Science and Certain Theories of Sean Collins

Sean Collins discusses faith and science:

Since at least the time of Descartes, there has come to be a very widespread tendency to see faith as properly the activity of an individual who stands in opposition to a larger, potentially deceptive, world. Faith so conceived is of a piece with individualist notions about the true and the good. At its extreme, the problematic character of faith thus conceived leads some to suppose it can only be an exercise in irrationality. And that is one very common reason why faith, and religion along with it, comes to be  despised.

What needs to be recovered, far away from that extreme, is consciousness of participation as lying at the foundation of all ontology, but in particular at the foundation of what faith is. Faith is knowledge by participation. But what we still tend to have, instead, is an individualist conception even of knowledge itself.

These misconceptions are receding more and more, though, in one very surprising place, namely contemporary science! (It is characteristic of our psychological hypochondria that they recede for us as long as we don’t pay attention to the fact, and thus worry about it.) Everyone uses the expression, “we now know.” “We now know” that our galaxy is but one among many. “We now know” that the blood circulates, and uses hemoglobin to carry oxygen to cells; we now know that there are more than four elements…. One might expect this expression to be disturbing to many people, on account of the contempt for faith I alluded to above; for what the expression refers to is, in fact, a kind of faith within the realm of science. Yet this faith is too manifestly natural for anyone to find it disturbing.  To find it disturbing, one would have to return to the radical neurotic Cartesian individualism, where you sit in a room by yourself and try to deduce all of reality. Most people aren’t devoid of sense enough to do that.

What is especially interesting is that the project of modern science (scientia, knowledge) has itself become obviously too big to continue under the earlier enlightenment paradigm, where we think we must know everything by doing our own experiments and making our own observations. And nobody worries about that fact (at least not as long as “politics,” in the pejorative sense, hasn’t yet entered the picture). Real people understand that there is no reason to worry. They are perfectly content to have faith: that is, to participate in somebody else’s knowledge. An implicit consciousness of a common good in this case makes the individualist conception of faith vanish, and a far truer conception takes its place. This is what real faith — including religious faith — looks like, and it isn’t as different from knowledge or from “reason” as many tend to think.

This is related to our discussion in this previous post, where we pointed out that scientific knowledge has an essential dependence on the work of others, and is not simply a syllogism from first principles that an individual can work out on his own. In this sense, Collins notes, science necessarily involves a kind of faith in the scientific community, past and present, and scientists themselves are not exempt from the need for this faith.

The implication of this is that religious faith should be looked at in much the same way. Religious faith requires faith in a religious community and in revelation from God, and even those in authority in the community are not exempt from the need for this faith. There is no more reason to view this as problematic or irrational than in the case of science.

James Chastek makes a similar argument:

The science of the scientist is, of itself, just as hidden as the God of the priests and consecrated persons. The great majority of persons have no more direct or distinct experience of God than they have a justified insight into scientific claims, and the way in which they could learn the science for themselves if they only had the time and talent is the same way in which they could become preternaturally holy and achieve the unitive way if they only had the time and talent.  If I, lacking the science, trust your testimony about dark matter or global warming (probably after it’s backed up by anecdotes, a gesture at some data, the social pressure to believe, and my sense that you just sound like a smart guy) then I’m in a cognitive state called faith. Taking a pragmatist approach, we come to know the value of science by its fruits in technology just as we know the value of religion though the holiness of the saints. In good logic, Pinker sees the value that many give to holiness as disordered and mistaken,  but there are all sorts of persons who say the same thing about technology.

The similarity between the title of this post and that of the last is not accidental. Dawkins claims that religious beliefs are similar to beliefs in fairies and werewolves, and his claim is empirically false. Likewise Sean Collins and James Chastek claim that religious beliefs are similar to scientific beliefs, and their claim is empirically false.

As in the case of Dawkins, Collins notes from the beginning this empirical discrepancy. Religious faith is seen as “the activity of an individual who stands in opposition to a larger, potentially deceptive, world,” and consequently it appears irrational to many. “And that is one very common reason why faith, and religion along with it, comes to be  despised.” But note that this does not commonly happen with science, even if in principle one could think in the same way about science, as Chastek points to some critics of technology.

While the empirical differences themselves will have their own causes, we can point to one empirical difference in particular that sufficiently explains the different way that people relate to scientific and religious beliefs.

The principle difference is that people speak of “many religions” in the world in a way in which they definitely do not speak of “many sciences.” If we talk of several sciences, we refer to branches of science, and the corresponding speech about religion would be branches of theology. But “many religions” refers to Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and so on, which contain entirely distinct bodies of theology which are strongly opposed to one another. There is no analog in the case of science. We might be able to find scientific disagreements and even “heresies” like the denial of global warming, but we do not find whole bodies of scientific doctrine about the world which explain the world as a whole and are strongly opposed to one another.

