This or Nothing

In his homily on June 9th, Pope Francis spoke against excessively rigid views:

This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.

“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”

It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolutionJames Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.

The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:

(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…

…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).

Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.

Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.

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Let’s Draw a Line

James Larson, in the note currently at the beginning of his website, accuses Pope Francis of heresy:

Note (April 16, 2016): In order to add clarity as to the nature of the explicit heresy taught in Amoris Laetitia, I have added one paragraph approximately 2/3 of the way through the article below. It reads:

Herein resides the essence of this heresy. It lies specifically in teaching that there is a “gradualness” applicable to the possession of charity and sanctifying grace. It is Catholic dogma that possession of supernatural charity is an ontological state created by sanctifying grace added to the soul, that one cannot possess this charity unless living in this substantial state, and that it is this state of being which is absolutely necessary for receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. It cannot be possessed by a person living in objective mortal sin, or by any person who is in some process of pastoral effort working towards the attainment of some “ideal”.

Larson is saying that sanctifying grace is a binary state, that it cannot be possessed by someone “living in objective mortal sin,” that these items are Catholic dogmas, and that Pope Francis contradicts them. The text in which he supposedly does this is paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Larson is mistaken on almost every point. It is true that sanctifying grace would normally be considered a binary condition, where either you have it or you do not. But the Catholic Church does not typically create doctrines concerning deep matters of ontology. If someone were to assert that some people are in a vague condition where it is unclear whether or not they are in a state of grace, just as it is unclear whether some people are actually bald or just almost bald, this would not be a heresy. Nowhere does the Church condemn such a view.

But this is beside the point. It is entirely obvious that Pope Francis makes no such assertion in the text under consideration. Nor does he assert this, or anything like it, anywhere else in Amoris Laetitia.

“Living in objective mortal sin” refers to the “objective situation of sin” in the text of Pope Francis, and refers to the general idea of living a life where one regularly performs acts which the Church considers to be objectively grave sins. Larson asserts that the Church teaches that such a person cannot be in a state of grace.

This too is mistaken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

The Catechism is clear that doing something objectively wrong is not enough for a sin to be mortal, or to exclude someone from the state of grace. In order for this to happen, there also needs to be “full knowledge” and “complete consent.”

The text does not explicitly address the kind of “objective situation of sin” that Pope Francis and James Larson discuss. Much less, therefore, does it assert that a person in such a situation cannot be in a state of grace. However, it is not difficult to see from the above text that a person could be in such a situation without mortal sin. One of the factors that can “diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense” is “external pressures.” The situations under discussion are precisely situations where there are external pressures. That is why they are considered “situations” as opposed to an arbitrarily repeated series of actions. Since the consent must be “complete” and since it can be diminished by these pressures, a person might very well fail to sin mortally in such a situation, even if the situation lasts for a long time.

We can see that Larson’s positions do not correspond very well with anything that the Church actually teaches. Why then does he make these assertions?

I suggest that we have here a case of highly motivated thinking. Larson wants to believe that sanctifying grace is a binary condition, he wants to believe that a divorced and remarried person could not be in that condition, he wants to believe that these are teachings of the Church, and he wants to believe that Pope Francis contradicts these things.

Why would someone have such desires? Larson says in article 25:

Since Pope Francis’ recent interviews and his letter to the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, I have received emails from traditional Catholics which speak of a new level of despair. It is as though they are desperately seeking some explanation of what is happening with the Papacy and the Church which will allow them to escape from coming to some dreadful conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In the face of all the forces of evil moving in to ensnare and destroy him, Sir Thomas More offers the following impassioned words to his beloved daughter:

“Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.”

It seems evident that the “tangle of the mind” from which traditional Catholics are now desperately trying to escape is the apparent overwhelming evidence that their Church is being destroyed from within. They dread that they are being irresistibly backed into a corner where they will be forced to conclude that the Church, in what they always considered to be her inviolable nature (if she is to be considered real at all) has contradicted this nature, and has therefore been proved to be a human invention, and not the work of God. In other words, they fear the loss of their faith.

I think this is a correct description of how many people feel. I think it is also a correct description of the way Larson himself feels, and I think it can explain why he desires to hold the above opinions concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. This might seem a bit paradoxical. He accuses Pope Francis of heresy. Would not this be a very good example of the kind of thing he should be hoping to avoid?

Yes, in one way, but in another way it is an advantage to him if Pope Francis explicitly falls into heresy. This is important to him. In the first quoted passage, he mentions the “nature of the explicit heresy” taught by Pope Francis. It is not only heresy, but “explicit heresy.”

When people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious about gradual changes of opinion. Such changes not only could lead to what they do not want, namely changing their mind, but they could lead to this without the person even noticing it has happened.

