# Chastek on Determinism

On a number of occasions, James Chastek has referred to the impossibility of a detailed prediction of the future as an argument for libertarian free will. This is a misunderstanding. It is impossible to predict the future in detail for the reasons given in the linked post, and this has nothing to do with libertarian free will or even any kind of free will at all.

The most recent discussions of this issue at Chastek’s blog are found here and here. The latter post:

Hypothesis: A Laplacian demon, i.e. a being who can correctly predict all future actions, contradicts our actual experience of following instructions with some failure rate.

Set up: You are in a room with two buttons, A and B. This is the same set-up Soon’s free-will experiment, but the instructions are different.

Instructions: You are told that you will have to push a button every 30 seconds, and that you will have fifty trials. The clock will start when a sheet of paper comes out of a slit in the wall that says A or B. Your instructions are to push the opposite of whatever letter comes out.

The Apparatus: the first set of fifty trials is with a random letter generator. The second set of trials is with letters generated by a Laplacian demon who knows the wave function of the universe and so knows in advance what button will be pushed and so prints out the letter.

The Results: In the first set of trials, which we can confirm with actual experience, the success rate is close to 100%, but, the world being what it is, there is a 2% mistake rate in the responses. In the second set of trials the success rate is necessarily 0%. In the first set of trials, subject report feelings of boredom, mild indifference, continual daydreaming, etc. The feelings expressed in the second trial might be any or all of the following: some say they suddenly developed a pathological desire to subvert the commands of the experiment, others express feelings of being alienated from their bodies, trying to press one button and having their hand fly in the other direction, others insist that they did follow instructions and consider you completely crazy for suggesting otherwise, even though you can point to video evidence of them failing to follow the rules of the experiment, etc.

The Third Trial: Run the trial a third time, this time giving the randomly generated letter to the subject and giving the Laplacian letter to the experimenter. Observe all the trials where the two generate the same number, and interate the experiment until one has fifty trials. Our actual experience tells us that the subject will have a 98% success rate, but our theoretical Laplacian demon tells us that the success rate should be necessarily 0%. Since asserting that the random-number generator and the demon will never have the same response would make the error-rate necessarily disappear and cannot explain our actual experience of failures, the theoretical postulation of a Laplacian demon contradicts our actual experience. Q.E.D.

The post is phrased as a proof that Laplacian demons cannot exist, but in fact Chastek intends it to establish the existence of libertarian free will, which is a quite separate thesis; no one would be surprised if Laplacian demons cannot exist in the real world, but many people would be surprised if people turn out to have libertarian free will.

I explain in the comments there the problem with this argument:

Here is what happens when you set up the experiment. You approach the Laplacian demon and ask him to write the letter that the person is going to choose for the second set of 50 trials.

The demon will respond, “That is impossible. I know the wave function of the universe, and I know that there is no possible set of As and Bs such that, if that is the set written, it will be the set chosen by the person. Of course, I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match.”

In other words, you are right that the experiment is impossible, but this is not reason to believe that Laplacian demons are impossible; it is a reason to believe that it is impossible for anything to write what the person is going to do.

E.g. if your argument works, it proves either that God does not exist, or that he does not know the future. Nor can one object that God’s knowledge is eternal rather than of the future, since it is enough if God can write down what is going to happen, as he is thought to have done e.g. in the text, “A virgin will conceive etc.”

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

As another reality check here, according to St. Thomas a dog is “determinate to one” such that in the same circumstances it will do the same thing. But we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

And still another: a relatively simple robot, programmed in the same way. We don’t need a Laplacian demon, since we can predict ourselves in every circumstance what it will do. But we cannot write that down, since then we would predict the opposite of what we wrote. And it is absolutely irrelevant that the robot is an “instrument,” since the argument does not have any premise saying that human beings are not instruments.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake, and saying, “why did he consistently make a mistake in these cases?” There is no reason; you simply selected those cases.

Chastek responds to this comment in a fairly detailed way. Rather than responding directly to the comment there, I ask him to comment on several scenarios. The first scenario:

If I drop a ball on a table, and I ask you to predict where it is going to first hit the table, and say, “Please predict where it is going to first hit the table, and let me know your prediction by covering the spot with your hand and keeping it there until the trial is over,” is it clear to you that:

a) it will be impossible for you to predict where it is going to first hit in this way, since if you cover a spot it cannot hit there

and

b) this has nothing whatsoever to do with determinism or indeterminism of anything.

The second scenario:

Let’s make up a deterministic universe. It has no human beings, no rocks, nothing but numbers. The wave function of the universe is this: f(x)=x+1, where x is the initial condition and x+1 is the second condition.

We are personally Laplacian demons compared to this universe. We know what the second condition will be for any original condition.

Now give us the option of setting the original condition, and say:

Predict the second condition, and set that as the initial condition. This should lead to a result like (1,1) or (2,2), which contradicts our experience that the result is always higher than the original condition. So the hypothesis that we know the output given the input must be false.

The answer: No. It is not false that we know the output given the input. We know that these do not and cannot match, not because of anything indeterminate, but because the universe is based on the completely deterministic rule that f(x)=x+1, not f(x)=x.

Is it clear:

a) why a Laplacian demon cannot set the original condition to the resulting condition
b) this has nothing to do with anything being indeterminate
c) there is no absurdity in a Laplacian demon for a universe like this

The reason why I presented these questions instead of responding directly to his comments is that his comments are confused, and an understanding of these situations would clear up that confusion. For unclear reasons, Chastek failed to respond to these questions. Nonetheless, I will respond to his detailed comments in the light of the above explanations. Chastek begins:

Here are my responses:

That is impossible… I know what will actually be written, and I know what the person will do. But I also know that those do not and cannot match

But “what will actually be written” is, together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe, an initial condition and “what the person will do” is an outcome. Saying these “can never match” means the demon is saying “the laws of nature do not suffice to go from some this initial condition to one of its outcomes” which is to deny Laplacian demons altogether.

The demon is not saying that the laws of nature do not suffice to go from an initial condition to an outcome. It is saying that “what will actually be written” is part of the initial conditions, and that it is an initial condition that is a determining factor that prevents itself from matching the outcome. In the case of the dropping ball above, covering the spot with your hand is an initial condition, and it absolutely prevents the outcome being that the ball first hits there. In the case of f(x), x is an initial condition, and it prevents the outcome from being x, since it will always be x+1. In the same way, in Chastek’s experiment, what is written is an initial condition which prevents the outcome from being that thing which was written.

If you answer, as you should, that God cannot write what the person will do, but he can know it, the same applies to the Laplacian demon.

When God announces what will happen he can be speaking about what he intends to do, while a LD cannot. I’m also very impressed by John of St. Thomas’s arguments that the world is not only notionally present to God but even physically present within him, which makes for a dimension of his speaking of the future that could never be said of an LD. This is in keeping with the Biblical idea that God not only looks at the world but responds and interacts with it. The character of prophesy is also very different from the thought experiment we’re trying to do with an LD: LD’s are all about what we can predict in advance, but Biblical prophesies do not seem to be overly concerned with what can be predicted in advance, as should be shown from the long history of failed attempts to turn the NT into a predictive tool.

If God says, “the outcome will be A,” and then consistently causes the person to choose A even when the person has hostile intentions, this will be contrary to our experience in the same way that the Laplacian demon would violate our experience if it always got the outcome right. You can respond, “ok, but that’s fine, because we’re admitting that God is a cause, but the Laplacian demon is not supposed to be affecting the outcome.” The problem with the response is that God is supposed to be the cause all of the time, not merely some of the time; so why should he not also say what is going to happen, since he is causing it anyway?

