Monday, November 8, 2010

From the Archives: The Parable of the Spaceship

Last week, my philosophy of religion class considered pragmatic arguments for religious belief--including the arguments articulated by William James (especially in The Will to Believe). It so happens that the view of "faith" that I defend in Is God a Delusion? is very influenced by James's pragmatic approach. At one point, as I was writing the chapter on faith for the book, I wrote up a kind of parable that was intended to capture the Jamesian picture of our human predicament as it relates to religious belief (slightly modified to include, as part of the pragmatic dilemma humans confront, an important thematic distinction in my book, namely Plutarch's distinction between "religion" and "superstition"--or what might be better called the religion of hope and the religion of fear). The parable ended up not making it into the final book, but I did post it on the blog back in 2008, before the book even came out. Since many current readers of this blog have likely never seen it, and since it has bearing on what we've been doing recently in my class, I reprint it now:

Imagine that you abruptly wake up to find yourself on an enormous spaceship. Earth appears through one of the viewports as a diminishing globe—only less blue than it looks in the photos you’ve seen, as if you’re looking at it through a brownish film. You have no idea how you got here. You begin to explore, opening doors at random. You find a kitchen, an exercise room, several bedrooms, and other rooms with strange equipment. Some doors are locked.

As you explore, you begin to meet others who, like yourself, have no memory of how they got here. The first people you meet are a middle-aged woman named Jane, who reminds you of your favorite aunt, and a young man named Paul. Together you follow the sound of voices to what looks almost like a classroom. A dozen people have gathered there. You join them. More people trickle in, until your numbers swell to about fifty.

Eventually, several groups of intrepid explorers head off to see if they can learn more. Your own explorations are interrupted by a scream. Following the sound, you find a smashed-in door leading to a deep shaft. At the bottom is Paul, his neck obviously broken.

Having no way to reach him, you gather in the classroom with others who were close enough to hear the scream, and you await the return of the rest. After a time, one of them—whom you’ve learned is a college student named Joe—returns. He says he’s done a complete circuit of every level and found nobody else, certainly nothing like a crew. “If there are space aliens flying this thing, they’re hiding behind the locked doors.”

But then, a few minutes later, Jane returns, full of excitement. “I’ve met them!” she announces. People gather around. “Well, I didn’t actually see them. It’s like they exist in another dimension. But they were able to…talk to me…sort of. What they did was make pictures in my head. From what I could gather, there’s been some kind of catastrophe. A nuclear war, maybe. I think the aliens were studying Earth when it happened and decided to save as many of us as they could. There are dozens of ships, and they…beamed us up. I guess the process is disorienting. Wipes your short-term memory. Anyway, we’re being transported to a new home. They’ve used their technology to make the ship as comfortable as they could. But some doors are locked for our safety. We shouldn’t try to go in them.” Jane pauses and shrugs. “That’s it. And I’m not sure I got it all right. It was weird, all these pictures in my head.”

Her story elicits considerable heated discussion. Jane is shocked to hear about Paul’s fate, but takes it as evidence that her visions were honest. Someone points out that her experience sounds suspiciously like hallucinating. Someone else asks if she’s ever taken LSD, which elicits a few chuckles. Jane looks away, turning red, but doesn’t answer.

More explorers return without much to report. And then a frazzled young man, Chris, stumbles in. His story is similar to Jane’s, but with important differences. “They were getting in my head, man. Putting pictures there. Forcing me to see stuff I didn’t want to see. It’s like, I saw explosions, all over the planet. And then their ships were swooping down and suckin’ people up with beams of light. They destroyed the planet, man. Alien invasion! And now they’ve snagged a few of us and they’re taking us to some other place. We’re gonna be zoo exhibits.”

Jane shakes her head. “No, no. You’ve misunderstood.”

“This is nuts,” says Steve, a chemistry professor. “Space aliens? I doubt it. This is some kind of experiment. Someone perfectly human has built this thing to test our psychological reactions or something. These…visions…are probably some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion.”

