This post will have two kinds of readers:
1) The few who have read the posts on this blog from the beginning, in chronological order, and who are now reading this one simply because it is the only one you have not read yet.
2) The vast majority who did not do the above.
For the first category, I don’t have any particular suggestion at the moment. Well done. That is the right way of reading this blog.
For the second category, you would do much better to stop right here in the middle of this post (without even finishing it), go back to the beginning, and read every post in chronological order.
So you are now in the first category? No? Since obviously you did not take my advice, let me explain both why you should, and why you will not.
It is possible to understand something through arguments, even if manipulating symbols may be an even more common result. And since conclusions follow from premises, you can only do this by thinking about the premises first, and the conclusions second. Since my own interest is in understanding things, I intentionally organize the blog in this way. Of course, since the concrete historical process of an individual coming to understand some particular thing is messier and more complicated than a single argument or even than multiple arguments, the order isn’t an exact representation of my own history or someone else’s potential history. But it is certainly closer to that than any other order of reading would be.
You will object that you do not have the time to read 300 blog posts. Fine. But then why do you have time to read this one? Even if you are definitely committed to reading a small number of posts, you would do better to read a small number from the beginning. If you are committed to reading not more than one post a week, you would do better to read the 300 posts over the next six years, rather than reading the posts that are current.
You might think of other similar objections, but they will all fail in similar ways. If you are actually interested in understanding something from your reading, chronological order is the right order.
Of course, other blog authors might well argue in similar ways, but the number of people who actually do this, on any blog, is tiny. Instead, people read a few recent posts, and perhaps a few others if there are a chain of links that lead them there. But they do not, in the vast majority of cases, read from the beginning, whether to read all or only a part.
So let me explain why you will not take this advice, despite the fact that it is irrefutably correct. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler remark in a chapter on conversation:
This view of talking—as a way of showing off one’s “backpack”—explains the puzzles we encountered earlier, the ones that the reciprocal-exchange theory had trouble with. For example, it explains why we see people jockeying to speak rather than sitting back and “selfishly” listening—because the spoils of conversation don’t lie primarily in the information being exchanged, but rather in the subtextual value of finding good allies and advertising oneself as an ally. And in order to get credit in this game, you have to speak up; you have to show off your “tools.”
But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information.
Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.
Hanson and Simler are trying to explain various characteristics of conversation, such as the fact that people are typically more interested in speaking than in listening, as well as the requirement that conversational participants “stick to the topic.”
Later, they associate this with people’s interest in news:
Why have humans long been so obsessed with news? When asked to justify our strong interest, we often point to the virtues of staying apprised of the important issues of the day. During a 1945 newspaper strike in New York, for example, when the sociologist Bernard Berelson asked his fellow citizens, “Is it very important that people read the newspaper?” almost everyone answered with a “strong ‘yes,’ ” and most people cited the “ ‘serious’ world of public affairs.”
Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.
There are other clues that we aren’t mainly using the news to be good citizens (despite our high-minded rhetoric). For example, voters tend to show little interest in the kinds of information most useful for voting, including details about specific policies, the arguments for and against them, and the positions each politician has taken on each policy. Instead, voters seem to treat elections more like horse races, rooting for or against different candidates rather than spending much effort to figure out who should win. (See Chapter 16 for a more detailed discussion on politics.)
These patterns in behavior may be puzzling when we think of news as a source of useful information. But they make sense if we treat news as a larger “conversation” that extends our small-scale conversation habits. Just as one must talk on the current topic in face-to-face conversation, our larger news conversation also maintains a few “hot” topics—a focus so strong and so narrow that policy wonks say that there’s little point in releasing policy reports on topics not in the news in the last two weeks. (This is the criterion of relevance we saw earlier.)
The argument here suggests that blog readers will tend to prefer reading current posts to old ones because this is to remain more “relevant,” and that such relevance is necessary in order to impress other conversational participants. This, I suggest, is why you will not take my advice, despite its rightness. If you think this is an insulting explanation, just bear in mind that blog authors are even more insulted by Hanson’s and Simler’s explanations, since the reader at least is listening.
In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:
The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.
And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”
If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.
The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.
Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.
But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:
I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.
No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.
Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.
It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.
I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.
Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….
There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.
The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.
It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.
People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:
Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?
That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.
In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.
Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.
As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.
Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:
From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.
So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.
But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.
This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.
What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.
But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.
But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.
Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.
There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:
First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.
Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.
Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.
But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.
But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.
And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.
We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:
So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.
In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.
To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.
As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.
In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.
In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.
But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.
But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.
So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.
In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.
Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.
Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.
As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:
I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.
Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.
But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.
While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.
However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?
Shulem Deen begins his memoir of the above name:
I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.
But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.
The call came on a Sunday evening, while Gitty and I were having dinner with our children.
