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.

Common Sense

I have tended to emphasize common sense as a basic source in attempting to philosophize or otherwise understand reality. Let me explain what I mean by the idea of common sense.

The basic idea is that something is common sense when everyone agrees that something is true. If we start with this vague account, something will be more definitively common sense to the degree that it is truer that everyone agrees, and likewise to the degree that it is truer that everyone agrees.

If we consider anything that one might think of as a philosophical view, we will find at least a few people who disagree, at least verbally, with the claim. But we may be able to find some that virtually everyone agrees with. These pertain more to common sense than things that fewer people agree with. Likewise, if we consider everyday claims rather than philosophical ones, we will probably be able to find things that everyone agrees with apart from some very localized contexts. These pertain even more to common sense. Likewise, if everyone has always agreed with something both in the past and present, that pertains more to common sense than something that everyone agrees with in the present, but where some have disagreed in the past.

It will be truer that everyone agrees in various ways: if everyone is very certain of something, that pertains more to common sense than something people are less certain about. If some people express disagreement with a view, but everyone’s revealed preferences or beliefs indicate agreement, that can be said to pertain to common sense to some degree, but not so much as where verbal affirmations and revealed preferences and beliefs are aligned.

Naturally, all of this is a question of vague boundaries: opinions are more or less a matter of common sense. We cannot sort them into two clear categories of “common sense” and “not common sense.” Nonetheless, we would want to base our arguments, as much as possible, on things that are more squarely matters of common sense.

We can raise two questions about this. First, is it even possible? Second, why do it?

One might object that the proposal is impossible. For no one can really reason except from their own opinions. Otherwise, one might be formulating a chain of argument, but it is not one’s own argument or one’s own conclusion. But this objection is easily answered. In the first place, if everyone agrees on something, you probably agree yourself, and so reasoning from common sense will still be reasoning from your own opinions. Second, if you don’t personally agree, since belief is voluntary, you are capable of agreeing if you choose, and you probably should, for reasons which will be explained in answering the second question.

Nonetheless, the objection is a reasonable place to point out one additional qualification. “Everyone agrees with this” is itself a personal point of view that someone holds, and no one is infallible even with respect to this. So you might think that everyone agrees, while in fact they do not. But this simply means that you have no choice but to do the best you can in determining what is or what is not common sense. Of course you can be mistaken about this, as you can about anything.

Why argue from common sense? I will make two points, a practical one and a theoretical one. The practical point is that if your arguments are public, as for example this blog, rather than written down in a private journal, then you presumably want people to read them and to gain from them in some way. The more you begin from common sense, the more profitable your thoughts will be in this respect. More people will be able to gain from your thoughts and arguments if more people agree with the starting points.

There is also a theoretical point. Consider the statement, “The truth of a statement never makes a person more likely to utter it.” If this statement were true, no one could ever utter it on account of its truth, but only for other reasons. So it is not something that a seeker of truth would ever say. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the falsehood of some statements, on some occasions, makes those statements more likely to be affirmed by some people. Nonetheless, the nature of language demands that people have an overall tendency, most of the time and in most situations, to speak the truth. We would not be able to learn the meaning of a word without it being applied accurately, most of the time, to the thing that it means. In fact, if everyone was always uttering falsehoods, we would simply learn that “is” means “is not,” and that “is not,” means “is,” and the supposed falsehoods would not be false in the language that we would acquire.

It follows that greater agreement that something is true, other things being equal, implies that the thing is more likely to be actually true. Stones have a tendency to fall down: so if we find a great collection of stones, the collection is more likely to be down at the bottom of a cliff rather than perched precisely on the tip of a mountain. Likewise, people have a tendency to utter the truth, so a great collection of agreement suggests something true rather than something false.

Of course, this argument depends on “other things being equal,” which is not always the case. It is possible that most people agree on something, but you are reasonably convinced that they are mistaken, for other reasons. But if this is the case, your arguments should depend on things that they would agree with even more strongly than they agree with the opposite of your conclusion. In other words, it should be based on things which pertain even more to common sense. Suppose it does not: ultimately the very starting point of your argument is something that everyone else agrees is false. This will probably be an evident insanity from the beginning, but let us suppose that you find it reasonable. In this case, Robin Hanson’s result discussed here implies that you must be convinced that you were created in very special circumstances which would guarantee that you would be right, even though no one else was created in these circumstances. There is of course no basis for such a conviction. And our ability to modify our priors, discussed there, implies that the reasonable behavior is to choose to agree with the priors of common sense, if we find our natural priors departing from them, except in cases where the disagreement is caused by agreement with even stronger priors of common sense. Thus for example in this post I gave reasons for disagreeing with our natural prior on the question, “Is this person lying or otherwise deceived?” in some cases. But this was based on mathematical arguments that are even more convincing than that natural prior.

Generalized Kantian Dichotomy

At the end of the last post I suggested that the confusion between the mode of knowledge and the mode of being might be a primary, or rather the primary, cause of philosophical error, with the exception of motivated error.

