Minimizing Motivated Beliefs

In the last post, we noted that there is a conflict between the goal of accurate beliefs about your future actions, and your own goals about your future. More accurate beliefs will not always lead to a better fulfillment of those goals. This implies that you must be ready to engage in a certain amount of trade, if you desire both truth and other things. Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that self-deception, and therefore also such trade, is either impossible or stupid, depending on how it is understood:

What if self-deception helps us be happy?  What if just running out and overcoming bias will make us—gasp!—unhappy?  Surely, true wisdom would be second-order rationality, choosing when to be rational.  That way you can decide which cognitive biases should govern you, to maximize your happiness.

Leaving the morality aside, I doubt such a lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen.

Second-order rationality implies that at some point, you will think to yourself, “And now, I will irrationally believe that I will win the lottery, in order to make myself happy.”  But we do not have such direct control over our beliefs.  You cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.  You might be able to believe you believed it—though I have just made that more difficult for you by pointing out the difference.  (You’re welcome!)  You might even believe you were happy and self-deceived; but you would not in fact be happy and self-deceived.

For second-order rationality to be genuinely rational, you would first need a good model of reality, to extrapolate the consequences of rationality and irrationality.  If you then chose to be first-order irrational, you would need to forget this accurate view. And then forget the act of forgetting.  I don’t mean to commit the logical fallacy of generalizing from fictional evidence, but I think Orwell did a good job of extrapolating where this path leads.

You can’t know the consequences of being biased, until you have already debiased yourself.  And then it is too late for self-deception.

The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.

There are several errors here. The first is the denial that belief is voluntary. As I remarked in the comments to this post, it is best to think of “choosing to believe a thing” as “choosing to treat this thing as a fact.” And this is something which is indeed voluntary. Thus for example it is by choice that I am, at this very moment, treating it as a fact that belief is voluntary.

There is some truth in Yudkowsky’s remark that “you cannot make yourself believe the sky is green by an act of will.” But this is not because the thing itself is intrinsically involuntary. On the contrary, you could, if you wished, choose to treat the greenness of the sky as a fact, at least for the most part and in most ways. The problem is that you have no good motive to wish to act this way, and plenty of good motives not to act this way. In this sense, it is impossible for most of us to believe that the sky is green in the same way it is impossible for most of us to commit suicide; we simply have no good motive to do either of these things.

Yudkowsky’s second error is connected with the first. Since, according to him, it is impossible to deliberately and directly deceive oneself, self-deception can only happen in an indirect manner: “The other alternative is to choose blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.  This is not second-order rationality.  It is willful stupidity.” The idea is that ordinary beliefs are simply involuntary, but we can have beliefs that are somewhat voluntary by choosing “blindly to remain biased, without any clear idea of the consequences.” Since this is “willful stupidity,” a reasonable person would completely avoid such behavior, and thus all of his beliefs would be involuntary.

Essentially, Yudkowsky is claiming that we have some involuntary beliefs, and that we should avoid adding any voluntary beliefs to our involuntary ones. This view is fundamentally flawed precisely because all of our beliefs are voluntary, and thus we cannot avoid having voluntary beliefs.

Nor is it “willful stupidity” to trade away some truth for the sake of other good things. Completely avoiding this is in fact intrinsically impossible. If you are seeking one good, you are not equally seeking a distinct good; one cannot serve two masters. Thus since all people are interested in some goods distinct from truth, there is no one who fails to trade away some truth for the sake of other things. Yudkowsky’s mistake here is related to his wishful thinking about wishful thinking which I discussed previously. In this way he views himself, at least ideally, as completely avoiding wishful thinking. This is both impossible and unhelpful, impossible in that everyone has such motivated beliefs, and unhelpful because such beliefs can in fact be beneficial.

A better attitude to this matter is adopted by Robin Hanson, as for example when he discusses motives for having opinions in a post which we previously considered here. Bryan Caplan has a similar view, discussed here.