“Shulem, this is Yechiel Spitzer,” a deep male voice said, and then paused. “Can you be at the dayan’s office for a meeting at ten?”
I wasn’t entirely surprised by the call. I had heard from friends that word was getting around the village: Shulem Deen has become a heretic.
If heresy was a sin in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, New York, it was not an ordinary one. Unlike the yeshiva student who ordered a taxicab each night to get away for an hour of karate lessons, or the girl spotted wearing a skirt that didn’t fully cover her knees, or the schoolteacher who complained of the rebbe’s lengthy Sabbath noon prayers, heresy was a sin our people were unaccustomed to. Heresy was a sin that baffled them. In fact, real heresy, the people in our village believed, did not happen in our time, and certainly not in our village, and so when they heard there was a heretic in their midst, they were not sure what to make of it.
The meeting itself is not the most pleasant:
“We have heard rumors,” Mendel began. “We have heard rumors and we don’t know if they’re true, but you understand, rumors alone are bad.”
He paused and looked at me, as if expecting me to show agreement of some sort.
“People say you’re an apikorus. People say you don’t believe in God.” He raised his shoulders to his ears, spread his palms, and opened his eyes wide. “How does one not believe in God? I don’t know.” He said this as if he were genuinely curious. Mendel was an intelligent man, and here was a question that, given the time and inclination, one might seek to discuss. But now was not the time, and so he went on to tell me more about what people were saying.
I was speaking ill of the rebbe.
I was no longer praying.
I disparaged the Torah and the teachings of our sages.
I was corrupting other people. Young people. Innocent people.
In fact, people were saying that I had corrupted a yeshiva boy just last week. Corrupted him so badly that the boy left his parents’ home, and— Mendel didn’t know if this was true, but so people were saying— went to live with goyim in Brooklyn. It was rumored that the boy planned to attend college.
People were saying, Mendel further informed me, that something must be done. People were very concerned, and people were saying that the bezdin must act.
“If people are saying that the bezdin must act, you understand, we can’t very well do nothing.”
Yechiel Spitzer, sitting at the very end of the table, twirled a few hairs beneath his lower lip and absentmindedly placed one hair between his front teeth. The three rabbis sat with their eyes downcast.
“You understand,” Mendel went on, “that this is not about causing pain to you or your family.”
Here he paused and looked at the dayan, before putting his palms flat on the table and looking at me directly.
“We have come to the conclusion that you must leave the village.”
I was being expelled, though in those moments, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. My initial thought was to defend myself, to declare it all lies, hateful gossipmongering. But the truth was, I no longer belonged here. This was a community of the faithful, and I was no longer one of them.
How did things come to this point? To those who are curious, I recommend the book. However, Shulem remarks on this matter:
“What made you change?” people would ask in later years, and the question would frustrate me because the things that made me change were so many and varied that they felt simply as life feels: not a single moment of transformation but a process, a journey of inquiry and discovery, of beliefs and challenges to those beliefs, of uncomfortable questions and attempts to do away with them, by brute force if necessary, only to find that that was not possible, that the search was too urgent and necessary and giving up was not an option. Yet I found no neat answers but only muddled and contradictory ones, until hope gave way to disillusion, which would in turn give way to hope once again, but dimmer and weaker each time, until I would swing back to confusion and disillusion in an endlessly maddening cycle.
Overall, the process is so gradual that he does not even remember a definite moment of changing his mind, but only remembers the realization that he has already done so:
I remember that I was in the dining room, and through the thin walls I could hear Gitty busy in the kitchen: “Akiva, finish your toast,” “Freidy, stop bothering the baby and get dressed,” “Tziri, brush your hair and get your backpack.” The sounds all blended together. One by one, each of the children recited the morning blessings, groaned about unfinished homework assignments, lost shoes, misplaced hair accessories. I swung my prayer shawl over my shoulders, whipped up my sleeve, and wrapped the leather straps of my tefillin around my arm. And as I stood there, the black leather cube on my left arm bulging against the sleeve of my starched white shirt, my body enveloped in the large, white, black-striped shawl, the thought came to me:
I no longer believe in any of this.
I am a heretic. An apikorus.
For a long time, I had tried to deny it. A mere sinner has hope: An Israelite, although he has sinned, is still an Israelite, the Talmud says. But a heretic is lost forever. All who go do not return. The Torah scroll he writes is to be burned. He is no longer counted in a prayer quorum, his food is not considered kosher, his lost objects are not returned to him, he is unfit to testify in court. An outcast, he wanders alone forever, belonging neither to his own people nor to any other.
It was at that moment, sometime between fastening the knot of my tefillin against my occipital bone and racing through whatever chapters of prayer I still chose to recite, that I realized that my heresy was simply a fact about myself, no different from my brown eyes or my pale skin.
