All Call This God

When St. Thomas concludes his five ways with different variations on this statement, he likely does so for several reasons.

First, it seems that it was more or less true at the time. Certainly atheists existed, just as they do now, but they were rarer, and they probably mostly denied not only that “God exists,” but also the specific conclusions of St. Thomas’s arguments.

Second, he does so for convenience. Since he proceeds to make numerous arguments about the first principle to which he concludes in Question 2, the name “God” is a simple way to refer to that principle.

However, there are several things about this procedure which could cause confusion. This was possible at the time, and perhaps even more so now.

First of all, by drawing the conclusion that “God exists,” St. Thomas suggests not only the conclusions that he is actually drawing, but also conclusions such as “the first efficient cause is omniscient and omnipotent,” since such things are usually said of God. Using this terminology will inevitably affect the thought processes of students of theology in predictable ways. For example, since the student already believes that God is omniscient, an argument for this conclusion will almost certainly feel more reasonable, given that that it is phrased in terminology referring to “God,” than it would feel if put in more abstract terms.

Similarly, we saw earlier that Richard Dawkins’s objections are not to the idea of a first principle as such, but to the things which are typically attributed to that principle. This made clear communication between himself and the theologians with whom he spoke very difficult, because it was not clear exactly which questions were being addressed at any particular time.

In our own discussion, we have established various things about the cause, and others can be easily established. For example, we did not explicitly discuss whether the first cause is a body, but it can be easily shown that it is not. However, there are some things among the usual divine attributes which, at the least, cannot be easily proven, and which possibly cannot be proven at all. St. Thomas says something similar when he gives reasons for the necessity of revelation:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

We have seen that the first cause has various attributes that make it similar to a mind, as for example that it acts for an end and is thus concerned about the good, and as said above, that it is not a body. However, the statement that it is a mind simply speaking is much harder to establish, if it is possible at all. For example, St. Thomas argues in Question 14 of the Prima Pars:

In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower. Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.” Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter. Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity. Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive; and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge. Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material. But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii. Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.

In order for this to be conclusive, St. Thomas’s first statement has to be evident, since he does not argue for it here, although of course this does not imply that he could not possibly make an argument for it. The statement is that “intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.”

It is evident that in the sense specified, intelligent beings can have the form of another. And it is also evident that non-intelligent beings do not have the form of another in precisely that sense. But it is not evident that they do not have it in any sense, and this is necessary for the argument to follow. For someone who supposes that the first cause is not a mind, does not assert that it does not have the forms of other things in any way. Instead, he asserts that it has the form of all things as the cause of all. Nor would he say that it has them in a lower way than intelligent beings do, but in a much higher way. Plotinus maintains a theology of this kind (Enneads 5.3.11):

Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not [fully realised] Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex. If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent, it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle, in taking cognisance of that multiplicity, knows the Transcendent and so is realized as an eye possessed of its vision. It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become IntellectualPrinciple henceforth absorbed; in virtue of this intellection it holds the character of Intellectual-Principle, of Essential Existence and of Intellectual Act where, previously, not possessing the Intellectual Object, it was not Intellectual Perception, and, not yet having exercised the Intellectual Act, it was not Intellectual-Principle. The Principle before all these principles is no doubt the first principle of the universe, but not as immanent: immanence is not for primal sources but for engendering secondaries; that which stands as primal source of everything is not a thing but is distinct from all things: it is not, then, a member of the total but earlier than all, earlier, thus, than the Intellectual-Principle- which in fact envelops the entire train of things. Thus we come, once more, to a Being above the Intellectual-Principle and, since the sequent amounts to no less than the All, we recognise, again, a Being above the All. This assuredly cannot be one of the things to which it is prior. We may not call it “Intellect”; therefore, too, we may not call it “the Good,” if “the Good” is to be taken in the sense of some one member of the universe; if we mean that which precedes the universe of things, the name may be allowed. The Intellectual-Principle is established in multiplicity; its intellection, self-sprung though it be, is in the nature of something added to it [some accidental dualism] and makes it multiple: the utterly simplex, and therefore first of all beings, must, then, transcend the Intellectual-Principle; and, obviously, if this had intellection it would no longer transcend the Intellectual-Principle but be it, and at once be a multiple.

While Plotinus is not easy to understand, it can be seen from the last statements here that according to him, the first principle of things is not an intellect, but transcends intellect. This kind of theology is not evidently mistaken, and in fact Plotinus is making a fairly reasonable argument in favor of it.

One reason why it will be fairly difficult to settle such questions definitively, from the point of view of reason, is that we do not have a sufficiently precise understanding of the things involved. In the discussions here on this blog, I took care to form fairly precise definitions of terms such as distinction, whole and part, one and many, and so on. No one has given an equally clear definition of mind, and it is not clear that it is possible to do so. We know what it is like to have a mind, but that does not mean that we can define it. And in fact, as Dawkins and Plotinus suggest, some parts of that experience seem to be contrary to the idea of a first principle. From the point of view of Catholic theology, such difficulties may be resolved, or partly resolved, by the doctrine of the Trinity. But if it is necessary to bring in the Trinity to resolve the difficulties, this suggests that reason alone may not capable of such a resolution.

The name “God,” then, suggests many things which can be proven true of the first cause only with great difficulty, and possibly not at all. Consequently St. Thomas’s procedure has a significant risk of leading students to believe that they have a better understanding of theology than they actually have.

There is a second issue with his procedure, much more relevant in our times than in his. Saying that God exists is making a claim which is remote from the senses, both because God is not a body, and because “truly you are a God who hides himself,” as Isaiah says. Consequently, as was argued in the post on things remote from the senses, people will be more likely than usual to be influenced by motives other than truth in their beliefs regarding God.

One of those motives, as was also stated there, is the desire to be loyal to a group to which one belongs. And this particular motive will be especially likely in the case of God, because God is understood to be a person, and in most cases, he is understood to be a person who has a special relationship with a community that believes in him. Consequently belief in God is necessary for the sake of loyalty to God himself, since he is a person, and for the sake of loyalty to his community. This is likely the reason for the fact that historically apostasy was often punished with the death penalty, as for example in the Old Testament:

If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

The same thing is true in many Islamic societies even today. For the apostate is understood to be literally guilty of treason, in the political sense of the term.

Again, insofar as God is understood to be a person responsible for some community, that community will ordinarily accept some religion, namely the one which is believed to be approved by God. In this way saying that God exists is commonly understood not only to imply that he has certain divine attributes, but also that some particular religion is true. And believing that a religion is true is often something that is openly admitted to have motives other than truth, as when St. John says at the end of his Gospel, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Thus “life in his name”, which is a Christian life, one in a Christian community, is explicitly set down as a motive for belief here.

