Blaming the Prophet

Consider the fifth argument in the last post. Should we blame a person for holding a true belief? At this point it should not be too difficult to see that the truth of the belief is not the point. Elsewhere we have discussed a situation in which one cannot possibly hold a true belief, because whatever belief one holds on the matter, it will cause itself to be false. In a similar way, although with a different sort of causality, the problem with the person’s belief that he will kill someone tomorrow, is not that it is true, but that it causes itself to be true. If the person did not expect to kill someone tomorrow, he would not take a knife with him to the meeting etc., and thus would not kill anyone. So just as in the other situation, it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which false belief one will hold, here it is not a question of holding a true belief or a false belief, but of which true belief one will hold: one that includes someone getting killed, or one that excludes that. Truth will be there either way, and is not the reason for praise or blame: the person is blamed for the desire to kill someone, and praised (or at least not blamed) for wishing to avoid this. This simply shows the need for the qualifications added in the previous post: if the person’s belief is voluntary, and held for the sake of coming true, it is very evident why blame is needed.

We have not specifically addressed the fourth argument, but this is perhaps unnecessary given the above response to the fifth. This blog in general has advocated the idea of voluntary beliefs, and in principle these can be praised or blamed. To the degree that we are less willing to do so, however, this may be a question of emphasis. When we talk about a belief, we are more concerned about whether it is true or not, and evidence in favor of it or against it. Praise or blame will mainly come in insofar as other motives are involved, insofar as they strengthen or weaken a person’s wish to hold the belief, or insofar as they potentially distort the person’s evaluation of the evidence.

Nonetheless, the factual question “is this true?” is a different question from the moral question, “should I believe this?” We can see the struggle between these questions, for example, in a difficulty that people sometimes have with willpower. Suppose that a smoker decides to give up smoking, and suppose that they believe they will not smoke for the next six months. Three days later, let us suppose, they smoke a cigarette after all. At that point, the person’s resolution is likely to collapse entirely, so that they return to smoking regularly. One might ask why this happens. Since the person did not smoke for three days, it should be perfectly possible, at least, for them to smoke only once every three days, instead of going back to their former practice. The problem is that the person has received evidence directly indicating the falsity of “I will not smoke for the next six months.” They still might have some desire for that result, but they do not believe that their belief has the power to bring this about, and in fact it does not. The belief would not be self-fulfilling, and in fact it would be false, so they cease to hold it. It is as if someone attempts to open a door and finds it locked; once they know it is locked, they can no longer choose to open the door, because they cannot choose something that does not appear to be within their power.

Mark Forster, in Chapter 1 of his book Do It Tomorrow, previously discussed here, talks about similar issues:

However, life is never as simple as that. What we decide to do and what we actually do are two different things. If you think of the decisions you have made over the past year, how many of them have been satisfactorily carried to a conclusion or are progressing properly to that end? If you are like most people, you will have acted on some of your decisions, I’m sure. But I’m also sure that a large proportion will have fallen by the wayside.

So a simple decision such as to take time to eat properly is in fact very difficult to carry out. Our new rule may work for a few days or a few weeks, but it won’t be long before the pressures of work force us to make an exception to it. Before many days are up the exception will have become the rule and we are right back where we started. However much we rationalise the reasons why our decision didn’t get carried out, we know deep in the heart of us that it was not really the circumstances that were to blame. We secretly acknowledge that there is something missing from our ability to carry out a decision once we have made it.

In fact if we are honest it sometimes feels as if it is easier to get other people to do what we want them to do than it is to get ourselves to do what we want to do. We like to think of ourselves as a sort of separate entity sitting in our body controlling it, but when we look at the way we behave most of the time that is not really the case. The body controls itself most of the time. We have a delusion of control. That’s what it is – a delusion.

