Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Prejudice of the Hypothetical

I am reading god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I’m less than half way through this book, and already I owe Mr. Hitchens a debt of gratitude. He has identified for me a type of confusion I had not noticed. From page 18:

“A week before the events of September 11, 2001, I was on a panel with Dennis Prager, who is one of America’s better-known religious broadcasters. He challenged me in public to answer what he called a ‘straight yes/no question,’ and I happily agreed. Very well, he said, I was to imagine myself in a strange city as evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now --- would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical.”

His answer is long and excellent, but that would be a spoiler. Aside from the rephrasing required for a yes/no answer, Mr. Hitchens recognizes this type of question and identifies it elsewhere in the book as a “trick question.”

The human brain tends to evaluate hypothetical questions like this one subjectively. It is statistically doubtful that one living in the US has ever encountered a group of militant religious fanatics exiting a prayer meeting. Further, it is doubtful that the description “militant religious fanatics” would be employed in the process of elimination one would use to identify a group of men exiting a religious edifice in the US. Additional visual queues would be required to plant that suspicion, like the presence of side arms, or KKK robes, Nazi arm bands, and the like. Elsewhere around the globe, the possibility is more immediate to the casual onlooker, and including that possibility in one’s list of possible identifications could make the difference between life and death.

Our life experiences color the internal picture we paint to interpret the hypothetical question. In addition, those fortunate enough to live in relatively peaceful countries are conditioned to give people and situations the “benefit of the doubt.” Those living in more dangerous times and places know this can get you killed. When a person asks a hypothetical question, and that person is depending on the generic nature of that question to color the audience’s perception of the answer to that question, a subtle trap has been laid. It’s obvious to me that Mr. Hitchen’s intellect, education, or both is superior to mine because he recognized this, and was able to avoid the direct, ambiguous answer with concrete examples supporting his position. Thanks to him, I will do the same should the situation arise.

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At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy crap, I love that optical illusion in the picture! All I saw was the lamp, it was just now that I saw the legs and thong. Jeebus, you're a sicko!

Oh yeah, what was the post about? I got distracted!


At 10:56 AM, Blogger breakerslion said...

I chose that picture because, like the kind of hypothetical question I'm discussing, it relies on the predispositons of the viewer/listener. Congratulations, you're not a pervert and/or male.

There are better examples of that illusion. This one is cropped, and the words interfere, but it does help explain why I used it.

At 7:28 AM, Anonymous rita said...

knowledge is everything.
This post made me think of how the events of Sept. 11 has helped change a lot of peoples predispositions & assumptions toward religion. WOW! Religion can be dangerous!
Now, if Christians could only understand that their religion is not exclusive or exempt from the same mind numbing fanatical, & destructive behavior...

At 7:33 AM, Anonymous rita said...

BTW, I saw the legs, not the lamp. I'm neither male or a pervert(I don't think I'm a pervert, anyway. I'm not quite sure how one is defined these days)

Perhaps, I saw the legs because the picture was on your site?

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At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on, Rita, aren't you just a little pervy? It's OK, so am I!! :-)


At 8:04 PM, Anonymous rita said...

This is where it gets a little confusing...if it's "OK" then how can it be pervy?


At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just being fresh, that's all. Pay me no mind. BL will vouch that I am relatively harmless.


At 10:40 AM, Anonymous rita said...

In Blogsville, anonymous people are looked upon w/suspicion :)

Of course, those of us with blogs are exactly who we say we are.

Q: Why don't you have a blog, BTW? & what does ILD stand for?

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Kalanchoe542 said...


I do have a blog on blogger, my name is Kalanchoe542. I post here anonymously as a sort of joke with BL, who is my good friend. ILD is an acronym for a medical condition I made up, Idiopathic Lycanthro-Dystrophy (yeah, pretty weird) and it's a running joke with BL.

I don't post on my blog very much because I am withdrawn a lot, and I lurk because it's interesting to see what he has to least sometimes. Nice to meet you.

At 4:05 AM, Blogger breakerslion said...

Congratulations Rita, You are the first person to ask about ILD, also known as Robert Smith's Disease after the first diagnosed victim, Robert Weston Smith

At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*SNARFING* Oh, holy catfish, I hate it when coffee comes out my nose!

The secret's out!

Oh, and I thought of another reason I comment anonymously, and probably the most common one....I have this blog bookmarked and I don't bother to log in.

Have fun, kids!


At 5:23 PM, Blogger Rev. Barky said...

When I look at the moon I see a frog.

PS I got hit with "sexy" too. Copy it into babelfish to reveal the hidden spam message.


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