Since people easily notice the motivations of others, but suppose that they themselves are motivated by truth alone, and since such motivations are especially clear in the case of God, atheists sometimes suppose that they are concerned about truth while believers are not.

This is a mistake, however, since whether you assert or deny the existence of God, the statement remains equally distant from the senses, and human nature is the same in believers and in atheists. Consequently atheists are also likely to have various motives other than truth for their opinion, as for example in this particularly honest statement by Thomas Nagel in chapter 7 of his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper— namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

In particular, the semi-political orientation of religious belief implies that atheists will often have somewhat political motivations for their unbelief. This can be seen in accounts such as this one:

Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

We noted the lack of clarity in the disagreement between Richard Dawkins and the theologians with whom he conversed at the Cambridge conference. I would suggest that this is vagueness of the third kind. Insofar as political and social allegiances are at stake in the assertion or denial that God exists, it is not necessary to be clear about the meaning of the claim. All that is necessary is to say that you are on one side or the other. Alain de Botton, by praising various aspects of religion, is admitting that he is not giving his full allegiance to the atheists, and thus they must condemn him as a traitor.

For the first reason, namely the fact that using the name “God” immediately suggests all of the usual divine attributes, it might be better to compose theological treatises without following St. Thomas’s procedure, even if this is somewhat less convenient. For the second reason, namely because of the motivations that are at stake in asserting or denying the existence of God, it might be better to adopt an approach which is more sensitive to context. If you are speaking with Richard Dawkins, it is perhaps better not to use the name of God at all, in order to ensure a common understanding, while if you are speaking with believers, there is much less of a problem with calling the first cause God.


Vagueness comes in various kinds. In the first place, everything that human beings think or say is vague in principle, because of the weakness of human understanding. Our understanding is to the fullness of reality “as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day,” and this weakness of our understanding is found within everything we think or say. Discussing why there is something rather than nothing, we saw that there must be a being which is necessary in itself. But even after making this argument, this does not become evident to us in itself, and this is because we do not know the nature of being.

Considering whether names said of God belong primarily to him or to us, St. Thomas says,

I answer that, In names predicated of many in an analogical sense, all are predicated because they have reference to some one thing; and this one thing must be placed in the definition of them all. And since that expressed by the name is the definition, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. iv), such a name must be applied primarily to that which is put in the definition of such other things, and secondarily to these others according as they approach more or less to that first. Thus, for instance, “healthy” applied to animals comes into the definition of “healthy” applied to medicine, which is called healthy as being the cause of health in the animal; and also into the definition of “healthy” which is applied to urine, which is called healthy in so far as it is the sign of the animal’s health. Thus all names applied metaphorically to God, are applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures. For as “smiling” applied to a field means only that the field in the beauty of its flowering is like the beauty of the human smile by proportionate likeness, so the name of “lion” applied to God means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures. But to other names not applied to God in a metaphorical sense, the same rule would apply if they were spoken of God as the cause only, as some have supposed. For when it is said, “God is good,” it would then only mean “God is the cause of the creature’s goodness”; thus the term good applied to God would included in its meaning the creature’s goodness. Hence “good” would apply primarily to creatures rather than to God. But as was shown above, these names are applied to God not as the cause only, but also essentially. For the words, “God is good,” or “wise,” signify not only that He is the cause of wisdom or goodness, but that these exist in Him in a more excellent way. Hence as regards what the name signifies, these names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures; but as regards the imposition of the names, they are primarily applied by us to creatures which we know first. Hence they have a mode of signification which belongs to creatures, as said above.

St. Thomas does not say it explicitly, but the principle he presents here, “this one thing must be placed in the definition of them all,” implies that according to his argument, God is contained in the definitions of creatures. And in this way the being which is necessary in itself must be in the definition of every being. Consequently our failure to understand the nature of being in itself implies a failure to fully understand the nature of any being.

Second, someone can say something vague for the sake of accuracy, namely because he knows that his knowledge is vague, and he wishes to express his knowledge as it is, rather than claiming to know more than he does. Freeman Dyson and others say that “it is better to be wrong than vague,” but they are, strictly speaking, wrong about this. It is better to be vague and right, rather than clear and distinct, but wrong.

Third, someone can say something vague because he does not primarily care about whether or not it is true, but about something else. In this case it may be left vague because there is no need for the effort that it would take to make it clear, since the person’s purposes can be achieved without that effort, or it may be left vague because those purposes are achieved even better when it remains vague. Thus there is a story about Hegel, which I was unable to track down while writing this post, which says that he explained to someone that the Phenomenology of Spirit had to be extremely difficult to understand, in order to ensure that Hegel would become famous. I do not find the story particularly credible, but I do find the motive credible.

I said “strictly speaking” above in discussing people who say that it is better to be wrong than vague, because in many cases such people are actually opposing the third kind of vagueness, and are simply intending to say that it is better to care about the truth but to make a mistake, than not to care about the truth at all, and therefore not to bother to say something which could turn out to be wrong.

Know Thyself

At the end of the last post I more or less challenged readers to consider their motives for their beliefs. This would be especially questionable if I was not willing to accept my own challenge, so here I will mention a few of the potential influences on my own opinions.

I want to be honest with people. This is a natural consequence of the love of truth, and it might seem surprising to mention this as one influence that can run against the truth, but it can do this. For wanting to be honest involves not only wanting to speak the truth, but to say what you think. And as Katja Grace says, “Imagine your friend said, ‘I promise that anything you tell me I will repeat to anyone who asks’. How honest would you be with that friend? If you say to yourself that you will report your thoughts to others, why wouldn’t the same effect apply?” In other words, this motive can influence me to avoid thinking things that I would not like to say to others, for whatever reasons.

I would like other people to be more concerned about the truth. This again is a somewhat natural consequence of the love of truth, but again it can be a misleading influence. For it can be a motive to avoid saying things which may tend to make people seek the truth less, even if those things are true. And in combination with the desire for honesty, it can be a motive to avoid thinking those things, even if they are true. This motive is currently telling me not to write this post, since theoretically people could use it as a reason to be concerned less about the truth.

I want to be respected by people. This can lead to saying and thinking things I expect to be respected by those I care about, whether or not those things are true.

I want to say interesting and important things. This makes it more likely that I will believe something interesting as opposed to something uninteresting, even if it is equally likely, and the same applies to things that seem important as opposed to unimportant. It also makes it more likely that I will exaggerate true statements somewhat so that they will seem interesting and important.

