How Should We Make Decisions Without Direct Evidence? October 30, 2014

How Should We Make Decisions Without Direct Evidence?

A lot of popular books about atheism focus on arguments for why God doesn’t exist and how various religions are wrong. The authors want you to become an atheist by the time you’re finished reading. That’s all well and good, but it leaves me asking a simple question: Now what?

I no longer need convincing to call myself an atheist, but it’d be nice to see more guides on how to live a fulfilling without religion. Even if I don’t need them, I know a lot of people who’d benefit from that kind of resource.

Lex Bayer (a Silicon Valley entrepreneur) and John Figdor (the Humanist chaplain at Stanford University) have created just that resource with their new book Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century.

In the excerpt below, the authors talk about how to make decisions when there’s no direct evidence to help you out:

Let’s start with a thought experiment. A woman in a white lab coat is about to ask you a series of questions about what exists or doesn’t exist, and you are required to answer them. For every right answer, she will give you a hundred dollars. You pride yourself on being a rational thinker who analyzes the reasons for your choices, so you’re already thinking about the new iPad you plan to buy with the money.

The examiner blindfolds you, places you in a windowless van, and drives you off to an unknown location. When the blindfold is finally removed, you find yourself sitting in a white room. The only furniture are two plain stainless steel chairs. You are sitting on one, the examiner on the other. In the corner of the room there is a mysterious, bright-orange sphere that appears to be floating magically in the air. The examiner informs you that you are not to move from your chair or explore your surroundings. She then proceeds to ask you the following questions:

  1. Is this room located in a larger building?
  2. Is the structure you are in next door to a bank?
  3. Is the mysterious sphere in the corner being held up by a newly discovered physical phenomenon?
  4. Is the mysterious ball being held up by an invisible table?

Okay, four questions, you think, none of them with obvious answers, so goodbye new iPad. Still, the questions present an interesting challenge… and you still want to get the most money you can.

How should you answer those four questions? The most appropriate answer to all of them is, “I don’t know.” After all, you are in a foreign environment with an unexplained sphere in the corner. How can you claim to have any real knowledge to help answer those questions?

On the other hand, “I don’t know” also means no cash, so you buckle down and force yourself to make decisions that have the highest probability of being correct.

Okay, you decide, let’s try the first question: “Is this room located in a larger building?” Obviously, you have no way of knowing for sure if the room is a single isolated box in the middle of a deserted parking lot or whether it is one room in a twenty-story building. But even though you don’t have any direct evidence to help you decide, you still aren’t completely lost. For one thing, “rooms” are not a completely alien concept to you.

So you ponder. I’ve never seen this particular room before, nor any bare white room with such sparse furniture. But I’ve entered many other rooms of different sizes in my life, some about this size. So even without direct evidence for what’s outside of this room, my general experience with life is helpful. Most of the rooms I’ve entered were part of some larger building structure. So using probability and inductive reasoning, I can say that the odds that this is a single isolated room are very low.

“Yes,” you tell the examiner, “this room is part of a larger building.”

Next question. “Is the structure you are in next door to a bank?” Again, you have no direct evidence, but you can still draw upon information from related experiences in your life. There are many uses for buildings, you tell yourself, and if I were to ask myself if the building next door was a bank on random occasions, the answer would almost always be no. “No,” you tell her, “the building next door is not a bank.”

The examiner’s face gives nothing away. “Is the mysterious sphere in the corner of the room held up by a newly discovered physical phenomenon?” Well, I have very little experience with anything like this ball. How can I explain it? It could indeed be a new phenomenon, or it could be some type of a magician’s illusion, like a magnetically levitated ball, a hologram, or the Pepper’s Ghost effect. Which is most likely? Since I have no experience or direct evidence, I’ll favor simplicity and choose the one that requires the least reevaluation of what I already know. So you follow your first impulse that it is most likely an optical illusion. You tell the examiner, “The ball is not held up by a new physical phenomenon.”

Final question: “Is the mysterious ball being held up by an invisible, undetectable table?” Okay, you tell yourself, this is a different kind of dilemma. If the table is invisible and undetectable, it would logically satisfy what I’m observing: an orange sphere that appears to float in midair. But to believe this, I’d also have to believe in the existence of invisible tables, something I’ve never before encountered.

The good news is that you have two principles now to help you make your decision. The first is that not believing in invisible tables would be a simpler solution than believing in them. The second and more important is that if the object holding up the ball is undetectable, how do you know it’s a table? After all, couldn’t an invisible shelf, an invisible box, or an invisible chair be holding it up? Those are no less likely than an invisible table.

So you answer, “The ball is not held up by an invisible table.”

The result? You walk away with three hundred dollars. It turns out that the room is one of many in a television studio building. The ball in the corner turns out to be held in position by a very thin rod that extends out from the far wall, so you can’t see it. But the building does happen to be next to a Wells Fargo bank. Such is life.

Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart is available online and in bookstores beginning today.

Excerpted from Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century by Lex Bayer and John Figdor. Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright 2014. Reprinted with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

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