Another point should be made about this. I pointed out here that despite the fact that it would be unreasonable to say that getting one year older makes you pass from “not being old” to “being old”, this does not prevent you from growing up. In the same way, if someone changes his mind gradually, at each point he may be able to say, “this change is too small to constitute a passage from not having changed my mind to having changed my mind.” He may be quite right. But this will not prevent it from being true at the end that he has changed his mind in comparison with his original position.

And just as individual human beings change their minds, so the Church changes its mind, gradually and by degrees, and sometimes without saying that a change has occurred. So just as someone who wishes to avoid changing his mind should be cautious about gradual changes, so someone who does not want the Church to change its mind will wish it to be cautious about gradual changes. This is what is happening here with Larson’s argument. It is an advantage to him if Amoris Laetita is explicitly heretical, because in that case it can be completely rejected, preventing the process of gradual change. If the document is not heretical (and it is not) it will be bound to cause gradual changes of various kinds, and there is no way to predict the end results in advance.

In a certain way, traditionalist Catholics are often more reasonable in this regard than others who would be considered “conservative” rather than traditionalist. Thus for example Jimmy Akin says:

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.

Akin is right that “the Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.” This was discussed above. But “nothing in this is new” is simply not true, if it is understood in relation to the question about communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stated in 2000:

Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.

The text is clear: people in the situation under discussion are not to be given communion, whether or not they are in the state of grace. It is true that they do not assert that such people are necessarily in a state of sin, as James Larson does, but the prohibition does not depend on their subjective condition. And thus when asked whether he intended to change anything, Pope Francis said that he did intend such a change:

Rocca: Thank you Holy Father. I see that the questions on immigration I had thought of have already been asked, and you have responded very well. So, if you will permit me to ask a question on another event of the last few days, which was your Apostolic Exhortation.

As you know well, there was much discussion on one of many points – I know we have concentrated a lot on it – but there has been much discussion after the publication…Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the doctrine remains the same; others maintain instead that much has changed and that there are many new openings and possibilities.

And the question for a person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not?

Pope Francis: I can say yes. Period. But that would be too small an answer.

Akin’s way of thinking goes, “This does not contradict the Church’s current teaching. So it’s nothing new.” Larson, far more reasonably, recognizes in practice (although probably not in principle) that “this does not contradict the Church’s current teaching” can be true at every point in time, without this preventing the Church from changing its teaching in the end. By asserting that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, he hopes to draw a line, in order to remove the possibility of gradual change ultimately resulting in substantial change.

James Chastek, talking about disagreement on philosophical topics, says:

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

We have discussed much the same issue here, although we pointed out that caring too much is only one part of the cause of such disagreement. Something else can be seen in the case of Larson’s disagreement with Amoris Laetita. It is not merely that he cares about the position he holds. He cares about agreement and disagreement, directly. For the reasons stated, he wants to disagree with Pope Francis. Thus in order to be sure that he does, he needs to describe the Pope’s position in various ways.

This is not uncommon. People frequently care not only about their positions, but also about the fact that they agree with certain people, and that they disagree with others. People often draw lines exactly for this reason, namely in order to disagree with someone else.

 

The First Mistake

At the end of the last post, I mentioned two opposed errors. The first was to say that the Christian thesis that God is hidden is a mere excuse, one given because someone realizes that his position is basically unsupported. This is not true, because as I indicated even in the last post, the thesis is a basic principle of Christian theology, and always has been, much as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the principles of development, and of interpretation relative to Christ, have always been at work within the Church.

More generally, the idea that God is hidden is a basic principle of any and every religion or theology. In a previous discussion I showed how motivations other than truth affect our beliefs more in matters more remote from the senses, and I included religious beliefs in this area. And this is in fact how the world is. But it is easy enough to imagine a world where religion is not remote from the senses, and where substantial disagreement about religion would not exist. The Garden of Eden as described would be one such world, but it is easy to imagine this in other ways as well. The point is that such a world is evidently not the actual world, and real religions do not posit such a world.

Blaise Pascal discusses this situation:

194. … Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it. If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; and finally, if it endeavours equally to establish these two things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantage can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul, not even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

“As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I will not take the trouble, nor take a step to seek it; and after treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”

Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would choose him out from others to tell him of his affairs? Who would have recourse to him in affliction? And indeed to what use in life could one put him?

In truth, it is the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable; and their opposition to it is so little dangerous that it serves, on the contrary, to establish its truths. For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ. Now I contend that, if these men do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the holiness of their behaviour, they at least serve admirably to show the corruption of nature by sentiments so unnatural.

Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.

