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Sunday, February 27, 2011

They pitch horseshoes, don't they?

There's a lovely joke doing the rounds on Unitarian message boards and social-networking sites at the moment. It's been around awhile, but there's nothing like a new context to give a joke new life. A true story, apparently...

An American scientist once visited the offices of the great Nobel prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr's desk was a horseshoe, securely nailed to the wall, with the open end up in the approved manner (so it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out).

The American said with a nervous laugh, "Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist..."

Bohr chuckled. "I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."

Bohr was neither a bore nor  a boor.


Okay, it's chuckle-strength rather than weapons-grade humour. And the moral seems (to me at least) to be about open-mindedness, and a gentle rebuke to the closed dualism inherent in most discussions of science vs. faith.

'Boorishness' may be described as what happens when one analyzes a joke. However, after my ribs stopped being tickled by this, I had the distinct feeling there's more to this joke than meets the ear.

Essentially, this is a humorous application of  Pascal's wager. Substitute the unknowable 'luck' in the story with the unknowable 'God', and you get this:

Only the top left quadrant is value-positive; it's the pie in the sky when you die. I remember being enthralled for a long time by this neat schema. But look more closely:

1. Top right: arguably you haven't 'lost nothing'. You've wasted time and energy (and perhaps the respect of secular friends) by doing things like going to church when you could've been in bed reading the papers, or trying to lead an upright, moral life rather than, say, running Ponzi-schemes, or donating to charities rather than using that cash for cocaine and fast cars and chorus-girls.

Waste of a good cigar...

2. Bottom left: you're screwed. Forever. Your rebelliousness with your hedonism has been an exercise in futility. Hope you enjoyed its brief tenure, 'cause now comes the wrath of the almighty.

3. Bottom right: you were right all along! Well done, thanks for playing. Now you get to be smug with yourself while worms eat your face (though, of course, you won't know it). Perhaps a life of smug self-content is the best you can hope for?

BUT--all the above is predicated on a binary choice between NOTHING and a VENGEFUL God, one who will open a big can of whoop-ass on you for not believing in him. Which has always sounded a trifle insecure to me. A generous God who forgives is not in this formula. (But that's a different discussion...)

Not so, the horseshoe! The horseshoe either does or doesn't bring you luck entirely independent of whether you believe it does or not. It operates on the higher plane of its own terms, and doesn't require your belief to make it effective.

Bohr's horseshoe, like Pascal's wager, says: 'it makes sense to hedge your bets'. Which is fine, UNLESS IT'S YOUR JOB TO SELL HORSESHOES.

The seller can't be personally held to account for the efficacy of luck. How would the horseshoe owner know whether it was the horseshoe itself that brought them luck? By the same horseshoe logic, I could say I believe my coffee mug repels wild hyenas. Do you see any around? Presto! That'll be $5.95, please...

For that matter, does one always recognise luck as luck? After all, not everything which hurts is bad for us, nor is everything which feels good, good for us. Since there's no way to tell, why not buy the horseshoe? Why not hedge your bets?

Go on. You know you want it...
But turn the question around to consider agency: why SELL the horseshoe? Horseshoes can be bought without being 'sold', after all. People can hear of their possible efficacy and seek them out for themselves. If it's a good product, it should sell itself, no? Then, it is the buyer that has the agency in the process. Surely this is a more respectful stance.

This is why I'm reluctant to hard-sell belief in God. I can make no promises for the efficacy or accuracy of belief in the product. If I did, being dead presents the sternest injunction to anyone seeking to get their money back. I can never be held to account, and this is the condition of the charlatan throughout the ages.

I can only speak for myself, and while I'm not superstitious, I'd have no problem with Bohr's horseshoe on my wall. It would represent, for me, not superstition, but a frank admission of the limitations about what I can know. If that's good enough for Neils Bohr, it's good enough for me.

Just don't ask me to sell it to you.


  1. As usual I'm never quite sure how to react to your venturing on these topics. I always feel we use the word agnosticism a little too idiosyncratically. I am agnostic about the horseshoe in a strictly trivial sense. I'm also Agnostic in that same sense to the existence of space unicorns with marshmallow lasers and to precisely the same level. I simply have no reason to believe either. This is very different to me being agnostic for instance to M-Theory in physics to which the mathematical elegance may at least point it's way. All exist or don't independently of my belief in them.

    At that same point however, I as usual agree with you on an entirely different level. We clearly have psychological tendencies to ascribe odd things with significance. I would be poorly placed to criticise Niels for having the horse shoe when I engage in patently superstitious behaviour myself (including tip toeing away from an unstable algorithm or crossing my fingers that equipment will recover when I hit the reset). I too do not believe in any of these things ... but I'm also not hedging my bets. I'm being human, I'm even perhaps fulfilling a need for emotional salience. It does no harm and it possibly helps grease the causal wheels so to speak (ironically put as we are speaking of Niels Bohr).

    We can be irrational, it isn't a sin to be human but I don't see the need to bolster it with the idea that we are in fact hedging our bets. I just don't think it's that simple.

  2. If you entertain the possibility it "helps grease the causal wheels", you're hedging your bets. This IS being human, not a matter of 'bolstering' an argument, and being human is far from simple. If it were we'd probably both be out of work :)

  3. ^_^ Then I fear I have expressed myself poorly because that is not what I meant.

    I am saying that it is emotionally and cognitively salient. That the universe as it is isn't required to satisfy our intuitions. That we use superstition as an intuitive outlet, perhaps an important one. It is the grease that helps us navigate our feeling towards the world. A world that doesn't really work that way.

    How often have I thought about the world as flat or stationary, or myself at the centre. I know these things to be unsupported but they still maintain salience (and often get expressed in my language :P). When I think this way I am saying nothing about the world... I am saying something about myself.

    Niels was right, he really didn't believe that the horseshoe did anything. It was his outlet. Bohr's response said very little about the world but a lot about his own humanity. That is what's interesting to me about the story.

    P.S. This is my second attempt as I lost my first response to a browser error. It is not as good, for this I apologize. This conversation deserves my best, and this is not it. Thanks for responding, your time is scarce and valuable, I appreciate the exchange. :D

    Keep well Rob, you remain in our thoughts.

  4. Talking with you is always worth it, dear chap.

    I was considering what the story meant from the point of view of my unitarian minster colleagues, who frequently feel themselves called upon to "sell" the unknowable. I wanted to set myself slightly apart from that, in that I don't really want a ministry that tries to convince or persuade, both species of coercion, and thus I feel less respectful of the experience of those radically 'other'. No one has to 'buy' cause I ain't actually selling.

    I too like Bohr's humble humanity. He'd've made a good UU, I think.

  5. I liked that part too.

    Then minister good reasons and clear thinking. Let your audience deal with the beliefs and mysteries... Sell process rather than product.

    I don't know much about Niels Bohr, In this discussion he has become more narrative than man but I like to think that many great scientists would make good Unitarians. I'm still a massive fan of the late Richard Feynman ^_^.