Fairies, Unicorns, Werewolves, and Certain Theories of Richard Dawkins

In A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins explains his opposition to religion:

To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to ‘organized religion’. My first response is that I am not exactly friendly towards disorganized religion either. As a lover of truth, I am suspicious of strongly held beliefs that are unsupported by evidence: fairies, unicorns, werewolves, any of the infinite set of conceivable and unfalsifiable beliefs epitomized by Bertrand Russell’s hypothetical china teapot orbiting the Sun. The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

We have previously discussed the error of supposing that other people’s beliefs are “unsupported by evidence” in the way that the hypothetical china teapot is unsupported. But the curious thing about this passage is that it carries its own refutation. As Dawkins says, the place of religion in the world is very different from the place of belief in fairies, unicorns, and werewolves. These differences are empirical differences in the real world: it is in the real world that people teach their children about religion, but not about orbiting teapots, or in general even about fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The conclusion for Dawkins ought not to be hostility towards religion, then, but rather the conclusion, “These appear to me to be beliefs unsupported by evidence, but this must be a mistaken appearance, since obviously humans relate to these beliefs in very different ways than they do to beliefs unsupported by evidence.”

I would suggest that what is actually happening is that Dawkins is making an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that religions are false, much in the way that P. Edmund Waldstein’s argument for integralism is an abstract argument about what the world should look like given that God has revealed a supernatural end. Both theories simply pay no attention to the real world: in the real world, human beings do not in general know a supernatural end (at least not in the detailed way required by P. Edmund’s theory), and in the real world, human beings do not treat religious beliefs as beliefs unsupported by evidence.

The argument by Dawkins would proceed like this: religions are false. Therefore they are just sets of beliefs that posit numerous concrete claims, like assumptions into heaven, virgin births, and so on, which simply do not correspond to anything at all in the real world. Therefore beliefs in these things should be just like beliefs in other such non-existent things, like fairies, unicorns, and werewolves.

The basic conclusion is false, and Dawkins points out its falsity himself in the above quotation.

Nonetheless, people do not tend to be so wrong that there is nothing right about what they say, and there is some truth in what Dawkins is saying, namely that many religious beliefs do make claims which are wildly far from reality. Rod Dreher hovers around this point:

A Facebook friend posted to his page:

“Shut up! No way – you’re too smart! I’m sorry, that came out wrong…”

The reaction a good friend and Evangelical Christian colleague had when she found out I’m a Catholic.


I had to laugh at that, because it recalled conversations I’ve been part of (alas) back in the 1990s, as a fresh Catholic convert, in which we Catholics wondered among ourselves why any smart people would be Evangelical. After I told a Catholic intellectual friend back in 2006 that I was becoming Orthodox, he said something to the effect of, “You’re too smart for that.”

It’s interesting to contemplate why we religious people who believe things that are rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view can’t understand how intelligent religious people who believe very different things can possibly hold those opinions. I kept getting into this argument with other conservative Christians when Mitt Romney was running for president. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him because he’s a Mormon, and Mormons believe “crazy” things. Well, yes, from an orthodox Christian point of view, their beliefs are outlandish, but come on, we believe, as they do, that the God of all Creation, infinite and beyond time, took the form of a mortal man, suffered, died, arose again, and ascended into heaven — and that our lives on this earth and our lives in eternity depend on uniting ourselves to Him. And we believe that that same God established a sacred covenant with a Semitic desert tribe, and made Himself known to mankind through His words to them. And so forth. And these are only the basic “crazy things” that we believe! Judge Mormons to be incorrect in their theology, fine, but if you think they are somehow intellectually defective for believing the things they do that diverge from Christian orthodoxy, then it is you who are suffering from a defect of the intellectual imagination.

