Mind of God

Reconciling Theism and Atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Motives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Heavens are Higher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair and Unfair Logic

St. Thomas discusses cases in which one should not follow the law:

As stated above (Article 4), every law is directed to the common weal of men, and derives the force and nature of law accordingly. Hence the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 3, De Leg. et Senat.]: “By no reason of law, or favor of equity, is it allowable for us to interpret harshly, and render burdensome, those useful measures which have been enacted for the welfare of man.” Now it happens often that the observance of some point of law conduces to the common weal in the majority of instances, and yet, in some cases, is very hurtful. Since then the lawgiver cannot have in view every single case, he shapes the law according to what happens most frequently, by directing his attention to the common good. Wherefore if a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be hurtful to the general welfare, it should not be observed. For instance, suppose that in a besieged city it be an established law that the gates of the city are to be kept closed, this is good for public welfare as a general rule: but, it were to happen that the enemy are in pursuit of certain citizens, who are defenders of the city, it would be a great loss to the city, if the gates were not opened to them: and so in that case the gates ought to be opened, contrary to the letter of the law, in order to maintain the common weal, which the lawgiver had in view.

He calls the attitude that leads one to set aside the law in such cases “epikeia,” or “equity,” which in this context means something like fairness or moderation:

As stated above (I-II:96:6), when we were treating of laws, since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view. Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious—for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country. On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of “epikeia” which we call equity. Therefore it is evident that “epikeia” is a virtue.

“Fairness” is probably a good translation here, since someone who rigidly demands the application of the law in such a situation would often be called unfair in relation to the people involved.

Someone might object that much of the benefit of having a law directly depends on following it consistently, without making exceptions based on minute analysis of particular situations, as we saw in the last post. This is correct as far as it goes, but St. Thomas is not talking about analyzing each situation in detail and making an exception whenever there appears to be a benefit, but rather talking about situations which are extremely different from the situations considered by the law. Thus he says in the reply to the second objection:

He who follows the intention of the lawgiver, does not interpret the law simply; but in a case in which it is evident, by reason of the manifest harm, that the lawgiver intended otherwise. For if it be a matter of doubt, he must either act according to the letter of the law, or consult those in power.

To the degree that “laws of logic” can be analogously interpreted as rules for sensible thought and speech, telling one to behave in some ways and not in others, similar principles will apply. Thus, for example, an atheist confronted with the argument of Alexander Pruss for the existence of God based on the indeterminacy of language might not only be inclined to call it sophistical, but to add that it is an unfair way to argue. And indeed it is, precisely in the sense that it applies the rule “either say that A is B or say that A is not B” to situations for which it was not intended, namely situations where B is simply too vague to say. The rule is intended to make people think and speak sensibly, but Pruss is abusing the rule with the opposite result: that he does not speak and think sensibly.

Someone might agree that this is reasonable insofar as we are considering these laws as rules of behavior, but another issue comes up. Human laws are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible. And likewise, rules of logic are really intended to exclude some kinds of behavior that are really possible, e.g. making arguments like:

A: You always say I am wrong.

B: I said you were right about X.

A: See, you just said I was wrong again. You always say I am wrong!

I know from experience that this behavior is possible, and it does violate the laws of logic considered as rules of behavior. But someone might add that the laws of logic are also based on the nature of reality itself, and for this very reason we said that they are not conventions, but could not have been otherwise. So it seems to follow that it should be possible to expound the laws of logic in a form in which they are truly exceptionless, by expressing reality as it truly is.

There is some truth here, but there is also a problem analogous to a similar objection about human law. Consider the third objection and reply in the above article from St. Thomas:

Objection 3. Further, every wise man knows how to explain his intention by words. But those who framed the laws should be reckoned wise: for Wisdom says (Proverbs 8:15): “By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” Therefore we should not judge of the intention of the lawgiver otherwise than by the words of the law.

Reply to Objection 3. No man is so wise as to be able to take account of every single case; wherefore he is not able sufficiently to express in words all those things that are suitable for the end he has in view. And even if a lawgiver were able to take all the cases into consideration, he ought not to mention them all, in order to avoid confusion: but should frame the law according to that which is of most common occurrence.

The objection here is similar. If there are cases where it wouldn’t be good to apply the law, the lawgiver ought to have enumerated those cases. St. Thomas replies that in reality you will not foresee every case, and that even if you could, enumerating them would simply cause confusion.

A similar thing applies if we consider the laws of logic. You can say, “If you say that A is B in an infinitely precise sense, and that B is C in an infinitely precise sense, you should also say that A is C,” and your claim might be exceptionless. The problem is that your claim has no cases: no one ever says anything in an infinitely precise sense.