If we consider the “Kantian” and “anti-Kantian” errors in the last post, we can give a somewhat general account of how this happens. The two errors might appear to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive, but in fact they constitute a false dichotomy. Consider the structure of the disagreement:

A. Common sense takes note of something: in this case, that it is possible to know things. Knowledge is real.

B. The Kantian points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. Knowledge is apparent, but not real.

C. The anti-Kantian, determined to uphold common sense, applies modus tollens. We know that knowledge is real: so the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same.

Each party to the dispute says something true (that knowledge is real, that the mode of being and the mode of knowing are not the same), and something false (that knowledge is not real, that the mode of being and the mode of knowing are the same.)

A vast number of philosophical disputes can be analyzed in a very similar manner. Thus we have the general structure:

A. Common sense points out that some item X is real.

B. The Kantian points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. X is apparent, but not real.

C. The anti-Kantian, determined to uphold common sense, applies modus tollens. We know that X is real: so the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same.

Once again, in this general structure, each party to the dispute would say something true (that X is real, that the mode of knowing and being are not the same), and something false (the denial of one of these two.) As an example, we can apply this structure to our discussion of reductionism and anti-reductionism. The reductionist, in this case, is the Kantian (in our present structure), and the anti-reductionist the anti-Kantian. The very same person might well argue both sides about different things: thus Sean Carroll might be anti-reductionist about fundamental particles and reductionist about humans, while Alexander Pruss is anti-reductionist about humans and reductionist about artifacts. But whether we are discussing fundamental particles, humans, or artifacts, both sides are wrong. Both say something true, but also something false.

Several cautionary notes are needed in this regard.

First, both sides will frequently realize that they are saying something strongly counter-intuitive, and attempt to remedy this by saying something along the lines of “I don’t mean to say the thing that is false.” But that is not the point. I do not say that you intend to say the thing that is false. I say that you give an account which logically implies the thing that is false, and that the only way you can avoid this implication is by rejecting the false dichotomy completely, namely by accepting both the reality of X, and the distinction of the modes of knowing and being. Thus for example Sean Carroll’s does not distinguish his poetic naturalism from eliminativism in terms of what it says to be true, but only in terms of what it says to be useful. But eliminativism says that it is false that there are ships: therefore Carroll’s poetic naturalism also says that it is false that there are ships, whether he intends to say this or not, and whether or not he finds it useful to say that there are.

Second, this outline uses the terminology of “Kantian” and “anti-Kantian,” but in fact the two tend to blur into one another, because the mistakes are very similar: both imply that the unknown and the known, as such, are the same. Thus for example in my post on reductionism I said that there was a Kantian error in the anti-reductionist position: but in the present schema, the error is anti-Kantian. In part, this happened because I did not make these distinctions clearly enough myself in the earlier post. But is it also because the errors themselves uphold very similar contradictions. Thus the anti-reductionist thinks somewhat along these lines:

We know that a human being is one thing. We know it as a unity, and therefore it has a mode of being as a unity. But whenever anyone tries to explain the idea of a human being, they end up saying many things about it. So our explanation of a human being cannot be the true explanation. Since the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same, a true explanation of a human being would have to be absolutely one. We have no explanation like that, so it must be that a human being has an essence which is currently hidden from us.

Note that this reasons in an anti-Kantian manner (the mode of being and the mode of knowing must be the same), but the conclusion is effectively Kantian: possible or not, we actually have no knowledge of human beings as they are.

As I said in the post on reductionism, the parties to the dispute will in general say that an account like mine is anti-realist: realism, according to both sides, requires that one accept one side of the dichotomy and reject the other. But I respond that the very dispute between realism and anti-realism can be itself an example of the false dichotomy, as the dispute is often understood. Thus:

A. Common sense notes that the things we normally think and talk about are real, and that the things we normally say about them are true.

B. The Kantian (the anti-realist) points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. The things we normally talk about appear to be real, but they are not.

C. The anti-Kantian (the realist) applies modus tollens. We know these things are real: so the mode of knowledge and the mode of being must be the same after all.

As usual, both say something true, and both say something false. Consider Scott Sumner, who tends to take an anti-realist position, as for example here:

Even worse, I propose doing so for “postmodern” reasons. I will start by denying the reality of inflation, and then argue for some substitute concepts that are far more useful. First a bit of philosophy. There is a lively debate about whether there is a meaningful distinction between our perception of reality, and actual reality. I had a long debate with a philosopher about whether Newton’s laws of motion were a part of reality, or merely a human construct. I took the latter view, arguing that if humans had never existed then Newton’s laws would have never existed. He argued they are objectively true. I responded that Einstein showed that were false. He responded that they were objectively true in the limiting case. I argued that even that might be changed by future developments in our understanding of reality at the quantum level. He argued that they’d still be objectively approximately true, etc, etc.

