Prayer and Probability

The reader might wonder about the relation between the previous post and my discussion of Arman Razaali. If I could say it is more likely that he was lying than that the thing happened as stated, why shouldn’t they believe the same about my personal account?

In the first place there is a question of context. I deliberately took Razaali’s account randomly from the internet without knowing anything about him. Similarly if someone randomly passes through and reads the previous post without having ready anything else on this blog, it would not be unreasonable for them to think I might have just made it up. But if someone has read more here they probably have a better estimate of my character. (If you have read more and still think I made it up, well, you are a very poor judge of character and there is not much I can do about that.)

Second, I did not say he was lying. I said it was more likely than the extreme alternative hypothesis that the thing happened exactly as stated and that it happened purely by chance. And given later events (namely his comment here), I do not think he was lying at all.

Third, the probabilities are very different.

“Calculating” the probability

What is the probability of the events I described happening purely by chance? The first thing to determine is what we are counting when we say that something has a chance of 1/X, whatever X is. Out of X cases, the thing should happen about once. In the Razaali case, ‘X’ would be something like “shuffling a deck of cards for 30 minutes and ending up with the deck in the original order.” That should happen about once, if you shuffle and check your deck of cards about 10^67 times.

It is not so easy to say what you are counting if you are trying to determine the probability of a coincidence. And one factor that makes this feel weirder and less probable is that since a coincidence involves several different things happening, you tend to think about it as though there were an extra difficulty in each and every one of the things needing to happen. But in reality you should take one of them as a fixed fact and simply ask about the probability of the other given the fixed thing. To illustrate this, consider the “birthday problem“: in a group of 23 people, the chance that two of them will have the same birthday is over 50%. This “feels” too high; most people would guess that the chance would be lower. But even without doing the math, one can begin to see why this is so by thinking through a few steps of the problem. 22 days is about 6% of the days in a year; so if we take one person, who has a birthday on some day or other, there will be about a 6% chance that one of the other people have the same birthday. If none of them do, take the second person; the chance one of the remaining 21 people will have the same birthday as them will still be pretty close to 6%, which gets us up to almost 12% (it doesn’t quite add up in exactly this way, but it’s close). And we still have a lot more combinations to check. So you can already start to see that how easy it will turn out to be to get up to 50%. In any case, the basic point is that the “coincidence” is not important; each person has a birthday, and we can treat that day as fixed while we compare it to all the others.

In the same way, if you are asking about the probability that someone prays for a thing, and then that thing happens (by chance), you don’t need to consider the prayer as some extra factor — it is enough to ask how often the thing in question happens, and that will tell you your chance. If someone is looking for a job and prays a novena for this intention, and receives a job offer immediately afterwards, the chance will be something like “how often a person looking for a job receives a job offer.” For example, if it takes five months on average to get a job when you are looking, the probability of receiving an offer on a random day should be about 1/150; so out 150 people praying novenas for a job while engaged in a job search, about 1 of them should get an offer immediately afterwards.

What would have counted as “the thing happening” in the personal situation described in the last post? There are a number of subjective factors here, and depending on how one looks at it, especially depending on the detail with which the situation is described. For example, as I said in the last post, it is normal to think of the “answer” to novena on the last day or the day after — so if a person praying for a job receives an offer on either of those days, they will likely consider it just as much of an answer. This means the estimate of 1/150 is really too low; it should really be 1/75. And given that many people would stretch out the period (in which they would count the result as an answer) to as much as a week, we could make the odds as high as 1/21. Looking loosely at other details could similarly improve the odds; e.g. if receiving an interview invitation that later leads to a job is included, the odds would be even higher.

But since we are considering whether the odds might be as bad as 1/10^67, let’s assume we include a fair amount of detail. What are the odds that on a specific day a stranger tells someone that “Our Lady wants you to become a religious and she is afraid that you are going astray,” or words to that effect?

The odds here should be just as objective as the odds with the cards — there should be a real number here — for reasons explained elsewhere, but unfortunately unlike the cards, we have nowhere near enough experience to get a precise number. Nonetheless it is easy to see that various details about the situation made it actually more likely than it would be for a perfectly random person. Since I had a certain opinion of my friend’s situation, that makes it far more likely than chance that other people aware of the situation would have a similar opinion. And although we are talking about a “stranger” here, that stranger was known to a third party that knew my friend, and we have no way of knowing what, if anything, might have passed through that channel.

If we arbitrarily assume that one in a million people in similar situations (i.e. where other people have similar opinions about them) hear such a thing at some point in their lives, and assume that we need to hit one particular day out of 50 years here, then we can “calculate” the chance: 1 / (365 * 50 * 1,000,000), or about 1 in 18 billion. To put it in counting terms, 1 in 18 billion novenas like this will result in the thing happening by chance.

Now it may be that one in a million persons is too high (although if anything it may also be too low; the true value may be more like 1 / 100,000, making the overall probability 1 / 180 million). But it is easy to see that there is no reasonable way that you can say this is as unlikely as shuffling a deck of cards and getting it in the original order.

The Alternative Hypothesis

A thing that happens once in 18 billion person days is not so rare that you would expect such things to never occur (although you would expect them to most likely not happen to you). Nonetheless, you might want to consider whether there is some better explanation than chance.

But a problem arises immediately: it is not clear that the alternative makes it much more likely. After all, I was very surprised by these events when they happened, even though at the time I did attribute an explicitly religious explanation. Indeed, Fr. Joseph Bolin argues that you should not expect prayer to increase the chances of any event. But if this is the case, then the odds of it happening will be the same given the religious explanation as given the chance explanation. Which means the event would not even be evidence for the religious explanation.

In actual fact, it is evidence for the religious explanation, but only because Fr. Joseph’s account is not necessarily true. It could be true that when one prays for something sufficiently rare, the chance of it happening increases by a factor of 1,000; the cases would still be so rare that people would not be likely to discover this fact.

Nonetheless, the evidence is much weaker than a probability of 1 in 18 billion would suggest, namely because the alternative hypothesis does not prevent the events from remaining very unlikely. This is an application of the discussion here, where I argued that “anomalous” evidence should not change your opinion much about anything. This is actually something the debunkers get right, even if they are mistaken about other things.

A Correction Regarding Laplace

A few years ago, I quoted Stanley Jaki on an episode supposedly involved Laplace:

Laplace shouted, “We have had enough such myths,” when his fellow academician Marc-Auguste Pictet urged, in the full hearing of the Académie des Sciences, that attention be given to the report about a huge meteor shower that fell at L’Aigle, near Paris, on April 26, 1803.

I referred to this recently on Twitter. When another user found it surprising that Laplace would have said this, I attempted to track it down, and came to the conclusion that this very account is a “myth” itself, in some sense. Jaki tells the same story in different words in the book Miracles and Physics:

The defense of miracles done with an eye on physics should include a passing reference to meteorites. Characteristic of the stubborn resistance of scientific academies to those strange bits of matter was Laplace’s shouting, “We’ve had enough of such myths,” when Pictet, a fellow academician, urged a reconsideration of the evidence provided by “lay-people” as plain eyewitnesses.