I want to be consistent, and to defend things that I have already said. In conjunction with the above fact about exaggeration, this makes it more likely that I will come to believe an exaggerated view of various things, even accidentally, since this type of exaggeration often happens in a somewhat thoughtless manner.

Although different people will have somewhat different concerns, none of these things are particularly strange. And in principle there is nothing wrong with wanting such things, just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to eat food that tastes good, rather than being concerned about health alone in one’s choices relative to food. But if you want to be healthy, it is pretty important to notice that your desire for ice cream is not exactly the desire for health, and to moderate this desire. And likewise if you want to know the truth, it is important to notice the nature of the other influences on your opinions, and to moderate these influences.

More or Less Remote From the Senses

All of human knowledge comes from experience, and all experience is first derived from the senses. Aristotle describes this process at the beginning of his Metaphysics:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

By nature animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, though not in others. And therefore the former are more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember; those which are incapable of hearing sounds are intelligent though they cannot be taught, e.g. the bee, and any other race of animals that may be like it; and those which besides memory have this sense of hearing can be taught.

The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings. Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience; for ‘experience made art’, as Polus says, ‘but inexperience luck.’ Now art arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgement about a class of objects is produced. For to have a judgement that when Callias was ill of this disease this did him good, and similarly in the case of Socrates and in many individual cases, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it has done good to all persons of a certain constitution, marked off in one class, when they were ill of this disease, e.g. to phlegmatic or bilious people when burning with fevers-this is a matter of art.

Since our knowledge depends on the senses, to the degree that knowledge becomes more remote from the senses, it becomes harder to know the truth. But more remote in what way? More remote precisely in being less directly derived from the things that we sense. Thus for example Descartes provides an example of a particularly ridiculous error when he says in his Principles of Philosophy,

Fourthly, if body C were wholly at rest and were slightly larger than B, whatever the speed at which B were moved toward C, it would never move this C, but would repelled from it in the contrary direction; because a body at rest resists a great speed more than a small one, and this in proportion to the excess of the one over the other, and, therefore, there would always be a greater force in C to resist than in B to impel.

In other words, if a smaller object hits a larger object, the larger object will not move in any way, but the smaller one will rebound in the opposite direction. How false this is does not need to be argued, and this precisely because of its closeness to the senses.

Sometimes a distinction is made between empirical and non-empirical knowledge, but in truth there cannot be a rigid distinction between these two things, because all of our knowledge is empirical, and thus there can only be differences of degree here. Thus for example the question of whether there is meaning in the universe might be considered a philosophical rather than an empirical issue, but we have given empirical reasons for thinking that there is.

But again, to the degree that a certain matter is more distant from the senses, it will be more difficult to know the truth about that matter, and consequently people are more likely to make a mistake about it. This happens in two ways.

In the first and more obvious way, when it is more difficult to test the matter with something sensible, as we might test Descartes’s claim about a smaller body hitting a larger body, it is easier to fall into error without there being a simple way to correct that error.

The second way is less obvious, but follows from the discussion about beliefs and motivations. If some fact about the world makes a big difference in our sensible experience, then we will be interested in knowing that fact, in order to be able to affect our experience. If a stove is hot, touching it will be painful, so it is important to know whether the stove is hot or not. Thus, for the sake of such purposes, people will be interested in knowing the truth about matters close to the senses. But if some fact does not seem to affect our sensible experience much, then people will care less about knowing the truth about that matter, since they do not need to know it in order to affect their experience. This implies that other motives, motives distinct from the desire for truth, will affect their beliefs in these matters more than in matters closer to the senses. And insofar as they are more affected by motives that can lead away from the truth, they will again be more likely to fall into error, this time without a strong desire to correct that error.

Taking these two ways in combination, people will fall into error more frequently in matters that are more distant from the senses, and in such situations people will have neither a great desire of correcting the error, nor an easy way to do so.

If we compare these somewhat theoretical deductions with experience, they are verified fairly well. There are various matters where there is much more disagreement than in other matters. For example, there is much more widespread disagreement in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, and so on, than there is in mathematics and physics. We can easily see that the areas with more widespread disagreement are the ones more remote from the senses. Someone might say that politics, ethics, and economics are not remote from the senses, but if we consider the fact that all of these topics involve moral issues, we can see that they are in fact remote in the way under consideration, namely that it is not easy to subject them to sensible tests. And on the other hand, where there is disagreement in physics, it is likely to be in matters where it is hard for the difference to make a difference to the senses, as for example in interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Greater disagreement, of course, does not demonstratively prove the existence of more error, since even when there is agreement, there can be agreement on something false. But it strongly suggests the existence of more error, since disagreement cannot exist without someone being wrong, whereas agreement can be without anyone being in error. And in the areas mentioned, disagreement is so widespread that there is necessarily a great deal of error in those matters.

And these areas are also areas where we can see that people’s opinions are strongly affected by motives distinct from the desire for truth, as was suggested by the theoretical account above. Some indications of this:

First, in such areas people tend to form into various groups or “schools”, where the majority of a whole body of opinions are accepted. This happens more in religion and in politics than in the other examples, but the tendency is apparent in the other cases as well. If people were influenced only by the desire for truth, we could expect a somewhat more even distribution of opinion, where intermediate positions would be more common. Instead, the actual situation suggests that people have a desire to fit into certain groups, and to some extent adopt their opinions in order to favor this result.

Second, arguments in such areas tend to be more emotional than arguments about matters which are more easily tested. If an argument is witnessed by outsiders who have no understanding of the topic, and one of the participants is much more emotional than the others, the outsiders will tend to presume that the less emotional participant is more likely to be right. And this is for a good reason, namely that the emotions are moved more by sensible goods, rather than by truth in itself, and consequently someone who is very emotional about some intellectual issue is likely being moved by desires other than the desire for truth.

Third, related to the second reason, conversations about such matters are much more likely to be “bad conversations” of the kind noted in the previous post. They are much more likely to result in anger and insults, and in the belief that one’s conversational partner is not of good will, than conversations about mathematics. Thus for example many people accuse others who do not accept their religion of being of bad will, as for example in this blog comment:

For Pete’s sake, a simple self-educated layperson like myself has engaged in countless debates about the historicity of the Resurrection, both in person and on websites such as this one, and have not only come out on top every single time, but have yet to ever hear presented (not even once!) a decent case contra that cannot be demolished with minimal effort. The solidity and strength of the pro arguments, coupled with the pathetic weakness of all proposed alternative explanations, are what have led me to the (unwilling) conclusion that it takes an active act of will to reject them, and that unbelievers are, as in the words of Saint Paul, “without excuse”.

