Archive of ‘Explanations’

Appearing To Be Smart Through The Use Of Latin


I like to appear smart. Even if it turns out I am not. It is a little quirk of mine. In case some of you also like to appear smart, here is a little trick to do so. It works surprisingly often. Just use Latin names for things that everyone knows. People seem to think knowing the Latin name for a concept shows an uncommonly strong understanding of it. I’m not really sure why. I hope that doesn’t mean I not smart.

One good Latin term to use is “modus ponens.” It is a logical operation, a rule that allows us to arrive at a conclusion (using the term “logical operation” can also make one look smart). Modus Ponens is perhaps the simplest and most useful latin nam’ed logical operation.

Here is a quick example of it:

1) If A then B
2) A
3) Therefore, B

Our friend modus ponens (and the first two statements) allow us to conclude that B is true. Modus Pones can be thought of as the fulfillment of an if-then statement. But, those variables are boring. So let’s look at another example of modus pones, this time with a real life situation.

1) If you are in a job interview and someone asks what the volume of your spleen is, then you don’t want the job.
2) You are in a job interview and someone just asked what the volume of your spleen is.
3) Therefore, get out of there now (you don’t want the job).

If you find yourself in a situation where someone has just pulled “the modus ponens” on you, don’t worry. There are some very effective ways to respond and still look smart. Almost all of the conceptual work in an argument that uses modes ponens is done by the if-then statement. Just challenge that.

Here is an example of a viable response:

“But, vampires throw the best parties and they always ask the volume of my spleen.”


How to Improve The World: Argue About It


With debates like this representing much of the argument that makes it through to the public, it is inevitable that people will become disenchanted with argument.

Just to remind us of what argument could be, let’s take a look at some of it’s virtues.

The many uses of Argument

1) To find the right conclusion

Logic is possibly the most reliable way of predicting what our senses will show us. Argument is a key way for us to communicate and harness this logical ability. Using argument to find correct conclusions is possibly its most obvious use.

2) Help one understand a concept (know why you believe something)

It is hard to underestimate the value of knowing WHY you believe something. Without that knowledge the door is open to all kinds of unfortunate and self-defeating things. For example, imagine a man physically attacking another to defend the idea of non-violence. Or more trivially, imagine a child believing potting soil to have the same value as chocolate because it looks similar. One good way to know why you believe something is to understand a good argument for it. This is especially useful for more complex beliefs such as the importance of a free press in a democratic society.

3) Avoid Belief Perseverance

People have a tendency to continue believing things even when they are aware of contradicting evidence. They even continue to believe something when all the reasons that lead them to initially accept that belief are no longer valid. This effect is called belief preference and seems to be a characteristic of human cognition.

If we forget the argument that lead us to believe something, how are we to know when that argument is no longer valid? It is important to periodically make sure that the arguments we once found convincing still apply. Not knowing when to stop believing can be a very costly mistake. For example a method of determining which stocks will rise in 1998 may bankrupt one today.

4) Knowing why other’s believe

Bad arguments can also be quite useful. Usually they convince someone and sometimes they convince a great deal of people. Knowing at least part of why other people believe things can allow you to see their motives on a deeper level. Knowledge of bad arguments is also invaluable if you endeavor to convince people otherwise.

However, possibly the most useful aspect of knowing why others hold certain beliefs is that it helps you predict what they are going to do in the future. If the argument they believe is especially misleading it also helps you predict where their actions will lead them astray.


Logical argument has the potential to help us solve many of the world’s present problems. However, in order to use this tool properly it is important to know why one is arguing (number 2). Without knowing why argument is so valuable we could end up just yelling at each other.



The Impossibility of Death

Did you know I can't die?

I read an article the other day (and lost the address) the explained that it might be possible to resuscitate people quite a long time after their heart has stopped beating. Despite expectations, cells seem to be able to survive relatively long periods without oxygen. The cells just have to be brought back into the world of oxygen slowly, or they freak out and die. From my not-a-cardiologists viewpoint this is a big step forward in our understanding of how to revive those who have had heart attacks.