On the one hand, a lot of what Scott says here is right. On the other hand, he mistakenly believes that it follows that common sense is mistaken in matters in which it is not, in fact, mistaken. The reasoning is basically the reasoning of the Kantian: one notices that we have a specific mode of knowing which is not the mode of being of things, and concludes that knowledge is impossible, or in Scott’s terminology, “objective truth” does not exist, at least as distinct from personal opinion. He has a more extensive discussion of this here:

I don’t see it as relativism at all. I don’t see it as the world of fuzzy post-modern philosophers attacking the virtuous hard sciences. It’s important not to get confused by semantics, and focus on what’s really at stake. In my view, Rorty’s views are most easily seen by considering his denial of the distinction between objective truth and subjective belief. In order to see why he did this, consider Rorty’s claim that, “That which has no practical implications, has no theoretical implications.” Suppose Rorty’s right, and it’s all just belief that we hold with more or less confidence. What then? In contrast, suppose the distinction between subjective belief and objective fact is true. What then? What are the practical implications of each philosophical view? I believe the most useful way of thinking about this is to view all beliefs as subjective, albeit held with more or less confidence.

Let’s suppose it were true that we could divide up statements about the world into two categories, subjective beliefs and objective facts. Now let’s write down all our statements about the world onto slips of paper. Every single one of them, there must be trillions (even if we ignore the field of math, where an infinite number of statements could be constructed.) Now let’s divide these statements up into two big piles, one set is subjective beliefs, and the other pile contains statements that are objective facts. We build a vast Borgesian library, and put all the subjective beliefs (i.e. Trump is an idiot) into one wing, and all the objective facts (Paris is the capital of France) into the other wing.

Now here’s the question for pragmatists like Rorty and me. Is this a useful distinction to make? If it is useful, how is it useful? Here’s the only useful thing I can imagine resulting from this distinction. If we have a category of objective facts, then we can save time by not questioning these facts as new information arises. They are “off limits”. Since they are objective facts, they can never be refuted. If they could be refuted, then they’d be subjective beliefs, not objective facts.

But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to consider any beliefs to be completely off limits—not at all open to refutation. That reminds me too much of fundamentalist religion. On the other hand, I do want to distinguish between different kinds of beliefs, in a way that I think is more pragmatic than the subjective/objective distinction. Rather I’d like to assign probability values to each belief, which represent my confidence as to whether or not the belief is true. Then I’d like to devote more of my time to entertaining critiques of highly questionable hypotheses, than I do to less plausible hypotheses.

Again, this makes a great deal of sense. The problem is that Scott thinks that either there is no distinction between the subjective and objective, or we need to be able to make that distinction subjectively. Since the latter seems an evident contradiction, he concludes that there is no distinction between subjective and objective. Later in the post, he puts this in terms of “map and territory”:

The other point of confusion I see is people conflating “the map and the territory”. Then they want to view “objective facts” as aspects of the territory, the underlying reality, not (just) beliefs about the territory. I don’t think that’s very useful, as it seems to me that statements about the world are always models of the world, not the world itself. Again, if it were not true, then theories could never be revised over time. After all, Einstein didn’t revise reality in 1905; he revised our understanding of reality–our model of reality.

“Statements about the world are always models of the world, not the world itself.” Indeed. That is because they are statements, not the things the statements are about. This is correctly to notice that the mode of knowledge is not the mode of being. But it does not follow that there are no objective facts, nor that objective facts are not distinct from opinions. Consider the statement that “dogs are animals.” We can call that statement a “model of the world.” But is not about a model of the world: it is about dogs, which are not our model or even parts of our model, but things moving around outside in the real world. Obviously, we cannot concretely distinguish between “things we think are true” and “things that are actually true,” because it will always be us talking about things that are actually true, but we can make and understand that distinction in the abstract. Scott is right, however, to reject the idea that some ideas are subjective “because they are about the map,” with other statements being objective “because they are about the territory.” In the map / territory terminology, all statements are maps, and all of them are about the territory (including statements about maps, which refer to maps as things that exist, and thus as part of the territory.)

We can see here how Scott Sumner is falling into the Kantian error. But what about the realist position? It does not follow from any of the above that the realist must make any corresponding error. And indeed, in all such dichotomies, there will be a side which is more right than the other: namely, the side that says that common sense is right. And so it is possible, and correct, to say that common sense is right without also accepting the corresponding falsehood (namely that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are the same.) But if we do accept the realist position together with the corresponding falsehood, this can manifest itself in various ways. For example, one might say that one should indeed put some things in the category of “off limits” for discussion: since they are objective facts, they can never be revised. Thus for example James Larson, as in an earlier discussion, tends to identify the rejection of his positions with the rejection of realism. In effect, “My beliefs are objectively true. So people who disagree with my beliefs reject objective truth. And I cannot admit that my beliefs might be false, because that would mean an objective truth could be false at the same time, which is a contradiction.” The problem will not always be manifested in the same way, however, because as we said in the last post, each end of the false dichotomy implies a similar contradiction and cannot be reasoned about coherently.

This or Nothing

In his homily on June 9th, Pope Francis spoke against excessively rigid views:

This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.