I agree that prophecy in the real world never tells us much detail about the future in fact, and this is verified in all biblical prophecies and in all historical cases such as the statements about the future made by the Fatima visionaries. I also say that even in principle God could not consistently predict in advance a person’s actions, and show him those predictions, without violating his experience of choice, but I say that this is for the reasons given here.

But the point of my objection was not about how prophecy works in the real world. The point was that Catholic doctrine seems to imply that God could, if he wanted, announce what the daily weather is going to be for the next year. It would not bother me personally if this turns out to be completely impossible; but is Chastek prepared to say the same? The real issues with the Laplacian demon are the same: knowing exactly what is going to happen, and to what degree it can announce what it knows.

we can easily train a dog in such a way that no one can possibly write down the levers it will choose, since it will be trained to choose the opposite ones.

Such an animal would follow instructions with some errors, and so would be a fine test subject for my experiment. This is exactly what my subject does in trial #1. I say the same for your robot example.

(ADDED LATER) I’m thankful for this point and developed for reasons given above on the thread.

This seems to indicate the source of the confusion, relative to my examples of covering the place where the ball hits, and the case of the function f(x) = x+1. There is no error rate in these situations: the ball never hits the spot you cover, and f(x) never equals x.

But this is really quite irrelevant. The reason the Laplacian demon says that the experiment is impossible has nothing to do with the error rate, but with the anti-correlation between what is written and the outcome. Consider: suppose in fact you never make a mistake. There is no error rate. Nonetheless, the demon still cannot say what you are going to do, because you always do the opposite of what it says. Likewise, even if the dog never fails to do what it was trained to do, it is impossible for the Laplacian demon to say what it is going to do, since it always does the opposite. The same is true for the robot. In other words, my examples show the reason why the experiment is impossible, without implying that a Laplacian demon is impossible.

We can easily reconstruct my examples to contain an error rate, and nonetheless prediction will be impossible for the same reasons, without implying that anything is indeterminate. For example:

Suppose that the world is such that every tenth time you try to cover a spot, your hand slips off and stops blocking it. I specify every tenth time to show that determinism has nothing to do with this: the setup is completely determinate. In this situation, you are able to indicate the spot where the ball will hit every tenth time, but no more often than that.

Likewise suppose we have f(x) = x+1, with one exception such that f(5) = 5. If we then ask the Laplacian demon (namely ourselves) to provide five x such that the output equals the input, we will not be able to do it in five cases, but we will be able to do it in one. Since this universe (the functional universe) is utterly deterministic, the fact that we cannot present five such cases does not indicate something indeterminate. It just indicates a determinate fact about how the function universe works.

As for the third set, if I understood it correctly you are indeed cherry picking — you are simply selecting the trials where the human made a mistake,

LD’s can’t be mistaken. If they foresee outcome O from initial conditions C, then no mistake can fail to make O come about. But this isn’t my main point, which is simply to repeat what I said to David: cherry picking requires disregarding evidence that goes against your conclusion, but the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.

I said “if I understood it correctly” because the situation was not clearly laid out. I understood the setup to be this: the Laplacian demon writes out fifty letters, A or B, being the letters it sees that I am going to write. It does not show me this series of letters. Instead, a random process outputs a series of letters, A or B, and each time I try to select the opposite letter.

Given this setup, what the Laplacian demon writes always matches what I select. And most of the time, both are the opposite of what was output by the random process. But occasionally I make a mistake, that is, I fail to select the opposite letter, and choose the same letter that the random process chose. In these cases, since the Laplacian demon still knew what was going to happen, the demon’s letter also matches the random process letter, and my letter.

Now, Chastek says, consider only the cases where the demon’s letter is the same as the random process letter. It will turn out that over those cases, I have a 100% failure rate: that is, in every such case I selected the same letter as the random process. According to him, we should consider this surprising, since we would not normally have a 100% failure rate. This is not cherry picking, he says, because “the times when the random number generator and the LD disagree provide no evidence whether LD’s are consistent with our experience of following instructions with some errors.”

The problem with this should be obvious. Let us consider demon #2: he looks at what the person writes, and then writes down the same thing. Is this demon possible? There will be some cases where demon #2 writes down the opposite of what the random process output: those will be the cases where the person did not make a mistake. But there will be other cases where the person makes a mistake. In those cases, what the person writes, and what demon #2 writes, will match the output of the random process. Consider only those cases. The person has a 100% failure rate in those cases. The cases where the random process and demon #2 disagree provide no evidence whether demon #2 is consistent with our experience, so this is not cherry picking. Now it is contrary to our experience to have a 100% failure rate. So demon #2 is impossible.

This result is of course absurd – demon#2 is obviously entirely possible, since otherwise making copies of things would be impossible. This is sufficient to establish that Chastek’s response is mistaken. He is indeed cherry picking: he simply selected the cases where the human made a mistake, and noted that there was a 100% failure rate in those cases.

In other words, we do not need a formal answer to Chastek’s objection to see that there is something very wrong with it; but the formal answer is that the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process do indeed provide some evidence. They question is whether the existence of the demon is consistent with “our experience of following instructions with some errors.” But we cannot have this experience without sometimes following the instructions correctly; being right is part of this experience, just like being wrong. And the cases where the demon disagrees with the random process are cases where we follow the instructions correctly, and such cases provide evidence that the demon is possible.

Just a note, one point I am thankful to EU for is the idea that a trained dog might be a good test subject too. If this is right, then the recursive loop might not be from intelligence as such but the intrinsic indeterminism of nature, which we find in one way through (what Aristotle called) matter being present in the initial conditions and the working of the laws and in another through intelligence. But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology.

I was pointing to St. Thomas in my response with the hope that St. Thomas’s position would at least be seen as reasonable; and there is no question that St. Thomas believes that there is no indeterminism whatsoever in the behavior of a dog. If a dog is in the same situation, he believes, it will do exactly the same thing. In any case, Chastek does not address this, so I will not try at this time to establish the fact of St. Thomas’s position.

The main point is that, as we have already shown, the reason it is impossible to predict what the dog will do has nothing to do with indeterminism, since such prediction is impossible even if the dog is infallible, and remains impossible even if the dog has a deterministic error rate.

The comment, “But space is opened for one with the allowing of the other, since on either account nature has to allow for teleology,” may indicate why Chastek is so insistent in his error: in his opinion, if nature is deterministic, teleology is impossible. This is a mistake much like Robin Hanson’s mistake explained in the previous post. But again I will leave this for later consideration.

I will address one last comment:

I agree the physical determinist’s equation can’t be satisfied for all values, and that what makes it possible is the presence of a sort of recursion. But in the context of the experiment this means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition, but I see no reason why this would be the case. Even if I granted their claim that there was some recursive contradiction, it does not arise merely because the letter is given in advance, since the LD could print out the letter in advance just fine if the initial conditions were, say, a test particle flying though empty space toward button A with enough force to push it.

It is true that the contradiction does not arise just because the Laplacian demon writes down the letter. There is no contradiction even in the human case, if the demon does not show it to the human. Nor does anything contrary to our experience happen in such a case. The case which is contrary to our experience is when the demon shows the letter to the person; and this is indeed impossible on account of a recursive contradiction, not because the demon is impossible.

Consider the case of the test particle flying towards button A: it is not a problem for the demon to write down the outcome precisely because what is written has no particular influence, in this case, on the outcome.

But if “writing the letter” means covering the button, as in our example of covering the spot where the ball will hit, then the demon will not be able to write the outcome in advance. And obviously this will not mean there is any indeterminism.

