Wishful Thinking about Wishful Thinking

Cameron Harwick discusses an apparent relationship between “New Atheism” and group selection:

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

After some discussion of the scientific issue, Harwick explains the relationship he sees between these two questions:

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

To admit group selection, for Pinker, is to admit the genuineness of human altruism. Barring some very strange argument, to admit the genuineness of human altruism is to admit the adaptiveness of genuine altruism and broad self-sacrifice. And to admit the adaptiveness of broad self-sacrifice is to admit the adaptiveness of those human institutions that coordinate and reinforce it – namely, religion!

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?

As another example of the tendency Cameron Harwick is discussing, we can consider this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary “just-so stories” got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

It does not take much imagination to see that religion could have “evolved because it bound tribes closer together” without group selection in a technical sense having anything to do with this process. But I will not belabor this point, since Eliezer’s own answer regarding the origin of religion does not exactly keep his own feelings hidden:

So why religion, then?

Well, it might just be a side effect of our ability to do things like model other minds, which enables us to conceive of disembodied minds.  Faith, as an emotion, might just be co-opted hope.

But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don’t see why it’s even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.

Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago.  Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands.  Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock.

Conversely, Huckabee just won Iowa’s nomination for tribal-chieftain.

Why would you need to go anywhere near the accursèd territory of group selectionism in order to provide an evolutionary explanation for religious faith?  Aren’t the individual selection pressures obvious?

I don’t know whether to suppose that (1) people are mapping the question onto the “clash of civilizations” issue in current affairs, (2) people want to make religion out to have some kind of nicey-nice group benefit (though exterminating other tribes isn’t very nice), or (3) when people get evolutionary hypotheses wrong, they just naturally tend to get it wrong by postulating group selection.

Let me give my own extremely credible just-so story: Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote this not fundamentally to make a point about group selection, but because he hates religion, and cannot stand the idea that it might have some benefits. It is easy to see this from his use of language like “nicey-nice,” and his suggestion that the main selection pressure in favor of religion would be likely to be something like being burned at the stake, or that it might just have been a “side effect,” that is, that there was no advantage to it.

But as St. Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Yudkowsky believes that religion is just wishful thinking. But his belief that religion therefore cannot be useful is itself nothing but wishful thinking. In reality religion can be useful just as voluntary beliefs in general can be useful.

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.

Being and Good

St. Thomas argues that being and goodness are actually the same thing, simply considered in different ways:

Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea; which is clear from the following argument. The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. i): “Goodness is what all desire.” Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual, as is clear from the foregoing (I:3:4; I:4:1). Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present.

We pointed out in the last post that the formal element of desire is the tendency to something. But it is easy to see that existing things tend to exist and to continue to exist, although they do not always succeed in continuing. So in this way existence implies the desire to exist, and the natural explanation for this desire is that existence as such is good, as St. Thomas says here.

Someone might say that this refutes our earlier argument against Richard Dawkins. If being as such a good, then life is necessarily good, and could not have been bad, while we suggested there that the idea was not intrinsically absurd.

However, this refutation fails, for a number of reasons.

First, one might argue that it makes the argument unnecessary, but the basic point is that the universe is not “at bottom” indifferent. And if being as such is good, then in fact the universe is at bottom good, without any qualification.

Second, one of the points in the earlier argument is that in terms of experience life could have been much worse than it is, or at least much more “indifferent” than it is, and this fact is not refuted by the present argument.

Third, the point of saying that as far as we can tell, things could have been different, was that there is something needing explanation. Once you have explained it, it is perfectly possible that you will show that things in fact could not have been different. It is in fact the case that life is necessarily good, but that is precisely because the universe and its cause “at bottom” is not only good but necessarily good.

Is and Ought

In Book III of his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume argues that reason and morality are completely independent:

Reason is the discovery of truth or falsehood. Truth or falsehood consists in an agreement or disagreement either with the real relations of ideas, or with real existence and matter of fact. So anything that isn’t capable of this agreement or disagreement isn’t capable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now, our passions, volitions, and actions are basic facts and realities; they are complete in themselves and aren’t in any way about other passions, volitions, and actions; so they aren’t capable of either of those sorts of agreement or disagreement; so they can’t be sorted into ‘true’ and ‘false’, and can’t be either in conflict with reason or in accord with it.

It is true that an action is not true or false, nor can it be the conclusion of an argument. And in that sense there is some separation between action and reason, as Hume says here. Nonetheless, Hume intends to imply something more, namely that reason cannot tell us what we should do. If reason can tell us what we should do, then doing something else instead is an action in conflict with reason, even though it is not a false statement.

