And Fire by Fire

Superstitious Nonsense asks about the last post:

So the answer here is that -some- of the form is present in the mind, but always an insufficient amount or accuracy that the knowledge will not be “physical”? You seem to be implying the part of the form that involves us in the self-reference paradox is precisely the part of the form that gives objects their separate, “physical” character. Is this fair? Certainly, knowing progressively more about an object does not imply the mental copy is becoming closer and closer to having a discrete physicality.

I’m not sure this is the best way to think about it. The self-reference paradox arises because we are trying to copy ourselves into ourselves, and thus we are adding something into ourselves, making the copy incomplete. The problem is not that there is some particular “part of the form” that we cannot copy, but that it is in principle impossible to copy it perfectly. This is different from saying that there is some specific “part” that cannot be copied.

Consider what happens when we make “non-physical” copies of something without involving a mind. Consider the image of a gold coin. There are certain relationships common to the image and to a gold coin in the physical world. So you could say we have a physical gold coin, and a non-physical one.

But wait. If the image of the coin is on paper, isn’t that a physical object? Or if the image is on your computer screen, isn’t your screen a physical object? And the image is just the colors on the screen, which are apparently just as “physical” (or non-physical) as the color of the actual coin. So why we would say that “this is not a physical coin?”

Again, as in the last post, the obvious answer is that the image is not made out of gold, while the physical coin is. But why not? Is it that the image is not accurate enough? If we made it more accurate, would it be made out of gold, or become closer to being made out of gold? Obviously not. This is like noting that a mental copy does not become closer and closer to being a physical one.

In a sense it is true that the reason the image of the coin is not physical is that it is not accurate enough. But that is because it cannot be accurate enough: the fact that it is an image positively excludes the copying of certain relationships. Some aspects can be copied, but others cannot be copied at all, as long as it is an image. On the other hand, you can look at this from the opposite direction: if you did copy those aspects, the image would no longer be an image, but a physical coin.

As a similar example, consider the copying of a colored scene into black and white. We can copy some aspects of the scene by using various shades of gray, but we cannot copy every aspect of the scene. There are simply not enough differences in a black and white image to reflect every aspect of a colored scene. The black and white image, as you make it more accurate, does not become closer to being colored, but this is simply because there are aspects of the colored scene that you never copy. If you do insist on copying those aspects, you will indeed make the black and white image into a colored image, and thus it will no longer be black and white.

The situation becomes significantly more complicated when we talk about a mind. In one way, there is an important similarity. When we say that the copy in the mind is “not physical,” that simply means that it is a copy in the mind, just as when we say that the image of the coin is not physical, it means that it is an image, made out of the stuff that images are made of. But just as the image is physical anyway, in another sense, so it is perfectly possible that the mind is physical in a similar sense. However, this is where things begin to become confusing.

Elsewhere, I discussed Aristotle’s argument that the mind is immaterial. Considering the cases above, we could put his argument in this way: the human brain is a limited physical object. So as long as the brain remains a brain, there are simply not enough potential differences in it to model all possible differences in the world, just as you cannot completely model a colored scene using black and white. But anything at all can be understood. Therefore we cannot be understanding by using the brain.

I have claimed myself that anything that can be, can be understood. But this needs to be understood generically, rather than as claiming that it is possible to understand reality in every detail simultaneously. The self-reference paradox shows that it is impossible in principle for a knower that copies forms into itself to understand itself in every aspect at once. But even apart from this, it is very obvious that we as human beings cannot understand every aspect of reality at once. This does not even need to be argued: you cannot even keep everything in mind at once, let alone understand every detail of everything. This directly suggests a problem with Aristotle’s argument: if being able to know all things suggests that the mind is immaterial, the obvious fact that we cannot know all things suggests that it is not.

Nonetheless, let us see what happens if we advance the argument on Aristotle’s behalf. Admittedly, we cannot understand everything at once. But in the case of the colored scene, there are aspects that cannot be copied at all into the black and white copy. And in the case of the physical coin, there are aspects that cannot be copied at all into the image. So if we are copying things into the brain, doesn’t that mean that there should be aspects of reality that cannot be copied at all into the mind? But this is false, since it would not only mean that we can’t understand everything, but it would also mean that there would be things that we cannot think about at all, and if it is so, then it is not so, because in that case we are right now talking about things that we supposedly cannot talk about.