The contradiction comes about because covering the button prevents the button from being pushed. And the contradiction comes about in the human case in exactly the same way: writing a letter causes, via the human’s intention to follow the instructions, the opposite outcome. Again indeterminism has nothing to do with this: the same thing will happen if the human is infallible, or if the human has an error rate which has deterministic causes.

“This means that the letter on a sheet of paper together with a snapshot of the rest of the universe can never be an initial condition.” No, it means that in some of the cases, namely those where the human will be successful in following instructions, the letter with the rest of the universe cannot be an initial condition where the outcome is the same as what is written. While there should be no need to repeat the reasons for this at this point, the reason is that “what is written” is a cause of the opposite outcome, and whether that causality is deterministic or indeterministic has nothing to do with the impossibility. The letter can indeed be an initial condition: but it is an initial condition where the outcome is the opposite of the letter, and the demon knows all this.

# Age of Em

This is Robin Hanson’s first book. Hanson gradually introduces his topic:

You, dear reader, are special. Most humans were born before 1700. And of those born after, you are probably richer and better educated than most. Thus you and most everyone you know are special, elite members of the industrial era.

Like most of your kind, you probably feel superior to your ancestors. Oh, you don’t blame them for learning what they were taught. But you’d shudder to hear of many of your distant farmer ancestors’ habits and attitudes on sanitation, sex, marriage, gender, religion, slavery, war, bosses, inequality, nature, conformity, and family obligations. And you’d also shudder to hear of many habits and attitudes of your even more ancient forager ancestors. Yes, you admit that lacking your wealth your ancestors couldn’t copy some of your habits. Even so, you tend to think that humanity has learned that your ways are better. That is, you believe in social and moral progress.

The problem is, the future will probably hold new kinds of people. Your descendants’ habits and attitudes are likely to differ from yours by as much as yours differ from your ancestors. If you understood just how different your ancestors were, you’d realize that you should expect your descendants to seem quite strange. Historical fiction misleads you, showing your ancestors as more modern than they were. Science fiction similarly misleads you about your descendants.

As an example of the kind of past difference that Robin is discussing, even in the fairly recent past, consider this account by William Ewald of a trial from the sixteenth century:

In 1522 some rats were placed on trial before the ecclesiastical court in Autun. They were charged with a felony: specifically, the crime of having eaten and wantonly destroyed some barley crops in the jurisdiction. A formal complaint against “some rats of the diocese” was presented to the bishop’s vicar, who thereupon cited the culprits to appear on a day certain, and who appointed a local jurist, Barthelemy Chassenée (whose name is sometimes spelled Chassanée, or Chasseneux, or Chasseneuz), to defend them. Chassenée, then forty-two, was known for his learning, but not yet famous; the trial of the rats of Autun was to establish his reputation, and launch a distinguished career in the law.

When his clients failed to appear in court, Chassenée resorted to procedural arguments. His first tactic was to invoke the notion of fair process, and specifically to challenge the original writ for having failed to give the rats due notice. The defendants, he pointed out, were dispersed over a large tract of countryside, and lived in many villages; a single summons was inadequate to notify them all. Moreover, the summons was addressed only to some of the rats of the diocese; but technically it should have been addressed to them all.

Chassenée was successful in his argument, and the court ordered a second summons to be read from the pulpit of every local parish church; this second summons now correctly addressed all the local rats, without exception.

But on the appointed day the rats again failed to appear. Chassenée now made a second argument. His clients, he reminded the court, were widely dispersed; they needed to make preparations for a great migration, and those preparations would take time. The court once again conceded the reasonableness of the argument, and granted a further delay in the proceedings. When the rats a third time failed to appear, Chassenée was ready with a third argument. The first two arguments had relied on the idea of procedural fairness; the third treated the rats as a class of persons who were entitled to equal treatment under the law. He addressed the court at length, and successfully demonstrated that, if a person is cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may lawfully refuse to obey the writ. And a journey to court would entail serious perils for his clients. They were notoriously unpopular in the region; and furthermore they were rightly afraid of their natural enemies, the cats. Moreover (he pointed out to the court) the cats could hardly be regarded as neutral in this dispute; for they belonged to the plaintiffs. He accordingly demanded that the plaintiffs be enjoined by the court, under the threat of severe penalties, to restrain their cats, and prevent them from frightening his clients. The court again found this argument compelling; but now the plaintiffs seem to have come to the end of their patience. They demurred to the motion; the court, unable to settle on the correct period within which the rats must appear, adjourned on the question sine die, and judgment for the rats was granted by default.

Most of us would assume at once that this is all nothing but an elaborate joke; but Ewald strongly argues that it was all quite serious. This would actually be worthy of its own post, but I will leave it aside for now. In any case it illustrates the existence of extremely different attitudes even a few centuries ago.

In any event, Robin continues:

New habits and attitudes result less than you think from moral progress, and more from people adapting to new situations. So many of your descendants’ strange habits and attitudes are likely to violate your concepts of moral progress; what they do may often seem wrong. Also, you likely won’t be able to easily categorize many future ways as either good or evil; they will instead just seem weird. After all, your world hardly fits the morality tales your distant ancestors told; to them you’d just seem weird. Complex realities frustrate simple summaries, and don’t fit simple morality tales.

Many people of a more conservative temperament, such as myself, might wish to swap out “moral progress” here with “moral regress,” but the point stands in any case. This is related to our discussions of the effects of technology and truth on culture, and of the idea of irreversible changes.

Robin finally gets to the point of his book:

This book presents a concrete and plausible yet troubling view of a future full of strange behaviors and attitudes. You may have seen concrete troubling future scenarios before in science fiction. But few of those scenarios are in fact plausible; their details usually make little sense to those with expert understanding. They were designed for entertainment, not realism.

Perhaps you were told that fictional scenarios are the best we can do. If so, I aim to show that you were told wrong. My method is simple. I will start with a particular very disruptive technology often foreseen in futurism and science fiction: brain emulations, in which brains are recorded, copied, and used to make artificial “robot” minds. I will then use standard theories from many physical, human, and social sciences to describe in detail what a world with that future technology would look like.

I may be wrong about some consequences of brain emulations, and I may misapply some science. Even so, the view I offer will still show just how troublingly strange the future can be.

I greatly enjoyed Robin’s book, but unfortunately I have to admit that relatively few people will in general. It is easy enough to see the reason for this from Robin’s introduction. Who would expect to be interested? Possibly those who enjoy the “futurism and science fiction” concerning brain emulations; but if Robin does what he set out to do, those persons will find themselves strangely uninterested. As he says, science fiction is “designed for entertainment, not realism,” while he is attempting to answer the question, “What would this actually be like?” This intention is very remote from the intention of the science fiction, and consequently it will likely appeal to different people.

Whether or not Robin gets the answer to this question right, he definitely succeeds in making his approach and appeal differ from those of science fiction.

One might illustrate this with almost any random passage from the book. Here are portions of his discussion of the climate of em cities:

As we will discuss in Chapter 18, Cities section, em cities are likely to be big, dense, highly cost-effective concentrations of computer and communication hardware. How might such cities interact with their surroundings?

Today, computer and communication hardware is known for being especially temperamental about its environment. Rooms and buildings designed to house such hardware tend to be climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibration, dust, and electromagnetic field intensity. Such equipment housing protects it especially well from fire, flood, and security breaches.

The simple assumption is that, compared with our cities today, em cities will also be more climate-controlled to ensure stable and low values of temperature, humidity, vibrations, dust, and electromagnetic signals. These controls may in fact become city level utilities. Large sections of cities, and perhaps entire cities, may be covered, perhaps even domed, to control humidity, dust, and vibration, with city utilities working to absorb remaining pollutants. Emissions within cities may also be strictly controlled.