Later, Hume clarifies his position:

I can’t forbear adding an observation that may be found of some importance. In every system of morality I have met with I have noticed that the author proceeds for some time reasoning in the ordinary way to establish the existence of a God, or making points about human affairs, and then he suddenly surprises me by moving from propositions with the usual copula ‘is’ (or ‘is not’) to ones that are connected by ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’). This seems like a very small change, but it is highly important. For as this ‘ought’ (or ‘ought not’) expresses some new relation or affirmation, it needs to be pointed out and explained; and a reason should be given for how this new relation can be—inconceivably!—a deduction from others that are entirely different from it. Authors don’t ordinarily take the trouble to do this, so I recommend it to you; and I’m convinced that paying attention to this one small matter will subvert all the vulgar systems of morality and let us see that the distinction between vice and virtue is not based merely on the relations of objects, and is not perceived by reason.

Hume suggests that it is “inconceivable” that a statement involving the word “ought” would derive from statements without that word. This can be taken as a mere point of logic: the conclusion of a syllogism will not contain a term which is not contained in the premises. But if we understand it in this way, his point is true but rather unimportant, at least in relation to his argument about morality. For the same thing is true of all terms. In the statement, “Trees have leaves and branches,” the word “trees” cannot possibly be logically derived from statements that do not mention trees. It does not follow that statements about trees are somehow cut off from all the rest of reality. It does not even follow that people cannot explain what they mean by a “tree.” Someone can explain this by referring to various fairly common experiences that people have.

So as a logical point, this proves nothing in particular about morality, although it is a partial explanation for the difficulty of philosophy. I pointed out in the discussion of Spinoza’s Ethics that the fact that philosophy wishes to speak about reality in general implies that it must use a practically unlimited number of terms, and consequently that it cannot be built up as a formal system like geometry.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses ethics as a kind of art which aims at an end:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.

If we understand ethics in this way, this explains what is meant by saying that something “ought” to be done, because we know what is meant when we say, for example, “If you want to attach those boards with a nail, you ought to use a hammer.” This implies that a hammer is useful, or perhaps even necessary, in relation to the goal in question. In fact, “ought” is sometimes replaced with “must,” which is a word directly expressing necessity.

Of course, “you must use a hammer” does not imply that there is a physical necessity that you use a hammer, so that you cannot avoid using one. The necessity is a hypothetical one: given that you are going to obtain the end, you must use a hammer. If you do not use a hammer, you will not obtain the end.

This explains, in a certain way, why Hume has difficulty with the point. A repeated concern in his work is that he cannot see a way to understand the idea of necessity. He says for example that he has a hard time understanding any “necessary connection” between cause and effect:

Having thus explained how we reason beyond our immediate impressions, and conclude that such and such causes must have such and such effects, we must now retrace our steps and pick up again the question that first occurred to us, and that we dropped along the way (near the end of section 2). The question is: What is our idea of necessity, when we say that two objects are necessarily connected? As I have often said already, if we claim to have such an idea we must find some impression that gives rise to it, because we have no idea that isn’t derived from an impression. So I ask myself: In what objects is necessity commonly supposed to lie? And finding that it is always ascribed to causes and effects, I turn my attention to two objects that are supposed to be related as cause and effect, and examine them in all the situations in which they can occur. I see at once that they are contiguous in time and place, and that the one we call ‘cause’ precedes the one we call ‘effect’. In no instance can I go any further: I can’t find any third relation between these objects.

He does go on to say that there is something else, but in turns out to be something like the vividness with which the mind expects the effect, or in other words, a property of the mind, not of the causes and effects. Similar concerns lead him to deny the possibility of probable knowledge about the future, and here to effectively deny the possibility of the knowledge of morals. If moral knowledge consists in knowing that something must be done, even for the sake of an end, then according to Hume, it is not possible to know this. If we cannot even know that the sun will rise tomorrow, we also cannot know that we need to use a hammer in order to attach two boards.

Aristotle’s account of ethics is, I think, the correct account. But people find it troubling, mostly because they suspect that it has unlikely or unpleasant implications. If saying that you “ought” to do something only means that you must do it in order to obtain a certain end, what if you do not care about that end? There will no longer be a need to do that thing. Likewise, if you do want certain ends, then perhaps you ought to do certain things which we really think you ought not do. For example, if you want to inherit money, perhaps you ought to murder your elderly relatives. But this consequence is absurd: of course you ought not to murder your relatives.