Copying into the mind is certainly different from copying into a black and white scene or copying into a picture, and this does get at one of the differences. But the difference here is that the method of copying in the case of the mind is flexible, while the method of copying in the case of the pictures is rigid. In other words, we have a pre-defined method of copying in the case of the pictures that, from the beginning, only allows certain aspects to be copied. In the case of the mind, we determine the method differently from case to case, depending on our particular situation and the thing being copied. The result is that there is no particular aspect of things that cannot be copied, but you cannot copy every aspect at once.

In answer to the original question, then, the reason that the “mental copy” always remains mental is that you never violate the constraints of the mind, just as a black and white copy never violates the constraints of being black and white. But if you did violate the constraints of the black and white copy by copying every aspect of the scene, the image would become colored. And similarly, if you did violate the constraints of the mind in order to copy every aspect of reality, your mind would cease to be, and it would instead become the thing itself. But there is no particular aspect of “physicality” that you fail to copy: rather, you just ensure that one way or another you do not violate the constraints of the mind that you have.

Unfortunately, the explanation here for why the mind can copy any particular aspect of reality, although not every aspect at once, is rather vague. Perhaps a clearer explanation is possible? In fact, someone could use the vagueness to argue for Aristotle’s position and against mine. Perhaps my account is vague because it is wrong, and there is actually no way for a physical object to receive copied forms in this way.

Motivated Reasoning and the Kantian Dichotomy

At the beginning of the last post, I distinguished between error caused by confusing the mode of knowledge and the mode of being, and error caused by non-truth related motives. But by the end of the post, it occurred to me that there might be more of a relationship between the two than one might think. Not that we can reduce all error to one or the other, of course. It seems pretty clear that the errors involved in the Kantian dichotomy are somewhat “natural,” so to speak, and often the result of honest confusion. This seems different from motivated reasoning. Similarly, there are certainly other causes of error. If someone makes an arithmetical error in their reasoning, which is a common occurrence, this is not necessarily caused by either confusion about the mode of knowing or by some other motive. It is just a mistake, perhaps caused by a failure of the imagination.

Nonetheless, consider the examples chosen in the last post. Scott Sumner is the anti-realist, while James Larson is the realist. And if we are looking only at that disagreement, and not taking into account confusion about the mode of knowing, Larson is right, and Sumner is wrong. But if we consider their opinions on other matters, Sumner is basically sane and normal, while Larson is basically crazy. Consider for example Larson’s attitude to science:

In considering what might be called the “collective thinking” of the entire Western world (and beyond), there is no position one can take which elicits more universal disdain than that of being“anti-science.” It immediately calls forth stereotyped images of backwardness, anti-progress, rigidity, and just plain stupidity.

There are of course other epithets that are accompanied by much more vehement condemnations: terms as such anti-semite, racist, etc. But we are not here concerned with such individual prejudices and passions, but rather with the scientific Weltanschauung (World-view) which now dominates our thinking, and the rejection of which is almost unthinkable to modern man.

Integral to this world-view is the belief that there is a world of “Science” containing all knowledge of the depths of the physical world, that the human mind has the potential to fully encompass this knowledge, and that it is only in the use” of this knowledge that man sins.

It is my contention, on the other hand, that the scientific weltanschauung is integrally constituted by a dominant hubris, which has profoundly altered human consciousness, and constitutes a war against both God and man.

Stereotyped or not, the labels Larson complains about can be applied to his position with a high degree of accuracy. He goes on to criticize not only the conclusions of science but also the very idea of engaging in a study of the world in a scientific manner:

It is a kind of dogma of modern life that man has the inalienable right, and even responsibility, to the pursuit of unending growth in all the spheres of his secular activity: economic, political (New World Order), scientific knowledge, technological development, etc. Such “unending quest for knowledge and growth” would almost seem to constitute modern man’s definition of his most fundamental dignity. This is fully in accord with the dominant forms of modern philosophy which define him in terms of evolutionary becoming rather than created being.