And on the other hand, if you try to make your claim include some actual cases, you will not be able to avoid the possibility of exceptions, just as the human lawgiver does not foresee all cases. And as in the case of human law, if you attempt to enumerate all cases, you will simply cause confusion. Thus, for example, someone might say that the problem in the case of Queen Elizabeth is that we simply don’t have a precise enough definition for “old,” and they might then attempt to give a precise definition. But this would have several results:

1. First, the new word “old” would not have the same meaning as the original word, because the very fact that the original word is vague is part of what the word is. It is not accidental; it is not meant to have a precise cut-off.

2. Someone might attempt to remedy the above flaw by enumerating various circumstances, rather than giving a precise cut-off. “If you are less then 10 years old and you say that someone is ‘old,’ it signifies someone who is at least 15.” “If you are in your 30s and you say that someone is ‘old’, it signifies that they are at least 67.” And so on. But attempting to fix the first problem, you have simply compounded it. The new word still does not have the same meaning as the original word, because the original word was meant to be flexible; even your new rules have too much rigidity.

You could attempt to remedy the above problems by listing all the situations where people in fact use the word “old,” but that is not a definition: it is just an indefinitely long list. What St. Thomas said about human law, that it “ought not to mention them all,” is equally true about this situation. The point of defining “old” is to provide an explanation which is both general and flexible. Someone might argue that we should provide a list of all possible circumstances and what should be done in those circumstances, in order to avoid the flexibility of “epikeia,” but such an attempt would be absurd, and harmful to a good life. And it is equally absurd when we attempt to apply the same process to logic or to definitions, and harmful to sensible thought and speech.

What about reality itself? Isn’t it an exceptionless reality that a thing is what it is? Indeed. But this is neither a rule of behavior nor of speech. Nor is it a rule making something be some way; reality does not need something else to make sure that it turns out to be reality rather than something else. There is simply nothing else to be. Parmenides was right at least to this degree.

C.S. Lewis on Punishment

C.S. Lewis discusses a certain theory of punishment:

In England we have lately had a controversy about Capital Punishment. … My subject is not Capital Punishment in particular, but that theory of punishment in general which the controversy showed to be almost universal among my fellow-countrymen. It may be called the Humanitarian theory. Those who hold it think that it is mild and merciful. In this I believe that they are seriously mistaken. I believe that the “Humanity” which it claims is a dangerous illusion and disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end. I urge a return to the traditional or Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily, in the interests of society, but in the interests of the criminal.

According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable? One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments. If a tendency to steal can be cured by psychotherapy, the thief will no doubt be forced to undergo treatment. Otherwise, society cannot continue.

My contention is that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question “Is it deserved?” is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a “just deterrent” or a “just cure”. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case”.

Later in the essay, he gives some examples of how the Humanitarian theory will make things worse, as in the following case:

The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts–and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature–who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

This post will make three points:

(1) The “Humanitarian” theory is basically correct about the purpose of punishment.

(2) C.S. Lewis is right that there are good reasons to talk about justice and about what someone deserves or does not deserve. Such considerations are, as he supposes, essential to a system of justice. Lewis is also right to suppose that many supporters of the Humanitarian theory, despite being factually correct about the purpose of punishment, are mistaken in opposing such talk as cruel and immoral.

(3) Once the Humanitarian theory is corrected in such a way as to incorporate the notion of “just deserts”, Lewis’s objections fail.

Consider the first point, the purpose of punishment. There was already some discussion of this in a previous post. In a sense, everyone already knows that Humanitarians are right about the basic purpose of punishment, including C.S. Lewis. Lewis points out the obvious fact himself: whatever you call them and however you explain them, punishments for crime are compulsory in a society because “otherwise, society cannot continue.” But why cannot society continue without punishment? What supposedly would happen if you did not have any punishments? What would actually happen if a government credibly declared that it would never again punish anything?

What would actually happen, of course, is that this amount to a declaration that the government was dissolving itself, and someone else would take over and establish new crimes and new punishments, either at that same level of generality as the original government, or at more local levels (e.g. perhaps each town would become a city-state.) In any case each of the new governments would still have punishments, so you would not have succeeded in abolishing punishment.

What happens in the imaginary situation where you do succeed, where no one else takes over? This presumably would be a Hobbesian “state of nature,” which is not a society at all. In other words, the situation simply does not count as a society at all, unless certain rules are followed pretty consistently. And those rules will not be followed consistently without punishments. So it is easy to see why punishment exists: to make sure that those rules are followed, generally speaking. Since rules are meant to make some things happen and prevent other things, punishment is simply to make sure that the rules actually function as rules. But this is exactly what the Humanitarian theory says is the purpose of punishment: to make others less likely to break the rules, and to make the one who has already broken the rules less likely to break them in the future.

Thus C.S. Lewis himself is implicitly recognizing that the Humanitarians are basically right about the purpose of punishment, in acknowledging that punishment is necessary for the very existence of society.