As hours stretch into days, people stake out bedrooms and establish routines. Steve leads a cadre of “investigators” in a systematic exploration of the ship. They map and describe it, and eventually call a meeting where they report their discoveries. One significant discovery is a room where they can regulate the ship’s temperature, humidity, and light levels. They also note that some of the unlocked rooms contain dangerous machines. “Joe nearly got electrocuted,” Steve explains. “And the nearest kitchen is running low on food. We’re gonna need to find some other food source pretty soon.”

“But what does it mean?” you ask. “Why are we here? Are we zoo specimens taken by hostile aliens, or refugees rescued by friendly ones? Or lab rats in some experiment?”

Joe shrugs. “Who knows? All we can do is describe what this place is like. If you want to know what it all means, ask the mystics over there.” He points to Jane and Chris.

“The mystics are idiots,” Steve snaps. “If we’re gonna survive we need to figure this out.”

“Maybe we can’t,” says Jane.

“Yes, we can. There’s a perfectly…human explanation for all this. We just need more information. We need to break down those locked doors.’”

“No way, man!” Chris rises to his feet, looking fierce.

“Chris is right,” says Jane. “They’re locked for our safety.”

“So says mystic Jane.”

“But remember what happened the first day. That young man who broke his neck.”

“Paul was a reckless idiot. We’ll be careful. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on.”

“I’ve told you what’s going on. They talked to me.”

“Convenient that they only talked to you.”

“Chris, too. Maybe only some minds are receptive.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “Let’s suppose they did communicate with you. Some kind of woo-woo ESP. Why should we trust them? They sucked us from our homes.”

“To save our lives.”

“So says mystic Jane. Mystic Chris has a different interpretation, as I recall.”

“If we need more information,” Jane says, “let’s try to communicate with them again. I was in that room with all the pillows—the meditation room—when they first contacted me. Let’s go back there, try talking to them.”

“A waste of time,” Steve huffs. “If they exist at all, they obviously can’t or won’t do more than put pictures in the heads of a couple of screwballs.”

Jane sighs in frustration. “It’s hard to understand them, but I think they exhausted their ability to affect our dimension when they altered the ship to make it suitable for us. But that doesn’t mean they’re not helping. They can still get the ship to its destination. The drive systems operate in both their dimension and ours.”

“How convenient.” Joe shakes his head. “If you’re right, they might as well not exist as far as life on this ship is concerned. If we’re going to deal with that, we need to help ourselves. Let’s figure out how the ship works, what the dangers are, how to control them. I’m with Steve. We gotta start breaking down doors.”

“They’ll kill us, man,” Chris says. “Just like they took out Paul. You start going where they don’t want us to go, they’ll get mad. They’ll blast us. Not just you. These bastards are nasty. They’ll take it out on all of us.”

“Yeah, right,” says Steve.

“I’m serious, man. We gotta keep these buggers happy. We’re in their power. You start opening doors, I’m gonna have to stop you, man.”

“Just try it.” Steve looks around the room. “Who’s with me?” he says again.

And now, finally, the moment is here. You have to decide what to do. Do you join Steve and start breaking down doors? Do you join Jane in the meditation room? Do you join Chris in trying to stop Steve? Do you decide to ignore all of them and head to the kitchen for some soup?

Let’s suppose you like Jane. She seems a decent person, and her story of what is happening is certainly more attractive than Chris’s. If she’s right, then going to the meditation room with her might uncover some new insight. And so you decide to go, in the hope that her story is on the right track, that there are benevolent aliens guiding the ship, aliens you can trust.

Suppose you go with Jane. Suppose that while you’re sitting in the meditation room, silently asking for the aliens to speak to you, you experience a momentary glimmer of something. It feels like someone is there, except that you can’t see or hear anything. Jane, meanwhile, is ecstatic. “They’re talking!” she says. “They’re worried about Steve and Chris. They don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

The feeling you have might just be the power of suggestion. Jane might be hallucinating. For all you know, Steve might be right about things, or Chris. There’s no evidence that clearly speaks one way or the other. But you’ve sensed something. You trusted Jane enough to follow her to the meditation room, and it produced what felt like contact with someone. You could shrug and walk away. Go get soup. Maybe Jane’s delusion is just rubbing off on you. But you hope otherwise.

