Scott Alexander on the Decline of Culture

From Scott Alexander’s Tumblr:

voximperatoris:

[This post is copied over from Stephen Hicks.]

An instructive series of quotations, collected over the years, on the theme of pessimism about the present in relation to the past:

Plato, 360 BCE: “In that country [Egypt] arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters [science in general]; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.” (Laws, Book VII)

Catullus, c. 60 BCE: “Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!”

Sallust, 86– c. 35 BCE: “to speak of the morals of our country, the nature of my theme seems to suggest that I go farther back and give a brief account of the institutions of our forefathers in peace and in war, how they governed the commonwealth, how great it was when they bequeathed it to us, and how by gradual changes it has ceased to be the noblest and best, and has become the worst and most vicious.” About Rome’s forefathers: “good morals were cultivated at home and in the field; there was the greatest harmony and little or no avarice; justice and probity prevailed among them.” They “adorned the shrines of the gods with piety, their own homes with glory, while from the vanquished they took naught save the power of doing harm.” But Rome now is a moral mess: “The men of to‑day, on the contrary, basest of creatures, with supreme wickedness are robbing our allies of all that those heroes in the hour of victory had left them; they act as though the one and only way to rule were to wrong.” (The Catiline War)

Horace, c. 23-13 BCE: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are viler still, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” (Odes 3:6)

Alberti, 1436: Nature is no longer producing great intellects — “or giants which in her youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.” (On Painting)

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620: “For what else can our degenerate race do in this age of error. Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1790: “As from the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

William Wordsworth, 1802:
“Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
(“London”)

John Stuart Mill, in 1859, speaking of his generation: “the present low state of the human mind.” (On Liberty, Chapter 3)

Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1871: “What else, in the desolate waste of present-day culture, holds any promise of a sound, healthy future? In vain we look for a single powerfully branching root, a spot of earth that is fruitful: we see only dust, sand, dullness, and languor” (Birth of Tragedy, Section 20).

Frederick Taylor, 1911: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” (Scientific Management)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1925: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

So has the world really been in constant decline? Or perhaps, as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.”

Words to keep in mind as we try to assess objectively our own generation’s serious problems.

I hate this argument. It’s the only time I ever see “Every single person from history has always believed that X is true” used as an argument *against* X.

I mean, imagine that I listed Thomas Aquinas as saying “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades,” and then Leonardo da Vinci, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Benjamin Franklin, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Abraham Lincon, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades. Henry Ford, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades.”

My conclusion – people who think technology is advancing now are silly, there’s just some human bias toward always believing technology is advancing.

In the same way technology can always be advancing, culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society. Like technology, this isn’t a monotonic process – there will be disruptions every time one civilization collapses and a new one begins, and occasional conscious attempts by whole societies to reverse the trend, but in general, given movement from time t to time t+1, people can correctly notice cultural decline.

I mean, really. If, like Nietszche, your thing is the BRUTE STRENGTH of the valiant warrior, do you think that the modern office worker has exactly as much valiant warrior spirit as the 19th century frontiersman? Do you think the 19th century frontiersman had as much as the medieval crusader? Do you think the medieval crusader had as much as the Spartans? Pinker says the world is going from a state of violence to a state of security, and the flip side of that is people getting, on average, more domesticated and having less of the wild free spirit that Nietszche idealized.

Likewise, when people talk about “virtue”, a lot of the time they’re talking about chastity and willingness to remain faithful in a monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation. And a lot of the time they don’t even mean actual chastity, they mean vocal public support for chastity and social norms demanding it. Do you really believe our culture has as much of that as previous cultures do? Remember, the sort of sharia law stuff that we find so abhorrent and misogynist was considered progressive during Mohammed’s time, and with good reason.

I would even argue that Alberti is right about genius. There are certain forms of genius that modern society selects for and certain ones it selects against. Remember, before writing became common, the Greek bards would have mostly memorized Homer. I think about the doctors of past ages, who had amazing ability to detect symptoms with the naked eye in a way that almost nobody now can match because we use CT scan instead and there’s no reason to learn this art. (Also, I think modern doctors have much fewer total hours of training than older doctors, because as bad as today’s workplace-protection/no-overtime rules are, theirs were worse)

And really? Using the fact that some guy complained of soil erosion as proof that nobody’s complaints are ever valid? Soil erosion is a real thing, it’s bad, and AFAIK it does indeed keep getting worse.

More controversially, if T.S. Eliot wants to look at a world that over four hundred years, went from the Renaissance masters to modern art, I am totally okay with him calling that a terrible cultural decline.

Scott’s argument is plausible, although he seems somewhat confused insofar as he appears to associate Mohammed with monogamy. And since we are discussing the matter with an interlocutor who maintains that the decline of culture is obvious, we will concede the point immediately. Scott seems a bit ambivalent in regard to whether a declining culture is a bad thing, but we will concede that as well, other things being equal.

