Compounding our Beliefs
What are the chances that your beliefs accurately represent reality? There are many factors that come into play, but one of them is when beliefs rely on other beliefs. If one belief is barely probable and the second one is barely probable, then combined they are improbable given some basic math. For instance.
Lately, I have been having conversations with Mormons and so I have been personally applying this to their case, but this can be applied to numerous beliefs. Therefore, please do not think I am picking on Mormonism, it just so happens that I have been conversing with Mormons lately. 🙂
One of Mormonism’s cherished beliefs is that Joseph Smith received a Revelation to found the Mormon Church as the true Christian Institution in the 1800’s. There are three beliefs that are wrapped up in this foundational doctrine of Mormonism. The first, is that Joseph Smith at the age of 14 was given a revelation from God that other churches were false and he was to found the true one. The second, is that Christianity, shortly after the Apostles became corrupt and no one really had the truth since, (or at least not much of it). Third, that other Christian Churches did not have a claim on being “truly Christian.”
Now, let’s take those beliefs one by one and input some possible numbers.
1. 14 Year Old Receives a Revelation from God which is just as significant as previous revelations. How should we rate this belief? Well, a typical Historical Christian approach to this is to give a belief like this a very low probability. The reason is because Jesus is the final revelation. Moreover, the Bible is not open to taking more candidates. Moreover, Galatians 1:8 warns us against receiving a different Gospel. Most Christian’s would likely give this a 1-10% chance. But, perhaps a Christian that is not well trained, might give this a higher percentage. Even more, perhaps if one is looking for a new revelation, the percentage could be higher. Let’s for the sake of the Mormon cause give this belief a 50% chance of being actual. In other words, let’s assume it is at least possible.
2. Christianity became corrupt after the Apostles. This belief with any casual study of Church history is flat out wrong. Thus, any historical perspective will grant this belief a really low percentage of likelihood. Say from 0-1%. Especially in light of Jesus’ words that he would always be with us. The Christianity of the first few centuries (at its best) was often a thing of beauty. Still, let’s assume that one could give larger credence to the Mormon proposal considering they are not as well informed. Therefore, let’s consider it at least a possibility, and also give it a percentage much higher than should be. Let’s again use 50%.
3. Other Christian communions were mostly and unusually corrupt as to necessitate this “new revelation.” Once again, this basically has to deny the historical case (as well as judge the hearts) of numerous Christian bodies who were faithfully preaching the Gospel, administering the sacraments, and going into missions. This belief also has an unusually low probability. However, perhaps they were all wrong, so let’s give it an unusually high percentage. 50% chance of being the case.
Now, assuming that all three must be true simultaneously gives us some interesting numbers. Take out a calculator and multiple .5 x .5 and you will get .25, which is 25%. In other words, if only two of them had to be true at the same time for the whole to be true, then our probability for them combined is rather low. 25% is a low probability. In other words, it is unlikely to be the case. We however, are dealing with three beliefs that are wrapped up together. Grab your calculator one more time and multiple .5 x .5 x .5 and you will get .125, or 12.5%. At 12.5% we are in the highly improbable arena. And, let me point out once more, that this was being extremely favorable with each belief. I pushed the principle of charity to the edge in this assessment. Therefore the likelihood of all three actually being the case is something like 1%.
Now it is your turn. Take one of your beliefs and try to become informed as to why you think it is the case. What are the various beliefs that are wrapped up together and how do you weigh out evidence to determine the likelihood of something being true or not? Perhaps you could think about the opposite belief and ask the question as to the likelihood of that belief instead.
Either way, this approach is kind of fun. And, it teaches us one thing. That when beliefs rely upon each other, the likelihood of each being true goes down in relation to the total number.