You turn to Jane. “What’s it like? Talking to them?”

“Wonderful,” she says. “They want to know us, to be our friends. And it makes it so much better, knowing they’re there and mean us well. You know? It’s all so frightening, otherwise.” She sighs. “Do you hear them at all?”

“I thought, maybe, a little.”

She smiles. “It’s a start. Keep listening for them. In the meantime, just know you can trust them.”

Let’s suppose you do just as she says. Suppose that you orient your life aboard ship in terms of Jane’s teachings, in the hope that she’s right. You decide, out of hope, to live as if her teachings are true. But since her teachings are about benevolent aliens who are looking out for the denizens of the ship, orienting your life in terms of those teachings means trusting the aliens Jane says are there.

And this means rejecting Chris’ claims about nasty aliens that need to be appeased on pain of retaliation. While it doesn’t mean blocking Steve and his group from finding out what they can about the ship, and while it certainly doesn't mean rejecting their findings, it might mean taking seriously the idea that the locked doors are locked for a good reason. But mostly, it means two things: continuing the practice of listening for their voices in the hope that a relationship with them will be possible, and finding some comfort in the promise that the ship is taking you, in the end, to a safe harbor.

And here is the question: Could a morally decent, reasonable person follow this path? If you apply the reasoning of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to this parable, the answer would seem to be no. After all, Jane is training people to believe beyond the evidence, and therefore priming them to become followers of Chris and his extremism. Right?

Or have Dawkins and Harris missed something important?


  1. I couldn't help thinking that this could be recast in terms of plane crash survivors on an island with a hatch... :)

  2. Hi, Eric-

    What a fascinating and well-constructed story. You probably won't be surprised, however, if it comes under a bit of critique. The basic issue is one of Bayesian priors. The situation of the ship-people has no good alternate explanation while the situation of nature-people does, here on earth. Naturalists have a pretty complete account of how humans come to be, what they are here for, and how they operate, pending a few details about brain function, etc. It all makes a rather powerful and workable hypothesis. A better one than the mystics have.

    The ship-people are not sure what the explanation for their predicament is, but it does not fall under the category of natural events. Even Steven alludes to some "experiment", though by humans, for which he has no evidence at all, other than some knowledge of how to keep humans alive. Once all agree that some other agent/being is involved, the question then becomes what that agent might be and what its intentions are. All of the ship-people are pursuing that hypothesis in some form.

    You have portrayed Jane's information source as unimpeachable and obviously correct. But I think that if you wend back to William James, he described visions and mystical sensations as highly impeachable indeed, and not to be trusted by other people, for obvious reasons. The glimmer of evidence the inmates have is that they are in what seems to be a safe place. If whatever the responsible agent was had simple bad intentions, they wouldn't be in that position. An anthropic principle of sorts, but extended to an agent with at least minimally/temporarily good intentions.

    The next step of human hypothesis-making is to interrogate the possible agent based on what they know of agents, which generally means us ourselves. So, projecting, you get the divergent views of Jane and Chris: the all-is-goodness theory of agent-ness, and the diabolical conspiracy theory of agent-ness. Neither is necessarily correct, though the meagre evidence at the moment favors the former. As you indicate, this also follows all the projections made about deities through ages. On a pragmatic level, game theory also suggests that the inmates play tit-for-tat, which is to say, assume the best until something bad happens, which is apparently Jane's position.

    Lastly, Steven is unwilling to project or trust mystical "information", and in this he is correct. But he is also willing to do destructive experimentation on what might be a rather delicate new environment the people find themselves in, so lately saved from their original environment which they had collectively trashed. But science doesn't always proceed in such idiotic ways. To take Darwin as an example, observation, imagination, and logic was the key, not blunderbuss destruction.

    If the aliens really "talked" to Jane by mystical experience, wouldn't they do so with a bit more intelligence? Firstly by talking to all of the humans, and secondly, by introducing this novel form of communication with a few choice morsels of verifiable information (signs and wonders!) and a somewhat more discursive format? Just an idea! It seems a bit weak to make their communication masquerade as visions and dreams that (rare) people on earth have been having forever about whatever drops into their heads. The signal to noise ratio is far too low to be trustworthy, and your biased presentation, putting Steven in the wrong in practice, even though he is correct in theory, doesn't formally improve Jane's credibility.