Likewise, it is very common for people to consider others who disagree with their politics to be bad people. Thus for example Susan Douglas writes,

I hate Republicans. I can’t stand the thought of having to spend the next two years watching Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa or any of the legions of other blowhards denying climate change, thwarting immigration reform or championing fetal “personhood.”

After some discussion, she concludes the post:

Why does this work? A series of studies has found that political conservatives tend toward certain psychological characteristics. What are they? Dogmatism, rigidity and intolerance
 of ambiguity; a need to avoid uncertainty; support for authoritarianism; a heightened sense of threat from others; and a personal need for structure. How do these qualities influence political thinking?

According to researchers, the two core dimensions of conservative thought are resistance to change and support for inequality. These, in turn, are core elements of social intolerance. The need for certainty, the need to manage fear of social change, lead to black-and-white thinking and an embrace of stereotypes. Which could certainly lead to a desire to deride those not like you—whether people of color, LGBT people or Democrats. And, especially since the early 1990s, Republican politicians and pundits have been feeding these needs with a single-minded, uncomplicated, good-vs.-evil worldview that vilifies Democrats.

So now we hate them back. And for good reason. Which is too bad. I miss the Fred Lippitts of yore and the civilized discourse and political accomplishments they made possible. And so do millions of totally fed-up Americans.

As I stated in the post on beliefs and motivations, it is not difficult for people to notice that motives other than the desire for truth are influencing other people, but they tend not to notice those motives in themselves. In a similar way, many people will have no difficulty admitting that the point of this post applies to other people, but will have a much harder time admitting that it applies to themselves.

Of course it is true that some people have more of a desire for truth in itself than other people. And the stronger this desire in a person, the more likely the person is to hold the true position in any of these matters. But it is not credible to suppose that people are actually divided in the “good-vs.-evil” way that Susan Douglas says that Republicans divide people, and in which she herself divides people. If I were a Mormon, for example, it would remain absurd for me to suppose that Mormons are good people and that everyone else is bad, or that Mormons are reasonable people and that everyone else is unreasonable. Given the premise that Mormonism is true, it would follow that a person more interested in truth would be more likely to adopt Mormonism. But it would not follow that Mormons overall have a different nature from other people, nor is this credible in the slightest.

In other words, of course there are true positions in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, and so on. But overall people’s motives are more affected by non-truth-related motives, and by only-somewhat-truth-related motives, in these matters than in matters closer to the senses, and they are therefore more likely to fall into error in the areas more remote from the senses. Now you might personally hold the true position in some of these matters, or in all of these matters. Or perhaps you don’t. Likewise, you might personally care more about the truth than other people do. Or perhaps you don’t. Either way, there is little reason to suppose that the point of this post does not apply to you.

Quick to Hear and Slow to Speak

St. James says in 1:19-20 of his letter,Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

What does he mean? How is it possible for every man to be quick to hear and slow to speak? A conversation needs to have an approximately equal amount of listening and speaking. If each of two conversational partners insists on listening instead of speaking, the conversation will go nowhere. Whenever one is speaking, the other should be listening, and if one is listening, the other must be speaking, since it is not listening if neither of the two is saying anything.

The reference to anger is a clue. St. James is speaking of our natural tendencies, and saying that the natural tendency to anger is excessive and must be resisted. Likewise, we tend to have more of a desire to speak than to listen. We would rather explain our own position than listen to that of another. In order for a conversation to go well, each of the partners should restrain his own desire to express his own opinion, in order to listen to the other. This does not imply anything impossible any more than restraining anger is impossible; people have a naturally excessive desire to express themselves in the same way that they have a naturally excessive tendency to become angry. Thus St. James is not against a conversation which is equally composed of listening and speaking; but he is saying that such a conversation requires restraint on both parties to the conversation. A conversation without such restraint leads to situations where someone thinks, “he’s not listening to me,” which then leads precisely to the anger that St. James is opposing.

Robert Aumann has a paper, “Agreeing to Disagree”, which mathematically demonstrates that people having the same prior probability distribution and following the laws of probability, cannot have a different posterior probability regarding any matter, assuming that their opinions of the matter are common knowledge between them. He begins his paper:

If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for a given event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors must be equal. This is so even though they may base their posteriors on quite different information. In brief, people with the same priors cannot agree to disagree.

We publish this observation with some diffidence, since once one has the appropriate framework, it is mathematically trivial.

The implication is something like this: one person may believe that there is a 50% chance it will rain tomorrow. Another person, having access to other information, such as having seen the weather channel, thinks that there is a 70% chance of rain. Currently these estimates are not common knowledge. But if the two people converse until they both know each other’s current opinion (which will possibly no longer be 50% and 70%), they must agree on the probability of rain, given that they have the same prior distribution.

There are several reasons why this does not apply to real human beings. First of all, people do not have an actual prior probability distribution; such a distribution means having an estimate of the original probability of every possible statement, and obviously people do not actually have such a thing. So not having a prior distribution at all, they cannot possibly have the same prior distribution.

Second, the theorem presumes that each of the two knows that each of the two is reasonable in exactly the sense required, namely having such a prior and updating on it according to the laws of probability. In real life no one does this, even apart from the fact that they do not have such a prior.

Various extensions of the theorem have been published by others, some of which come closer to having a bearing on real human beings. Possibly I will consider some of these results in the future. Even without such extensions, however, Aumann’s result does have some relationship with real disagreements.

We have all had good conversations and bad conversations when we disagreed with someone, and it is not so difficult to recognize the difference. In the best conversations, we may have actually come to partial or even full agreement, even if not exactly on the original position of either partner. In the worst conversations, neither partner budged, and both concluded that the other was being stubborn and unreasonable. Possibly the conversation descended to the point of anger, insults and attributing bad will to the other. And on the other hand we have also had conversations which were somewhat in the middle between these two extremes.

These facts are related to Aumann’s result because his result is that reasonable conversational partners must end up agreeing, this being understood in a simplified mathematical sense. Because of the simplifications it does not strictly apply to real life, but something like it is also true in real life, and we can see that in our experiences with conversations with others involving disagreements. In other words, basically whenever we get to the point where neither partner will budge, we begin to think that someone is being stubborn and at least somewhat unreasonable.

