Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Parable of the Roommate

This little parable/thought experiment was inspired by Steve’s comment in the Stirner birthday message, where he advocates for agnosticism over either theism or atheism.

Imagine yourself in the following scenario:

You’ve just returned home from a day at work. While you set your keys on the kitchen counter and remove your coat you can hear the familiar voices of your roommate and her/his S.O. in the other room.

You start to wonder about what you might make yourself for dinner when suddenly you are startled by a loud gunshot, followed by what sounds like a body falling to the floor. Rather than getting the hell out of there you somewhat foolishly run to the other room to see what happened. Once there, you see your roommate standing there, arm outstretched, holding a still-smoking pistol pointed at what is now, apparently, a corpse.

Your roommate looks at you and says “Santa Claus did it.”

Do you:

a) Sincerely believe that your roommate is telling the actual truth?
b) Decide that, because you didn’t actually see your roommate fire the gun, you just can’t know one way or another whether Santa did it?
c) Consider your roommate a murderer, and the claim to be the rationalization of a mind that has snapped?

If my point isn’t glaringly obvious, I think that the Christian/Muslim/Jew/whatever ought to take position A, since, according to most religious beliefs, faith is a virtue. The agnostic ought to take position B, because certain knowledge about anything is denied us. That leaves C, the only rational, reasonable, explanation, for the skeptics/atheists.

If you’re not a skeptical atheist, but you still chose option C above, well, then I applaud you for being reasonable. But I think you need to explain why you choose the analogous A or B when it comes to the equally dubious claim that there is a God.


Eric said...

If my roommate was Jesus (were I Christian) or Allah (were I Muslim), etc.; then A would be the appropriate choice. However, since I think most Christians would agree that we share a faith in God, not in men, that C is the best choice since I obviously live with a lying murderer. Or someone working on an insanity defense.

There's nothing that says Christians (or other religious folk) are obligated to give up reason (accepting of course that there are some unreasonable things we do, such as believe in God). It's important to remember that just because you're reasonable doesn't mean you don't run your life on a wholly rational basis--why did you wear that shirt this morning?

pdf23ds said...

"It's important to remember..."

I think you're equivocating on arational vs. irrational. Just because some of your decisions are arational, like choosing a shirt to wear that day, doesn't excuse irrationality.

plunge said...

"However, since I think most Christians would agree that we share a faith in God, not in men, that C is the best choice since I obviously live with a lying murderer."

Unfortunately, that doesn't really work. The friend in question clearly exists. But with God, that existence is precisely the question that the faith is required to establish.

You can't trust in the good character of a being to tell the truth when the truth in question is the very existence of the being itself.

Rockstar Ryan said...

Ok, then. Question:

Where do you draw the line then? If you believe in one unreasonable thing (gawd), why not believe that invisible gnomes live in your ass? Or that Sylvia Browne can predict the future?

If my roommate was Jesus (were I Christian) or Allah (were I Muslim), etc.; then A would be the appropriate choice.

wow...that says it right there. Santa be damned!

just because you're reasonable doesn't mean you don't run your life on a wholly rational basis--why did you wear that shirt this morning?

Meh. There are numerous rational reasons for my shirt wearing:

1. It's cold out, and I need clothing to protect myself.

2. I work in a professional arena, and going shirtless is frowned upon.

3. I chose a collared shirt and tie due to reason #2.


Jesse said...

I think I would sit on my roomates lap and tell them what I want for christmas.

Dan the Correction Man said...

What are you atheists, Vulcans or something?

Also--if you don't have faith THEN YOU DON'T GET IT. That is the nature of faith. Rational faith is not an option.

And that is why ID is utter nonsense.

Einzige said...

Dan, just so I'm clear, you're taking option A, then, right?

ruidh said...

Of course I choose C even though I 'm not a sceptical athiest. The question is absolute nonsense. Why should I choose A or B?

What if I came into the room and there wasn't a smoking gun in my roomate's hand but there was an open window? The sentence "Santa Clause did it." might well be accurate even if it's only some bum in a Santa suit.

steve said...

As an agnostic there is no concrete position in the case of certain matters. The atheist is a staunch nonbeliever, the religious are staunch believers, the agnostic says show me the evidence--prove to me that there is or is not a higher power. I would have to choose C because the evidence is clearly obvious--the fact that the guy has a smoking gun in his hand pointing to the shot body of his s.o. only moments following the shot.

Einzige said...


