute occasional articles to the group blog/podcast An American Atheist. Recently, I began a series of answering questions from a Christian apologist. The questions were often terrible, but they covered a lot of ground. For that reason, I thought it would be useful to give brief, first-level responses to some of these common issues we encounter as atheists. There were over 75 questions, so I broke it up into five manageable parts. If interested, feel free to check them out and comments either on that page or here. I’ve tried to give a general sense of the focus of most of the questions in each part in parentheses, but each section covers a lot of material.


Hopefully, someone will find this useful as a resource for answers to general questions asked of atheists by believers.

Nov 01

A Dilemma for Prayer in Politics

Whether it’s meant sincerely or is just pandering, it is commonplace for politicians to talk about prayer. For example, Newt Gingrich said the following during a Republican Presidential Primary debate on October 18, 2011:

How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?

The general idea seems to be that prayer will provide some feedback that will lead you down the right path. This brings about some interesting dilemmas. I’ll just highlight a few.

First consider this question: Will the feedback always confirm what seems most reasonable or will it sometimes conflict with what seems most reasonable? We’ve reached our first fork in the road. If the feedback always confirms what seems most reasonable, then it is simply unnecessary. If you think God will always be on the side of what seems most reasonable, then you wouldn’t need confirmation. You could just always follow that path. So, if we want to maintain that prayer is relevant to decision making, it seems like we would have to say this feedback would at least sometimes conflict with what seems most reasonable. This path leads to another interesting result because it means you would have to go against the apparently most reasonable solution. Imagine that your town mayor tells you that instead of fixing the potholes on the main road in town, she wants to use the tax dollars to make them worse. You ask for her reasons and present all the good reasons against her plan and her response is only, “I know it seems very unreasonable, but I prayed and this is what I think the Lord wants me to do.” Under this scenario, the politician would have to go against reason solely on the basis of what the prayer feedback seems to indicate.

Now, you might say I’m being unfair. After all, the situation I sketched is very obvious because reason, evidence, etc. strongly support one side. In those cases, maybe it wouldn’t really be necessary to pray for guidance. But what about all the hard choices we have to make when the answer is not so obvious? I would still say the first example shows that even the possibility of conflict with reason, which should be possible if we want to say that prayer is a useful aid to decision making, presents a major problem. But just for fun let’s go ahead and consider whether similar problems can arise with “tough decisions” too.

Consider this question: What should you do when your prayerful peers[i] disagree with you? You pray a lot and have come to feel that one decision is best, and perhaps you even feel strongly that it is most representative of God’s will. Your peer has gone through the same process and come to the opposite conclusion. This is actually a really common scenario. There are many pastors, priests, rabbis, etc. in this country who spend a lot of time in prayer and seek God’s guidance in their tough decisions. Among these clergy men and women, there is vast disagreement about which political and ethical paths most reflect God’s will. Or you might prefer the example of multiple Republican candidates for President claiming they are God’s preferred choice. What is the appropriate response? Should one prayerful person doubt their own feeling of feedback from prayer or should they doubt the other person’s feedback?[ii]

Let’s first dismiss the idea that both parties can admit the reliability of another person’s conflicting testimony. Feedback from prayer is supposed to lead you down the right path, if it is useful. Yet, under this scenario it is reliably pointing us in two conflicting directions. This does nothing to resolve the initial conflict brought about by disagreement.

Practically speaking, though, I imagine most people would stick to their guns and doubt the reliability of the other person’s testimony of feedback through prayer. Think about what message this sends, though! Both people would be telling me that another person’s testimony about prayer is unreliable. Yet, to me, both of them are another person. How would I go about deciding which politician to trust now that significant doubt has been placed on relying on the testimony of others about feedback from prayer? If we can only trust our own testimony about feedback from prayer, then it shouldn’t matter if our politicians pray. Either I have my own feedback from prayer, so theirs is simply unnecessary to me, or I do not have any feedback of my own and have reason to doubt both of their testimony.

I really don’t see any good way out of these dilemmas for the person who wants to maintain that prayer is useful for a politician. I look forward to any potential objections readers can raise, though.


[i] By peers, I mean two people who seem to be in the same epistemic position and you have no external reason for preferring one over the other. So, if you are a Catholic, two archbishops will probably be peers. If you do have a reason for preferring one over the other, then the initial dilemma arises, where you are placing your weight on the reasons, rather than the testimony about feedback from prayer.