Let’s go on to the second point, the idea of just deserts. C.S. Lewis is right that many proponents of Humanitarian view either believe that the idea is absurd, or that if there is such a thing as deserving something, no one can deserve something bad, or that if people can deserve things, this is not really a relevant consideration for a justice system. For example, it appears that Kelsey Piper blogging at The Unit of Caring believes something along these lines; here she has a pretty reasonable post responding to some criticisms analogous to those of C.S. Lewis to the theory.

I will approach this by saying a few things about what a law is in general. St. Thomas defines law: “It is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” But let’s drop the careful formulation and the conditions, as necessary as they may be. St. Thomas’s definition is simply a more detailed account of what everyone knows: a law is a rule that people invent for the benefit of a community.

Is there such a thing as an unjust law? In St. Thomas’s account, in a sense yes, and in a sense no. “For the common good” means that the law is beneficial. In that sense, if the law is “unjust,” it is harmful, and thus it is not for the common good. And in that sense it does not satisfy the definition of a law, and so is not a law at all. But obviously ordinary people will call it a law anyway, and in that way it is an unjust law, because it is unsuited to the purpose of a law.

Now here’s the thing. An apparent rule is not really a rule at all unless it tends to make something happen. In the case that we are talking about, namely human law, that generally means that laws require penalties for being broken in order to be laws at all. It is true that in a society with an extremely strong respect for law, it might occasionally be possible to make a law without establishing any specific penalty, and still have that law followed. The community would still need to leave itself the option of establishing a penalty; otherwise it would just be advice rather than a law.

This causes a slight problem. The purpose of a law is to make sure that certain things are done and others avoided, and the reason for penalties is to back up this purpose. But when someone breaks the law, the law has already failed. The very thing the law was meant to prevent has already happened. And what now? Should the person be punished? Why? To prevent the law from being broken? It has already been broken. So we cannot prevent it from being broken. And the thing is, punishment is something bad. So to inflict the punishment now, after the crime has already been committed, seems like just stacking one bad thing on top of another.

At this point the “Retributive” theory of justice will chime in. “We should still inflict the punishment because it is just, and the criminal deserves it.”

This is the appeal of the Humanitarian’s condemnation of the retributive theory. The Retributive theory, the Humanitarian will say, is just asserting that something bad, namely the punishment, in this situation, is something good, by bringing in the idea of “justice.” But this is a contradiction: something bad is bad by definition, and cannot be good.

The reader is perhaps beginning to understand the placement of the previous post. A law is established, with a penalty for being broken, in order to make certain things happen. This is like intending to drink the toxin. But if someone breaks the law, what is the point of inflicting the punishment? And the next morning, what is the point of drinking the toxin in the afternoon, when the money is already received or not? There is a difference of course, because in this case the dilemma only comes up because the law has been broken. We could make the cases more analogous, however, by stipulating in the case of Kavka’s toxin that the rich billionaire offers this deal: “The million will be found in your account, with a probability of 99.99%, if and only if you intend to drink the toxin only if the million is not found in your account (which will happen only in the unlucky 0.01% of cases), and you do not need to drink or intend to drink in the situation where the million is found in your account.” In this situation, the person might well reason thus:

If the morning comes and the million is not in my account, why on earth would I drink the toxin? This deal is super unfair.

Nonetheless, as in the original deal, there is one and only one way to get the million: namely, by planning to drink the toxin in that situation, and by planning not to reconsider, no matter what. As in the case of law, the probability factor that I added means that it is possible not to get the million, although you probably will. But the person who formed this intention will go through with it and drink the toxin, unless they reconsider; and they had the definite intention of not reconsidering.

The situations are now more analogous, but there is still an additional difference, one that makes it even easier to decide to follow the law than to drink the toxin. The only reason to commit to drinking the toxin was to get the million, which, in our current situation, has already failed. But in the case of the law, one purpose was to prevent the criminal from performing a certain action, and that purpose has already failed. But it also has the purpose of preventing them from doing it in the future, and preventing others from doing it. So there additional motivations for carrying out the law.

We can leave the additional difference to the side for now, however. The point would be essentially valid even if you made a law to prevent one particular act, and that act ended up being done. The retributionist would say, “Ok, so applying the punishment at this point will not prevent the thing it was meant to prevent. But it is just, and the criminal deserves it, and we should still inflict it.” And they are right: the whole idea of establishing the the rule included the idea that the punishment would actually be carried out, in this situation. There was a rule against reconsidering the rule, just as the fellow in the situation with the toxin planned not to reconsider their plan.

What is meant when it is said that a punishment is “just,” and that the criminal “deserves it,” then is simply that it is what is required by the rules we have established, and that those rules are reasonable ones.

