Turning Back the Clock

Let’s look again at the center of Chesterton’s argument about turning back the clock:

There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

Of course, one can physically turn a clock back. But as Chesterton notes, the idea that “you can’t put the clock back,” is a metaphor, not a literal statement. The metaphor is based off the idea that you can’t time travel to the past, and this is literally true, fortunately or unfortunately. The one who uses the metaphor intends to assert something stronger, however, and it is this stronger thing that Chesterton wishes to refute when he says, “Society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”

Yes, the human finger can turn back the clock. But what corresponds to “the human finger” in the case of society? Who or what has the power to reconstruct society upon any plan that has ever existed?

As soon as we ask the question, the answer is clear. Society has never been constructed upon any plan whatsoever; so neither can it be reconstructed upon any plan whatsoever. As Robin Hanson puts it, “no one rules the world,” so there is no way to construct society according to a plan in the first place. In particular, Hanson remarks regarding technology:

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

Chesterton is free, as he says, to propose anything he likes, including bringing back the stage coaches. But we are also free to propose that the world would be better off if horses walked on their hind legs. The plans will meet with approximately equal success: getting the world to abandon automobiles and adopt stage coaches will not be much easier than getting horses to follow our suggestions.

Indeed, it is not impossible to bring back the stage coaches in the way that “bringing back last Friday” is impossible. But neither is it impossible for horses to walk on their hind legs in this way. Nonetheless both are impossible in the sense that physically turning back a clock is possible. Namely, no human being can either bring back the stage coaches or convince horses to walk on their hind legs, even though one can turn back a clock. One might have occasional success with either plan, but not overall success.

 

Scott Alexander on the Decline of Culture

From Scott Alexander’s Tumblr:

voximperatoris:

[This post is copied over from Stephen Hicks.]

An instructive series of quotations, collected over the years, on the theme of pessimism about the present in relation to the past:

Plato, 360 BCE: “In that country [Egypt] arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters [science in general]; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.” (Laws, Book VII)

Catullus, c. 60 BCE: “Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!”

Sallust, 86– c. 35 BCE: “to speak of the morals of our country, the nature of my theme seems to suggest that I go farther back and give a brief account of the institutions of our forefathers in peace and in war, how they governed the commonwealth, how great it was when they bequeathed it to us, and how by gradual changes it has ceased to be the noblest and best, and has become the worst and most vicious.” About Rome’s forefathers: “good morals were cultivated at home and in the field; there was the greatest harmony and little or no avarice; justice and probity prevailed among them.” They “adorned the shrines of the gods with piety, their own homes with glory, while from the vanquished they took naught save the power of doing harm.” But Rome now is a moral mess: “The men of to‑day, on the contrary, basest of creatures, with supreme wickedness are robbing our allies of all that those heroes in the hour of victory had left them; they act as though the one and only way to rule were to wrong.” (The Catiline War)

Horace, c. 23-13 BCE: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are viler still, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” (Odes 3:6)

Alberti, 1436: Nature is no longer producing great intellects — “or giants which in her youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.” (On Painting)

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620: “For what else can our degenerate race do in this age of error. Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1790: “As from the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

William Wordsworth, 1802:
“Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
(“London”)

John Stuart Mill, in 1859, speaking of his generation: “the present low state of the human mind.” (On Liberty, Chapter 3)

Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1871: “What else, in the desolate waste of present-day culture, holds any promise of a sound, healthy future? In vain we look for a single powerfully branching root, a spot of earth that is fruitful: we see only dust, sand, dullness, and languor” (Birth of Tragedy, Section 20).

Frederick Taylor, 1911: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” (Scientific Management)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1925: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

So has the world really been in constant decline? Or perhaps, as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.”

Words to keep in mind as we try to assess objectively our own generation’s serious problems.

I hate this argument. It’s the only time I ever see “Every single person from history has always believed that X is true” used as an argument *against* X.

I mean, imagine that I listed Thomas Aquinas as saying “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades,” and then Leonardo da Vinci, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Benjamin Franklin, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Abraham Lincon, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades. Henry Ford, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades.”

My conclusion – people who think technology is advancing now are silly, there’s just some human bias toward always believing technology is advancing.

In the same way technology can always be advancing, culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society. Like technology, this isn’t a monotonic process – there will be disruptions every time one civilization collapses and a new one begins, and occasional conscious attempts by whole societies to reverse the trend, but in general, given movement from time t to time t+1, people can correctly notice cultural decline.

