Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The rules

I know that I'm a funny person when it comes to rules. One time, I was playing Taboo with some friends, and I insisted we divide into two teams and arrange our seating so that we would match the diagram in the rules. Unfortunately, the diagram is absent in the most recent edition. I get teased for my fastidious observance of rules in games. Really, I deserve it; most people play Taboo to socialize, not to win. I honestly don't mind playing Taboo and not keeping score. I don't even feel a need for teams. (If we don't have teams, I am not limited to yelling only half the time.)

From Fire hydrators

When setting up a croquet course, most people place the double wickets at either end of the field a scant two or three feet apart. The United States Croquet Association 9-Wicket Croquet Rules mandate a six foot spacing. Now, croquet is a fun game because you're out on the lawn, it's a pleasant summer evening, lightning bugs are coming out, you're joking around with your friends and smoking your pipes and drinking mint juleps, and it's fun to hit balls with mallets. In this case, the rules makes the game a little more fun, though; if the wickets at the turning stake are too close together, it's too easy to go through them, hit the turning stake, and then return through them, all in one turn. If the wickets are as far apart as the USCA suggests, it's easier for players to interfere with each other and knock someone's ball back into the pond, and that's what makes the game fun, on top of the lovely atmosphere.

When Mom taught me how to play Monopoly, she put $500 on the center of the board; we'd add money to the pot when paying taxes or when assessed for property repairs. Whoever landed on Free Parking got the loot and another $500 was put in the center. This seems like a fun idea, it's fun to get a lot of money.

It ruined the game.

We'd go around the board and no one would go bankrupt, for hours and hours, because there was a constant infusion of cash into the economy. The bank ran out of money, so whoever was richest would make counterfeit $10,000 notes and deposit 20 $500 bills back in the bank as a stimulus package. With rules like that, Grandma Joyce* called the game Monotony.

We can pick the rules we want when we're children playing games, but adults appreciate good rules; I didn't care about the evil $500 on Free Parking house rule until I was a teenager. The weight of knowing God merits taking the rules seriously. Carl Sagan says, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." "God exists" is the most extraordinary claim that could be made.

One cannot pose the question, "Does God exist?" as "If God were to exist, what would confirm that?" One must think in terms of "Is God the simplest explanation for reality as it is?"

I'm often asked by believing friends what it would take for me to believe. I normally say that witnessing an exorcism or an unexplainable phenomenon, say, an amputee regenerating a limb, would convince me. I say that because I want to be polite and give a straight answer. If I were to think I saw such a thing, though, I honestly don't know what impact that would have on me.

We know that people are prone to delusion, we tend to believe what we want to believe. People pull hoaxes. People misremember things. We're very frail.

To say that "God exists" is the simplest explanation for strange things is...would God be simpler than our feeblemindedness? Knowing God might well be an essentially impossible task. "Who then can be saved?"

I spent a long time in agonizing anxiety about my standing before God, because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make God feel real to me, I couldn't make myself believe. I always thought that the most important rule was "Believe in God." If I could get that one, I could relate to God, and if I couldn't, I'd be forsaken.

The idea that God is difficult to know can be either bitter or sweet. If God is worth knowing, he'd have to give us a lot of help in knowing him, or he'd have to not be terribly troubled by honest unbelief. Knowing, knowing if God exists and knowing facts about God, the rules of knowing are rigid, like the rules for Monopoly; if we relax these rules, conversation about God becomes circular and futile. However, if the sort of God we're looking for is gracious and loving, a good father, he would care more about us than the rules of knowing; actually knowing God would be more like playing Taboo.

Truly relating to God would be strikingly similar to cheating at croquet.

*Grandma Joyce is from Alabama. One time while visiting her, I was playing solitaire (with real playing cards, this was in the olden days). She asked me what I was doing. "I'm playing solitaire." She replied, "That looks like a rather solitary game! Hah!"


  1. You say, "If God is worth knowing, he'd have to give us a lot of help in knowing him, or he'd have to not be terribly troubled by honest unbelief."

    How much help is "a lot," and why do you say that God would be the way that you say He is if He's worth knowing? You've made a good point about the rules that aren't necessary to have a fun game of Taboo, but if you take the rules about the words you can't say out, then it's not really fun.

  2. I say that God would be a certain way if he were worth knowing, that is, that he'd help us know him, because an unknowable God isn't worth knowing. I don't know how much "a lot" is, except to say that it would be enough to know him.

    You're right, absolutely, about how some rules in Taboo are necessary.

  3. But how much is enough? You say in your post that even seeing an amputatee regrow a limb now wouldn't necessarily convince you one way or the other now, especially with your observation that we are very self-deceptive creatures. I take this to mean that everything ought to be doubted to some degree because of our feeblemindedness. For example, if you saw an amputee regrow a limb, you could chalk it up to some sort of illusion or maybe even some deity or force other than YHWH was responsible. If this is the case, nothing is beyond the most persistent doubt-- even Thomas could have been fooled by a zealous lookalike with makeup or a more zealous lookalike with a knife.

    But if this is the case, then it doesn't seem like it's worthwhile asking the questions at all because you're working from an orientation that will lead you to doubt everything that could be just as crippling as a worldview that allows someone to think that giving gum to a homeless person is evidence for the existence of God.

    To my recollection, there are no examples in the Bible of honest unbelief being blessed by God in the way you imply in your almost-final paragraph. I could very well be wrong, though, and if you have any examples I'd appreciate it.

  4. I'm not sure how much is enough; I simply am not persuaded by what I've seen already, though.

    I think you get my point exactly; if I know that I'm capable of hallucinating, and don't know that God exists, and I see something strange happen, it might be the case that it's better understood as a hallucination than as God. I like your example about Thomas.

    This isn't at all a crippling worldview, though; the problem of knowing God is what's crippling. If one shouldn't look for the simplest explanation of reality, what standard of truth should be used instead?

    I'm not sure, off the top of my head, of examples of God blessing honest disbelief. Agnosticism as such isn't a major topic in the Bible. If the Bible were to clearly say that God would punish even honest unbelievers, that would push me in the direction of giving up on Christianity altogether: believe-or-else is intellectually dishonest. I'm going to keep trying to think of examples of honest doubt in the scripture, other readers are encouraged to do the same.

  5. I am not sure that there is an entirely objective standard of truth that you can submit all worldviews to equally; one can at best evaluate other worldviews from the perspective of whichever worldview you're currently assuming. Even the "simplest explanation of reality" worldview runs into numerous disagreements from the get-go.

  6. I think that there is an objective standard of truth, it's just that we're subjective people. What do you mean by disagreement among people who look for the simplest explanation of reality?

  7. I agree with your first sentence, and I think that's more of what I was trying to say.

    What I meant about "disagreement" is that you could ask plenty of very smart people what the simplest and most straightforward explanation of reality is and you would get plenty of answers, many of which would be very compelling.

  8. You're right, smart people often disagree. That's rarely because they disagree on the actual rules of the game, but on subjective interpretations of the data. This isn't something that could be avoided, I don't think.

    Also, there is a substantial difference between a smart and an insightful person.

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