Someone will object here. It seems that this cannot be true, because some punishments are wicked and unjust even though there were rules establishing them. And it seems that this is because people simply do not deserve those things: so there must be such a thing as “what they deserve,” in itself and independent of any rules. But this is where we must return to the point made above about just and unjust laws. One hears, for example, of cases in which people were sentenced to death for petty theft. We can agree that this is unjust in itself: but this is precisely because the rule, “someone who steals food should be killed,” is not a reasonable rule which will benefit the community. You might have something good in mind for it, namely to prevent stealing, but if you carry out the penalty on even one occasion, you have done more harm than all the stealing put together. The Humanitarians are right that the thing inflicted in a punishment is bad, and remains bad. It does not become something good in that situation. And this is precisely why it needs some real proportion to the crime.

We can analyze the situation in two ways, from the point of view of the State, considered as though a kind of person, and from the point of the view of the person who carries out the law. The State makes a kind of promise to inflict a punishment for some crimes, in such a way as to minimize the total harm of both the crimes and their punishment. Additionally, to some extent it promises not to reconsider this in situation where a crime is actually committed. “To some extent” here is of course essential: such rules are not and should not be absolutely rigid. If the crime is actually committed, the State is in a situation like our person who finds himself without the million and having committed to drink the toxin in that situation: the normal result of the situation will be that the State inflicts the punishment, and the person drinks the toxin, without any additional consideration of motivations or reasons.

From the point of view of the individual, he carries out the sentence “because it is just,” i.e. because it is required by reasonable rules which we have established for the good of the community. And that, i.e. carrying out reasonable laws, is a good thing, even though the material content includes something bad. The moral object of the executioner is the fulfillment of justice, not the killing of a person.

We have perhaps already pointed the way to the last point, namely that with the incorporation of the idea of justice, C.S. Lewis’s criticisms fail. Lewis argues that if the purpose of punishment is medicinal, then it is in principle unlimited: but this is not true even of medicine. No one would take medicine which would cause more harm than the disease, nor would it be acceptable to compel someone else to take such medicine.

More importantly, Lewis’s criticism play off the problems that are caused by believing that one needs to consider at every point, “will the consequences of this particular punishment or action be good or not?” This is not necessary because this is not the way law works, despite the fact that the general purpose is the one supposed. Law only works because to some extent it promises not to reconsider, like our fellow in the case of Kavka’s toxin. Just as you are wrong to focus on whether “drinking the toxin right now will harm me and not benefit me”, so the State would be wrong to focus too much on the particular consequences of carrying out the law right now, as opposed to the general consequences of the general law.

Thus for example Lewis supposes rulers considering the matter in an entirely utilitarian way:

But that is not the worst. If the justification of exemplary punishment is not to be based on desert but solely on its efficacy as a deterrent, it is not absolutely necessary that the man we punish should even have committed the crime. The deterrent effect demands that the public should draw the moral, “If we do such an act we shall suffer like that man.” The punishment of a man actually guilty whom the public think innocent will not have the desired effect; the punishment of a man actually innocent will, provided the public think him guilty. But every modern State has powers which make it easy to fake a trial. When a victim is urgently needed for exemplary purposes and a guilty victim cannot be found, all the purposes of deterrence will be equally served by the punishment (call it “cure” if you prefer) of an innocent victim, provided that the public can be cheated into thinking him guilty. It is no use to ask me why I assume that our rulers will be so wicked.

As said, this is not the way law works. The question will be about which laws are reasonable and beneficial in general, not about whether such and such particular actions are beneficial in particular cases. Consider a proposed law formulated with such an idea in mind:

When the ruling officials believe that it is urgently necessary to deter people from committing a crime, and no one can be found who has actually committed it, the rulers are authorized to deceive the public into believing that an innocent man has committed the crime, and to punish that innocent man.

It should not be necessary to make a long argument that as a general rule, this does not serve the good of a community, regardless of might happen in particular cases. In this way it is quite right to say that this is unjust in itself. This does not, however, establish that “what someone deserves” has any concrete content which is not established by law.

As a sort of footnote to this post, we might note that “deserts” are sometimes extended to natural consequences in much the way “law” is extended to laws of nature, mathematics, or logic. For example, Bryan Caplan distinguishes “deserving” and “undeserving” poor:

I propose to use the same standard to identify the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.  The deserving poor are those who can’t take – and couldn’t have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty. The undeserving poor are those who can take – or could have taken – reasonable steps to avoid poverty.  Reasonable steps like: Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn’t fun; spend your money on food and shelter before you get cigarettes or cable t.v.; use contraception if you can’t afford a child.  A simple test of “reasonableness”: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.

This is rather different from the sense discussed in this post, but you could view it as an extension of it. It is a rule (of mathematics, really) that “if you spend all of your money you will not have any left,” and we probably do not need to spend much effort trying to change this situation, considered in general, even if we might want to change it for an individual.