There must be a strange confusion in the nature of man, that he should boast of being in that state in which it seems incredible that a single individual should be. However, experience has shown me so great a number of such persons that the fact would be surprising, if we did not know that the greater part of those who trouble themselves about the matter are disingenuous and not, in fact, what they say. They are people who have heard it said that it is the fashion to be thus daring. It is what they call “shaking off the yoke,” and they try to imitate this. But it would not be difficult to make them understand how greatly they deceive themselves in thus seeking esteem. This is not the way to gain it, even I say among those men of the world who take a healthy view of things and who know that the only way to succeed in this life is to make ourselves appear honourable, faithful, judicious, and capable of useful service to a friend; because naturally men love only what may be useful to them. Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?

If they thought of it seriously, they would see that this is so bad a mistake, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to decency, and so removed in every respect from that good breeding which they seek, that they would be more likely to correct than to pervert those who had an inclination to follow them. And, indeed, make them give an account of their opinions, and of the reasons which they have for doubting religion, and they will say to you things so feeble and so petty, that they persuade you of the contrary. The following is what a person one day said to such a one very appositely: “If you continue to talk in this manner, you will really make me religious.” And he was right, for who would not have a horror of holding opinions in which he would have such contemptible persons as companions!

Thus those who only feign these opinions would be very unhappy, if they restrained their natural feelings in order to make themselves the most conceited of men. If, at the bottom of their heart, they are troubled at not having more light, let them not disguise the fact; this avowal will not be shameful. The only shame is to have none. Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, be more replenished with faith than we are, and that, on the other hand, we may fall into the blindness wherein they are, we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take at least some steps in the endeavour to find light. Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much. But as for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have here collected, and in which I have followed somewhat after this order…

195. Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. “I know not,” they say…

Pascal is surely right about the importance of religious truth. He is also right to say that the idea that this truth is somewhat hidden from men is not foreign to religion, but an essential part of every real religion. The argument that “if religion is true, it should be obvious to everyone,” is evidently invalid, because religions not only do not claim this, but explicitly deny it. If a religion were obviously true to everyone, it would be a very different religion from any that exists, and a very different world.

Rather than attacking such a non-existent religion, he says,

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.

But here he is almost certainly going too far. It may be that “they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions,” but only to the degree that they believe that ultimately it is more reasonable to think that religious beliefs are untrue. They would not be attacking the Church’s claims, or at least any claim truly important to the Church, simply by saying that some individual may do his best to seek the truth, and may come to the conclusion that religious truth is not present in the Church.

I touched on this earlier when discussing the suggestion of Leo XIII that it is easy to see that Catholicism is true. If this is taken to apply to the real world in any concrete way, he is mistaken, and this in fact would be the claim that Pascal says is obviously wrong and obviously not the Church’s claim. On a very similar topic, Newman says:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman takes the existing situation to be a strong argument for the doctrine of original sin. This is not as strong an argument as it seems to him; the existing situation is a likely result of the order of the world. In any case, his point is that one way or another, in the real world, it is not easy to come to the conclusion that a religion is true. In fact, he says that the natural tendency is to come to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible and reasonable to say in a sense that human beings in general are dishonest and unreasonable, and that this is the main explanation for why they disagree substantially in such important matters.

But it is quite unreasonable to say, “Human beings are divided into two kinds: the honest and reasonable ones, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones. The honest and reasonable ones are those who agree with me, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones are those who disagree with me.” And this is basically what Pascal asserts when he claims that no one can say that he has made every effort to discover the truth about religion, and has concluded that it is not present in the Church. He says even more: “I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.” Here he says that “no one has ever done so,” that is, no one has even claimed to make such an investigation. He is mistaken in both respects: in whatever sense there exist reasonable people, there are reasonable non-Catholics. And surely some of them have investigated Catholicism, come to the conclusion that it was not true, and said that they have done so.

Gwern Branwen explains the history of his religious opinions:

For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good to be rid of the greatest evil from oneself than to rid someone else of it. I don’t suppose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re discussing right now…

I think religion was the first subject in my life that I took seriously. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “deconversion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remember ever seriously believing – the stories in the Bible or at my Catholic church were interesting, but they were obviously fiction to some degree. I wasn’t going to reject religion out of hand because some of the stories were made-up (any more than I believed George Washington didn’t exist because the story of him chopping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims didn’t seem to be panning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I didn’t see any miracles or intercessions like I expected from a omnipotent loving god

There is a basic flaw in Gwern’s thinking here, and it is basically a naive concept of God, much like that of Richard Dawkins. The result is that he is falling into the error that Pascal condemns. The Church does not expect such things, at least on a regular basis, and if you think that it follows from the concept of an omnipotent loving God, then your concept of that being is not a Christian concept. In this sense, his whole mistake is that he fails to understand the idea that God is hidden. Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that the reason for Gwern’s mistake is that he was dishonest and unreasonable, and it is especially wrong to say that it was because he did not care about religious truth:

So I never believed (although it was obvious enough that there was no point in discussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sitting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the troubling matter of Heaven & Hell: those infinities meant I couldn’t simply dismiss religion and continue reading about dinosaurs or Alcatraz. If I got religion wrong, I would have gotten literally the most important possible thing wrong! Nothing else was as important – if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geographer or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believing in astrology, at worst you waste time and money; if you’re wrong about evolution and biology, at worst you endanger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about religion, wasting your life is about the least of the consequences. And everyone accepts a religion or at least the legitimacy of religious claims, so it would be unspeakably arrogant of a kid to dismiss religion entirely – that sort of evidence is simply not there. (Oddly enough, atheists – who are not immediately shown to be mistaken or fools- are even rarer in books and cartoons than they are in real life.)

Kids actually are kind of skeptical if they have reason to be skeptical, and likewise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was previously trustworthy. This is as it should be! Kids cannot come prewired with 100% correct beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reliable authorities; these strategies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reliable authorities in their lives (their parents) are mistaken about one major set of beliefs. They simply have bad epistemic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from boring to incoherent to disgusting. (I became a fan of the Wisdom literature, however, and still periodically read the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.) That didn’t help much. Well, maybe Christianity was not the right religion? My elementary school library had a rather strange selection of books which included various Eastern texts or anthologies (I remember in particular one anthology on meditation, which was a hodge-podge of religious instruction manuals, essays, and scientific studies on meditation – that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and college that I really became comfortable reading psychology papers). I continued reading in this vein for years, in between all my more normal readings. The Koran was interesting and in general much better than the Bible. Shinto texts were worthless mythologizing. Taoism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in particular) but then bizarrely degenerated into alchemy. Buddhism was strange: I rather liked the general philosophical approach, but there were many populist elements in Mahayana texts that bothered me. Hinduism had a strange beauty, but my reaction was similar to that of the early translators, who condemned it for sloth and lassitude. I also considered the Occult seriously and began reading the Skeptical literature on that and related topics (see the later section).

It is clear from this that he did in fact care about getting the truth about religion, much for the reasons that Pascal says it is important to care about it.

More generally, in the real world there are honest and reasonable people, in the sense in which there are such people at all, belonging to every religion, and some belonging to none. And if we think about it carefully, this is a necessary effect of the thesis of the hidden God. Perhaps, as Pascal says, “God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart.” The purpose might be to distinguish between people who care and those who don’t. And this may succeed to some extent, but the net will inevitably catch some of the wrong people and miss some of the right people: some people who do not care, will believe anyway, and some people who do, will end up not believing.

 

Aumann Agreement in Real Life

In an earlier post I discussed Robert Aumann’s mathematical theorem demonstrating that people with common priors who have common knowledge of their opinions cannot disagree about the probability of any fact.

As I said at the time, real human beings do not have a prior probability distribution, and thus the theorem cannot apply to them strictly speaking. To the degree that people do have a prior, that prior can differ from person to person.

A person’s prior can also be modified, something which is not meant to happen to a prior understood in the mathematical sense of Aumann’s paper. We can see this by means of a thought experiment, even if the thought experiment itself cannot happen in real life. Suppose you are given a machine that works like this: you can ask the machine whether some statement is true. It has a 100% chance of printing out a 1 if the statement is in fact true. If the statement is false, it has a 10% chance of printing a 1, and a 90% chance of printing a 0. You are allowed to repeat the question, with the responses having the same probability each time.

Thus if you ask about a false statement, it will have a 10% chance of printing a 1. It will have a 1% chance of printing 1 twice in a row, and a 0.1% chance of printing a 1 three times in a row.

Suppose you ask the question, “Are the Chronicles of Narnia a completely accurate historical account of something that really happened to various children from England?”

The machine outputs a 1. So you ask again. You get another 1. Let’s say this happens 10 times. The probability that this happens this many times with a false statement is one in ten billion.

In real life you would conclude that a machine that did this does not work as stated. But in our thought experiment, you know with absolute certainty that it does work as stated. So you almost certainly will conclude that the Chronicles of Narnia is an accurate historical account. The same will be true pretty much no matter what statement you test, given this result.

But it would be easy to compose far more than 10 billion mutually inconsistent statements. Thus it is logically inconsistent to assign a probability of more than one in ten billion to all such statements. So if you had a consistent and full prior distribution that you were prepared to stick to, then there should be some such statements which you will still believe to be false even after getting a 1 ten times from the machine. This proves that we do not have such a prior: the fact that the machine comes out this way tells us that we should admit that the prior for the particular statement that we are testing should be high enough to accept after the machine’s result. So for example we might think that the actual probability of the Chronicles of Narnia being an accurate historical account is less than one in ten billion. But if we are given the machine and get this result, we will change our mind about the original probability of the claim, in order to justify accepting it as true in those circumstances.