There are many other empirical differences that result from this one difference. People leave their religion and join another, or they give up religion entirely, but you never see people leave their science and join another, or give up science entirely, in the sense of abandoning all scientific beliefs about the world.

This one difference sufficiently explains the suspicion Collins notes regarding religious belief. The size of the discrepancies between religious beliefs implies that many of them are wildly far from reality. And even the religious beliefs that a person might accept are frequently “rather implausible from a relatively neutral point of view,” as Rod Dreher notes. In the case of scientific beliefs, we do find some that are somewhat implausible from a relatively neutral point of view, but we do not find the kind of discrepancy which would force us to say that any of them are wildly far from reality.

A prediction that would follow from my account here would be this: if there were only one religion, in the way that there is only one science, people would not view religion with suspicion, and religious faith would actually be seen as very like scientific faith, basically in the way asserted by Sean Collins.

While we cannot test this prediction directly, consider the following text from St. Augustine:

1. I must express my satisfaction, and congratulations, and admiration, my son Boniface, in that, amid all the cares of wars and arms, you are eagerly anxious to know concerning the things that are of God. From hence it is clear that in you it is actually a part of your military valor to serve in truth the faith which is in Christ. To place, therefore, briefly before your Grace the difference between the errors of the Arians and the Donatists, the Arians say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are different in substance; whereas the Donatists do not say this, but acknowledge the unity of substance in the Trinity. And if some even of them have said that the Son was inferior to the Father, yet they have not denied that He is of the same substance; while the greater part of them declare that they hold entirely the same belief regarding the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost as is held by the Catholic Church. Nor is this the actual question in dispute with them; but they carry on their unhappy strife solely on the question of communion, and in the perversity of their error maintain rebellious hostility against the unity of Christ. But sometimes, as we have heard, some of them, wishing to conciliate the Goths, since they see that they are not without a certain amount of power, profess to entertain the same belief as they. But they are refuted by the authority of their own leaders; for Donatus himself, of whose party they boast themselves to be, is never said to have held this belief.

2. Let not, however, things like these disturb you, my beloved son. For it is foretold to us that there must needs be heresies and stumbling-blocks, that we may be instructed among our enemies; and that so both our faith and our love may be the more approved—our faith, namely, that we should not be deceived by them; and our love, that we should take the utmost pains we can to correct the erring ones themselves; not only watching that they should do no injury to the weak, and that they should be delivered from their wicked error, but also praying for them, that God would open their understanding, and that they might comprehend the Scriptures. For in the sacred books, where the Lord Christ is made manifest, there is also His Church declared; but they, with wondrous blindness, while they would know nothing of Christ Himself save what is revealed in the Scriptures, yet form their notion of His Church from the vanity of human falsehood, instead of learning what it is on the authority of the sacred books.

3. They recognize Christ together with us in that which is written, “They pierced my hands and my feet. They can tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture;” and yet they refuse to recognize the Church in that which follows shortly after: “All the ends of the world shall remember, and turn unto the Lord; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and He is the Governor among the nations.” They recognize Christ together with us in that which is written, “The Lord has said unto me, You are my Son, this day have I begotten You;” and they will not recognize the Church in that which follows: “Ask of me, and I shall give You the heathen for Your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Your possession.” They recognize Christ together with us in that which the Lord Himself says in the gospel, “Thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day;” and they will not recognize the Church in that which follows: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Luke 24:46-47 And the testimonies in the sacred books are without number, all of which it has not been necessary for me to crowd together into this book. And in all of them, as the Lord Christ is made manifest, whether in accordance with His Godhead, in which He is equal to the Father, so that, “In the beginning was the Word, and; the Word was with God, and the Word was God;” or according to the humility of the flesh which He took upon Him, whereby “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us;” so is His Church made manifest, not in Africa alone, as they most impudently venture in the madness of their vanity to assert, but spread abroad throughout the world.

4. For they prefer to the testimonies of Holy Writ their own contentions, because, in the case of Cæcilianus, formerly a bishop of the Church of Carthage, against whom they brought charges which they were and are unable to substantiate, they separated themselves from the Catholic Church—that is, from the unity of all nations. Although, even if the charges had been true which were brought by them against Cæcilianus, and could at length be proved to us, yet, though we might pronounce an anathema upon him even in the grave, we are still bound not for the sake of any man to leave the Church, which rests for its foundation on divine witness, and is not the figment of litigious opinions, seeing that it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. For we cannot allow that if Cæcilianus had erred,— a supposition which I make without prejudice to his integrity—Christ should therefore have forfeited His inheritance. It is easy for a man to believe of his fellow-men either what is true or what is false; but it marks abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world on account of charges alleged against a man, of which you cannot establish the truth in the face of the world.

