Start at the Beginning

This post will have two kinds of readers:

1) The few who have read the posts on this blog from the beginning, in chronological order, and who are now reading this one simply because it is the only one you have not read yet.

2) The vast majority who did not do the above.

For the first category, I don’t have any particular suggestion at the moment. Well done. That is the right way of reading this blog.

For the second category, you would do much better to stop right here in the middle of this post (without even finishing it), go back to the beginning, and read every post in chronological order.

….

So you are now in the first category? No? Since obviously you did not take my advice, let me explain both why you should, and why you will not.

It is possible to understand something through arguments, even if manipulating symbols may be an even more common result. And since conclusions follow from premises, you can only do this by thinking about the premises first, and the conclusions second. Since my own interest is in understanding things, I intentionally organize the blog in this way. Of course, since the concrete historical process of an individual coming to understand some particular thing is messier and more complicated than a single argument or even than multiple arguments, the order isn’t an exact representation of my own history or someone else’s potential history. But it is certainly closer to that than any other order of reading would be.

You will object that you do not have the time to read 300 blog posts. Fine. But then why do you have time to read this one? Even if you are definitely committed to reading a small number of posts, you would do better to read a small number from the beginning. If you are committed to reading not more than one post a week, you would do better to read the 300 posts over the next six years, rather than reading the posts that are current.

You might think of other similar objections, but they will all fail in similar ways. If you are actually interested in understanding something from your reading, chronological order is the right order.

Of course, other blog authors might well argue in similar ways, but the number of people who actually do this, on any blog, is tiny. Instead, people read a few recent posts, and perhaps a few others if there are a chain of links that lead them there. But they do not, in the vast majority of cases, read from the beginning, whether to read all or only a part.

So let me explain why you will not take this advice, despite the fact that it is irrefutably correct. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler remark in a chapter on conversation:

This view of talking—as a way of showing off one’s “backpack”—explains the puzzles we encountered earlier, the ones that the reciprocal-exchange theory had trouble with. For example, it explains why we see people jockeying to speak rather than sitting back and “selfishly” listening—because the spoils of conversation don’t lie primarily in the information being exchanged, but rather in the subtextual value of finding good allies and advertising oneself as an ally. And in order to get credit in this game, you have to speak up; you have to show off your “tools.”

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information.

Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.

Hanson and Simler are trying to explain various characteristics of conversation, such as the fact that people are typically more interested in speaking than in listening, as well as the requirement that conversational participants “stick to the topic.”

Later, they associate this with people’s interest in news:

Why have humans long been so obsessed with news? When asked to justify our strong interest, we often point to the virtues of staying apprised of the important issues of the day. During a 1945 newspaper strike in New York, for example, when the sociologist Bernard Berelson asked his fellow citizens, “Is it very important that people read the newspaper?” almost everyone answered with a “strong ‘yes,’ ” and most people cited the “ ‘serious’ world of public affairs.”

Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.

There are other clues that we aren’t mainly using the news to be good citizens (despite our high-minded rhetoric). For example, voters tend to show little interest in the kinds of information most useful for voting, including details about specific policies, the arguments for and against them, and the positions each politician has taken on each policy. Instead, voters seem to treat elections more like horse races, rooting for or against different candidates rather than spending much effort to figure out who should win. (See Chapter 16 for a more detailed discussion on politics.)

These patterns in behavior may be puzzling when we think of news as a source of useful information. But they make sense if we treat news as a larger “conversation” that extends our small-scale conversation habits. Just as one must talk on the current topic in face-to-face conversation, our larger news conversation also maintains a few “hot” topics—a focus so strong and so narrow that policy wonks say that there’s little point in releasing policy reports on topics not in the news in the last two weeks. (This is the criterion of relevance we saw earlier.)

The argument here suggests that blog readers will tend to prefer reading current posts to old ones because this is to remain more “relevant,” and that such relevance is necessary in order to impress other conversational participants. This, I suggest, is why you will not take my advice, despite its rightness. If you think this is an insulting explanation, just bear in mind that blog authors are even more insulted by Hanson’s and Simler’s explanations, since the reader at least is listening.

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2:42 PM

It is 2:42 PM. The sky is overcast and it is raining lightly outside my window. I am sitting here at my computer pondering how to phrase this sentence and how to complete it, as well as the rest of the post. Should I explain the meaning of the story? Or I should I tell it and allow the readers to interpret it for themselves?

I am feeling a bit lazy, and I have other things to do this afternoon besides writing blog posts. This strongly inclines me to the second possibility. Yes, I am skeptical of people’s ability to interpret it. But I can always write a post later making explicit the moral of the story, if I should choose to do so.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that people are likely to adopt wildly false interpretations. This consideration certainly stands against leaving it without interpretation, but it is not decisive.

I have just been sitting here for five more minutes, trying to make up my mind. That’s settled, then. I’ll take the second path. No use wasting any more time.

 

Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)

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.