However, an em city may contain temperatures, pressures, vibrations, and chemical concentrations that are toxic to ordinary humans. If so, ordinary humans are excluded from most places in em cities for safety reasons. In addition, we will see in Chapter 18, Transport section, that many em city transport facilities are unlikely to be well matched to the needs of ordinary humans.

Cities today are the roughest known kind of terrain, in the sense that cities slow down the wind the most compared with other terrain types. Cities also tend to be hotter than neighboring areas. For example, Las Vegas is 7 ° Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than are surrounding areas. This hotter city effect makes ozone pollution worse and this effect is stronger for bigger cities, in the summer, at night, with fewer clouds, and with slower wind (Arnfield 2003).

This is a mild reason to expect em cities to be hotter than other areas, especially at night and in the summer. However, as em cities are packed full of computing hardware, we shall now see that em cities will  actually be much hotter.

While the book considers a wide variety of topics, e.g. the social relationships among ems, which look quite different from the above passage, the general mode of treatment is the same. As Robin put it, he uses “standard theories” to describe the em world, much as he employs standard theories about cities, about temperature and climate, and about computing hardware in the above passage.

One might object that basically Robin is positing a particular technological change (brain emulations), but then assuming that everything else is the same, and working from there. And there is some validity to this objection. But in the end there is actually no better way to try to predict the future; despite David Hume’s opinion, generally the best way to estimate the future is to say, “Things will be pretty much the same.”

At the end of the book, Robin describes various criticisms. First are those who simply said they weren’t interested: “If we include those who declined to read my draft, the most common complaint is probably ‘who cares?'” And indeed, that is what I would expect, since as Robin remarked himself, people are interested in an entertaining account of the future, not an attempt at a detailed description of what is likely.

Others, he says, “doubt that one can ever estimate the social consequences of technologies decades in advance.” This is basically the objection I mentioned above.

He lists one objection that I am partly in agreement with:

Many doubt that brain emulations will be our next huge technology change, and aren’t interested in analyses of the consequences of any big change except the one they personally consider most likely or interesting. Many of these people expect traditional artificial intelligence, that is, hand-coded software, to achieve broad human level abilities before brain emulations appear. I think that past rates of progress in coding smart software suggest that at previous rates it will take two to four centuries to achieve broad human level abilities via this route. These critics often point to exciting recent developments, such as advances in “deep learning,” that they think make prior trends irrelevant.

I don’t think Robin is necessarily mistaken in regard to his expectations about “traditional artificial intelligence,” although he may be, and I don’t find myself uninterested by default in things that I don’t think the most likely. But I do think that traditional artificial intelligence is more likely than his scenario of brain emulations; more on this below.

There are two other likely objections that Robin does not include in this list, although he does touch on them elsewhere. First, people are likely to say that the creation of ems would be immoral, even if it is possible, and similarly that the kinds of habits and lives that he describes would themselves be immoral. On the one hand, this should not be a criticism at all, since Robin can respond that he is simply describing what he thinks is likely, not saying whether it should happen or not; on the other hand, it is in fact obvious that Robin does not have much disapproval, if any, of his scenario. The book ends in fact by calling attention to this objection:

The analysis in this book suggests that lives in the next great era may be as different from our lives as our lives are from farmers’ lives, or farmers’ lives are from foragers’ lives. Many readers of this book, living industrial era lives and sharing industrial era values, may be disturbed to see a forecast of em era descendants with choices and life styles that appear to reject many of the values that they hold dear. Such readers may be tempted to fight to prevent the em future, perhaps preferring a continuation of the industrial era. Such readers may be correct that rejecting the em future holds them true to their core values.

But I advise such readers to first try hard to see this new era in some detail from the point of view of its typical residents. See what they enjoy and what fills them with pride, and listen to their criticisms of your era and values. This book has been designed in part to assist you in such a soul-searching examination. If after reading this book, you still feel compelled to disown your em descendants, I cannot say you are wrong. My job, first and foremost, has been to help you see your descendants clearly, warts and all.

Our own discussions of the flexibility of human morality are relevant. The creatures Robin is describing are in many ways quite different from humans, and it is in fact very appropriate for their morality to differ from human morality.

A second likely objection is that Robin’s ems are simply impossible, on account of the nature of the human mind. I think that this objection is mistaken, but I will leave the details of this explanation for another time. Robin appears to agree with Sean Carroll about the nature of the mind, as can be seen for example in this post. Robin is mistaken about this, for the reasons suggested in my discussion of Carroll’s position. Part of the problem is that Robin does not seem to understand the alternative. Here is a passage from the linked post on Overcoming Bias:

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

“I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.”

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

There is a false dichotomy here, and it is the same one that C.S. Lewis falls into when he says, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” And in general it is like the error of the pre-Socratics, that if a thing has some principles which seem sufficient, it can have no other principles, failing to see that there are several kinds of cause, and each can be complete in its own way. And perhaps I am getting ahead of myself here, since I said this discussion would be for later, but the objection that Robin’s scenario is impossible is mistaken in exactly the same way, and for the same reason: people believe that if a “materialistic” explanation could be given of human behavior in the way that Robin describes, then people do not truly reason, make choices, and so on. But this is simply to adopt the other side of the false dichotomy, much like C.S. Lewis rejects the possibility of causes for our beliefs.

One final point. I mentioned above that I see Robin’s scenario as less plausible than traditional artificial intelligence. I agree with Tyler Cowen in this post. This present post is already long enough, so again I will leave a detailed explanation for another time, but I will remark that Robin and I have a bet on the question.

# Wishful Thinking about Wishful Thinking

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

After some discussion of the scientific issue, Harwick explains the relationship he sees between these two questions:

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?

As another example of the tendency Cameron Harwick is discussing, we can consider this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary “just-so stories” got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

It does not take much imagination to see that religion could have “evolved because it bound tribes closer together” without group selection in a technical sense having anything to do with this process. But I will not belabor this point, since Eliezer’s own answer regarding the origin of religion does not exactly keep his own feelings hidden:

So why religion, then?

Well, it might just be a side effect of our ability to do things like model other minds, which enables us to conceive of disembodied minds.  Faith, as an emotion, might just be co-opted hope.

But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don’t see why it’s even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.

Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago.  Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands.  Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock.

Conversely, Huckabee just won Iowa’s nomination for tribal-chieftain.

Why would you need to go anywhere near the accursèd territory of group selectionism in order to provide an evolutionary explanation for religious faith?  Aren’t the individual selection pressures obvious?

I don’t know whether to suppose that (1) people are mapping the question onto the “clash of civilizations” issue in current affairs, (2) people want to make religion out to have some kind of nicey-nice group benefit (though exterminating other tribes isn’t very nice), or (3) when people get evolutionary hypotheses wrong, they just naturally tend to get it wrong by postulating group selection.

Let me give my own extremely credible just-so story: Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote this not fundamentally to make a point about group selection, but because he hates religion, and cannot stand the idea that it might have some benefits. It is easy to see this from his use of language like “nicey-nice,” and his suggestion that the main selection pressure in favor of religion would be likely to be something like being burned at the stake, or that it might just have been a “side effect,” that is, that there was no advantage to it.

But as St. Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Yudkowsky believes that religion is just wishful thinking. But his belief that religion therefore cannot be useful is itself nothing but wishful thinking. In reality religion can be useful just as voluntary beliefs in general can be useful.

