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For those who are unfamiliar with decision theory, the idea can be illustrated by considering a lottery. Is it rational to play? In comparison, not playing involves zero expense and zero payoff. In this case, unless you have some reason to believe that a given ticket is not average, playing the game is irrational.


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To put the matter more generally: a given action say, buying a ticket is associated with a set of possible outcomes say, winning the grand prize, winning the consolation prize, or losing ; each outcome has a certain value or "utility" the utility of winning might be the value of the prize minus the cost of the ticket ; the "expectation" for each outcome is equal to its utility multiplied by the probability of its happening; the expectation for a given action is the sum of the expectations for each possible associated outcome.

The course of action having the maximum expectation is the rational one to follow. Pascal begins with a two-by-two matrix: either God exists or does not, and either you believe or do not. If God exists then theists will enjoy eternal bliss cell a , while atheists will suffer eternal damnation cell b. If God does not exist then theists will enjoy finite happiness before they die say units worth , and atheists will enjoy finite happiness too, though not so much because they will experience angst rather than the comforts of religion. Regardless of whether God exists, then, theists have it better than atheists; hence belief in God is the most rational belief to have.

What if the atheist is a happy hedonist, or if the theist is a miserable puritan? In that case the value of cell d is greater than that of c , and the dominance argument no longer works. However, if there is a chance that God exists then we can calculate the expectations as follows:. Hence it is rational to believe in God. Furthermore, this infinity will swamp the values in cells b , c , and d , so long as c is not infinitely negative and neither b nor d is infinitely positive. According to doxastic voluntarism , believing and disbelieving are choices that are up to us to make.


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  • Intellectualists deny this; they say it is impossible to adopt a belief simply because we decide to. Evidently not. Therefore, some say, Pascal's wager does not give legitimate grounds for believing in God. But although we cannot adopt a belief simply by deciding to, the same is true for other actions. For instance, we cannot go to school simply by deciding to; rather, we have to wake up by a certain time which may mean first developing a certain kind of habit , we must get dressed, we must put one foot in front of another, and so forth.

    Then if we are lucky we will end up at our destination, though this is far from guaranteed. So it goes for any other endeavor in life: one chooses to become a doctor, or to marry by age 30, or to live in the tropics -- the attainment of such goals can be facilitated, though not purely willed, by appropriate micro-steps that are more nearly under voluntary control. Indeed, even twitching your little finger is not entirely a matter of volition, as its success depends on a functioning neural system running from your brain, through your spine, and down your arm.

    Your minutest action is a joint product of internal volition and external contingencies. The same applies to theistic belief: although you cannot simply decide to be a theist, you can choose to read one-sided literature, you can choose to join a highly religious community, you can try to induce mystical experiences by ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD, and you can choose to chant and pray. No mere exercise of will can guarantee that you will end up believing in God, but neither can any exercise of will guarantee that you succeed in doing anything else you decide to do.

    If there is a difference between our ability to voluntarily believe something and our ability to voluntarily wiggle our toe, it is a difference in degree of likely success, and not a difference in logical kind. Atheists, on the other hand, have no particular reason to think that mere praying should notably effect conversion. An agnostic would do well then to try; for it would be precisely in the case where success matters that trying is likely to be most efficacious.

    Indeed, it might not matter whether we can choose to have the beliefs we have. If Tables I or II be right then the fact would remain that it is pragmatically better to believe in God than not, insofar as theists, taken across all possible worlds, are on average better off than atheists.

    It does not matter whether theism results from personal will-power, God's grace, or cosmic luck -- regardless, being better off is being better off. Pascal's compatriot Denis Diderot replied to the wager that an ayatollah or "imam could just as well reason the same way.

    The reason is that Tables I and II beg the question in favor of a certain kind of theism; a more complete matrix must consider at least the following possibilities. Some Pascalians insist that only certain theological possibilities count as "genuine options" James , Jordan b , although this notion is never clearly defined.

