Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Impossible Over the Improbable

Last month when I was reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion, I came across this argument from G.K. Chesterton with which I was unfamiliar. In his short story "The Curse of the Golden Cross," Chesterton writes this:

"Well," said Tarrant, "it's refreshing to find a priest so sceptical of the supernatural as all that."

"Not at all," replied the priest calmly; "it's not the supernatural part I doubt. It's the natural part. I'm exactly in the position of the man who said, 'I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.'"

"That's what you call a paradox, isn't it?" asked the other.

"It's what I call common sense, properly understood," replied Father Brown. "It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it's only incredible. But I'm much more certain it didn't happen than that Parnell's ghost didn't appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn't the legend that I disbelieve--it's the history."

This has applications, obviously, to religion, which was probably Chesterton's intent. Does it also apply to conspiracy theories? How would something like QAnon line up with this? Wikipedia summarizes the main idea behind QAnon to be "a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles...running a global child sex-trafficking ring...." I think the order of likelihood of the existence of each element would be something like this:

  • Satan-worshippers pretty conclusively exist--they're raising funds for a statue at the Oklahoma capitol building
  • Pedophiles exist--that's what Jeffrey Epstein was arrested for
  • Child sex-trafficking exists--most of us don't know much about it and we don't want to learn more, but I don't know that anyone would claim it's fiction
  • Cannibals exist--but mostly just random people arrested in Germany every once in a while
  • Do cabals exist? It depends on what counts as a cabal, I guess. Also, any cabal we all knew about would be a pretty lousy cabal.

So none of the elements is impossible, but I think the probabilities compound, like two engines with a ten-percent chance of failure will have both failed only one percent of the time. The probability that QAnon is real is very low. But, according to Chesterton's reasoning, we should become more cautious in our dismissal if they add in an element our personal experience tells us can't be true, like time travel.

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