Some Personal Remarks

At one point we looked at Trent Horn’s question for a Mormon:

Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?

The main reason that our Mormon protagonist  is unwilling to change his mind about religion is not because of the evidence in favor of Mormonism. There certainly is such evidence, as for example the witnesses who testified that they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates. But such evidence is surely not the principal motive involved. Basically they have motives other than truth for continuing to believe. If a Mormon changes their religious views, this can have serious negative consequences for their social and personal life. This is not specific to Mormonism, but is common to religion in general, as well as to many political views, because of the way that such views are used to express social and political loyalties. As noted in the linked post, someone who changes his view is seen as a traitor to his community.

Gregory Dawes, a former Catholic, seems to have had this experience. He remarks (quoted in the post linked above):

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

The Catholic Church does not teach that falling away from the faith is the greatest of sins. In fact, although it certainly teaches that it is objectively wrong for a Catholic to do so, it does not even teach that a Catholic is always subjectively guilty at all when they change their religious views. Dawes was a well educated Catholic, so he is probably aware of these facts. Why then does he call this “the greatest of sins?” It seems pretty reasonable to suppose that he is responding in a personal way to how he was treated by others after he changed his mind about his religion.

As I said in the linked post, I agree with Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes about the use of reason. However, this is not the only thing that Dawes and I have in common. Like Dawes, my family and background are completely Catholic. Like Dawes, my education was completely Catholic. Finally, I substantially agree with Dawes in his conclusions regarding Catholicism and regarding religion in general, considered as a body of factual claims about the world. Of course this is not the case not in every detail. I also suspect that I disagree with him to a larger extent on the reasons for those conclusions. This is not an opinion that I have just arrived at. I have held this view for over a year now. Nor was it the result of a brief process, but the result of a gradual process of thought which took decades of my life.

As with Dawes, and as with our theoretical Mormon, this has had serious consequences for my personal life, and not only on account of the reactions of others. Nonetheless, the reactions of others play a significant role here. Consequently I have a few remarks principally for those who know me in real life:

  1. This blog is and remains theoretically anonymous. Please do not make this post a public announcement connected to my real name.
  2. I appreciate your prayers. Needless to say, this does not imply that there is any meaningful weakness to the case for my position.
  3. I do not appreciate insults. Your faith does not require you to believe that I am foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons. If you think that it does, or if it pleases you to think these things in any case, please keep them to yourself.
  4. While it should be obvious from this blog that I do not mind conversations about religion, considered in general, I do not appreciate proselytism, namely efforts that could reasonably be described as “stop him from being foolish and get him to come to his senses.” I am not being foolish, and I am entirely in possession of my senses. Please do not engage in this behavior; it is uncharitable, it will not have the effects that you wish, and persistence in it over a long period of time can only have the effect of destroying relationships.

One additional remark concerning the “possessed by demons” point. Someone recently said in a personal communication:

By the strange things you write, I can see that your mind has been given blinders / tunnel vision, presumably by some evil spirit, who only lets you look at things from his point of view.

This refers to things written on this blog, and in that sense it is completely incorrect. Everything currently on the blog is completely consistent with a Catholic view, and only expresses views that I have held for many years. Many orthodox Catholics would agree in substance with virtually everything here.

As for the demon comment itself, I have noted in the past that if you say that a person’s beliefs are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation with them. In the same way, if you say that a person’s religious views are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation about religion with them.

Settled Issues

In chapter 5 of his book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, E. T. Jaynes discusses ESP:

I. J. Good (1950) has shown how we can use probability theory backwards to measure our own strengths of belief about propositions. For example, how strongly do you believe in extrasensory perception?

What probability would you assign to the hypothesis that Mr Smith has perfect extrasensory perception? More specifically, that he can guess right every time which number you have written down. To say zero is too dogmatic. According to our theory, this means that we are never going to allow the robot’s mind to be changed by any amount of evidence, and we don’t really want that. But where is our strength of belief in a proposition like this?

Our brains work pretty much the way this robot works, but we have an intuitive feeling for plausibility only when it’s not too far from 0 db. We get fairly definite feelings that something is more than likely to be so or less than likely to be so. So the trick is to imagine an experiment. How much evidence would it take to bring your state of belief up to the place where you felt very perplexed and unsure about it? Not to the place where you believed it – that would overshoot the mark, and again we’d lose our resolving power. How much evidence would it take to bring you just up to the point where you were beginning to consider the possibility seriously?

So, we consider Mr Smith, who says he has extrasensory perception (ESP), and we will write down some numbers from one to ten on a piece of paper and ask him to guess which numbers we’ve written down. We’ll take the usual precautions to make sure against other ways of finding out. If he guesses the first number correctly, of course we will all say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I don’t believe you have ESP’. And if he guesses two numbers correctly, we’ll still say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I still don’t believe you have ESP’. By the time he’s guessed four numbers correctly – well, I still wouldn’t believe it. So my state of belief is certainly lower than −40 db.

