Lies, Religion, and Miscalibrated Priors

In a post from some time ago, Scott Alexander asks why it is so hard to believe that people are lying, even in situations where it should be obvious that they made up the whole story:

The weird thing is, I know all of this. I know that if a community is big enough to include even a few liars, then absent a strong mechanism to stop them those lies should rise to the top. I know that pretty much all of our modern communities are super-Dunbar sized and ought to follow that principle.

And yet my System 1 still refuses to believe that the people in those Reddit threads are liars. It’s actually kind of horrified at the thought, imagining them as their shoulders slump and they glumly say “Well, I guess I didn’t really expect anyone to believe me”. I want to say “No! I believe you! I know you had a weird experience and it must be hard for you, but these things happen, I’m sure you’re a good person!”

If you’re like me, and you want to respond to this post with “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?”, then before you comment take a second to ask why the “they’re lying” theory is so hard to believe. And when you figure it out, tell me, because I really want to know.

The strongest reason for this effect is almost certainly a moral reason. In an earlier post, I discussed St. Thomas’s explanation for why one should give a charitable interpretation to someone’s behavior, and in a follow up, I explained the problem of applying that reasoning to the situation of judging whether a person is lying or not. St. Thomas assumes that the bad consequences of being mistaken about someone’s moral character will be minor, and most of the time this is true. But if we asking the question, “are they telling the truth or are they lying?”, the consequences can sometimes be very serious if we are mistaken.

Whether or not one is correct in making this application, it is not hard to see that this is the principal answer to Scott’s question. It is hard to believe the “they’re lying” theory not because of the probability that they are lying, but because we are unwilling to risk injuring someone with our opinion. This is without doubt a good motive from a moral standpoint.

But if you proceed to take this unwillingness as a sign of the probability that they are telling the truth, this would be a demonstrably miscalibrated probability assignment. Consider a story on Quora which makes a good example of Scott’s point:

I shuffled a deck of cards and got the same order that I started with.

No I am not kidding and its not because I can’t shuffle.

Let me just tell the story of how it happened. I was on a trip to Europe and I bought a pack of playing cards at the airport in Madrid to entertain myself on the flight back to Dallas.

It was about halfway through the flight after I’d watched Pixels twice in a row (That s literally the only reason I even remembered this) And I opened my brand new Real Madrid Playing Cards and I just shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes doing different tricks that I’d learned at school to entertain myself and the little girl sitting next to me also found them to be quite cool.

I then went to look at the other sides of the cards since they all had a picture of the Real Madrid player with the same number on the back. That’s when I realized that they were all in order. I literally flipped through the cards and saw Nacho-Fernandes, Ronaldo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and the rest of the team go by all in the perfect order.

Then a few weeks ago when we randomly started talking about Pixels in AP Statistics I brought up this story and my teacher was absolutely amazed. We did the math and the amount of possibilities when shuffling a deck of cards is 52! Meaning 52 x 51 x 50 x 49 x 48….

There were 8.0658175e+67 different combinations of cards that I could have gotten. And I managed to get the same one twice.

The lack of context here might make us more willing to say that Arman Razaali is lying, compared to Scott’s particular examples. Nonetheless, I think a normal person will feel somewhat unwilling to say, “he’s lying, end of story.” I certainly feel that myself.

It does not take many shuffles to essentially randomize a deck. Consequently if Razaali’s statement that he “shuffled them for probably like 30 minutes” is even approximately true, 1 in 52! is probably a good estimate of the chance of the outcome that he claims, if we assume that it happened by chance. It might be some orders of magnitude less since there might be some possibility of “unshuffling.” I do not know enough about the physical process of shuffling to know whether this is a real possibility or not, but it is not likely to make a significant difference: e.g. the difference between 10^67 and 10^40 would be a huge difference mathematically, but it would not be significant for our considerations here, because both are simply too large for us to grasp.

People demonstrably lie at far higher rates than 1 in 10^67 or 1 in 10^40. This will remain the case even if you ask about the rate of “apparently unmotivated flat out lying for no reason.” Consequently, “he’s lying, period,” is far more likely than “the story is true, and happened by pure chance.” Nor can we fix this by pointing to the fact that an extraordinary claim is a kind of extraordinary evidence. In the linked post I said that the case of seeing ghosts, and similar things, might be unclear:

Or in other words, is claiming to have seen a ghost more like claiming to have picked 422,819,208, or is it more like claiming to have picked 500,000,000?

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

In this case there is no such unclarity – if we interpret the claim as “by pure chance the deck ended up in its original order,” then it is precisely like claiming to have picked 500,000,000, except that it is far less likely.

Note that there is some remaining ambiguity. Razaali could defend himself by saying, “I said it happened, I didn’t say it happened by chance.” Or in other words, “but how do you know that person didn’t just experience a certain coincidence or weird psychological trick?” But this is simply to point out that “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance” are not exhaustive alternatives. And this is true. But if we want to estimate the likelihood of those two alternatives in particular, we must say that it is far more likely that he is lying than that it happened, and happened by chance. And so much so that if one of these alternatives is true, it is virtually certain that he is lying.