Once we have a clear view of this matter, we can use this to minimize the loss of truth that results from such beliefs. For example, in a post linked above, we discussed the argument that fictional accounts consistently distort one’s beliefs about reality. Rather than pretending that there is no such effect, we can deliberately consider to what extent we wish to be open to this possibility, depending on our other purposes for engaging with such accounts. This is not “willful stupidity”; the stupidity would to be engage in such trades without realizing that such trades are inevitable, and thus not to realize to what extent you are doing it.

Consider one of the cases of voluntary belief discussed in this earlier post. As we quoted at the time, Eric Reitan remarks:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

Here, Reitan is proposing that someone believe that “a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil” for the purpose of having “the sense that their lives have positive meaning.” If we look at this as it is, namely as proposing a voluntary belief for the sake of something other than truth, we can find ways to minimize the potential conflict between accuracy and this other goal. For example, the person might simply believe that “my life has a positive meaning,” without trying to explain why this is so. For the reasons given here, “my life has a positive meaning” is necessarily more probable and more known than any explanation for this that might be adopted. To pick a particular explanation and claim that it is more likely would be to fall into the conjunction fallacy.

Of course, real life is unfortunately more complicated. The woman in Reitan’s discussion might well respond to our proposal somewhat in this way (not a real quotation):

Probability is not the issue here, precisely because it is not a question of the truth of the matter in itself. There is a need to actually feel that one’s life is meaningful, not just to believe it. And the simple statement “life is meaningful” will not provide that feeling. Without the feeling, it will also be almost impossible to continue to believe it, no matter what the probability is. So in order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to believe a stronger and more particular claim.

And this response might be correct. Some such goals, due to their complexity, might not be easily achieved without adopting rather unlikely beliefs. For example, Robin Hanson, while discussing his reasons for having opinions, several times mentions the desire for “interesting” opinions. This is a case where many people will not even notice the trade involved, because the desire for interesting ideas seems closely related to the desire for truth. But in fact truth and interestingness are diverse things, and the goals are diverse, and one who desires both will likely engage in some trade. In fact, relative to truth seeking, looking for interesting things is a dangerous endeavor. Scott Alexander notes that interesting things are usually false:

This suggests a more general principle: interesting things should usually be lies. Let me give three examples.

I wrote in Toxoplasma of Rage about how even when people crusade against real evils, the particular stories they focus on tend to be false disproportionately often. Why? Because the thousands of true stories all have some subtleties or complicating factors, whereas liars are free to make up things which exactly perfectly fit the narrative. Given thousands of stories to choose from, the ones that bubble to the top will probably be the lies, just like on Reddit.

Every time I do a links post, even when I am very careful to double- and triple- check everything, and to only link to trustworthy sources in the mainstream media, a couple of my links end up being wrong. I’m selecting for surprising-if-true stories, but there’s only one way to get surprising-if-true stories that isn’t surprising, and given an entire Internet to choose from, many of the stories involved will be false.

And then there’s bad science. I can’t remember where I first saw this, so I can’t give credit, but somebody argued that the problem with non-replicable science isn’t just publication bias or p-hacking. It’s that some people will be sloppy, biased, or just stumble through bad luck upon a seemingly-good methodology that actually produces lots of false positives, and that almost all interesting results will come from these people. They’re the equivalent of Reddit liars – if there are enough of them, then all of the top comments will be theirs, since they’re able to come up with much more interesting stuff than the truth-tellers. In fields where sloppiness is easy, the truth-tellers will be gradually driven out, appearing to be incompetent since they can’t even replicate the most basic findings of the field, let alone advance it in any way. The sloppy people will survive to train the next generation of PhD students, and you’ll end up with a stable equilibrium.

In a way this makes the goal of believing interesting things much like the woman’s case. The goal of “believing interesting things” will be better achieved by more complex and detailed beliefs, even though to the extent that they are more complex and detailed, they are simply that much less likely to be true.

