Vaguely Trading Away Truth

Robin Hanson asks his readers about religion:

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religious people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

Look, Robin is saying, maybe you think that religions aren’t true. But the fact is that it isn’t very plausible that you care that much about truth anyway. So why not be religious anyway, regardless of the truth, since there are known benefits to this?

A few days after the above post, Robin points out some evidence that stories tend to distort a person’s beliefs about the world, and then says:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

We have discussed in an earlier post some of the reasons why stories can distort a person’s opinions about the world.

It is very plausible to me that Robin’s proposed explanation, namely status seeking, does indeed exercise a great deal of influence among his target audience. But this would not tend to be a very conscious process, and would likely be expressed consciously in other ways. A more likely conscious explanation would be this representative comment from one of Robin’s readers:

There is a clear difference in choosing to be religious and choosing to partake in a story. By being religious, you profess belief in some set of ideas on the nature of the world. If you read a fictional story, there is no belief. Religions are supposed to be taken as fact. It is non-fiction, whether it’s true or not. Fictional stories are known to not be true. You don’t sacrifice any of a love for truth as you’ve put it by digesting the contents of a fictional story, because none of the events of the story are taken as fact, whereas religious texts are to be taken as fact. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” When reading fictional stories, you know that the events aren’t real, but entertain the circumstances created in the story to be able to increase our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. This is the point of the stories, and they thereby aid in the search for truth, as we have to ask ourselves questions about how we would relate in similar situations. The authors own ideas shown in the story may not be what you personally believe in, but the educated mind can entertain the ideas and not believe in them, increasing our knowledge of the truth by opening ourselves up to others viewpoints. Religions are made to be believed without any real semblance of proof, there is no entertaining the idea, only acceptance of it. This is where truth falls out the window, as where there is no proof, the truth cannot be ascertained.

The basic argument would be that if a non-religious person simply decides to be religious, he is choosing to believe something he thinks to be false, which is against the love of truth. But if the person reads a story, he is not choosing to believe anything he thinks to be false, so he is not going against the love of truth.

For Robin, the two situations are roughly equivalent, because there are known reasons why reading fiction will distort one’s beliefs about the world, even if we do not know in advance the particular false beliefs we will end up adopting, or the particular false beliefs that we will end up thinking more likely, or the true beliefs that we might lose or consider less likely.

But there is in fact a difference. This is more or less the difference between accepting the real world and accepting the world of Omelas. In both cases evils are accepted, but in one case they are accepted vaguely, and in the other clearly and directly. In a similar way, it would be difficult for a person to say, “I am going to start believing this thing which I currently think to be false, in order to get some benefit from it,” and much easier to say, “I will do this thing which will likely distort my beliefs in some vague way, in order to get some benefit from it.”

When accepting evil for the sake of good, we are more inclined to do it in this vague way in general. But this is even more the case when we trade away truth in particular for the sake of other things. In part this is precisely because of the more apparent absurdity of saying, “I will accept the false as true for the sake of some benefit,” although Socrates would likely respond that it would be equally absurd to say, “I will do the evil as though it were good for the sake of some benefit.”

Another reason why this is more likely, however, is that it is easier for a person to tell himself that he is not giving up any truth at all; thus the author of the comment quoted above asserted that reading fiction does not lead to any false beliefs whatsoever. This is related to what I said in the post here: trading the truth for something else, even vaguely, implies less love of truth than refusing the trade, and consequently the person may not care enough to accurately discern whether or not they are losing any truth.

Those Who Walk Away from Omelas

In The Brothers Karamazov, after numerous examples of the torture of children and other horrors, Ivan Karamazov rejects theodicy with this argument:

“Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Ivan’s argument is that a decent human being would not be willing to bring good out of evil in the particular way that happens in the universe, and therefore much less should a good God be willing to do that.

I will leave aside the theological argument for the moment, although it is certainly worthy of discussion.

Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story or thought experiment about this situation called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. There is supposedly a perfectly happy society, but it all depends on the torture of a single child. Everybody knows about this, and at a certain age they are brought to see the child. Two very different responses to this are described:

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Some would argue that the ones who walk away are simply confused. In the real world we are constantly permitting evils for the sake of other goods, and as a whole the evils included here are much greater than the torture of a single child. So Omelas should actually be much better and much more acceptable than the real world.

This response however is mistaken, because the real issue is one about the moral object. It is not enough to say that the good outweighs the evil, because a case of doing evil for the sake of good remains a case of doing evil. This is a little more confusing in the story, where one could interpret the actions of those who stay to be merely negative: they are not the ones who brought the situation about or maintain it. But in Ivan’s example, the question is whether you are willing to torture a child for the sake of the universal harmony, and Ivan’s implication is that if there is to be a universal harmony, God must be willing to torture people, and in general to cause all the evils of the world, to bring it about.

In any case, whether people are right or wrong about what they do, it is certainly true that we are much more willing to permit evils in a vague and general way to bring about good, than we are to produce evils in a very direct way to bring about good.

The Good I Do Not Want

St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

This happens because the person is divided. Simply speaking I may believe that the thing that I want to do is right; but in another way, I perceive or suppose that “the evil I do not want” is good.

This sort of division can happen in the opposite way as well, so that a person wills the evil that he takes to be good, but cannot do it, because another part of him perceives that it is evil and to be avoided.

Procrastination can work as an example of both cases. Without a doubt procrastinating is often failing to do the good that one wills; but it is also often refusing to do something that would be mostly pointless, and in this sense, it is refusing to do something bad, and thus one could say that “I do not the evil I want, but the good I do not want is what I do.”


On Behalf of Pope Francis

Four Cardinals, namely Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner, have raised questions about Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has not responded. I do not expect him to respond, and most likely he believes such a response to be outside his personal theological competence. Thus I respond here on his behalf to the five questions asked by the Cardinals:

1. It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?

Response: Yes.

2. After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose. In particular, as explicitly noted in Veritatis Splendor, the moral object of an act can never be defined adequately by reference to the mere physical action alone, including, for example, the physical action of sexual intercourse.

3. After Amoris Laetitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (Matthew 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, “Declaration,” June 24, 2000)?

Response: Yes. However, it is a mistake to believe that “objective situation of sin” implies “state of sin rather than state of grace.” Because of the danger of this misinterpretation, it might be better in the future, at least in most cases, to refrain from this manner of speech.

4. After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 81, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose, as stated in the second response. In particular, circumstances and intentions can never make an action with an intrinsically evil object into a good act as long as the act continues to have the same evil object. A change of circumstances and intentions, however, can easily change the object of the act from an intrinsically evil object, to some good object.

5. After Amoris Laetitia (303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 56, based on sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

Response: Yes. This however does not mean what you suppose, as stated in the second and fourth responses. In particular, while conscience is not authorized to judge that an intrinsically evil object is sometimes good, it is authorized to judge that some particular act does not have this intrinsically evil object.

No Respecter of Beings

In the post here, I raised Jesus’s proposal that one should imitate God by treating all alike, since God treats all alike, as for example by sending the rain and the sun upon all. At the time, I promised to explain how such treatment could be seen as the effect of love. While the reader may already be able to gather that from the last few posts, it might be useful to bring a few threads together here.

The idea that the good man treats all alike is not unprecedented. Thus for example in Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that the just man cannot harm anyone:

But ought the just to injure any one at all?
Undoubtedly he ought to injure those who are both wicked and his enemies.

When horses are injured, are they improved or deteriorated?
The latter.
Deteriorated, that is to say, in the good qualities of horses, not of dogs?

Yes, of horses.
And dogs are deteriorated in the good qualities of dogs, and not of horses?

Of course.
And will not men who are injured be deteriorated in that which is the proper virtue of man?