# Semi-Parmenidean Heresy

In his book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll describes the view which he calls “poetic naturalism”:

As knowledge generally, and science in particular, have progressed over the centuries, our corresponding ontologies have evolved from quite rich to relatively sparse. To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.

We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons-exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.

That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.

It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.

That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.

There is something essentially pre-Socratic about this thinking. When Carroll talks about “fundamentally different things,” he means things that differ according to their basic elements. But at the same kind the implication is that only things that differ in this way are “fundamentally” different in the sense of being truly or really different. But this is a quite different sense of “fundamental.”

I suggested in the linked post that even Thales might not really have believed that material causes alone sufficiently explained reality. Nonetheless, there was a focus on the material cause as being the truest explanation. We see the same focus here in Sean Carroll. When he says, “There isn’t some primordial shipness,” he is thinking of shipness as something that would have to be a material cause, if it existed.

Carroll proceeds to contrast his position with eliminativism:

One benefit of a rich ontology is that it’s easy to say what is “real”- every category describes something real. In a sparse ontology, that’s not so clear. Should we count only the underlying stuff of the world as real, and all the different ways we have of dividing it up and talking about it as merely illusions? That’s the most hard-core attitude we could take to reality, sometimes called eliminativism, since its adherents like nothing better than to go around eliminating this or that concept from our list of what is real. For an eliminativist, the question “Which Captian Kirk is the real one?” gets answered by, “Who cares? People are illusions. They’re just fictitious stories we tell about the one true world.”

I’m going to argue for a different view: our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world- useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality- deserve to be called “real.”

The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world, according to which we can say things like “There are things called planets, and something called the sun, all of which move through something called space, and planets do something called orbiting the sun, and those orbits describe a particular shape in space called an ellipse.” That’s basically Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, developed after Copernicus argued for the sun being at the center of the solar system but before Isaac Newton explained it all in terms of the force of gravity. Today, we would say that Kepler’s theory is fairly useful in certain circumstances, but it’s not as useful as Newton’s, which in turn isn’t as broadly useful as Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

There are some good things about what Carroll is doing here. He is right of course to insist that the things of common experience are “real.” He is also right to see some relationship between saying that something is real and saying that talking about it is useful, but this is certainly worth additional consideration, and he does not really do it justice.

The problematic part is that, on account of his pre-Socratic tendencies, he is falling somewhat into the error of Parmenides. The error of Parmenides was to suppose that being can be, and can be thought and said, in only one way. Carroll, on account of confusing the various meanings of “fundamental,” supposes that being can be in only one way, namely as something elemental, but that it can be thought and said in many ways.

The problem with this, apart from the falsity of asserting that being can be in only one way, is that no metaphysical account is given whereby it would be reasonable to say that being can be thought and said in many ways, given that it can be in only one way. Carroll is trying to point in that direction by saying that our common speech is useful, so it must be about real things; but the eliminativist would respond, “Useful to whom? The things that you are saying this is useful for are illusions and do not exist. So even your supposed usefulness does not exist.” And Carroll will have no valid response, because he has already admitted to agreeing with the eliminativist on a metaphysical level.

The correct answer to this is the one given by Aristotle. Material causes do not sufficiently explain reality, but other causes are necessary as well. But this means that the eliminativist is mistaken on a metaphysical level, not merely in his way of speaking.

# Parmenides the Eliminativist

While the name “eliminativism” is used particularly with respect to the denial of the reality of consciousness or various mental conditions, we could define it more generally as the tendency to explain something away rather than explaining it. The motive for this would be that someone believes that reality does not have the principles needed in order to explain the thing; so it is necessary for them to explain it away instead. In this way we noted that Daniel Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. Since every being is objective, in his view, reality does not have any principle which could explain something subjective. Therefore it is necessary for him to explain away subjectivity.

If we take eliminativism in this general way, it will turn out that Parmenides is the ultimate eliminativist. According to Parmenides, not only is there nothing but being, but nothing can be distinct from being in any way, even in concept. Thus anything which appears to be conceptually distinct from being, including ourselves and all the objects of our common experience, is nothing but an illusion deluding itself. And ultimately nothing at all, since even illusions cannot be something other than being.

Parmenides comes to this conclusion in the same general way as Dennett, namely because it seems to him that reality cannot have any principle which could explain things as they are. It is evident that there cannot be anything besides being; thus if something seems distinct from being in any way, there is no principle capable of explaining it.

Descartes argued that he can know he exists since he thinks. On the contrary , Parmenides responds: you think, but thinking means something different from being; therefore you are not.

# Science and Certain Theories of Sean Collins

Since at least the time of Descartes, there has come to be a very widespread tendency to see faith as properly the activity of an individual who stands in opposition to a larger, potentially deceptive, world. Faith so conceived is of a piece with individualist notions about the true and the good. At its extreme, the problematic character of faith thus conceived leads some to suppose it can only be an exercise in irrationality. And that is one very common reason why faith, and religion along with it, comes to be  despised.

What needs to be recovered, far away from that extreme, is consciousness of participation as lying at the foundation of all ontology, but in particular at the foundation of what faith is. Faith is knowledge by participation. But what we still tend to have, instead, is an individualist conception even of knowledge itself.

These misconceptions are receding more and more, though, in one very surprising place, namely contemporary science! (It is characteristic of our psychological hypochondria that they recede for us as long as we don’t pay attention to the fact, and thus worry about it.) Everyone uses the expression, “we now know.” “We now know” that our galaxy is but one among many. “We now know” that the blood circulates, and uses hemoglobin to carry oxygen to cells; we now know that there are more than four elements…. One might expect this expression to be disturbing to many people, on account of the contempt for faith I alluded to above; for what the expression refers to is, in fact, a kind of faith within the realm of science. Yet this faith is too manifestly natural for anyone to find it disturbing.  To find it disturbing, one would have to return to the radical neurotic Cartesian individualism, where you sit in a room by yourself and try to deduce all of reality. Most people aren’t devoid of sense enough to do that.

What is especially interesting is that the project of modern science (scientia, knowledge) has itself become obviously too big to continue under the earlier enlightenment paradigm, where we think we must know everything by doing our own experiments and making our own observations. And nobody worries about that fact (at least not as long as “politics,” in the pejorative sense, hasn’t yet entered the picture). Real people understand that there is no reason to worry. They are perfectly content to have faith: that is, to participate in somebody else’s knowledge. An implicit consciousness of a common good in this case makes the individualist conception of faith vanish, and a far truer conception takes its place. This is what real faith — including religious faith — looks like, and it isn’t as different from knowledge or from “reason” as many tend to think.

This is related to our discussion in this previous post, where we pointed out that scientific knowledge has an essential dependence on the work of others, and is not simply a syllogism from first principles that an individual can work out on his own. In this sense, Collins notes, science necessarily involves a kind of faith in the scientific community, past and present, and scientists themselves are not exempt from the need for this faith.

The implication of this is that religious faith should be looked at in much the same way. Religious faith requires faith in a religious community and in revelation from God, and even those in authority in the community are not exempt from the need for this faith. There is no more reason to view this as problematic or irrational than in the case of science.

The science of the scientist is, of itself, just as hidden as the God of the priests and consecrated persons. The great majority of persons have no more direct or distinct experience of God than they have a justified insight into scientific claims, and the way in which they could learn the science for themselves if they only had the time and talent is the same way in which they could become preternaturally holy and achieve the unitive way if they only had the time and talent.  If I, lacking the science, trust your testimony about dark matter or global warming (probably after it’s backed up by anecdotes, a gesture at some data, the social pressure to believe, and my sense that you just sound like a smart guy) then I’m in a cognitive state called faith. Taking a pragmatist approach, we come to know the value of science by its fruits in technology just as we know the value of religion though the holiness of the saints. In good logic, Pinker sees the value that many give to holiness as disordered and mistaken,  but there are all sorts of persons who say the same thing about technology.