Such is not the Biblical view, which rather sees such pursuits as reeking disaster to both individual and society, and to man’s relationship to Truth and God. The Biblical perspective begins with Original Sin which, according to St. Thomas, was constituted as an intellectual pride by which Adam and Eve sought an intellectual excellence of knowledge independently of God. In the situation of Original Sin, this is described in terms of “knowledge of good and evil.” It is obvious in the light of further Old Testament scriptures, however, that this disorder also extends to the “seeking after an excellence” which would presume to penetrate to the depth of the nature of created things. Thus, we have the following scriptures:

Nothing may be taken away, nor added, neither is it possible to find out the glorious works of God: When a man hath done, then shall he begin: And when he leaveth off, he shall be at a loss.” (Ecclus 28:5-6).

And I understood that man can find no reason of all those works of God that are done under the sun: and the more he shall labor to seek, so much the less shall he find: yea, though the wise man shall say, that he knoweth it, he shall not be able to find it.” (Eccl 8:17).

For the works of the Highest only are wonderful, and his works are glorious, secret, and hidden.” (Ecclus 11:4).

For great is the power of God alone, and he is honoured by the humble. Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into things above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men. And the suspicion of them hath deceived man, and hath detained their minds in vanity.” (Ecclus 3:21-26).

These scripture passages proscribe any effort by man which attempts to penetrate (or even be inquisitive and curious about) the hidden depths of God’s “works.” It is evident that in these scriptures the word “works” refers to the physical world itself – to all those “works of God that are done under the sun.” There is no allegorical interpretation possible here. We are simply faced with a choice between considering these teachings as divinely revealed truth, or merely the product of primitive and ignorant Old Testament human minds.

It is not merely that Larson rejects the conclusions of science, which he admittedly does. He also condemns the very idea of “let’s go find out how the world works” as a wicked and corrupting curiosity. I say, without further ado, that this is insane.

But of course it is not insane in the sense that Larson should be committed to a mental institution, even though I would expect that he has some rather extreme personality characteristics. Rather, it is extremely obvious that Larson is engaging in highly motivated reasoning. On the other hand, most of Scott Sumner’s opinions are relatively ordinary, and while some of his opinions are no doubt supported by other human motives besides truth, we do not find him holding anything in such a highly motivated way.

Thus we have this situation: the one who upholds common sense (with regard to realism) holds crazy motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters, while the one who rejects common sense (with regard to realism) holds sane non-motivated opinions about all sorts of other matters. Perhaps this is accidental? If we consider other cases, will we find that this is an exceptional case, and that most of the time the opposite happens?

Anti-realism in particular, precisely because it is so strongly opposed to common sense, is rare in absolute terms, and thus we can expect to find that most people are realist regardless of their other opinions. But I do not think that we will find that the opposite is the case overall. On the contrary, I think we will find that people who embrace the Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have more accurate opinions about detailed matters, and that people who embrace the anti-Kantian side of such a dichotomy will frequently tend to be people who have less accurate opinions about detailed matters, despite the fact that the anti-Kantian side is right about the common sense issue at hand.

Consider the dichotomy in general. If we analyze it purely in terms of concern for truth, the anti-Kantian is interested in upholding the truth of common sense, while the Kantian is interested in upholding the truth about the relationship between the mind and the world. From the beginning, the anti-Kantian wishes to maintain a general well-known truth, while the Kantian wants to maintain a relatively complex detailed truth about the relationship between knowledge and the world. The Kantian thus has more of an interest in details than the anti-Kantian, while the anti-Kantian is more concerned about the general truth.

What happens when we bring in other motivations? People begin to trade away truth. To the degree that they are interested in other things, they will have less time and energy to think about what is true. And since knowledge advances from general to particular, it would not be surprising if people who are less interested in truth pay less attention to details, and bother themselves mainly about general issues. On the other hand, if people are highly interested in truth and not much interested in other things, they will dedicate a lot of time and attention to working out things in detail. Of course, there are also other reasons why someone might want to work things out in detail. For example, as I discussed a few years ago, Francis Bacon says in effect: the philosophers do not care about truth. Rather their system is “useful” for certain goals:

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

Meanwhile, Bacon does not himself claim to be interested in truth. But he desires “advantages and effects,” namely accomplishments in the physical world, such as changing lead into gold. But if you want to make complex changes in the physical world, you need to know the world in detail. The philosophers, therefore, have no need of detailed knowledge because they are not interested in truth but disputation and status, while Bacon does have a need of detailed knowledge, even though he is likewise uninterested in truth, because he is interested in changing the world.