  3. Burk--It was hardly my intent in this parable to make a complete and perfect analogy between our situation and that of the ship-dwellers. Rather, it was (a) to zero in more pointedly on the Dawkins/Harris view that believing beyond the evidence is always improper, even dangerous; and (b) offering an example of what James would call a "genuine option" in which some kind of passional motivation must determine what one pragmatically believes.

    The parable was not intended to nor does it lend itself to assessing the naturalism/creation-by-design controversy--since, as you rightly note, all the viable hypotheses about what is going on presuppose some kind of agency. If there is an analogy at this level of things between our own predicament and theirs, it is a bit more oblique.

    As I see it (and argue in the middle chapters of my book), the most powerful versions of the cosmological argument leave us with two options: (a) There are brute facts (things which are the case for no reason at all), and the existence of the natural universe is such a brute fact; (b) There exists something fundamentally mysterious and vastly different from anything in our experience--namely, something which is self-existent (it explains its own existence in the sense that WHAT IT IS is something that could not have failed to exist)--and this mysterious something explains the existence of the natural world with which we are familiar. In terms of deciding between these alternatives, we do not have any background conditions from which to assess probabilities, since what we are looking at IS the whole, including what serves as background conditions for a host of other matters we might investigate.

    I had Steve propose knocking down doors for the dramatic purpose of giving Chris something to respond to with his aggressive fear-mongering. It was not my intent to suggest that science is necessarily invasive. You are absolutely right that it is not.

    That said, Steven does represent the "Dawkins" voice--and as such is not terribly sympathetic. Were I rewriting the parable today I'd probably want to include the more sympathetic "Gould" voice among those who are skeptical of the mystics.

  4. As to the following: "But I think that if you wend back to William James, he described visions and mystical sensations as highly impeachable indeed, and not to be trusted by other people, for obvious reasons."

    This strikes me as a highly misleading gloss on James. While he did say that mystical experiences--while irresistably authoritative for those who have them--needn't be treated as authoritative by those who don't, this is hardly the same as saying that these experiences are not to be trusted.

    To the extent that those who have them report some SPECIFIC content in terms of concrete religious beliefs of the sort you find in creeds or Scriptures, James WAS inclined to treat the report as a contestable interpretation OF the experience, with suspicion of the interpretation being appropriate.

    But when it can to the generic features of the experience--what recurs across diverse cultures and traditions, James takes it that this "absolutely overthrows the pretensions" of ordinary consciousness "to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe." He claims that these experiences "open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith." He holds that the rationalist critic of mystical experience "plays the part of denier in the controversy, and his denials have no strength, for there never can be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view." And so he concludes that the "higher" mystical states "point in directions to which the religious sentiments even of nonmystical men incline" and which offer "hypotheses which we may voluntarily ignore, but which as thinkers we cannot possibly upset. The super-naturalism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted in one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life."

    This is hardly a dismissal of them as untrustworthy.

  5. Hi Eric

    As with all parables, we will doubtless bring our own prejudices to the reading. Here is mine:

    Why form any particualr beliefs about situations where all we have is guesswork? There's no one on the ship saying 'in the absence of any verifiable information, let's just hold off on assuming anything, examine what we can, and get on with the practical business of finding food, exploring the limits of safe activity etc. And what's more, instead of wasting precious time on idle speculation, let's get the hell on with enjoying the experience. Like, we're on a spaceship! And here are all these strangers we don't yet know. This is potentially the most wonderful trip we've ever been on, and all we can do is engage in metaphyscial point scoring. That's nuts.'

    I have the same problem with the two optiions you offer on the cosmological argument. Why overlook option number three, that the nature of existence is such that it eludes our puny imaginations. So, it may not be the quality of necessary existence is part of the ultimate picture at all. And at the same time existence may not be a brute fact. A more subtle, and beyond our reach, form of logic may uncover a third option (or many others besides) that seems impossible to us. What's more, as we have no way of knowing which of these options is actually true, why not belive none of them, and just mark that as unknown territory?

