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:
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...|
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.