Friday, 6 October 2006

God, etc.

Here are three things often mentioned in conversation: a profound belief in them is widespread. Two of them certainly don’t exist and one seems to me to be highly improbable.

The Law of Averages:
There’s no such thing, really. By this people usually mean that an event will occur regularly with a frequency approximating its probability (e.g. after five heads in a row, the law of averages would make tails the better bet).
This is in fact false; there are useful comments on averages here.
It is permissible, but often misleading, to divide one number by another and call the result an average; thus, it might be said that, on average, every human being has one breast and one testicle.

Centrifugal Force
You might define this as that force which acts outwards on something going round in a circle, like a ball being whirled round on a string, or someone on a fairground ride (in that case you can actually feel the force pushing you away from the centre or, if you are at Coney Island, the center).
Only, there isn’t one: the tension in the string or the handrail you are gripping is pulling you inwards. Look here if this doesn’t sound right.

Let’s not go into all that here. A famous broadcast discussion between Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston many years ago said it all, really. I have it on tape and very impressive it is, but after the second or third exchange you have to be a leading philosopher or a top Jesuit to have any grasp at all of what they are on about.

And there’s not much fun in just studying the pronouncements of bully-boys like, say, Ratzinger or Dawkins, because it’s all one way: they don't want to know what you think and you can’t argue with them.

Much more interesting is to have your beliefs questioned and then to be told why they are illogical, even if you are devout and therefore not moved by logic. Thanks to The Philosophers’ Magazine, you can do just that.

First, try it Do-It-Yourself Deity. This is an attempt to find out what you mean by God; you merely choose from eight attributes that you want your God to have, and the “metaphysical engineers” who devised the test will then give you a personal report which, they say modestly, may help you to understand what you mean by God more deeply, and perhaps even revise your former beliefs.

OK? Now try Battleground God, which is a bit more complex. You’ll be asked a series of 17 questions about God and religion. In each case, apart from Question 1, you need to answer True or False. There are no “correct” answers: the aim is to be rationally consistent; if you choose answers that contradict one another, you will be told precisely why. Now this really is fun; last time I looked, 338,502 people had tried it; I wonder how many of them subsequently changed sides, either taking Holy Orders or resigning their bishoprics.

If you can’t be bothered to answer the questions I urge you at least to follow the links and read the authors' explanations.

Throughout the text the creators of these webpages use the feminine pronoun for the Deity. Bully for them: this makes a nice change, though I can’t see it catching on—imagine the cost of reprinting all the holy literature, and the scansion of many hymns would be all over the place (All things wise and wonderful, the Good Lady made them all…).
Also, it posed a problem when I looked for an appropriate illustration to enliven all this text. Google Images offers over two million representations of God but nearly all those I looked at featured heavy beards. Finally I chose to leave her out altogether and show this striking painting (His Day of Wrath, John Martin, 1789-1854, Tate Gallery). Her Day of Wrath sounds just as good.

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