In reality, there will exist both philosophers and scientists who mainly have these non-truth related concerns, and others who are mainly concerned about the truth. But we can expect an overall effect of caring more about truth to be caring more about details as well, simply because such people will devote more time and energy to working things out in detail.

On this account, Scott Sumner’s anti-realism is an honest mistake, made simply because people tend to find the Kantian error persuasive when they try to think about how knowledge works in detail. Meanwhile, James Larson’s absurd opinions about science are not caused by any sort of honesty, but by his ulterior motives. I noted in the last post that in any such Kantian dichotomy, the position upholding common sense is truer. And this is so, but the implication of the present considerations is that in practice we will often find the person upholding common sense also maintaining positions which are much wronger in their details, because they will frequently care less about the truth overall.

I intended to give a number of examples, since this point is hardly proven by the single instance of Scott Sumner and James Larson. But since I am running short on time, at least for now I will simply point the reader in the right direction. Consider the Catholic discussion of modernism. Pius X said that the modernists “attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy,” but as we saw there, the modernists cared about the truth of certain details that the Church preferred to ignore or even to deny. The modernists were not mistaken to ascribe this to a love of truth. As I noted in the same post, Pius X suggests that a mistaken epistemology is responsible for the opinions of the modernists:

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them.

As I noted there, epistemology is not the foundation for anyone’s opinions, and was not the foundation for the opinions of the modernists. But on the other hand, Pius X may be seeing something true here. The “agnosticism” he describes here is basically the claim that we can know only appearances, and not the thing in itself. And I would find it unsurprising if Pius X is right that there was a general tendency among the modernists to accept a Kantian epistemology. But the reason for this would be analogous to the reasons that Scott Sumner is an anti-realist: that is, it is basically an honest mistake about knowledge, while in contrast, the condemnation of questioning the authenticity of the Vulgate text of 1 John 5:7 was not honest at all.

Skeptical Scenarios

I promised to return to some of the issues discussed here. The current post addresses the implications of the sort of skeptical scenario considered by Alexander Pruss in the associated discussion. Consider his original comparison of physical theories and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

If we consider this in light of our analysis of form, it is not difficult to see that Pruss is correct both about the ordinary chair sentence being consistent with a large variety of physical theories, and about the implication that it is consistent with most situations that would normally be considered “skeptical.” The reason is that to say that something is a chair is to say something about its relationships with the world, but it is not to say everything about its relationships. It speaks in particular about various relationships with the human world. And there is nothing to prevent these relationships from co-existing with any number of other kinds of relationships between its parts, its causes, and so on.

Pruss is right to insist that in order for the ordinary sentence to be true, the corresponding forms must be present. But as an anti-reductionist, his position implies hidden essences, and this is a mistake. Indeed, under the correct understanding of form, our everyday knowledge of things is sufficient to ensure that the forms are present: regardless of which physical theories turn out to be true, and even if some such skeptical scenario turns out to be true.

Why are these situations called “skeptical” in the first place? This is presumably because they seem to call into question whether or not we possess any knowledge of things. And in this respect, they fail in two ways, they partially fail in a third, and they succeed in one way.

First, they fail insofar as they attempt to call into question, e.g. whether there are chairs in my room right now, or whether I have two hands. These things are true and would be true even in the “skeptical” situations.

Second, they fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat. In the straightforward sense, I do know this, because the claim is opposed to the other things (e.g. about the chairs and my hands) that I know to be true.

Third, they partially fail even insofar as they claim, e.g. that I do not know whether I am a brain in a vat in a metaphysical sense. Roughly speaking, I do know that I am not, not by deducing the fact with any kind of necessity, but simply because the metaphysical claim is completely ungrounded. In other words, I do not know this infallibly, but it is extremely likely. We could compare this with predictions about the future. Thus for example Ron Conte attempts to predict the future:

First, an overview of the tribulation:
A. The first part of the tribulation occurs for this generation, beginning within the next few years, and ending in 2040 A.D.
B. Then there will be a brief period of peace and holiness on earth, lasting about 25 years.
C. The next few hundred years will see a gradual but unstoppable increase in sinfulness and suffering in the world. The Church will remain holy, and Her teaching will remain pure. But many of Her members will fall into sin, due to the influence of the sinful world.
D. The second part of the tribulation occurs in the early 25th century (about 2430 to 2437). The Antichrist reigns for less than 7 years during this time.
E. Jesus Christ returns to earth, ending the tribulation.