“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”

It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolutionJames Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.

The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:

(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…

…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).

Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.

Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.

[On another matter, a public service announcement: If you occasionally use a taxi, or might occasionally do so in the future, and you are not signed up with Uber, you should do so. Call a traditional taxi, and they will tell you they will be there in 20 – 30 minutes. They will actually be there in 45 – 60 minutes, and possibly not at all. With Uber, all it takes is a few clicks, and you will have a ride in 5 -10 minutes. While it is on the way, you know the exact location of your ride and can communicate with your driver in advance as needed. And as far as I can tell, the price is about the same.

There is also another reason for this advertisement. If you sign up with Uber using the promo code 6p1nbwapue , you and I will both receive $20 of credit. This only works if you actually use the service at least once, however.]

Let’s Draw a Line

James Larson, in the note currently at the beginning of his website, accuses Pope Francis of heresy:

Note (April 16, 2016): In order to add clarity as to the nature of the explicit heresy taught in Amoris Laetitia, I have added one paragraph approximately 2/3 of the way through the article below. It reads:

Herein resides the essence of this heresy. It lies specifically in teaching that there is a “gradualness” applicable to the possession of charity and sanctifying grace. It is Catholic dogma that possession of supernatural charity is an ontological state created by sanctifying grace added to the soul, that one cannot possess this charity unless living in this substantial state, and that it is this state of being which is absolutely necessary for receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. It cannot be possessed by a person living in objective mortal sin, or by any person who is in some process of pastoral effort working towards the attainment of some “ideal”.

Larson is saying that sanctifying grace is a binary state, that it cannot be possessed by someone “living in objective mortal sin,” that these items are Catholic dogmas, and that Pope Francis contradicts them. The text in which he supposedly does this is paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Larson is mistaken on almost every point. It is true that sanctifying grace would normally be considered a binary condition, where either you have it or you do not. But the Catholic Church does not typically create doctrines concerning deep matters of ontology. If someone were to assert that some people are in a vague condition where it is unclear whether or not they are in a state of grace, just as it is unclear whether some people are actually bald or just almost bald, this would not be a heresy. Nowhere does the Church condemn such a view.

But this is beside the point. It is entirely obvious that Pope Francis makes no such assertion in the text under consideration. Nor does he assert this, or anything like it, anywhere else in Amoris Laetitia.

“Living in objective mortal sin” refers to the “objective situation of sin” in the text of Pope Francis, and refers to the general idea of living a life where one regularly performs acts which the Church considers to be objectively grave sins. Larson asserts that the Church teaches that such a person cannot be in a state of grace.

This too is mistaken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

The Catechism is clear that doing something objectively wrong is not enough for a sin to be mortal, or to exclude someone from the state of grace. In order for this to happen, there also needs to be “full knowledge” and “complete consent.”

The text does not explicitly address the kind of “objective situation of sin” that Pope Francis and James Larson discuss. Much less, therefore, does it assert that a person in such a situation cannot be in a state of grace. However, it is not difficult to see from the above text that a person could be in such a situation without mortal sin. One of the factors that can “diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense” is “external pressures.” The situations under discussion are precisely situations where there are external pressures. That is why they are considered “situations” as opposed to an arbitrarily repeated series of actions. Since the consent must be “complete” and since it can be diminished by these pressures, a person might very well fail to sin mortally in such a situation, even if the situation lasts for a long time.

We can see that Larson’s positions do not correspond very well with anything that the Church actually teaches. Why then does he make these assertions?

I suggest that we have here a case of highly motivated thinking. Larson wants to believe that sanctifying grace is a binary condition, he wants to believe that a divorced and remarried person could not be in that condition, he wants to believe that these are teachings of the Church, and he wants to believe that Pope Francis contradicts these things.

Why would someone have such desires? Larson says in article 25:

Since Pope Francis’ recent interviews and his letter to the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, I have received emails from traditional Catholics which speak of a new level of despair. It is as though they are desperately seeking some explanation of what is happening with the Papacy and the Church which will allow them to escape from coming to some dreadful conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In the face of all the forces of evil moving in to ensnare and destroy him, Sir Thomas More offers the following impassioned words to his beloved daughter:

“Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.”

It seems evident that the “tangle of the mind” from which traditional Catholics are now desperately trying to escape is the apparent overwhelming evidence that their Church is being destroyed from within. They dread that they are being irresistibly backed into a corner where they will be forced to conclude that the Church, in what they always considered to be her inviolable nature (if she is to be considered real at all) has contradicted this nature, and has therefore been proved to be a human invention, and not the work of God. In other words, they fear the loss of their faith.

I think this is a correct description of how many people feel. I think it is also a correct description of the way Larson himself feels, and I think it can explain why he desires to hold the above opinions concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. This might seem a bit paradoxical. He accuses Pope Francis of heresy. Would not this be a very good example of the kind of thing he should be hoping to avoid?