My point is not to say all religious belief is equally irrational, or that it is irrational at all. I don’t believe that. A very great deal depends on the premises from which you begin. Catholics and Orthodox, for example, find it strange that so many Evangelicals believe that holding to the Christian faith requires believing that the Genesis story of a seven-day creation must be taken literally, such that the world is only 7,000 years old, and so forth. But then, we don’t read the Bible as they do. I find it wildly implausible that they believe these things, but I personally know people who are much more intelligent than I am who strongly believe them. I wouldn’t want these folks teaching geology or biology to my kids, but to deny their intelligence would be, well, stupid.

I suspect that Dreher has not completely thought through the consequences of these things, and most likely he would not want to. For example, he presumably thinks that his own Christian beliefs are not irrational at all. So are the Mormon beliefs slightly irrational, or also not irrational at all? If Mormon beliefs are false, they are wildly far off from reality. Surely there is something wrong with beliefs that are wildly far off from reality, even if you do not want to use the particular term “irrational.” And presumably claims that are very distant from reality should not be supported by vast amounts of strong evidence, even if unlike Dawkins you admit that some evidence will support them.

Some Personal Remarks

At one point we looked at Trent Horn’s question for a Mormon:

Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?

The main reason that our Mormon protagonist  is unwilling to change his mind about religion is not because of the evidence in favor of Mormonism. There certainly is such evidence, as for example the witnesses who testified that they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates. But such evidence is surely not the principal motive involved. Basically they have motives other than truth for continuing to believe. If a Mormon changes their religious views, this can have serious negative consequences for their social and personal life. This is not specific to Mormonism, but is common to religion in general, as well as to many political views, because of the way that such views are used to express social and political loyalties. As noted in the linked post, someone who changes his view is seen as a traitor to his community.

Gregory Dawes, a former Catholic, seems to have had this experience. He remarks (quoted in the post linked above):

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

The Catholic Church does not teach that falling away from the faith is the greatest of sins. In fact, although it certainly teaches that it is objectively wrong for a Catholic to do so, it does not even teach that a Catholic is always subjectively guilty at all when they change their religious views. Dawes was a well educated Catholic, so he is probably aware of these facts. Why then does he call this “the greatest of sins?” It seems pretty reasonable to suppose that he is responding in a personal way to how he was treated by others after he changed his mind about his religion.

As I said in the linked post, I agree with Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes about the use of reason. However, this is not the only thing that Dawes and I have in common. Like Dawes, my family and background are completely Catholic. Like Dawes, my education was completely Catholic. Finally, I substantially agree with Dawes in his conclusions regarding Catholicism and regarding religion in general, considered as a body of factual claims about the world. Of course this is not the case not in every detail. I also suspect that I disagree with him to a larger extent on the reasons for those conclusions. This is not an opinion that I have just arrived at. I have held this view for over a year now. Nor was it the result of a brief process, but the result of a gradual process of thought which took decades of my life.

As with Dawes, and as with our theoretical Mormon, this has had serious consequences for my personal life, and not only on account of the reactions of others. Nonetheless, the reactions of others play a significant role here. Consequently I have a few remarks principally for those who know me in real life:

  1. This blog is and remains theoretically anonymous. Please do not make this post a public announcement connected to my real name.
  2. I appreciate your prayers. Needless to say, this does not imply that there is any meaningful weakness to the case for my position.
  3. I do not appreciate insults. Your faith does not require you to believe that I am foolish, wicked, arrogant, or possessed by demons. If you think that it does, or if it pleases you to think these things in any case, please keep them to yourself.
  4. While it should be obvious from this blog that I do not mind conversations about religion, considered in general, I do not appreciate proselytism, namely efforts that could reasonably be described as “stop him from being foolish and get him to come to his senses.” I am not being foolish, and I am entirely in possession of my senses. Please do not engage in this behavior; it is uncharitable, it will not have the effects that you wish, and persistence in it over a long period of time can only have the effect of destroying relationships.

One additional remark concerning the “possessed by demons” point. Someone recently said in a personal communication:

By the strange things you write, I can see that your mind has been given blinders / tunnel vision, presumably by some evil spirit, who only lets you look at things from his point of view.

