Miracles and Anomalies: Or, Your Religion is False

In 2011 there was an apparent observation of neutrinos traveling faster than light. Wikipedia says of this, “Even before the mistake was discovered, the result was considered anomalous because speeds higher than that of light in a vacuum are generally thought to violate special relativity, a cornerstone of the modern understanding of physics for over a century.” In other words, most scientists did not take the result very seriously, even before any specific explanation was found. As I stated here, it is possible to push unreasonably far in this direction, in such a way that one will be reluctant to ever modify one’s current theories. But there is also something reasonable about this attitude.

Alexander Pruss explains why scientists tend to be skeptical of such anomalous results in this post on Bayesianism and anomaly:

One part of the problem of anomaly is this. If a well-established scientific theory seems to predict something contrary to what we observe, we tend to stick to the theory, with barely a change in credence, while being dubious of the auxiliary hypotheses. What, if anything, justifies this procedure?

Here’s my setup. We have a well-established scientific theory T and (conjoined) auxiliary hypotheses A, and T together with A uncontroversially entails the denial of some piece of observational evidence E which we uncontroversially have (“the anomaly”). The auxiliary hypotheses will typically include claims about the experimental setup, the calibration of equipment, the lack of further causal influences, mathematical claims about the derivation of not-E from T and the above, and maybe some final catch-all thesis like the material conditional that if T and all the other auxiliary hypotheses obtain, then E does not obtain.

For simplicity I will suppose that A and T are independent, though of course that simplifying assumption is rarely true.

Here’s a quick and intuitive thought. There is a region of probability space where the conjunction of T and A is false. That area is divided into three sub-regions:

  1. T is true and A is false
  2. T is false and A is true
  3. both are false.

The initial probabilities of the three regions are, respectively, 0.0999, 0.0009999 and 0.0001. We know we are in one of these three regions, and that’s all we now know. Most likely we are in the first one, and the probability that we are in that one given that we are in one of the three is around 0.99. So our credence in T has gone down from three nines (0.999) to two nines (0.99), but it’s still high, so we get to hold on to T.

Still, this answer isn’t optimistic. A move from 0.999 to 0.99 is actually an enormous decrease in confidence.

“This answer isn’t optimistic,” because in the case of the neutrinos, this analysis would imply that scientists should have instantly become ten times more willing to consider the possibility that the theory of special relativity is false. This is surely not what happened.

Pruss therefore presents an alternative calculation:

But there is a much more optimistic thought. Note that the above wasn’t a real Bayesian calculation, just a rough informal intuition. The tip-off is that I said nothing about the conditional probabilities of E on the relevant hypotheses, i.e., the “likelihoods”.

Now setup ensures:

  1. P(E|A ∧ T)=0.

What can we say about the other relevant likelihoods? Well, if some auxiliary hypothesis is false, then E is up for grabs. So, conservatively:

  1. P(E|∼A ∧ T)=0.5
  2. P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)=0.5

But here is something that I think is really, really interesting. I think that in typical cases where T is a well-established scientific theory and A ∧ T entails the negation of E, the probability P(E|A ∧ ∼T) is still low.

The reason is that all the evidence that we have gathered for T even better confirms the hypothesis that T holds to a high degree of approximation in most cases. Thus, even if T is false, the typical predictions of T, assuming they have conservative error bounds, are likely to still be true. Newtonian physics is false, but even conditionally on its being false we take individual predictions of Newtonian physics to have a high probability. Thus, conservatively:

  1. P(E|A ∧ ∼T)=0.1

Very well, let’s put all our assumptions together, including the ones about A and T being independent and the values of P(A) and P(T). Here’s what we get:

  1. P(E|T)=P(E|A ∧ T)P(A|T)+P(E|∼A ∧ T)P(∼A|T)=0.05
  2. P(E|∼T)=P(E|A ∧ ∼T)P(A|∼T)+P(E|∼A ∧ ∼T)P(∼A|∼T) = 0.14.

Plugging this into Bayes’ theorem, we get P(T|E)=0.997. So our credence has crept down, but only a little: from 0.999 to 0.997. This is much more optimistic (and conservative) than the big move from 0.999 to 0.99 that the intuitive calculation predicted.

So, if I am right, at least one of the reasons why anomalies don’t do much damage to scientific theories is that when the scientific theory T is well-confirmed, the anomaly is not only surprising on the theory, but it is surprising on the denial of the theory—because the background includes the data that makes T “well-confirmed” and would make E surprising even if we knew that T was false.

To make the point without the mathematics (which in any case is only used to illustrate the point, since Pruss is choosing the specific values himself), if you have a theory which would make the anomaly probable, that theory would be strongly supported by the anomaly. But we already know that theories like that are false, because otherwise the anomaly would not be an anomaly. It would be normal and common. Thus all of the actually plausible theories still make the anomaly an improbable observation, and therefore these theories are only weakly supported by the observation of the anomaly. The result is that the new observation makes at most a minor difference to your previous opinion.