How many numbers would he have to guess correctly before you would really seriously consider the hypothesis that he has extrasensory perception? In my own case, I think somewhere around ten. My personal state of belief is, therefore, about −100 db. You could talk me into a ±10 db change, and perhaps as much as ±30 db, but not much more than that.

The idea is that after Mr. Smith guesses 7 to 13 numbers correctly (when by chance he should have a probability of 10% of guessing each one correctly), Jaynes will begin to think it reasonably likely that he has ESP. He notes that this is his subjective opinion, saying, “In my own case,” and “My personal state of belief.”

However, Jaynes follows this up by stating that if this happened in real life, he would not be convinced:

After further thought, we see that, although this result is correct, it is far from the whole story. In fact, if he guessed 1000 numbers correctly, I still would not believe that he has ESP, for an extension of the same reason that we noted in Chapter 4 when we first encountered the phenomenon of resurrection of dead hypotheses. An hypothesis A that starts out down at −100 db can hardly ever come to be believed, whatever the data, because there are almost sure to be alternative hypotheses (B1, B2,…) above it, perhaps down at −60 db. Then, when we obtain astonishing data that might have resurrected A, the alternatives will be resurrected instead.

In other words, Jaynes is saying, “This happened by chance,” and “Mr. Smith has ESP” are not the only possibilities. For example, it is possible that Mr. Smith has invented a remote MRI device, which he has trained to distinguish people’s thoughts about numbers, and he is receiving data on the numbers picked by means of an earbud. If the prior probability of this is higher than the prior probability that Mr. Smith has ESP, then Jaynes will begin to think this is a reasonable hypothesis, rather than coming to accept ESP.

This does not imply that Jaynes is infinitely confident that Mr. Smith does not have ESP, and in fact it does not invalidate his original estimate:

Now let us return to that original device of I. J. Good, which started this train of thought. After all this analysis, why do we still hold that naive first answer of −100 db for my prior probability for ESP, as recorded above, to be correct? Because Jack Good’s imaginary device can be applied to whatever state of knowledge we choose to imagine; it need not be the real one. If I knew that true ESP and pure chance were the only possibilities, then the device would apply and my assignment of −100 db would hold. But, knowing that there are other possibilities in the real world does not change my state of belief about ESP; so the figure of −100 db still holds.

He would begin to be convinced after about 10 numbers if he knew for a fact that chance and ESP were the only possibilities, and thus this is a good representation of how certain he is subjectively.

The fact of other possibilities also does not mean that it is impossible for Jaynes to be convinced, even in the real world, that some individual has ESP. But it does mean that this can happen only with great difficulty: essentially, he must be convinced that the other possibilities are even less likely than ESP. As Jaynes says,

Indeed, the very evidence which the ESP’ers throw at us to convince us, has the opposite effect on our state of belief; issuing reports of sensational data defeats its own purpose. For if the prior probability for deception is greater than that of ESP, then the more improbable the alleged data are on the null hypothesis of no deception and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in deception. For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader. As (5.15) shows, the reader’s total prior probability for deception by all mechanisms must be pushed down below that of ESP.

This is related to the grain of truth in Hume’s account of miracles. Hume’s basic point, that an account of a miracle could never be credible, is mistaken. But he is correct to say that the account would not be credible unless “these witnesses are mistaken or lying” has a lower prior probability than the prior probability of the miracle actually happening. His mistake is to suppose that this cannot happen in principle.

Something like this also happens with ordinary things that we are extremely sure about. For example, take your belief that the American War of Independence happened before the Civil War. You can imagine coming upon evidence that the Civil War happened first. Thus for example suppose you found a book by a historian arguing for this thesis. This would be evidence that the Civil War came first. But it would be very unpersuasive, and would change your mind little if at all, because the prior probability of “this is a work of fiction,” or indeed of “this a silly book arguing a silly thesis for personal reasons” is higher.

We could call this a “settled issue,” at least from your point of view (and in this case from the point of view of pretty much everyone). Not only do you believe that the War of Independence came first; it would be very difficult to persuade you otherwise, even if there were real evidence against your position, and this is not because you are being unreasonable. In fact, it would be unreasonable to be moved significantly by the evidence of that book arguing the priority of the Civil War.

Is it possible in principle to persuade you to change your mind? Yes. In principle this could happen bit by bit, by an accumulation of small pieces of evidence. You might read that book, and then learn that the author is a famous historian, and that he is completely serious (presumably he became famous before writing the book; otherwise he would instead be infamous.) And then you might find other items in favor of this theory, and find refutations of the apparently more likely explanations.