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    Perhaps a proposition P is a genuine option for some subject S only if S is likely to succeed in believing P, should S choose to. However, the relevance of volition is questionable, as discussed in the previous section. Alternatively, perhaps P is a genuine option for S unless P strikes S as "bizarre" or untraditional Jordan b. The difficulty here lies in distinguishing this position from emotional prejudice Saka Finally, it may be that a genuine option is one that possesses sufficient evidential support, in which case it can then participate in a run-off decision procedure.

    Some Pascalians propose combining pragmatic and epistemic factors in a two-stage process. First, one uses epistemic considerations in selecting a limited set of belief options, then one uses prudential considerations in choosing among them Jordan b. Alternatively, one first uses prudential considerations to choose religion over non-religion, and then uses epistemic considerations to choose a particular religion Schlesinger , Jordan In order to be at all plausible, this approach must answer two questions.

    First, what is the justification for deliberately excluding some possibilities, no matter how improbable, from prudential reasoning? It seems irrational to dismiss some options that are acknowledged to be possible, even be they unlikely, so long as the stakes are sufficiently high Sorensen Second, can epistemic considerations work without begging the question? Schlesinger argues that the Principle of Sufficient Reason gives some support for believing in God, but in a Pascalian context this is questionable. But the Crusades in the s taught the French of Islam, the Renaissance in the s taught the French of Greco-Roman paganism, the discoveries of the s taught the French of new-world paganism, and several wars of religion taught the French of Protestantism.

    To claim that the educated French of the s rightfully rejected alien beliefs without consideration appears to endorse rank prejudice. Some acknowledge that Pascal's wager cannot decide among religions, yet maintain that "it at least gets us to theism" Jordan b, Armour-Garb The idea is that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, and devil-worshippers can all legitimately use decision theory to conclude that it is best to believe in some supreme being. Against this there are two objections. First, it disregards theological possibilities such as the Professor's God.

    The Professor's God rewards those who humbly remain skeptical in the absence of evidence, and punishes those who adopt theism on the basis of self-interest Martin , ; Mackie No Intellectual--shown discussing geological explanation of rock strata. Interview: Nathan Baird, senior Wheaton College earth sciences undergraduate.

    Support Scientific Talks about how his indoctrination with creationism as a child and why he now believes in evolution. No Intellectual 6. Both Nathan Baird Support Scientific--says evolution is best fit to data Talking to dad, defending his belief in evolution No Intellectual, says Christians should understand evolution and not run at the sight of it, which is what he says happens a lot.

    Says he wants to have beliefs which hold up in the world. Baird Nathan's Father Oppose Religious--makes no scientific arguments. Says Darwin's theory was meant to be an assault on Genesis Talking to son, trying to tell son why he shouldn't believe in evolution Yes. Says he believes in "Day Creation. Says man's wisdom is foolishness so evolution is wrong. Uses very unscientific words such as "slimy thing," and then appeals to mother while stumbling for words. Interview: Nathan Baird's mother, Patti Baird Oppose--afraid evolution will cause her son to lose faith Religious Talking about Nathan, saying she likes her church because pastor preaches Word of God and that's why church is growing.

    Yes Pseudo-Intellectual, but Nathan strongly intellectual describes her as afraid of evolution and she appears anti intellectual 8. Sounds more articulate than in the dinner. Says she defended evolution because YEC's said it "HAD" to be that way, and she wanted it to be more of an intellectual debate No Intellectual--studying to be a veterinarian, bio major Scene: Keith Miller lecture Support Scientific Giving keynote address on symposium on fossil record and geological history.

    Interview: Keith Miller, scientist, Kansas State University Support Scientific Shown talking about how he was asked to come to Wheaton to give his strong support for evolutionary theory as an evangelical Christian.

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    No Intellectual Intellectual, but she's stumbling with words Intellectual, but she is chewing gum and looks very casual, not articulate Interview: Emi Hayashi, Wheaton college biochemistry major Support Scientific Says it's great that you can believe in evolution but doesn't want to be labeled a liberal--says she came to Wheaton so she could think, implies you can't think. Says science can't have that many idiots. Says it's laughable when a Christian laughs at scientists who believe in evolution. Says you should take data first and then interpret it in light of Bible.