Earlier we discussed the possibility of changing your mind without realizing that you have done so, and there is no reason that this cannot apply even to things as important as religion. This seems to have happened in Shulem’s case, although of course he was aware of the process in a general way, as can be seen in the previous quotation.
If a person is raised in a religion from childhood, and taught to adhere very strongly to that religion, then given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly, he will almost inevitably go through a process much like the one described by Shulem Deen, even if it may have a different ending.
This will happen almost always, without regard to how much truth there is in the religion, or how much truth is lacking there. For at least in the devout cases of which we speak, the parents will teach the child that their religion is very certainly true, and it is unlikely that they will go out of their way to present arguments and evidence against it. And if they do present such arguments and evidence, they are likely to present them in the least favorable way, rather than in the most favorable way. None of this is very surprising, nor does it have much to do with religion in particular, but is simply the way that people generally present their opinions to others. But it follows from all this that the child is not given a balanced view of the evidence relative to his religion, but one which makes the evidence seem more favorable than it actually is. As was said, this would be likely to happen even if the religion in question were entirely true.
The consequence is that once the person begins to get a more balanced grasp on the evidence, which will be the natural result of living in the world, they will begin to see that their religion was less certain than they supposed it to be.
This will happen even in the case of very devout people who are entirely enveloped, as it were, in the belief and life of their own religious community, and who seem to have virtually no contact with unbelievers or their reasons. Thus for example St. Therese, in her autobiography, speaks of the conflict between her belief in heaven and her doubts about it:
I was saying that the certainty of going away one day far from the sad and dark country had been given me from the day of my childhood. I did not believe this only because I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I, but I felt in the bottom of my heart real longings for this most beautiful country. Just as the genius of Christopher Columbus gave him a presentiment of a new world when nobody had even thought of such a thing; so also I felt that another land would one day serve me as a permanent dwelling place. Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”
St. Therese mentions two things favorable to the existence of heaven: her own desire to go there, and the fact that “I heard it from persons much more knowledgeable than I.” No particular reason is given supporting the denial of heaven, except the “voice of sinners,” which corresponds in a certain way to one of her positive reasons, since St. Therese is aware that many of the sinners in question are also much more knowledgeable than she is. While not explained clearly in her autobiography, she stated verbally a few months before her death:
“If you only knew what frightful thoughts obsess me! Pray very much for me in order that I do not listen to the devil who wants to persuade me about so many lies. It’s the reasoning of the worst materialists which is imposed upon my mind: Later, unceasingly making new advances, science will explain everything naturally; we shall have the absolute reason for everything that exists and that still remains a problem, because there remain very many things to be discovered, etc., etc.”
Why is it such a bad thing to explain everything? Her fear, of course, is that the explanation will imply that there is no life after death.
Of course the arguments implied here, on one side and the other, are not very complicated or technical, because St. Therese is not a scholar. And although she may be able to see some reasons supporting their position to some extent, as in this case the progress of science, to a large extent her doubts are simply caused by opposing authorities: people more intelligent than she who do not believe what she believes. In this sense, St. Therese is a clear example of the point under discussion, where someone raised to hold to their religion with great certainty, comes to be less certain of it when they realize that the evidence is not all on one side.
Nonetheless, St. Therese is evidently not attempting to weigh the evidence on one side and the other, in order to decide which side is more likely to be true. She writes, again in her autobiography:
My dear Mother, I may perhaps appear to you to be exaggerating my trial. In fact, if you are judging according to the sentiments I express in my little poems composed this year, I must appear to you as a soul filled with consolations and one for whom the veil of faith is almost torn aside; and yet it is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE. It is true that at times a very small ray of the sun comes to illumine my darkness, and then the trial ceases for an instant, but afterward the memory of this ray, instead of causing me joy, makes my darkness even more dense.
This should be understood in the sense of voluntary belief. While St. Therese feels the weight of opposing reasons, she chooses to accept one side regardless. In that sense, she does not need to find an exact measure of the weight of the reasons for one side or the other, because her mind is already made up: regardless of how things stand exactly, she will still choose to believe.
One difference between St. Therese and Shulem Deen, then, is that while St. Therese had an experience somewhat similar to his, she chooses to prevent this process from leading to unbelief. In his case, in contrast, there may not have been any particular distinct moment of choice one way or another, according to his description.
If we return to our child, however, there are a number of other possible results. We will discuss these in a future post.
This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.
“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”
It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolution. James Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.
The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:
(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…
…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).
Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.
Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.
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In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”
There are a number of problems with this attitude.
First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.
Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.
Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,
In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.
All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.
Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.
As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.
I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.
Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.
The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,
Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.
Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.
One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.
But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:
Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.
The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.
St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.
I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.
But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:
When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.
For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.
It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.
There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.
But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”
This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.
In that spirit, happy Easter to all!