The point of this present post, then, is not to deny that some goals might be such that they are better attained with rather unlikely beliefs, and in some cases even in proportion to the unlikelihood of the beliefs. Rather, the point is that a conscious awareness of the trades involved will allow a person to minimize the loss of truth involved. If you never look at your bank account, you will not notice how much money you are losing from that monthly debit for internet. In the same way, if you hold Yudkowksy’s opinion, and believe that you never trade away truth for other things, which is itself both false and motivated, you are like someone who never looks at your account: you will not notice how much you are losing.

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Crisis of Faith

In the last post, I linked to Fr. Joseph Bolin’s post on the commitment of faith. He says there:

Since faith by definition is about things that we do not see to be true, there is no inherent contradiction in faith as such being contradicted by things we do see to be true, such an absolute assent of faith seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, “even if it (the content of faith) were to be false”. Can such faith be justified?

Consider the following situation: a woman has grounds to suspect her husband is cheating on her; there is a lot of evidence that he is; even when she asks him and he tells her that he is not, she must admit that the sum of evidence including his testimony is against him, and he probably is cheating. Still, she decides to believe him. I argue that the very act of believing him entails a commitment to him such that once she has given faith to his word, while it is still in fact possible that she is believing him though he is actually lying, this possibility is less relevant for her than it was prior to her giving faith. In this sense, after faith, the “if it were to be false” becomes less of a consideration for the believer, and to this degree she wills faith “even were it to be false”.

A more detailed analysis of the situation: various persons present her with claims or evidence that her husband is cheating on her. Before confronting him or asking him if he is, she collects various evidence for and against it. She decides that since believing him if he is dishonest is not without its own evils, if the evidence that he is cheating (after taking into account the evidence constituted by his statement on the matter) constitutes a near certainty that he is cheating — let’s say, over 95% probability that he is cheating — that she shouldn’t believe him if he says he is not, but must either suspend judgment or maintain that he is cheating. Now, suppose the man says that he is not cheating, and the evidence is not quite that much against him, let’s say, the evidence indicates a 90% probability that he is cheating, and a 10% probability that he is not. She makes the decision to believe him. Since she would not decide to do so unless she believed that it were good to so, she is giving an implicit negative value to “believing him, if he is in fact lying”, a much greater positive value to “believing him, if he is speaking the truth”, and consequently an implicit positive value to “believing him,” (even though he is probably lying).

Going forward, she is presented with an easy opportunity to gather further evidence about whether he is in fact cheating. She must make a decision whether to do so. If she is always going to make the same decision at this point that she would have made if she had not yet decided to believe him, it seems that her “faith” she gives him and his word is rather empty. A given decision to pursue further evidence, while not incompatible with faith, is a blow against it — to the extent that, out of fidelity to him, she accepts his claim as sure, she must operate either on the assumption that further evidence will vindicate him, or that he is innocent despite the evidence. But to the extent she operates on one of these assumptions, there is no need to pursue further evidence. Pursuing evidence, therefore, implies abstracting from her faith in him. To pursue evidence because it is possible that further evidence will be even more against him and provide her with enough grounds to withdraw her assent to his claim of innocence means giving that faith a lesser role in her life and relationship with him, and is thereby a weakening of the exercise of that faith. Consequently, if that faith is a good thing, then, having given such faith, she must be more reluctant to seek a greater intellectual resolution of the case by greater evidence than she was before she had given it.

All of this is true in substance, although one could argue with various details. For example, Fr. Joseph seems to be presuming for the sake of discussion that a person’s subjective assessment is at all times in conformity with the evidence, so that if more evidence is found, one must change one’s subjective assessment to that degree. But this is clearly not the case in general in regard to religious opinions. As we noted in the previous post, that assessment does not follow a random walk, and this proves that it is not simply a rational assessment of the evidence. And it is the random walk, rather than anything that happens with actual religious people, that would represent the real situation of someone with an “empty” faith, that is, of someone without any commitment of faith.