If someone disagrees with the above thought experiment, he can change the 10 to 20, or to whatever is necessary.

Although Aumann’s result depends on unchanging priors, in practice the fact that we can change our priors in this way makes his result apply more to human disagreements than it would in a situation where we had unchanging priors, but still diverse from other people’s priors.

Robin Hanson has published an extension of Aumann’s result, taking into account the fact that people have different priors and can reason about the origin of these priors. By stipulating certain conditions of rationality (just as Aumann does), he can get the result that a disagreement between two people will only be reasonable if they disagree about the origin of their priors, and in a particular way:

This paper presents a theoretical framework in which agents can hold probabilistic beliefs about the origins of their priors, and uses this framework to consider how such beliefs might constrain the rationality of priors. The basic approach is to embed a set of standard models within a larger encompassing standard model. Each embedded model differs only in which agents have which priors, while the larger encompassing model includes beliefs about which possible prior combinations might be realized.

Just as beliefs in a standard model depends on ordinary priors, beliefs in the larger model depend on pre-priors. We do not require that these pre-priors be common; pre-priors can vary. But to keep priors and pre-priors as consistent as possible with each other, we impose a pre-rationality condition. This condition in essence requires that each agent’s ordinary prior be obtained by updating his pre-prior on the fact that nature assigned the agents certain particular priors.

This pre-rationality condition has strong implications regarding the rationality of uncommon priors. Consider, for example, two astronomers who disagree about whether the universe is open (and infinite) or closed (and finite). Assume that they are both aware of the same relevant cosmological data, and that they try to be Bayesians, and therefore want to attribute their difference of opinion to differing priors about the size of the universe.

This paper shows that neither astronomer can believe that, regardless of the size of the universe, nature was equally likely to have switched their priors. Each astronomer must instead believe that his prior would only have favored a smaller universe in situations where a smaller universe was actually more likely. Furthermore, he must believe that the other astronomer’s prior would not track the actual size of the universe in this way; other priors can only track universe size indirectly, by tracking his prior. Thus each person must believe that prior origination processes make his prior more correlated with reality than others’ priors.

Despite the fact that Hanson’s result, like Aumann’s, is based on a particular mathematical analysis which remains much more rigid than real life, and in this sense cannot apply strictly to real life, it is not difficult to see that it does have strong analogies in real human disagreements. Thus for example, suppose a Christian believes that Christianity has a 98% chance of being true, and Islam a 1% chance. A Muslim, with whom he disagrees, believes that Islam has a 98% chance of being true, and Christianity a 1% chance. If they each believe, “Both of us believe in our religions because that is the one in which we were raised,” it is obvious that this disagreement is not reasonable. In order for each of them to be reasonable, they need to disagree about why they believe what they believe. Thus for example one might think, “He believes in his religion because he was raised in it, while I believe in mine because of careful and intelligent analysis of the facts.” The other obviously will disagree with this.

This particular example, of course, does not take into account the fact that belonging to a religion is not a matter of a particular claim, nor the fact that beliefs are voluntary, and both of these affect such a question in real life.

Nonetheless, this kind of disagreement about the origins of our beliefs is clearly a common phenomena in situations where we have a persistent disagreement with someone. In the end each person tends to attribute a particular source to the other person’s opinion, and a different source to his own, one which is much more likely to make his own opinion correct. But all of the same things should apply to these differing opinions about the origins of their beliefs. This suggests that in fact persistent disagreements are usually unreasonable. This corresponds to how people treat them. Once a disagreement is clearly persistent, and clearly will not be resolved by any amount of discussion, people think that the other person is being stubborn and unreasonable.

And in fact, it is very likely that one or both of the two is being stubborn and unreasonable. This will feel pretty much the same from each side, however; thus the fact that it feels to you like the other person is being stubborn and unreasonable, is not a good reason for thinking that this is actually the case. He is very likely to feel the same way about you. This will happen no matter who is actually responsible. Most often both partners contribute to it, since no one is actually perfectly reasonable.

The fact that belief is voluntary can be a mitigating factor here, if people recognize the moral influences on their beliefs. Thus for example the Christian and the Muslim in the above example could simply say, “It is not necessarily that I am more likely to be right, but I choose to believe this rather than that, for these personal reasons.” And in that case in principle they might agree on the probability of the truth of Christian and Islamic doctrines, and nonetheless reasonably hold different beliefs, on account of moral considerations that apply to them in particular.