However, we do not clearly see an answer here to one of the questions raised in the last post: if culture tends to decline, why does this happen? Scott seems to suggest an answer when he says, “Culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society.” According to this, culture tends to decline because it becomes incompatible with modern society. The problem with this is that it seems to be a “moronic pseudo-reason”: 2017 is just one year among others. So no parts of culture should be less compatible with life in 2017, than with life in 1017, or in any other year. Chesterton makes a similar argument:

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. And for my present purpose I specially insist on this abstract independence. If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it; but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. It certainly would eliminate some evils; for instance, the unnatural sense of obeying cold and harsh strangers, mere bureaucrats and policemen. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles. It would be a way out of some of our troubles; we could not have in a small state, for instance, those enormous illusions about men or measures which are nourished by the great national or international newspapers. You could not persuade a city state that Mr. Beit was an Englishman, or Mr. Dillon a desperado, any more than you could persuade a Hampshire Village that the village drunkard was a teetotaller or the village idiot a statesman. Nevertheless, I do not as a fact propose that the Browns and the Smiths should be collected under separate tartans. Nor do I even propose that Clapham should declare its independence. I merely declare my independence. I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe; and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.

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Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

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

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

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

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

a Muslim might say,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image and Reality

A number of the issues we have discussed can be considered in parallel. There are significant differences between them, but we have given three situations where there was one understanding, at least in the early Church and sometimes later, and after time there was a different understanding. The three issues are the genre of Genesis, the time of the end of the world, and the number of the saved.

The cases differ significantly. In regard to Genesis, it is fairly certain that it was interpreted mainly literally throughout most of Christian history, but there were also some exceptions, at least for some passages. There are literary reasons for supposing that it should not be interpreted in this way, and I presented some of them in the linked post, but in practice the change in understanding came about because the facts were inconsistent with supposing that it was a literal historical account. Fr. Harrison objects exactly for this reason: according to him, it is completely unreasonable to change your understanding of the text to conform to the facts. Nor is the change universal; many ordinary Christians and Catholics would still understand the text in a historically literal way. But this is surely not the current understanding of the Magisterium, nor is it objectively reasonable.

In regard to the time of the end, it is likely that the understanding that it would be soon was nearly universal in the early Church, but this cannot be demonstrated with certainty, since this understanding had to change very quickly in order to remain in conformity with experience. The changed understanding itself would thus be universal, although some take this farther than others; thus James Chastek in the linked post argued that the Second Coming is something that happens after human history has already been concluded, but not everyone would say this.

In regard to the number of the saved, the issue was surely much less important. Christ himself at least on one occasion seems to have refused to answer the question: one should not be concerned about how many are saved, but to strive for salvation. And the idea that most people are lost was surely not universal. Origen for example argued that all will be saved. And likewise, I have given only the example of Pope Benedict XVI currently arguing that most people are saved, while it is not clear how common this opinion is. Nonetheless, I have included this because of significant similarities. The Catholic doctrine of the Last Judgement implies that there is a deep truth behind the human tendency to divide people into good people and bad people. According to the doctrine, people will in fact be divided in this way, and the division will last for all eternity. But the human tendency is a bit different. As I suggested in the linked post, people frequently tend to make such a division on the basis of religion and politics and similar matters. Democrats might say that Republicans are heartless evil people; Christians might say that atheists are sinful and immoral people who have rebelled against God. Such a division is sometimes even taken so far that it is incorporated into a person’s idea of religious doctrine: thus for example some people hold a rigid understanding of the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church, and some Muslims say that all non-Muslims go to hell.

In this sense, the natural human tendency is surely deeply flawed. Just because people do not agree with you, or just because they do not belong to your communities, does not mean that they are evil people. If anything, it is obvious that most people are not deeply evil. On the one hand, this provides ammunition for people who would engage in Bulverism against the Christian doctrine; they can say that the doctrine may simply be a result of this flawed tendency. On the other hand, it provides an argument in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s position, and in fact it is more or less the argument that he makes. This is why I have included it: Christ said certain things, which understood in a fairly simple way seem to imply certain things about the time of the end and the number of the saved. Likewise, Genesis says things which similarly can be taken to imply certain facts about the history of the world. Over time, everyone realized that what seemed implied about the time of the end, simply could not be the case. Many people realized that what seemed implied about the history of the world could not be the case, and at least some people realized that what seemed implied about the number of the saved is unlikely to be the case.

These surely differ in their doctrinal weight. The number of the saved is probably unimportant in a doctrinal sense, even if it might be important to us personally. The other two seem somewhat more important, but it not difficult to argue that such changes do not involve the substance of any doctrine. As I have said previously, one would not describe a contradiction as such as a development. So “the world will not end soon” cannot be a development of “the world will end soon,” but it would not be unreasonable to say that Christians went from one to the other through an improved understanding of the meaning and history of the Church, even if it was one that was forced upon them by the facts. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to understand all of these things in conformity with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine.