Teenagers will sometimes say to themselves, “My parents told me all these things about God and religion, but actually there are other families and other children who believe totally different things. I don’t have any real reason to think my family is right rather than some other. So God probably doesn’t exist.”

They might very well follow this up with, “You know, I said God doesn’t exist, but that was just because I was trying to reject my unreasonable opinions. I don’t actually know whether God exists or not.”

This is an example of the random walk, and represents a more or less rational assessment of the evidence available to teenagers. But what it most certainly does not represent, is commitment of any kind. And to the degree that we think that such a commitment is good, it is reasonable to disapprove of such behavior, and this is why there does seem something wrong there, even if in fact the teenager’s religious opinions were not true in the first place.

Fr. Joseph’s original question was this: “Can (religious) faith entail an absolute commitment to the one in whom we place faith and his word, such that one should hold that “no circumstances could arise in which I would cease to believe?” He correctly notes that this “seems to imply an assent to the content of faith so strong that one would desire to hold to it as true, ‘even if it (the content of faith) were to be false'”. For this reason, his post never actually answers the question. For although he right to say that the commitment of faith implies giving preferential treatment to the claim that the content of one’s faith is true, it will not follow that this preferential treatment should be absolute, unless it is true that it is better to believe even if that content is false. And it would be extremely difficult to prove that, even if it were the case.

My own view is that one should be extremely hesitant to accept such an assessment, even of some particular claim, such as the one in the post linked above, that “God will always bring good out of evil.” And if one should be hesitant to make such an assertion about a particular claim, much more should one doubt that this claim is true in regard to the entire contents of a religious faith, which involves making many assertions. Some of the reasons for what I am saying here are much like some of the reasons for preserving the mean of virtue. What exactly will happen if I eat too much? I’m not sure, but I know it’s likely to be something bad. I might feel sick afterwards, but I also might not. Or I might keep eating too much, become very overweight, and have a heart attack at some point. Or I might, in the very process of eating too much, say at a restaurant, spend money that I needed for something else. Vicious behaviors are extreme insofar as they lack the mean of virtue, and insofar as they are extreme, they are likely to have extreme consequences of one kind or another. So we can know in advance that our vicious behaviors are likely to have bad consequences, without necessarily being able to point out the exact consequences in advance.

Something very similar applies to telling lies, and in fact telling lies is a case of vicious behavior, at least in general. It often seems like a lie is harmless, but then it turns out later that the lie caused substantial harm.

And if this is true about telling lies, it is also true about making false statements, even when those false statements are not lies. So we can easily assert that the woman in Eric Reitan’s story is better off believing that God will somehow redeem the evil of the death of her children, simply looking at the particular situation. But if this turned out to be false, we have no way to know what harms might follow from her holding a false belief, and there would be a greater possibility of harm to the degree that she made that conviction more permanent. It would be easy enough to create stories to illustrate this, but I will not do that here. Just as eating too much, or talking too much, or moving about too much, can create any number of harms by multiple circuitous routes, so can believing in things that are false. One particularly manifest way this can happen is insofar as one false belief can lead to another, and although the original belief might seem harmless, the second belief might be very harmful indeed.

In general, Fr. Joseph seems to be asserting that the commitment of faith should lead a person not to pursue additional evidence relative to the truth of their faith, and apparently especially in situations where one already knows that there is a significant chance that the evidence will continue to be against it. This is true to some extent, but the right action in a concrete case will differ according to circumstances, especially, as argued here, if it is not better to believe in the situation where the content of the faith is false. Additionally, it will frequently not be a question of deciding to pursue evidence or not, but of deciding whether to think clearly about evidence or arguments that have entered one’s life even without any decision at all.