5. Whether Cæcilianus was ordained by men who had delivered up the sacred books, I do not know. I did not see it, I heard it only from his enemies. It is not declared to me in the law of God, or in the utterances of the prophets, or in the holy poetry of the Psalms, or in the writings of any one of Christ’s apostles, or in the eloquence of Christ Himself. But the evidence of all the several scriptures with one accord proclaims the Church spread abroad throughout the world, with which the faction of Donatus does not hold communion. The law of God declared, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Genesis 26:4 The Lord said by the mouth of His prophet, “From the rising of the sun, even unto the going down of the same, a pure sacrifice shall be offered unto my name: for my name shall be great among the heathen.” Malachi 1:11 The Lord said through the Psalmist, “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” The Lord said by His apostle, “The gospel has come unto you, as it is in all the world, and brings forth fruit.” Colossians 1:6 The Son of God said with His own mouth, “You shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and even unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Acts 1:8 Cæcilianus, the bishop of the Church of Carthage, is accused with the contentiousness of men; the Church of Christ, established among all nations, is recommended by the voice of God. Mere piety, truth, and love forbid us to receive against Cæcilianus the testimony of men whom we do not find in the Church, which has the testimony of God; for those who do not follow the testimony of God have forfeited the weight which otherwise would attach to their testimony as men.

Note the source of St. Augustine’s confidence. It is the “unity of the whole world.” It is “abandoned impudence to desire to condemn the communion of the whole world.” The Catholic Church is “established among all nations,” and this is reason to accept it instead of the doctrines of the heretics.

The comparison between religious beliefs and scientific beliefs applies much better to the time of St. Augustine. Even St. Augustine would know that alternate religions exist, but in a similar sense there might have appeared to be potentially many sciences, insofar as science is not at the time a unified body of ideas attempting to explain the world. Thales held that all things are derived from water, while others came out in favor of air or fire.

Nonetheless, even at the time of St. Augustine, there are seeds of the difference. Unknown to St. Augustine, native Americans of the time were certainly practicing entirely different religions. And while I made the comparison between religious heresy and dissent on certain scientific questions above, these in practice have their own differences. Religious heresy of itself contains a seed of schism, and thus the possibility of establishing a new religion. Scientific disagreement even of the kind that might be compared with “heresy,” never leads to the development of a new set of scientific doctrines about the world that can be considered an alternative science.

In contrast, if even religious heresy had not existed, St. Augustine would be entirely right simply to point to the consent of the world. Aristotle frequently points to the agreement of all men as one of the best signs of truth, for example here:

And about all these matters the endeavor must be made to seek to convince by means of rational arguments, using observed facts as evidences and examples. For the best thing would be if all mankind were seen to be in agreement with the views that will be stated, but failing that, at any rate that all should agree in some way. And this they will do if led to change their ground, for everyone has something relative to contribute to the truth, and we must start from this to give a sort of proof about our views; for from statements that are true but not clearly expressed, as we advance, clearness will also be attained, if at every stage we adopt more scientific positions in exchange for the customary confused statements.

And indeed, if there were in this way one religion with which all were in agreement, it is not merely that they would agree in fact, since this is posited, but the agreement of each would have an extremely reasonable foundation. In this situation, it would be quite reasonable to speak of religious faith and scientific faith as roughly equivalent.

In the real world, however, religious beliefs are neither like beliefs in fairies and unicorns, nor like scientific beliefs.

But as Aristotle says, “everyone has something relative to contribute to the truth,” and just as we saw some true elements in Dawkins’s point in the previous post, so there is some truth to the comparisons made by Collins and Chastek. This is in fact part of the reason why Dawkins’s basic point is mistaken. He fails to consider religious belief as a way of participating in a community, and thus does not see a difference from beliefs in werewolves and the like.

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.

Settled Issues

In chapter 5 of his book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science, E. T. Jaynes discusses ESP:

I. J. Good (1950) has shown how we can use probability theory backwards to measure our own strengths of belief about propositions. For example, how strongly do you believe in extrasensory perception?

What probability would you assign to the hypothesis that Mr Smith has perfect extrasensory perception? More specifically, that he can guess right every time which number you have written down. To say zero is too dogmatic. According to our theory, this means that we are never going to allow the robot’s mind to be changed by any amount of evidence, and we don’t really want that. But where is our strength of belief in a proposition like this?

Our brains work pretty much the way this robot works, but we have an intuitive feeling for plausibility only when it’s not too far from 0 db. We get fairly definite feelings that something is more than likely to be so or less than likely to be so. So the trick is to imagine an experiment. How much evidence would it take to bring your state of belief up to the place where you felt very perplexed and unsure about it? Not to the place where you believed it – that would overshoot the mark, and again we’d lose our resolving power. How much evidence would it take to bring you just up to the point where you were beginning to consider the possibility seriously?