But something seems missing here. All of the facts may be consistent with Newman’s idea, but that does not mean that they are not consistent with anything else. And if anything, they seem more suggestive of the hypothesis that Newman rejects, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons,” and which seems to imply that Christianity is not supernatural. To a non-Christian, these facts look like the early Christians were just ignorant, and their ignorance was overcome through the normal progress in the knowledge of truth. And to the extent that they received their religion from Christ, and even to some extent apparently these specific ideas, it looks like Christ was ignorant as well.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a similar situation in his homilies on Genesis, published as the book In the Beginning:

These words, with which Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity. For many of us, moreover, these words recall the memory of our first encounter with Gods holy book, the Bible, which was opened for us at this spot. It at once brought us out of our small child’s world, captivated us with its poetry, and gave us a feeling for the immeasurability of creation and its Creator.

Yet these words give rise to a certain conflict. They are beautiful and familiar, but are they also true? Everything seems to speak against it, for science has long since disposed of the concepts that we have just now heard of – the idea of a world that is completely comprehensible in terms of space and time, and the idea that creation was built up piece by piece over the course of seven days. Instead of this we now face measurements that transcend all comprehension. Today we hear of the Big Bang, which happened billions of years ago and with which the universe began its expansion – an expansion that continues to occur without interruption. And it was not in neat succession that the stars were hung and the green of the fields created; it was rather in complex ways and over vast periods of time that the earth and the universe were constructed as we now know them.

Do these words, then, count for anything? In fact a theologian said not long ago that creation has become an unreal concept. If one is to be intellectually honest one ought to speak no longer of creation but rather of mutation and selection. Are these words true? Or have they perhaps, along with the entire Word of God and the whole biblical tradition, come out of the reveries of the infant age of human history, for which we occasionally experience homesickness but to which we can nevertheless not return, inasmuch as we cannot live on nostalgia? Is there an answer to this that we can claim for ourselves in this day and age?

He is discussing the specific issue of the truth of Genesis, and thus his response is tailored to this:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time – from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became – in the Word – the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith. Thus, insofar as human beings realized that the world came from the Word, they ceased to care about the gods and demons. In addition, the world was freed so that reason might lift itself up to God and so that human beings might approach this God fearlessly. In this Word they experienced the true enlightenment that does away with the gods and the mysterious powers and that reveals to them that there is only one power everywhere and that we are in his hands. This is the living God, and this same power (which created the earth and the stars and which bears the whole universe) is the very one whom we meet in the Word of Holy Scripture. In this Word we come into contact with the real primordial force of the world and with the power that is above all powers.

After this description of a response to the problem, he says that there is still a problem:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord? This would be an operation whose aim would be, supposedly, to defend the faith, inasmuch as it would say: Behind what is there, which we can no longer defend, there is something more real. Such an operation often ends up by putting the faith itself in doubt, by raising the question of the honesty of those who are interpreting it and of whether anything at all there is enduring. As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand – a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.

This concern is much like that of Ross Douthat in his comments regarding communion for divorced and remarried couples.

I will give Ratzinger’s response to these issues, and offer some comments on it, in the next post, or possibly later.

Other Wagers

While no one believes the ridiculous position that only atheists go to heaven, not even Richard Carrier himself, many people do believe things which allow for the construction of wagers in favor of things besides Christianity.

Other real religions would be a typical example. Thus Muslims probably generally believe that you are more likely to go heaven if you become a Muslim, and some of them believe that all non-Muslims go to hell. So they can argue that you should choose to believe that Islam is true, in order to increase your chances of going to heaven, and to avoid going to hell.

Similarly, some Catholics who hold a Feeneyite position hold not only that you must be a Catholic, externally and literally, in order to be saved, but that you also cannot be saved unless you accept this position. Since there is some chance that they are right, they might argue, you should choose to accept their position, in order to be more sure of getting to heaven and avoiding hell.

Likewise, a Catholic could argue that the Church teaches that the religious life is better than married life. This probably means that people choosing to embrace religious life are more likely to go to heaven, since it is unlikely that the chances are completely equal, and if getting married made you more likely to go to heaven, it would be better in an extremely important way. So if you are a single Catholic, you should choose to believe that you have a religious vocation, in order to maximize your chances of going to heaven.

It is instructive to consider these various wagers because they can give some sort of indication of what kinds of response are reasonable and what kinds are not, even to Pascal’s original wager.

A Christian would be likely to respond to the Islamic wager in this way: it is more likely that Christianity is true than Islam, and if Christianity is true, the Christian would increase his chances of going to hell, and decrease his chances of going to heaven, by converting to Islam, and especially for such a reason. This is much like Richard Carrier’s response to Pascal, but it is reasonable for Christians in a way in which it is not for Carrier, because Christianity is an actually existing religion, while his only-atheists-go-to-heaven religion is not.