As I have said above, the inclination to doubt that such a person is lying primarily has a moral reason. This might lead someone to say that my estimation here also has a moral reason: I just want to form my beliefs in the “correct” way, they might say: it is not about whether Razaali’s story really happened or not.

Charles Taylor, in chapter 15 of A Secular Age, gives a similar explanation of the situation of former religious believers who apparently have lost their faith due to evidence and argument:

From the believer’s perspective, all this falls out rather differently. We start with an epistemic response: the argument from modern science to all-around materialism seems quite unconvincing. Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes. The best examples today might be evolution, sociobiology, and the like. But we also see reasonings of this kind in the works of Richard Dawkins, for instance, or Daniel Dennett.

So the believer returns the compliment. He casts about for an explanation why the materialist is so eager to believe very inconclusive arguments. Here the moral outlook just mentioned comes back in, but in a different role. Not that, failure to rise to which makes you unable to face the facts of materialism; but rather that, whose moral attraction, and seeming plausibility to the facts of the human moral condition, draw you to it, so that you readily grant the materialist argument from science its various leaps of faith. The whole package seems plausible, so we don’t pick too closely at the details.

But how can this be? Surely, the whole package is meant to be plausible precisely because science has shown . . . etc. That’s certainly the way the package of epistemic and moral views presents itself to those who accept it; that’s the official story, as it were. But the supposition here is that the official story isn’t the real one; that the real power that the package has to attract and convince lies in it as a definition of our ethical predicament, in particular, as beings capable of forming beliefs.

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

What seems to accredit the view of the package as epistemically-driven are all the famous conversion stories, starting with post-Darwinian Victorians but continuing to our day, where people who had a strong faith early in life found that they had reluctantly, even with anguish of soul, to relinquish it, because “Darwin has refuted the Bible”. Surely, we want to say, these people in a sense preferred the Christian outlook morally, but had to bow, with whatever degree of inner pain, to the facts.

But that’s exactly what I’m resisting saying. What happened here was not that a moral outlook bowed to brute facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. Another model of what was higher triumphed. And much was going for this model: images of power, of untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession (the “buffered self”). On the other side, one’s childhood faith had perhaps in many respects remained childish; it was all too easy to come to see it as essentially and constitutionally so.

But this recession of one moral ideal in face of the other is only one aspect of the story. The crucial judgment is an all-in one about the nature of the human ethical predicament: the new moral outlook, the “ethics of belief” in Clifford’s famous phrase, that one should only give credence to what was clearly demonstrated by the evidence, was not only attractive in itself; it also carried with it a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle, and give assent to comforting untruths. The convert to the new ethics has learned to mistrust some of his own deepest instincts, and in particular those which draw him to religious belief. The really operative conversion here was based on the plausibility of this understanding of our ethical situation over the Christian one with its characteristic picture of what entices us to sin and apostasy. The crucial change is in the status accorded to the inclination to believe; this is the object of a radical shift in interpretation. It is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation. This whole construal of our ethical predicament becomes more plausible. The attraction of the new moral ideal is only part of this, albeit an important one. What was also crucial was a changed reading of our own motivation, wherein the desire to believe appears now as childish temptation. Since all incipient faith is childish in an obvious sense, and (in the Christian case) only evolves beyond this by being child-like in the Gospel sense, this (mis)reading is not difficult to make.

Taylor’s argument is that the arguments for unbelief are unconvincing; consequently, in order to explain why unbelievers find them convincing, he must find some moral explanation for why they do not believe. This turns out to be the desire to have a particular “ethics of belief”: they do not want to have beliefs which are not formed in such and such a particular way. This is much like the theoretical response above regarding my estimation of the probability that Razaali is lying, and how that might be considered a moral estimation, rather than being concerned with what actually happened.

There are a number of problems with Taylor’s argument, which I may or may not address in the future in more detail. For the moment I will take note of three things:

First, neither in this passage nor elsewhere in the book does Taylor explain in any detailed way why he finds the unbeliever’s arguments unconvincing. I find the arguments convincing, and it is the rebuttals (by others, not by Taylor, since he does not attempt this) that I find unconvincing. Now of course Taylor will say this is because of my particular ethical motivations, but I disagree, and I have considered the matter exactly in the kind of detail to which he refers when he says, “Whenever this is worked out in something closer to detail, it seems full of holes.” On the contrary, the problem of detail is mostly on the other side; most religious views can only make sense when they are not worked out in detail. But this is a topic for another time.

Second, Taylor sets up an implicit dichotomy between his own religious views and “all-around materialism.” But these two claims do not come remotely close to exhausting the possibilities. This is much like forcing someone to choose between “he’s lying” and “this happened by pure chance.” It is obvious in both cases (the deck of cards and religious belief) that the options do not exhaust the possibilities. So insisting on one of them is likely motivated itself: Taylor insists on this dichotomy to make his religious beliefs seem more plausible, using a presumed implausibility of “all-around materialism,” and my hypothetical interlocutor insists on the dichotomy in the hope of persuading me that the deck might have or did randomly end up in its original order, using my presumed unwillingness to accuse someone of lying.