Consider the case of St. Therese, discussed in the previous post. Someone might argue thus: “Surely St. Therese’s commitment was absolute. You cannot conceive of circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith. So if St. Therese was virtuous, it must be virtuous to have such an absolute commitment.” And it would follow that it is better to believe even if your faith is false, and that one should imitate her in having such an absolute commitment. Likewise, it would follow with probability, although not conclusively, that Shulem Deen should also have had such an absolute commitment to his Jewish faith, and should have kept believing in it no matter what happened. Of course, an additional consequence, unwelcome to many, would be that he should also have had an absolute refusal to convert to Christianity that could not be changed under any circumstances.

It is quite certain that St. Therese was virtuous. However, if you cannot conceive of any circumstances in which she would have abandoned her faith, that is more likely to be a lack in your imagination than in the possibility. Theoretically there could have been many circumstances in which it would have been quite possible. It is true that in the concrete circumstances in which she was living, such an abandonment would have been extremely unlikely, and likely not virtuous if it happened. But those are concrete circumstances, not abstractly conceivable circumstances. As noted in the previous post, the evidence that she had against her faith was very vague and general, and it is not clear that it could ever have become anything other than that without a substantially different life situation. And since it is true that the commitment of faith is a good reason to give preferential treatment to the truth of your faith, such vague and general evidence could not have been a good reason for her to abandon her faith. This is the real motivation for the above argument. It is clear enough that in her life as it was actually lived, there was not and could not be a good reason for her to leave her faith. But this is a question of the details of her life.

Shulem Deen, of course, lived in very different circumstances, and his religious faith itself differed greatly from that of St. Therese. Since I have already recommended his book, I will not attempt to tell his story for him, but it can be seen from the above reasoning that the answer to the question raised at the end of the last post might very well be, “They both did the right thing.”

Earlier I quoted Gregory Dawes as saying this:

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

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.

There is more than one way to read this. When he says, “this means following them wherever they lead,” one could take that to imply a purely rational assessment of evidence, and no hesitancy whatsoever to consider any possible line of argument. This would be a substantial disagreement with Fr. Joseph’s position, and would in fact be mistaken. Fr. Joseph is quite right that the commitment of faith has implications for one’s behavior, and that it implies giving a preferential treatment to the claims of one’s faith. But this is probably not the best way to read Dawes, who seems to be objecting more to the absoluteness of the claim: “The commitment of faith is irrevocable,” and arguments “that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost.” And Dawes is quite right that such absolute claims go too far. Virtue is a mean and depends on circumstances, and there is enough space in the world for both Shulem Deen and St. Therese.

The reader might be wondering about the title to this post. Besides being a play on words, perhaps spoiled by mentioning it, it is a reference to the fact that Fr. Joseph is basically painting a very clear picture of the situation where a Catholic has a crisis of faith and overcomes it. This is only slightly distorted by the idealization of assuming that the person evaluates the evidence available to him in a perfectly rational way. But he points out, just as I did in the previous post, that such a crisis is mainly overcome by choosing not to consider any more evidence, or not to think about it anymore, and similar things. He describes this as choosing “not to pursue evidence” because of the idealization, but in real life this can also mean ceasing to pay attention to evidence that one already has, choosing to pay more attention to other motives that one has to believe that are independent of evidence, and the like.

 

Story of Your Life

In principle, people could live and act for an end without attempting to fit their lives into the structure of a particular narrative, apart from the general narrative of acting for an end. In practice, however, people feel a need to understand their lives in terms of much more concrete narratives, in other words as though a person’s life were a kind of story.

This happens first of all with some kind of overarching narrative regarding human life in general, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well. Thus for example we saw Eric Reitan argue that people have a need to believe that apparently random destructive events in their lives have a deeper meaning.

Second, people conceive of their lives as a particular story, one in which they are the protagonist, and to a certain degree the narrator as well.

This conception is correct to some degree, but incorrect if it is taken to an extreme. You are in a certain way the main character of your “story,” insofar as your knowledge is naturally centered on yourself, just as a story tends to follow the thought and action of its main character. Likewise, you are in a certain way the narrator, insofar as you make choices about the course of your life. Still, your control is incomplete, because you are not the first cause, and because although you can make your own choices, many other circumstances and events are outside your power.