A Catholic could respond to the Feeneyite wager in a similar way. The Feeneyite position is probably false, and probably contrary to the teaching of the Church, and therefore adopting it would be uncharitable to other people (by assuming that they are going to hell), and unfaithful to the Catholic Church (since the most reasonable interpretation of the Church’s teaching does not allow for this position.) So rather than increasing a person’s chances of going to heaven, adopting this position would decrease a person’s chances of this result. Again, the possibility of this answer derives from the fact that there are two already existing positions, so this answer does not benefit someone like Carrier.

It is more difficult for a Catholic to reject the religious vocation wager in a reasonable way, because the Church does teach that the religious life is better, and in fact this most likely does imply that Catholics embracing this form of life are more likely to be saved.

A Catholic could respond, “But I don’t actually have a religious vocation, and so I shouldn’t choose to believe that I do.” This is no different from a unbeliever saying, “But Christianity is not actually true, and so I shouldn’t choose to believe that it is.” And this response fails in both cases, because the arguments do not purport to establish that you have a vocation or that Christianity is true. They only intend to establish that it is better to believe these things, and such a response does not address the argument.

The Catholic could insist, “But if I don’t actually have a religious vocation, God does not want me to do that. So if I choose to believe in a vocation and follow it, I will be doing something that God does not want me to do. So I will be less likely to be saved.” This seems similar to the unbeliever responding, “If God exists, he does not want people believing things that are false, and Christianity is false. So I will be less likely to get anything good from God by believing.”

Both responses are problematic, basically because they are inconsistent with the principles that are assumed to be true in order to consider the situation. In other words, the response here by the Catholic is probably inconsistent with the teaching of the Church on religious vocations, and likewise the response by the unbeliever is obviously inconsistent with Christianity (since it denies it.) The reason the Catholic response is likely inconsistent with the teaching of the Church on vocations is that given that someone asserts that he has a religious vocation, the Church forbids other people from dissuading him from it on the supposed grounds that he does not have a real vocation. But if it were true that someone who chooses to believe that he has a vocation, and then acts on it, is less likely to be saved given that he did not really have a vocation, then it would be extremely reasonable for people to dissuade him. Since the Church forbids such dissuasion, it seems to imply that this answer is not correct.

Both responses can be modified so that they will be consistent with the situation under consideration. The Catholic can respond, “I very much do not want to live the religious life. Granted that the religious life in general would make someone more likely to be saved, I would be personally extremely miserable in it. This would tempt me to various vicious things, either as consequences of it, as snapping angrily at people, or in order to relieve my misery, as engaging in sinful pleasures. So despite the general situation, I would be personally less likely to be saved if I lived the religious life.”

It is not clear how strong this response is, but at least it is consistent with accepting the general teaching of the Church on vocations. Likewise, the unbeliever can modify his response to the following: “Even if Christianity is true, it seems false to me, and from my point of view, choosing to believe it would be choosing to believe something false. The Bible makes clear that people rejecting the light and choosing darkness are doing evil, so that would mean God wouldn’t be pleased by this kind of behavior. So choosing to believe would make me less likely to go to heaven, even given that Christianity is true.”

Once again, it is not clear how strong this response is, but it is consistent with the claims of Christianity, and no less reasonable than the response of the single Catholic to the argument regarding vocations.

Scott Alexander, in the comment quoted previously, is dissatisfied with such arguments because they do not provide a general answer that would apply in all possible circumstances (e.g. if you were guaranteed that God did not object to your choosing to believe something you think to be false), and it seems to him that he personally would want to reject the wager in all circumstances. He concludes that his desire to reject it is objectively unreasonable. However, he does this under the assumption that the value of getting to heaven and avoiding hell is actually infinite. As we have seen, it is not infinite in the way that matters. However, he also assumes in his comment that the probability of Christianity is astronomically low. If this were correct, then since the value of salvation is not numerically infinite, it would be right to reject the wager in all circumstances. But since it is not correct to assign such a low probability, this does not follow.

The implication is that it is not possible to give a reasonable response to the wager which implies that it would never be reasonable to accept it. Likewise, the implication of the possible responses is that it is not possible to propose the wager in a form which ought to be compelling to anyone who is reasonable and under all circumstances. In this sense, Scott Alexander is right to suppose that his desire to reject the wager under all possible circumstances is irrational. Real life is complicated, and in real life a person could reasonably accept such a wager under certain circumstances, and a person could reasonably reject such a wager under certain circumstances.

True and False Religion

What does it mean to say that a religion is true, or that it is false? The question is not as easy as it appears at first sight. Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christianruns up against this difficulty. In order to explain why he is not a Christian, he has to know what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

Thus Russell reduces being a Christian to believing in God, in the immortality of the soul, and that Christ was at least the best and wisest of men. Of course there are people who call themselves Christians who do not believe one or more of these things, and do not accept that you cannot call yourself a Christian without them. And other people might well give a different list. Thus for example St. Paul has his own requirements:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Thus St. Paul says that belief in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore in a general resurrection, is required. Otherwise “your faith has been in vain,” which would certainly seem to say that your religion is not true.

