The nation of Nod has a population of 3^^^3. By amazing coincidence, every person in the nation of Nod has $3^^^3 in the bank. (With a money suplly like that, those dollars are not worth much.) By yet another coincidence, the government needs to raise revenues of $3^^^3. (It is a very efficient government and doesn't need much money.) Should the money be raised by taking $1 from each person, or by simply taking the entire amount from one person?
I find it positively bizarre to see so much interest in the arithmetic here, as if knowing how many dust flecks go into a year of torture, just as one knows that sixteen ounces go into one pint, would inform the answer.
What happens to the debate if we absolutely know the equation:
3^^^3 dustflecks = 50 years of torture
3^^^3 dustflecks = 600 years of torture
3^^^3 dustfleck = 2 years of torture ?
Beyond the distracting arithmetic lesson, this question reeks of Christianity, positing a situation in which one person's suffering can take away the suffering of others.
It is my impression that human beings almost universally desire something like "justice" or "fairness." If everybody had the dust speck problem, it would hardly be percieved as a problem. If one person is beign tortured, both the tortured person and others percieve unfairness, and society has a problem with this.
Actually, we all DO get dust motes in our eyes from time to time, and this is not a public policy issue.
In fact relatively small numbers of people ARE being tortured today, and this is a big problem both for the victims and for people who care about justice.
The truth of an arithmatic equation and the truth of the content of a religion like Islam or Christianity are really not comparables at all. Within the domain of mathematics, "two plus two" is one definition of "four". Conversely, "four" is one definition of "two." (In a sense these truths are tautalogical.)
The Greeks noticed that mathematics is a field of knowledge that can be developed entirely in the mind. The manipulative objects that we use to teach children basic arithmetic operations are not actually the subjects of arithmetic, but crude illustrations of ideas (ideals) that are universal in the most absolute sense of the word - they are part of the universe.
Religions seek knowledge by entirely different methods, methods that are not subject to any kind of proofs ore verifications. (I think it weird that religious people consider it a virtue to cling to ideas for which no data of any kind can be summoned for support.)
The difficult choices are not between truths and falsehoods. The difficulty is in choosing which truth to voice in any given moment. Last week my mother said to me, "Your children suffered when you divorced their mother." That was true. I had difficulty hearing it not because I don't believe it. I do believe it. I was unhappy to hear this because of what my mother's choice to voice this truth at that moment revealed about her attitude towards me.
Choosing which truths to voice and the context for voicing them has great political significance. "The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were Muslims." This is the truth. If many people say that loudly many times a day for years, is that simple truth-telling, a good, enlightening thing? The question reveals why the writing of history is always political.
I like the Ignore/Explain/Worship scenario for roughly describing our epistemological options. I will note that in this particular fable you do not distinguish between different approaches to the Explain option. Mythological and scientific explanations are produced by different methods and have different qualities. I would especially note that scientific explanations have the quality of being predictive where mythological ones are not.
My other note is that "Worship" is a loaded word. For you apparently it can mean contemplating mystery. For some the word worship could only imply one thing - the 'G" word, and you know where people go with that.
I like Eliezer's essay on belief very much.
I've been thinking about the role of belief in religion. (For the sake of full disclosure, my background is Calvinist.) I wonder why Christians say, "We believe in one God," as if that were a particularly strong assertion. Wouldn't it be stronger to say, "We know one God?" What is the difference between belief and knowledge? It seems to me that beliefs are usually based on no data. Most people who believe in a god do so in precisely the same way that they might believe in a dragon in the garage. People are comfortable saying that they know something only when they can refer to supporting data. Believers are valiantly clinging to concepts for which the data is absent. Most people who believe in a god do so in precisely the same way that they might believe in a dragon in the garage.
Regarding the dialogue between the dragon claimant and his challengers, why didn't the challengers simply ask the claimant, "Why do you say that there is an invisible, inaudible, non-respiriating, flour-permeable dragon in your garage?"