Yes, in one way, but in another way it is an advantage to him if Pope Francis explicitly falls into heresy. This is important to him. In the first quoted passage, he mentions the “nature of the explicit heresy” taught by Pope Francis. It is not only heresy, but “explicit heresy.”

When people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious about gradual changes of opinion. Such changes not only could lead to what they do not want, namely changing their mind, but they could lead to this without the person even noticing it has happened.

Another point should be made about this. I pointed out here that despite the fact that it would be unreasonable to say that getting one year older makes you pass from “not being old” to “being old”, this does not prevent you from growing up. In the same way, if someone changes his mind gradually, at each point he may be able to say, “this change is too small to constitute a passage from not having changed my mind to having changed my mind.” He may be quite right. But this will not prevent it from being true at the end that he has changed his mind in comparison with his original position.

And just as individual human beings change their minds, so the Church changes its mind, gradually and by degrees, and sometimes without saying that a change has occurred. So just as someone who wishes to avoid changing his mind should be cautious about gradual changes, so someone who does not want the Church to change its mind will wish it to be cautious about gradual changes. This is what is happening here with Larson’s argument. It is an advantage to him if Amoris Laetita is explicitly heretical, because in that case it can be completely rejected, preventing the process of gradual change. If the document is not heretical (and it is not) it will be bound to cause gradual changes of various kinds, and there is no way to predict the end results in advance.

In a certain way, traditionalist Catholics are often more reasonable in this regard than others who would be considered “conservative” rather than traditionalist. Thus for example Jimmy Akin says:

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.

Akin is right that “the Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.” This was discussed above. But “nothing in this is new” is simply not true, if it is understood in relation to the question about communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stated in 2000:

Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.

The text is clear: people in the situation under discussion are not to be given communion, whether or not they are in the state of grace. It is true that they do not assert that such people are necessarily in a state of sin, as James Larson does, but the prohibition does not depend on their subjective condition. And thus when asked whether he intended to change anything, Pope Francis said that he did intend such a change:

Rocca: Thank you Holy Father. I see that the questions on immigration I had thought of have already been asked, and you have responded very well. So, if you will permit me to ask a question on another event of the last few days, which was your Apostolic Exhortation.

As you know well, there was much discussion on one of many points – I know we have concentrated a lot on it – but there has been much discussion after the publication…Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the doctrine remains the same; others maintain instead that much has changed and that there are many new openings and possibilities.

And the question for a person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not?

Pope Francis: I can say yes. Period. But that would be too small an answer.

Akin’s way of thinking goes, “This does not contradict the Church’s current teaching. So it’s nothing new.” Larson, far more reasonably, recognizes in practice (although probably not in principle) that “this does not contradict the Church’s current teaching” can be true at every point in time, without this preventing the Church from changing its teaching in the end. By asserting that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, he hopes to draw a line, in order to remove the possibility of gradual change ultimately resulting in substantial change.

James Chastek, talking about disagreement on philosophical topics, says:

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

We have discussed much the same issue here, although we pointed out that caring too much is only one part of the cause of such disagreement. Something else can be seen in the case of Larson’s disagreement with Amoris Laetita. It is not merely that he cares about the position he holds. He cares about agreement and disagreement, directly. For the reasons stated, he wants to disagree with Pope Francis. Thus in order to be sure that he does, he needs to describe the Pope’s position in various ways.

This is not uncommon. People frequently care not only about their positions, but also about the fact that they agree with certain people, and that they disagree with others. People often draw lines exactly for this reason, namely in order to disagree with someone else.

 

The First Mistake

At the end of the last post, I mentioned two opposed errors. The first was to say that the Christian thesis that God is hidden is a mere excuse, one given because someone realizes that his position is basically unsupported. This is not true, because as I indicated even in the last post, the thesis is a basic principle of Christian theology, and always has been, much as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the principles of development, and of interpretation relative to Christ, have always been at work within the Church.

More generally, the idea that God is hidden is a basic principle of any and every religion or theology. In a previous discussion I showed how motivations other than truth affect our beliefs more in matters more remote from the senses, and I included religious beliefs in this area. And this is in fact how the world is. But it is easy enough to imagine a world where religion is not remote from the senses, and where substantial disagreement about religion would not exist. The Garden of Eden as described would be one such world, but it is easy to imagine this in other ways as well. The point is that such a world is evidently not the actual world, and real religions do not posit such a world.

Blaise Pascal discusses this situation:

194. … Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it. If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; and finally, if it endeavours equally to establish these two things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantage can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul, not even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

“As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I will not take the trouble, nor take a step to seek it; and after treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”

Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would choose him out from others to tell him of his affairs? Who would have recourse to him in affliction? And indeed to what use in life could one put him?

In truth, it is the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable; and their opposition to it is so little dangerous that it serves, on the contrary, to establish its truths. For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ. Now I contend that, if these men do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the holiness of their behaviour, they at least serve admirably to show the corruption of nature by sentiments so unnatural.

Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.