I mean, really. If, like Nietszche, your thing is the BRUTE STRENGTH of the valiant warrior, do you think that the modern office worker has exactly as much valiant warrior spirit as the 19th century frontiersman? Do you think the 19th century frontiersman had as much as the medieval crusader? Do you think the medieval crusader had as much as the Spartans? Pinker says the world is going from a state of violence to a state of security, and the flip side of that is people getting, on average, more domesticated and having less of the wild free spirit that Nietszche idealized.

Likewise, when people talk about “virtue”, a lot of the time they’re talking about chastity and willingness to remain faithful in a monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation. And a lot of the time they don’t even mean actual chastity, they mean vocal public support for chastity and social norms demanding it. Do you really believe our culture has as much of that as previous cultures do? Remember, the sort of sharia law stuff that we find so abhorrent and misogynist was considered progressive during Mohammed’s time, and with good reason.

I would even argue that Alberti is right about genius. There are certain forms of genius that modern society selects for and certain ones it selects against. Remember, before writing became common, the Greek bards would have mostly memorized Homer. I think about the doctors of past ages, who had amazing ability to detect symptoms with the naked eye in a way that almost nobody now can match because we use CT scan instead and there’s no reason to learn this art. (Also, I think modern doctors have much fewer total hours of training than older doctors, because as bad as today’s workplace-protection/no-overtime rules are, theirs were worse)

And really? Using the fact that some guy complained of soil erosion as proof that nobody’s complaints are ever valid? Soil erosion is a real thing, it’s bad, and AFAIK it does indeed keep getting worse.

More controversially, if T.S. Eliot wants to look at a world that over four hundred years, went from the Renaissance masters to modern art, I am totally okay with him calling that a terrible cultural decline.

Scott’s argument is plausible, although he seems somewhat confused insofar as he appears to associate Mohammed with monogamy. And since we are discussing the matter with an interlocutor who maintains that the decline of culture is obvious, we will concede the point immediately. Scott seems a bit ambivalent in regard to whether a declining culture is a bad thing, but we will concede that as well, other things being equal.

However, we do not clearly see an answer here to one of the questions raised in the last post: if culture tends to decline, why does this happen? Scott seems to suggest an answer when he says, “Culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society.” According to this, culture tends to decline because it becomes incompatible with modern society. The problem with this is that it seems to be a “moronic pseudo-reason”: 2017 is just one year among others. So no parts of culture should be less compatible with life in 2017, than with life in 1017, or in any other year. Chesterton makes a similar argument:

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. And for my present purpose I specially insist on this abstract independence. If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it; but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. It certainly would eliminate some evils; for instance, the unnatural sense of obeying cold and harsh strangers, mere bureaucrats and policemen. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles. It would be a way out of some of our troubles; we could not have in a small state, for instance, those enormous illusions about men or measures which are nourished by the great national or international newspapers. You could not persuade a city state that Mr. Beit was an Englishman, or Mr. Dillon a desperado, any more than you could persuade a Hampshire Village that the village drunkard was a teetotaller or the village idiot a statesman. Nevertheless, I do not as a fact propose that the Browns and the Smiths should be collected under separate tartans. Nor do I even propose that Clapham should declare its independence. I merely declare my independence. I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe; and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Regress

Someone might respond to what I have said about progress in the following way:

So how come you talk about progress in technology and progress in truth, but do not talk about the progress of culture? Is it not because as soon as one considers the idea, it constitutes the refutation of your arguments? Consider 4’33”, or much of modern art in general. Or again, consider the liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council. Nor are these issues limited to artistic matters, since we could mention many matters of morality, or various cultural institutions. It is not even necessary to mention examples, so obvious all of this is, once one even considers the idea of the progress or regress of culture.

There is some truth to this, and it is worthy of serious consideration.

Patience, Truth, and Progress

If the Jehovah’s Witnesses are impatient with respect to truth, why do they nonetheless manage to advance in the knowledge of truth?

Our story about Peter, as a morality tale, is a bit more absolute than reality often is. Disordered behavior will more often than not produce disordered consequences, but the details will vary from case to case. Most cases of impatient driving do not in fact result in death, and most of the time the driver will still in fact get to his destination. There may however be other bad consequences, as the unnecessary annoyance and inconvenience posed to other drivers, the growth of the driver’s bad driving habits, and so on.

In a similar way, impatience with respect to truth will tend to have bad consequences, but the details will vary from case to case. In most cases those consequences may include detrimental effects relative to the knowledge of truth, but they will not necessarily completely impede the knowledge of truth, just as bad driving does not necessarily prevent one from reaching the destination.