Of course, St. Paul is polemically exaggerating the consequences of the position of his opponents. In the first place someone could believe in the resurrection of Christ without believing in a general resurrection. Likewise, even if Christ did not rise from the dead, it does not follow of necessity that anyone’s faith would be entirely vain, but that it would be vain in some respect, since he would still profit from it in various ways, such as by belonging to a Christian community. Similarly, even if Christians have a false belief in the immortality of the soul, there would still be more pitiable people in the world.

We can learn from these two examples. Russell says that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” if you do not accept his list of three beliefs, while St. Paul says that “your faith is in vain” if you do not believe that Christ is risen. There is something common to the two. Some basic belief or beliefs are proposed, such that without these beliefs, it is not worthwhile to count yourself as a believer at all. For St. Paul, this has the form of saying that you should not bother to put your faith in Christ, while for Russell, this has the form of saying that you should not call yourself a Christian.

The basic difficulty is caused by the fact that being a Christian, considered in itself, is not a belief, but membership in a Christian community. Thus saying that “Christianity is true,” or that “Christianity is false,” ought to mean “belonging to a Christian community is true,” or that “belonging to a Christian community is false,” both of which are evidently absurd, since belonging to a community is not the kind of thing which is true or false. But since a Christian community happens to be a community of believers, we identify Christianity as a belief by saying that it is what that community believes.

But the problem is not resolved by this identification, for “what the Christian community believes” is somewhat indeterminate, since Christians believe different things. Russell and St. Paul resolve the issue in similar ways. Russell does so by saying that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” unless you believe certain things, presumably because it is wrong to deceive people about your beliefs. St. Paul does so by saying that your faith is in vain if you think that Christ did not rise from the dead, presumably meaning that it is pointless for you to belong to a Christian community.

Thus both of them are saying that unless you think that such and such is true, it is a bad idea to be a Christian, that is, to belong to a Christian community.

With this analysis we can say in general what it means to say that a certain religion is true, or that it is false. If I say that Mormonism is true, I mean that there are certain true things usually believed by Mormons, which make it worthwhile to belong to a Mormon community, given that I accept those things. Likewise, if I say that Mormonism is false, I mean that there are things believed by Mormons that would make it worthwhile to be a Mormon, if they were true, but in fact those things are false, and consequently it is not worthwhile to be a Mormon. Or more directly, I mean that there are certain things normally believed by Mormons which happen to be false, and the fact that Mormons normally believe these false things, makes it not worthwhile for me to be a Mormon.

Someone might object that this leads to relativism, since according to this analysis, it seems that a religion might be true for one person, but false for another. For example, in an interview conducted by Sergiu Hart, Robert Aumann, the author of the agreement theorem we discussed earlier, explains, among other things, why he accepts Judaism:

H [Sergiu Hart]: So that’s the Center for Rationality. I know this doesn’t belong, but I’ll ask it here. You are a deeply religious man. How does it fit in with a rational view of the world? How do you fit together science and religion?

A [Robert Aumann]: As you say, it really doesn’t belong here, but I’ll respond anyway. Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement “the earth is round.” It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn’t; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. But when you come to think of it, it is a very complex statement. What does roundness mean? Roundness means that there is a point, the “center” of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we canít get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn’t be able to get there. We certainly wouldn’t be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

Don’t get me wrong. We all agree that the earth is round. What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It’s a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people’s minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a “species.” Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say “Bob Aumann” is sitting here? Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I’ll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word “model.” Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite, orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children; you do all kinds of things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That’s the case with religion also. It doesn’t contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those two things coexist side by side without conflict.

Well, it is your way of putting it. Let me enlarge on it. The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society; it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

In short, you can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. In the eighties, copying software was considered moral by many people. The point I am making is that religion, at least my religion, is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society.

In the first part, Aumann is basically saying that science gives an idealized and approximate description of the world, rather than an exact description. In the second part he attempts to explain why he accepts Judaism, and he seems to be saying that it has little to do with the way the world is, and more to do with what is good for people. In other words, to explain it in the way we analyzed the truth of a religion, “Judaism is true” for Aumann because he believes that it is true that it is good and beautiful to observe the Sabbath, true that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws, and so on. And since these things are true it is worthwhile for him to be a member of a Jewish religious community.

You may or may not agree that the Sabbath is beautiful, and you may or may not agree that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws. But even if you do agree with these things, you probably don’t conclude that it is worthwhile for you to convert to Judaism. At the same time, you may realize that these things might well make it worthwhile for Robert Aumann to remain a Jew.

Thus our explanation seems to lead to relativism, because Judaism can be true for Aumann, but false for other people. However, there are several problems with calling this result relativism.

First of all, there was some remaining ambiguity in the way we defined the truth or falsity of a religion. Jews might normally believe certain true things, and given that Robert Aumann accepts those things, it might be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. But it is possible that Jews also normally believe certain false things, such that if Aumann knew they were false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. Thus, for example, a Christian would argue that Jews falsely believe that Christ is not the Messiah, and that if Aumann knew that this was false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, but to convert to Christianity.