Third, Taylor is not entirely wrong that such an ethical motivation is likely involved in the case of religious belief and unbelief, nor would my hypothetical interlocutor be entirely wrong that such motivations are relevant to our beliefs about the deck of cards.

But we need to consider this point more carefully. Insofar as beliefs are voluntary, you cannot make one side voluntary and the other side involuntary. You cannot say, “Your beliefs are voluntarily adopted due to moral reasons, while my beliefs are imposed on my intellect by the nature of things.” If accepting an opinion is voluntary, rejecting it will also be voluntary, and if rejecting it is voluntary, accepting it will also be voluntary. In this sense, it is quite correct that ethical motivations will always be involved, even when a person’s opinion is actually true, and even when all the reasons that make it likely are fully known. To this degree, I agree that I want to form my beliefs in a way which is prudent and reasonable, and I agree that this desire is partly responsible for my beliefs about religion, and for my above estimate of the chance that Razaali is lying.

But that is not all: my interlocutor (Taylor or the hypothetical one) is also implicitly or explicitly concluding that fundamentally the question is not about truth. Basically, they say, I want to have “correctly formed” beliefs, but this has nothing to do with the real truth of the matter. Sure, I might feel forced to believe that Razaali’s story isn’t true, but there really is no reason it couldn’t be true. And likewise I might feel forced to believe that Taylor’s religious beliefs are untrue, but there really is no reason they couldn’t be.

And in this respect they are mistaken, not because anything “couldn’t” be true, but because the issue of truth is central, much more so than forming beliefs in an ethical way. Regardless of your ethical motives, if you believe that Razaali’s story is true and happened by pure chance, it is virtually certain that you believe a falsehood. Maybe you are forming this belief in a virtuous way, and maybe you are forming it in a vicious way: but either way, it is utterly false. Either it in fact did not happen, or it in fact did not happen by chance.

We know this, essentially, from the “statistics” of the situation: no matter how many qualifications we add, lies in such situations will be vastly more common than truths. But note that something still seems “unconvincing” here, in the sense of Scott Alexander’s original post: even after “knowing all this,” he finds himself very unwilling to say they are lying. In a discussion with Angra Mainyu, I remarked that our apparently involuntary assessments of things are more like desires than like beliefs:

So rather than calling that assessment a belief, it would be more accurate to call it a desire. It is not believing something, but desiring to believe something. Hunger is the tendency to go and get food; that assessment is the tendency to treat a certain claim (“the USA is larger than Austria”) as a fact. And in both cases there are good reasons for those desires: you are benefited by food, and you are benefited by treating that claim as a fact.

In a similar way, because we have the natural desire not to injure people, we will naturally desire not to treat “he is lying” as a fact; that is, we will desire not to believe it. The conclusion that Angra should draw in the case under discussion, according to his position, is that I do not “really believe” that it is more likely that Razaali is lying than that his story is true, because I do feel the force of the desire not to say that he is lying. But I resist that desire, in part because I want to have reasonable beliefs, but most of all because it is false that Razaali’s story is true and happened by chance.

To the degree that this desire feels like a prior probability, and it does feel that way, it is necessarily miscalibrated. But to the degree that this desire remains nonetheless, this reasoning will continue to feel in some sense unconvincing. And it does in fact feel that way to me, even after making the argument, as expected. Very possibly, this is not unrelated to Taylor’s assessment that the argument for unbelief “seems quite unconvincing.” But discussing that in the detail which Taylor omitted is a task for another time.

 

 

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Decisions as Predictions

Among acts of will, St. Thomas distinguishes intention and choice:

The movement of the will to the end and to the means can be considered in two ways. First, according as the will is moved to each of the aforesaid absolutely and in itself. And thus there are really two movements of the will to them. Secondly, it may be considered accordingly as the will is moved to the means for the sake of the end: and thus the movement of the will to the end and its movement to the means are one and the same thing. For when I say: “I wish to take medicine for the sake of health,” I signify no more than one movement of my will. And this is because the end is the reason for willing the means. Now the object, and that by reason of which it is an object, come under the same act; thus it is the same act of sight that perceives color and light, as stated above. And the same applies to the intellect; for if it consider principle and conclusion absolutely, it considers each by a distinct act; but when it assents to the conclusion on account of the principles, there is but one act of the intellect.

Choice is about the means, such as taking medicine in his example, while intention is about the end, as health in his example. This makes sense in terms of how we commonly use the terms. When we do speak of choosing an end, we are normally considering which of several alternative intermediate ends are better means towards an ultimate end. And thus we are “choosing,” not insofar as the thing is an end, but insofar as it is a means towards a greater end that we intend.