Quantum Mechanics and Libertarian Free Will

In a passage quoted in the last post, Jerry Coyne claims that quantum indeterminacy is irrelevant to free will: “Even the pure indeterminism of quantum mechanics can’t give us free will, because that’s simple randomness, and not a result of our own ‘will.'”

Coyne seems to be thinking that since quantum indeterminism has fixed probabilities in any specific situation, the result for human behavior would necessarily be like our second imaginary situation in the last post. There might be a 20% chance that you would randomly do X, and an 80% chance that you would randomly do Y, and nothing can affect these probabilities. Consequently you cannot be morally responsible for doing X or for doing Y, nor should you be praised or blamed for them.

Wait, you might say. Coyne explicitly favors praise and blame in general. But why? If you would not praise or blame someone doing something randomly, why should you praise or blame someone doing something in a deterministic manner? As explained in the last post, the question is whether reasons have any influence on your behavior. Coyne is assuming that if your behavior is deterministic, it can still be influenced by reasons, but if it is indeterministic, it cannot be. But there is no reason for this to be case. Your behavior can be influenced by reasons whether it is deterministic or not.

St. Thomas argues for libertarian free will on the grounds that there can be reasons for opposite actions:

Man does not choose of necessity. And this is because that which is possible not to be, is not of necessity. Now the reason why it is possible not to choose, or to choose, may be gathered from a twofold power in man. For man can will and not will, act and not act; again, he can will this or that, and do this or that. The reason of this is seated in the very power of the reason. For the will can tend to whatever the reason can apprehend as good. Now the reason can apprehend as good, not only this, viz. “to will” or “to act,” but also this, viz. “not to will” or “not to act.” Again, in all particular goods, the reason can consider an aspect of some good, and the lack of some good, which has the aspect of evil: and in this respect, it can apprehend any single one of such goods as to be chosen or to be avoided. The perfect good alone, which is Happiness, cannot be apprehended by the reason as an evil, or as lacking in any way. Consequently man wills Happiness of necessity, nor can he will not to be happy, or to be unhappy. Now since choice is not of the end, but of the means, as stated above (Article 3); it is not of the perfect good, which is Happiness, but of other particular goods. Therefore man chooses not of necessity, but freely.

Someone might object that if both are possible, there cannot be a reason why someone chooses one rather than the other. This is basically the claim in the third objection:

Further, if two things are absolutely equal, man is not moved to one more than to the other; thus if a hungry man, as Plato says (Cf. De Coelo ii, 13), be confronted on either side with two portions of food equally appetizing and at an equal distance, he is not moved towards one more than to the other; and he finds the reason of this in the immobility of the earth in the middle of the world. Now, if that which is equally (eligible) with something else cannot be chosen, much less can that be chosen which appears as less (eligible). Therefore if two or more things are available, of which one appears to be more (eligible), it is impossible to choose any of the others. Therefore that which appears to hold the first place is chosen of necessity. But every act of choosing is in regard to something that seems in some way better. Therefore every choice is made necessarily.

St. Thomas responds to this that it is a question of what the person considers:

If two things be proposed as equal under one aspect, nothing hinders us from considering in one of them some particular point of superiority, so that the will has a bent towards that one rather than towards the other.

Thus for example, someone might decide to become a doctor because it pays well, or they might decide to become a truck driver because they enjoy driving. Whether they consider “what would I enjoy?” or “what would pay well?” will determine which choice they make.

The reader might notice a flaw, or at least a loose thread, in St. Thomas’s argument. In our example, what determines whether you think about what pays well or what you would enjoy? This could be yet another choice. I could create a spreadsheet of possible jobs and think, “What should I put on it? Should I put the pay? or should I put what I enjoy?” But obviously the question about necessity will simply be pushed back, in this case. Is this choice itself determinate or indeterminate? And what determines what choice I make in this case? Here we are discussing an actual temporal series of thoughts, and it absolutely must have a first, since human life has a beginning in time. Consequently there will have to be a point where, if there is the possibility of “doing A for reason B” and “doing C for reason D”, it cannot be any additional consideration which determines which one is done.

Now it is possible at this point that St. Thomas is mistaken. It might be that the hypothesis that both were “really” possible is mistaken, and something does determine one rather than the other with “necessity.” It is also possible that he is not mistaken. Either way, human reasons do not influence the determination, because reason B and/or reason D are the first reasons considered, by hypothesis (if they were not, we would simply push back the question.)

At this point someone might consider this lack of the influence of reasons to imply that people are not morally responsible for doing A or for doing C. The problem with this is that if you do something without a reason (and without potentially being influenced by a reason), then indeed you would not be morally responsible. But the person doing A or C is not uninfluenced by reasons. They are influenced by reason B, or by reason D. Consequently, they are responsible for their specific action, because they do it for a reason, despite the fact that there is some other general issue that they are not responsible for.