And that human virtue is justice?
To be sure.
Then men who are injured are of necessity made unjust?
That is the result.
But can the musician by his art make men unmusical?
Certainly not.
Or the horseman by his art make them bad horsemen?
And can the just by justice make men unjust, or speaking general can the good by virtue make them bad?

Assuredly not.
Any more than heat can produce cold?
It cannot.
Or drought moisture?
Clearly not.
Nor can the good harm any one?
And the just is the good?
Then to injure a friend or any one else is not the act of a just man, but of the opposite, who is the unjust?

The basic argument is that good should only be a cause of goodness. Dionysius, in chapter 4 of The Divine Names, makes a similar point about God as the Supreme Good:

For as our sun, through no choice or deliberation, but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the Good (which is above the sun, as the transcendent archetype by the very mode of its existence is above its faded image) sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of Its undivided Goodness.

He mentions that the sun does this without “choice or deliberation,” in order to indicate that God communicates his goodness to all things, without refusing it to anything.

We might say, like St. Peter in the Book of Acts, that God shows no partiality. But it is not simply that he shows no partiality among human beings; rather, he shows no partiality among beings as such. Every being receives goodness to whatever degree it is able; in this way St. Thomas asserts that form is received by every disposed matter.

From this it is not difficult to see why the rain or the sun falls upon all, or even why the tower fell. It belongs to the nature of these things to exist and to act in this way, and it belongs to the nature of God to give them their proper existence and action, which is good for them and for the order of things.

Someone will object: then God does harm, as when some are killed by the tower, or even by the rain and the sun in various cases.

But the answer to this is evident from what has already been said.

Good Out of Evil

Besides the objection mentioned in the last post, St. Thomas brings up another objection to the existence of God:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

He replies to the objection,

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Does good in fact come from evil, and if so, how does this happen?

Some people are born without the ability to feel physical pain. While someone first hearing about this might think it sounds like a good thing, it is in fact a very bad thing, as noted in the linked post. Children suffering from this condition often bite off parts of their tongue, or fail to notice sprains or broken bones, thus causing greater injury to themselves, and so on.

And after a moment’s thought, this is not so strange. Pain, taken as knowledge of an injury, is not a bad thing, but a good thing; it is the injury which is bad, as well as secondary effects such as distraction from other tasks and so on.

And here we see the primary path, although not the only path, by which good comes from evil, at least in human things. Evil is an indirect cause of the knowledge of evil, and the knowledge of evil is good, and a cause of goodness. In this way a person can benefit even from his own faults and vices, insofar as he learns from them and goes on to do better.

This can happen even with very great evils. Thus for example in the post here, Cameron Harwick discusses how the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, a very great evil, might bear significant responsibility for the peace (such as it was) that followed. Or in other words, without that specific use of nuclear weapons, there might have been a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which would have been much worse.

None of this is accidental, but in fact tends to happen in a very systematic way, basically for reasons which we discussed some days ago. All things and all people strive for the good, and the knowledge of evil is just one of the things that contributes to their efforts.

Now someone might suppose that the explanation here is too human. Does it not take away the glory from God? Should we not say instead that God brings good out of evil in mysterious ways that are beyond our comprehension?

Now there are surely many things which are beyond our comprehension. But the attitude in this objection is simply the zeal for God which is not according to knowledge. God does not make things in such a way that he merely happens to bring good out of evil, but rather he gives the things themselves such an order and such a nature that it is natural to them to bring good out of evil. And such a creation, which possesses this ability in an intrinsic way, is better and more ordered than a theoretical creation that lacked that ability.