(p. 94)

Jaki provides no reference in God and the sun at Fatima. The text in Miracles and Physics has a footnote, but it provides generic related information that does not lead back to any such episode.

Did Jaki make it up? People do just make things up“, but in this case whatever benefit Jaki might get from it would seem to be outweighed by the potential reputational damage of being discovered in such a lie, so it seems unlikely. More likely he is telling a story from memory, with the belief that the details just don’t matter very much. And since he provides plenty of other sources, I am sure he knows full well that he is omitting any source here, presumably because he does not have one at hand. He may even be trying to cover up this omission, in a sense, by footnoting the passage with information that does not source it. It seems likely that the story is a lecture hall account that has been modified by the passage of time. One reason to suppose such a source is that Jaki is not alone in the claim that Laplace opposed the idea of meteorites as stones from the sky until 1803. E.T. Jaynes, in Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, makes a similar claim:

Note that we can recognize the clear truth of this psychological phenomenon without taking any stand about the truth of the miracle; it is possible that the educated people are wrong. For example, in Laplace’s youth educated persons did not believe in meteorites, but dismissed them as ignorant folklore because they are so rarely observed. For one familiar with the laws of mechanics the notion that “stones fall from the sky” seemed preposterous, while those without any conception of mechanical law saw no difficulty in the idea. But the fall at Laigle in 1803, which left fragments studied by Biot and other French scientists, changed the opinions of the educated — including Laplace himself. In this case the uneducated, avid for the marvelous, happened to be right: c’est la vie.

(p. 505)

Like Jaki, Jaynes provides no source. Still, is that good enough reason to doubt the account? Let us examine a text from the book The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections. In the article, “Meteorites in history,” Ursula Marvin remarks:

Early in 1802 the French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) raised the question at the National Institute of a lunar volcanic origin of fallen stones, and quickly gained support for this idea from two physicist colleagues Jean Baptiste Biot (1774-1862) and Siméon-Denis Poisson (1781-1840). The following September, Laplace (1802, p. 277) discussed it in a letter to von Zach.

The idea won additional followers when Biot (1803a) referred to it as ‘Laplace’s hypothesis’, although Laplace, himself, never published an article on it.

(p.49)

This has a source for Laplace’s letter of 1802, although I was not able to find it online. It seems very unlikely that Laplace would have speculated on meteorites as coming from lunar volcanos in 1802, and then called them “myths” in 1803. So where does this story come from? In Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History, John Burke gives this account:

There is also a problem with respect to the number of French scientists who, after Pictet published a résumé of Howard’s article in the May 1802 issue of the Bibliothèque Britannique, continued to oppose the idea that stones fell from the atmosphere. One can infer from a statement of Lamétherie that there was considerable opposition, for he reported that when Pictet read a memoir to the Institut on the results of Howard’s report “he met with such disfavor that it required a great deal of fortitude for him to finish his reading.” However, Biot’s description of the session varies a good deal. Pictet’s account, he wrote, was received with a “cautious eagerness,” though the “desire to explain everything” caused the phenomenon to be rejected for a long time. There were, in fact, only three scientists who publicly expressed their opposition: the brothers Jean-André and Guillaume-Antoine Deluc of Geneva, and Eugène Patrin, an associate member of the mineralogy section of the Institut and librarian at the École des mines.

When Pictet early in 1801 published a favorable review of Chladni’s treatise, it drew immediate fire from the Deluc brothers. Jean, a strict Calvinist, employed the same explanation of a fall that the Fougeroux committee had used thirty years before: stones did not fall; the event was imagined when lightning struck close to the observer. Just as no fragment of our globe separate and become lost in space, he wrote, fragments could not be detached from another planet. It was also very unlikely that solid masses had been wandering in space since the creation, because they would have long since fallen into the sphere of attraction of some planet. And even if they did fall, they would penetrate the earth to a great depth and shatter into a thousand pieces.

(p.51)

It seems quite possible that Pictet’s “reading a memoir” here and “meeting with disfavor” (regardless of details, since Burke notes it had different descriptions at the time) is the same incident that Jaki describes as having been met with “We’ve had enough of such myths!” when Pictet “urged a reconsideration of the evidence.” If these words were ever said, then, they were presumably said by one of these brothers or someone else, and not by Laplace.

How does this sort of thing happen, if we charitably assume that Jaki was not being fundamentally dishonest? As stated above, it seems likely that he knew he did not have a source. He may even have been consciously aware that it might not have been Laplace who made this statement, if anyone did. But he was sure there was a dispute about the matter, and presumably thought that it just wasn’t too important who it was or the details of the situation, since the main point was that scientists are frequently reluctant to accept facts when those facts occur rarely and are not deliberately reproducible. And if we reduce Jaki’s position to these two things, namely, (1) that scientists at one point disputed the reality and meteorites, and (2) this sort of thing frequently happens with rare and hard to reproduce phenomena, then the position is accurate.

But this behavior, the description of situations with the implication that the details just don’t matter much, is very bad, and directly contributes to the reluctance of many scientists to accept the reality of “extraordinary” phenomena, even in situations where they are, in fact, real.

Mind of God

Reconciling Theism and Atheism

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume presents Philo as arguing that the disagreement between theists and atheists is merely verbal:

All men of sound reason are disgusted with verbal disputes, which abound so much in philosophical and theological inquiries; and it is found, that the only remedy for this abuse must arise from clear definitions, from the precision of those ideas which enter into any argument, and from the strict and uniform use of those terms which are employed. But there is a species of controversy, which, from the very nature of language and of human ideas, is involved in perpetual ambiguity, and can never, by any precaution or any definitions, be able to reach a reasonable certainty or precision. These are the controversies concerning the degrees of any quality or circumstance. Men may argue to all eternity, whether HANNIBAL be a great, or a very great, or a superlatively great man, what degree of beauty CLEOPATRA possessed, what epithet of praise LIVY or THUCYDIDES is entitled to, without bringing the controversy to any determination. The disputants may here agree in their sense, and differ in the terms, or vice versa; yet never be able to define their terms, so as to enter into each other’s meaning: Because the degrees of these qualities are not, like quantity or number, susceptible of any exact mensuration, which may be the standard in the controversy. That the dispute concerning Theism is of this nature, and consequently is merely verbal, or perhaps, if possible, still more incurably ambiguous, will appear upon the slightest inquiry. I ask the Theist, if he does not allow, that there is a great and immeasurable, because incomprehensible difference between the human and the divine mind: The more pious he is, the more readily will he assent to the affirmative, and the more will he be disposed to magnify the difference: He will even assert, that the difference is of a nature which cannot be too much magnified. I next turn to the Atheist, who, I assert, is only nominally so, and can never possibly be in earnest; and I ask him, whether, from the coherence and apparent sympathy in all the parts of this world, there be not a certain degree of analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every situation and in every age; whether the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an animal, and the structure of human thought, be not energies that probably bear some remote analogy to each other: It is impossible he can deny it: He will readily acknowledge it. Having obtained this concession, I push him still further in his retreat; and I ask him, if it be not probable, that the principle which first arranged, and still maintains order in this universe, bears not also some remote inconceivable analogy to the other operations of nature, and, among the rest, to the economy of human mind and thought. However reluctant, he must give his assent. Where then, cry I to both these antagonists, is the subject of your dispute? The Theist allows, that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The Atheist allows, that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination? If you should be so obstinate, I should not be surprised to find you insensibly change sides; while the Theist, on the one hand, exaggerates the dissimilarity between the Supreme Being, and frail, imperfect, variable, fleeting, and mortal creatures; and the Atheist, on the other, magnifies the analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every period, every situation, and every position. Consider then, where the real point of controversy lies; and if you cannot lay aside your disputes, endeavour, at least, to cure yourselves of your animosity.