Now, some predictions for the near future. These are not listed in chronological order.

* The Warning, Consolation, and Miracle — predicted at Garabandal and Medjugorje — will occur prior to the start of the tribulation, sometime within the next several years (2018 to 2023).
* The Church will experience a severe schism. First, a conservative schism will occur, under Pope Francis; next, a liberal schism will occur, under his conservative successor.
* The conservative schism will be triggered by certain events: Amoris Laetitia (as we already know, so, not a prediction), and the approval of women deacons, and controversial teachings on salvation theology.
* After a short time, Pope Francis will resign from office.
* His very conservative successor will reign for a few years, and then die a martyr, during World War 3.
* The successor to Pope Francis will take the papal name Pius XIII.

Even ignoring the religious speculation, we can “know” that this account is false, simply because it is inordinately detailed. Ron Conte no doubt has reasons for his beliefs, much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did. But just as we saw in that case, his reasons will also in all likelihood turn out to be completely disproportionate to the detail of the claims they seek to establish.

In a similar way, a skeptical scenario can be seen as painting a detailed picture of a larger context of our world, one outside our current knowledge. There is nothing impossible about such a larger context; in fact, there surely is one. But the claim about brains and vats is very detailed: if one takes it seriously, it is more detailed than Ron Conte’s predictions, which could also be taken as a statement about a larger temporal context to our situation. The brain-in-vat scenario implies that our entire world depends on another world which has things similar to brains and similar to vats, along presumably with things analogous to human beings that made the vats, and so on. And since the whole point of the scenario is that it is utterly invented, not that it is accepted by anyone, while Conte’s account is accepted at least by him, there is not even a supposed basis for thinking that things are actually this way. Thus we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that we are not brains in vats, just as we can say, not infallibly but with a great deal of certainty, that there will not be any “Antichrist” between 2430 and 2437.

There is nonetheless one way in which the consideration of skeptical scenarios does succeed in calling our knowledge into question. Consider them insofar as they propose a larger context to our world, as discussed above. As I said, there is nothing impossible about a larger context, and there surely is one. Here we speak of a larger metaphysical context, but we can compare this with the idea of a larger physical context.

Our knowledge of our physical context is essentially local, given the concrete ways that we come to know the world. I know a lot about the room I am in, a significant amount about the places I usually visit or have visited in the past, and some but much less about places I haven’t visited. And speaking of an even larger physical context, I know things about the solar system, but much less about the wider physical universe. And if we consider what lies outside the visible universe, I might well guess that there are more stars and galaxies and so on, but nothing more. There is not much more detail even to this as a guess: and if there is an even larger physical context, it is possible that there are places that do not have stars and galaxies at all, but other things. In other words, universal knowledge is universal, but also vague, while specific knowledge is more specific, but also more localized: it is precisely because it is local that it was possible to acquire more specific knowledge.

In a similar way, more specific metaphysical knowledge is necessarily of a more local metaphysical character: both physical and metaphysical knowledge is acquired by us through the relationships things have with us, and in both cases “with us” implies locality. We can know that the brain-in-vat scenario is mistaken, but that should not give us hope that we can find out what is true instead: even if we did find some specific larger metaphysical context to our situation, there would be still larger contexts of which we would remain unaware. Just as you will never know the things that are too distant from you physically, you will also never know the things that are too distant from you metaphysically.

I previously advocated patience as a way to avoid excessively detailed claims. There is nothing wrong with this, but here we see that it is not enough: we also need to accept our actual situation. Rebellion against our situation, in the form of painting a detailed picture of a larger context of which we can have no significant knowledge, will profit us nothing: it will just be painting a picture as false as the brain-in-vat scenario, and as false as Ron Conte’s predictions.

Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

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.