St. Thomas on God and Sin

St. Thomas argues that God is the cause of the action of sin, but not of sin itself:

I answer that, The act of sin is both a being and an act; and in both respects it is from God. Because every being, whatever the mode of its being, must be derived from the First Being, as Dionysius declares (Div. Nom. v). Again every action is caused by something existing in act, since nothing produces an action save in so far as it is in act; and every being in act is reduced to the First Act, viz. God, as to its cause, Who is act by His Essence. Therefore God is the cause of every action, in so far as it is an action. But sin denotes a being and an action with a defect: and this defect is from the created cause, viz. the free-will, as falling away from the order of the First Agent, viz. God. Consequently this defect is not reduced to God as its cause, but to the free-will: even as the defect of limping is reduced to a crooked leg as its cause, but not to the motive power, which nevertheless causes whatever there is of movement in the limping. Accordingly God is the cause of the act of sin: and yet He is not the cause of sin, because He does not cause the act to have a defect.

More detail on this distinction is found in the first article, where he directly argues that God is not responsible for sin:

I answer that, Man is, in two ways, a cause either of his own or of another’s sin. First, directly, namely by inclining his or another’s will to sin; secondly, indirectly, namely by not preventing someone from sinning. Hence (Ezekiel 3:18) it is said to the watchman: “If thou say not to the wicked: ‘Thou shalt surely die’ [Vulgate: “If, when I say to the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die,’ thou declare it not to him.”] . . . I will require his blood at thy hand.” Now God cannot be directly the cause of sin, either in Himself or in another, since every sin is a departure from the order which is to God as the end: whereas God inclines and turns all things to Himself as to their last end, as Dionysius states (Div. Nom. i): so that it is impossible that He should be either to Himself or to another the cause of departing from the order which is to Himself. Therefore He cannot be directly the cause of sin. In like manner neither can He cause it indirectly. For it happens that God does not give some the assistance, whereby they may avoid sin, which assistance were He to give, they would not sin. But He does all this according to the order of His wisdom and justice, since He Himself is Wisdom and Justice: so that if someone sin it is not imputable to Him as though He were the cause of that sin; even as a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer. It is therefore evident that God is nowise a cause of sin.

It is easy enough to see that if God is the first cause, everything else comes from that cause, including human action. In what sense, then, is St. Thomas asserting that something of sin is not from God?

The idea is that “doing evil” is not some positive reality in itself, but the lack of doing good. All positive reality comes from God, but not what is lacking.

The obvious objection, of course, is that if all good comes from God, then if some good is lacking, God must have failed to provide that good, and so he would be indirectly responsible. St. Thomas is responding to this when he says, “In like manner neither can He causes indirectly,” followed by the example with the pilot.

In the case of the pilot, he is not to be blamed for the wrecking of the ship unless he should have been steering and was not. But since God does all that he does “according to the order of His wisdom and justice,” then if he does not provide some good, it was not true that he ought to have provided it. Consequently he cannot be blamed for its lack.

This argument is valid as far as it goes, but we can understand the matter more fully by making a distinction here. In the argument above, St. Thomas virtually equates “causes indirectly” with being morally responsible for a thing, and consequently, based on an argument that God is not morally responsible for evil, concludes that “neither can He cause it indirectly.” But St. Thomas is well aware that causing something (especially causing indirectly) and being morally responsible for a thing are two different things. Thus he justifies killing in self defense:

Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible.

Evidently someone who does this causes the death of the aggressor. But he is not morally responsible for it. Thus causing something, especially indirectly, is not the same as being morally responsible for it.

Consider the case of the pilot of the ship. St. Thomas says that “a pilot is not said to cause the wrecking of the ship, through not steering the ship, unless he cease to steer while able and bound to steer.” But if we are considering mere causality, it is evident that whether or not the pilot is under an obligation of steering the ship is irrelevant. St. Thomas’s point is that if the pilot is doing something else more important, then he is not to blame for the destruction of the ship, even if theoretically he could have steered and failed to do the more important thing instead. This is true but the point is about blame, not causality. The destruction of the ship is indeed an indirect effect of the pilot’s action, even if the pilot’s action was morally praiseworthy, because he was doing something else more important.

And in that sense, all things, whether good or evil, reduce to the causality of the first cause, directly or indirectly.