Thus we could make our definition more precise by saying that a religion is true if it is worthwhile to belong to that religion even after you know the truth or falsity of all the beliefs that the members of the religion usually hold, and that it is worthwhile by reason of some of the true things that they hold.

However, this does not sufficiently answer the charge of relativism, because it would still be possible that one religion would be true for one person, and not true for another person.

For example, suppose that theism is true, but that no divine revelation has been given. If Aumann realizes this, he might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, and unreasonable to convert to Islam, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Jews and Muslims. Likewise, a Muslim, knowing the same things, might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Muslim, and unreasonable to convert to Judaism, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Muslims and Jews.

The answer in this case is that the situation simply does not imply relativism, because Aumann and the Muslim do not disagree about anything. Aumann may say, “Judaism is true,” and the Muslim may say, “Islam is true,” but when they explain what they mean and why they say it, they do not disagree with each other about any objective fact. This is no more relativism than it is relativism to admit that one person may prefer vanilla ice cream, and another person chocolate.

Thus, it is possible to mean something reasonable when saying that some religion is true, or that some religion is false. But in the end perhaps it would be better to avoid all the confusion in the first place, by following Robert Aumann’s example and simply distinguishing the question, “What is the world like?” from the question, “Is it, or would it be, good for me to belong to this community of believers?” Of course the answers to these questions are going to be related in various ways, but they are different questions.

All Call This God

When St. Thomas concludes his five ways with different variations on this statement, he likely does so for several reasons.

First, it seems that it was more or less true at the time. Certainly atheists existed, just as they do now, but they were rarer, and they probably mostly denied not only that “God exists,” but also the specific conclusions of St. Thomas’s arguments.

Second, he does so for convenience. Since he proceeds to make numerous arguments about the first principle to which he concludes in Question 2, the name “God” is a simple way to refer to that principle.

However, there are several things about this procedure which could cause confusion. This was possible at the time, and perhaps even more so now.

First of all, by drawing the conclusion that “God exists,” St. Thomas suggests not only the conclusions that he is actually drawing, but also conclusions such as “the first efficient cause is omniscient and omnipotent,” since such things are usually said of God. Using this terminology will inevitably affect the thought processes of students of theology in predictable ways. For example, since the student already believes that God is omniscient, an argument for this conclusion will almost certainly feel more reasonable, given that that it is phrased in terminology referring to “God,” than it would feel if put in more abstract terms.

Similarly, we saw earlier that Richard Dawkins’s objections are not to the idea of a first principle as such, but to the things which are typically attributed to that principle. This made clear communication between himself and the theologians with whom he spoke very difficult, because it was not clear exactly which questions were being addressed at any particular time.

In our own discussion, we have established various things about the cause, and others can be easily established. For example, we did not explicitly discuss whether the first cause is a body, but it can be easily shown that it is not. However, there are some things among the usual divine attributes which, at the least, cannot be easily proven, and which possibly cannot be proven at all. St. Thomas says something similar when he gives reasons for the necessity of revelation:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.

We have seen that the first cause has various attributes that make it similar to a mind, as for example that it acts for an end and is thus concerned about the good, and as said above, that it is not a body. However, the statement that it is a mind simply speaking is much harder to establish, if it is possible at all. For example, St. Thomas argues in Question 14 of the Prima Pars:

In God there exists the most perfect knowledge. To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower. Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.” Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter. Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity. Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive; and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge. Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material. But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii. Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge.

In order for this to be conclusive, St. Thomas’s first statement has to be evident, since he does not argue for it here, although of course this does not imply that he could not possibly make an argument for it. The statement is that “intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.”

It is evident that in the sense specified, intelligent beings can have the form of another. And it is also evident that non-intelligent beings do not have the form of another in precisely that sense. But it is not evident that they do not have it in any sense, and this is necessary for the argument to follow. For someone who supposes that the first cause is not a mind, does not assert that it does not have the forms of other things in any way. Instead, he asserts that it has the form of all things as the cause of all. Nor would he say that it has them in a lower way than intelligent beings do, but in a much higher way. Plotinus maintains a theology of this kind (Enneads 5.3.11):

