Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Empty Glass


Imagine for a second that you’re sitting across the table from me, and there’s a glass of milk between us. For about 15 seconds, you close your eyes and plug your eyes, and for the sake of this mind experiment, let’s pretend that no information can get through to you. After 15 seconds, you open your eyes, unplug your eyes and, aside from the milk in the glass being missing, nothing in the room is changed.
Now, having no information about these 15 seconds and no way of every really knowing, you’re forced to take a guess as to what happened, but, for the sake of this thought experiment, think of ever. Possible. Thing. That could have happened to that milk. It’s not possible to actually imagine each and every possible event, since it would be nearly infinite, so just imagine how many there and how many of them are weird. You might say that a monkey broke in the room drank the milk and left. Maybe I have a sponge in my pocket or a vacuum cleaner down my pants or something. Maybe a ghost drank the milk. Maybe aliens came and used a tractor beam on it. Maybe I just drank it.
Alright, now that we have tons of different possibilities, try to rank them. Or, if you thought of too many examples, try to imagine just what the ranking would look like. (i.e. what kinds of things are most likely? What kinds of things are not likely at all?)
If you’re any kind of normal, the less weird examples go on top weird in the middle, and supernatural things at the bottom. Again, you can’t know what happened, but you know that the easiest event to have occurred is just for me to have drank the milk. We don’t need to bring in milk-drinking trained animals or ghosts or aliens. Even if you’re the type of person (an idiot) who thinks ghosts must be real, you’ll probably still agree it’s more likely that the person drinking the milk was me, and not a ghost, since there’s no debating the existence of me.
You might start to realize that you do something like this every time you don’t know something for certain, and you don’t know many things for certain very often. If you go to a restaurant and order a cheese sandwich, what’s going to cheese sandwich? It’s possible the server didn’t hear you, and you’ll get a peas sandwich instead, but this is less likely. It’s possible someone will steal that cheese on the way to your table, but even less likely still. The cheese could be swiped by a burglar or a unicorn. But still, the safest thing to assume is the thing that happens the most often. When you order a cheese sandwich, you will probably get a cheese sandwich.
I first began to notice that people think like this over 10 years ago, and I like to think that this is where my atheism got started. I was in Theology class, of all places, and we were going through the Old Testament. Our teacher was telling us the story of Moses parting the Red Sea, and pointed out several interesting things to us. First, that if you’re in Egypt – particularly Cairo or the northern part as I believe is implied in the bible – and you’re going to Israel, crossing the Red Sea would send you in the wrong direction. (You would be surprised how few people realize this…or maybe you won’t be that surprised.) Also, in Hebrew, like Arabic, there are no vowel letters, so if you read “bk” it could be “book” or “beak.” Now, according to my Theology teacher, there’s a place on the way to Israel from Egypt called the “Reed Sea”, which apparently is what the biblical authors meant when they wrote “Rd”. Please don’t pay any attention to the fact that both of those words are in English. Now, this Reed Sea, according to my Theology teacher was very shallow and when the wind hit it just right, would actually dry up in the middle, or something. I don’t know. And, according to my Theology teacher, this is where God killed a bunch of Egyptian soldiers who were just doing what they were told.
Regardless of whether or not any of that is true, even at that age I had an “empty glass” thought. If we have two explanations, one using magic and one not using magic, why should we assume that the one with magic is real? Why not a grand coincidence involving this supposedly-partable sea?
I hope to continue this conversation later as we talk about the other way that we make assumptions: trust.
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