In the case of the Witnesses, we noted that their progress seems laughably slow. It would be reasonable to attribute this slowness to the impatience in question, while the general fact of progress can be attributed to the general causes of such progress.

Impatiently adopting an excessively detailed view will slow a person’s advance in truth in a number of ways. In the first place, such a view will very likely be false, just as the detailed predictions of the Witnesses turned out to be false. And falsehood of course impedes the knowledge of truth first by excluding the truth opposite to the falsehood. Likewise, falsehood impedes the knowledge of truth in other ways, because when we learn anything, we learn it in the context of everything else that we know. Insofar as what we think we know includes some things that are untrue, these untrue aspects will tend to distort our view of the new things that we are learning.

Second, there are particular effects of jumping to untrue conclusions that are excessively detailed. Suppose I say, “There will be a nuclear war beginning on March 3rd, 2017.” If I claim to possess a high level of confidence about this, then I must claim an even higher level of confidence that there will be a major war in 2017, and a still higher confidence that there will be one or more major disasters in the next few years. This is for the reason discussed some days ago, namely that the more general claims must be more known and more certain, and as a matter of probability theory, the numerical probability assigned to the more general claim must be higher than that assigned to the more specific claim.

Now suppose, as is likely, that no nuclear war begins on March 3rd, 2017. What will I conclude? It might be reasonable, in some sense, for me to conclude that I was mistaken about the more general things as well, and not only about the date of March 3rd. But I was very, very confident about the more general things, significantly more so than about the date of March 3rd. And given that my original assignment of March 3rd proceeded from impatience for specific knowledge, a more likely result is that I will now say that the war will begin on September 17th, or something like that. And even after this does not happen, I will be quite likely to say, “Well, maybe I was wrong about the details. But there is still likely to be a major war before the end of the year, or anyway in the next few years.” And this will be because of my greater certainty about the more general claims. And this greater certainty itself arose from my impatience for specific knowledge, not from a careful analysis of the facts.

Patience

St. Thomas describes the virtue of patience:

I answer that, As stated above (II-II:123:1), the moral virtues are directed to the good, inasmuch as they safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions. Now among the passions sorrow is strong to hinder the good of reason, according to 2 Corinthians 7:10, “The sorrow of the world worketh death,” and Sirach 30:25, “Sadness hath killed many, and there is no profit in it.” Hence the necessity for a virtue to safeguard the good of reason against sorrow, lest reason give way to sorrow: and this patience does. Wherefore Augustine says (De Patientia ii): “A man’s patience it is whereby he bears evil with an equal mind,” i.e. without being disturbed by sorrow, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things.” It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.

This brings to mind things like a martyr being afflicted by others for the truth that he holds and enduring this steadfastly, but in fact it applies well even to the ordinary idea of patience, according to which, for example, we might say that Ray Kurzweil’s impatience for technological progress leads him to false opinions about current historical trends.

We can illustrate this with a little story. Peter, impatient to get home from work, exceeds the speed limit and weaves in and out of traffic. Minutes before getting home, he hits a slippery patch on the road. His car goes off the road, ramming a tree and killing him.

Despite being nothing but a story, it is one that has without a doubt been played out in real life with minor or major variations again and again. We can apply the saying of St. Augustine quoted by St. Thomas. Peter’s patience would consist in “bearing evil with an equal mind,” that is, enduring the fact that he is not home yet without disturbance, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things,” that is, since his disturbed and unequal mind leads him to abandon the goods, that is, the ordered manner of driving, whereby he may advance to better things, that is, actually to get home.

Patience is rightly thought to be related to the virtue of humility. One who judges rightly about his place in the order of things will understand that it is natural in this order that what is best tends to come last. The good wine is served last. Thus such a person should endure without disturbance the lack that comes earlier, in order not to abandon the good by which he might achieve the good that comes later.

Developing a False Doctrine

As documented here by Paul Grundy, the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly made claims about the end of the world or other apocalyptic events, predicting that they would happen on specific dates. Thus for example they said in 1894, “But bear in mind that the end of 1914 is not the date for the beginning, but for the end of the time of trouble.”And again in 1920:

What, then, should we expect to take place? The chief thing to be restored is the human race to life; and since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favour, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death , being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth.

Needless to say, these things did not happen. These are only a few examples of false predictions made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To most people, this process seems ridiculous, and to some extent it is. Nonetheless, in a surprising way it is an example of progress in truth. With each failed prophecy, the Witnesses learn something new: first they learn that the world will not end in 1914, then they learn that it will not end or be remarkably restored in 1925, and so on.