Your definition of "agnostic" is not correct. The agnostic declares that knowledge is impossible (a-gnostic, "without knowledge"), regardless of how much evidence is piled up on either side of an issue. Your description is more appropriate for the atheist.

My position--and the point of the story--is that the evidence in favor of theism is very weak, and that therefore the atheist is justified in deciding that the evidence clearly points to the non-existence of God. Shown convincing evidence, however, the atheist would certainly become a theist.


Your response is changing the circumstances of the hypothetical, so I call "foul". The question is designed to examine a fantastical claim that I believe is on a par with theistic belief in general.

Jim Lippard said...

Theists and agnostics should respond that the hypothetical is not analogous to the God question--theists should say that there is stronger evidence of God's existence than nonexistence (and perhaps that you can experience it
yourself, if only you try); agnostics can say that the evidence in favor and against is evenly balanced. Paul Draper, an agnostic philosopher, has assembled a list of evidential arguments for and against the existence of God, which he thinks are all good arguments with weight, but that he doesn't know how to balance against each other--therefore, he is an agnostic.

Both the theist and agnostic should say that your hypothetical
is therefore question-begging--you've built the atheist-analogous position into the example by choosing a fictional character to play the part of God.

The strength I see in your example is that your scenario presents an alternative hypothesis to the roommate's excuse in the physical evidence, analogous to the evidence we have before us for our experiences being the result of natural causes.

Francois Tremblay said...

"why did you wear that shirt this morning?"

Because I have a mental algorithm to determine what I wear, and it so happened that it fell upon that shirt. No unreason was involved. Your reasoning is a stupid straw man.

MichaelBains said...

if you don't have faith THEN YOU DON'T GET IT.

I just heard Gene Wilder (in a purple suit) say:

"Wait. Reverse that. Okay..."

You can only have faith IF you don't get it.


Bloom said...

The parable is an apt, comic description of our choice as humans to believe in the fantastical claims of others; however, it does not lead to atheism.

The only thing the parable attacks is blind (irrational) faith in the claims of other humans that many times fly in the face of concrete evidence. Namely, it is an quaint look at how some people can except any of the institutional religions our species has created.

This does not mean, though, that god does not exist.... It just means that Santa, or Jeebus, is not that god and we would be silly, in the face of mounds and mounds of evidence as well as extremely poor story telling (see Bible) to believe he was.

Again, this does not address the issues of atheism vs. theism, simply the idiocy in following any of our self-inflicted, poisonous creations.

steve said...

Atheism is the belief that there is no god. The atheist believes that when you die, that's it--no afterlife, no salvation, no ghosts, spirits, etc. The theist believes that there is life after death, whatever form that may be. I find the dictionary definitoions for any of these terms trite and insufficient, especially for the word agnostic. I still find it appropriate to place myself under the agnostic label because i simply cannot adhhere to either the finite view of life held by atheists or the eternal view of life held by theists. I feel that at this period in time, we dn't have appropriate evidence for either argument. Perhaps the agnostic position is more one based on the concept of time and progress concerining proof. I do believe in the possibility of events or phenomena that we cannot see or even comprehend currently as human beings. I do believe in the possibility of the existence of something beyond our power of perception or beyond, based on what little knowledge we really do have in our tiny place in the timeline of the Earth, what we consider rational. In my own personal opinion, believers and nonbelievers base their stance on one common thing--the fear of the unknown and unnaceptance of the unknown. Believers claim to know god, nonbelievers claim that god does not exist. Both sides take a position of finality. The agnostic embraces the unknown and accepts it until further evidence or proof arises from either side of the coin. The standard dictionary definition for agnostic is far too black and white and another example of a futile attemp by man to neatlty categorize and readily define something. It is that very gray area that the agnostic swims in.

Ultimitely, what if this great debate of the ages isn't so much a matter of whether or not god does or does not exist, more an inherent need for us people to continually define ourselves within the narrow limits and confines of human language and expression.

Who knows what will or might happen to change our perception of things. What if our simplistic definition of the word god needs further examination? What if our approach in that very examination of the word--the concept of god needs to change? Unfortunately I think the majority of people would much rather be spoonfed something easily digestible and live in blissful ignorance. Ironically, it is that very blissful ignorance that is making the world a human warzone and a living hell for all species on Earth.

Marielle said...

"if you don't have faith THEN YOU DON'T GET IT."