So, we consider Mr Smith, who says he has extrasensory perception (ESP), and we will write down some numbers from one to ten on a piece of paper and ask him to guess which numbers we’ve written down. We’ll take the usual precautions to make sure against other ways of finding out. If he guesses the first number correctly, of course we will all say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I don’t believe you have ESP’. And if he guesses two numbers correctly, we’ll still say ‘you’re a very lucky person, but I still don’t believe you have ESP’. By the time he’s guessed four numbers correctly – well, I still wouldn’t believe it. So my state of belief is certainly lower than −40 db.

How many numbers would he have to guess correctly before you would really seriously consider the hypothesis that he has extrasensory perception? In my own case, I think somewhere around ten. My personal state of belief is, therefore, about −100 db. You could talk me into a ±10 db change, and perhaps as much as ±30 db, but not much more than that.

The idea is that after Mr. Smith guesses 7 to 13 numbers correctly (when by chance he should have a probability of 10% of guessing each one correctly), Jaynes will begin to think it reasonably likely that he has ESP. He notes that this is his subjective opinion, saying, “In my own case,” and “My personal state of belief.”

However, Jaynes follows this up by stating that if this happened in real life, he would not be convinced:

After further thought, we see that, although this result is correct, it is far from the whole story. In fact, if he guessed 1000 numbers correctly, I still would not believe that he has ESP, for an extension of the same reason that we noted in Chapter 4 when we first encountered the phenomenon of resurrection of dead hypotheses. An hypothesis A that starts out down at −100 db can hardly ever come to be believed, whatever the data, because there are almost sure to be alternative hypotheses (B1, B2,…) above it, perhaps down at −60 db. Then, when we obtain astonishing data that might have resurrected A, the alternatives will be resurrected instead.

In other words, Jaynes is saying, “This happened by chance,” and “Mr. Smith has ESP” are not the only possibilities. For example, it is possible that Mr. Smith has invented a remote MRI device, which he has trained to distinguish people’s thoughts about numbers, and he is receiving data on the numbers picked by means of an earbud. If the prior probability of this is higher than the prior probability that Mr. Smith has ESP, then Jaynes will begin to think this is a reasonable hypothesis, rather than coming to accept ESP.

This does not imply that Jaynes is infinitely confident that Mr. Smith does not have ESP, and in fact it does not invalidate his original estimate:

Now let us return to that original device of I. J. Good, which started this train of thought. After all this analysis, why do we still hold that naive first answer of −100 db for my prior probability for ESP, as recorded above, to be correct? Because Jack Good’s imaginary device can be applied to whatever state of knowledge we choose to imagine; it need not be the real one. If I knew that true ESP and pure chance were the only possibilities, then the device would apply and my assignment of −100 db would hold. But, knowing that there are other possibilities in the real world does not change my state of belief about ESP; so the figure of −100 db still holds.

He would begin to be convinced after about 10 numbers if he knew for a fact that chance and ESP were the only possibilities, and thus this is a good representation of how certain he is subjectively.

The fact of other possibilities also does not mean that it is impossible for Jaynes to be convinced, even in the real world, that some individual has ESP. But it does mean that this can happen only with great difficulty: essentially, he must be convinced that the other possibilities are even less likely than ESP. As Jaynes says,

Indeed, the very evidence which the ESP’ers throw at us to convince us, has the opposite effect on our state of belief; issuing reports of sensational data defeats its own purpose. For if the prior probability for deception is greater than that of ESP, then the more improbable the alleged data are on the null hypothesis of no deception and no ESP, the more strongly we are led to believe, not in ESP, but in deception. For this reason, the advocates of ESP (or any other marvel) will never succeed in persuading scientists that their phenomenon is real, until they learn how to eliminate the possibility of deception in the mind of the reader. As (5.15) shows, the reader’s total prior probability for deception by all mechanisms must be pushed down below that of ESP.

This is related to the grain of truth in Hume’s account of miracles. Hume’s basic point, that an account of a miracle could never be credible, is mistaken. But he is correct to say that the account would not be credible unless “these witnesses are mistaken or lying” has a lower prior probability than the prior probability of the miracle actually happening. His mistake is to suppose that this cannot happen in principle.

Something like this also happens with ordinary things that we are extremely sure about. For example, take your belief that the American War of Independence happened before the Civil War. You can imagine coming upon evidence that the Civil War happened first. Thus for example suppose you found a book by a historian arguing for this thesis. This would be evidence that the Civil War came first. But it would be very unpersuasive, and would change your mind little if at all, because the prior probability of “this is a work of fiction,” or indeed of “this a silly book arguing a silly thesis for personal reasons” is higher.

We could call this a “settled issue,” at least from your point of view (and in this case from the point of view of pretty much everyone). Not only do you believe that the War of Independence came first; it would be very difficult to persuade you otherwise, even if there were real evidence against your position, and this is not because you are being unreasonable. In fact, it would be unreasonable to be moved significantly by the evidence of that book arguing the priority of the Civil War.