The fact that people do not like to admit that they are wrong is a reason for a particular approach to disagreement. In the last post, we discussed the fact that since words and thoughts are vague, the particular content of a person’s assertions is not entirely determinate. They may be true in some ways, and not true in others, and the person himself may not be considering in which way he is making the claim. So it is much more productive to interpret the person’s words in the way that contains as much truth as possible. We have talked about this elsewhere. Such an understanding is probably a better understanding of the person in the first place. And it allows him to agree with you while excluding the false interpretations, and without saying, “I was wrong.” And yet he learns from this, because his original statement was in fact open to the false interpretations. There is nothing deceptive about this; our words and beliefs are in fact vague in this way and allow for this sort of learning. And cooperating in this way in a discussion will be mutually profitable. Since absolute precision is not possible, in general there is no one who has nothing at all to learn from another.

More or Less Remote From the Senses

All of human knowledge comes from experience, and all experience is first derived from the senses. Aristotle describes this process at the beginning of his Metaphysics:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

By nature animals are born with the faculty of sensation, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, though not in others. And therefore the former are more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember; those which are incapable of hearing sounds are intelligent though they cannot be taught, e.g. the bee, and any other race of animals that may be like it; and those which besides memory have this sense of hearing can be taught.

The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings. Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience; for ‘experience made art’, as Polus says, ‘but inexperience luck.’ Now art arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgement about a class of objects is produced. For to have a judgement that when Callias was ill of this disease this did him good, and similarly in the case of Socrates and in many individual cases, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it has done good to all persons of a certain constitution, marked off in one class, when they were ill of this disease, e.g. to phlegmatic or bilious people when burning with fevers-this is a matter of art.

Since our knowledge depends on the senses, to the degree that knowledge becomes more remote from the senses, it becomes harder to know the truth. But more remote in what way? More remote precisely in being less directly derived from the things that we sense. Thus for example Descartes provides an example of a particularly ridiculous error when he says in his Principles of Philosophy,

Fourthly, if body C were wholly at rest and were slightly larger than B, whatever the speed at which B were moved toward C, it would never move this C, but would repelled from it in the contrary direction; because a body at rest resists a great speed more than a small one, and this in proportion to the excess of the one over the other, and, therefore, there would always be a greater force in C to resist than in B to impel.

In other words, if a smaller object hits a larger object, the larger object will not move in any way, but the smaller one will rebound in the opposite direction. How false this is does not need to be argued, and this precisely because of its closeness to the senses.

Sometimes a distinction is made between empirical and non-empirical knowledge, but in truth there cannot be a rigid distinction between these two things, because all of our knowledge is empirical, and thus there can only be differences of degree here. Thus for example the question of whether there is meaning in the universe might be considered a philosophical rather than an empirical issue, but we have given empirical reasons for thinking that there is.

But again, to the degree that a certain matter is more distant from the senses, it will be more difficult to know the truth about that matter, and consequently people are more likely to make a mistake about it. This happens in two ways.

In the first and more obvious way, when it is more difficult to test the matter with something sensible, as we might test Descartes’s claim about a smaller body hitting a larger body, it is easier to fall into error without there being a simple way to correct that error.

The second way is less obvious, but follows from the discussion about beliefs and motivations. If some fact about the world makes a big difference in our sensible experience, then we will be interested in knowing that fact, in order to be able to affect our experience. If a stove is hot, touching it will be painful, so it is important to know whether the stove is hot or not. Thus, for the sake of such purposes, people will be interested in knowing the truth about matters close to the senses. But if some fact does not seem to affect our sensible experience much, then people will care less about knowing the truth about that matter, since they do not need to know it in order to affect their experience. This implies that other motives, motives distinct from the desire for truth, will affect their beliefs in these matters more than in matters closer to the senses. And insofar as they are more affected by motives that can lead away from the truth, they will again be more likely to fall into error, this time without a strong desire to correct that error.

Taking these two ways in combination, people will fall into error more frequently in matters that are more distant from the senses, and in such situations people will have neither a great desire of correcting the error, nor an easy way to do so.

If we compare these somewhat theoretical deductions with experience, they are verified fairly well. There are various matters where there is much more disagreement than in other matters. For example, there is much more widespread disagreement in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, and so on, than there is in mathematics and physics. We can easily see that the areas with more widespread disagreement are the ones more remote from the senses. Someone might say that politics, ethics, and economics are not remote from the senses, but if we consider the fact that all of these topics involve moral issues, we can see that they are in fact remote in the way under consideration, namely that it is not easy to subject them to sensible tests. And on the other hand, where there is disagreement in physics, it is likely to be in matters where it is hard for the difference to make a difference to the senses, as for example in interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Greater disagreement, of course, does not demonstratively prove the existence of more error, since even when there is agreement, there can be agreement on something false. But it strongly suggests the existence of more error, since disagreement cannot exist without someone being wrong, whereas agreement can be without anyone being in error. And in the areas mentioned, disagreement is so widespread that there is necessarily a great deal of error in those matters.