Discussing the human mind, we noted earlier that a thing often seems fairly simple when it is considered in general, but turns out to have a highly complex structure when considered in detail. The same thing will turn out to be the case if we attempt to consider the nature of these acts of will in detail.

Consider the hypothesis that both intention and choice consist basically in beliefs: intention would consist in the belief that one will in fact obtain a certain end, or at least that one will come as close to it as possible. Choice would consist in the belief that one will take, or that one is currently taking, a certain temporally immediate action for the sake of such an end. I will admit immediately that this hypothesis will not turn out to be entirely right, but as we shall see, the consideration will turn out to be useful.

First we will bring forward a number of considerations in favor of the hypothesis, and then, in another post, some criticisms of it.

First, in favor of the hypothesis, we should consider the fact that believing that one will take a certain course of action is virtually inseparable from deciding to take that course of action, and the two are not very clearly distinguishable at all. Suppose someone says, “I intend to take my vacation in Paris, but I believe that I will take it in Vienna instead.” On the face of it, this is nonsense. We might make sense of it by saying that the person really meant to say that he first decided to go to Paris, but then obstacles came up and he realizes that it will not be possible. But in that case, he also changes his decision: he now intends to go to Vienna. It is completely impossible that he currently intends to go to Paris, but fully believes that he will not go, and that he will go to Vienna instead.

Likewise, suppose someone says, “I haven’t yet decided where to take my vacation. But I am quite convinced that I am going to take it in Vienna.” Again, this is almost nonsensical: if he is convinced that he will go to Vienna, we would normally say that he has already made up his mind: it is not true that he has not decided yet. As in the previous case, we might be able to come up with circumstances where someone might say this or something like it. For example, if someone else is attempting to convince him to come to Paris, he might say that he has not yet decided, meaning that he is willing to think about it for a bit, but that he fully expects to end up going to Vienna. But in this case, it is more natural to say that his decision and his certainty that he will go to Vienna are proportional: the only sense in which he hasn’t decided yet, is to the degree that the thinks there is some chance that he will change his mind and go to Paris. Thus if there is no chance at all of that, then he is completely decided, while if he is somewhat unsure, his decision is not yet perfect but partial.

Both of the above cases would fit with the claim that a decision is simply a belief about what one is going to do, although they would not necessarily exclude the possibility that it is a separate thing, even if inseparably connected to the belief.

We can also consider beliefs and decisions as something known from their effects. I noted elsewhere that we recognize the nature of desire from its effect, namely from the fact that when we have a desire, we tend to bring about the thing we desire. Insofar as a decision is a rational desire, the same thing applies to decisions as to other kinds of desires. We would not know decisions as decisions, if we never did the things we have decided to do. Likewise, belief is a fairly abstract object, and it is at least plausible that we would come to know it from its more concrete effects.

Now consider the effects of the decision to go to Vienna, compared to the effects of the belief that you will go to Vienna. Both of them will result in you saying, “I am going to go to Vienna.” And if we look at belief as I suggested in the discussion to this post, namely more or less as treating something as a fact, then belief will have other consequences, such as buying a ticket for Vienna. For if you are treating it as a fact that you are going to go there, either you will buy a ticket, or you will give up the belief. In a similar way, if you have decided to go, either you will buy a ticket, or you will change your decision. So the effects of the belief and the effects of the decision seem to be entirely the same. If we know the thing from its effects, then, it seems we should consider the belief and the decision to be entirely the same.

There is an obvious objection here, but as I said the consideration of objections will come later.

Again, consider a situation where there are two roads, road A and road B, to your destination C. There is a fallen bridge along road B, so road B would not be a good route, while road A is a good route. It is reasonable for a third party who knows that you want to get to C and that you have considered the state of the roads, to conclude that you will take road A. But if this is reasonable for someone else, then it is reasonable for you: you know that you want to get to C, and you know that you have considered the state of the roads. So it is reasonable for you to conclude that you will take road A. Note that this is purely about belief: there was no need for an extra “decision” factor. The conclusion that you will factually take road A is a logical conclusion from the known situation. But now that you are convinced that you will take road A, there is no need for you to consider whether to take road A or road B; there is nothing to decide anymore. Everything is already decided as soon as you come to that conclusion, which is a matter of forming a belief. Once again, it seems as though your belief that you will take road A just is your decision, and there is nothing more to it.

Once again, there is an obvious objection, but it will have to wait until the next post.

A Remark on Usury

St. Thomas explains his objection to usury:

I answer that, To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice. In order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: thus we consume wine when we use it for drink and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in such like things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself and for this reason, to lend things of this kin is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. On like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.

On the other hand, there are things the use of which does not consist in their consumption: thus to use a house is to dwell in it, not to destroy it. Wherefore in such things both may be granted: for instance, one man may hand over to another the ownership of his house while reserving to himself the use of it for a time, or vice versa, he may grant the use of the house, while retaining the ownership. For this reason a man may lawfully make a charge for the use of his house, and, besides this, revendicate the house from the person to whom he has granted its use, as happens in renting and letting a house.