St. James is explaining how to avoid the bad conversations and have the good conversations. And that is by being “quick to hear.” It is a question of listening to the other. And basically that implies asking the question, “How is this right, in what way is it true?” If someone approaches a conversation with the idea that he is going to prove that the other is wrong, the other will get the impression that he is not being listened to. And this impression, in this case, is basically correct. A person sees what he is saying as true, not as false, so one who does not see how it could be true does not even understand it. If you say something, I do not even understand you, until I see a way that what you are saying could be so. And on the other hand, if I do approach a conversation with the idea of seeing what is true in the position that is in disagreement with mine, the conversation will be far more likely to end up as one of the good conversations, and far more likely to end in agreement.

Often even if a person is wrong in his conclusion, part of that conclusion is correct, and it is important for someone speaking with him to acknowledge the part that is correct before criticizing the part that is wrong. And on the other hand, even if a person’s conclusion is completely wrong, insofar as that is possible, there will always be some evidence for his conclusion. It is important to acknowledge that evidence, rather than simply pointing out the evidence against his conclusion.

Beliefs and Motivations

Insofar as belief is voluntary, people can have various motives for the things that they think and say. This is not only true in the sense that people can have different motives for different beliefs, but also in the sense that there may well be a mixture of different motives for any particular belief.

People tend to notice such motives in others, but it is rather unusual for them to notice the motives in themselves, rather than simply to think that the reason that they say or think something is that it is true. Thus Robin Hanson reveals an extraordinary degree of self knowledge when he discusses his reasons for having opinions:

Decisions – Sometimes I need to make concrete decisions where the best choice depends on particular key facts or values. In such cases I am forced to have opinions on those subjects, in order to make good decisions. I may well just adopt, without much reflection, the opinions of some standard expert source. I have to make a lot of decisions and don’t have much time to reflect. But even so, I must have an opinion. And my incentives here tend to be toward having true opinions.

Socializing – A wide range of topics come up when talking informally with others, and people tend to like you to express opinions on at least some substantial subset of those topics. They typically aren’t very happy if you explain that you just adopted the opinion of some standard expert source without reflection, and so we are encouraged to “think for ourselves” to generate such opinions. Here my incentives are to have opinions that others find interesting or loyal, which is less strongly (but not zero) correlated with truth.

Research – As a professional intellectual, I specialize in particular topics. On those topics I generate opinions together with detailed supporting justifications for those opinions. I am evaluated on the originality, persuasiveness, and impressiveness of these opinions and justifications. These incentives are somewhat more strongly, but still only somewhat, correlated with truth.

Exploration – I’m not sure what future topics to research, and so continually explore a space of related topics which seem like they might have the potential to become promising research areas for me. Part of that process of exploration involves generating tentative opinions and justifications. Here it is even less important that these opinions be true than they help reveal interesting, neglected, areas especially well-suited to my particular skills and styles.

As Robin notes, even when we have motives which are distinct from the truth, they may promote truth to some extent. Thus for example if someone wishes to be respected, this is not the same as being motivated by the truth, but it may require believing the truth to some extent. Thus for example Gene Ray probably did not earn much respect with his Time Cube website. On the other hand, depending on context, the desire for respect will sometimes conflict with truth and lead us away from it.

To the degree that we wish to speak or to believe the truth, this motive will work against motives in conflict with the truth and in favor of motives that favor the truth. And likewise, to the degree that we care less about speaking or believing the truth, other motives will tend to predominate. Now there are two reasons why people desire truth: for its own sake, and for the sake of other things, as in Robin’s case when he desires the truth for the sake of making a good decision.

In principle a useless truth may be more desirable than a useful truth, but this does not necessarily mean that people desire the useless one more in practice. Thus for example many people say that philosophy is useless, not meaning by this that it is more desirable than other branches of knowledge, but much less. Francis Bacon is a good illustration of this in his Novum Organum:

LXXIII. Of all signs there is none more certain or worthy than that of the fruits produced, for the fruits and effects are the sureties and vouchers, as it were, for the truth of philosophy. Now, from the systems of the Greeks, and their subordinate divisions in particular branches of the sciences during so long a period, scarcely one single experiment can be culled that has a tendency to elevate or assist mankind, and can be fairly set down to the speculations and doctrines of their philosophy. Celsus candidly and wisely confesses as much, when he observes that experiments were first discovered in medicine, and that men afterward built their philosophical systems upon them, and searched for and assigned causes, instead of the inverse method of discovering and deriving experiments from philosophy and the knowledge of causes; it is not, therefore, wonderful that the Egyptians (who bestowed divinity and sacred honors on the authors of new inventions) should have consecrated more images of brutes than of men, for the brutes by their natural instinct made many discoveries, while men derived but few from discussion and the conclusions of reason.
The industry of the alchemists has produced some effect, by chance, however, and casualty, or from varying their experiments (as mechanics also do), and not from any regular art or theory, the theory they have imagined rather tending to disturb than to assist experiment. Those, too, who have occupied themselves with natural magic (as they term it) have made but few discoveries, and those of small import, and bordering on imposture; for which reason, in the same manner as we are cautioned by religion to show our faith by our works, we may very properly apply the principle to philosophy, and judge of it by its works, accounting that to be futile which is unproductive, and still more so if, instead of grapes and olives, it yield but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention.

If there are two questions about reality, and people care about the truth of the matter equally in itself, but one of the questions will also be useful for other things, then people will be motivated more to discover the truth about the useful matter. Thus Bacon here suggests that he only cares about truths which are useful for other things, and not at all about useless truths.

From the point of view of natural selection, there is a good reason why people could be expected to search out useful truths more than useless truths. For useful truths are of course useful, and consequently more likely to lead to survival and reproduction, than useless truths.

Bacon is wrong in his opinion here, considered as a question of ethics and philosophy. Nevertheless, he is hinting at something true when he rejects the kind of philosophy which yields “but the thistle and thorns of dispute and contention,” and when, in the preface to his book, he not so subtly mocks the academic system of the time:

We make no attempt to disturb the system of philosophy that now prevails, or any other which may or will exist, either more correct or more complete. For we deny not that the received system of philosophy, and others of a similar nature, encourage discussion, embellish harangues, are employed, and are of service in the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life. Nay, we openly express and declare that the philosophy we offer will not be very useful in such respects. It is not obvious, nor to be understood in a cursory view, nor does it flatter the mind in its preconceived notions, nor will it descend to the level of the generality of mankind unless by its advantages and effects.

Bacon is suggesting here that “the system of philosophy that now prevails” is itself correctly understood as something useful, not as something useless. It is useful for “encouraging discussion,” for “embellishing harangues,” for “the duties of the professor, and the affairs of civil life.”