Is it possible in principle to persuade you to change your mind? Yes. In principle this could happen bit by bit, by an accumulation of small pieces of evidence. You might read that book, and then learn that the author is a famous historian, and that he is completely serious (presumably he became famous before writing the book; otherwise he would instead be infamous.) And then you might find other items in favor of this theory, and find refutations of the apparently more likely explanations.

But in practice such a process is extremely unlikely. The most likely way you could change your mind about this would be by way of one large change. For example, you might wake up in a hospital tomorrow and be told that you had been suffering from a rare form of amnesia which does not remove a person’s past memories, but changes them into something different. You ask about the Civil War, and are told that everyone agrees that it happened before the War of Independence. People can easily give you dozens of books on the topic; you search online on the matter, and everything on the internet takes for granted that the Civil War came first. Likewise, everyone you talk to simply takes this for granted.

The reason that the “one big change” process is more likely than the “accumulation of small evidences” process is this: if we want to know what should persuade you that the Civil War came first, we are basically asking what the world would have to be like in order for it to be actually true that the Civil War came first. In such a world, your current belief is false. And in such a world it is simply much more likely that you have made one big mistake which resulted in your false belief about the Civil War, than that you have made lots of little mistakes which led to it.


Neither Will They Believe if Someone Rises From the Dead

Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

It is ordinarily understood that Abraham is blaming the men for refusing to believe Moses and the prophets, and indeed, for refusing no matter how strong the reasons given for believing them.

While one should refrain from judging people subjectively, it seems reasonable to think that such an absolute refusal is morally blameworthy. In this sense, Hume’s refusal to accept the fact of a miracle on any testimony whatsoever is morally blameworthy. But this is not limited to people’s rejection of religious beliefs or testimony in favor of them. In a similar way, without remarking on his subjective situation, Kurt Wise’s refusal to accept the fact of evolution, no matter how much it is supported by evidence, may be morally blameworthy.

But Abraham’s statement in the parable may be true in a more general way, one which is not relevant to praise or blame. It can be understood as a general statement about the relationship between testimony and external support such as miracles. If someone is a credible witness, a miracle may support his testimony. But if someone is not a credible witness, he will not suddenly become credible because a miracle happens.

In May 1990, Bishop Pavao Zanic published a statement, “The Truth about Medjugorje” (text here, pp. 45-63). This text contains the following:

16. The “seer” Ivan Dragicevic. Regarding the “great sign”, Vicka mentions this 13 times in the diaries, it is mentioned 14 times in the Parish chronicle, 52 times on the cassettes, and on numerous occasions in talks with the bishop. In the spring of 1982, I asked the “seers” to write everything they knew about the sign without making the “secret” public. The way I suggested they do it was to write down information on paper in duplicate. Then this would be sealed in an envelope and one copy would remain with them, and one with the bishop. Then, when the “sign” occurs, we would open the envelopes and see whether or not the “sign” was predicted. Father Tomislav Vlasic, pastor of Medjugorje at the time, told the “seers” to say that Our Lady had told them not to write anything down for anybody, and so they did not. Ivan Dragicevic was in the Franciscan minor seminary at Visoko, Bosnia at that time and he wasn’t informed of this on time. Two members of the first commission, Dr. M. Zovkic and Dr. Z. Puljic (now bishop of Dubrovnik), went to visit Ivan in Visoko. They gave him a sheet of paper which was somewhat greenish in colour with questions typed out on it. Ivan wrote down the content of the “sign”, dated the document and signed it in their presence without a word or any sign of fear. A few years later, Father Laurentin wrote that Ivan told him personally that he wrote absolutely nothing down on that sheet of paper and that he tricked the two members of the commission. On 7 March 1985, three members of the commission went to ask Ivan if what Laurentin writes is true. Ivan said it was true, and that they could freely go ahead and open the envelope in the chancery office because in it they will only find a white sheet of paper. They came back to Mostar where the commission was having a meeting and before all the members, they opened the envelope. In the envelope on a greenish sheet of paper they found written the content of the sign:

Our Lady said that she would leave a sign. The content of this sign I reveal to your trust. The sign is that there will be a great shrine in Medjugorje in honour of my apparitions, a shrine to my image. When will this occur? The sign will occur in June. Dated: 9 May 1982. Seer: Ivan Dragicevic.

“There will be a great shrine” is intended to mean that one will be miraculously created, without being built by human beings. And although in principle it is possible to take “the sign will occur in June” ambiguously, namely that it will occur in June of an unknown year, it is plain enough that Ivan was writing about June 1982.

Needless to say, this did not happen. And the consequence is that Ivan Dragicevic is not a trustworthy witness to the truth. He is not trustworthy because of the false claim that there would be such a sign, and he is not trustworthy because of the false claim that he wrote nothing on the paper.

And the fact that he is not trustworthy will not be changed simply by external support. His testimony is not credible. And it remains that way even if rosaries turn to gold, and would remain that way even if someone were to rise from the dead.