To what extent Hume actually agrees with this argument is not clear, and whether or not a dispute is verbal or real is itself like Hume’s questions about greatness or beauty, that is, it is a matter of degree. Few disagreements are entirely verbal. In any case, I largely agree with the claim that there is little real disagreement here. In response to a question on the about page of this blog, I referred to some remarks about God by Roderick Long:

Since my blog has wandered into theological territory lately, I thought it might be worth saying something about the existence of God.

When I’m asked whether I believe in God, I usually don’t know what to say – not because I’m unsure of my view, but because I’m unsure how to describe my view. But here’s a try.

I think the disagreement between theism and atheism is in a certain sense illusory – that when one tries to sort out precisely what theists are committed to and precisely what atheists are committed to, the two positions come to essentially the same thing, and their respective proponents have been fighting over two sides of the same shield.

Let’s start with the atheist. Is there any sense in which even the atheist is committed to recognising the existence of some sort of supreme, eternal, non-material reality that transcends and underlies everything else? Yes, there is: namely, the logical structure of reality itself.

Thus so long as the theist means no more than this by “God,” the theist and the atheist don’t really disagree.

Now the theist may think that by God she means something more than this. But likewise, before people knew that whales were mammals they thought that by “whale” they meant a kind of fish. What is the theist actually committed to meaning?

Well, suppose that God is not the logical structure of the universe. Then we may ask: in what relation does God stand to that structure, if not identity? There would seem to be two possibilities.

One is that God stands outside that structure, as its creator. But this “possibility” is unintelligible. Logic is a necessary condition of significant discourse; thus one cannot meaningfully speak of a being unconstrained by logic, or a time when logic’s constraints were not yet in place.

The other is that God stands within that structure, along with everything else. But this option, as Wittgenstein observed, would downgrade God to the status of being merely one object among others, one more fragment of contingency – and he would no longer be the greatest of all beings, since there would be something greater: the logical structure itself. (This may be part of what Plato meant in describing the Form of the Good as “beyond being.”)

The only viable option for the theist, then, is to identify God with the logical structure of reality. (Call this “theological logicism.”) But in that case the disagreement between the theist and the atheist dissolves.

It may be objected that the “reconciliation” I offer really favours the atheist over the theist. After all, what theist could be satisfied with a deity who is merely the logical structure of the universe? Yet in fact there is a venerable tradition of theists who proclaim precisely this. Thomas Aquinas, for example, proposed to solve the age-old questions “could God violate the laws of logic?” and “could God command something immoral?” by identifying God with Being and Goodness personified. Thus God is constrained by the laws of logic and morality, not because he is subject to them as to a higher power, but because they express his own nature, and he could not violate or alter them without ceasing to be God. Aquinas’ solution is, essentially, theological logicism; yet few would accuse Aquinas of having a watered-down or crypto-atheistic conception of deity. Why, then, shouldn’t theological logicism be acceptable to the theist?

A further objection may be raised: Aquinas of course did not stop at the identification of God with Being and Goodness, but went on to attribute to God various attributes not obviously compatible with this identification, such as personality and will. But if the logical structure of reality has personality and will, it will not be acceptable to the atheist; and if it does not have personality and will, then it will not be acceptable to the theist. So doesn’t my reconciliation collapse?

I don’t think so. After all, Aquinas always took care to insist that in attributing these qualities to God we are speaking analogically. God does not literally possess personality and will, at least if by those attributes we mean the same attributes that we humans possess; rather he possesses attributes analogous to ours. The atheist too can grant that the logical structure of reality possesses properties analogous to personality and will. It is only at the literal ascription of those attributes that the atheist must balk. No conflict here.

Yet doesn’t God, as understood by theists, have to create and sustain the universe? Perhaps so. But atheists too can grant that the existence of the universe depends on its logical structure and couldn’t exist for so much as an instant without it. So where’s the disagreement?

But doesn’t God have to be worthy of worship? Sure. But atheists, while they cannot conceive of worshipping a person, are generally much more open to the idea of worshipping a principle. Again theological logicism allows us to transcend the opposition between theists and atheists.

But what about prayer? Is the logical structure of reality something one could sensibly pray to? If so, it might seem, victory goes to the theist; and if not, to the atheist. Yet it depends what counts as prayer. Obviously it makes no sense to petition the logical structure of reality for favours; but this is not the only conception of prayer extant. In Science and Health, for example, theologian M. B. Eddy describes the activity of praying not as petitioning a principle but as applying a principle:

“Who would stand before a blackboard, and pray the principle of mathematics to solve the problem? The rule is already established, and it is our task to work out the solution. Shall we ask the divine Principle of all goodness to do His own work? His work is done, and we have only to avail ourselves of God’s rule in order to receive His blessing, which enables us to work out our own salvation.”

Is this a watered-down or “naturalistic” conception of prayer? It need hardly be so; as the founder of Christian Science, Eddy could scarcely be accused of underestimating the power of prayer! And similar conceptions of prayer are found in many eastern religions. Once again, theological logicism’s theistic credentials are as impeccable as its atheistic credentials.

Another possible objection is that whether identifying God with the logical structure of reality favours the atheist or the theist depends on how metaphysically robust a conception of “logical structure” one appeals to. If one thinks of reality’s logical structure in realist terms, as an independent reality in its own right, then the identification favours the theist; but if one instead thinks, in nominalist terms, that there’s nothing to logical structure over and above what it structures, then the identification favours the atheist.

This argument assumes, however, that the distinction between realism and nominalism is a coherent one. I’ve argued elsewhere (see here and here) that it isn’t; conceptual realism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the world on an inherently structureless mind (and so involves the incoherent notion of a structureless mind), while nominalism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the mind on an inherently structureless world (and so involves the equally incoherent notion of a structureless world). If the realism/antirealism dichotomy represents a false opposition, then the theist/atheist dichotomy does so as well. The difference between the two positions will then be only, as Wittgenstein says in another context, “one of battle cry.”