What influence could quantum indeterminacy have here? It might be responsible for deciding between “doing A for reason B” and “doing C for reason D.” And as Coyne says, this would be “simple randomness,” with fixed probabilities in any particular situation. But none of this would prevent this from being a situation that would include libertarian free will, since libertarian free will is precisely nothing but the situation where there are two real possibilities: you might do one thing for one reason, or another thing for another reason. And that is what we would have here.

Does quantum mechanics have this influence in fact, or is this just a theoretical possibility? It very likely does. Some argue that it probably doesn’t, on the grounds that quantum mechanics does not typically seem to imply much indeterminacy for macroscopic objects. The problem with this argument is that the only way of knowing that quantum indeterminacy rarely leads to large scale differences is by using humanly designed items like clocks or computers. And these are specifically designed to be determinate: whenever our artifact is not sufficiently determinate and predictable, we change the design until we get something predictable. If we look at something in nature uninfluenced by human design, like a waterfall, is details are highly unpredictable to us. Which drop of water will be the most distant from this particular point one hour from now? There is no way to know.

But how much real indeterminacy is in the waterfall, or in the human brain, due to quantum indeterminacy? Most likely nobody knows, but it is basically a question of timescales. Do you get a great deal of indeterminacy after one hour, or after several days? One way or another, with the passage of enough time, you will get a degree of real indeterminacy as high as you like. The same thing will be equally true of human behavior. We often notice, in fact, that at short timescales there is less indeterminacy than we subjectively feel. For example, if someone hesitates to accept an invitation, in many situations, others will know that the person is very likely to decline. But the person feels very uncertain, as though there were a 50/50 chance of accepting or declining. The real probabilities might be 90/10 or even more slanted. Nonetheless, the question is one of timescales and not of whether or not there is any indeterminacy. There is, this is basically settled, it will apply to human behavior, and there is little reason to doubt that it applies at relatively short timescales compared to the timescales at which it applies to clocks and computers or other things designed with predictability in mind.

In this sense, quantum indeterminacy strongly suggests that St. Thomas is basically correct about libertarian free will.

On the other hand, Coyne is also right about something here. While it is not true that such “randomness” removes moral responsibility, the fact that people do things for reasons, or that praise and blame is a fitting response to actions done for reasons, Coyne correctly notices that it does not add to the fact that someone is responsible. If there is no human reason for the fact that a person did A for reason B rather than C for reason D, this makes their actions less intelligible, and thus less subject to responsibility. In other words, the “libertarian” part of libertarian free will does not make the will more truly a will, but less truly. In this respect, Coyne is right. This however is unrelated to quantum mechanics or to any particular scientific account. The thoughtful person can understand this simply from general considerations about what it means to act for a reason.

Replies to Objections on Form

This post replies to the objections raised in the last post.

Reply 1. I do not define form as “many relations”, in part for this very reason. Rather, I say that it is a network, and thus is one thing tied together, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the objection seems to wish to find something absolutely one which is in no way many and which causes unity in other things which are in some way lacking in unity. This does not fit with the idea of giving an account, which necessarily involves many words and thus reference to many aspects of a thing. And thus it also does not fit with the idea of form as that which makes a thing what it is, because it is evident that when we ask what a thing is, we are typically asking about things that have many aspects, as a human being has many senses and many body parts and so on.

In other words, form makes a thing one, but it also makes it what it is, which means that it also makes a thing many in various ways. And so form is one in some way, and thus called a “network,” but it also contains various relations that account for the many aspects of the thing.

Someone might extend this objection by saying that if a form contains many relations, there will need to be a form of form, uniting these relations. But there is a difference between many material parts, which might need a form in order to be one, and relations, which bind things together of themselves. To be related to something, in this sense, is somewhat like being attached to it in some way, while a number of physical bodies are not attached to each other simply in virtue of being a number of bodies. It is true that this implies a certain amount of complexity in form, but this is simply the result of the fact that there is a certain amount of complexity in what things actually are.

Reply 2. “Apt to make something one” is included in the definition in order to point to the relationships and networks of relationships that we are concerned with. For example, one could discuss the idea of a mereological sum, for example the tree outside my window together with my cell phone, and talk about a certain network of relationships intrinsic to that “sum.” This network would have little share in the idea of form, precisely because it is not apt to make anything one thing in any ordinary sense. However, I say “little share” here rather than “no share”, because this is probably a question of degree and kind. As I said here, “one thing” is said in many ways and with many degrees, and thus also form exists in many ways and with many degrees. In particular, there is no reason to suppose that “one” has one true sense compared to which the other senses would be more false than true.