In order to be sure e.g. that you ought not to murder your relatives, regardless of what ends you have in mind, people prefer something like Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives. I will not discuss Kant’s moral philosophy in detail at the moment, nor am I necessarily asserting that the usual understanding of his philosophy is correct. But the usual idea is that the rule is absolute: “you must not kill” is not relative to an end, but stands in itself.

This seems to me to be a mistake, and one where Hume’s criticism would be valid. There is obviously no physical necessity that you abstain from killing. It is quite possible to kill people, and it is sometimes done. So if you say that you “must” not kill, and you do not refer to hypothetical necessity, to what do you refer? There does not seem to be anything left here. And this is probably the motivation behind error theory. The obvious interpretation of the theory is that it is saying, “I do not believe in right and wrong.” In reality, however, it seems to be based on the mistaken assumption that right and wrong refer to something like categorical imperatives, and then it proceeds to rightly deny the existence of these things. For no one except an actual follower of Hume would deny the existence of hypothetical necessity, namely that if you want to obtain certain ends, you must use certain means. In this sense, error theory is mistaken, but it is mistaken much in the way that Richard Dawkins is mistaken to suppose that theists intend to speak of something complex when they speak of God.

The objection to Aristotelian ethics, then, is that it is too flexible, and may ultimately imply that people may do whatever they want. I would respond to this by making two claims, although I will not establish their truth in this post.

First, the truth about ethics is in fact more flexible than people suppose. If you take extremely complex situations, the moral truth about those situations will be complicated, not simple.

Second, the truth about ethics is less flexible than people tend to suppose would follow from an Aristotelian account. It does not follow in any meaningful way, for example, that it is sometimes fine to murder your relatives in order to obtain an inheritance.


Easter for Unbelievers

In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.

Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.

The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,

Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.

Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.

One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.

But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.

The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.

St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.

I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.

But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.

There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.

But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.

In that spirit, happy Easter to all!


Making Your Point vs. Understanding Reality

Generally speaking, people who write something know in advance what they are going to say, and not surprisingly, they agree with it. Along these lines, Hal Finney says in this comment:

Michael Ruse is quoted above as saying, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” That’s very much to his credit, that although he agrees with the conclusion of Dawkins’ book, he disagrees with the arguments. You don’t often get people willing to make these kinds of public statements that undercut arguments in favor of their beliefs.

Sounds like McGrath himself is a theist, unfortunately, so his book is arguing for a conclusion he believes in, as did Dawkins. And of course, as is true for virtually 100% of books every published. Can you imagine a book arguing page after page for the existence of God, written by someone who doesn’t believe in God? Or vice versa? Is it a sign of bias, that we never see that?

This isn’t so much a sign of bias, as an effect of a person’s goals. If someone thinks that something is true, he may want others to know that it is true. Normally he would not want others to think that it is false, which would be the expected effect of arguing that it is false.

Nonetheless, the fact that the writer knows where he is going can have bad effects. We saw that in the case of Spinoza’s ethics. But this can happen with anyone: if I am trying to make a point which is in fact false, then I will be likely to make fallacious arguments. Likewise, even if my point is true, but in reality I do not have very good reasons to think it is true, I will be likely to try to make my arguments look stronger than they actually are.

Despite such possibilities, however, the fact that I have a position and that I wish to persuade others gives me some reason to argue for that position rather than arguing for the opposite. Nonetheless, this results from my goal of persuading others. If my goal is to understand the truth myself, arguing one side rather than the other is not helpful: in such a case I should indeed argue both sides, as was done with disputed questions. In other words, the goal of making a point is different from the goal of understanding, and these goals require different means in order to accomplish them.

James Chastek comments on a similar issue:

All the pleas for dialogue I have heard came from the Left, and all of them beggar belief. However sincere the Leftist might be – and I’m not a mind-reader in any position to decide the question – I can’t get beyond the fact that the Leftist himself never follows his own advice by just giving the reasons of his opponents. Why give a speech that “calls for dialogue” when you could give a speech that presents, without comment or judgment, both your own reasons and those of your opponents? Why are calls for dialectic so reliably non-dialectical?

So you want dialogue? Great. You first. Explain the arguments of the other side without continually relating to them as things to be refuted. I can’t do this, even after many years of criticizing my own thoughts and trying to find real insights in opponents (each of whom are sure believe, with some justification, that my thoughts are far more narrow than they seem to me.)

The goal of making your point only requires that you be able to make arguments for your position, but the goal of understanding requires that you be able to make the opposing arguments as well. So if you can’t do this, there is likely a great deal lacking to your understanding of reality.

In the following posts, for illustration, I will argue both sides of various positions.