The similarity between the title of this post and that of the last is not accidental. Dawkins claims that religious beliefs are similar to beliefs in fairies and werewolves, and his claim is empirically false. Likewise Sean Collins and James Chastek claim that religious beliefs are similar to scientific beliefs, and their claim is empirically false.

As in the case of Dawkins, Collins notes from the beginning this empirical discrepancy. Religious faith is seen as “the activity of an individual who stands in opposition to a larger, potentially deceptive, world,” and consequently it appears irrational to many. “And that is one very common reason why faith, and religion along with it, comes to be  despised.” But note that this does not commonly happen with science, even if in principle one could think in the same way about science, as Chastek points to some critics of technology.

While the empirical differences themselves will have their own causes, we can point to one empirical difference in particular that sufficiently explains the different way that people relate to scientific and religious beliefs.

The principle difference is that people speak of “many religions” in the world in a way in which they definitely do not speak of “many sciences.” If we talk of several sciences, we refer to branches of science, and the corresponding speech about religion would be branches of theology. But “many religions” refers to Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and so on, which contain entirely distinct bodies of theology which are strongly opposed to one another. There is no analog in the case of science. We might be able to find scientific disagreements and even “heresies” like the denial of global warming, but we do not find whole bodies of scientific doctrine about the world which explain the world as a whole and are strongly opposed to one another.

There are many other empirical differences that result from this one difference. People leave their religion and join another, or they give up religion entirely, but you never see people leave their science and join another, or give up science entirely, in the sense of abandoning all scientific beliefs about the world.

This one difference sufficiently explains the suspicion Collins notes regarding religious belief. The size of the discrepancies between religious beliefs implies that many of them are wildly far from reality. And even the religious beliefs that a person might accept are frequently “rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view,” as Rod Dreher notes. In the case of scientific beliefs, we do find some that are somewhat implausible from a relatively neutral point of view, but we do not find the kind of discrepancy which would force us to say that any of them are wildly far from reality.

A prediction that would follow from my account here would be this: if there were only one religion, in the way that there is only one science, people would not view religion with suspicion, and religious faith would actually be seen as very like scientific faith, basically in the way asserted by Sean Collins.

While we cannot test this prediction directly, consider the following text from St. Augustine:

1. I must express my satisfaction, and congratulations, and admiration, my son Boniface, in that, amid all the cares of wars and arms, you are eagerly anxious to know concerning the things that are of God. From hence it is clear that in you it is actually a part of your military valor to serve in truth the faith which is in Christ. To place, therefore, briefly before your Grace the difference between the errors of the Arians and the Donatists, the Arians say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are different in substance; whereas the Donatists do not say this, but acknowledge the unity of substance in the Trinity. And if some even of them have said that the Son was inferior to the Father, yet they have not denied that He is of the same substance; while the greater part of them declare that they hold entirely the same belief regarding the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost as is held by the Catholic Church. Nor is this the actual question in dispute with them; but they carry on their unhappy strife solely on the question of communion, and in the perversity of their error maintain rebellious hostility against the unity of Christ. But sometimes, as we have heard, some of them, wishing to conciliate the Goths, since they see that they are not without a certain amount of power, profess to entertain the same belief as they. But they are refuted by the authority of their own leaders; for Donatus himself, of whose party they boast themselves to be, is never said to have held this belief.

2. Let not, however, things like these disturb you, my beloved son. For it is foretold to us that there must needs be heresies and stumbling-blocks, that we may be instructed among our enemies; and that so both our faith and our love may be the more approved—our faith, namely, that we should not be deceived by them; and our love, that we should take the utmost pains we can to correct the erring ones themselves; not only watching that they should do no injury to the weak, and that they should be delivered from their wicked error, but also praying for them, that God would open their understanding, and that they might comprehend the Scriptures. For in the sacred books, where the Lord Christ is made manifest, there is also His Church declared; but they, with wondrous blindness, while they would know nothing of Christ Himself save what is revealed in the Scriptures, yet form their notion of His Church from the vanity of human falsehood, instead of learning what it is on the authority of the sacred books.

4. For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

5. Whether Cæcilianus was ordained by men who had delivered up the sacred books, I do not know. I did not see it, I heard it only from his enemies. It is not declared to me in the law of God, or in the utterances of the prophets, or in the holy poetry of the Psalms, or in the writings of any one of Christ’s apostles, or in the eloquence of Christ Himself. But the evidence of all the several scriptures with one accord proclaims the Church spread abroad throughout the world, with which the faction of Donatus does not hold communion. The law of God declared, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Genesis 26:4 The Lord said by the mouth of His prophet, “From the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, a pure sacrifice shall be offered unto my name: for my name shall be great among the heathen.” Malachi 1:11 The Lord said through the Psalmist, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” The Lord said by His apostle, “The gospel has come unto you, as it is in all the world, and brings forth fruit.” Colossians 1:6 The Son of God said with His own mouth, “You shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and even unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Acts 1:8 Cæcilianus, the bishop of the Church of Carthage, is accused with the contentiousness of men; the Church of Christ, established among all nations, is recommended by the voice of God. Mere piety, truth, and love forbid us to receive against Cæcilianus the testimony of men whom we do not find in the Church, which has the testimony of God; for those who do not follow the testimony of God have forfeited the weight which otherwise would attach to their testimony as men.

Note the source of St. Augustine’s confidence. It is the “unity of the whole world.” It is “abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world.” The Catholic Church is “established among all nations,” and this is reason to accept it instead of the doctrines of the heretics.

The comparison between religious beliefs and scientific beliefs applies much better to the time of St. Augustine. Even St. Augustine would know that alternate religions exist, but in a similar sense there might have appeared to be potentially many sciences, insofar as science is not at the time a unified body of ideas attempting to explain the world. Thales held that all things are derived from water, while others came out in favor of air or fire.

Nonetheless, even at the time of St. Augustine, there are seeds of the difference. Unknown to St. Augustine, native Americans of the time were certainly practicing entirely different religions. And while I made the comparison between religious heresy and dissent on certain scientific questions above, these in practice have their own differences. Religious heresy of itself contains a seed of schism, and thus the possibility of establishing a new religion. Scientific disagreement even of the kind that might be compared with “heresy,” never leads to the development of a new set of scientific doctrines about the world that can be considered an alternative science.

In contrast, if even religious heresy had not existed, St. Augustine would be entirely right simply to point to the consent of the world. Aristotle frequently points to the agreement of all men as one of the best signs of truth, for example here:

And about all these matters the endeavor must be made to seek to convince by means of rational arguments, using observed facts as evidences and examples. For the best thing would be if all mankind were seen to be in agreement with the views that will be stated, but failing that, at any rate that all should agree in some way. And this they will do if led to change their ground, for everyone has something relative to contribute to the truth, and we must start from this to give a sort of proof about our views; for from statements that are true but not clearly expressed, as we advance, clearness will also be attained, if at every stage we adopt more scientific positions in exchange for the customary confused statements.

And indeed, if there were in this way one religion with which all were in agreement, it is not merely that they would agree in fact, since this is posited, but the agreement of each would have an extremely reasonable foundation. In this situation, it would be quite reasonable to speak of religious faith and scientific faith as roughly equivalent.

In the real world, however, religious beliefs are neither like beliefs in fairies and unicorns, nor like scientific beliefs.