Speaking as one who had faith, and now doesn't, I do in fact get it. You have an emotional connection to the concept of God. Such a connection is powerful, and difficult to break even in the presence of reason. After all, faith is "belief without material proof or evidence" and such belief cannot be toppled by reason. Fortunately, I was miserable enough with my faith to break that connection and I am a much happier person for it.

Jim Lippard said...

The question of immortality vs. mortality is distinct from the question of the existence of God. The existence of God doesn't provide any guarantee of immortality, and at least some atheists have argued for the possibility of immortality (via cryonics, "downloading," and Frank Tipler "Omega Point"-style computer simulation--a trick necessary to get an infinite amount of simulation in a finite universe).

Though I recognize that arguments from incredulity don't necessarily carry much weight, I find it hard to imagine how the evidence for human mortality and the dependence of our mental lives on the physical brain could be any stronger. (Well, actually, I can--since it seems to keep getting stronger every time I read about new results in neuroscience.)

If you read A.R. Luria, Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, Christoph Koch, etc.--let alone witness the mental deterioration of someone with a brain disease like Alzheimer's--how can you possibly believe that people survive the destruction of their brains?

I can conceive of bodily resurrection--a reconstruction of what was there before--but the lack of continuity is potentially a big hurdle to overcome.

Keith Augustine has written some good stuff on immortality at the Secular Web (http://www.infidels.org/).

Einzige said...


Atheism can also simply be a lack of a belief in god.

I think we're mostly quibbling over definitions, here.

If you're going to define "God" as "unknowable", "imperceptible", or "incomprehensible", then you've won the argument by default.

However, aside from the fact that your definition flies in the face of the definition accepted by the vast majority of theists, you've also stated a position that, because it is by definition untestable, is based on faith. How do you know God is incomprehensible?

Furthermore, why then do you not pick option B in my hypothetical? If there's a shred of a possibility that a magical being exists who created us and will love us through all eternity, then doesn't that also leave open the possibility that Santa did it?

You might here object to the attributes I've just given God (magical, loving...). If so, then I think all we're left with in your conception is the ever-shriveling "God of the Gaps" that Feynman complained about when he said:

God was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time -- life and death -- stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand.

I guess my point is that there isn't much use for such a god, whether it exists or not. Until there's some evidence, though, I'll stick to a lack of belief.

s9 said...

I'm a Pragmatist, who identifies as an agnostic in discussions about religion, and I chose (C). So you want to know why I didn't choose (B)? Okay. I'll oblige you. (Yes, my answer relates back to the question about God.)

Technically, I didn't see the murder with my own eyes, so I guess technically I don't know whether my roommate shot the victim. I'm also not sure I know who she means by "Santa Claus" or even whether she means to identify someone else, some abstract concept, some mythological personification, or what. Some interrogation is clearly in order.

Nevertheless, as a pragmatic matter, the scenario suggests that I walked in on the scene immediately after my roommate shot the gun and killed the victim and there isn't any available information to be cause for a reasonable suspicion that my roommate has been framed. Therefore, option (C) is a better answer than (B), at least until further investigation reveals some practical reason to believe that someone named "Santa Claus" could have had anything to do with it.

Einzige said...


Thanks for jumping into the fray!

My question for you is: Why not call yourself an atheist, at least until further investigation reveals some practical reason to believe that a God exists?

steve said...

Einzige, maybe I'm not explaining myself clearly enough. In a sense, yes, this has become a sort of debate of definitions. The "god of the gaps" wouldn't even sum it up because Feynman refers to god as a him--something already based in traditional, vain religion. My question is what if there is a god--a higher power if you will, that is "useful" but not based on our current gatehering of knowledge as a human race. I keep saying we haven't been around long enough on this planet to truly have a say as far as coming to any definite conclusions to the existence or nonexistence of god. Both science and religion is constantly changing and contradicting itself. What if our view of what is rational in our time gets turned completely upsidedown generations from now? I believe that the rationalists and many scientific types cling far too hard onto what is accepted as common knowledge and are just as guilty as the stanch religious types who cling to their ancient texts. Perhaps we are not meant to know what or who god is in this life. Maybe we've known it all along and have yet to unlock or expand our powers of perception. I do believe that there is a lot holding us back in the name of so-called progress and commerce and our egos, our own biggest enemy on both a personal and astronomical level, are inhibiting our focus.

Einzige said...

So, God is sexless, useful to us (how?), a higher power (what is that?), not currently known (despite all the books about “him” and the claims by many to actually know “him”), and we’re perhaps not meant to know she/he/it (which seems to posit an intention to God, and thus a consciousness, a will, a desire - is that right? What else does God want?)?