This refers to things written on this blog, and in that sense it is completely incorrect. Everything currently on the blog is completely consistent with a Catholic view, and only expresses views that I have held for many years. Many orthodox Catholics would agree in substance with virtually everything here.

As for the demon comment itself, I have noted in the past that if you say that a person’s beliefs are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation with them. In the same way, if you say that a person’s religious views are caused by a demon, you cannot have a conversation about religion with them.

The Second Mistake

The second mistake that we mentioned at the end of this post was that given the thesis that God is hidden, arguments against a religion become arguments in favor of it. Pascal suggests such a position when he says, “that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?”

This is not completely wrong, but there is less truth than error in it. If you explain a difficulty by adding something to your account, as the Mormon does in this example, then technically the difficulty does support the new account. The problem is, as was said there, that the new account overall remains less probable than the original account was without the addition. And the difficulty remains evidence that the original account was simply wrong; it does not “change sides” to support only the new account.

There are several things that need to be considered in the present case. The first is in what sense it is an additional explanation when one says that the explanation for the existence of difficulties is the hiddenness of God. It is somewhat different from the example of the Mormon, and in a way that favors Christianity. The Mormon may have been aware of all widely known facts about his religion, without being aware of the problem regarding the Book of Abraham. But this could not be true of the Christian in the case under discussion. It may be a Christian does not realize that his religion implies that God is hidden; but this is on account of a lack of consideration. The very things that he already knows and believes imply that this must be true in order for his religion to be true. In the Mormon case, on the contrary, nothing about the Mormon religion implies there needs to be some special explanation regarding the Book of Abraham. So when the Mormon adds a special explanation, this is a real addition that must reduce the probability of his general claim. But the Christian in the case under discussion is simply explaining what was implicit in his claim in the first place. In this sense it does not reduce the probability of his claim, but leaves it as it is.

On the other hand, if one has not yet considered the fact that Christianity requires the thesis of hiddenness, it may be that the prior probability for Christianity should be less than what one supposed, when one was judging it without this consideration. In this sense, it may reduce the probability for a particular individual who has not yet fully considered the situation.

Finally, this does not in fact imply that concrete difficulties with Christianity are not evidence against it, because even if the difficulties fit with the claim that Christianity is true but hidden, they may sometimes fit even better with the claim that Christianity is false. For example, suppose there were no historical evidence for the Virgin Birth (this is a counterfactual, since in reality there is historical evidence for it, even if weak relative to the strength of the claim, namely the assertions of the Gospels); such an absence of evidence would fit with the idea that the doctrine is true but hidden, but it would fit even better with the idea that the doctrine is false. Consequently, the evidence would make “the doctrine is true but hidden” more probable relative to “the doctrine is true and not hidden,” but overall the evidence would be likely to make “the doctrine is false” more probable than it was initially before checking the evidence.


Hidden God

Porphyry, arguing against the resurrection of Christ, comments on the appearance to Mary Magdalene:

There is also another argument whereby this corrupt opinion can be refuted. I mean the argument about that Resurrection of His which is such common talk everywhere, as to why Jesus, after His suffering and rising again (according to your story), did not appear to Pilate who punished Him and said He had done nothing worthy of death, or to Herod King of the Jews, or to the High-priest of the Jewish race, or to many men at the same time and to such as were worthy of credit, and more particularly among Romans both in the Senate and among the people. The purpose would be that, by their wonder at “the things concerning Him, they might not pass a vote of death against Him by common consent, which implied the impiety of those who were obedient to Him. But He appeared to Mary Magdalene, a coarse woman who came from some wretched little village, and had once been possessed by seven demons, and with her another utterly obscure Mary, who was herself a peasant woman, and a few other people who were not at all well known. And that, although He said: “Henceforth shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds.” For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them, and no judge would punish them as fabricating monstrous stories. For surely it is neither pleasing to God nor to any sensible man that many should be subjected on His account to punishments of the gravest kind.