But as Aristotle says, “everyone has something relative to contribute to the truth,” and just as we saw some true elements in Dawkins’s point in the previous post, so there is some truth to the comparisons made by Collins and Chastek. This is in fact part of the reason why Dawkins’s basic point is mistaken. He fails to consider religious belief as a way of participating in a community, and thus does not see a difference from beliefs in werewolves and the like.

# Fairies, Unicorns, Werewolves, and Certain Theories of Richard Dawkins

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins explains his opposition to religion:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to ‘organized religion’. My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical china teapot orbiting the Sun. The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

We have previously discussed the error of supposing that other people’s beliefs are “unsupported by evidence” in the way that the hypothetical china teapot is unsupported. But the curious thing about this passage is that it carries its own refutation. As Dawkins says, the place of religion in the world is very different from the place of belief in fairies, unicorns, and werewolves. These differences are empirical differences in the real world: it is in the real world that people teach their children about religion, but not about orbiting teapots, or in general even about fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The conclusion for Dawkins ought not to be hostility towards religion, then, but rather the conclusion, “These appear to me to be beliefs unsupported by evidence, but this must be a mistaken appearance, since obviously humans relate to these beliefs in very different ways than they do to beliefs unsupported by evidence.”

I would suggest that what is actually happening is that Dawkins is making an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that religions are false, much in the way that P. Edmund Waldstein’s argument for integralism is an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that God has revealed a supernatural end. Both theories simply pay no attention to the real world: in the real world, human beings do not in general know a supernatural end (at least not in the detailed way required by P. Edmund’s theory), and in the real world, human beings do not treat religious beliefs as beliefs unsupported by evidence.

The argument by Dawkins would proceed like this: religions are false. Therefore they are just sets of beliefs that posit numerous concrete claims, like assumptions into heaven, virgin births, and so on, which simply do not correspond to anything at all in the real world. Therefore beliefs in these things should be just like beliefs in other such non-existent things, like fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The basic conclusion is false, and Dawkins points out its falsity himself in the above quotation.

Nonetheless, people do not tend to be so wrong that there is nothing right about what they say, and there is some truth in what Dawkins is saying, namely that many religious beliefs do make claims which are wildly far from reality. Rod Dreher hovers around this point:

A Facebook friend posted to his page:

“Shut up! No way – you’re too smart! I’m sorry, that came out wrong…”

The reaction a good friend and Evangelical Christian colleague had when she found out I’m a Catholic.

Priceless.

I had to laugh at that, because it recalled conversations I’ve been part of (alas) back in the 1990s, as a fresh Catholic convert, in which we Catholics wondered among ourselves why any smart people would be Evangelical. After I told a Catholic intellectual friend back in 2006 that I was becoming Orthodox, he said something to the effect of, “You’re too smart for that.”

It’s interesting to contemplate why we religious people who believe things that are rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view can’t understand how intelligent religious people who believe very different things can possibly hold those opinions. I kept getting into this argument with other conservative Christians when Mitt Romney was running for president. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him because he’s a Mormon, and Mormons believe “crazy” things. Well, yes, from an orthodox Christian point of view, their beliefs are outlandish, but come on, we believe, as they do, that the God of all Creation, infinite and beyond time, took the form of a mortal man, suffered, died, arose again, and ascended into heaven — and that our lives on this earth and our lives in eternity depend on uniting ourselves to Him. And we believe that that same God established a sacred covenant with a Semitic desert tribe, and made Himself known to mankind through His words to them. And so forth. And these are only the basic “crazy things” that we believe! Judge Mormons to be incorrect in their theology, fine, but if you think they are somehow intellectually defective for believing the things they do that diverge from Christian orthodoxy, then it is you who are suffering from a defect of the intellectual imagination.

My point is not to say all religious belief is equally irrational, or that it is irrational at all. I don’t believe that. A very great deal depends on the premises from which you begin. Catholics and Orthodox, for example, find it strange that so many Evangelicals believe that holding to the Christian faith requires believing that the Genesis story of a seven-day creation must be taken literally, such that the world is only 7,000 years old, and so forth. But then, we don’t read the Bible as they do. I find it wildly implausible that they believe these things, but I personally know people who are much more intelligent than I am who strongly believe them. I wouldn’t want these folks teaching geology or biology to my kids, but to deny their intelligence would be, well, stupid.

I suspect that Dreher has not completely thought through the consequences of these things, and most likely he would not want to. For example, he presumably thinks that his own Christian beliefs are not irrational at all. So are the Mormon beliefs slightly irrational, or also not irrational at all? If Mormon beliefs are false, they are wildly far off from reality. Surely there is something wrong with beliefs that are wildly far off from reality, even if you do not want to use the particular term “irrational.” And presumably claims that are very distant from reality should not be supported by vast amounts of strong evidence, even if unlike Dawkins you admit that some evidence will support them.

# Pope Antiochus Epiphanes

From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.

In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

This led to the persecution discussed in the last past.

It is not difficult to find analogies with the Jewish attitude described there, that one should not depart from one’s traditions in any detail, neither to the right nor to the left. This compares pretty well, for example, with the attitudes of many Catholic traditionalists today. Simply consider this post the other day by Steve Skojec:

OnePeterFive exists because we have a vision for the Church. It is a vision not of our own making, but one that has been inherited from our forebears in the Faith. We look back over the continuity of 20 centuries. We observe the struggles, the heartache, even the martyrdom — but also the accomplishments, the civilization-building prowess, the glory and honor of Christendom. Our motto here seems simple, but it entails a great deal. How do we “rebuild Catholic Culture and restore Catholic Tradition?”

One painstaking day at a time.

We confront what is happening in the Church because we know this is not how it should be. We know, by reviewing times past, what the Church could be again. Catholicism is the greatest thing that has ever happened to the world — first and foremost, through the unique and exclusive salvific graces Our Holy Mother Church provides to mankind — but also through her influences on art, music, law, governance, science, education, and everything that makes civilization possible. And we know that the Church can be — that it will be — the guiding force of the world again.

Every day, we get up and ask God for help and guidance in this overwhelming task. We brace ourselves as we survey the devastated visage of this crowning achievement of human history. We look for the evil lurking in the shadows, and we shine the light. We look for the good that is, or was, and we begin the process of restoration and recovery.

We do this work because we love the Catholic Church, and we want to see it made great again. Because we believe that nothing is more important than returning the Church’s focus to her most important mission: the salvation of souls — knowing that all these other things will flow naturally from the first.

There are some differences, of course. The purposes seem to be different, insofar as Steve says that the purpose is “the salvation of souls,” while Mattathias says that the purpose is to “live by the covenant of our ancestors.” And Steve is interested in restoration and rebuilding, while Mattathias wants to preserve what is already present, or at least was recently present, in his community. But the fundamental orientation is the same: it is such and such a concrete culture, as a whole and in every detail, that must be preserved, or if no longer present, restored. One should depart from that culture neither to the right nor to the left.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium discusses his intentions:

25. I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences. I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration” can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be “permanently in a state of mission”.

26. Paul VI invited us to deepen the call to renewal and to make it clear that renewal does not only concern individuals but the entire Church. Let us return to a memorable text which continues to challenge us. “The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself, ponder the mystery of her own being… This vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her and loved her as his holy and spotless bride (cf. Eph 5:27), and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today… This is the source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: the struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns”. The Second Vatican Council presented ecclesial conversion as openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ: “Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling… Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth”.

There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective.

An ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred

27. I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.

If we do not read carefully, and if we were completely ignorant of the conditions of the real world, this could seem pretty consistent with Steve Skojec’s remarks. The Pope wants “renewal,” while Steve wants “rebuilding” and “restoration.” The Pope says that the Church should be faithful to her calling, and it is hard to see Steve disagreeing with that.

Nonetheless, a more careful reading, and knowledge of the real world, leads one rather to say that we have here virtually the most violent opposition possible. Pope Francis in fact more or less foresees the difference between the careless and careful readings when he says, “I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences.”

The basic difference is this: for Steve, renewal would consist in rebuilding and restoring. What Pope Francis wants, as Steve would consider it, would consist in tearing down and destroying. This is made clear most of all when the Pope says that the Church needs an impulse “capable of transforming everything,” in such way that things are “channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her [the Church’s] self-preservation.”

Steve might agree that everything needs to be transformed. But definitely not in the way that the Pope wants it transformed, but rather in the way the Pope rejects in the phrase, “rather than for her self-preservation.”

What does Pope Francis mean by this? It is easy to see that the Pope wants to preserve the existence of the Church, and in fact is proposing a means to accomplish it. Earlier in the text, the Pope says:

Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.

The Church is to be preserved by transforming everything in such a way that it becomes attractive to those outside, who will then enter it for the sake of the joy and the beauty they see. Once again, Steve Skojec might find himself mainly in agreement, but the disagreement is about what kind of transformation is needed. For Steve, we need to rebuild what already was in the past. For the Pope, we have to leave that behind forever. This is actually why he rejects “self-preservation,” even while proposing a means for the Church to preserve itself. His real rejection is a rejection of preserving what was in the past.

The Pope is not wrong that the Church has often been harmed in the past by a “self-preserving” attitude, as for example in the case we discussed concerning the text of St. John. But it does not follow that the Pope’s proposal to “transform everything” is necessarily a good idea either. In any case, we can leave this for another time.

The disagreement at least is clear. Steve wishes to rebuild and restore all that was; the Pope wishes to abandon all of that, and transform everything in a completely new way. This is why I said that there is really the most violent opposition possible here. For the traditionalist, the intentions of Pope Francis are like the intentions of Antiochus Epiphanes in the passage above: the elimination of the previously existing culture and its replacement with something new.

The natural consequence of this situation is this kind of talk about persecution.

# Neither to the Right nor to the Left

Consider this passage from 1st Maccabees, previously discussed here and here:

The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

As I said earlier, the main thing here is not to say that “our religious beliefs are true,” but fidelity to “the covenant of our ancestors.” We can note also the mention of “the law and the ordinances,” which is not mainly about what is true, but about what should be done.

This idea of fidelity to the ancestors appears to have been a fairly typical attitude of the Jewish people throughout history, perhaps explaining why they managed to remain a fairly coherent people even while deprived of a country for many centuries. This is unusual but not unique.

The entire house of Israel are commanded regarding the sanctification of [God’s] great name, as [Leviticus 22:32] states: “And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.” Also, they are warned against desecrating [His holy name], as [the above verse] states: “And they shall not desecrate My holy name.”

What is implied? Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah‘s commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because [Leviticus 18:5] states concerning the mitzvot: “which a man will perform and live by them.” [They were given so that] one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.

When does the above apply? With regard to other mitzvot, with the exception of the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. However, with regard to these three sins, if one is ordered: “Transgress one of them or be killed,” one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress.

When does the above apply? When the gentile desires his own personal benefit – for example, he forces a person to build a house or cook food for him on the Sabbath, he rapes a woman, or the like. However, if his intention is solely to have him violate the mitzvot, [the following rules apply:] If he is alone and there are not ten other Jews present, he should transgress and not sacrifice his life. However, if he forces him [to transgress] with the intention that he violate [a mitzvah] in the presence of ten Jews, he should sacrifice his life and not transgress. [This applies] even if [the gentile] intended merely that he violate only one of the [Torah’s] mitzvot.

All the above [distinctions] apply [only in times] other than times of a decree. However, in times of a decree – i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot – one should sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot, whether one is compelled [to transgress] amidst ten [Jews] or one is compelled [to transgress merely] amidst gentiles.

The basic idea is that ordinary situations and in unimportant matters, it is better to violate the law than to be killed, but one must be willing to be killed in order to avoid violating the law in important ways, which Maimonides specifies as “the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder.”

But in two situations, he says, you must be willing to die for any law or custom whatsoever, no matter how small: when a gentile is trying to make you violate the law before other Jews simply for the sake of scandal, or when an oppressor attempts to suppress the Jewish faith, laws or customs.

This would not be understood only to refer to violations of things commanded in Scripture, but to any Jewish custom whatsoever. For example, the Talmud says:

When R. Dimi came, he said: This was taught only if there is no royal decree, but if there is a royal decree, one must incur martyrdom rather than transgress even a minor precept. When Rabin came, he said in R. Johanan’s name: Even without a royal decree, it was only permitted in private; but in public one must be martyred even for a minor precept rather than violate it. What is meant by a ‘minor precept’? — Raba son of R. Isaac said in Rab’s name: Even to change one’s shoe strap.

The example of a “minor precept” is that if the Jews of a certain time and place wear sandals or shoes that differ from those of the gentiles, one must be prepared to suffer martyrdom rather than change even the details of one’s shoes, at least in the two situations discussed above.

Consider two facts:

1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religious people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

Look, Robin is saying, maybe you think that religions aren’t true. But the fact is that it isn’t very plausible that you care that much about truth anyway. So why not be religious anyway, regardless of the truth, since there are known benefits to this?

A few days after the above post, Robin points out some evidence that stories tend to distort a person’s beliefs about the world, and then says:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

We have discussed in an earlier post some of the reasons why stories can distort a person’s opinions about the world.

It is very plausible to me that Robin’s proposed explanation, namely status seeking, does indeed exercise a great deal of influence among his target audience. But this would not tend to be a very conscious process, and would likely be expressed consciously in other ways. A more likely conscious explanation would be this representative comment from one of Robin’s readers:

There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

The basic argument would be that if a non-religious person simply decides to be religious, he is choosing to believe something he thinks to be false, which is against the love of truth. But if the person reads a story, he is not choosing to believe anything he thinks to be false, so he is not going against the love of truth.

For Robin, the two situations are roughly equivalent, because there are known reasons why reading fiction will distort one’s beliefs about the world, even if we do not know in advance the particular false beliefs we will end up adopting, or the particular false beliefs that we will end up thinking more likely, or the true beliefs that we might lose or consider less likely.

But there is in fact a difference. This is more or less the difference between accepting the real world and accepting the world of Omelas. In both cases evils are accepted, but in one case they are accepted vaguely, and in the other clearly and directly. In a similar way, it would be difficult for a person to say, “I am going to start believing this thing which I currently think to be false, in order to get some benefit from it,” and much easier to say, “I will do this thing which will likely distort my beliefs in some vague way, in order to get some benefit from it.”

When accepting evil for the sake of good, we are more inclined to do it in this vague way in general. But this is even more the case when we trade away truth in particular for the sake of other things. In part this is precisely because of the more apparent absurdity of saying, “I will accept the false as true for the sake of some benefit,” although Socrates would likely respond that it would be equally absurd to say, “I will do the evil as though it were good for the sake of some benefit.”

Another reason why this is more likely, however, is that it is easier for a person to tell himself that he is not giving up any truth at all; thus the author of the comment quoted above asserted that reading fiction does not lead to any false beliefs whatsoever. This is related to what I said in the post here: trading the truth for something else, even vaguely, implies less love of truth than refusing the trade, and consequently the person may not care enough to accurately discern whether or not they are losing any truth.