Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Rashomon Effect

In the debate over religion and its place in the modern world, a lot of fuss is made over the “evidence” for God. Skeptics argue there is nothing to prove God’s existence; some, using ideas like intelligent design, say there’s lots of evidence.

Of course, like a typical Episcopalian, I’m going to say both yes and no to this question. As I pointed out in the comments in a recent post, in a court room, for example, there’s evidence like “Exhibit A.” But there’s also testimony, and testimony is considered evidence even in the absence of tangible items. And so while we may not have an Exhibit A for God, we have the testimony of billions of humans across the eons of our existence.

One of the points that Richard Dawkins, high priest of religious skepticism, makes is that if there is a God, it is highly unlikely that it is the God of any of the literally countless religions and faith traditions; statistically speaking, the chance that “God” is the God of Jesus is no more likely, says Dawkins, than the God of the residents of Alpha Centauri.

But what if they’re really all the same God?

Let’s say there’s a two-car collision in the middle of a four-way intersection. There is one witness standing at each corner. (Already this is a bad metaphor, I know. Not only am I letting a car accident represent God (!!!), I have to ignore that in an actual accident, there would be lots of tangible evidence. But stick with me.)

The witnesses on the northwest and southeast corners both saw the entire incident; however, they had opposite perspectives. They might not agree on who is at fault. In important ways, their testimony might be contradictory. But both of them are still telling the truth.

The witness on the northeast corner is prejudiced about women drivers, and one of the drivers involved was a woman. Might such a prejudice affect what the witness thinks he saw? Would it tend to lead him to make certain assumptions? Might such a witness even be willing to deliberately color his testimony because of his personal views?

Still with me? Okay. Now, let’s say for the sake of argument that the witness on the southwest corner is a Hebrew from 1400 BC. What would his reaction to a car accident be? What language might he use to attempt to explain what he saw? His account is likely to be wildly different than any of the other three witnesses, and would perhaps strike us as fanciful or even crazy.

So here we have four people with a shared experience, but all of them describe it in significantly different ways. None of them are lying, but some of them might let bias color their recollections. One could not understand what he was witnessing. Maybe some made assumptions. Maybe not all of them have perfect memories.

Does this mean there wasn't a car accident?


Anonymous said...

I am a Jedi Knight. Please learn a bit about my group at

Anonymous said...

I used to think of it like the night sky. If four people look up into the sky at the same time, they will see four different skies. It's all the same, but they see different parts of the same.

We may all be seeing the same God, but we see different parts of him/her/it, and form beliefs and organized religions around what we see.

The problem here is that no one is wrong, but no one is right either. Problems develop when "my god/religion/beliefs/etc is better than yours" start to pop up.

Friend said...

They are recounting what they THINK they saw.

None of them really have it truely correct.

All interesting and helpfull, but I wouldn't bet my life or any other valuable, that anyone of them had it correct.

We do know that eye witness testimony from different people about the same witnessed incident, differs greatly.

Any judge will look for other scientific evidence like, skid marks, angle of impact, amount of damage, natural conditions, and other things that can be measured with certainty.

Without scientific evidence, it is a judgement call based on uncertain features like; character, motivation, mental and physical condition of the people involved.

One person might have bad vision. One person might be prone to exageration. One person might be friendly to one of the participants. Ect., ect....

All are being truthful to their perspective, but only one, or none may be relaying what actually happened.

If this accident has such implications on the behavior of the people of the world; emotions, love, hate, wars, treatment of their fellow human beings, then surely we should expect more than the flawed retelling of a story by a well intentioned error proned human being.

The world does not need a God for humans to treat each other better, they simply need to treat each other better.

If your eternal life demands submission and worship to a God, then by all means cater to your God.

The Earthly world only needs humans to treat each other better.

The Law Fairy said...

"Any judge will look for other scientific evidence like, skid marks, angle of impact, amount of damage, natural conditions, and other things that can be measured with certainty."

It is the case that with *many* torts or criminal violations, in addition to the more scientific question of "what" happened, there's also, to some extent, a question of "why." The importance of this question can't be downplayed (it's the difference between first-degree murder, punishable by death in many states, and second-degree murder, punishable by around 20 years in prison in most cases, or in rare cases life), even if we're talking about something as seemingly straightforward as a car accident.

If, for instance, someone was killed in the accident, then there's the question of how to assign blame, which necessarily involves the unscientific question of the perpetrator's state of mind. Was he negligent? Was she drunk? Did he gun it because he had a death wish? Here in southern California we very recently had a case where a guy had intentionally run his car into a marketplace full of pedestrians and killed a fair number of people. He's spending 18 years (at his age, effectively the rest of his life) in jail, and the key question was his state of mind when he drove into the marketplace. His defense was that he tried to brake.

So even when a question *looks* scientific at first, there's actually plenty of more experiential testimony needed.

chiron said...

Exactly! Testimony is it. I love that rich analogy of an ancient Hebrew watching a car wreck, but you must change the analogy, because it must have Beryllium cars flying in from outer space (and the only wreckage was our lives) because this is some seriously freaky shit. Like X-Files freaky. But yes, I think that if we don't have a God with a plan to save creation on a pretty tight timeframe, the best we can hope for in the coming years is pretty grim. TIP: Move to the center of Manhattan because the ocean waves will be breaking on Broadway, and in the meantime, act naturally and encourage the sheeple to go green.

Andy said...

Well, Chiron, presently I live one block away from the highest natural point on Manhattan (263 feet or something) so actually I'm in about the best place I could possibly be in New York should the sea levels suddenly rise.