Darwin Catholic, discussing the nature of plot in stories, remarks:

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a “character driven” or “theme driven” novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is “the events which happened in this character’s life”, for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character’s life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, “Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved.” Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it’s that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

This suggests a second, perhaps somewhat unconscious, way in which we are the narrator of our story. Elsewhere I pointed out that we do not actually remember much of our lives. It is possible that we naturally prune away, by forgetting them, the “dead ends,” namely seemingly random events that lead nowhere, because they do not fit well into the plot of our lives.

Whether or not this kind of pruning occurs, however, we certainly do attempt to fit our lives into particular structures. So for example young men and women sometimes think of their lives as though it were a romance novel, which ends with marriage and “they lived happily ever after.” Since of course life goes on after marriage, once they are actually married, they quickly realize that the story must be of a somewhat different nature. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suppose that the previous part of their lives had the specific structure or plot of a story leading up to marriage. But suppose someone has a troubled marriage that ultimately leads to a divorce. This person may have significant difficulty understanding their life. They will still desire to understand it as a kind of story, but the previous interpretation no longer works. It feels rather like a Harry Potter story that ends “with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave.” In such a case, people will tend to go back and rewrite the story from the beginning, not in the sense of changing the events, which is impossible (although selective memory may help here, as noted above), but by composing a new plot. Thus for example the new plot may involve the marriage as a learning experience, rather than as the goal of life.

 

Things it is Better to Believe

Since belief is voluntary, it follows that truth is only one of the possible motives for belief, and people can believe things for the sake of other ends as well. Consequently there may be some things that it is always better to believe, even without making a special effort to determine whether they are true or not.

Consider the claim that “Life is meaningful,” understood to mean that there are purposes in life, and therefore good and evil.

If this is true, it is good to believe it, because it is true, and because we need to be aware of our ends in order to seek them.

If it is not true, then it does no harm to believe it, because good and evil do not exist in that situation. And likewise, it cannot be better not to believe it in this situation, since better and worse do not exist.

Thus the strategy of believing that life is meaningful weakly dominates the strategy of believing that life is not meaningful, although it does not “strictly” dominate, since the payoffs of the two strategies are equal if life is not in fact meaningful. Consequently the better thing is to choose to believe that life is meaningful, even without a particular investigation of the facts.

As another particular example of this kind of reasoning, we can consider this discussion from chapter 9 of Eric Reitan’s book Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers:

In his Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Sam Harris notes that, statistically speaking, somewhere in the world right now a little girl is being abducted, raped, and killed. And the same statistics suggest that her parents believe that “an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family.” Harris asks, “Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?” His answer? “No.” According to Harris, this answer contains “the entirety of atheism” and is simply “an admission of the obvious.” He encourages his readers to “admit the obvious”: that when devout Hurricane Katrina victims drowned in their attics while praying to God for deliverance, they “died talking to an imaginary friend” (pp. 50-2). With righteous indignation, Harris condemns the “boundless narcissism” of those who survive a disaster only to “believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs” (p. 54).

After some discussion of this, Eric Reitan’s strategy is not to try to make things look any better, but to make them look even worse:

A mother, running late for a morning meeting, rushes out the door with both her children. The older son is to be dropped off at preschool, the baby girl at a nearby daycare. When the preschool lets out, the daycare’s minivan will bring the son to the daycare, where he will wait with his baby sister until their mother gets off work.