Long is trying too hard, perhaps. As I stated above, few disagreements are entirely verbal, so it would be strange to find no disagreement at all, and we could question some points here. Are atheists really open to worshiping a principle? Respecting, perhaps, but worshiping? A defender of Long, however, might say that “respect” and “worship” do not necessarily have any relevant difference here, and this is itself a merely verbal difference signifying a cultural difference. The theist uses “worship” to indicate that they belong to a religious culture, while the atheist uses “respect” to indicate that they do not. But it would not be easy to find a distinct difference in the actual meaning of the terms.

In any case, there is no need to prove that there is no difference at all, since without a doubt individual theists will disagree on various matters with individual atheists. The point made by both David Hume and Roderick Long stands at least in a general way: there is far less difference between the positions than people typically assume.

In an earlier post I discussed, among other things, whether the first cause should be called a “mind” or not, discussing St. Thomas’s position that it should be, and Plotinus’s position that it should not be. Along the lines of the argument in this post, perhaps this is really an argument about whether or not you should use a certain analogy, and the correct answer may be that it depends on your purposes.

But what if your purpose is simply to understand reality? Even if it is, it is often the case that you can understand various aspects of reality with various analogies, so this will not necessarily provide you with a definite answer. Still, someone might argue that you should not use a mental analogy with regard to the first cause because it will lead people astray. Thus, in a similar way, Richard Dawkins argued that one should not call the first cause “God” because it would mislead people:

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

I will argue shortly that Dawkins was roughly speaking right about the way that the first cause works, although as I said in that earlier post, he did not have a strong argument for it other than his aesthetic sense and the kinds of explanation that he prefers. In any case, his concern with the name “God” is the “baggage” that it “carries in the minds of most religious believers.” That is, if we say, “There is a first cause, therefore God exists,” believers will assume that their concrete beliefs about God are correct.

In a similar way, someone could reasonably argue that speaking of God as a “mind” would tend to lead people into error by leading them to suppose that God would do the kinds of the things that other minds, namely human ones, do. And this definitely happens. Thus for example, in his book Who Designed the Designer?, Michael Augros argues for the existence of God as a mind, and near the end of the book speculates about divine revelation:

I once heard of a certain philosopher who, on his deathbed, when asked whether he would become a Christian, admitted his belief in Aristotle’s “prime mover”, but not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This sort of acknowledgment of the prime mover, of some sort of god, still leaves most of our chief concerns unaddressed. Will X ever see her son again, now that the poor boy has died of cancer at age six? Will miserable and contrite Y ever be forgiven, somehow reconciled to the universe and made whole, after having killed a family while driving drunk? Will Z ever be brought to justice, having lived out his whole life laughing at the law while another person rotted in jail for the atrocities he committed? That there is a prime mover does not tell us with sufficient clarity. Even the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god does not enable us to fill in much detail. And so it seems reasonable to suppose that god has something more to say to us, in explicit words, and not only in the mute signs of creation. Perhaps he is waiting to talk to us, biding his time for the right moment. Perhaps he has already spoken, but we have not recognized his voice.

When we cast our eye about by the light of reason in his way, it seems there is room for faith in general, even if no particular faith can be “proved” true in precisely the same way that it can be “proved” that there is a god.

The idea is that given that God is a mind, it follows that it is fairly plausible that he would wish to speak to people. And perhaps that he would wish to establish justice through extraordinary methods, and that he might wish to raise people from the dead.

I think this is “baggage” carried over from Augros’s personal religious views. It is an anthropomorphic mistake, not merely in the sense that he does not have a good reason for such speculation, but in the sense that such a thing is demonstrably implausible. It is not that the divine motives are necessarily unknown to us, but that we can actually discover them, at least to some extent, and we will discover that they are not what he supposes.

Divine Motives

How might one know the divine motives? How does one read the mind of God?

Anything that acts at all does it what it does ultimately because of what it is. This is an obvious point, like the point that the existence of something rather than nothing could not have some reason outside of being. In a similar way, “what is” is the only possible explanation for what is done, since there is nothing else there to be an explanation. And in every action, whether or not we are speaking of the subject in explicitly mental terms or not, we can always use the analogy of desires and goals. In the linked post, I quote St. Thomas as speaking of the human will as the “rational appetite,” and the natural tendency of other things as a “natural appetite.” If we break down the term “rational appetite,” the meaning is “the tendency to do something, because of having a reason to do it.” And this fits with my discussion of human will in various places, such as in this earlier post.

But where do those reasons come from? I gave an account of this here, arguing that rational goals are a secondary effect of the mind’s attempt to understand itself. Of course human goals are complex and have many factors, but this happens because what the mind is trying to understand is complicated and multifaceted. In particular, there is a large amount of pre-existing human behavior that it needs to understand before it can attribute goals: behavior that results from life as a particular kind of animal, behavior that results from being a particular living thing, and behavior that results from having a body of such and such a sort.

In particular, human social behavior results from these things. There was some discussion of this here, when we looked at Alexander Pruss’s discussion of hypothetical rational sharks.

You might already see where this is going. God as the first cause does not have any of the properties that generate human social behavior, so we cannot expect his behavior to resemble human social behavior in any way, as for example by having any desire to speak with people. Indeed, this is the argument I am making, but let us look at the issue more carefully.

I responded to the “dark room” objection to predictive processing here and here. My response depends both the biological history of humans and animals in general, and to some extent on the history of each individual. But the response does not merely explain why people do not typically enter dark rooms and simply stay there until they die. It also explains why occasionally people do do such things, to a greater or lesser approximation, as with suicidal or extremely depressed people.

If we consider the first cause as a mind, as we are doing here, it is an abstract immaterial mind without any history, without any pre-existing behaviors, without any of the sorts of things that allow people to avoid the dark room. So while people will no doubt be offended by the analogy, and while I will try to give a more pleasant interpretation later, one could argue that God is necessarily subject to his own dark room problem: there is no reason for him to have any motives at all, except the one which is intrinsic to minds, namely the motive of understanding. And so he should not be expected to do anything with the world, except to make sure that it is intelligible, since it must be intelligible for him to understand it.

The thoughtful reader will object: on this account, why does God create the world at all? Surely doing and making nothing at all would be even better, by that standard. So God does seem to have a “dark room” problem that he does manage to avoid, namely the temptation to nothing at all. This is a reasonable objection, but I think it would lead us on a tangent, so I will not address it at this time. I will simply take it for granted that God makes something rather than nothing, and discuss what he does with the world given that fact.

In the previous post, I pointed out that David Hume takes for granted that the world has stable natural laws, and uses that to argue that an orderly world can result from applying those laws to “random” configurations over a long enough time. I said that one might accuse him of “cheating” here, but that would only be the case if he intended to maintain a strictly atheistic position which would say that there is no first cause at all, or that if there is, it does not even have a remote analogy with a mind. Thus his attempted reconciliation of theism and atheism is relevant, since it seems from this that he is aware that such a strict atheism cannot be maintained.

St. Thomas makes a similar connection between God as a mind and a stable order of things in his fifth way:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

What are we are to make of the claim that things act “always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result?” Certainly acting in the same way would be likely to lead to similar results. But why would you think it was the best result?

