Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pascal's Scantron: an atheist parable (part one)

Whoa! I missed a weekend. Sorry about that. But I have part of a short story here, and I hope you like it. More this weekend, double-promise!

"What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can't make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there's that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity - like the "fact" that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk's sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yahweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?"
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, p. 23-24.

"I sure wish this life were a test and I could reason out the right answer, so that all my wishful thinking had a metaphysical justification embedded into reality itself, and then I could finally be confident that all this speculation wasn't just me jerking off."
- Pascal's Wager (abridged)

Where to begin? At the start? Or at the present? Or with my purpose? I guess I should try to sort all that out first.

My memories start about four months ago, on the first day of February, which I call the Great Forgetting. Today is the third of June. By my reckoning, it is the year 2010, though all of these dates are in dispute. I'm writing this down in case another Forgetting happens. There. Now for details.

Nobody knows how the Great Forgetting happened - or why, for that matter. Stories abound, of course, but nobody really knows. Here is what I remember: everything starts with a loud popping sound, and then I was aware of the room around me. I had a splitting headache, and a couple people screamed. Someone by the door flipped the light switch a couple times, and nothing happened. Then he stood up on a chair to open one of the light covers, and broken glass came pouring down on him. I laughed.

At some point, I became aware of the fact that I was holding a pencil. On my desk was a piece of paper, white with green markings on it. It looked fuzzy at first, like it wasn't quite anything in particular; as I stared, it became more sharply defined until I could read it. It was a form, a form for taking a test. What test, I didn't know. I had started writing my name, but I only got the first letter down: the letter D. That was all I had written on my form. It did not occur to me until much later that I was able to recognize the first letter of my name, but not my whole name. I could also recognize the names and purposes of many things, but not all things. Others seemed to be in similar situations.

It took us over an hour to figure out how to talk again, and in a few days we got settled into what our lives have now become. Within the week, we had eaten through all the school's food and started raiding local grocery stores for canned goods and clean water. Someone found a store with seeds, and now we have gardens everywhere around campus and even on the rooftops. We also built some rain caches, and there's a still being built by a few kids who know how to weld.

Even now, though, things seem poised for upheaval. Nobody really knows what's around the corner. We might get our heads screwed back on straight, but with all this craziness around, it seems a slim possibility. Somebody, thankfully, found an almanac - the latest one we could find was for 2010, and by measuring the daylight hours, we were able to pinpoint the equinox on March 20th and figure out the date and time from there. But not everybody buys it - some people insist it's the year zero, others that it's the year one, still others insist on two thousand (or even one thousand) and that the almanacs are printed in advance by benevolent outside cultures who are manipulating our brains and the world around us.

Like I said, there's a lot of craziness about.

Weirdest of all are these test forms. Everybody in the school had one, but nobody can find the test we're supposed to use the form with. None of the instructors' desks have test booklets. Every room had a television set in it, and most people think that the test was going to be delivered by some sort of broadcast. It makes sense, but there's no way to tell for sure. Everything that was plugged in or had a battery in it got fried at the Great Forgetting. Light bulbs burst, CRTs burned out, circuit boards cooked, watches melted on the inside, it's all gone. Things in packages work, as long as the batteries were outside of them - we used new stopwatches from the Phys Ed office to measure the days until the equinox. So even if the test was being delivered by television, there's no way we could tell what it was about today.

Consent is somewhat less than unanimous on this last point, to put it mildly.

It all started innocently enough, as I suppose these things tend to do. Some people filled out their forms out of habit. I can't really blame them, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time, and it certainly didn't do any harm on its own. But then people started comparing answers, and they started banding together according to how they filled out the bubbles. About half the people went straight down the C column, apparently since that was in the middle. If you ask them, they don't feel too strongly about their answers, they just seem to think that their forms ought to be filled out. Lots of people filled out the right-most E bubbles, maybe through some quirk of association - that's what's "right", after all. Some answered A, B, C, D, then E, repeating over and over; others filled out the first five in order and then stopped. Some filled out the front only, others filled out both sides - no way to tell how many today, since most of those who later filled out the backs of their forms now insist that they had them filled out all along.

A few filled out the A column, and then someone found a logic textbook and discovered that an upside-down A is the universal quantifier - it means "all". These folks turned their forms upside-down, saying that the world turned upside-down at the Great Forgetting, and now the A column is "right" and they all think this is some profound insight. Even though they didn't learn about symbolic logic until after they'd filled out their forms, they insist that they knew that's how they were supposed to fill out their forms all along, and for that reason. How the Hell do you argue with that kind of bullshit?

A tiny minority filled out all the bubbles, everywhere, and these folks say that all the answers are right and it doesn't really matter how you fill out your form, so long as you get along with everyone else. We're here in school to learn, they say, not to pick fights with each other. I tend to agree with their principles, just not with their reasoning, and these folks get along with the C-column crowd so nobody else picks on them, either.

I didn't fill out my form. I didn't write anything on it at all, except for that letter D which I had already written down. Most people who didn't fill out their forms at first later went and filled them out, usually out of pressure to fit in or avoid getting beaten up. Some of the people who still don't have their forms filled out just don't care. Some of them insist that we shouldn't fill out our forms at all, and anyone who does is an idiot. For my part, I just don't know what to put on it. I don't know, so I don't put anything. I think some of the ideas out there are interesting, but not one of them is for sure, and it doesn't really matter at the end of the day because we're here and we have shit to do that's just more important. So put whatever you want on your test forms, it's fine by me - but if you start telling people that they have to fill them out this or that way, and threaten to beat them up by the bike racks if they don't, that's when I think you're crazy.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people here who I think are bat-shit loco.