Reply 3. A network of relationships could be an accidental form. Thus the form that makes a blue thing blue would normally be an accidental form. But there will be a similar network of relationships that make a thing a substance. If something is related to other things as “that in which other things are present,” and is not related to other things as “that which is present in something else,” then it will exist as substance, and precisely because it is related to things in these ways. So the definition is in fact general in comparison to both substance and accident.

Reply 4. This objection could be understood as asserting that everything relative depends on something prior which is absolute. Taken in this sense, the objection is simply mistaken. The existence of more than one thing proves conclusively that relationship as such does not need to depend on anything absolute.

Another way to understand the objection would be as asserting that whatever we may say about the thing in relation to other things, all of this must result from what the thing is in itself, apart from all of this. Therefore the essence of the thing is prior to anything at all that we say about it. And in this way, there is a truth here and an error here, namely the Kantian truth and the Kantian error. Certainly the thing is the cause of our knowledge, and not simply identical with our knowledge. Nonetheless, we possess knowledge, not ignorance, of the thing, and we have this knowledge by participation in the network of relationships that defines the thing.

Reply 5. The objection gratuitously asserts that our definition is reductionist, and this can equally well be gratuitously denied. In fact, this account includes the rejection of both reductionist and anti-reductionist positions. Insofar as people suppose that these positions are the only possible positions, if they see that my account implies the rejection of their particular side of the argument, they will naturally suppose that my account implies the acceptance of the other side. This is why the 10th objection claims the opposite: namely that my account is mistaken because it seems to be anti-reductionist.

Reply 6. I agree, in fact, that we are mostly ignorant of the nature of “blue,” and likewise of the natures of most other things. But we are equally ignorant of the network of relationships that these things share in. Thus in an earlier post about Mary’s Room, I noted that we do not even come close to knowing everything that can be known about color. Something similar would be true about pretty much everything that we can commonly name. We have some knowledge of what blue is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge, and similarly we have some knowledge of what a human being is, but it is a very imperfect knowledge. This is one reason why I qualified the claim that the essences of things are not hidden: in another way, virtually all essences are hidden from us, because they are typically too complex for us to understand exhaustively.

An additional problem, also mentioned in the case of “blue,” is that the experience of blue is not the understanding of blue, and these would remain distinct even if the understanding of blue were perfect. But again, it would be an instance of the Kantian error to suppose that it follows that one would not understand the nature of blue even if one understood it (thus we make the absurdity evident.)

Reply 7. God is not an exception to the claim about hidden essences, nor to this account of form, and these claims are not necessarily inconsistent with Christian theology.

The simplicity of God should not be understood as necessarily being opposed to being a network of relationships. In particular, the Trinity is thought to be the same as the essence of God, and what is the Trinity except a network of relations?

Nor does the impossibility of knowing the essence of God imply that God’s essence is hidden in the relevant sense. Rather, it is enough to say that it is inaccessible for “practical” reasons, so to speak. For example, consider St. Thomas’s argument that no one knows all that God can do:

The created intellect, in seeing the divine essence, does not see in it all that God does or can do. For it is manifest that things are seen in God as they are in Him. But all other things are in God as effects are in the power of their cause. Therefore all things are seen in God as an effect is seen in its cause. Now it is clear that the more perfectly a cause is seen, the more of its effects can be seen in it. For whoever has a lofty understanding, as soon as one demonstrative principle is put before him can gather the knowledge of many conclusions; but this is beyond one of a weaker intellect, for he needs things to be explained to him separately. And so an intellect can know all the effects of a cause and the reasons for those effects in the cause itself, if it comprehends the cause wholly. Now no created intellect can comprehend God wholly, as shown above (Article 7). Therefore no created intellect in seeing God can know all that God does or can do, for this would be to comprehend His power; but of what God does or can do any intellect can know the more, the more perfectly it sees God.

St. Thomas argues that if anyone knew all that God can do, i.e. everything that can be God’s effect, he would not only know the essence of God, but know it perfectly. This actually supports our position precisely: if you have an exhaustive account of the network of relationships between God and the world, actual and potential, according to St. Thomas, this is to know the essence of God exhaustively.

Reply 8. I concede the objection, but simply note that the error is on the part of Christian theology, not on the part of this account.

In this case, someone might ask why I included this objection, along with the previous, where even if I consider the theology defensible, I do not consider it authoritative. The reason is that I included objections that I expected various readers to hold in one form or another, and these are two of them. But what is the use of addressing them if I simply reject the premise of the objection?

There is at least one benefit to this. There is an important lesson here. Religious doctrines are typically defined in such a way that they have few or no undue sensible implications, as I said for example about the Real Presence. But philosophy is more difficult, and shares in much of the same distance from the senses that such religious claims have. Consequently, even if you manage to avoid adopting religious doctrines that have false scientific implications (and many don’t manage to avoid even this), if you accept any religious doctrines at all, it will be much harder to avoid false philosophical implications.

