Archive of ‘Explanations’

Pascal’s Wager for Stick Figures

Pascal’s Wager is an argument for the belief in God, whether or not he exists. This argument looks at the pros and cons of believing in God. In essence Pascal’s Wager says “what’s in it for me.” As the argument goes, the main advantages of belief in God are after one dies. Going to heaven being the ultimate reward for belief and going to hell being the ultimate punishment for disbelief.

Let’s take a quick look at the after death possibilities.

  God Exists God Does not Exist
One believes in God Go to Heaven Dead Stick Figure
One doesn’t believe in God Stick Figure in Hell Dead Stick Figure

In this version of Pascal’s Wager it doesn’t much matter whether or not one believes in God if he doesn’t exist. Things end up the same. However, if he does exist, there are great rewards and punishments involved.

This means that if our stick figure believes in God, these are his after death possibilities:

Go to Heaven -or – Dead Stick Figure

On the other hand if this stick figure does not believe in God these are his after death possibilities:

Stick Figure in Hell -or- Dead Stick Figure

Given these options, one is better off just believing in God. One doesn’t have much to lose, and a lot to gain.

In my next post I will go over one response to this argument, The Atheist’s Wager. One recently popular version of this can be found here. However, my explanation will be illustrated with stick figures. 🙂 In the third post in my Pascal’s Wager series, I will explain a response to both of these wagers.

 

Thad’s Razor: a Skeptic’s Definition of a Good Theory

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you saw no reason to believe in a world outside of your mind. It doesn’t really change much. You still react to what your senses tell you. What else are you going to do? But, you just don’t believe that your senses are necessarily truthfully reporting some “objective reality.”

Assuming we don’t trust our senses, here is the fun question: what is the value of Occam’s razor? In situations that involve truth, an objective reality, and two theories of equal explanatory power Occam’s razor tells us the theory that makes the least amount of assumptions is most likely to reflect reality. But, we are assuming there is no reason for our experiences to be connected to some “objective reality.” Without truth, it seems Occam’s razor is only a principle that helps keep our theories about what we perceive as simple as logically possible.

But maybe, just maybe, simplicity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The best poems or movies are rarely the simplest ones. The most entertaining stories and plots are, again, rarely the simplest ones. Maybe, if we are not convinced of an objective reality, we should aim for something other than simplicity.

I propose a “Thad’s Razor”: If two theories have the same explanatory power, the best story is the one that should be believed.

For extra authority, here it is in somewhat questionable latin: Si duos ratio have idem eadem idem explicatus vox , optimus fabula est unus ut should exsisto puto.

The changes this can make to our conception of the world are quite notable. For example, all those stories about ghosts; some of them might be good enough to believe and ambiguous enough not to contradict other experiences. Also, replacing Occam’s razor with Thad’s razor would not result in giving up theories (like say, gravity) that do help us predict and explain our perceptions.

Now that I have this cool new rule for deciding which theories are better, I can use it in conversation to defend those weird stories I tell about the night I met a ghost from the old south.

Thad's Razor

 

Five Good Reasons to use Linux -or- Why OS X is a “gateway system” for many users

At the risk of getting myself labeled a techie or a nerd I’m going to talk about something a little uncommon for this blog. I find Linux, as a social phenomena, incredibly interesting. Aside from that I have recently been quite impressed with the quality of this operating system. Here are my top five reasons why.

1.Easy program installs

Because much of the software for Linux is open source and free, it can be distributed by pretty much anyone. This has allowed for the development of central “storage” locations for Linux software. With these central locations have come programs that can quickly retrieve software from them.

Things have gotten to the point now that through a very simple program one can download and install a multitude of programs with a single click of the mouse and an administrative password. This also works in reverse and makes it very easy to uninstall unneeded programs.

In my view, this is the killer feature of Linux distributions like Ubuntu.

2.Automatic updates

Sure, updates to the operating system is a common feature for almost all operating systems. This is not a unique feature of Linux. However, with Linux and it’s freely distributed software all the open source software on your computer can be updated very very easily. When a new version of your word processor, music player, e-mail client, or web browser is available one little program can update them all with a single click.

This allows security holes to be sealed that much faster and, as far as the Linux community is concerned, would probably seriously impede the spread of a virus (which is not really an issue at the moment because almost no one is trying to write viruses for the Linux desktop user).

3.Multiple Desktops

Instead of sorting through a bunch of windows piled on top of each other like a playing cards you can have them neatly sorted into groups or “desktops”. Switching between these “desktops” is much faster than reshuffling the stack of programs to find the one you are looking for. Sadly the term “desktop” seems to be a little misleading here, because your actual desktop stays the same. This is probably better described as “multiple work spaces”.

In almost all of versions of Linux a small area of the screen shows mini versions of your workspaces. This allows you to tell where all your windows are with a glance to the corner of the screen. This mini version of your workspaces come complete with little logos or even detailed images letting you know which programs are which. You can even move your windows by clicking and dragging their mini counterpart to another desktop.

This may seem like a small feature, even something rather gimmicky. However, it makes using the computer a lot easier. Think about how many times that you switch between programs and windows during the day. Even if you only save half a second each time you look for a new window, that can quickly add up to a lot of time saved and frustration avoided. It has gotten to the point where I try to avoid dealing with computers that don’t have this feature, any moderately complex task is just annoying without multiple desktops.

Some people try to compensate for a lack of multiple desktops by just buying bigger displays or several displays. This is a rich mans work around. Yet, it is impressively easy to setup six workspaces in Linux, and impressively annoying to setup six displays in any operating system.

I know that OS X is in the process of coming out with something similar in a little less than a year. This is certainly a step in the right direction for them. However, you won’t be able to see your workspaces without a zooming expose-like step that, despite its original sexiness, can become annoying really fast and negate the time saving benefit of the workspaces.

4.Stability

Granted this is something OS X does quite well also. However, in my experience Linux is even a little bit more stable than OS X (and WAY more stable than Microsoft Windows). This seems to be largely due to the openness of much of the code used in Linux. Because the code is so accessible it has allowed an amazing amount of people to proof-read it and spot those annoying little bugs that lead to crashes.

5.Security

There are firewall and anti-virus programs for the Linux system that are freely available and installable with a single click. These are truly industrial strength programs, and the ones that are used on many many of the computers that house websites. Yet, for the most part these programs are not needed by a desktop user. The system was designed with security in mind. For example a malicious program can’t do anything to almost all of the important system files on your computer without your system password. By simply refusing to supply that password to suspect programs a great many problems are avoided. This permission based system can also prevent one from messing up their own computer by mistake (and prevent guests from changing your system settings when you are not looking).