Thus the Intellectual-Principle, in the act of knowing the Transcendent, is a manifold. It knows the Transcendent in very essence but, with all its effort to grasp that prior as a pure unity, it goes forth amassing successive impressions, so that, to it, the object becomes multiple: thus in its outgoing to its object it is not [fully realised] Intellectual-Principle; it is an eye that has not yet seen; in its return it is an eye possessed of the multiplicity which it has itself conferred: it sought something of which it found the vague presentment within itself; it returned with something else, the manifold quality with which it has of its own act invested the simplex. If it had not possessed a previous impression of the Transcendent, it could never have grasped it, but this impression, originally of unity, becomes an impression of multiplicity; and the Intellectual-Principle, in taking cognisance of that multiplicity, knows the Transcendent and so is realized as an eye possessed of its vision. It is now Intellectual-Principle since it actually holds its object, and holds it by the act of intellection: before, it was no more than a tendance, an eye blank of impression: it was in motion towards the transcendental; now that it has attained, it has become IntellectualPrinciple henceforth absorbed; in virtue of this intellection it holds the character of Intellectual-Principle, of Essential Existence and of Intellectual Act where, previously, not possessing the Intellectual Object, it was not Intellectual Perception, and, not yet having exercised the Intellectual Act, it was not Intellectual-Principle. The Principle before all these principles is no doubt the first principle of the universe, but not as immanent: immanence is not for primal sources but for engendering secondaries; that which stands as primal source of everything is not a thing but is distinct from all things: it is not, then, a member of the total but earlier than all, earlier, thus, than the Intellectual-Principle- which in fact envelops the entire train of things. Thus we come, once more, to a Being above the Intellectual-Principle and, since the sequent amounts to no less than the All, we recognise, again, a Being above the All. This assuredly cannot be one of the things to which it is prior. We may not call it “Intellect”; therefore, too, we may not call it “the Good,” if “the Good” is to be taken in the sense of some one member of the universe; if we mean that which precedes the universe of things, the name may be allowed. The Intellectual-Principle is established in multiplicity; its intellection, self-sprung though it be, is in the nature of something added to it [some accidental dualism] and makes it multiple: the utterly simplex, and therefore first of all beings, must, then, transcend the Intellectual-Principle; and, obviously, if this had intellection it would no longer transcend the Intellectual-Principle but be it, and at once be a multiple.

While Plotinus is not easy to understand, it can be seen from the last statements here that according to him, the first principle of things is not an intellect, but transcends intellect. This kind of theology is not evidently mistaken, and in fact Plotinus is making a fairly reasonable argument in favor of it.

One reason why it will be fairly difficult to settle such questions definitively, from the point of view of reason, is that we do not have a sufficiently precise understanding of the things involved. In the discussions here on this blog, I took care to form fairly precise definitions of terms such as distinction, whole and part, one and many, and so on. No one has given an equally clear definition of mind, and it is not clear that it is possible to do so. We know what it is like to have a mind, but that does not mean that we can define it. And in fact, as Dawkins and Plotinus suggest, some parts of that experience seem to be contrary to the idea of a first principle. From the point of view of Catholic theology, such difficulties may be resolved, or partly resolved, by the doctrine of the Trinity. But if it is necessary to bring in the Trinity to resolve the difficulties, this suggests that reason alone may not capable of such a resolution.

The name “God,” then, suggests many things which can be proven true of the first cause only with great difficulty, and possibly not at all. Consequently St. Thomas’s procedure has a significant risk of leading students to believe that they have a better understanding of theology than they actually have.

There is a second issue with his procedure, much more relevant in our times than in his. Saying that God exists is making a claim which is remote from the senses, both because God is not a body, and because “truly you are a God who hides himself,” as Isaiah says. Consequently, as was argued in the post on things remote from the senses, people will be more likely than usual to be influenced by motives other than truth in their beliefs regarding God.

One of those motives, as was also stated there, is the desire to be loyal to a group to which one belongs. And this particular motive will be especially likely in the case of God, because God is understood to be a person, and in most cases, he is understood to be a person who has a special relationship with a community that believes in him. Consequently belief in God is necessary for the sake of loyalty to God himself, since he is a person, and for the sake of loyalty to his community. This is likely the reason for the fact that historically apostasy was often punished with the death penalty, as for example in the Old Testament:

If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

The same thing is true in many Islamic societies even today. For the apostate is understood to be literally guilty of treason, in the political sense of the term.

Again, insofar as God is understood to be a person responsible for some community, that community will ordinarily accept some religion, namely the one which is believed to be approved by God. In this way saying that God exists is commonly understood not only to imply that he has certain divine attributes, but also that some particular religion is true. And believing that a religion is true is often something that is openly admitted to have motives other than truth, as when St. John says at the end of his Gospel, “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Thus “life in his name”, which is a Christian life, one in a Christian community, is explicitly set down as a motive for belief here.

Since people easily notice the motivations of others, but suppose that they themselves are motivated by truth alone, and since such motivations are especially clear in the case of God, atheists sometimes suppose that they are concerned about truth while believers are not.

This is a mistake, however, since whether you assert or deny the existence of God, the statement remains equally distant from the senses, and human nature is the same in believers and in atheists. Consequently atheists are also likely to have various motives other than truth for their opinion, as for example in this particularly honest statement by Thomas Nagel in chapter 7 of his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper— namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

In particular, the semi-political orientation of religious belief implies that atheists will often have somewhat political motivations for their unbelief. This can be seen in accounts such as this one:

Two atheists – John Gray and Alain de Botton – and two agnostics – Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I – meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists’ temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

“I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts,” wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. “You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy.” Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

We noted the lack of clarity in the disagreement between Richard Dawkins and the theologians with whom he conversed at the Cambridge conference. I would suggest that this is vagueness of the third kind. Insofar as political and social allegiances are at stake in the assertion or denial that God exists, it is not necessary to be clear about the meaning of the claim. All that is necessary is to say that you are on one side or the other. Alain de Botton, by praising various aspects of religion, is admitting that he is not giving his full allegiance to the atheists, and thus they must condemn him as a traitor.