In fact, the idea of an immortal soul probably has false scientific consequences as well as false philosophical consequences, at least taken as it is usually understood. Thus for example Sean Carroll argues that the mortality of the soul is a settled issue:

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren’t any sensible answers to these questions. Of course, everything we know about quantum field theory could be wrong. Also, the Moon could be made of green cheese.

Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.

Even if you don’t believe that human beings are “simply” collections of atoms evolving and interacting according to rules laid down in the Standard Model of particle physics, most people would grudgingly admit that atoms are part of who we are. If it’s really nothing but atoms and the known forces, there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death. Believing in life after death, to put it mildly, requires physics beyond the Standard Model. Most importantly, we need some way for that “new physics” to interact with the atoms that we do have.

Very roughly speaking, when most people think about an immaterial soul that persists after death, they have in mind some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV. The questions are these: what form does that spirit energy take, and how does it interact with our ordinary atoms? Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments. Ockham’s razor is not on your side here, since you have to posit a completely new realm of reality obeying very different rules than the ones we know.

There are certainly different ways to think about this, but this is in fact a common way of thinking about the soul in relation to the body. For example, consider this discussion by James Chastek:

Objection: Conservation laws require that outcomes be already determined. By your own admission, life has to be able to “alter what would happen by physical causes alone” and therefore violates conservation laws.

Response: Again, laws and initial conditions do not suffice to explain the actual world. Life only “alters” physical causes under the counterfactual supposition that physical causes could act alone, i.e. in a way that could suffice to explain outcomes in the actual world.

Objection: It is meaningless to describe life acting on physical laws and conditions when we can’t detect this. Life-actions are vacuous entities about which we can say nothing at all. What’s their Hamiltonian?

Response: Physical laws and conditions as physical are instrumental or partial accounts of the actual world. The interactive mechanisms and measurement devices appropriate to establishing the existence of physical causes are not appropriate tools for describing all causes of the actual world.

Chastek is deliberately ignoring the question that he poses himself. But we know his opinion of the matter from previous discussions. What physics would calculate would be one thing; what the human being will do, according to Chastek, is something different.

This almost certainly does imply a violation of the laws of physics in the sense of the discussion in Chastek’s post, as well as in the sense that concerns Sean Carroll. In fact, it probably would imply a violation of conservation of energy, very possibly to such a degree that it would be possible in principle to exploit the violation to create a perpetual motion machine, somewhat along the lines of this short story by Scott Alexander. And these violations would detectable in principle, and very likely in practice as well, at least at some point.

Nonetheless, one might think about it differently, without suggesting these things, but still suppose that people have immortal souls. And one might be forgiven for being skeptical of Sean Carroll’s arguments, given that his metaphysics is wrong. Perhaps there is some implicit dependence of his argument on this mistaken metaphysics. The problem with this response is that even the correct metaphysics has the same implications, even without considering Carroll’s arguments from physics.

It is easy to see that there still loopholes for someone who wishes to maintain the immortality of the soul. But such loopholes also indicate an additional problem with the idea. In particular, the idea that the soul is subsistent implies that it is a substantial part of a human being: that a human is a whole made of soul and body much as the body is a whole made of various parts such as legs and arms. If this were the case, the soul might not be material in a quantitative sense, but it would be “matter” in the sense that we have argued that form is not matter. In this case, it would be reasonable to suppose that an additional substantial form would be necessary to unify soul and body, themselves two substantial parts.

Reply 9. There in fact is an implicit reference to matter in the definition. “Apt to make something one” refers to what is made, but it also refers to what it is made out of, if there is anything out of which it is made. The form of a chair makes the chair one chair, but it also makes the stuff of the chair into one chair.

There is more to say about matter, but my intention for now was to clarify the concept of form.

Reply 10. The network of relationships is most certainly not a construct of the mind, if one places this in opposition to “real thing.” You cannot trace back relationships to causes that do not include any relationships, if only because “cause” is in itself relative.

I have argued against reductionism in many places, and do not need to repeat those arguments here, but in particular I would note that the objection implies that “mind” is a construct of the mind, and this implies circular causality, which is impossible.

Reply 11. The objection is not really argued, and this is mainly because there cannot be a real argument for it. There is however a rough intuition supporting it, which is that applying this idea of form to immaterial things seems unfair to reality, as though we were trying to say that the limits of reality are set by the limits of the human mind. Once again, however, this is simply a case of the usual Kantian error, mixed together with choosing something that would be especially unknown to us. An immaterial thing could not exist without having some relationship with everything else. As we have suggested elsewhere, “there is an immaterial thing,” cannot even be assigned a meaning without the implied claim that I stand in some relation with it, and that it stands in some relation to me. But evidently I know very little about it. This does not mean that we need some new definition of what it is to be something; it simply means I do not know much of what that thing is, just as I do not know much of anything about it at all.

 

Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.