If we consider where we get the idea of desire and good, the answer will be clear. We don’t have an idea of good which is completely independent from “what actually tends to happen”, even though this is not quite a definition of the term either. So ultimately St. Thomas’s argument here is based on the fact that things act in similar ways and achieve similar results. The idea that it is “best” is not an additional contribution.

But now consider the alternative. Suppose that things did not act in similar ways, or that doing so did not lead to similar results. We would live in David Hume’s non-inductive world. The result is likely to be mathematically and logically impossible. If someone says, “look, the world works in a coherent way,” and then attempts to describe how it would look if it worked in an incoherent way, they will discover that the latter “possibility” cannot be described. Any description must be coherent in order to be a description, so the incoherent “option” was never a real option in the first place.

This argument might suggest that the position of Plotinus, that mind should not be attributed to God at all, is the more reasonable one. But since we are exploring the situation where we do make that attribution, let us consider the consequences.

We argued above that the sole divine motive for the world is intelligibility. This requires coherence and consistency. It also requires a tendency towards the good, for the above mentioned reasons. Having a coherent tendency at all is ultimately not something different from tending towards good.

The world described is arguably a deist world, one in which the laws of nature are consistently followed, but God does nothing else in the world. The Enlightenment deists presumably had various reasons for their position: criticism of specific religious doctrines, doubts about miracles, and an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world. But like Dawkins with his argument about God’s simplicity, they do not seem (to me at least) to have had very strong arguments. That does not prove that their position was wrong, and even their weaker arguments may have had some relationship with the truth; even an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world has some connection with intelligibility, which is the actual reason for the world to be that way.

Once again, as with the objection about creating a world at all, a careful reader might object that this argument is not conclusive. If you have a first cause at all, then it seems that you must have one or more first effects, and even if those effects are simple, they cannot be infinitely simple. And given that they are not infinitely simple, who is to set the threshold? What is to prevent one or more of those effects from being “miraculous” relative to anything else, or even from being something like a voice giving someone a divine revelation?

There is something to this argument, but as with the previous objection, I will not be giving my response here. I will simply note for the moment that it is a little bit strained to suggest that such a thing could happen without God having an explicit motive of “talking to people,” and as argued above, such a motive cannot exist in God. That said, I will go on to some other issues.

As the Heavens are Higher

Apart from my arguments, it has long been noticed in the actual world that God seems much more interested in acting consistently than in bringing about any specific results in human affairs.

Someone like Richard Dawkins, or perhaps Job, if he had taken the counsel of his wife, might respond to the situation in the following way. “God” is not an appropriate name for a first cause that acts like this. If anything is more important to God than being personal, it would be being good. But the God described here is not good at all, since he doesn’t seem to care a bit about human affairs. And he inflicts horrible suffering on people just for the sake of consistency with physical laws. Instead of calling such a cause “God,” why don’t we call it “the Evil Demon” or something like that?

There is a lot that could be said about this. Some of it I have already said elsewhere. Some of it I will perhaps say at other times. For now I will make three brief points.

First, ensuring that the world is intelligible and that it behaves consistently is no small thing. In fact it is a prerequisite for any good thing that might happen anywhere and any time. We would not even arrive at the idea of “good” things if we did not strive consistently for similar results, nor would we get the idea of “striving” if we did did not often obtain them. Thus it is not really true that God has no interest in human affairs: rather, he is concerned with the affairs of all things, including humans.

Second, along similar lines, consider what the supposed alternative would be. If God were “good” in the way you wish, his behavior would be ultimately unintelligible. This is not merely because some physical law might not be followed if there were a miracle. It would be unintelligible behavior in the strict sense, that is, in the sense that no explanation could be given for why God is doing this. The ordinary proposal would be that it is because “this is good,” but when this statement is a human judgement made according to human motives, there would need to be an explanation for why a human judgement is guiding divine behavior. “God is a mind” does not adequately explain this. And it is not clear that an ultimately unintelligible world is a good one.

Third, to extend the point about God’s concern with all things, I suggest that the answer is roughly speaking the one that Scott Alexander gives non-seriously here, except taken seriously. This answer depends on an assumption of some sort of modal realism, a topic which I was slowly approaching for some time, but which merits a far more detailed discussion, and I am not sure when I will get around to it, if ever. The reader might note however that this answer probably resolves the question about “why didn’t God do nothing at all” by claiming that this was never an option anyway.

Anticipations of Darwin

I noted here that long before Darwin, there was fairly decent evidence for some sort of theory of evolution, even evidence available from the general human experience of plant and animal life, without deep scientific study.

As said in the earlier post, Aristotle notes that Empedocles hypothesized something along the lines of natural selection:

Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his ‘man-faced ox-progeny’ did.

Since Aristotle is arguing against Empedocles, we should be cautious in assuming that the characterization of his position is entirely accurate. But as presented by Aristotle, the position is an argument against the existence of final causes: since things can be “organized spontaneously” in the way “they would have been if they had come to be for an end,” there is no reason to think they in fact came to be for an end.

This particular conclusion, namely that in such a process nothing comes to be for an end, is a mistake, based on the assumption that different kinds of causes are mutually exclusive, rather than recognizing that different kinds of causes are different ways of explaining one and the same thing. But the general idea regarding what happened historically is correct: good conditions are more capable of persisting, bad conditions less so, and thus over time good conditions tend to predominate.

Other interesting anticipations may be found in Ibn Khaldun‘s book, The Muqaddimah, published in 1377. For example we find this passage:

It should be known that we — may God guide you and us — notice that this world with all the created things in it has a certain order and solid construction. It shows nexuses between causes and things caused, combinations of some parts of creation with others, and transformations of some existent things into others, in a pattern that is both remarkable and endless. Beginning with the world of the body and sensual perception, and therein first with the world of the visible elements, (one notices) how these elements are arranged gradually and continually in an ascending order, from earth to water, (from water) to air, and (from air) to fire. Each one of the elements is prepared to be transformed into the next higher or lower one, and sometimes is transformed. The higher one is always finer than the one preceding it. Eventually, the world of the spheres is reached. They are finer than anything else. They are in layers which are inter­connected, in a shape which the senses are able to perceive only through the existence of motions. These motions provide some people with knowledge of the measurements and positions of the spheres, and also with knowledge of the existence of the essences beyond, the influence of which is noticeable in the spheres through the fact (that they have motion).

One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word “connection” with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group.

The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and to reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man after (the world of monkeys). This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.

It is possible that he makes his position clearer elsewhere (I have not read the entire work.) The passage here does not explicitly assert that humans arose from lower animals, but does suggest it, correctly associating human beings with monkeys in particular, even if some of his other connections are somewhat strange. In other words, both here and elsewhere, he speaks of one stage of things being “prepared to become” another stage, and says that this transition sometimes happens: “Each one of the elements is prepared to be transformed into the next higher or lower one, and sometimes is transformed.”