We can apply this analysis to the discussion of miracles. David Hume, in his discussion of miracles, seems to desire a conclusive proof against them which is unobtainable, and in this respect he is mistaken. But near the end of his discussion, he brings up the specific topic of religion and says that his argument applies to it in a special way:

Upon the whole, then, it appears, that no testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less to a proof; and that, even supposing it amounted to a proof, it would be opposed by another proof; derived from the very nature of the fact, which it would endeavour to establish. It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

The idea seems to be something like this: contrary systems of religion put forth miracles in their support, so the supporting evidence for one religion is more or less balanced by the supporting evidence for the other. Likewise, the evidence is weakened even in itself by people’s propensity to lies and delusion in such matters (some of this discussion was quoted in the earlier post on Hume and miracles). But in addition to the fairly balanced evidence we have experience basically supporting the general idea that the miracles do not happen. This is not outweighed by anything in particular, and so it is the only thing that remains after the other evidence balances itself out of the equation. Hume goes on:

I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January, 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real. You would in vain object to me the difficulty, and almost impossibility of deceiving the world in an affair of such consequence; the wisdom and solid judgment of that renowned queen; with the little or no advantage which she could reap from so poor an artifice: all this might astonish me; but I would still reply, that the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.

But should this miracle be ascribed to any new system of religion; men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind, that this very circumstance would be a full proof of a cheat, and sufficient, with all men of sense, not only to make them reject the fact, but even reject it without farther examination. Though the Being to whom the miracle is ascribed, be, in this case, Almighty, it does not, upon that account, become a whit more probable; since it is impossible for us to know the attributes or actions of such a Being, otherwise than from the experience which we have of his productions, in the usual course of nature. This still reduces us to past observation, and obliges us to compare the instances of the violation of truth in the testimony of men, with those of the violation of the laws of nature by miracles, in order to judge which of them is most likely and probable. As the violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact; this must diminish very much the authority of the former testimony, and make us form a general resolution, never to lend any attention to it, with whatever specious pretence it may be covered.

Notice how “unfair” this seems to religion, so to speak. What is the difference between the eight days of darkness, which Hume would accept, under those conditions, and the resurrection of the queen of England, which he would not? Hume’s reaction to the two situations is more consistent than first appears. Hume would accept the historical accounts about England in the same way that he would accept the accounts about the eight days of darkness. The difference is in how he would explain the accounts. He says of the darkness, “It is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived.” Likewise, he would accept the historical accounts as certain insofar as they say the a burial ceremony took place, the queen was absent from public life, and so on. But he would not accept that the queen was dead and came back to life. Why? The “search for the causes” seems to explain this. It is plausible to Hume that causes of eight days of darkness might be found, but not plausible to him that causes of a resurrection might be found. He hints at this in the words, “The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies,” while in contrast a resurrection would be “so signal a violation of the laws of nature.”

It is clear that Hume excludes certain miracles, such as resurrection, from the possibility of being established by the evidence of testimony. But he makes the additional point that even if he did not exclude them, he would not find it reasonable to establish a “system of religion” on such testimony, given that “violations of truth are more common in the testimony concerning religious miracles, than in that concerning any other matter of fact.”

It is hard to argue with the claim that “violations of truth” are especially common in testimony about miracles. But does any of this justify Hume’s negative attitude to miracles as establishing “systems of religion,” or is this all just prejudice?  There might well be a good deal of prejudice involved here in his opinions. Nonetheless, Alexander Pruss’s discussion of anomaly allows one to formalize Hume’s idea here as actual insight as well.

One way to look at truth in religion is to look at it as a way of life or as membership in a community. And in this way, asking whether miracles can establish a system of religion is just asking whether a person can be moved to a way of life or to join a community through such things. And clearly this is possible, and often happens. But another way to consider truth in religion is to look at a doctrinal system as a set of claims about how the world is. Looked at in this way, we should look at a doctrinal system as presenting a proposed larger context of our place in the world, one that we would be unaware of without the religion. This implies that one should have a prior probability (namely prior to consideration of arguments in its favor) strongly against the system considered as such, for reasons very much like the reasons we should have a prior probability strongly against Ron Conte’s predictions.

We can thus apply Alexander Pruss’s framework. Let us take Mormonism as the “system of religion” in question. Then taken as a set of claims about the world, our initial probability would be that it is very unlikely that the world is set up this way. Then let us take a purported miracle establishing this system: Joseph Smith finds his golden plates. In principle, if this cashed out in a certain way, it could actually establish his system. But it doesn’t cash out that way. We know very little about the plates, the circumstances of their discovery (if there was any), and their actual content. Instead, what we are left with is an anomaly: something unusual happened, and it might be able to be described as “finding golden plates,” but that’s pretty much all we know.