[ii] Obviously you can doubt both, and that is an excellent choice, but I’m considering this from the scenario of someone who wants to maintain that prayer is a useful aide to political decision making


Oct 26

A Brief Point on Evil and Free Will

There are a number of potential problems with the free will defense (FWD) to the problem of evil and its many varieties. Here is one very simple potential problem.

Let me begin with a quick story. I have a young son. We have an open stairway leading into a finished lower level. We have a gate blocking this open stairway for safety.

Now consider the story told by many Christian philosophers, including Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. In response to the logical problem of evil (i.e., whether there is an impossible-to-overcome inconsistency between the existence of God and the existence of evil), they will claim that at least some of the evil might be attributed to free will. After all, God can only do what is self-consistent, and they say it would not be self-consistent for God to both (a) allow creatures to have free will; and (b) ensure those creatures only made God’s preferred choices.

Now, I think we can allow this point, but still maintain there is a problem. There is a gap between making choices and real world undesirable outcomes. Consider back to the example of my son. He is allowed to try to open the gate, go down the stairs, etc. In other words, his choice is perfectly available to him. Yet, I (in my all-knowing, wise, and loving epistemic state) know that this choice could potentially bring about terrible consequences. So, I prevent the outcome without preventing the choice. It’s not at all clear why God is not in a similar position. “Bad” people can make free choices to try and kill someone. Allowing them to be free doesn’t include the requirement that they succeed. There is precedent for this. As I’ve discussed before, I have the ability to try and will myself to jump into outer space, but I am physically not able. This is not considered a violation of my free will. Or I could try and shoot someone, but they may have a bullet-proof vest that prevents the bullet from harming them. Again, this is not a violation of my free will. This scenario still allows me to make free choices, which people often call a greater good, and it even still allows God to judge me based on my choices, if that’s what your religion says will happen. Imagine, there could have been no Holocaust, no violation of free will, and Hitler would still end up in Hell for being a rotten son of a bitch.

So, here is one way in which the FWD may not be a good solution to even the strictest form of the problem of evil.

Sep 27

Is God fair?

Imagine you are a professor and you are renowned for your fairness. You have always upheld this as a central virtue because you teach a class that is of vital importance to the students. Your grading of the students in this particular class is highly correlated with their acceptance into top-tier graduate schools. As such, you take it very seriously that everyone has a fair chance and a level playing field. Your class eventually becomes so popular that you are given multiple sections of the same class to teach. As part of your effort to be fair, you make every reasonable attempt to provide the same level of instruction across different sections. We wouldn’t expect you to have everything be exactly the same, but we would expect it to be the same within reasonable limits. For example, class discussions might steer you in different directions, but you wouldn’t give one section a comprehensive study guide and not do the same for the other sections.

Reflect on this for a moment and see if you agree that it sounds plausible. What I specifically want to know is whether the professor’s attempt to provide very similar instruction across the board is a necessary condition of his/her being fair with respect to the students. If the professor did not make such an attempt, and consequently there were great discrepancies in instruction, then the professor would not be fair. Do you agree? If so, then there seems to be a compelling problem for many major religions.

Let’s take Christianity as our example. The Christian God is surely considered to be completely fair, among other things. It would not be possible to even conceive of a fairer being. I think just about every Christian would accept this. But does God act in a way that is analogous to the professor? Consider every human to have ever existed to be different sections of the same class. And at the end of this class, there is a very significant consequence based on how we performed. Yet, God has arranged things in such a way that people are judged according to vastly different scenarios. Consider how you own life differs from that of a disciple of Jesus. According to Christianity, these disciples got to walk and talk with God himself every single day for years. They witnessed miracles, had access to special teaching, and were surely transformed by the mere presence of God. If that isn’t one hell of a study guide, I don’t know what is. Or perhaps we could consider the miraculous encounter of Paul on the road to Damascus. Or the many residents of Jerusalem who witnessed miracles of Jesus, including healing and even resurrection! Or we could go back further in the Bible and consider Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden of Eden or Abraham, Moses and others having intimate relationships with God and receiving clear signs. Even if you are a somewhat liberal Christian and dismiss the latter stories as myths, you still have the former.

What do we have today? Well, we have a book that’s reliability is severely in question telling us about some (not all) of these events. Think back to the professor. Imagine he/she is a professor of history. For one section of the class, a time machine is built and they go back and witness the event in person. For all other sections of the class, the students are only given a book that seems very unreliable which gives seemingly sketchy accounts of the historical event. In fact, some people question to what extent the book describes a historical event at all. Are these different sections of the class in the same position? Surely they are not. But, if they are not, then the professor ceases to be fair.

