24 October 2009

A Parable

A passenger jet carrying about 250 people is forced by a hurricane to crash land on a remote island.*

Most of the passengers and the flight crew safely evacuate to the beach to ride out the storm.

After a couple of days, the hurricane abates and three members of the flight crew climb the small mountain back to the crashed jet in an attempt to contact help with the cockpit radio.

The crew is gone for two days.  In the meantime, another hurricane hits the island.  When the three crew members fail to return after four days, a small party of passengers climb the mountain and discover that the storm has caused an avalanche and killed the three crew members.  The radio has been destroyed as well.

The passenger-rescue party find three notebooks bound together with a rubber-band and sealed in a heavy-duty plastic bag.  They take the notebooks back to the beach and begin trying to decipher the scribbled notes.  Soon, all agree that the crew members were taking notes on a proposed rescue plan.  But it is unclear whether they themselves were planning a possible rescue scenario, or if they were taking notes on a plan proposed via radio by authorities on the mainland.

The notes indicated that the stranded passengers and crew would have to undertake several arduous tasks in order for any rescue attempt to succeed.  In fact, these tasks would not only deplete their limited food and water reserves, but also place all of them in danger of injury and death.

Two groups quickly formed around two possible interpretations of the three notebooks.  One group, the Rescue Realists (RR), argue that the notes themselves indicate that the crew had been in contact with the mainland and that they should do everything necessary to complete the tasks in order to be rescued.

The Rescue Anti-Realists (RAR) argue that the notes indicate nothing more than a plan to be proposed by the crew to make sure that the stranded people worked together as a cohesive group in order to maintain civilized behavior and the hope of rescue.  Given the obvious tentative tone of the notes, the more dangerous tasks are interpreted as merely brainstorming suggestions rather than requirements to be met for rescue.

Since the radio had been destroyed, there was no viable means of verifying the RR interpretation.  However, the RR camp argues that to ignore the plan would be tantamount to suicide, so the whole group should immediately begin the tasks so as to maximize their chances of rescue.

The RAR argue that since there is no way of verifying the RR interpretation, it would be wiser to ignore those tasks that directly threaten their limited resources and focus only on those tasks that would keep the group together as a community until they were rescued, if they were rescued.

The following are givens:

1). There is no viable, external means of verifying either interpretation.

2). Both interpretations would work to keep the group together as a community.

3). Neither interpretation guarantees rescue, injury/death, or an unusual depletion of resources.  Though everyone agrees that the RR interpretation is more dangerous and likely to deplete supplies more quickly. 

Given all of this, which interpretative group would you join and why?

*This parable is adapted from one proposed by Paul Moser to explain the difference between theological realism and theological anti-realism.  He sees the difference as primarily one of epistemology, that is, what can we know about God and how?


  1. As I understand it, doing nothing doesn't ensure survival, it only postpones the inevitable.

    Go for the gusto, follow the RR.

  2. Yet, to some degree, (just to be contrary mind you) the RAR is also appealing. Sometimes you must accept your reality and do what you would always do and remember that God has a plan for you.


  3. As a pilot, I would say: always do what the pilot tells you to do.

    Follow the RR.

    Trust me. You trusted me with your life while we were flying. Why not now?

  4. Anonymous5:34 PM

    i agree

  5. Ma Tucker7:37 PM


    1) The rescue party obviously made a concerted effort to keep the notebooks safe and together.

    2) If they were just making a plan out of their own heads the purpose of which was to keep harmony then
    why were the notes so scribbled that they needed close study.
    why bother invent perilous tasks that would naturally be a source of disharmony among the group anyway

    There is enough grounds to believe that the notebooks represented a real rescue plan. The alternative belief is of very little value anyway. Once people believe that the notes represent a form of control to keep everyone working together while they wait for a rescue then the notes would become ineffective anyway. They simply represent 3 guy's ideas for keeping up your spirits. Anyone can challenge them legitimately, even the Hannibal Lector type sitting on his own away from the group huddled over the books!

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