And these areas are also areas where we can see that people’s opinions are strongly affected by motives distinct from the desire for truth, as was suggested by the theoretical account above. Some indications of this:

First, in such areas people tend to form into various groups or “schools”, where the majority of a whole body of opinions are accepted. This happens more in religion and in politics than in the other examples, but the tendency is apparent in the other cases as well. If people were influenced only by the desire for truth, we could expect a somewhat more even distribution of opinion, where intermediate positions would be more common. Instead, the actual situation suggests that people have a desire to fit into certain groups, and to some extent adopt their opinions in order to favor this result.

Second, arguments in such areas tend to be more emotional than arguments about matters which are more easily tested. If an argument is witnessed by outsiders who have no understanding of the topic, and one of the participants is much more emotional than the others, the outsiders will tend to presume that the less emotional participant is more likely to be right. And this is for a good reason, namely that the emotions are moved more by sensible goods, rather than by truth in itself, and consequently someone who is very emotional about some intellectual issue is likely being moved by desires other than the desire for truth.

Third, related to the second reason, conversations about such matters are much more likely to be “bad conversations” of the kind noted in the previous post. They are much more likely to result in anger and insults, and in the belief that one’s conversational partner is not of good will, than conversations about mathematics. Thus for example many people accuse others who do not accept their religion of being of bad will, as for example in this blog comment:

For Pete’s sake, a simple self-educated layperson like myself has engaged in countless debates about the historicity of the Resurrection, both in person and on websites such as this one, and have not only come out on top every single time, but have yet to ever hear presented (not even once!) a decent case contra that cannot be demolished with minimal effort. The solidity and strength of the pro arguments, coupled with the pathetic weakness of all proposed alternative explanations, are what have led me to the (unwilling) conclusion that it takes an active act of will to reject them, and that unbelievers are, as in the words of Saint Paul, “without excuse”.

Likewise, it is very common for people to consider others who disagree with their politics to be bad people. Thus for example Susan Douglas writes,

I hate Republicans. I can’t stand the thought of having to spend the next two years watching Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa or any of the legions of other blowhards denying climate change, thwarting immigration reform or championing fetal “personhood.”

After some discussion, she concludes the post:

Why does this work? A series of studies has found that political conservatives tend toward certain psychological characteristics. What are they? Dogmatism, rigidity and intolerance
 of ambiguity; a need to avoid uncertainty; support for authoritarianism; a heightened sense of threat from others; and a personal need for structure. How do these qualities influence political thinking?

According to researchers, the two core dimensions of conservative thought are resistance to change and support for inequality. These, in turn, are core elements of social intolerance. The need for certainty, the need to manage fear of social change, lead to black-and-white thinking and an embrace of stereotypes. Which could certainly lead to a desire to deride those not like you—whether people of color, LGBT people or Democrats. And, especially since the early 1990s, Republican politicians and pundits have been feeding these needs with a single-minded, uncomplicated, good-vs.-evil worldview that vilifies Democrats.

So now we hate them back. And for good reason. Which is too bad. I miss the Fred Lippitts of yore and the civilized discourse and political accomplishments they made possible. And so do millions of totally fed-up Americans.

As I stated in the post on beliefs and motivations, it is not difficult for people to notice that motives other than the desire for truth are influencing other people, but they tend not to notice those motives in themselves. In a similar way, many people will have no difficulty admitting that the point of this post applies to other people, but will have a much harder time admitting that it applies to themselves.

Of course it is true that some people have more of a desire for truth in itself than other people. And the stronger this desire in a person, the more likely the person is to hold the true position in any of these matters. But it is not credible to suppose that people are actually divided in the “good-vs.-evil” way that Susan Douglas says that Republicans divide people, and in which she herself divides people. If I were a Mormon, for example, it would remain absurd for me to suppose that Mormons are good people and that everyone else is bad, or that Mormons are reasonable people and that everyone else is unreasonable. Given the premise that Mormonism is true, it would follow that a person more interested in truth would be more likely to adopt Mormonism. But it would not follow that Mormons overall have a different nature from other people, nor is this credible in the slightest.

In other words, of course there are true positions in religion, theology, philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, and so on. But overall people’s motives are more affected by non-truth-related motives, and by only-somewhat-truth-related motives, in these matters than in matters closer to the senses, and they are therefore more likely to fall into error in the areas more remote from the senses. Now you might personally hold the true position in some of these matters, or in all of these matters. Or perhaps you don’t. Likewise, you might personally care more about the truth than other people do. Or perhaps you don’t. Either way, there is little reason to suppose that the point of this post does not apply to you.