The situation gets even worse when we look at other times and places in history. Imagine the vast difference between your ability to evaluate the claims of the Bible or other religions and the ability of a peasant living in the Middle Ages. Or imagine someone living in India during the time of the Buddha. They would have very good reasons to adopt the local religion gaining popularity and no reason at all to anticipate what religions are telling people thousands of miles away or in the future. It is simply inconceivable to me to try and maintain that God has placed these people in similar situations. And yet, we will all allegedly be judged according to the same standards. Such a God cannot be considered fair while maintaining anything like what we normally consider fair, as drawn out through the earlier thought experiment.

At this point, the common reply is to invoke some sort of response that uses God’s alleged middle knowledge. This will generally argue that God knows what each person will choose and that people who live in, say pre-Christ times, were placed there by God because they wouldn’t have accepted Christianity anyway. I don’t think that response is very successful here.

Sep 05

The Matrix Objection – Conclusion

Last time, I laid out what I think is a very intuitive illustration against the reliability of ad hoc reasoning. I also claimed that the Matrix Objection (TMO) is an example of such ad hoc reasoning. Let me briefly restate TMO, and then I’ll defend my case.

TMO: Real life would be indistinguishable from life in The Matrix, but you believe your life is real based on what is self-evident.

Let’s put this in context as a quick reminder for people in case you don’t want to read the introductory piece. You can imagine a conversation between an atheist and a theist that goes something like this:

T: I have a special internal sense of knowing that God, and specifically Christianity, is real. It’s my own personal experience and cannot really be tested by you.

A: Well how do you know that sense is reliable? You could be wrong. It reminds me of that Nietzsche quote – something like, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith proves nothing.”

T: I just know it’s true the same way you know that you don’t live in the Matrix. You could be wrong, but you just know by some direct method of sensing its truth.

This is the point in the conversation where I want to defend the point made by the atheist. The atheist in this case should be basing his/her objection on the very poor track record of religious/magical beliefs that have little to no external evidential support. This contention allows us to differentiate between an inference from past data for the atheist and an ad hoc assertion for the theist.

My argument will consist of three parts. First, I’ll set the stage with the commonly accepted starting assumptions for both sides. Second, I’ll discuss the inferential support behind the atheist’s objection. Third, I’ll discuss why there is not analogous support behind the theist’s objection.


Starting Assumptions

Interestingly, the argument by the theist from the reliability of his/her own faculties sets the stage quite nicely for my argument. In order for TMO to really work, our faculties must be giving us, in general, a reliable picture of the world, so much so that TMO sounds ridiculous to us. Their desired feedback is for the atheist to admit, “Yes, you’re right. I use what is self-evident to conclude that the external world is real, so you may also use what is self-evident to conclude other things.” In order to receive this response, the theist must grant that our faculties are giving us reliable information. If not, he or she is not gaining any way to infer from our own firm foundation to their internally-based belief in God. The theist may want to assume more, but this is the starting point where both parties should be in agreement.

So, it is granted by both sides up to this point that there are methods of direct observation which provide us a sort of insular defeater-defeater. Plantinga presented this idea in his reply to Phillip Quinn on The Foundations of Theism. His example, as I recall, is of someone who has been accused of a crime and there are reasons to believe he has committed the crime. These reasons are such that all of his friends and colleagues may believe he did it. However, the person accused has a distinct memory of being out in the woods camping that entire day. This sense memory functions for the man as a belief that is immune to defeat, unless perhaps it can be shown that the man has a defect in proper mental function. Whatever other evidence is presented to the man will not overcome his own memory. Plantinga and others want to make the case that there is a function of knowing God and truths about God that should count as one of these defeater-defeaters. Even if you don’t want to grant the reformed epistemology of theists, and I am definitely skeptical of it, this seems like a reasonable common ground for discussion.


The Atheist’s Objection

The typical atheistic response to this objection is to say that beliefs in God are not as reliable as something like a very recent memory of being on a camping trip. I’d like to unpack this objection a bit more formally. Once we see the reasons for the atheist’s objection, we’ll be in a position to see those same reasons do not apply to TMO, meaning the skeptical pretender using TMO is not giving us an analogous response.