The mother gets to work, leaving the car in a sunny lot. It’s a hot day. She makes it to her meeting and has a productive day. At five o’clock she gets in her car and drives to the daycare. Her son runs to her. She picks him up and kisses his head, then looks around for her baby girl. Not seeing her, she asks one of the daycare workers. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You didn’t drop her off this morning.” The reply, tentative and apologetic, doesn’t have the tone of something that should tear a life apart. But it does. The mother’s hands go numb. Her son falls from her grasp. It feels as if all the darkness in the world is pressing outward from inside her. No. Impossible. But she has no memory of unstrapping that precious little girl, of carrying her into the daycare. No memory, in the rush of the morning, the urgency to get to her meeting on time. Driving to the daycare after work, looking forward to seeing her children, she never looked at what was in the back seat. And now her knees give out and the sobs escape even before she makes it to the car, even before she sees what’s there. Someone is soothing the son, who stands at the daycare door. The mother is beating at the car windows with her fists. In her imagination the baby girl is screaming for mommy, for comfort, as the car grows hotter and hotter, while all the while the mother is in her stupid meeting, talking about stupid contracts, feeling relieved that she’d made it to work on time. And the son, distressed beyond understanding by his mother’s behavior, breaks free of the daycare worker and runs towards her – into the path of an oncoming car.

This story is loosely based on real events. And there are life stories bleaker than this. Horror is real. According to the 2007 Global Monitoring Report put out by the World Bank, there are at present more than one billion people on earth living in “extreme” poverty (that is, on less than $1 per day). Such poverty is not only dire in itself but renders the poor terribly vulnerable to exploitation, disease, and natural disasters. I could fill a book with harrowing stories of human lives crushed by a combination of poverty, brutal abuse, and the grim indifference of nature. But that isn’t needed, I think, in order to convince most readers that there are horrors in the world so devastating that those who undergo them feel as if their entire lives are stripped of positive value, as if they’d be better off dead – while those who are implicated in them, once they come to appreciate the full measure of their complicity, are torn apart by self-loathing. If there is a God, His reasons for permitting such evils are hidden from us. And, as Marilyn Adams has pointed out, even if traditional theodicies give some general sense of why God might create a world in which evils exist, these theodicies bring no comfort to the mother as she turns away from her infant’s corpse just in time to see her son crushed under the wheels of a screeching car. It won’t give meaning to her life. It won’t eliminate the horror. Her existence has, in a few heartbeats, become worse than a void. It’s become come a space of affliction compared to which the void would be preferable. This woman needs salvation.

In order to survive such a situation, Reitan says, it is necessary to believe in the redemption of evil, namely that in some way a greater good is brought out of such horrors:

For most horror victims, the sense that their lives have positive meaning may depend on the conviction that a transcendent good is at work redeeming evil. Is the evidential case against the existence of such a good really so convincing that it warrants saying to these horror victims, “Give up hope”? Should we call them irrational when they cling to that hope or when those among the privileged live in that hope for the sake of the afflicted? What does moral decency imply about the legitimacy of insisting, as the new atheists do, that any view of life which embraces the ethico-religious hope should be expunged from the world?

He concludes the chapter with this response to Sam Harris:

Somewhere, even as I write this, a girl is being raped and murdered. Her parents believe in a transcendent God of love who will redeem even the most shocking horrors.

Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

In the darkness of affliction, Harris’s answer rings hollow.

This example differs in some ways from my original example of the claim that life is meaningful. The original claim was understood to be the assertion that good and evil exist in life, and thus the denial would be that there is no good and evil in life. But in Reitan’s discussion, the claim is stronger, namely something like “God exists and will always bring good out of evil.” Harris’s denial of this claim does not in itself imply the non-existence of good and evil, at least not without additional consideration. In fact, his position is that very great evils exist and that we should not try to explain them away with this claim about God, so he is not, on the face of it, denying that good and evil exist. Consequently one cannot immediately deduce that believing the claim about God is a dominant strategy.

Nonetheless, if Reitan’s and Harris’s views are compared here with respect to the good of the people concerned, a fair comparison, since Harris was the one who the claimed that it was bad for people to believe such things, it does seem that Reitan has a much stronger case. The woman does seem much better off believing the claim about God and the redemption of evil.

But this is not the whole story.