    Says its expected at Wheaton that you believing 6 day creation. Says most Wheaton people believe that because sunday school teachers say evolution is bad and of the devil so they don't believe it. Narrator says Biblical literalism no longer defines her faith. No Intellectual--studying to be a veterinarian, bio major Does say he hasn't yet been convinced by the evidence.

    He says his views are based on evidence and wha the's comfortable with. Should be called psuedo-intellectual. Says she didn't grow up with baggage of 6 day creation No Intellectual--called a premed student Interview: Creationist Ken Ham Oppose Religious Says he's concerned about implications of evolution for how students think--says it takes purpose and meaning out of life Yes Intellectual Interview: Clare McKinney, science teacher at Jefferson High School Support Scientific Says she grew up believing Bible was word of God, and as a teenager she became interested in science and didn't believe Bible stories she grew up with.


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    • Said taking on the curriculum will cause no one to come out a victor. Says students who question evolution and promote evolution don't understand difference between science and non-science, says that she didn't do a good job showing that you can't discuss a supernatural creator in science class.

      Says students don't understand. Says its hard for students because they're dealing with faith issues, and that its hard for them to deal with parents because parents don't even want them to listen to it. Says evolution and religious are complementary and fit together for her. Says students need people who will listen to them. Says she wouldn't teach if she couldn't teach evolution because evolution is a major pillar of biology and couldn't in good conscience not teach evolution to her kids in science classroom.

      Interview: Stephen Randak, Jefferson High School staff Support Scientific Says students who oppose evolution don't understand difference between science and non-science. Says they were good students. Says this could be the new creationists gameplan--they use students to get evolution out because they can't in the courts. Said he spoke with Eugenie Scott for help, and Scott said this probably hadn't happened b4.

      Says students don't understand science classes--and that science must be supported by evidence, accepted by peer review, must be testable and repeatable. They are speaking eloquently, but one boy is depicted saying he grew up hearing word of God after narrator explains that upbrining in Sunday school affects what these students believe. One girl says she believes in Bible simply because somehow she knows its true.

      Says evolution can tell us what happened, says evidence is strong that universe, earth, and life evolved. Says that Justice Brennan ruled that you can teach any scientific views. Tries to imply all theories of creation aren't scientific by saying, "one reason creationist have worked so hard to present their theories as scientific is so they can duck under 1st amendment" No Intellectual Scene: Jefferson high school students take on science curriculum at school board meeting Oppose Scientific Students talk about their views. Talks about underlying assumption.

      Says that evolution should be taught, but alongside special creation. Says they should be taught facts, but on their own. Narrator then says: For these students, it isn't about science vs. Says MOrris' Genesis flood was an "inspiration" to creationist that uses carefully selected scientific evidence.

      Board says that creation science doesn't fit definitions of biological science curriculum. Narrator says decision preserved "integrity of science curriculum". Intellectual--students making very cogent arguments. Of course this is countered by interviews from teachers who say they don't understand nature of science. Narrator says Louisiana legislator passed law over opposition from educators and that Supreme Court rules teaching of Creation science is violation of 1st amendment separation of church and state.

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      Yes Intellectual--though his legal arguments are countered by narrator Intellectual Interview: Emi Hayashi, Wheaton college undergraduate biochemistry major Support Scientific People look at Christian and say you're ar religious fanatics. Interview: Beth Stubing, Wheaton college undergraduate Support Scientific Says that religious and science aren't' tin conflict and believe in evolution doesn't mean you're throwing out God.

      Interview: Nathan Baird, earth sciences undergraduate at Wheaton College Support Scientific Says when he heard a God-fearing man saying I believe in evolution did wonders for him and it allowed him to see God bigger than he had before No Intellectual. Contact the Webmaster. Young Earth Creationist.