Hume’s Error on Miracles

After his comparison with the idea of the Real Presence, Hume continues by saying that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence for them:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors. One, who in our climate, should expect better weather in any week of June than in one of December, would reason justly, and conformably to experience; but it is certain, that he may happen, in the event, to find himself mistaken. However, we may observe, that, in such a case, he would have no cause to complain of experience; because it commonly informs us beforehand of the uncertainty, by that contrariety of events, which we may learn from a diligent observation. All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. Some events are found, in all countries and all ages, to have been constantly conjoined together: Others are found to have been more variable, and sometimes to disappoint our expectations; so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

While Hume is right to say that convictions should in some way be proportionate to the evidence for them, we can already see here the cause of a serious error. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Hume does not have a developed mathematical theory of probability. Hence his talk of how one should “deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.” If one takes this literally, this would suggest that something with no experiments supporting it has a force of 0; something with 35 experiments supporting it and nothing against has a force of 35; something with 40 experiments supporting it and 5 against has the same force; and so on. All of this, of course, is evidently absurd.

He then brings up the example of the testimony of witnesses:

To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses. It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other. Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree; had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.
And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable. There are a number of circumstances to be taken into consideration in all judgements of this kind; and the ultimate standard, by which we determine all disputes, that may arise concerning them, is always derived from experience and observation. Where this experience is not entirely uniform on any side, it is attended with an unavoidable contrariety in our judgements, and with the same opposition and mutual destruction of argument as in every other kind of evidence. We frequently hesitate concerning the reports of others. We balance the opposite circumstances, which cause any doubt or uncertainty; and when we discover a superiority on any side, we incline to it; but still with a diminution of assurance, in proportion to the force of its antagonist.
This contrariety of evidence, in the present case, may be derived from several different causes; from the opposition of contrary testimony; from the character or number of the witnesses; from the manner of their delivering their testimony; or from the union of all these circumstances. We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact, when the witnesses contradict each other; when they are but few, or of a doubtful character; when they have an interest in what they affirm; when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or on the contrary, with too violent asseverations. There are many other particulars of the same kind, which may diminish or destroy the force of any argument, derived from human testimony.
Suppose, for instance, that the fact, which the testimony endeavours to establish, partakes of the extraordinary and the marvellous; in that case, the evidence, resulting from the testimony, admits of a diminution, greater or less, in proportion as the fact is more or less unusual. The reason why we place any credit in witnesses and historians, is not derived from any connexion, which we perceive à priori, between testimony and reality, but because we are accustomed to find a conformity between them. But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains. The very same principle of experience, which gives us a certain degree of assurance in the testimony of witnesses, gives us also, in this case, another degree of assurance against the fact, which they endeavour to establish; from which contradiction there necessarily arises a counterpoize, and mutual destruction of belief and authority.
I should not believe such a story were it told me by Cato, was a proverbial saying in Rome, even during the lifetime of that philosophical patriot. The incredibility of a fact, it was allowed, might invalidate so great an authority.
The Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost, reasoned justly; and it naturally required very strong testimony to engage his assent to facts, that arose from a state of nature, with which he was unacquainted, and which bore so little analogy to those events, of which he had had constant and uniform experience. Though they were not contrary to his experience, they were not conformable to it.

While we might disagree that someone would be reasonable in refusing to accept testimony concerning the effects of frost, Hume’s general points here are fairly reasonable.

But when he attempts to apply to this miracles, he basically attempts to reason from the invalid mathematical points in the previous text:

But in order to increase the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvellous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

There are various ways to read this, but each way leads to problems. Hume has told himself that he believes that he has found a conclusive proof that accounts of miracles should never be accepted; and this implies that he must be saying that his condition, that the testimony should “be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish,” can never be satisfied.

But there is no reasonable understanding where this condition can never be satisfied. Hume seems to be equating “more miraculous” with “less probable,” but there is no degree of probability that could not be established by witnesses in principle. Even if each witness has only a small chance of telling the truth, multiple independent witnesses could in principle establish any degree of probability whatsoever.

The basic problem here seems to be Hume’s mathematically incorrect understanding of probability. If something has never been seen to happen, he says, this is a full proof that it cannot happen. Thus he seems to imply that there is a 0% chance of it happening. But this is evidently unreasonable. In reality, of course, we often see particular things happen which never happened before. And similarly, it is simply not true that a miracle is only called a miracle because it “has never been observed in any age or country.” There have been many reports, in many ages and many countries, of dead people coming to life again. So the only way Hume could say that a dead person coming to life is a miracle in this sense, is by assuming that all of these reports are false. This is simply to assume what he is trying to prove, and in any case we think that resurrection is a miracle whether or not these reports are true. In other words, to say that resurrection is a miracle is not to say that these reports are false, but that if they are true, they are reports of miracles.