While Ibn Khaldun is at least suggesting that we notice a biological order that corresponds to some degree to an actual historical order, we do not see in this text any indication of what the mechanism is supposed to be. In contrast, Empedocles gives us a mechanism but no clarity regarding historical order. Admittedly, this may be an artifact of the fact that I have not read more of Ibn Khaldun and the fact that we have only fragments from Empedocles.

One of the strongest anticipations of all, although put in very general terms, can be found in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in the following passage:

Besides, why may not motion have been propagated by impulse through all eternity, and the same stock of it, or nearly the same, be still upheld in the universe? As much is lost by the composition of motion, as much is gained by its resolution. And whatever the causes are, the fact is certain, that matter is, and always has been, in continual agitation, as far as human experience or tradition reaches. There is not probably, at present, in the whole universe, one particle of matter at absolute rest.

And this very consideration too, continued PHILO, which we have stumbled on in the course of the argument, suggests a new hypothesis of cosmogony, that is not absolutely absurd and improbable. Is there a system, an order, an economy of things, by which matter can preserve that perpetual agitation which seems essential to it, and yet maintain a constancy in the forms which it produces? There certainly is such an economy; for this is actually the case with the present world. The continual motion of matter, therefore, in less than infinite transpositions, must produce this economy or order; and by its very nature, that order, when once established, supports itself, for many ages, if not to eternity. But wherever matter is so poised, arranged, and adjusted, as to continue in perpetual motion, and yet preserve a constancy in the forms, its situation must, of necessity, have all the same appearance of art and contrivance which we observe at present. All the parts of each form must have a relation to each other, and to the whole; and the whole itself must have a relation to the other parts of the universe; to the element in which the form subsists; to the materials with which it repairs its waste and decay; and to every other form which is hostile or friendly. A defect in any of these particulars destroys the form; and the matter of which it is composed is again set loose, and is thrown into irregular motions and fermentations, till it unite itself to some other regular form. If no such form be prepared to receive it, and if there be a great quantity of this corrupted matter in the universe, the universe itself is entirely disordered; whether it be the feeble embryo of a world in its first beginnings that is thus destroyed, or the rotten carcass of one languishing in old age and infirmity. In either case, a chaos ensues; till finite, though innumerable revolutions produce at last some forms, whose parts and organs are so adjusted as to support the forms amidst a continued succession of matter.

Suppose (for we shall endeavour to vary the expression), that matter were thrown into any position, by a blind, unguided force; it is evident that this first position must, in all probability, be the most confused and most disorderly imaginable, without any resemblance to those works of human contrivance, which, along with a symmetry of parts, discover an adjustment of means to ends, and a tendency to self-preservation. If the actuating force cease after this operation, matter must remain for ever in disorder, and continue an immense chaos, without any proportion or activity. But suppose that the actuating force, whatever it be, still continues in matter, this first position will immediately give place to a second, which will likewise in all probability be as disorderly as the first, and so on through many successions of changes and revolutions. No particular order or position ever continues a moment unaltered. The original force, still remaining in activity, gives a perpetual restlessness to matter. Every possible situation is produced, and instantly destroyed. If a glimpse or dawn of order appears for a moment, it is instantly hurried away, and confounded, by that never-ceasing force which actuates every part of matter.

Thus the universe goes on for many ages in a continued succession of chaos and disorder. But is it not possible that it may settle at last, so as not to lose its motion and active force (for that we have supposed inherent in it), yet so as to preserve an uniformity of appearance, amidst the continual motion and fluctuation of its parts? This we find to be the case with the universe at present. Every individual is perpetually changing, and every part of every individual; and yet the whole remains, in appearance, the same. May we not hope for such a position, or rather be assured of it, from the eternal revolutions of unguided matter; and may not this account for all the appearing wisdom and contrivance which is in the universe? Let us contemplate the subject a little, and we shall find, that this adjustment, if attained by matter of a seeming stability in the forms, with a real and perpetual revolution or motion of parts, affords a plausible, if not a true solution of the difficulty.

It is in vain, therefore, to insist upon the uses of the parts in animals or vegetables, and their curious adjustment to each other. I would fain know, how an animal could subsist, unless its parts were so adjusted? Do we not find, that it immediately perishes whenever this adjustment ceases, and that its matter corrupting tries some new form? It happens indeed, that the parts of the world are so well adjusted, that some regular form immediately lays claim to this corrupted matter: and if it were not so, could the world subsist? Must it not dissolve as well as the animal, and pass through new positions and situations, till in great, but finite succession, it falls at last into the present or some such order?

Although extremely general, Hume is suggesting both a history and a mechanism. Hume posits conservation of motion or other similar laws of nature, presumably mathematical, and describes what will happen when you apply such laws to a world. Most situations are unstable, and precisely because they are unstable, they will not last, and other situations will come to be. But some situations are stable, and when such situations occur, they will last.

The need for conservation of motion or similar natural laws is not accidental here. This is why I included the first paragraph above, rather than beginning the quotation where Hume begins to describe his “new hypothesis of cosmogony.” Without motion, the situation could not change, so a new situation could not come to be, and the very ideas of stable and unstable situations would not make sense. Likewise, if motion existed but did not follow any law, all situations should be unstable, so no amount of change could lead to a stable situation. Thus since things always fall downwards instead of in random directions, things stabilize near a center, while merely random motion could not be expected to have this effect. Thus a critic might argue that Hume seems to be positing randomness as the origin of things, but is cheating, so to speak, by positing original stabilities like natural laws, which are not random at all. Whatever might be said of this, it is an important point, and I will be returning to it later.

Since his description is more general than a description of living things in particular, Hume does not mention anything like the theory of the common descent of living things. But there is no huge gulf here: this would simply be a particular application. In fact, some people have suggested that Hume may have had textual influence on Darwin.

While there are other anticipations (there is one in Immanuel Kant that I am not currently inclined to seek out), I will skip to Philip Gosse, who published two years before Darwin. As described in the linked post, while Gosse denies the historicity of evolution in a temporal sense, he posits that the geological evidence was deliberately constructed (by God) to be evidence of common descent.

What was Darwin’s own role, then, if all the elements of his theory were known to various people years, centuries, or even millennia in advance? If we look at this in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific progress, it is not so much that Darwin invented new ideas, as that he brought the evidence and arguments together in such a way as to produce — extremely quickly after the publication of his work — a newly formed consensus on those ideas.

Infinity

I discussed this topic previously, but without coming to a definite conclusion. Here I will give what I think is the correct explanation.

In his book Infinity, Causation, and Paradox, Alexander Pruss argues for what he calls “causal finitism,” or the principle that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes:

In this volume, I will present a number of paradoxes of infinity, some old like Thomson’s Lamp and some new, and offer a unified metaphysical response to all of them by means of the hypothesis of causal finitism, which roughly says that nothing can be affected by infinitely many causes. In particular, Thomson’s Lamp story is ruled out since the final state of the lamp would be affected by infinitely many switch togglings. And in addition to arguing for the hypothesis as the best unified resolution to the paradoxes I shall offer some direct arguments against infinite regresses.