In other words, Bacon is pointing to motivations much like Robin’s motivations of socializing, research, and exploration, motivations not entirely correlated with truth. We could rephrase Bacon’s critique as something like this:

“No one is interested in truth in itself. Today’s philosophy is interested in impressing and pleasing people and in other such things. No truth at all is necessary to accomplish these tasks, and thus there is no reason to suppose there is any truth in today’s kind of philosophy. I am myself not interested in truth in itself, but at least my philosophy will attain real truths, because I will use it to accomplish physical tasks that cannot be accomplished without at least some truth about physical reality.”

This goes too far, but there is a good deal of truth in it. I will consider this in more detail in another post.

Calibrated Probabilities

Probability theory is a formalization of degrees of belief. Thus, expressing a particular belief in the form of a numerical probability is an attempt to be precise about how sure one is about the belief. The assigned probability is said to be calibrated when the person has the ability to assign a probability in such a way that the probability expresses the frequency with which the person is actually correct. In other words, the weatherman who says that there is an 80% chance of rain tomorrow, is well calibrated when his predictions (namely those which assign an 80% chance) come true 80% of the time. Likewise his predictions which assign a 70% chance come true 70% of the time, and so on.

Human beings do not possess a natural ability to assign such values accurately, but to some extent it can be achieved by training. The Wikipedia article on the Overconfidence effect discusses people’s natural ability to assess such probabilities and cites various studies indicating that untrained persons usually assign a value significantly higher than the actual frequency of being right. Thus for example someone might be right only 60 – 70% of the time when he says that the probability is 90%.

There are good mathematical reasons why this could have been expected in principle, as explained here and here. Nonetheless it is possible for training to correct this effect to a significant extent.

Without training, situations where the evidence would objectively give a reason to assign a probability of around 90% or higher are generally speaking very difficult for people to distinguish from “certainly true.” However, this applies less when the costs of being wrong would be higher, which is why people often buy insurance instead of assuming that it is certain that they won’t have any problems.

Richard Dawkins and the Simplicity of God

Richard Dawkins concludes chapter 3 of his book The God Delusion with the following claim:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed.

Throughout chapter 4, which is entitled, “Why There Almost Certainly is No God,” he struggles with the view of the theologians that God is simple, as opposed to his own idea that God, if he exists, must be extremely complicated. He begins the chapter:

The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument— but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

The name comes from Fred Hoyle’s amusing image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard. I am not sure whether Hoyle ever wrote it down himself, but it was attributed to him by his close colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe and is presumably authentic. Hoyle said that the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747. Others have borrowed the metaphor to refer to the later evolution of complex living bodies, where it has a spurious plausibility. The odds against assembling a fully functioning horse, beetle or ostrich by randomly shuffling its parts are up there in 747 territory. This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favourite argument— an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance whereas— in the relevant sense of chance— it is the opposite.

There follows a discussion of evolution, creation, and intelligent design. He concludes the section by stating,

A deep understanding of Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and teaches us to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunized us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us.

The argument here is basically that evolutionary theory has been fairly successful in explaining living things as having resulted from a slow and detailed process in which they became increasingly complex through natural causes. Consequently Dawkins is optimistic that this manner of explanation can in principle be applied to everything else. In fact, according to him, no one has ever offered any other plausible explanation of things:

Turning Watchtower’s page, we find the wonderful plant known as Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia trilobata), all of whose parts seem elegantly designed to trap insects, cover them with pollen and send them on their way to another Dutchman’s Pipe. The intricate elegance of the flower moves Watchtower to ask: ‘Did all of this happen by chance? Or did it happen by intelligent design?’ Once again, no of course it didn’t happen by chance. Once again, intelligent design is not the proper alternative to chance. Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested. Intelligent design suffers from exactly the same objection as chance. It is simply not a plausible solution to the riddle of statistical improbability. And the higher the improbability, the more implausible intelligent design becomes. Seen clearly, intelligent design will turn out to be a redoubling of the problem. Once again, this is because the designer himself (/ herself/ itself) immediately raises the bigger problem of his own origin. Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman’s Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman’s Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

He says something similar while discussing multiverse hypotheses:

It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren’t they both equally unparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.

Beginning to address the response of theologians, he says:

But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide? The theologian Richard Swinburne, as we have learned to expect, thinks he has an answer to this problem, and he expounds it in his book Is There a God?. He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set of types of particle. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse. Given that the number of particles of any one type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence that so many should have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time; each should change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne’s view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation. ‘It is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now.’ Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralizing their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you’ve seen one electron you’ve seen them all; that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond and from century to century. It is because God constantly keeps a finger on each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same. But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!

Note that Richard Swinburne is not the only one who thinks it too much of a coincidence that electrons are not all different and randomly changing their properties from moment to moment. David Hume, praised by Dawkins, believes the same thing. In any case, in terms of the argument here, Swinburne is exactly right. There is only one first cause, and it does indeed explain why all electrons behave in the same way. Some such thing would have to be the case in any event, but the only way the activity of electrons (or of anything else) can be understood is in relation to a final cause, the formal aspect of an efficient cause.

Dawkins however objects that such an explanation is not simple at all, but supremely complex:

Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. Having said that, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God’s infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don’t give X another glance. God’s infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?

Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God’s giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being— and whatever intelligent aliens there might be on other planets in this and 100 billion other galaxies. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, ‘If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.’ And then what would we find to do with our time?

Outraged by this idea of simplicity, Dawkins considers another example of this position:

Not all theologians go as far as Swinburne. Nevertheless, the remarkable suggestion that the God Hypothesis is simple can be found in other modern theological writings. Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was very clear on the matter in his 1996 book God, Chance and Necessity: “As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea— the idea of the most perfect possible being— the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.”

Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary ‘for the sake of argument’ exercise. Sir John Polkinghorne, in Science and Christian Belief, quotes Ward’s earlier criticism of the thought of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Its basic error is in supposing that God is logically simple— simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.’ Ward gets it right here.

Important things here are the statement that “Ward mistakes what it means to explain something,” and that “he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple.” And lastly there is Dawkins’s attempt at doing theology when he says that “Ward gets it right here.” I will return to this shortly. In any case, Dawkins continues by recounting his experiences at a conference at Cambridge:

At a recent Cambridge conference on science and religion, where I put forward the argument I am here calling the Ultimate 747 argument, I encountered what, to say the least, was a cordial failure to achieve a meeting of minds on the question of God’s simplicity. The experience was a revealing one, and I’d like to share it.

