The Mischievous Nerd's Guide to World Domination
Author: Stephen Oberauer

Chapter 12
Evidence and proof


It was February, 2000. I was getting a lift into work with Piet van der Westhuizen, a 50 year old programmer who also worked at Bold Mutual. I climbed into his dark green BMW and relaxed into the comfortable leather seat. ‘Good morning, Piet.’


Classical music played gently on the car’s radio as we drove over the bridge and headed towards the office.

Piet always had something to say, and it was usually a complaint, a sceptical remark or otherwise it was a discussion about something technical. There were two things that he said that I will never forget. One was that preachers and lawyers are liars, because they can’t prove anything, and the other was the day when he asked me, ‘So, do you have “Plato’s truth virus”?’

The little smile in the corner of his mouth intrigued me. ‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a brain virus,’ he replied.

‘A brain virus?’ I asked, thinking it might be something like a contagious version of Alzheimer’s disease.

‘I read about it in a book called “Software for your Brain”. It’s about people who try to protect the information that they have in their brain by calling it truth.’

‘I’m not quite sure what you mean?’

‘I thought you were smart. Okay, so if someone tells you something that you disagree with, what do you do?’

‘I disagree?’ I said slowly, not too sure if it was the right answer.

‘Exactly. We’ve learned to disagree with people if what they say is not what we’ve heard before. It’s like we’ve been hypnotised to be absolutely certain that what we think we know is true.’ He gave me a few seconds to think about what he said and, as he drove the car into the right lane he asked, ‘Would you consider yourself open minded?’

‘Sure,’ I replied.

‘Okay, when last did you try to disprove your religion?’ he asked.

‘I’ve never tried to disprove it. Why would I want to disprove it?’ I asked.

‘Why would you want to prove it?’

‘To know that it’s definitely true.’

‘What if it’s not true, and you’re still trying to prove that it is true?’ he asked me.

We stopped at a red traffic light. Piet looked at me, waiting for answer.

‘Why would it be untrue?’ I asked. ‘If it’s a lie, then it’s a terrible lie, and why would anyone lie about something like that?’

‘That’s what you have to find out,’ he told me. ‘Do yourself a favour and download the book. You may just find out that you don’t know what you thought you knew.’

‘Okay. I’ll take a look,’ I replied, glad to have something that sounded interesting to read while I did nothing in the office that day.

I spent the next few days reading and pondering the thoughts in the book. Being smart, I automatically assumed that I was always right, but reading through the book opened a whole new can of worms.

On Saturday my brother and I were enjoying the sunny day out canoeing on the lake near our house. It was unusual for me to have meaningful discussions with anyone, but I had been very confused after learning about open mindedness and needed to talk about things which I had previously considered to be 100% truth. Alone in the middle of the lake, we were taking a break from paddling and merely bobbing up and down gently. It was a good opportunity for a discussion.

‘Do you believe that hell really exists?’ I asked Rupert, who was sitting at the front of the two seater canoe.

‘Umm…’ he began, taking a while to think, ‘What would you do, if you had created a world, filled it with 6 billion people and wanted them to be nice to each other?’

‘I guess I would punish them for doing wrong’, I replied.

‘All of them?’ he asked, ‘Every single time they did something wrong?’

‘I guess not,’ I said, ‘What would you do?’

‘I would tell them that if they didn’t repent and ask for forgiveness for everything they do wrong I’d punish them with a severe punishment,’ he answered, looking quite impressed with his own answer.

‘So you do believe in hell then?’ I asked.

‘Well, if the punishment can never be proven then the punishment doesn’t actually have to exist,’ he replied, ‘and to make sure that the people never question your punishment, you tell them that you are incapable of telling lies, that their little minds will never understand your great intelligence, and that they have to also believe you in order not to be punished.’

What my brother said seemed to make a lot of sense, but he still hadn’t answered my question, ‘So, you don’t believe in hell?’

‘Well, let’s talk about what it means to believe. It could mean to know something without any doubt, or it may mean that you have some evidence in favour of the idea, or it means that you think more about the idea being true than false, but there’s really no way of measuring these things. So I think the best way to tell if you believe something or not is by what you do. To answer your question, look at what I’m doing now, I’m paddling in a boat, enjoying the sunshine.’

I took a few seconds to take in what my brother had just said and then responded, ‘So, according to what you’re saying, I don’t believe in hell either, because I too am paddling in a boat and enjoying the sunshine?’

‘Belief is not always binary,’ Rupert replied, ‘Its not about either you do believe, or you don’t. You go to church for a reason, right? Either you go because you don’t want to upset the church people, or you go to meet girls, or you go because you want to go to heaven, or you go because you don’t want to go to hell. So you have just enough belief to make you go to church, but instead of going out warning people that their sins are going to destroy them, you’ve chosen to canoe. Everyone believes in hell from a scale of zero to one hundred percent. As for most people, I think they’re closer to zero.’

It was quiet for a little while, as I sat, thinking about how being a Christian had made me want to do good things, and wondering how different I might have been if I was not a Christian, when my brother continued and said something as if he had plucked it out of my head, ‘Do you know that one can’t really prove anything?’

‘Yes, I know,’ I replied, ‘there is evidence everywhere, but one can’t really prove anything.’

We sat for a while, pondering our discussion and then paddled home slowly and quietly, enjoying the peacefulness and beauty around us.

After a few minutes of silence my brother continued the discussion, ‘What you can do, is to be prepared for both cases. In other words, if hell does exist, and you’re an evil person, then it will be really bad for you, but if it doesn’t exist and you’re a good Christian, then at least you will have lived a good life and there’s nothing to regret. So you may as well follow God just in case.’

‘Although,’ I replied, ‘If hell doesn’t exist, then allowing children to believe that they’re going to burn in hell if they’re not Christians is actually quite cruel.’

‘Yes, that is true,’ he replied. ‘Life would be so much simpler if God would just answer prayers.’

‘I guess we’ll just have to wait until someone invents a technology that always tells the truth.’ I was joking, but still felt a slight glimmer of hope that one day there might be a way to find out whether statements were true or not. Maybe if artificial intelligence was ever invented, it could answer all of our questions.


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