Thomson’s Lamp, if the reader is not familiar with it, is the question of what happens to a lamp if you switch it on and off an infinite number of times in a finite interval, doubling your velocity after each switch. At the end of the interval, is it on or off?

I think Pruss’s account is roughly speaking correct. I say “roughly speaking” because I would be hesitant to claim that nothing can be “affected” by infinitely many causes. Rather I would say that nothing is one effect simultaneously of infinitely many causes, and this is true for the same reason that there cannot be an infinite causal regress. That is, an infinite causal regress removes the notion of cause by removing the possibility of explanation, which is an intrinsic part of the idea of a cause. Similarly, it is impossible to explain anything using an infinite number of causes, because that infinity as such cannot be comprehended, and thus cannot be used to understand the thing which is the supposed effect. And since the infinity cannot explain the thing, neither can it be the cause of the thing.

What does this imply about the sorts of questions that were raised in my previous discussion, as for example about an infinite past or an infinite future, or a spatially infinite universe?

I presented an argument there, without necessarily claiming it to be correct, that such things are impossible precisely because they seem to imply an infinite causal regress. If there an infinite number of stars in the universe, for example, there seems to be an infinite regress of material causes: the universe seems to be composed of this local portion plus the rest, with the rest composed in a similar way, ad infinitum.

Unfortunately, there is an error in this argument against a spatially infinite world, and in similar arguments against a temporally infinite world, whether past or future. This can be seen in my response to Bertrand Russell when I discuss the material causes of water. Even if it is possible to break every portion of water down into smaller portions, it does not follow that this is an infinite sequence of material causes, or that it helps to explain water. In a similar way, even if the universe can be broken down into an infinite number of pieces in the above way, it does not follow that the universe has an infinite number of material causes: rather, this breakdown fails to explain, and fails to give causes at all.

St. Thomas gives a different argument against an infinite multitude, roughly speaking that it would lack a formal cause:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

By this argument, it would be impossible for there to be “an infinite number of stars” because the collection would lack “a species of multitude.” Unfortunately there is a problem with this argument as well, namely that it presupposes that the number is inherently fixed before it is considered by human beings. In reality, counting depends on someone who counts and a method they use for counting; to talk about the “number of stars” is a choice to break down the world in that particular way. There are other ways to think of it, as for example when we use the word “universe”, we count everything at once as a unit.

According to my account here, are some sorts of infinity actually impossible? Yes, namely those which demand an infinite sequence of explanation, or which demand an infinite number of things in order to explain something. Thus for example consider this story from Pruss about shuffling an infinite deck of cards:

Suppose I have an infinitely deep deck of cards, numbered with the positive integers. Can I shuffle it?

Given an infinite past, here is a procedure: n days ago, I perfectly fairly shuffle the top n cards in the deck.

This procedure is impossible because it makes the current state of the deck the direct effect of what I did n days ago, for all n. And the effect is a paradox: it is mathematically impossible for the integers to be randomly shuffled, because any series of integers will be biased towards lower numbers. Note that the existence of an infinite past is not the problem so much as assuming that one could have carried out such a procedure during an infinite past; in reality, if there was an infinite past, its contents are equally “infinite,” that is, they do not have such a definable, definite, “finite” relationship with the present.

Counterfactuals and Causality

People have frequently noted some connection between counterfactuals and causation. While it seems backwards to suggest that causation should be defined in terms of counterfactuals, it is reasonable to connect the two concepts, and explains why some counterfactuals are more reasonable than others, as we noted in the last post.

For example, “If I dropped this cup, it would fall to the floor,” is more reasonable than “If I dropped this cup, it would fly up to the moon,” because we are considering the operation of causes like gravity which could cause falling to the floor, and which could not cause (merely by dropping) an object to fly to the moon. In particular, since causes eliminate alternatives, they give us a reason to say “this would have happened rather than that.”

Nonetheless, we cannot get any sort of absolute determination out of this. One would attempt to get a determinate outcome by specifying the counterfactual as clearly as possible: “If I dropped this cup, and everything else was the same.” The “nearest possible world” idea is trying to get at this. However, this is not in fact completely determinate because “everything else” can’t be entirely the same, and what else needs to change is not determinate. In order to drop the cup, there would need to be a course of events that led up to the dropping, and there are many different courses that could have done that. The same thing will happen if you to specify exactly what led to the dropping of the cup; there will need to be something that led to your specification. Thus, at the very least, you will not typically be able to get absolute determination in this way.

Naturally, there is nothing to prevent us from coming up particular examples where we can get complete determination by using something which is always true anyway, or by using logical implication from the counterfactual, e.g. “If I dropped this cup, 2 and 2 would still be 4,” or “If I dropped the cup, it would have been dropped.” But these are not typical cases.

Counterfactuals as Historical Fiction

Suppose someone reading Anne of Green Gables asks a question about what happened before the story begins. For example, what did Anne have for lunch 37 days before her arrival in Avonlea?

It is easy to see that this question does not have one true answer. There is no such thing as what she really had for lunch, because it is a story, and that meal is not included in it. On the other hand, despite the lack of any absolute truth here, some answers remain more reasonable than others. For example, “She had salad,” is a more sensible answer than “she ate crushed glass that day.” Just as I said in regard to “why” something is the case, one can give a partial answer, in the sense of showing that some options are more intelligible than others, without being able to exclude some options entirely.

These same things will apply to questions about a work of historical fiction, although the intended historical context will provide additional ways to show that some answers are more sensible than others. Thus if a story is set in ancient Rome, the claim that someone had corn for lunch is unreasonable due to the historical context, although not as unreasonable as some other possibilities that you could suggest.

Now consider a counterfactual question about your current situation: “What would you do if it were 120 degrees Fahrenheit in your house?”

There is no fundamental difference between this and the case of historical fiction. In effect, we just created a story about you: “It was 120 degrees in your house. You…”

Like the case of historical fiction, some answers will be more sensible than others, but there is no thing that you really would do in that situation. The story didn’t really take place, but if it did, it would have taken place with a lot more concrete detail, and that concrete detail could determine the specific answer to the question. If Anne of Green Gables were a true story, her concrete situation would have determined what she had for lunch that day. And if it were really 120 degrees in your house, what you would do would depend on how and why things got that way, as well as other factors in your concrete situation.

Some philosophers have spent a lot of time on this kind of counterfactual question, apparently largely from a desire for absolute answers. For example, some suggest that a counterfactual is true if the claim is true in the nearest possible world where the antecedent is true. In a similar way, Molinists argue that in order to be omniscient, God has to know what you would do if it were 120 degrees in your house, and that it must be one specific thing, so that there is one thing that you really would do in that situation. They call this kind of knowledge “middle” knowledge, namely something in between knowledge of what actually is and knowledge of what merely might have been.

All accounts of this kind are wasted effort. The brief account above is sufficient.

Was Kavanaugh Guilty?

