When First We Practise to Deceive

Mark Shea potentially provides an example of the sort of reasoning from moral considerations that we discussed yesterday:

The woman in the video says (and I see no particular reason to doubt her) that this is the nickname her recently deceased grandmother called her when she was a little girl and that her four year did not and could not have known that.

Hmmmmmmmm…..  Could be fake.  Could be demonic (evil spirits can reveal to humans things they cannot know naturally).  Could be a divine gift of knowledge.  Thing is, without context and connection to the rest of her story it’s very hard to know what’s going on.

When he says, “could be fake,” he may mean that the woman could be lying, which is certainly possible, but which seems to go against “I see no particular reason to doubt her”.

In any case, “I see no particular reason to doubt her,” appears to be an example of reasoning from moral considerations. We don’t have a special reason to think the woman is wicked or a liar, so we would be treating her better by trusting her.

In fact, even without additional investigation, there is at least one particular reason to doubt her, namely the very existence of the video, as opposed to an after-the-fact narration. The existence of the video suggests that the woman knew what was going to happen, which suggests deceit.

But for the sake of discussion we can assume there is no particular reason to doubt her, as Mark says. The fact that the woman makes a claim is evidence for that claim, but one can still ask which of these statements is true:

(1) For the most part, when someone claims to communicate with a dead person or to witness such communication, the events in question have natural causes such as lying or being mistaken.

(2) For the most part, when someone claims to communicate with a dead person or to witness such communication, the events in question have supernatural or preternatural causes such as divine revelation, demonic deception, or actual communication from a departed soul.

If (2) happens to be the case, there is no problem with trusting the woman, and no problem with going on to consider possible supernatural or preternatural causes.

But if (1) happens to be the case, there may be a problem. I may have “no particular reason to doubt her”, but this is a moral consideration which does not affect the probability of the facts in question, and according to (1), even after her claim, it remains more probable than not that either she is lying, or she is deceived (e.g. she previously used the nickname in the girl’s presence but does not remember this.)

The basic problem here is that it is very difficult, although not impossible, to think that something is true while accepting that it probably isn’t. So if I actually trust the woman, in most cases I will end up thinking that she is probably telling the truth, which according to (1), would be mistaken. Nor can it be said that this is a case where the mistake does not pertain “to the evil of the intellect,” as St. Thomas says about cases where we mistakenly suppose that someone is a good person. Instead, making a mistake of this sort can lead us into very serious intellectual errors. For if we immediately suppose that the woman is probably telling the truth, and if we do the same thing in numerous other cases, we are quite likely to conclude that (2) is the case, when by hypothesis it is not. But a world where (2) is the case might very well be a quite different world from one in which (1) is the case, and thus the error might very well lead us astray about the very nature of reality. This might be somewhat less clear to someone who supposes that (2) is in fact true, or at least isn’t very unlikely to be true, but one could consider similar cases where someone claims to have experienced facts verifying the truth of Scientology or some similar insanity. Believing a person simply because there is “no particular reason to doubt them” can indeed lead to errors of enormous magnitude.

A personal anecdote may illustrate the same thing in a different way. On one occasion, waiting at a bus stop in Vienna, I was approached by an old man who asked, “May I speak with you?”

I replied, “Well, I have to get on the bus when it arrives, but until then it is fine.”

He told his story. “About two weeks ago, I met a poor man on the street who said he had no money and no place to stay. I invited him to stay in my apartment for a while. He did, and everything was fine for a while. But he disappeared yesterday, and he took with him €2,000 in cash and my credit card. Now I always thought that if you did good to others, good would come back to you…”

At the moment the bus arrived, so I simply said, “There could be a lot to say about that, but I need to go…” and got on the bus.

It may be charitable not to judge a poor man by assuming he is the kind of guy who would steal from you. And it may be charitable not to judge someone by assuming he is the kind of person who would lie to you. But charitable or not, if you don’t want to lose €2,000, then you have to consider the actual probability that the person may steal from you. And likewise, if you don’t want to be led into serious errors, you have to consider the actual probability that someone would lie or be mistaken.

Advertisements

One thought on “When First We Practise to Deceive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s