But in practice such a process is extremely unlikely. The most likely way you could change your mind about this would be by way of one large change. For example, you might wake up in a hospital tomorrow and be told that you had been suffering from a rare form of amnesia which does not remove a person’s past memories, but changes them into something different. You ask about the Civil War, and are told that everyone agrees that it happened before the War of Independence. People can easily give you dozens of books on the topic; you search online on the matter, and everything on the internet takes for granted that the Civil War came first. Likewise, everyone you talk to simply takes this for granted.

The reason that the “one big change” process is more likely than the “accumulation of small evidences” process is this: if we want to know what should persuade you that the Civil War came first, we are basically asking what the world would have to be like in order for it to be actually true that the Civil War came first. In such a world, your current belief is false. And in such a world it is simply much more likely that you have made one big mistake which resulted in your false belief about the Civil War, than that you have made lots of little mistakes which led to it.

 

Quotations

This blog very frequently includes quotations. Some posts are essentially nothing but a quotation, as this one here, and others do not contain much beyond a series of long quotations, as for example this one.

Why do I use the thoughts of others rather than putting things in my own words? There are a number of reasons. It is very practical. It is much easier to compose a long blog post using quotations, while it takes a lot of time and energy to write everything yourself. And the idea of originality here is not really relevant. For as Qoheleth says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Most of the positions argued on this blog have been argued by others, and there is nothing surprising about this. In addition, insofar as a new contribution is possible, one can do this by organizing the thoughts of others, just as Socrates teaches the boy by helping him organize his thoughts

But the most important reason is the following. Speakers and writers are addressing people, and just as beliefs have motives, so the act of speaking or writing has a motive. And whether or not people approve of doing this, the listener or the reader tends to think of these motives. As Alexander Pruss discusses in a blog post here, sometimes such considerations are necessary. Nonetheless, this can lead people away from understanding reality. If instead of thinking about what I am saying and what is true about it, someone thinks, “Why is he saying this?”, this can hinder them in their understanding of the truth of the matter.

Quotations are very helpful in reducing this effect. Since a quotation is taken out of context, it is removed from the motivation of the original speaker. Yes, there is still a motive on the part of the person who includes the quotation. But the reader who reads the quotation knows that it is not addressed to him in the manner of the original. He does not need to say, “Why is the original author saying this?”, because it does not matter in the new context. The only thing that matters is what he is saying, not why he is saying it. So it provides some impetus towards considering the truth of the matter. This remains true whether the quotation itself says something which is true, or something which is false.

I Respond

If we consider the last two posts, we can see that they resemble a disputed question. However, unlike St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, and instead in the technical manner of a disputed question, there are arguments on both sides. Additionally, I did not include the typical “response of the master,” nor did I include responses to the arguments. I will explain these omissions shortly.

James Chastek, in the passage quoted here, asserted that it is difficult to make your opponent’s arguments without relating to them as something to be refuted. As we have seen from these examples, there is actually no big difficulty here, and historically this was done with the disputed question. In principle people could even write books this way, and they probably have, on occasion. One could write an entire book on the actual infinite with the structure, “Part I: An Actual Infinite is Possible,” and “Part 2: An Actual Infinite is Impossible.”

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do this in general, and why for example I would not write blog posts like this in general. One factor is the practical issue that it is twice as much work. Another is the concrete goal of a book or a blog post.

Why did I not include the response of the master? In the medieval schools, the arguments on each side were formulated by the students, followed by the master’s response and his answers to the arguments. Thus, since the master did not compose the original arguments, he could make a new argument for his conclusion, outside of the original arguments. But since I was the one composing the arguments on each side, if I thought there was a very strong argument for one conclusion, I could simply include it there. Consequently a special response would simply repeat something contained in the series of arguments.

But there is more to it than this. A special response would also give away my personal opinion, which I preferred to avoid. If I could simply state the strong arguments in the series, nothing would be added by restating it as the “response of the master” except the bare fact that I agree with the one side rather than the other.

Consider how students will react to such a thing in real life. In terms of the argument, nothing is added to their understanding of reality by this response. Nonetheless, they receive additional evidence in favor of one conclusion, namely that the teacher agrees with one side. So they will have an additional reason to agree with that side, a real reason, but not one that adds to their understanding of the issues. Thus, to the degree that they believe that this response has contributed to their understanding, they are simply mistaken, and consequently believe that they understand things better than they do.

The issue of the responses to the arguments in somewhat different. If someone wrote the above book on the Actual Infinite, presumably Part I would also include responses to the main arguments in Part II, and Part II would include responses to the main arguments in Part I. This is in fact very important for understanding. Although arguments are never one-sided, they are frequently mostly one-sided, where most of the best arguments and evidence are indeed on one side. And in such cases, this usually becomes most clear when one considers the responses to the opposing arguments, and, consequently, where one begins to actually understand the matter at hand, and to recognize the truth of the matter.