For the first reason, namely the fact that using the name “God” immediately suggests all of the usual divine attributes, it might be better to compose theological treatises without following St. Thomas’s procedure, even if this is somewhat less convenient. For the second reason, namely because of the motivations that are at stake in asserting or denying the existence of God, it might be better to adopt an approach which is more sensitive to context. If you are speaking with Richard Dawkins, it is perhaps better not to use the name of God at all, in order to ensure a common understanding, while if you are speaking with believers, there is much less of a problem with calling the first cause God.

What a Tangled Web We Weave

Suppose that someone accepts that life is meaningful for the reasons given in the last post.

Suppose he then says, “Since there’s no point in considering the possibility that life is meaningless, I might as well consider the fact that life is meaningful to be absolutely certain.”

Suppose he then forgets how he came to this point, and only notices that there is something he is absolutely certain about. He therefore says that this claim has a probability of 100%. And in order to be consistent, he adds that he is absolutely certain about having his absolute certainty.

He may well then proceed to develop a philosophy of human nature based on the position that he has the ability to possess absolute subjective certainty. And he may assign an extremely high probability to this philosophy, or even say that it is itself completely certain.

There is something very odd about this whole procedure. The starting point, that life is meaningful, is true. But the endpoint, a philosophy built on the possibility of absolute subjective certainty, is likely false, for reasons given previously. Where did we go astray? The problem appears in the second step above, when we go from excluding the possibility that life is meaningless, to saying that “life is meaningful” is absolutely certain.

It was pointed out in the last post that truth is only one of the possible motives for believing something, and there are other possible motives as well. This implies that “reasons for believing” something can be said to two ways. In one way, it signifies reasons why the thing would be true, or would be likely to be true. In another way, it signifies reasons why it would be good for someone to believe it. The fact that something is true is also a reason why it would be beneficial to believe it, and this could lead us to confuse the two meanings. Likewise, believing something involves claiming that it is true, and for this reason we might suppose that any reasons that make it good to believe something, should mean it’s likely to be true.

But in reality these kinds of reasons can be completely distinct. Thus it may be beneficial for a Muslim in an Islamic country to maintain his faith, in order to avoid being killed as an apostate. But this motive does not increase the probability of Islam in any way; it is not a reason which makes the thing true or likely to be true. The problem with the reasoning process described at the beginning of this post is that we collapsed these two types of reason: we had a moral reason to adopt the view that life is meaningful without reservation, but that moral reason does not increase the probability that life is meaningful. That life is meaningful should be considered to be extremely probable in itself, since it is simply common sense. But when we exclude potential reservations for moral reasons, we should not then suppose that we are suddenly absolutely certain.

St. Thomas gives another example of a moral reason for holding a certain opinion:

From the very fact that a man thinks ill of another without sufficient cause, he injures and despises him. Now no man ought to despise or in any way injure another man without urgent cause: and, consequently, unless we have evident indications of a person’s wickedness, we ought to deem him good, by interpreting for the best whatever is doubtful about him.

He admits that following this process may lead one into error, but says that the error is relatively minor compared to the danger of doing harm by thinking badly of a good man:

He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.

Again, as in the other cases, our moral reason is a real reason for thinking something, but it does not suddenly make that thing more probable than it otherwise was. And if we understand this in the latter way, we may fall into serious errors indeed. For example, a juror might think it is extremely certain that an alleged criminal is guilty. But then he might say to himself, “It would be more charitable to suppose that there is only a 90% chance he is guilty,” followed by, “It would be still more charitable to suppose that there is only an 80% chance he is guilty,” and so on, with the conclusion that the man is certainly innocent.

This is related to St. Thomas’s claim that when we judge well of another in this way, even when we are mistaken, this does not pertain “to the evil of the intellect, even as neither does it pertain to the intellect’s perfection to know the truth of contingent singulars in themselves.” This may be true insofar as it goes, meaning that the error in question is not a serious evil. But if we understand this to mean that our interpretation changes the probability of certain facts, this may indeed lead to serious evils, in a practical sense as in the case of the juror, or even in a speculative sense as in our original example. Since a moral reason does not in fact make the thing more probable, someone who asserts that the thing is more probable is asserting something false, even if the thing in question happens to be true in fact, and if he attempts to justify this false assertion of greater probability, he will be able to do so only by continuing to assert other falsehoods. And thus one begins to weave a tangled web indeed.

None of this implies that one should not believe things for moral reasons. It simply means that one should make sure to distinguish between the reasons that make something probably true, and reasons that make it good to think it is true, and not to confuse the two by supposing that one’s moral reasons make something likely to be true.