    Agnosticism seems to be routinely ignored, as if it's in some way untenable, yet it seems to me to be a tremendously helpful and satisfying stance. What's more, I suspect that were you to interrogate Richard Dawkins on this, you'd find it closer to his view than the one you're insiting upon him (I've not read nor met Sam Harris so won't defend him).


  6. Bernard--You're right that the agnostic option isn't properly represented in the parable.

    I suppose this oversight, as well as the others, arises out of what motivated the parable. A main aim of the parable as I was writing it was to challenge the idea (expressed seminally by Sam Harris, who Dawkins then quotes approvingly on the matter in The God Delusion) that we cannot separate moderate religion from religious extremism--that the crimes of "Chris" and his followers can be in good measure pinned on "Jane" and hers. This, of course, is part of the broader project of arguing that there are modes of religious expression that are intellectually respectable and morally benign, even if not all religion is.

    This polemical focus obviously shaped the form of the parable--which would take a very different from if the aim were to show, in the face of arguments to the effect that all atheists are dogmatic naturalists who cannot justify moral constraints against abuse of human dignity, that atheism can be intellectually respectable and morally benign even if not every form of atheism is. In that case, it would have been helpful to include a character like Greg Epstein (the humanist chaplain at Harvard who recently wrote Good Without God).

    Likewise, the parable would have looked quite different if I'd been motivated by the desire to show that agnosticism can be part of a life lived with conviction and integrity (in the face of arguments to the effect that agnostics don't have the courage of their convictions or just aren't passionate enough about life to care about the deep questions of meaning and purpose).

    Were I ever to turn this parable into an actual story, I'd probably want to sever it from the agenda that motivated the original such a way that, in a sense, these other agendas would be represented in the story's ambiguity. But, as James McGrath points out, there's a sense in which that story's already been told...

  7. If you do decide to revisit this parable, I think it would be more fair to include a representation the following aspect of Harris’ position regarding religious moderation.

    From The End of Faith, pages 22-23, 39, 45:

    "Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word "God" as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance."

    “But religious moderation still represents a failure to criticize the unreasonable (and dangerous) certainty of others.”

    “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”

  8. Gnu atheist,

    As I've argued before in relation to Harris on this point, he must have different people in mind when he thinks of religious moderates than I do--or maybe there's a difference to be drawn between what he has in mind by "religious moderation" and what I have in mind by "progressive religion."

    In any event, there certainly are people who fit Harris's description. But if this is what he means by religious moderates, then there has to be at least a THIRD category besides the moderates and extremists Harris treats as if they were exhaustive of the religious domain.

    As such, were I rewriting the parable (or, which is more likely, writing a story along the same lines as the parable), it might be useful to have more than two representatives of "religion," including one who is prepared to stifle criticism of Chris's dangerous ideas for the sake of preserving his/her (more inoocuous) ideas from critique.

  9. Eric,

    Thank you for your response. I am not sure if Harris intends for his categories to be exhaustive, but I do understand how one might read them that way. I agree that there could be at least a third category, and likely many others.

    But if we broaden the idea of moderation out to include holders of an idea so pervasive as “God is good”, surely this will cover many categories of religious belief, at least most of the ones relevant to the discussion at hand. Focusing on a believers of something like “God is good” still allows us to consider many of the problems Harris attributes to his version of a moderate, without having to quibble over who exactly is a moderate.

    Believers (and professors) of the seemingly innocuous “God is good” belief allow for critical cover through the ambiguous nature of the term “God” coupled with the definitive “is”. This cover does not have to be conscious, intentional, malicious, or desired. Believers of “God is good” will have biases, for example the confirmation bias, working against their critical assessment of another’s proclamations about God. It is through this mechanism that “moderation” helps the survival of more extreme or dangerous beliefs. And ultimately, I believe the extreme and dangerous beliefs is where Harris' problem lies.

    I have not read your arguments in relation to Harris on this point, so perhaps I will look them up in the near future (any links in addition to your book would be appreciated). I think bringing in a wider variety of representatives of “religion” and maybe even a few more Steves is a fantastic idea for a future story. Thank you for taking the time to share with us denizens of the net.