If the argument is that Christ should have appeared to rich people rather than to poor people, or to the government rather than to common people, and it seems that this may be Porphyry’s actual intention, his argument is rather weak, especially given things that Christ says in the Gospels about the rich and the poor.

But on the other hand, if one understands his argument to be concerned with the fact that Jesus appeared to his friends and disciples rather than to others, the argument is significantly better, because this is what we would expect in the case of a fraud on the part of the disciples. In fact, there are many situations where most people would assume the existence of fraud with this kind of testimony. For example, Joseph Smith managed to get eleven people to swear that they saw the golden plates on which he supposedly received his revelation,  but most people remain unconvinced by this, since there is little reason to think that his witnesses are unbiased.

Of course, things are more complicated in the case of Christ, since for example we have the testimony of St. Paul, who was originally not a disciple. Nonetheless, the argument is meaningful and should not simply be dismissed.

In fact, a reasonable Christian response to this argument requires a particular idea of Christ’s intentions. Porphyry speaks under the assumption that Christ wanted to convince everyone: “For if He had shown Himself to men of note, all would believe through them.” Whether or not this method is sufficient, it is certainly the case that appearing to enough people and in enough ways would have convinced everyone. For that matter, Christ could have stayed on the earth for two hundred years instead of ascending to heaven, in order to ensure that everyone would believe in him, including Porphyry, if that had been his goal. In other words, the implication is that Porphyry was wrong about Christ’s intentions: Christ did not intend to convince everyone.

Given various things Christ says in the Gospels, this is not an unreasonable interpretation of his intentions. For example, he says,

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Likewise, he suggests that not all are intended to understand:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Isaiah says, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” In a similar way, the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection implies the existence of a hidden truth that is, by design, only made known to some.

People arguing against Christianity might suggest 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,” as Cardinal Ratzinger puts it.

And on the other hand, the Christian might suggest that given this position, things that seemed unfavorable to his position, such as the three issues mentioned in the linked post, are now favorable to it. Since the truth of Christianity is something intentionally hidden, such things are just what we would expect.

But both of these arguments, the Christian and the non-Christian, are wrong.

Sola Me Revisited

Earlier we discussed the idea of sola methe claim of an individual to possess the infallible ability to discern a doctrine to be revealed by God.

Kurt Wise, concluding his contribution to the book In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creationprovides an example of someone making such a claim, at least effectively:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

Basically Wise is making three claims:

(1) God always tells the truth.

(2) Scripture is the Word of God.

(3) Scripture says that the earth is young.

It follows from these three claims that the earth is actually young. Insofar as Wise says that he would not change his mind about this no matter how much evidence was found against it, this implies that he is absolutely certain of all three of these claims. Any evidence against a young earth, in fact, is evidence against the conjunction of these three claims, and Wise is saying that he will never give up this conjunction no matter how much evidence is brought against it.

Trent Horn, in a blog post entitled Response to a Mormon Criticprovides an implicit criticism of this kind of idea when he says, “Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?”

Trent Horn is a convert to Catholicism, so his question can be understood as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did, or at least he is saying that someone who is unwilling to change his mind himself, should not criticize others for not changing their minds, even if they disagree with him.

Gregory Dawes, interviewed by Richard Marshall, provides another example of such a criticism:

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

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

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead. This may sound naïve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so.

Dawes is a former Catholic, and as in the case of Horn, his statement can be taken as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did. According to him you are not taking arguments seriously if you know in advance, like Kurt Wise, that you will never change your mind about certain things.

I would argue that relative to the question of certainty, both Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are basically right, in several different ways, and that Kurt Wise is basically wrong in those ways. I will explain this in more detail in another post.

More or Less Remote From the Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After some discussion, she concludes the post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evidence Still Does Not Change Sides

Our Mormon protagonist, still shaken by his discovery about the book of Abraham, now discovers another fact:

(A) Although Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon from ancient golden plates, there are many passages that evidently borrow from the King James Bible in particular.