Quick to Hear and Slow to Speak

St. James says in 1:19-20 of his letter,Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”

What does he mean? How is it possible for every man to be quick to hear and slow to speak? A conversation needs to have an approximately equal amount of listening and speaking. If each of two conversational partners insists on listening instead of speaking, the conversation will go nowhere. Whenever one is speaking, the other should be listening, and if one is listening, the other must be speaking, since it is not listening if neither of the two is saying anything.

The reference to anger is a clue. St. James is speaking of our natural tendencies, and saying that the natural tendency to anger is excessive and must be resisted. Likewise, we tend to have more of a desire to speak than to listen. We would rather explain our own position than listen to that of another. In order for a conversation to go well, each of the partners should restrain his own desire to express his own opinion, in order to listen to the other. This does not imply anything impossible any more than restraining anger is impossible; people have a naturally excessive desire to express themselves in the same way that they have a naturally excessive tendency to become angry. Thus St. James is not against a conversation which is equally composed of listening and speaking; but he is saying that such a conversation requires restraint on both parties to the conversation. A conversation without such restraint leads to situations where someone thinks, “he’s not listening to me,” which then leads precisely to the anger that St. James is opposing.

Robert Aumann has a paper, “Agreeing to Disagree”, which mathematically demonstrates that people having the same prior probability distribution and following the laws of probability, cannot have a different posterior probability regarding any matter, assuming that their opinions of the matter are common knowledge between them. He begins his paper:

If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for a given event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors must be equal. This is so even though they may base their posteriors on quite different information. In brief, people with the same priors cannot agree to disagree.

We publish this observation with some diffidence, since once one has the appropriate framework, it is mathematically trivial.

The implication is something like this: one person may believe that there is a 50% chance it will rain tomorrow. Another person, having access to other information, such as having seen the weather channel, thinks that there is a 70% chance of rain. Currently these estimates are not common knowledge. But if the two people converse until they both know each other’s current opinion (which will possibly no longer be 50% and 70%), they must agree on the probability of rain, given that they have the same prior distribution.

There are several reasons why this does not apply to real human beings. First of all, people do not have an actual prior probability distribution; such a distribution means having an estimate of the original probability of every possible statement, and obviously people do not actually have such a thing. So not having a prior distribution at all, they cannot possibly have the same prior distribution.

Second, the theorem presumes that each of the two knows that each of the two is reasonable in exactly the sense required, namely having such a prior and updating on it according to the laws of probability. In real life no one does this, even apart from the fact that they do not have such a prior.

Various extensions of the theorem have been published by others, some of which come closer to having a bearing on real human beings. Possibly I will consider some of these results in the future. Even without such extensions, however, Aumann’s result does have some relationship with real disagreements.

We have all had good conversations and bad conversations when we disagreed with someone, and it is not so difficult to recognize the difference. In the best conversations, we may have actually come to partial or even full agreement, even if not exactly on the original position of either partner. In the worst conversations, neither partner budged, and both concluded that the other was being stubborn and unreasonable. Possibly the conversation descended to the point of anger, insults and attributing bad will to the other. And on the other hand we have also had conversations which were somewhat in the middle between these two extremes.

These facts are related to Aumann’s result because his result is that reasonable conversational partners must end up agreeing, this being understood in a simplified mathematical sense. Because of the simplifications it does not strictly apply to real life, but something like it is also true in real life, and we can see that in our experiences with conversations with others involving disagreements. In other words, basically whenever we get to the point where neither partner will budge, we begin to think that someone is being stubborn and at least somewhat unreasonable.

St. James is explaining how to avoid the bad conversations and have the good conversations. And that is by being “quick to hear.” It is a question of listening to the other. And basically that implies asking the question, “How is this right, in what way is it true?” If someone approaches a conversation with the idea that he is going to prove that the other is wrong, the other will get the impression that he is not being listened to. And this impression, in this case, is basically correct. A person sees what he is saying as true, not as false, so one who does not see how it could be true does not even understand it. If you say something, I do not even understand you, until I see a way that what you are saying could be so. And on the other hand, if I do approach a conversation with the idea of seeing what is true in the position that is in disagreement with mine, the conversation will be far more likely to end up as one of the good conversations, and far more likely to end in agreement.

Often even if a person is wrong in his conclusion, part of that conclusion is correct, and it is important for someone speaking with him to acknowledge the part that is correct before criticizing the part that is wrong. And on the other hand, even if a person’s conclusion is completely wrong, insofar as that is possible, there will always be some evidence for his conclusion. It is important to acknowledge that evidence, rather than simply pointing out the evidence against his conclusion.