Now, why would someone object to an internal belief in something like the triune God of Christianity as being a good candidate for an insular defeater-defeater? Here are a few reasons, inspired by philosopher Stephen Maitzen’s arguments:

  • Most people, both today and throughout history, have not come to the same conclusion given allegedly the same sort of internal sense.
    • Currently, only 33% of the world is estimated to be Christian. This means that throughout history, we could very charitably say that <25% of the world population has come to roughly the same conclusion as Plantinga. This cannot be accounted for by claiming that people are just not good at interpreting the basic belief correctly because Plantinga wants to claim it is as obvious as our sense memory. People may make minor mistakes in memory, but not drastic ones and on such a large scale.
  • Belief in God, as evidenced by demographic data, seems very much tied to social factors. In fact, these social factors seem to do a better job of explaining the demographic data than an internal way of knowing God.
    • For example, traditional ethnic boundaries serve as very severe dividing lines between religious and non-religious or between mutually exclusive religious beliefs. This situation is expected under a naturalistic account, but not very plausible under a strong internal sense of the truth (remember, as strong as your memory of having just been on a camping trip). By “not very plausible” I think we could estimate the likelihood of such a distribution of similar beliefs under Plantinga’s claim as <10%. I would consider that incredibly charitable.

I also have some major conceptual difficulties that are harder to quantify. For example, it does not seem likely that a super-intelligent being whose every action is perfect would create such a flawed belief-forming system when said system is supposed to be our primary way of knowing God. It would also be strange for God to create a separate belief-forming system when it comes to this one specific area when we already have a fairly reliable system in place for forming all other beliefs.

I think these start to build a very strong cumulative case against the theist’s claim that such an internal religious feeling would be reliable.


The Theist’s Objection

Now that we have an objection backed by arguments, rather than just a quote, we are in a better position to compare the atheist’s objection (as I’ve described it) to TMO. I have two major faults with TMO as a response to the atheist’s critique. First, as I’ve already said, it’s ad hoc. I’m going to give a few more details on why that’s a problem. Second, it doesn’t function well as an objection because there is no clear analogy. When we were comparing one quote to another, it was difficult to see why, but now that we have a stated case from me and some background from Plantinga, it should be clearer.

So, why should we avoid ad hoc objections? There are several reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is that it is prima facie more likely to be false. There are several ways the world could potentially be, but only one way the world actually is. On a small scale, you have things like what color shirt I might be wearing. There are several possible answers even to that simple question, but only one correct answer. Knowing nothing else at all, the probability that some random statement is a true representation of the world will be 1/n where n is some very large number. Using external means of justification and testing, correcting mistakes, etc. gives us a means of reducing the size of n. But in the case of an ad hoc objection, it does not have such support. It is merely given as a possible alternative. Because of this feature I’ve described, we want to seek out plausible or probable alternatives, rather than just possible ones.[i] Since TMO is only presented as a possible state of the world without support from our background knowledge or evidence, it qualifies as ad hoc.

But what about Plantinga’s description of sense memory and insular defeater-defeaters? Is there a strong case to say our “immediate” experience of the world is analogous to forming a belief in a god? I think under a fuller statement of the argument, like I’ve provided above, it’s clearly not analogous. The past data stated above along with evidence from psychologists should undermine our confidence in that type of belief. On the other hand, we don’t have such a miserable track record for beliefs such as “I am sitting in a chair right now” or “My friend next to me is also conscious.” Another issue is that we understand to a decent extent how our bodies and brains work to create sensory perception, memory, etc. In the case of Plantinga’s claim about immediate experience of a god, we have no clue. Given these issues, I simply don’t see how Plantinga’s claim about an immediate experience of a god is supposed to truly align with my immediate experience of the external world. There is no clear physical tie between the two and there are probabilistic inferences that undermine any confidence we should place in the reliability of such a belief.



Since TMO is highly improbable, as stated, and there is no clear analogy between our immediate sensory perception and forming beliefs in gods, I’d say TMO does not overcome the atheist’s objection.


[i] It could be the case that an ad hoc assertion turns out to be probable or actual, but we just don’t have any reason to think so at this point. One possibility on this front for the theist is to provide a case similar to Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument, but I don’t think theists will want to go down that road because it would ultimately lead to conflicts with their beliefs.


Aug 24

A Brief Argument Against the Soul

1. Most theistic laypeople have a belief in the soul that includes it somehow being within or somehow internally connected to their body.¹

2. Their belief likely also includes a conception of the soul as immaterial.²

3. Immaterial things cannot have spatial extension.

4. To reside in a place, like within the body, requires spatial extension.

5. This means that a consequence of (2) is that the soul cannot reside within or be connected to the body.

Conclusion: Most theistic laypeople have a belief in the soul that is internally contradictory [from (1) and (5)]

¹I haven’t tested this hypothesis, but I think a survey of the average person’s conception of the soul would bear this out. Certainly popular level portrayals, like movies, give this sense.