Now money, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 5; Polit. i, 3) was invented chiefly for the purpose of exchange: and consequently the proper and principal use of money is its consumption or alienation whereby it is sunk in exchange. Hence it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent, which payment is known as usury: and just as a man is bound to restore other ill-gotten goods, so is he bound to restore the money which he has taken in usury.

In the example of the rental of a house, the landlord is a seller, and the renter is a buyer. The landlord sells the use of the house to the buyer. St. Thomas is thus explaining usury in this way: the lender sells the use of his money to the borrower, while retaining ownership of the money. At the end of the period, therefore, the borrower must return the original money, since the lender has retained ownership, together with an additional fee for the use of the money.

This is intrinsically unjust, St. Thomas says, because someone cannot have the use of the money without having the money, since using money consumes it.

This is correct, if one analyzes the transaction in this way. But on the other hand, no one would ever borrow money if they analyzed the transaction in this way. In reality, St. Thomas has confused the buyer and the seller. The lender is not a seller, selling the use of money, but a buyer. When he gives money to the borrower at the beginning of the transaction, he does not retain ownership of the money. On the contrary, the money is a payment, by the lender as a buyer, to the borrower as a seller. When the borrower promises to repay the sum with interest, he is promising to provide the future money that he is selling to the lender.

To illustrate this with a concrete example, suppose the lender lends $100 to be repaid a year later with $110. Then the lender buys $110 future dollars for the present sum of $100, and the borrower sells $110 future dollars for the present sum of $100.

St. Thomas is correct, however, that “what does not exist” is being sold here, although he is mistaken about the nature of the transaction. It is not the use of $100 that is being sold, but a future $110, which “does not exist” because it is future. And this is not an injustice; selling what does not exist here is no more unjust than it is unjust to make a contract to provide a certain amount of wheat a year from now. Nor is the price unjust, since future money is in itself less valuable than present money, just as it would be less valuable to be promised wheat a year from now, than to be given it immediately. The different particular situations of the lender (the buyer) and the borrower (the seller) explain why they both benefit from the transaction, just as both the buyer and seller of wheat benefit from it due to their particular situations.

 

Mind and Matter

In Book III of On the Soul, Aristotle argues that the intellect does not have a bodily organ:

Therefore, since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none. It was a good idea to call the soul ‘the place of forms’, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not actually.
Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before, as e.g. in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily immediately after, or in the case of a bright colour or a powerful odour we cannot see or smell, but in the case of mind thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it.

There are two arguments here, one from the fact that the mind can understand at all, and the other from the effect of thinking about highly intelligible things.

St. Thomas explains the first argument:

The following argument may make this point clear. Anything that is in potency with respect to an object, and able to receive it into itself, is, as such, without that object; thus the pupil of the eye, being potential to colours and able to receive them, is itself colourless. But our intellect is so related to the objects it understands that it is in potency with respect to them, and capable of being affected by them (as sense is related to sensible objects). Therefore it must itself lack all those things which of its nature it understands. Since then it naturally understands all sensible and bodily things, it must be lacking in every bodily nature; just as the sense of sight, being able to know colour, lacks all colour. If sight itself had any particular colour, this colour would prevent it from seeing other colours, just as the tongue of a feverish man, being coated with a bitter moisture, cannot taste anything sweet. In the same way then, if the intellect were restricted to any particular nature, this connatural restriction would prevent it from knowing other natures. Hence he says: ‘What appeared inwardly would prevent and impede’ (its knowledge of) ‘what was without’; i.e. it would get in the way of the intellect, and veil it so to say, and prevent it from inspecting other things. He calls ‘the inwardly appearing’ whatever might be supposed to be intrinsic and co-natural to the intellect and which, so long as it ‘appeared’ therein would necessarily prevent the understanding of anything else; rather as we might say that the bitter moisture was an ‘inwardly appearing’ factor in a fevered tongue.

This is similar to St. Thomas’s suggestion elsewhere that matter and understanding are intrinsically opposed to one another. I cautioned the reader there about taking such an argument as definitive too quickly, and I would do the same here. Consider the argument about sensation: it is true enough that the pupil isn’t colored, and that perception of temperature is relative to the temperature of the organ of touch, or some aspects of it, which suggests that heat in the organ impedes the sensation of heat. On the other hand, the optic nerve and the visual cortex are arguably even more necessary to the sense of sight than the pupil, and they most certainly are not colorless. Taking this into consideration, the facts about the pupil, and the way touch functions, and so on, seem like facts that should be taken into consideration, but do not even come to close to establishing as a fact that the intellect does not have an organ.

Likewise, with the second argument, Aristotle is certainly pointing to a difference between the intellect and the senses, even if this argument might need qualification, since one does tire even of thinking. But saying that the intellect is not merely another sense is one thing, and saying that it does not have an organ at all is another.