Some of these nuts say that not answering at all is a form of answering. I don't know what they're thinking, since I most definitely did not fill out any of the bubbles. That strikes me as rather like saying that an empty plate is a kind of meal - fucking stupid, in other words. "Empty form, empty head," is another common taunt I hear in the hallways - this one usually comes from those folks who safety-pinned their test forms to their shirts, or who draw them in permanent marker on their skin. If that's what you want to do, go ahead. I mean, I think it's pretty silly, but they think it's silly to not answer, so I'm comfortable with living and letting live. They say I'll be sorry when we all get graded, that I can't get a high test score if I don't answer, but I don't even think that's ever going to happen. Especially not after what happened three nights ago.

It started a couple weeks back. We found old machines in the school's basement and in a lot of back rooms - covered in dust, but they weren't plugged in, so some of them still worked. There was a gas generator in the machine shop, where they taught automobile and manufacturing stuff, so we were able to get some of them running. First was an old record player, one of those simple dealies with the turntable and the flower-shaped thing for the sound to come out. People started recognizing some of the songs, which says to me that we can still have some of our memories jogged from before the Great Forgetting, just like we remember how to walk and how to speak and what tables and chairs are. But some people insist that it means we can know things "a priori", a word they got from one of those logic textbooks. I say the name of a song is just something you picked up somewhere, and it can be taught anyhow, so who cares?

We found more and more machines, in increasing complexity until we got to the burned-out stuff that was being used right up until the Great Forgetting. Some of the other kids, all kinds but mostly the C-column crowd, started to use the simplest machines and some of the library books and instruction manuals to figure out how some of the more recent ones must work. They're really, really smart - until they start to talk about how it was all left here as a puzzle for us to figure out, so we could re-start civilization on our own. That's when I start to roll my eyes and wish they'd stick to what they can find out and demonstrate. I mean, sure, it would be nice if there was a puzzle, if we were supposed to figure this all out (and there's nothing wrong with figuring things out, even if nobody tells us to do it), if all this was actually planned and had a grand overarching point. But I see no reason to think so. They ask how it all got here; I say I don't know, and they call me stupid for not making up answers.

I say that wanting an answer doesn't mean there is one, and making one up isn't better than admitting you don't know. I sure as Hell wish other people weren't so fucking confident in their made-up answers when we found the grading machine. I wish we never found it at all.


Anonymous said...



what happens when you LOSE Pascal's Wager...



the blood and bodies of the atheist movement...

you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!

this has more TRUTH then what Dawkins, Randi, Harris, Myers, and Shermer combined have said in their entire lives...!v=5R2wE8Sduhs&playnext_from=TL&videos=hht1U_19anc&feature=rec-LGOUT-exp_fresh%2Bdiv-1r-3-HM

they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION...

they LOST THE WAR......

you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer... you have become an object in the material world, as you WISHED...

we're gonna smash that TV...

you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) - ATHEISTS!

do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is





D said...

OH TEH NOES! I AM BE HIJACT! This reminds me of something that happened the other day...

I was driving on the freeway in the fast lane
When suddenly a guy behind me in the back seat

I guessed, "Is it Uncle Frank or Cousin Louie?"
"Is it Bob or Joe or Walter?"
"Could it be Bill or Jim or Ed or Bernie or Steve?"
I probably would have kept on guessing
But about that time we CRASHED INTO THE TRUCK

And as I'm laying BLEEDING there on the ASPHALT
Finally I recognize the face of MY HIBACHI DEALER
Who takes off his prosthetic lips and tells me

Black is white, up is down and short is long
And everything you thought was just so important DOESN'T MATTER

Everything you know is wrong
Just FORGET THE WORDS and sing along
All you need to understand is
Everything you know is wrong

I was walkin' to the kitchen for some GOLDEN GRAHAMS
When I accidentally stepped into an ALTERNATE DIMENSION
And soon I was abducted by some aliens from space
Who kinda looked like JAMIE FARR

They sucked out my internal organs
And they took some POLAROIDS
And said I was a DARN GOOD SPORT
They offered to transport me back to
Any point in HISTORY that I would care to go

And so I had them send me back to last Thursday night
So I could pay my PHONE BILL on time
Just then the floating disembodied head of COLONEL SANDERS started yelling

Everything you know is wrong
And everything you thought was just so important doesn't matter

Everything you know is wrong
Just forget the words and sing along
All you need to understand is
Everything you know is wrong

I was just about to MAIL A LETTER to my EVIL TWIN
When I got a nasty PAPERCUT
And, well, to make a long story short
It got INFECTED and I died

So now I'm up in heaven with St. Peter
And it's obvious he doesn't like
The Nehru jacket that I'm wearing
He tells me that they've got a DRESS CODE

Well, he lets me into heaven ANYWAY
But I get the room next to the NOISY ICE MACHINE
For all eternity
And every day he runs by screaming

Everything you know is wrong
Black is white, up is down and short is long
And everything you USED TO THINK was so important
Doesn't really MATTER anymore
Because the simple FACT remains that

Everything you know is wrong
Just forget the words and sing along
All you need to understand is
Everything you know is wrong

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