The reason this seems ridiculous is that we believe that they should be learning something more. They should be learning that it is false that “apocalyptic events will soon take place and it is within our power to determine in advance their specific timing.” And yes, it would be reasonable for them to learn this. But even if they do not, they are still learning something.

Why do they persist in making the claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place, and that they can determine their timing in advance, even after each particular case is falsified? This is related to our previous post. Their general claim, precisely insofar as it is general, is necessarily more likely, and so “more known”, as it were, than each of the specific predictions. It is as if one were to see something in the distance and to believe, “it is a man,” but then upon getting a bit closer, one says, “wait, it doesn’t look quite like a man, it must be an ape.” The more general belief that it is an animal persists.

The Witnesses may be advancing in truth more slowly than we think that they should, but they are advancing. And ultimately there is no reason to expect this to end with the learning of particulars alone. In fact, towards the end of his article, Grundy says, “Toward the end of the twentieth century, the Watchtower Society refrained from issuing specific dates for Armageddon, but still has not stopped implying dates and time frames.” In other words, they continue to maintain that “apocalyptic events will soon take place,” but they are beginning to conclude that it is untrue that “we can determine their specific timing in advance.” Once again, this is because the claim that apocalyptic events will soon take place is necessarily more likely and “more known” than the combined claim that such events will take place and that one can determine their timing in advance.

Good Out of Evil

Besides the objection mentioned in the last post, St. Thomas brings up another objection to the existence of God:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

He replies to the objection,

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Does good in fact come from evil, and if so, how does this happen?

Some people are born without the ability to feel physical pain. While someone first hearing about this might think it sounds like a good thing, it is in fact a very bad thing, as noted in the linked post. Children suffering from this condition often bite off parts of their tongue, or fail to notice sprains or broken bones, thus causing greater injury to themselves, and so on.

And after a moment’s thought, this is not so strange. Pain, taken as knowledge of an injury, is not a bad thing, but a good thing; it is the injury which is bad, as well as secondary effects such as distraction from other tasks and so on.

And here we see the primary path, although not the only path, by which good comes from evil, at least in human things. Evil is an indirect cause of the knowledge of evil, and the knowledge of evil is good, and a cause of goodness. In this way a person can benefit even from his own faults and vices, insofar as he learns from them and goes on to do better.

This can happen even with very great evils. Thus for example in the post here, Cameron Harwick discusses how the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, a very great evil, might bear significant responsibility for the peace (such as it was) that followed. Or in other words, without that specific use of nuclear weapons, there might have been a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which would have been much worse.

None of this is accidental, but in fact tends to happen in a very systematic way, basically for reasons which we discussed some days ago. All things and all people strive for the good, and the knowledge of evil is just one of the things that contributes to their efforts.

Now someone might suppose that the explanation here is too human. Does it not take away the glory from God? Should we not say instead that God brings good out of evil in mysterious ways that are beyond our comprehension?

Now there are surely many things which are beyond our comprehension. But the attitude in this objection is simply the zeal for God which is not according to knowledge. God does not make things in such a way that he merely happens to bring good out of evil, but rather he gives the things themselves such an order and such a nature that it is natural to them to bring good out of evil. And such a creation, which possesses this ability in an intrinsic way, is better and more ordered than a theoretical creation that lacked that ability.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Suppose you have a dozen problems in your life that you are trying to solve. And suppose that whenever you try to solve one of them, you almost always fail. Is there a chance that a time will come when you have solved them all?

There is such a chance, of course. You almost always fail, but if you continue to try other possible solutions, you might hit on a solution sooner or later. And then you will have only 11 issues remaining, and you can continue from there, working on the next one.

And even after more or less resolving one problem, you might later discover a still better solution. Thus for example I discussed a certain solution to time management here, but my current solution is substantially better, although including important elements of that one.

In a similar way, I discussed the general idea of progress in the posts here, here, and here. A very simple summary of the ideas argued there is that people are trying to make things better for themselves and others, and even if they do not always succeed, they sometimes do. And for the reason assigned above in this post, you do not have to succeed in solving your problems all of the time, or even most of the time, in order to generally make progress.

In economics, there is a similar reason for the fact that markets do as well as they do, and in biology, why natural selection works as well as it does, despite the fact that a majority of individual changes either do nothing or are actively harmful.

 

Why They Don’t Return

As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.

In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.

In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.

But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.

But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.

So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.

In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.

Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.

Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.

As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:

I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.

But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.

While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.

However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?