Since this discovery allows us to resuscitate people who previously would have been considered dead it brings up the question “what is death?”. I’m not talking about what happens after death or death’s meaning. Instead I’m simply asking when can we consider a person impossible to revive or “dead.”

There appears to be an easy answer to this question. It would go something like “death is when one falls out of consciousness for the last time.” I will call this the pragmatic definition of death. After this point one can no longer communicate with the person. This is also the moment when a person stops experiencing their life. Yet, in order to define ‘last time’ one must depend on many other things, including the state of medical knowledge. For example when a person lost consciousness from a heart attack in 1205 AD, they were pragmatically dead. However, when one looses consciousness after a heart attack in 2007 it is quite possible that this is not the ‘last time.’

But, when can we declare for sure that someone has lost consciousness for the last time? A point when it has been so long since one fell unconscious that it is logically impossible to resuscitate them? To consider this question we will need some sort of definition of the mind/identity. The two most prominent such definitions are either that a person is a soul or they are a pattern (like a pattern of neural firings).

With either the soul or pattern view one could argue it is impossible to ever be sure that consciousness has be lost for the last time.

First let’s assume that people are souls. Souls are by definition indestructible. Thus annihilation is impossible and resuscitation can never be completely ruled out.

Now, to consider the possibly that people are patterns we need to take a less direct line of reasoning, that begins with numbers. Many consider the number 3 to exist independent of either our ability to understand it or its occurrence in the world (Mathematical Realism). We have discovered the number 3, but not created it. Even if we all forgot the number 3, it would continue to exist. Our forgetfulness can not annihilate it. In this sense the number 3 is eternal. This view applies to other numbers. For example, 523365487 is also eternal. In fact this view could be applied to almost all information…like patterns in a brain…. Thus, even patterns are impossible to annihilate and resuscitation can never be completely ruled out.

Maybe there is no point at which resuscitation is impossible. Perhaps death is never certain.

[One funny implication of this view is that every bit of information, every person/intelligence, that is possible, ‘exists.’]


The Ultimate Response to Pascal’s Wager (note: Atheist’s Wager Goes Down With It)

Pascal’s Wager has a premise that is often taken for granted. This premise is almost unsupportable, yet the whole argument relies upon it.

Pascal’s Wager assumes that there are only two divine possibilities:

  1. An all knowing, all powerful, and perfectly moral God exists
  2. There is no God

This premise is false. The world’s actual possibilities are sadly much more varied and more numerous. If we grant that a perfectly moral God is possible, many other deities are also logically possible. Sadly, the only way for a conception of the divine to be logically impossible is if it has a contradiction built into it. [For example a deity can’t both exist and not exist.]

To help illustrate how much Pascal’s Wager relies on this false assumption, let’s include a single additional possible deity. Let us call this god “The cruel deity”. This is a very powerful being that decides who goes to heaven and who to hell. However, this deity is not bound by morals or justice. In fact, it does the opposite of what morality would encourage. It sends those that do good deeds and believe in God to hell. Those who bring only suffering to their peers and refuse the idea of God are sent to heaven.

The New Possibilities:

Cruel Deity
Moral God
The Cruel Deity Exists
A Morally Perfect God Exists
There is no God


If we now consider that a cruel deity, a perfectly moral God, and no God are all possible, here are the after-death possibilities for one who believes in God:

Stick Figure in Hell -or-
Go to Heaven-or-
Dead Stick Figure
The Cruel Deity Exists
A Morally Perfect God Exists
There is no God


Here are are the after death possibilities for one who does not believe in God:

Go to Heaven-or-
Stick Figure in Hell-or-
Dead Stick Figure
The Cruel Deity Exists
A Morally Perfect God Exists
There is no God


It is also worth mentioning that challenging this assumption of Pascal’s Wager does just as much damage to the Atheist’s Wager.