No, I am not going to answer the question. This post will illustrate and argue for a position that I have argued many times in the past, namely that belief is voluntary. The example is merely particularly good for proving the point. I will also be using a framework something like Bryan Caplan’s in his discussion of rational irrationality:

Two forces lie at the heart of economic models of choice: preferences and prices. A consumer’s preferences determine the shape of his demand curve for oranges; the market price he faces determines where along that demand curve he resides. What makes this insight deep is its generality. Economists use it to analyze everything from having babies to robbing banks.

Irrationality is a glaring exception. Recognizing irrationality is typically equated with rejecting economics. A “logic of the irrational” sounds self-contradictory. This chapter’s central message is that this reaction is premature. Economics can handle irrationality the same way it handles everything: preferences and prices. As I have already pointed out:

• People have preferences over beliefs: A nationalist enjoys the belief that foreign-made products are overpriced junk; a surgeon takes pride in the belief that he operates well while drunk.
• False beliefs range in material cost from free to enormous: Acting on his beliefs would lead the nationalist to overpay for inferior goods, and the surgeon to destroy his career.

Snapping these two building blocks together leads to a simple model of irrational conviction. If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality. I might like to hold comforting beliefs across the board, but it costs too much. Living in a Pollyanna dreamworld would stop be from coping with my problems, like that dead tree in my backyard that looks like it is going to fall on my house.

Let us assume that people are considering whether to believe that Brett Kavanaugh was guilty of sexual assault. For ease of visualization, let us suppose that they have utility functions defined over the following outcomes:

(A) Believe Kavanaugh was guilty, and turn out to be right

(B) Believe Kavanaugh was guilty, and turn out to be wrong

(C) Believe Kavanaugh was innocent, and turn out to be right

(D) Believe Kavanaugh was innocent, and turn out to be wrong

(E) Admit that you do not know whether he was guilty or not (this will be presumed to be a true statement, but I will count it as less valuable than a true statement that includes more detail.)

(G) Say something good about your political enemies

(I) Say something good about your political allies

Note that options A through E are mutually exclusive, while one or more of options F through I might or might not come together with one of those from A through E.

Let’s suppose there are three people, a right winger who cares a lot about politics and little about truth, a left winger who cares a lot about politics and little about truth, and an independent who does not care about politics and instead cares a lot about truth. Then we posit the following table of utilities:

 Right Winger Left Winger Independent (A) 10 10 100 (B) -10 -10 -100 (C) 10 10 100 (D) -10 -10 -100 (E) 5 5 50 (F) 100 100 0 (G) -100 -100 0 (H) -100 -100 0 (I) 100 100 0

The columns for the right and left wingers are the same, but the totals will be calculated differently because saying something good about Kavanaugh, for the right winger, is saying something good about an ally, while for the left winger, it is saying something good about an enemy, and there is a similar contrast if something bad is said.

Now there are really only three options we need to consider, namely “Believe Kavanaugh was guilty,” “Believe Kavanaugh was innocent,” and “Admit that you do not know.” In addition, in order to calculate expected utility according to the above table, we need a probability that Kavanaugh was guilty. In order not to offend readers who have already chosen an option, I will assume a probability of 50% that he was guilty, and 50% that he was innocent. Using these assumptions, we can calculate the following ultimate utilities:

 Right Winger Left Winger Independent Claim Guilt -100 100 0 Claim Innocence 100 -100 0 Confess Ignorance 5 5 50

(I won’t go through this calculation in detail; it should be evident that given my simple assumptions of the probability and values, there will be no value for anyone in affirming guilt or innocence as such, but only in admitting ignorance, or in making a political point.) Given these values, obviously the left winger will choose to believe that Kavanaugh was guilty, the right winger will choose to believe that he was innocent, and the independent will admit to being ignorant.

This account obviously makes complete sense of people’s actual positions on the question, and it does that by assuming that people voluntarily choose to believe a position in the same way they choose to do other things. On the other hand, if you assume that belief is an involuntary evaluation of a state of affairs, how could the actual distribution of opinion possibly be explained?

As this is a point I have discussed many times in the past, I won’t try to respond to all possible objections. However, I will bring up two of them. In the example, I had to assume that people calculated using a probability of 50% for Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence. So it could be objected that their “real” belief is that there is a 50% chance he was guilty, and the statement is simply an external thing.

This initial 50% is something like a prior probability, and corresponds to a general leaning towards or away from a position. As I admitted in discussion with Angra Mainyu, that inclination is largely involuntary. However, first, this is not what we call a “belief” in ordinary usage, since we frequently say that someone has a belief while having some qualms about it. Second, it is not completely immune from voluntary influences. In practice in a situation like this, it will represent something like everything the person knows about the subject and predicate apart from this particular claim. And much of what the person knows will already be in subject/predicate form, and the person will have arrived at it through a similar voluntary process.

Another objection is that at least in the case of something obviously true or obviously false, there cannot possibly be anything voluntary about it. No one can choose to believe that the moon is made of green cheese, for example.

I have responded to this to this in the past by pointing out that most of us also cannot choose to go and kill ourselves, right now, despite the fact that doing so would be voluntary. And in a similar way, there is nothing attractive about believing that the moon is made of green cheese, and so no one can do it. At least two objections will be made to this response:

1) I can’t go kill myself right now, but I know that this is because it would be bad. But I cannot believe that the moon is made of green cheese because it is false, not because it is bad.

2) It does not seem that much harm would be done by choosing to believe this about the moon, and then changing your mind after a few seconds. So if it is voluntary, why not prove it by doing so? Obviously you cannot do so.

Regarding the first point, it is true that believing the moon is made of cheese would be bad because it is false. And in fact, if you find falsity the reason you cannot accept it, how is that not because you regard falsity as really bad? In fact lack of attractiveness is extremely relevant here. If people can believe in Xenu, they would find it equally possible to believe that the moon was made of cheese, if that were the teaching of their religion. In that situation, the falsity of the claim would not be much obstacle at all.

Regarding the second point, there is a problem like Kavka’s Toxin here. Choosing to believe something, roughly speaking, means choosing to treat it as a fact, which implies a certain commitment. Choosing to act like it is true enough to say so, then immediately doing something else, is not choosing to believe it, but rather it is choosing to tell a lie. So just as one cannot intend to drink the toxin without expecting to actually drink it, so one cannot choose to believe something without expecting to continue to believe it for the foreseeable future. This is why one would not wish to accept such a statement about the moon, not only in order to prove something (especially since it would prove nothing; no one would admit that you had succeeded in believing it), but even if someone were to offer a very large incentive, say a million dollars if you managed to believe it. This would amount to offering to pay someone to give up their concern for truth entirely, and permanently.

Additionally, in the case of some very strange claims, it might be true that people do not know how to believe them, in the sense that they do not know what “acting as though this were the case” would even mean. This no more affects the general voluntariness of belief than the fact that some people cannot do backflips affects the fact that such bodily motions are in themselves voluntary.

Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.