Earlier I was reading this biography of Abraham Lincoln and the section about Deism was interesting. Lincoln was attacked by his opponents at some points for being an atheist, because he briefly dabbled with considering himself a “Deist”. I remembered reading sometime before that some founding father types were Deists - as I check up via Google it sounds like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were. So there is a bit of American president tradition there.

So I was curious, why bother? Because deism doesn’t seem like a big thing nowadays; people simply call themselves atheists or just don’t really talk about it and answer surveys “no religion” while also not really calling themselves atheists. I thought I’d read a pro-deism book to see.

The Age Of Reason

Man, this book is really something. This is the most anti-Bible book I ever read. “New atheism” isn’t even talking about the Bible any more, Dawkins and Sam Harris aren’t really arguing against the Bible, they’re arguing against people who feel abstractly like “religion is good” but even so are loosely affiliated.

The Age Of Reason is much more like, hey we need to stop treating this book like it’s the word of God! The book of Mark disagrees with the book of Luke in these seven points! You can tell by an analysis of pronouns used that the gospel of Matthew was not actually written by Matthew! Moses advocates the rape and slaughter of thousands of innocent children in Numbers 31:13-47! Thomas Paine doesn’t literally use a lot of exclamation points but it feels like he wants to.

This isn’t really a debate I can even engage with. It’s no longer in the Overton window, at least where I live in California and with the set of people I pay attention to on Twitter. It’s more like a portal into the past, giving me a glimpse of a world where the most intelligent American and European statesmen and scientists would frequently refer to the Bible as a source of factual knowledge.

There is an interesting idea of “reason vs revelation”. Revelation is another concept I rarely think of nowadays. Thomas Paine is primarily making the point that revelation to a character in history is no longer revelation for someone else; now it’s trusting the word of another.

Sometimes you read two seemingly unrelated books and a concept ties them together. Later on I read…


Wilson’s thesis in this book is roughly that math, science, the social sciences, arts, ethics, religion, all of these things should fuse into one unified endeavour. It’s an interesting book and I recommend it to people interested in science but not only interested in science.

The part that reminded me of the “reason vs revelation” concept was a discussion of why scientists liked doing science. Science is fundamentally about reason, about using reason to solve problems and figure out the natural world. But why you do science can’t be justified in the same way. In practice different scientists have very different motivations for wanting to do it in the first place. Some are religious, some aren’t. But the combination basically works.

Perhaps some amount of revelation is necessary. With reason alone, can you ever get an “ought” from an “is”? Even if you rationally piece together why some course of action is correct, you find yourself working back to axioms where you get stuck. How much should we worry about animal welfare? You can boil it down to a question of one human life is equal to X chicken lives. What is X? How can this possibly be answered with reason alone?

Aumann’s Agreement Theorem

This “theorem” has always bugged me. I notice that I blogged about it seven years ago. It states that rational people should never disagree, and tries to prove it with some Bayesian reasoning and mathematical arguments.

In practice, groups of smart people very often disagree with each other. A group of 100 people where everyone agrees on everything, that isn’t a gathering of smart, rational people, those people are groupthinking in some way.

Perhaps this too is related to the reason vs revelation breakdown. If a person cannot operate entirely on reason, if they need at least a little bit of revelation as well, then you cannot entirely agree with other people. This little bit you disagree with them on, you don’t know if it’s because they’re smart and rational and they know something you don’t, or if their revelation is at work, putting its finger on the scale. And they don’t really know either. And it’s okay. You just need to figure out some pluralist way to work together despite not entirely agreeing on everything.

Startups need a little bit of revelation. You need to be a little too excited, to believe in your idea a little too much, and it doesn’t work to rationally think “Startups require you to believe in your idea a little too much, so rationally I’m going to take my belief level and kick it up a notch.” It’s like Pascal’s wager; real belief doesn’t work that way.

So What?

Do you need more revelation? Do you want more revelation? It’s hard to just sit down and get excited about something. But sometimes it’s contagious, sometimes it’s worth seeking out other people who are a little too excited about their weird ideas. Sometimes it will spread to you.