They are the same, and there is no clear reward or punishment associated with either believing in or disbelieving of God. The logic of Pascal’s Wager comes to a different conclusion.

For those who really liked Pascal’s Wager, there is a way to salvage it. However, it is incredibly hard to support. Pascal’s Wager might still support the belief in God if the existence of a morally perfect God were more likely than the existence of other possibilities, like the cruel deity.

To be honest, I think this is something we all want to believe. Who really wants a cruel deity to exist? However, it is worth pointing out that horribly cruel events transpire in the world all the time. Given this, showing that a morally perfect God and is more likely to exist than any other option is a truly difficult line to hold.


Atheist’s Wager for Stick Figures

God is Immoral

A recently popular response to Pascal’s Wager argues that if God exists, he is not worthy of our devotion. This is not an argument against the existence of God, but one that encourages ‘just resistance’ to God.

Resist GodThe basic thrust of the argument is that if God is willing to reward and punish for the simple belief in him, independent of a person’s actions, then he is immoral. As the story goes, if such an immoral and cruel God exists we owe it to a sense of our own dignity to resist him.

Extreme reward and punishment for belief in God is the basis of Pascal’s Wager. Therefore the argument that God is immoral is well suited as a response to Pascal’s Wager.

This argument was recently posted on a blog called ‘Atheist’s Wager’. However, this is not the argument that is normally called the Atheist’s Wager.

The Atheist’s Wager

The Atheist’s Wager is an altered version of Pascal’s Wager. It takes the logic of Pascal’s Wager, and uses it to argue that belief in God is trivial regarding reward and punishment. The Atheist’s Wager is not actually an argument for atheism. In fact, it is indifferent about the existence of God.

  1. God is perfectly Moral.
  2. If there is a perfectly moral God, he will value moral actions (with or without belief in God) more than belief in him.
  3. God values moral actions (with or without belief in God) more than belief in him.

The big leap for this argument is right in the beginning. In order for this argument to work, God must value moral action more than simple belief in God.

If moral action is indeed more important to God than belief in God, we can lay out the following set of after-death possibilities:

  God Exists God Does Not Exist
Moral Action & Belief in God Go to Heaven Dead Stick Figure
Moral Action & No Belief in God Go to Heaven Dead Stick Figure
Immoral Action & Belief in God Stick Figure in Hell Dead Stick Figure
Immoral Action & No Belief in God Stick Figure in Hell Dead Stick Figure

In this set of possibilities, reward or punishment is only dependent on the morality of one’s actions. Therefore, one receives the most reward by acting morally.

These possibilities argue that if one acts morally, it never matters if one is an atheist or a theist. This does not refute Pascal’s Wager. It does not argue there is no God. Instead it tries to trump or circumvent Pascal’s Wager.

Action vs. Belief

The idea that actions are more important than belief in God is the basis of the Atheist’s Wager. However, it doesn’t seem all that absurd. To illustrate this, let us look at a few examples. First, we’ll look at the most extreme example I could think of.

GenocideImagine two stick figures. One performing some horribly immoral action (committing genocide) the other a clearly moral action (stopping genocide). It seems clear that a perfectly moral God should reward the stick figure acting morally and punish the stick figure acting immorally. Now what if we try to counter the morality of these actions with opposite beliefs in God? If the immoral stick figure believes in God isn’t he still worthy of punishment? How about the morally acting, yet atheist, stick figure? It seems reasonable to say that action trumps belief in God here.

Name CallingNow, let’s setup the same situation but instead of the horrendous act of genocide we put in something relatively trivial (like calling someone a name). Even in this mild case it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say the stick figure that acts morally is deserving of reward, and the one that acts immorally would get the punishment.


In my next post I will look at a very good response to both Pascal’s Wager and the Atheist’s Wager. This response may show all of these wagers to be fruitless and misguided. If that turns out to be the case, we will end up wherever we were at the beginning.