Our protagonist considers this for a while and then thinks, (B) “God is just more tolerant of this sort of thing than I realized…”

On my earlier post, Michael Bolin commented:

While this is technically correct, it is worth noting that something akin to the evidence changing sides does happen, due to the practical difficulty with assigning probabilities. Namely, realizing that some fact is true, which in itself lowers the probability of the original hypothesis, may cause one to assign different values to the probability of a bunch of other facts given the hypothesis, such that the net effect after taking those other facts into account is to make the hypothesis more likely than it would have been if one had taken those other facts into account without the original observation.

I responded at the time:

It’s not clear to me what you are saying in practice, and seems to me that such a thing cannot happen without a violation of the laws of probability (this does not necessarily mean it cannot be reasonable, if the meaning is that you realize that your prior probability distribution was simply mistaken in the first place).

This is in fact what is happening when our protagonist concludes that God is more tolerant than he supposed. Fact (A) is evidence against the truth of Mormonism. But when this fact is considered together with the original fact about the book of Abraham, our protagonist concludes that “God is tolerant about false claims about the origin of his revealed texts” is more probable given the truth of Mormonism than he originally supposed. This is a change in his prior probability distribution, and it weakens the evidence against Mormonism found in the two claims about the Book of Abraham and about the Book of Mormon.

If someone in fact adjusted his probability of the truth of Mormonism based on the fact about the Book of Abraham, then discovered (A) and adjusted his probability of (B) by changing his prior, then the probability of Mormonism being true might indeed become somewhat higher than it was simply after the discovery about the book of Abraham.

However, several things should be noted concerning this:

(1) In practice, people have a very hard time admitting that there is any evidence at all against their position. Now if someone believes that the Book of Abraham was in fact translated from an ancient Egyptian manuscript, he would probably realize (if he thought about it), that if this turns out to be false, it would be evidence against Mormonism. Consequently, if he thinks that Mormonism is true, he likely sets a prior where it is nearly impossible for Smith’s claim about the book of Abraham to be false. In other words, he more or less thinks that if the Book of Abraham was not translated from the Egyptian manuscript, Mormonism would be false. But when he realizes that the Book of Abraham was not translated from the manuscript, he does not conclude that Mormonism is false, but rather tries to make the evidence change sides. So in effect he already adjusts his prior, and in fact in an inappropriate way, because even if his original prior was excessively against the possibility of the fact about the Book of Abraham, that fact is objectively evidence against Mormonism, not in favor of it. And when he discovers fact (A), this too is evidence against Mormonism, and he should adjust his probability in this direction, and not in the opposite direction.

(2) If someone actually adjusted his probabilities in the appropriate way after the discovery of the first fact about the Book of Abraham, the discovery of (A) and the conclusion (B) could somewhat increase the probability of the truth of Mormonism over what he supposed it was after the original discovery about the Book of Abraham. However, according to the new prior, both the fact about the Book of Abraham and the fact (A) would still constitute evidence against the truth of Mormonism, and thus the probability of Mormonism would remain less than it would be with the new prior but without the facts concerning the origin of the texts.

(3) Similarly, there is little reason to suppose that the final probability of Mormonism would be greater than the original probability before the change in the prior. Rather, you would have something like this:

  1. Original probability of Mormonism: 95%.
  2. Probability after adjusting for discovery about the book of Abraham: 25%.
  3. Probability after adjusting for fact (A): 10%
  4. Probability after adjusting the prior with conclusion (B): 75%.

Of course these are randomly invented numbers, and in practice a real person does not adjust this much, and his original probability is likely even higher than 95%. Nonetheless it is an illustration of what is likely to happen in terms of the evidence. Even after adjusting the prior, the facts about the origins of the texts simply remain evidence against Mormonism, not evidence for it, and consequently the final probability remains less than the original probability.

The evidence still does not change sides.