So I did not include such responses because most likely they would reveal more clearly which side had the stronger argument, and which side I agreed with. But note that in principle these two things would be the same: the reasons which would show that I agreed with one side, would show that this was the better and more likely side. In practice of course there might be other ways that someone could guess my opinion, as for example from the style of the arguments and so on. (For the record, my opinion cannot be determined by which side went first; that was determined by the flip of a coin.)

Someone once posted on Twitter (I can no longer find the particular post) something along the lines of, “How can you be unbiased if I can tell which side you are on?” We can see here that in fact there is a valid answer to this: if I simply present all of the best arguments for both sides, together with their responses, then you can tell which side I am on by determining which side is probably right, and the fact that you can determine my side in that way does not suggest that I am biased. On the other hand, if you note that I have missed strong and important arguments on the side of the part that seems weaker in my presentation, that might be a reason for thinking that I am biased.

That said, the responses to the arguments in the previous posts, and consequently the “response of the master,” is left here as an exercise for the reader.

Whether Lying is Always Wrong?

It is clear that lying is wrong in general. And there seem to be good reasons for saying that this is true without exception. In the first place, as was said in the linked post, lying always harms the common good by taking away from the meaning of language.

This is also related to St. Thomas’s argument that lying is always wrong:

An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).

The idea here is that just as “killing an innocent person” is always wrong, so “speaking against one’s mind” is always wrong, and the harm consistently done to the language and to the common good is a sign of this wrongness. Still, there are cases where it is right to do something that involves the death of an innocent person incidentally, and likewise there could be cases where it is right to do something that incidentally involves speech apparently contrary to one’s thought. But just as such incidental cases are not murder, so such incidental cases are not lying. This post and the previous past are good examples, since I appear to be saying things contrary to my mind.

Even if someone does not accept St. Thomas’s manner of argument, there are reasons for thinking that lying is always harmful even in terms of its consequences. One should consider the consequences not only of the individual act, but also of the policy, and the policy “never tell lies,” seems more beneficial than any policy permitting lies under some circumstances. We can consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If everyone has the policy of cooperating, everyone will be better off. Likewise, society will be better off if everyone has the policy of never lying. Of course, not everyone has this policy. Nonetheless, the more people adopt it, the more other people will be willing to adopt it, and the better off everyone will be. Even the typically discussed case of the Nazi and the Jews may not change this. If you tell the truth to the Nazi, it will be bad for the Jews in the particular case, but the world as a whole may be better off because of your policy of consistent truth-telling.

On the other hand, it is also easy to argue that we should make an exception for cases like that of the Jews. In the first place, almost everyone would in fact make an exception in this case, and simply say that there are no Jews. Yes, you could respond with a verbal evasion, if you happened to think of one. But suppose that you are on the spot and one does not occur to you. Your real choice here is simply to say, “Yes, there are Jews,” or “No, there are none here.” If you do not respond, your house will be searched, which will have the same effect as giving an affirmative response. In practice most people would lie. Nor can this be dismissed as moral weakness, the way we can dismiss people’s tendency to overeat as moral weakness. For people regret overeating; they will say things like, “I wish I didn’t eat so much.” But in the case of the Nazi and the Jews, most people would lie, and would never regret it. They would never say, “I wish I had admitted the Jews were there.” This indicates that almost everyone agrees that it is ok to lie in that case: regardless of how they describe this situation philosophically, at a deep level they believe that lying is justified in this case. If you attempt to justify it by saying that it isn’t really lying in that case, then you are simply confirming the fact that you believe this.

And insofar as this is a practical matter, we can make a strong argument for their conclusion as a matter of practice, regardless of the theoretical truth of the matter. Suppose you are 95% certain of the arguments in the first part of this post. You think there is a 95% chance that lying is always wrong, even in the case of the Nazi and the Jews. Now the Nazi is at the door, asking about the Jews in your house. You can tell the truth. In this case, according to your opinion, there is 95% chance that you will be doing the morally right thing, and incidentally allowing the death of some innocent persons. But there is a 5% chance that you will be doing the morally wrong thing. That is, if you are wrong, you will not only be doing something morally neutral: you will be doing something morally wrong, namely allowing the death of innocent persons for no good reason. And the 95% chance is of telling a useful lie, and saving lives. If it is morally wrong, it is a small wrong. The 5% chance, however, is of pointlessly allowing deaths. If it is morally wrong, it is extremely evil.

And it is easy to argue that in practice there is only one good choice here: a certainty of saving lives, together with a 95% chance of a slightly wrong act, seems much better than the certainty of allowing deaths, together with a 5% chance of an extremely evil act.

 

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

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.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.