Did I miss anything?

If you do define God in such a nebulous way, then I agree with you. You’d have to be pretty arrogant to say one way or another whether or not such a thing—a thing that by definition defies definition itself!—exists.

Of course, I object to your definition of God, which is rather like a bar of soap in a hot shower – every time you try to get a good grip on it it shoots away. Like I said before, the agnostic wins this argument by definition when God is defined as “unknowable.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. But I hope you'll forgive me for calling that effectively identical to atheism.

I’m not quite sure what your beef with science is, though. Science keeps “changing and contradicting itself” because scientists (unlike religious folk) are willing to discard bad beliefs in favor of better ones. Was it dogmatic for scientists to discard the flat-Earth theory in favor of the now “common knowledge” heliocentric view of the solar system because maybe in the future our view of what is rational will get turned completely upside down?

30 years ago many skeptical astronomers didn’t believe in black holes. Today most astronomers do (though an accurate description of them is probably beyond our abilities — hey, does that mean black holes should be considered God?). Why did these astronomers change their minds? Because of a preponderance of the evidence. That’s not arrogant. Nor is it dogmatic. My position is, though, that God is more like the Loch Ness monster than He (forgive me) is like black holes. We keep looking for him and he keeps not getting found.

Furthermore, if you’re going to define God as “outside science, perception, and knowledge”, then isn’t it a little unfair to start disparaging “progress” and “commerce” and “our egos”? I’m really not following you, there.

Solan said...

Which option to choose would depend on the character of the room-mate, and it might also simply require further investigation. I think choosing A, B or C independent of any other assesment "in a general sort of way" to be pure laziness.

That is also why the murder situation is different from the situation where you are asked to believe in God or Santa Claus, for while in the murder situation you have a chance to make further investigation, the God and Santa questions are per definition closed off from critical scrutiny.

steve said...

I've got no beef with science and progress. I think however that it is egotistical to think we can have the answers based on current information and hypotheses. My argument is that we DON'T have the answers and should step down from both religious and scientific high horses telling eachother that we're wrong. In a sense, it is almost wise to pick a religion, or belief system that matches your personal values and beliefs and simply go with it. The problem is, it no longer becomes personal and instead is politicised, again, leading to grand, monumental disagreements and eventually wars.

My beef with much of what we consider progress is that I feel it has distracted us from a connection with our inner selves. Sure, our computers are allowing this very conversation, the exchange of thoughts, ideas and experiences and ultimitely insight. But we all know and are all guilty to a greater or lesser degree of indulging in a lot of things, thanks to progress and technology, that again, distract us from a more introspective, meditative, thoughtful state. But that's a whole other debate (and maybe i'm trying to say too much and straying a bit from the actual core of the issue at hand). Anyhow, that connection with your inner core is a place where a lot of people find god, and for a lot of people god does not fall into the narrow definition imposed upon us by both a great deal of theists and atheists alike. Hopefully the whole inner connection thing doesn't come off as some kind of trendy hippie crap. I just think we need to step back a bit and slow down and shift focus. No unibomber manifesto or anything like that. It's a pretty simple and increasingly common view.

Jim Lippard said...

"My argument is that we DON'T have the answers and should step down from both religious and scientific high horses telling each other that we're wrong."

I can buy a claim that science doesn't have *all* the answers, but a claim that science doesn't have *any* of the answers is ludicrous and completely disrespectful to everyone who has developed knowledge in the history of science.
(Recommended rant against relativism by Stephen Dutch: http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/SelfApptdExp.htm)

Jim Lippard said...

Correction: It's Steven Dutch, with a "v".

steve said...

Very true. Very true indeed!

Einzige said...

I enjoyed that Steven Dutch page.

Solan said...

Steve said "My beef with much of what we consider progress is that I feel it has distracted us from a connection with our inner selves."

I think Steve is forgetting that "connection with our inner selves" is a luxury pusuit in a society with enough resources to allow for considerable leisure time. Technoloigcal progress has freed us from the 12-16 hour day in the fields, so that we can fill our heads with other things than radishes. We have the same amount of spare time that princes had in "the good old days" before evil progress made princes about as obsolete as the neanderthal club.

Einzige said...

Good point, Solan. If there ever was a golden age of navel-gazing, today's the day.

Lumbergh-in-training said...

Had the roommate said someone from outside shot her, I would have chosen B; but since it is Santa Claus we are talking about, it must be C (unless you believe Santa Claus exists)