There must be a strange confusion in the nature of man, that he should boast of being in that state in which it seems incredible that a single individual should be. However, experience has shown me so great a number of such persons that the fact would be surprising, if we did not know that the greater part of those who trouble themselves about the matter are disingenuous and not, in fact, what they say. They are people who have heard it said that it is the fashion to be thus daring. It is what they call “shaking off the yoke,” and they try to imitate this. But it would not be difficult to make them understand how greatly they deceive themselves in thus seeking esteem. This is not the way to gain it, even I say among those men of the world who take a healthy view of things and who know that the only way to succeed in this life is to make ourselves appear honourable, faithful, judicious, and capable of useful service to a friend; because naturally men love only what may be useful to them. Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?

If they thought of it seriously, they would see that this is so bad a mistake, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to decency, and so removed in every respect from that good breeding which they seek, that they would be more likely to correct than to pervert those who had an inclination to follow them. And, indeed, make them give an account of their opinions, and of the reasons which they have for doubting religion, and they will say to you things so feeble and so petty, that they persuade you of the contrary. The following is what a person one day said to such a one very appositely: “If you continue to talk in this manner, you will really make me religious.” And he was right, for who would not have a horror of holding opinions in which he would have such contemptible persons as companions!

Thus those who only feign these opinions would be very unhappy, if they restrained their natural feelings in order to make themselves the most conceited of men. If, at the bottom of their heart, they are troubled at not having more light, let them not disguise the fact; this avowal will not be shameful. The only shame is to have none. Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, be more replenished with faith than we are, and that, on the other hand, we may fall into the blindness wherein they are, we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take at least some steps in the endeavour to find light. Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much. But as for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have here collected, and in which I have followed somewhat after this order…

195. Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. “I know not,” they say…

Pascal is surely right about the importance of religious truth. He is also right to say that the idea that this truth is somewhat hidden from men is not foreign to religion, but an essential part of every real religion. The argument that “if religion is true, it should be obvious to everyone,” is evidently invalid, because religions not only do not claim this, but explicitly deny it. If a religion were obviously true to everyone, it would be a very different religion from any that exists, and a very different world.

Rather than attacking such a non-existent religion, he says,

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.

But here he is almost certainly going too far. It may be that “they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions,” but only to the degree that they believe that ultimately it is more reasonable to think that religious beliefs are untrue. They would not be attacking the Church’s claims, or at least any claim truly important to the Church, simply by saying that some individual may do his best to seek the truth, and may come to the conclusion that religious truth is not present in the Church.

I touched on this earlier when discussing the suggestion of Leo XIII that it is easy to see that Catholicism is true. If this is taken to apply to the real world in any concrete way, he is mistaken, and this in fact would be the claim that Pascal says is obviously wrong and obviously not the Church’s claim. On a very similar topic, Newman says:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman takes the existing situation to be a strong argument for the doctrine of original sin. This is not as strong an argument as it seems to him; the existing situation is a likely result of the order of the world. In any case, his point is that one way or another, in the real world, it is not easy to come to the conclusion that a religion is true. In fact, he says that the natural tendency is to come to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible and reasonable to say in a sense that human beings in general are dishonest and unreasonable, and that this is the main explanation for why they disagree substantially in such important matters.

But it is quite unreasonable to say, “Human beings are divided into two kinds: the honest and reasonable ones, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones. The honest and reasonable ones are those who agree with me, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones are those who disagree with me.” And this is basically what Pascal asserts when he claims that no one can say that he has made every effort to discover the truth about religion, and has concluded that it is not present in the Church. He says even more: “I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.” Here he says that “no one has ever done so,” that is, no one has even claimed to make such an investigation. He is mistaken in both respects: in whatever sense there exist reasonable people, there are reasonable non-Catholics. And surely some of them have investigated Catholicism, come to the conclusion that it was not true, and said that they have done so.

Gwern Branwen explains the history of his religious opinions:

For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good to be rid of the greatest evil from oneself than to rid someone else of it. I don’t suppose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re discussing right now…

I think religion was the first subject in my life that I took seriously. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “deconversion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remember ever seriously believing – the stories in the Bible or at my Catholic church were interesting, but they were obviously fiction to some degree. I wasn’t going to reject religion out of hand because some of the stories were made-up (any more than I believed George Washington didn’t exist because the story of him chopping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims didn’t seem to be panning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I didn’t see any miracles or intercessions like I expected from a omnipotent loving god

There is a basic flaw in Gwern’s thinking here, and it is basically a naive concept of God, much like that of Richard Dawkins. The result is that he is falling into the error that Pascal condemns. The Church does not expect such things, at least on a regular basis, and if you think that it follows from the concept of an omnipotent loving God, then your concept of that being is not a Christian concept. In this sense, his whole mistake is that he fails to understand the idea that God is hidden. Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that the reason for Gwern’s mistake is that he was dishonest and unreasonable, and it is especially wrong to say that it was because he did not care about religious truth:

So I never believed (although it was obvious enough that there was no point in discussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sitting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the troubling matter of Heaven & Hell: those infinities meant I couldn’t simply dismiss religion and continue reading about dinosaurs or Alcatraz. If I got religion wrong, I would have gotten literally the most important possible thing wrong! Nothing else was as important – if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geographer or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believing in astrology, at worst you waste time and money; if you’re wrong about evolution and biology, at worst you endanger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about religion, wasting your life is about the least of the consequences. And everyone accepts a religion or at least the legitimacy of religious claims, so it would be unspeakably arrogant of a kid to dismiss religion entirely – that sort of evidence is simply not there. (Oddly enough, atheists – who are not immediately shown to be mistaken or fools- are even rarer in books and cartoons than they are in real life.)