Then we have the theory, T, which has a high prior probability: Mormonism is almost certainly false. We have the observation : Joseph Smith discovered his golden plates (in one sense or another.) And we have the auxiliary hypotheses which imply that he could not have discovered the plates if Mormonism is false. The Bayesian updates in Pruss’s scheme imply that our conclusion is this: Mormonism is almost certainly false, and there is almost certainly an error in the auxiliary hypotheses that imply he could not have discovered them if it were false.

Thus Hume’s attitude is roughly justified: he should not change his opinion about religious systems in any significant way based on testimony about miracles.

To make you feel better, this does not prove that your religion is false. It just nearly proves that. In particular, this does not take into an account an update based on the fact that “many people accept this set of claims.” This is a different fact, and it is not an anomaly. If you update on this fact and end up with a non-trivial probability that your set of claims is true, testimony about miracles might well strengthen this into conviction.

I will respond to one particular objection, however. Some will take this argument to be stubborn and wicked, because it seems to imply that people shouldn’t be “convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And this does in fact follow, more or less. An anomalous occurrence in most cases will have a perfectly ordinary explanation in terms of things that are already a part of our ordinary understanding of the world, without having to add some larger context. For example, suppose you heard your fan (as a piece of furniture, not as a person) talking to you. You might suppose that you were hallucinating. But suppose it turns out that you are definitely not hallucinating. Should you conclude that there is some special source from outside the normal world that is communicating with you? No: the fan scenario can happen, and it turns out to have a perfectly everyday explanation. We might agree with Hume that it would be much more implausible that a resurrection would have an everyday explanation. Nonetheless, even if we end up concluding to the existence of some larger context, and that the miracle has no such everyday explanation, there is no good reason for it to be such and such a specific system of doctrine. Consider again Ron Conte’s predictions for the future. Most likely the things that happen between now and 2040, and even the things that happen in the 2400s, are likely to be perfectly ordinary (although the things in the 2400s might differ from current events in fairly radical ways). But even if they are not, and even if apocalyptic, miraculous occurrences are common in those days, this does not raise the probability of Conte’s specific predictions above any trivial level. In the same way, the anomalous occurrences involved in the accounts of miracles will not lend any significant probability to a religious system.

The objection here is that this seems unfair to God, so to speak. What if God wanted to reveal something to the world? What could he do, besides work miracles? I won’t propose a specific answer to this, because I am not God. But I will illustrate the situation with a little story to show that there is nothing unfair to God about it.

Suppose human beings created an artificial intelligence and raised it in a simulated environment. Wanting things to work themselves out “naturally,” so to speak, because it would be less work, and because it would probably be necessary to the learning process, they institute “natural laws” in the simulated world which are followed in an exceptionless way. Once the AI is “grown up”, so to speak, they decide to start communicating with it. In the AI’s world, this will surely show up as some kind of miracle: something will happen that was utterly unpredictable to it, and which is completely inconsistent with the natural laws as it knew them.

Will the AI be forced by the reasoning of this post to ignore the communication? Well, that depends on what exactly occurs and how. At the end of his post, Pruss discusses situations where anomalous occurrences should change your mind:

Note that this argument works less well if the anomalous case is significantly different from the cases that went into the confirmation of T. In such a case, there might be much less reason to think E won’t occur if T is false. And that means that anomalies are more powerful as evidence against a theory the more distant they are from the situations we explored before when we were confirming T. This, I think, matches our intuitions: We would put almost no weight in someone finding an anomaly in the course of an undergraduate physics lab—not just because an undergraduate student is likely doing it (it could be the professor testing the equipment, though), but because this is ground well-gone over, where we expect the theory’s predictions to hold even if the theory is false. But if new observations of the center of our galaxy don’t fit our theory, that is much more compelling—in a regime so different from many of our previous observations, we might well expect that things would be different if our theory were false.

And this helps with the second half of the problem of anomaly: How do we keep from holding on to T too long in the light of contrary evidence, how do we allow anomalies to have a rightful place in undermining theories? The answer is: To undermine a theory effectively, we need anomalies that occur in situations significantly different from those that have already been explored.

If the AI finds itself in an entirely new situation, e.g. rather than hearing an obscure voice from a fan, it is consistently able to talk to the newly discovered occupant of the world on a regular basis, it will have no trouble realizing that its situation has changed, and no difficulty concluding that it is receiving communication from its author. This does, sort of, give one particular method that could be used to communicate a revelation. But there might well be many others.

Our objector will continue. This is still not fair. Now you are saying that God could give a revelation but that if he did, the world would be very different from the actual world. But what if he wanted to give a revelation in the actual world, without it being any different from the way it is? How could he convince you in that case?

Let me respond with an analogy. What if the sky were actually red like the sky of Mars, but looked blue like it is? What would convince you that it was red? The fact that there is no way to convince you that it is red in our actual situation means you are unfairly prejudiced against the redness of the sky.

In other words, indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced that the sky is red except in situations where it is actually red, and those situations are quite different from our actual situation. And indeed, I am unwilling to be convinced of a revelation except in situations where there is actually a revelation, and those are quite different from our actual situation.

Advertisements

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.

All Call This God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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