We previously considered Sean Collins’s discussion Aristotle and the history of science. Following on one of the passages quoted in the linked post, Collins continues:

I said above that Aristotle thinks somewhat Platonically “despite himself.” He himself is very remarkably aware that matter will make a difference in the account of things, even if the extent of the difference remains as yet unknown. And Aristotle makes, in this connection, a distinction which is well known to the scholastic tradition, but not equally well understood: that, namely, between the “logical” consideration of a question, and the “physical” consideration of it. Why make that distinction? Its basis lies in the discovery that matter is a genuine principle. For, on the one hand, the mind and its act are immaterial; but the things to be known in the physical world are material. It becomes necessary, therefore, for the mind to “go out of itself,” as it were, in the effort to know things. This is precisely what gives rise to what is called the “order of concretion.”

But how much “going out of itself” will be necessary, or precisely how that is to be done, is not something that can be known without experience — the experience, as it turns out, not merely of an individual but of an entire tradition of thought. Here I am speaking of history, and history has, indeed, everything to do with what I am talking about. Aristotle’s disciples are not always as perspicacious as their master was. Some of them suppose that they should follow the master blindly in the supposition that history has no significant bearing on the “disciplines.” That supposition amounts, at least implicitly, to a still deeper assumption: the assumption, namely, that the materiality of human nature, and of the cosmos, is not so significant as to warrant a suspicion that historical time is implicated in the material essence of things. Aristotle did not think of time as essentially historical in the sense I am speaking of here. The discovery that it was essentially historical was not yet attainable.

I would argue that Sean Collins should consider how similar considerations would apply to his remark that “the mind and its act are immaterial.” Perhaps we know in a general way that sensation is more immaterial than growth, but we do not think that sensation therefore does not involve an organ. How confident should one be that the mind does not use an organ based on such general considerations? Just as there is a difference between the “logical” consideration of time and motion and their “physical” consideration, so there might be a similar difference between two kinds of consideration of the mind.

Elsewhere, Collins criticizes a certain kind of criticism of science:

We do encounter the atomists, who argue to a certain complexity in material things. Most of our sophomore year’s natural science is taken up with them. But what do we do with them? The only atomists we read are the early ones, who are only just beginning to discover evidence for atoms. The evidence they possess for atoms is still weak enough so that we often think we can take refuge in general statements about the hypothetical nature of modern science. In other words, without much consideration, we are tempted to write modern science off, so that we can get back to this thing we call philosophy.

Some may find that description a little stark, but at any rate, right here at the start, I want to note parenthetically that such a dismissal would be far less likely if we did not often confuse experimental science with the most common philosophical account of contemporary science. That most common philosophical account is based largely on the very early and incomplete developments of science, along with an offshoot of Humean philosophy which came into vogue mainly through Ernst Mach. But if we look at contemporary science as it really is today, and take care to set aside accidental associations it has with various dubious philosophies, we find a completely wonderful and astonishing growth of understanding of the physical structure not only of material substances, but of the entire cosmos. And so while some of us discuss at the lunch table whether the hypothesis of atoms is viable, physicists and engineers around the world make nanotubes and other lovely little structures, even machines, out of actual atoms of various elements such as carbon.

And likewise during such discussions, neuroscientists discuss which parts of the brain are responsible for abstract thought.

When we discussed the mixing of wine and water, we noted how many difficulties could arise when you consider a process in detail, which you might not notice simply with a general consideration. The same thing will certainly happen in the consideration of how the mind works. For example, how am I choosing these words as I type? I do not have the time to consider a vast list of alternatives for each word, even though there would frequently be several possibilities, and sometimes I do think of more than one. Other times I go back and change a word or two, or more. But most of the words are coming to me as though by magic, without any conscious thought. Where is this coming from?

The selection of these words is almost certainly being done by a part of my brain. A sign of this is that those with transcortical motor aphasia have great difficulty selecting words, but do not have a problem with understanding.

This is only one small element of a vast interconnected process which is involved in understanding, thinking, and speaking. And precisely because there is a very complex process here which is not completely understood, the statement, “well, these elements are organic, but there is also some non-organic element involved,” cannot be proved to be false in a scientific manner, at least at this time. But it also cannot be proved to be true, and if it did turn out to be true, there would have to be concrete relationships between that element and all the other elements. What would be the contribution of the immaterial element? What would happen if it were lacking, or if that question does not make sense, because it cannot be lacking, why can it not be lacking?

 

Patience

St. Thomas describes the virtue of patience:

I answer that, As stated above (II-II:123:1), the moral virtues are directed to the good, inasmuch as they safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions. Now among the passions sorrow is strong to hinder the good of reason, according to 2 Corinthians 7:10, “The sorrow of the world worketh death,” and Sirach 30:25, “Sadness hath killed many, and there is no profit in it.” Hence the necessity for a virtue to safeguard the good of reason against sorrow, lest reason give way to sorrow: and this patience does. Wherefore Augustine says (De Patientia ii): “A man’s patience it is whereby he bears evil with an equal mind,” i.e. without being disturbed by sorrow, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things.” It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.