Kids actually are kind of skeptical if they have reason to be skeptical, and likewise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was previously trustworthy. This is as it should be! Kids cannot come prewired with 100% correct beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reliable authorities; these strategies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reliable authorities in their lives (their parents) are mistaken about one major set of beliefs. They simply have bad epistemic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from boring to incoherent to disgusting. (I became a fan of the Wisdom literature, however, and still periodically read the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.) That didn’t help much. Well, maybe Christianity was not the right religion? My elementary school library had a rather strange selection of books which included various Eastern texts or anthologies (I remember in particular one anthology on meditation, which was a hodge-podge of religious instruction manuals, essays, and scientific studies on meditation – that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and college that I really became comfortable reading psychology papers). I continued reading in this vein for years, in between all my more normal readings. The Koran was interesting and in general much better than the Bible. Shinto texts were worthless mythologizing. Taoism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in particular) but then bizarrely degenerated into alchemy. Buddhism was strange: I rather liked the general philosophical approach, but there were many populist elements in Mahayana texts that bothered me. Hinduism had a strange beauty, but my reaction was similar to that of the early translators, who condemned it for sloth and lassitude. I also considered the Occult seriously and began reading the Skeptical literature on that and related topics (see the later section).

It is clear from this that he did in fact care about getting the truth about religion, much for the reasons that Pascal says it is important to care about it.

More generally, in the real world there are honest and reasonable people, in the sense in which there are such people at all, belonging to every religion, and some belonging to none. And if we think about it carefully, this is a necessary effect of the thesis of the hidden God. Perhaps, as Pascal says, “God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart.” The purpose might be to distinguish between people who care and those who don’t. And this may succeed to some extent, but the net will inevitably catch some of the wrong people and miss some of the right people: some people who do not care, will believe anyway, and some people who do, will end up not believing.

 

Aumann Agreement in Real Life

In an earlier post I discussed Robert Aumann’s mathematical theorem demonstrating that people with common priors who have common knowledge of their opinions cannot disagree about the probability of any fact.

As I said at the time, real human beings do not have a prior probability distribution, and thus the theorem cannot apply to them strictly speaking. To the degree that people do have a prior, that prior can differ from person to person.

A person’s prior can also be modified, something which is not meant to happen to a prior understood in the mathematical sense of Aumann’s paper. We can see this by means of a thought experiment, even if the thought experiment itself cannot happen in real life. Suppose you are given a machine that works like this: you can ask the machine whether some statement is true. It has a 100% chance of printing out a 1 if the statement is in fact true. If the statement is false, it has a 10% chance of printing a 1, and a 90% chance of printing a 0. You are allowed to repeat the question, with the responses having the same probability each time.

Thus if you ask about a false statement, it will have a 10% chance of printing a 1. It will have a 1% chance of printing 1 twice in a row, and a 0.1% chance of printing a 1 three times in a row.

Suppose you ask the question, “Are the Chronicles of Narnia a completely accurate historical account of something that really happened to various children from England?”

The machine outputs a 1. So you ask again. You get another 1. Let’s say this happens 10 times. The probability that this happens this many times with a false statement is one in ten billion.

In real life you would conclude that a machine that did this does not work as stated. But in our thought experiment, you know with absolute certainty that it does work as stated. So you almost certainly will conclude that the Chronicles of Narnia is an accurate historical account. The same will be true pretty much no matter what statement you test, given this result.

But it would be easy to compose far more than 10 billion mutually inconsistent statements. Thus it is logically inconsistent to assign a probability of more than one in ten billion to all such statements. So if you had a consistent and full prior distribution that you were prepared to stick to, then there should be some such statements which you will still believe to be false even after getting a 1 ten times from the machine. This proves that we do not have such a prior: the fact that the machine comes out this way tells us that we should admit that the prior for the particular statement that we are testing should be high enough to accept after the machine’s result. So for example we might think that the actual probability of the Chronicles of Narnia being an accurate historical account is less than one in ten billion. But if we are given the machine and get this result, we will change our mind about the original probability of the claim, in order to justify accepting it as true in those circumstances.

If someone disagrees with the above thought experiment, he can change the 10 to 20, or to whatever is necessary.

Although Aumann’s result depends on unchanging priors, in practice the fact that we can change our priors in this way makes his result apply more to human disagreements than it would in a situation where we had unchanging priors, but still diverse from other people’s priors.