Taken in another way, Hume seems to be saying, “A miracle requires a suspension of natural laws. But false testimony does not. Therefore if we have the choice of believing that there was a miracle or of believing that there was false testimony, we should always choose to believe that there was false testimony.” The problem is that, again, if you evaluate this in terms of probabilities, the suspension of natural laws might well be more probable than a particular possibility which does not suspend natural laws. If someone predicts the result of a coin flip 100,000 times in a row, it does not violate natural laws to think that this happened by chance, with a fair coin. But it is much more probable that natural laws were violated, than that this happened by chance with a fair coin.

While it would only relate to Hume personally, we might also note that according to Hume, induction cannot even establish a probability, let alone a necessity.  So according to his position, the experience of dead people remaining dead does not make it improbable that one would rise, let alone excluding it as impossible.

Hume himself seems to sense that there is something wrong with his position, even if he cannot quite work out what it is, again probably on account of the lack of a mathematical theory of probability. Consequently he adds a number of arguments:

For first, there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves; of such undoubted integrity, as to place them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others; of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind, as to have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in any falsehood; and at the same time, attesting facts performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable: all which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance in the testimony of men.
Secondly. We may observe in human nature a principle which, if strictly examined, will be found to diminish extremely the assurance, which we might, from human testimony, have in any kind of prodigy. The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resembles those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.
With what greediness are the miraculous accounts of travellers received, their descriptions of sea and land monsters, their relations of wonderful adventures, strange men, and uncouth manners? But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority. A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgement to canvass his evidence: what judgement they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations, their credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers their credulity.
Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding. Happily, this pitch is seldom attains. But what a Tully or a Demosthenes could scarcely effect over a Roman or Athenian audience, every Capuchin, every itinerant or stationary teacher can perform over the generality of mankind, and in a higher degree, by touching such gross and vulgar passions.
The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvellous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events. For instance: There is no kind of report which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence. Do not the same passions, and others still stronger, incline the generality of mankind to believe and report, with the greatest vehemence and assurance, all religious miracles?
Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions. When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvellous, and that, though this inclination may at intervals receive a check from sense and learning, it can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature.
It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days. But it is nothing strange, I hope, that men should lie in all ages. You must surely have seen instances enough of that frailty. You have yourself heard many such marvellous relations started, which, being treated with scorn by all the wise and judicious, have at last been abandoned even by the vulgar. Be assured, that those renowned lies, which have spread and flourished to such a monstrous height, arose from like beginnings; but being sown in a more proper soil, shot up at last into prodigies almost equal to those which they relate.

Hume is making some reasonable points here. But note that all of these things are contingent. They could have been otherwise in general, and they might well be otherwise in particular cases, even actual ones. Consequently they cannot possibly amount to a full proof that miraculous accounts should not be accepted. The fact that Hume feels the need to point to these contingent facts shows that at some level he is aware of the fact that his argument is not conclusive, although he wishes it to be.

In the end, Hume’s argument does not establish anything, but only expresses his own incredulity, as in this example:

There is also a memorable story related by Cardinal de Retz, which may well deserve our consideration. When that intriguing politician fled into Spain, to avoid the persecution of his enemies, he passed through Saragossa, the capital of Arragon, where he was shewn, in the cathedral, a man, who had served seven years as a doorkeeper, and was well known to every body in town, that had ever paid his devotions at that church. He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs. This miracle was vouched by all the canons of the church; and the whole company in town were appealed to for a confirmation of the fact; whom the cardinal found, by their zealous devotion, to be thorough believers of the miracle. Here the relater was also contemporary to the supposed prodigy, of an incredulous and libertine character, as well as of great genius; the miracle of so singular a nature as could scarcely admit of a counterfeit, and the witnesses very numerous, and all of them, in a manner, spectators of the fact, to which they gave their testimony. And what adds mightily to the force of the evidence, and may double our surprise on this occasion, is, that the cardinal himself, who relates the story, seems not to give any credit to it, and consequently cannot be suspected of any concurrence in the holy fraud. He considered justly, that it was not requisite, in order to reject a fact of this nature, to be able accurately to disprove the testimony, and to trace its falsehood, through all the circumstances of knavery and credulity which produced it. He knew, that, as this was commonly altogether impossible at any small distance of time and place; so was it extremely difficult, even where one was immediately present, by reason of the bigotry, ignorance, cunning, and roguery of a great part of mankind. He therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.

This is a distorted account of the miracle of Calanda. Ironically, Hume’s position is actually supported to some extent by the errors contained in his own account of the miracle: we cannot “trace its falsehood,” in the sense that we cannot determine whether the account has been distorted by Hume himself, by the Cardinal, by the residents of Zaragoza, or by others, or some combination of these, but it is easy enough to determine the fact that it has been so distorted. Nevertheless, Hume is not proving anything here, but simply asserting that he would not believe in a miracle no matter how good the testimony brought in its favor.

This is not a reasonable attitude, but sheer stubbornness.

Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.

Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

Marcello Truzzi states in an article On the Extraordinary: An Attempt At Clarification“An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” This was later restated by Carl Sagan as, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is frequently used to argue against things such as “gods, ghosts, the paranormal, and UFOs.”

However, this kind of argument, at least as it is usually made, neglects to take into account the fact that claims themselves are already evidence.

Here is one example: while writing this article, I used an online random number generator to pick a random integer between one and a billion inclusive. The number was 422,819,208.

Suppose we evaluate my claim with the standard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and neglect to consider the evidence contained within the claim itself. In this case, given that I did in fact pick a number in the manner stated, the probability that the number would be 422,819,208 is one in a billion. So readers should respond, “Either he didn’t pick the number in the manner stated, or the number was not 422,819,208. The probability that both of those were true is one in a billion. I simply don’t believe him.”

There is obviously a problem here, since in fact I did pick the number in the way stated, and that was actually the number. And the problem is precisely leaving out of consideration the evidence contained within the claim itself. Given that I make a claim that I picked a random number between one and a billion, the probability that I would claim 422,819,208 in particular is approximately one in a billion. So when you see me claim that I picked that number, you are seeing evidence (namely the fact that I am making the claim) which is very unlikely in itself. The fact that I made that claim is much more likely, however, if I actually picked that number, rather than some other number. Thus the very fact that I made the claim is strong evidence that I did pick the number 422,819,208 rather than some other number.

In this sense, extraordinary claims are already extraordinary evidence, and thus do not require some special justification.

However, we can consider another case, a hypothetical one. Suppose that in the above paragraphs, instead of the number 422,819,208, I had used the number 500,000,000, claiming that this was in fact the number that I got from the random number generator.

In that case you might have found the argument much less credible. Why?

Assuming that I did in fact pick the number randomly, the probability of picking 422,819,208 is one in a billion. And again, assuming that I did in fact pick the number randomly, the probability of picking 500,000,000 is one in a billion. So no difference here.

But both of those assume that I did pick the number randomly. And if I did not, the probabilities would not be the same. Instead, the fact that simpler things are more probable would come into play. At least with the language and notation that we are actually using, the number 500,000,000 is much simpler than the number 422,819,208. Consequently, assuming that I picked a number non-randomly and then told you about it,  is significantly more probable than one in a billion that I would pick the number 500,000,000, and thus less probable than one in a billion that I would pick 422,819,208 (this is why I said above that the probability of the claim was only approximately one in a billion; because in fact it is even less than that.)

For that reason, if I had actually claimed to have picked 500,000,000, you might well have concluded that the most reasonable explanation of the facts was that I did not actually use the random number generator, or that it had malfunctioned, rather than that the number was actually picked randomly.

This is relevant to the kinds of things where the postulate that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is normally used. Consider the claim, “I was down in the graveyard at midnight last night and saw a ghost there.”

How often have you personally seen a ghost? Probably never, and even if you have, surely not many times. And if so, seeing a ghost is not exactly an everyday occurrence. Considered in itself, therefore, this is an improbable occurrence, and if we evaluated the claim without considering the evidence included within the claim itself, we would simply assume the account is mistaken.

However, part of the reason that we know that seeing ghosts is not a common event is that people do not often make such claims. Apparently 18% of Americans say that they have seen a ghost at one time or another. But this still means that 82% of Americans have never seen one, and even most of the 18% presumably do not mean to say that it has happened often. So this would still leave seeing ghosts as a pretty rare event. Consider how it would be if 99.5% of people said they had seen ghosts, but you personally had never seen one. Instead of thinking that seeing ghosts is rare, you would likely think that you were just unlucky (or lucky, as the case may be.)

Instead of this situation, however, seeing ghosts is rare, and claiming to see ghosts is also rare. This implies that the claim to have seen a ghost is already extraordinary evidence that a person in fact saw a ghost, just as my claiming to have picked 422,819,208 was extraordinary evidence that I actually picked that number.

Nonetheless, there is a difference between the case of the ghost and the case of the number between one and a billion. We already know that there are exactly one billion numbers between one and a billion inclusive. So given that I pick a number within this range, the probability of each number must be on average one in a billion. If it is more probable that I would pick certain numbers, such as 500,000,000, it must be less probable that I would pick others, such as 422,819,208. We don’t have an equivalent situation with the case of the ghost, because we don’t know in advance how often people actually see ghosts. Even if we can find an exact measure of how often people claim to see ghosts, that will not tell us how often people lie or are mistaken about it. Thus although we can say that claiming to see a ghost is good evidence of someone actually having seen a ghost, we don’t know in advance whether or not the evidence is good enough. It is “extraordinary evidence,” but is it extraordinary enough? Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

That remains undetermined, at least by the considerations which we have given here. But unless you have good reasons to suspect that seeing ghosts is significantly more rare than claiming to see a ghost, it is misguided to dismiss such claims as requiring some special evidence apart from the claim itself.