This brings to mind things like a martyr being afflicted by others for the truth that he holds and enduring this steadfastly, but in fact it applies well even to the ordinary idea of patience, according to which, for example, we might say that Ray Kurzweil’s impatience for technological progress leads him to false opinions about current historical trends.

We can illustrate this with a little story. Peter, impatient to get home from work, exceeds the speed limit and weaves in and out of traffic. Minutes before getting home, he hits a slippery patch on the road. His car goes off the road, ramming a tree and killing him.

Despite being nothing but a story, it is one that has without a doubt been played out in real life with minor or major variations again and again. We can apply the saying of St. Augustine quoted by St. Thomas. Peter’s patience would consist in “bearing evil with an equal mind,” that is, enduring the fact that he is not home yet without disturbance, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things,” that is, since his disturbed and unequal mind leads him to abandon the goods, that is, the ordered manner of driving, whereby he may advance to better things, that is, actually to get home.

Patience is rightly thought to be related to the virtue of humility. One who judges rightly about his place in the order of things will understand that it is natural in this order that what is best tends to come last. The good wine is served last. Thus such a person should endure without disturbance the lack that comes earlier, in order not to abandon the good by which he might achieve the good that comes later.

The More Known and the Conjunction Fallacy

St. Thomas explains in what sense we know the universal before the particular, and in what sense the particular before the universal:

In our knowledge there are two things to be considered.

First, that intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter.

Secondly, we must consider that our intellect proceeds from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality; and every power thus proceeding from potentiality to actuality comes first to an incomplete act, which is the medium between potentiality and actuality, before accomplishing the perfect act. The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly. A thing thus imperfectly known, is known partly in act and partly in potentiality, and hence the Philosopher says (Phys. i, 1), that “what is manifest and certain is known to us at first confusedly; afterwards we know it by distinguishing its principles and elements.” Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly. In this way we can have knowledge not only of the universal whole, which contains parts potentially, but also of the integral whole; for each whole can be known confusedly, without its parts being known. But to know distinctly what is contained in the universal whole is to know the less common, as to “animal” indistinctly is to know it as “animal”; whereas to know “animal” distinctly is know it as “rational” or “irrational animal,” that is, to know a man or a lion: therefore our intellect knows “animal” before it knows man; and the same reason holds in comparing any more universal idea with the less universal.

Moreover, as sense, like the intellect, proceeds from potentiality to act, the same order of knowledge appears in the senses. For by sense we judge of the more common before the less common, in reference both to place and time; in reference to place, when a thing is seen afar off it is seen to be a body before it is seen to be an animal; and to be an animal before it is seen to be a man, and to be a man before it seen to be Socrates or Plato; and the same is true as regards time, for a child can distinguish man from not man before he distinguishes this man from that, and therefore “children at first call men fathers, and later on distinguish each one from the others” (Phys. i, 1). The reason of this is clear: because he who knows a thing indistinctly is in a state of potentiality as regards its principle of distinction; as he who knows “genus” is in a state of potentiality as regards “difference.” Thus it is evident that indistinct knowledge is midway between potentiality and act.

We must therefore conclude that knowledge of the singular and individual is prior, as regards us, to the knowledge of the universal; as sensible knowledge is prior to intellectual knowledge. But in both sense and intellect the knowledge of the more common precedes the knowledge of the less common.

The universal is known from the particular in the sense that we learn the nature of the universal from the experience of particulars. But both in regard to the universal and in regard to the particular, our knowledge is first vague and confused, and becomes more distinct as it is perfected. In St. Thomas’s example, one can see that something is a body before noticing that it is an animal, and an animal before noticing that it is a man. The thing that might be confusing here is that the more certain knowledge is also the less perfect knowledge: looking at the thing in the distance, it is more certain that it is some kind of body, but it is more perfect to know that it is a man.

Insofar as probability theory is a formalization of degrees of belief, the same thing is found, and the same confusion can occur. Objectively, the more general claim should always be understood to be more probable, but the more specific claim, representing what would be more perfect knowledge, can seem more explanatory, and therefore might appear more likely. This false appearance is known as the conjunction fallacy. Thus for example as I continue to add to a blog post, the post might become more convincing. But in fact the chance that I am making a serious error in the post can only increase, not decrease, with every additional sentence.

 

Remarriage and What People Know

Earlier I argued, somewhat in passing, that integralism is false. Responding to the point about the Church’s teaching on marriage, P. Edmund Waldstein responds:

Leaving aside questions of the differences between supernatural faith and natural knowledge of the natural law, I would respond to my anonymous friend by saying that a truth need not be “obvious” in every sense for it to be blameworthy for someone not to know it. Consider St. Paul’s famous words in the Epistle to the Romans:

For from heaven is revealed the anger of God against all the impiety and unrighteousness of people who in their unrighteousness suppress the truth; since what can be known about God is plain to them because God made it plain to them. Since the creation of the world, what is his and invisible, his eternal power and divinity, has been perceived by the mind through what he has made, so that they have no excuse; because, while knowing God, they did not glorify or thank him as God, but they were be­guiled in their reasonings and their uncomprehending hearts were made dark. (Romans 1:18-21)

Now, the existence of God is surely not “obvious” to the gentiles in the sense employed by Entirely Useless. Their minds are darkened by sin, and so it is difficult for them to see the truth. But St. Paul teaches that this darkening by sin is blameworthy, and can be overcome. As I wrote in my letter to Cardinal Schönborn:

It is possible for conscience in the sense of the particular judgment about what is good to be in error. It is even possible to be habitually in error about the moral good. But there is something indelible about conscience in the sense of synderesis, the knowledge of the good that God has inscribed in our hearts. Hence moral error always includes an element of “suppressing the truth” (cf. Romans 1:18) that gives witness against us in the depths of the soul.