After some discussion of the background of the conference, Dawkins explains his experience with his argument against the existence of God:

For better or worse, I attended two days at the Cambridge conference, giving a talk of my own and taking part in the discussion of several other talks. I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science. I did not gain the impression that the theologians who mounted this evasive defense were being willfully dishonest. I think they were sincere. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar’s comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: ‘its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself’. The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God.

There are basically three possibilities here. Either Dawkins did not understand the theologians, the theologians did not understand Dawkins, or the theologians did not understand their theology. The third possibility is very plausible given the criticism of St. Thomas by Keith Ward and Sir John Polkinghorne mentioned by Dawkins earlier. Most likely all three are the case.

Dawkins continues to what perhaps is the heart of the issue between himself and the theologians:

Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work)— except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense baulks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.

I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn’t have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the ‘inflation’ that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe’s existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin’s biological one. Or maybe the elusive crane that cosmologists seek will be a version of Darwin’s idea itself: either Smolin’s model or something similar. Or maybe it will be the multiverse plus anthropic principle espoused by Martin Rees and others. It may even be a superhuman designer— but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don’t believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe.

We can see here what Dawkins means when he says that Ward mistakes what it means to explain something. “The very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook.” Otherwise, according to Dawkins, you haven’t explained anything. And what does he mean by a crane rather than a skyhook? A skyhook, identified with what he considers a complex God, would be something that already has such complexity within itself. A crane is something simple, and simple in the sense intended by Dawkins. Explanation, therefore, according to Dawkins, requires an original simplicity, this being understood as he understands it.

In reality, attempting to explain things is to look for their causes. And correspondingly, there are different kinds of explanation and different kinds of causes. But Dawkins is identifying certain types of causality and explanation in particular, namely those that are found in Darwinian evolution. It is likely that he is doing this because he feels satisfied by such explanations, and therefore tends to think that other accounts are not real explanations, since they leave him dissatisfied. In reality, however, there are various types of explanation and thus various types of cause.

What did Dawkins mean when he said that Ward “seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple”? And why does he say that “Ward gets it right here” when Ward opposes St. Thomas on the understanding of the simplicity of God?

St. Thomas asserts that God is simple in the sense that he is not composed of parts. Given his supposed activities, Dawkins considers this absurd, and thus he says that Ward gets it right when he admits that God is “internally complex.” In other words, despite believing that God does not exist, Dawkins is making the theological claim that God cannot be simple in the sense asserted by St. Thomas, but must be composed of parts.

Why does he say this? Why doesn’t he think that since he doesn’t believe in God, this is none of his concern and he should just leave it to the theologians as they apparently told him?

Dawkins is reasoning from the supposed activities of God to his nature. God is supposed to be “a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously.” Designing the universe seems to involve planning, which involves a plan, which has various parts. Talking to people seems to involve words and sentences, which are distinct from one another, and also thoughts, which seem to be distinct insofar as they are thoughts about diverse things. In other words, it is obvious that when we design and plan things, and when we speak with people, we are capable of doing so because we consist of parts. Consequently if God can do these things, he must have parts as well.

In fact, in terms of the argument for a first cause, Dawkins nearly admits that he cannot refute the argument:

Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.

His problem is not the argument for a first cause, therefore, but the things that are typically said of that cause, and he objects to these things because they seem to him to imply that the first cause is not simple.

We already saw that Dawkins objects to the idea that God has no parts. But is this his real objection? Simply that he thinks that the first cause must be partless, and therefore that it cannot do things like designing, planning, and talking that seem to involve parts?

This is not his real objection, whether or not he understands this fact himself. For the correct response to this objection, from a theological point of view, is exactly that God is simple in the sense defined by St. Thomas. And he does not perform the activities mentioned by Dawkins in the way that he supposes. God does not pass from one thought to another. He does not think of one part of a plan, and then another. If he speaks, he does not go from word to word in his mind. To the extent that parts are implied by such things, they are to be denied of God, and the theologian only believes that they exist in God by analogy.

But Dawkins will still have a problem with this response, if it implies that God still performs those activities, even in an analogous way. If for example God ever directly produces a voice in my mind telling me to do something, Dawkins will have a problem with this, even if I say that God does not have parts. Only the voice has parts. Dawkins will still insist that this explanation is “not simple.”

And why not? Because it is not the kind of explanation that is pleasing to him, where complexity comes from simplicity, not just in the sense that a partless being causes beings with parts, but in the sense that mathematical complexity is caused by mathematical simplicity. This is ultimately what he means when he talks about a crane rather than a skyhook. If we give a mathematical explanation of the voice in my head, it will be a mathematically complex one, and if the only cause is God, it may not be clearly possible to reduce that mathematical complexity to something mathematically simple. Evolutionary explanations, on the other hand, allow something mathematically complex to be explained in terms of laws which are mathematically simple. And this is the only kind of explanation that Dawkins considers reasonable, satisfying, or true.

We can divide all of this discussion into various questions:

  1. Is there a first cause at all? We have established that there is, and Dawkins does not deny it.
  2. Does the first cause have parts? We have established that it does not, and in principle Dawkins does not assert that it does. To some extent he could be taken to be conceding that it does not, since his objection is that if God exists, he has many parts and is extremely complicated, and therefore cannot be the first cause.
  3. Does the first cause produce mathematically complex things from mathematically simple ones? It is certain that it does in general. Our discussions of mathematical laws in nature and of the order of the world are both relevant, as well as the issue of simplicity and probability. Dawkins agrees with this, and in fact his position is that this is the only way that mathematical complexity is ever produced.
  4. Does the first cause ever produce mathematical complexity without doing this through mathematically simple things? Nothing in our discussions establishes that such a thing is impossible, nor that it is actual. Dawkins denies that this is possible or at least that it is reasonable, but he does not seem to have a particular argument for this other than the fact that such a claim leaves him feeling dissatisfied, feeling that something has been left unexplained which should be explained. But as we have seen, this is not a question about the nature of explanation in general, but the kind of explanations which are pleasing to him.
  5. Is a first cause which does not directly produce such mathematical complexity worthy of being called God? This is mainly a question about the meaning of words, although there also could be questions about what that being would be like. Dawkins denies that this is a reasonable way to use the word “God”, because, according to him, God is always understood to intervene directly in the world, causing things which are meaningful on a human level and consequently which are already mathematically complex.
  6. Do God’s activities imply that he has parts? Dawkins assumes that they do, and apparently the theologians at the conference that he attended were unable to explain otherwise.