²For example, ask a person who believes in the soul to point it out on an x-ray or to a surgeon.

Aug 14

The Matrix Objection – Introduction

Now that my workload has lessened a bit and I’ve finally caught up with George R. R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire, I should have more time to get back to writing. I’d also like to conduct a number of book reviews, including for Richard Carrier’s latest book on Bayes Theorem and the historical Jesus. So, look for more of that in the near future. Up first is a short introduction to what I call The Matrix Objection, which seems to come about in discussions of using internal evidence as warrant for belief in God (or anything else, really).

Internal evidence is often cited by Christian philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis or William Lane Craig’s internal witness of the Holy Spirit. They think this evidence, which is available only to them and cannot be tested or verified by anyone else, is a good reason for belief in God. This internal evidence is also irrefutable, so it cannot be disputed by any external finding or evidence. If you discovered something in the world that contradicted this pre-existing internal belief, like evolution perhaps, then that thing you discovered must be mistaken because your internal sense of God’s truth could never possibly be mistaken.

In response to such ideas, John Loftus posted this quote on his blog:

Self-authenticating private evidence is useless, because it is indistinguishable from the illusion of it.”

I think this quote provides a strong first level response, but our defense of this argument must be able to overcome what I’ll call The Matrix Objection (TMO).

TMO: Real life would be indistinguishable from life in The Matrix, but you believe your life is real based on what is self-evident.

TMO argues that since we use private evidence in some cases, the Christian should also be entitled to use it. It’s a technique to widen the gates of what we consider acceptable evidence.

I will argue, however, that TMO is ad hoc, while the initial illusion objection is not. If I am correct, then these are not analogous cases and TMO is not very successful as a response to the initial quote.

The main difference is TMO—and similar objections, like Plantinga’s argument from other minds—points to merely possible illusory alternatives, while the argument quoted by Loftus points to a plausible alternative. To get a grasp for the difference in force between possible and plausible reasons, consider the following scenario:

You are a football coach trying to decide the right play to run at a crucial moment in the game. You hold a brief conference with two of your assistants. The first assistant recommends a play action pass. His reasoning is that you’ve been running the ball successfully and the defense should “bite” on the fake. The second assistant recommends a running play to the left because aliens might attack the right side of the field.

Now, even if you don’t know much about football, you probably recognize a problem with the second assistant’s reasoning. Which assistant’s advice would you follow? The argument from the first assistant takes available evidence and makes an inference based on probability. If one cared to research football statistics, you would see that it is correct to infer that success in running the football correlates with later success using the play action pass. On the other hand, how do we assign any probability to the wild scenario proposed by the second coach? It is merely an appeal to possibility without anything in favor of its plausibility.

For the same reasons that any good head coach would take the advice of the first assistant over the second, we should also heed the possibility of illusion as Loftus means it as more likely than illusion as TMO means it. So far, I think the reasoning for this should just strike most of you as intuitively correct and even obvious. Next time, though, I’ll dig into the probability a bit more and attempt some actual estimates to be sure that our intuitive estimation is correct and provide a fuller defense against TMO.

Jul 10

The Parable of the Hunter

A father and daughter were camping in the woods one afternoon. The father heard a sound in the distance. When he peered through a break in the foliage he saw another camper setting up a tent. The father went to his truck and pulled out a gun. He checked to make sure it was loaded, cocked the gun, aimed, and fired. The unsuspecting camper was killed.

The daughter, hearing the shot, immediately ran to her father. “What happened?” she asked.

“A man died,” replied the father, as if it were nothing of note.

“But you shot him! You killed a man! What did he do to you?”

“He did nothing,” said the father. “I chose him. But you should know I did not kill him.”

“Who killed him?” asked the girl, confused. “Was there an attacker? Is that why you were shooting?”

“No, no,” laughed the father. “I mean the bullet from the gun killed him. It wasn’t me.”

“But didn’t you fire the bullet, knowing what would happen?”

“Of course. I knew perfectly well what would happen. But I still did not kill him.”

“I don’t understand,” said the girl, confused and on the verge of tears.

“You see,” said the father, “I am a good man. Good men don’t kill people. But sometimes bullets, which cannot have their own intentions, kill people, but never good men. So, it’s not possible that I killed this man.”

The girl feared for her life and for her father’s sanity. She chose to end the conversation there and her father went about his business, as if nothing had happened. That night, she stole away from the camp seeking help.

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