This is why, contra Fr. Häring, it is important to insist on the objective norm, which the person is capable of recognizing. One can even exert “pressure,” not to make someone act against their conscience, but rather to correct the judgement of their erring conscience by reminding them of the truth that is engraved by synderesis in the depths of their heart.

The idea is that whatever the status of Catholic doctrine in general, people are blameworthy if they do not believe that divorce and remarriage, while the previous spouse remains alive, is wrong, because this is a matter of the natural law.

Whether this is actually the case is debatable. The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa states:

I answer that, As stated above (Article 1, Replies to 7 and 8), plurality of wives is said to be against the natural law, not as regards its first precepts, but as regards the secondary precepts, which like conclusions are drawn from its first precepts. Since, however, human acts must needs vary according to the various conditions of persons, times, and other circumstances, the aforesaid conclusions do not proceed from the first precepts of the natural law, so as to be binding in all cases, but only in the majority. for such is the entire matter of Ethics according to the Philosopher (Ethic. i, 3,7). Hence, when they cease to be binding, it is lawful to disregard them. But because it is not easy to determine the above variations, it belongs exclusively to him from whose authority he derives its binding force to permit the non-observance of the law in those cases to which the force of the law ought not to extend, and this permission is called a dispensation. Now the law prescribing the one wife was framed not by man but by God, nor was it ever given by word or in writing, but was imprinted on the heart, like other things belonging in any way to the natural law. Consequently a dispensation in this matter could be granted by God alone through an inward inspiration, vouchsafed originally to the holy patriarchs, and by their example continued to others, at a time when it behooved the aforesaid precept not to be observed, in order to ensure the multiplication of the offspring to be brought up in the worship of God. For the principal end is ever to be borne in mind before the secondary end. Wherefore, since the good of the offspring is the principal end of marriage, it behooved to disregard for a time the impediment that might arise to the secondary ends, when it was necessary for the offspring to be multiplied; because it was for the removal of this impediment that the precept forbidding a plurality of wives was framed, as stated above (Article 1).

Now it is true that the argument here is that such a dispensation was granted through “inward inspiration.” But if someone can believe this without being blameworthy, it is likely that someone can also believe that such a dispensation can be given by those who have care for the common good, namely the state. Furthermore, this concerns polygamy as such, and if it is believable that polygamy can be acceptable by dispensation, much more is it believable that remarriage after divorce can be acceptable by dispensation, since most of the harm that is done by polygamy is not evidently done in this case. And St. Paul in fact grants such a dispensation in some cases.

But let us set this aside. Whether or not something is against the natural law, and in what sense, is a technical question. The question which is actually relevant to our discussion is not technical at all. It is this: can someone believe that such a remarriage, while the previous spouse is alive, is acceptable, without being blinded by sin?

And put in this way, it is evident that some people can and do believe this, without being blinded by sin. For example, to assert that no one can believe this without being blinded by sin, implies that virtually all of the Orthodox are blinded by sin, since most of them believe that remarriage is sometimes acceptable. Now it might be reasonable to say that they are “blinded by sin” in a generic sense, if one meant to say that they are blinded by their religion and culture, and that the defects in these resulted from sin, but it would not reasonable to attribute their error to personal sin.

As another example, we can consider the reaction of the disciples in the Gospels to the teaching of Christ:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

If someone who is blinded by sin is confronted with their error, anger is a plausible reaction, but the kind of questioning in the passage, as well as the surprise indicated in the response that in this case, “It is better not to marry,” indicates rather an honest belief.

P. Edmund might well respond that the situation of the Orthodox, or of the disciples, is very different from the position of Catholics in the present day Catholic Church. And this is indeed the case, and it is quite plausible that many divorced and remarried Catholics are “blinded by sin,” or in other words, that their belief that their behavior is reasonable is a motivated belief, and more so than other beliefs. This is why I noted that Pope Francis may have chosen a singularly bad case to make his point. Nonetheless, these Catholics also live in a culture that finds remarriage acceptable, and in a Church in which the majority of professing members have significant disagreements with the teaching of that Church. So there is little reason to doubt that there are some who are no more blinded than the Orthodox or than the disciples of Christ.

Even if there were not, however, the larger point in that post about integralism, and about doctrinal disagreement within the Church, would remain.