Robin Hanson has published an extension of Aumann’s result, taking into account the fact that people have different priors and can reason about the origin of these priors. By stipulating certain conditions of rationality (just as Aumann does), he can get the result that a disagreement between two people will only be reasonable if they disagree about the origin of their priors, and in a particular way:

This paper presents a theoretical framework in which agents can hold probabilistic beliefs about the origins of their priors, and uses this framework to consider how such beliefs might constrain the rationality of priors. The basic approach is to embed a set of standard models within a larger encompassing standard model. Each embedded model differs only in which agents have which priors, while the larger encompassing model includes beliefs about which possible prior combinations might be realized.

Just as beliefs in a standard model depends on ordinary priors, beliefs in the larger model depend on pre-priors. We do not require that these pre-priors be common; pre-priors can vary. But to keep priors and pre-priors as consistent as possible with each other, we impose a pre-rationality condition. This condition in essence requires that each agent’s ordinary prior be obtained by updating his pre-prior on the fact that nature assigned the agents certain particular priors.

This pre-rationality condition has strong implications regarding the rationality of uncommon priors. Consider, for example, two astronomers who disagree about whether the universe is open (and infinite) or closed (and finite). Assume that they are both aware of the same relevant cosmological data, and that they try to be Bayesians, and therefore want to attribute their difference of opinion to differing priors about the size of the universe.

This paper shows that neither astronomer can believe that, regardless of the size of the universe, nature was equally likely to have switched their priors. Each astronomer must instead believe that his prior would only have favored a smaller universe in situations where a smaller universe was actually more likely. Furthermore, he must believe that the other astronomer’s prior would not track the actual size of the universe in this way; other priors can only track universe size indirectly, by tracking his prior. Thus each person must believe that prior origination processes make his prior more correlated with reality than others’ priors.

Despite the fact that Hanson’s result, like Aumann’s, is based on a particular mathematical analysis which remains much more rigid than real life, and in this sense cannot apply strictly to real life, it is not difficult to see that it does have strong analogies in real human disagreements. Thus for example, suppose a Christian believes that Christianity has a 98% chance of being true, and Islam a 1% chance. A Muslim, with whom he disagrees, believes that Islam has a 98% chance of being true, and Christianity a 1% chance. If they each believe, “Both of us believe in our religions because that is the one in which we were raised,” it is obvious that this disagreement is not reasonable. In order for each of them to be reasonable, they need to disagree about why they believe what they believe. Thus for example one might think, “He believes in his religion because he was raised in it, while I believe in mine because of careful and intelligent analysis of the facts.” The other obviously will disagree with this.

This particular example, of course, does not take into account the fact that belonging to a religion is not a matter of a particular claim, nor the fact that beliefs are voluntary, and both of these affect such a question in real life.

Nonetheless, this kind of disagreement about the origins of our beliefs is clearly a common phenomena in situations where we have a persistent disagreement with someone. In the end each person tends to attribute a particular source to the other person’s opinion, and a different source to his own, one which is much more likely to make his own opinion correct. But all of the same things should apply to these differing opinions about the origins of their beliefs. This suggests that in fact persistent disagreements are usually unreasonable. This corresponds to how people treat them. Once a disagreement is clearly persistent, and clearly will not be resolved by any amount of discussion, people think that the other person is being stubborn and unreasonable.

And in fact, it is very likely that one or both of the two is being stubborn and unreasonable. This will feel pretty much the same from each side, however; thus the fact that it feels to you like the other person is being stubborn and unreasonable, is not a good reason for thinking that this is actually the case. He is very likely to feel the same way about you. This will happen no matter who is actually responsible. Most often both partners contribute to it, since no one is actually perfectly reasonable.

The fact that belief is voluntary can be a mitigating factor here, if people recognize the moral influences on their beliefs. Thus for example the Christian and the Muslim in the above example could simply say, “It is not necessarily that I am more likely to be right, but I choose to believe this rather than that, for these personal reasons.” And in that case in principle they might agree on the probability of the truth of Christian and Islamic doctrines, and nonetheless reasonably hold different beliefs, on account of moral considerations that apply to them in particular.

The fact that people do not like to admit that they are wrong is a reason for a particular approach to disagreement. In the last post, we discussed the fact that since words and thoughts are vague, the particular content of a person’s assertions is not entirely determinate. They may be true in some ways, and not true in others, and the person himself may not be considering in which way he is making the claim. So it is much more productive to interpret the person’s words in the way that contains as much truth as possible. We have talked about this elsewhere. Such an understanding is probably a better understanding of the person in the first place. And it allows him to agree with you while excluding the false interpretations, and without saying, “I was wrong.” And yet he learns from this, because his original statement was in fact open to the false interpretations. There is nothing deceptive about this; our words and beliefs are in fact vague in this way and allow for this sort of learning. And cooperating in this way in a discussion will be mutually profitable. Since absolute precision is not possible, in general there is no one who has nothing at all to learn from another.