It is problematic to discuss the question of “whether God exists” with someone like Richard Dawkins because these separate questions end up being mixed together. Dawkins gives a negative response to question 5, but if this is in fact a reasonable way to use the name “God,” then Dawkins should not deny that God exists, even if the rest of his position is correct. Likewise, Dawkins assumes an affirmative answer to question 6, and therefore concludes that if the answer to question 2 is negative, God cannot be the first cause, and therefore that if he exists he must be caused. Discussing these questions with him separately would possibly be much more productive.

The First Cause and The World

Bertrand Russell, in a passage quoted earlier, affirms that if there is a first cause, it might as well be the world:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.

As we saw at the time, Russell misunderstands the argument, since he supposes that it depends on saying that “everything has a cause.” But in any case, by the argument regarding the first cause and distinction, there is only one first cause, and that cause is not the world. It is not the world because the world has things in it which are distinct from one another, and the first cause cannot have anything within it distinct from anything else within it, since otherwise at least one of the two distinct things would have a cause. Instead, the first cause is absolutely simple. St. Thomas makes this argument, saying, “Every composite has a cause, for things in themselves different cannot unite unless something causes them to unite. But God is uncaused, as shown above, since He is the first efficient cause.”

There are two things that should be noted about this argument relative to Catholic theology. First, as was already stated, the first cause at which this argument arrives would be the person of the Father; otherwise it would be wrong to say that there is nothing in the first cause distinct from anything else within it.

Second, this argument does not prevent one from saying that the first cause is both a part of the world, and the cause of the whole world. My discussion of whole and part does not prevent any two distinct things from being taken as parts of a whole, as long as we can think of something that would include them both. And in the case under consideration, we can think of such a thing: “reality”, which which is intended to include both causes and effects. Thus the first cause is a part of reality. Nonetheless, it is also the cause of reality as a whole. This is not hindered by the fact that nothing can be the cause of itself, since a part is not the whole, and the whole is not the part. Rather, if we think of it in this particular way, the first cause causes the whole of reality by causing other things distinct from itself, and by causing them to be also in some way united with itself, in other words, by causing them to be part of the whole of reality. In a similar way the Council of Constantinople stated that “the Father is the source of the whole Trinity.”

It is not customary in Catholic theology to say that God is a part of anything else. But in order to avoid saying this, one would deal with the issue of “reality as a whole” by distinguishing between real and conceptual wholes, and saying that “reality as a whole” is a conceptual whole rather than a real whole.

I have not made such a distinction mainly because it is not clear to me what such a distinction would mean. I pointed out that distinction always involves something conceptual, but we can distinguish between real distinctions and conceptual distinctions insofar as it is one thing to say, “this thing is not that thing,” and another to say, “the concept of this is not the concept of that.” The idea of distinction leads to the ideas of parts and wholes, and the distinction between real distinctions and conceptual distinctions would allows us to distinguish between “real wholes” and “conceptual wholes” if we intended to say that a conceptual whole is something composed of parts which are conceptually distinct but not really distinct. But this does not apply to the case of the first cause and its effects, since these are really distinct from one another. Thus it is not clear to me what one would be intending to say if one asserted that “reality as a whole” is only a conceptual whole.

In any case, nothing opposed to Catholic doctrine follows of necessity from the argument. If God is a part of reality as a whole, it does not follow that reality is better than God. It does not follow that God created of necessity, nor that anything other than God is necessary or uncaused, and so on.

The Sun and The Bat

Aristotle begins Book II of the Metaphysics in this way:

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.

Perhaps, too, as difficulties are of two kinds, the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us. For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.

I have a slight feeling of uncertainty about the argument I made yesterday. I do not see any flaw in the argument, and it seems to me that it works. But the uncertain feeling remains. This suggests that “the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us,” and that the reason for the feeling is that “as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”

Should I dismiss this feeling? One could argue that such feelings result from the imagination or from custom, so that if we do not see any flaw in the argument, we should just try to get over such feelings.

I think this would be a mistake, if the meaning is that one should try to get over it without making some other kind of progress first. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates talks about the fact that someone just learning something does not yet possess it in an entirely clear way:

Soc. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno’s slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

Soc. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Men. Yes, they were all his own.

Soc. And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Men. True.

Soc. But still he had in him those notions of his-had he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Men. He has.

Soc. And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Men. I dare say.

The boy at first possesses the idea that the double square is the square on the diagonal as something which has “just been stirred up in him, as in a dream,” rather than in a clear way. And this is appropriate, because as we seen earlier, people can make mistakes even in mathematics. One reason that the boy needs to be “frequently asked the same questions, in different forms,” is that by doing this he will become much more sure that he has not been misled by the argument.

There is at least one objective sign that there may be a flaw in my argument from yesterday, namely the fact that it does not appear to be an argument that anyone has made previously, at least as far as I know. It may be implicit both in the theology of St. Thomas and in that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the discussion of the distinction between the persons of the Trinity as a source for the distinction of creation from Creator, but it does not appear to have been made explicitly. In general I think it is a mistake to ignore such a feeling of uncertainty, just as it would be a mistake for the boy to ignore the dreamlike character of his knowledge. That feeling means something. It may not mean anything about the facts, as Aristotle says, but it means that there is something lacking in my understanding. And if I manage to banish the feeling, to “just get over it,” that does not necessarily mean that I have actually cured that lack in my understanding. It may be present just as much as before.

This is similar to the situation where someone observes some evidence against what he currently believes to be true. His “gut feeling” will tell him that it is something that stands against what he believes, but he may attempt to remove that feeling by fitting it into the context of his belief. However, even if his explanation is correct, even if his estimate of the prior probability is mistaken, his original feeling was not meaningless. In almost every case, it really was evidence against his position.

When we have a conclusion and we want to make an argument for it, whether that is because we suspect that the conclusion is true and want to settle the matter, or because we simply want the conclusion to be true, there is a danger of claiming to know for sure that an argument works without really understanding it. And this danger seems to be especially serious when one is speaking about God or the first principles of things, because they are like the blaze of day compared to the eyes of bats. For example, I commented on a recent post by James Chastek because it appears to me that he is trying to take a shortcut, that he is trying to avoid the hard work of actually understanding. I have not yet continued that discussion because I suspect that neither he nor I actually understand the argument that he is making, and I would prefer to understand it better before continuing the discussion.

Do not ignore such vague feelings. Do not dismiss them as “just the imagination,” do not try to “just get over it.” They are telling you something, and often something important.