If we want to see how little control we have over ourselves, all most of us have to do is to look in the mirror. You might like to do that now. Ask yourself as you look at your image:

  • Is my health the way I want it to be?
  • Is my fitness the way I want it to be?
  • Is my weight the way I want it to be?
  • Is the way I am dressed the way I want it to be?

I am not asking you here to assess what sort of body you were born with, but what you have made of it and how good a state of repair you are keeping it in.

It may be that you are healthy, fit, slim and well-dressed. In which case have a look round at the state of your office or workplace:

  • Is it as well organised as you want it to be?
  • Is it as tidy as you want it to be?
  • Do all your office systems (filing, invoicing, correspondence, etc.) work the way you want them to work?

If so, then you probably don’t need to be reading this book.

I’ve just asked you to look at two aspects of your life that are under your direct control and are very little influenced by outside factors. If these things which are solely affected by you are not the way you want them to be, then in what sense can you be said to be in control at all?

A lot of this difficulty is due to the way our brains are organised. We have the illusion that we are a single person who acts in a ‘unified’ way. But it takes only a little reflection (and examination of our actions, as above) to realise that this is not the case at all. Our brains are made up of numerous different parts which deal with different things and often have different agendas.

Occasionally we attempt to deal with the difference between the facts and our plans by saying something like, “We will approximately do such and such. Of course we know that it isn’t going to be exactly like this, but at least this plan will be an approximate guide.” But this does not really avoid the difficulty. Even “this plan will be an approximate guide” is a statement about the facts that might turn out to be false; and even if it does not turn out to be false, the fact that we have set it down as approximate will likely make it guide our actions more weakly than it would have if we had said, “this is what we will do.” In other words, we are likely to achieve our goal less perfectly, precisely because we tried to make our statement more accurate. This is the reverse of the situation discussed in a previous post, where one gives up some accuracy, albeit vaguely, for the sake of another goal such as fitting in with associates or for literary enjoyment.

All of this seems to indicate that the general proposal about decisions was at least roughly correct. It is not possible to simply to say that decisions are one thing and beliefs entirely another thing. If these were simply two entirely separate things, there would be no conflict at all, at least of this kind, between accuracy and one’s other goals, and things do not turn out this way.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We can formulate a number of objections to the thesis argued in the previous post.

First, if a belief that one is going to do something is the same as the decision to do it, another person’s belief that I am going to do something should mean that the other person is making a decision for me. But this is absurd.

Second, suppose that I know that I am going to be hit on the head and suffer from amnesia, thus forgetting all about these considerations. I may believe that I will eat breakfast tomorrow, but this is surely not a decision to do so.

Third, suppose someone wants to give up smoking. He may firmly hold the opinion that whatever he does, he will sometimes smoke within the next six months, not because he wants to do so, but because he does not believe it possible that he do otherwise. We would not want to say that he decided not to give up smoking.

Fourth, decisions are appropriate objects of praise and blame. We seem at least somewhat more reluctant to praise and blame beliefs, even if it is sometimes done.

Fifth, suppose someone believes, “I will kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30 PM.” We will wish to blame him for deciding to kill Peter. But if he does kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30, he held a true belief. Even if beliefs can be praised or blamed, it seems implausible that a true belief should be blamed.

The objections are helpful. With their aid we can see that there is indeed a flaw in the original proposal, but that it is nonetheless somewhat on the right track. A more accurate proposal would be this: a decision is a voluntary self-fulfilling prophecy as understood by the decision maker. I will explain as we consider the above arguments in more detail.

In the first argument, in the case of one person making a decision for another, the problem is that a mere belief that someone else is going to do something is not self-fulfilling. If I hold a belief that I myself will do something, the belief will tend to cause its own truth, just as suggested in the previous post. But believing that someone else will do something will not in general cause that person to do anything. Consider the following situation: a father says to his children as he departs for the day, “I am quite sure that the house will be clean when I get home.” If the children clean the house during his absence, suddenly it is much less obvious that we should deny that this was the father’s decision. In fact, the only reason this is not truly the father’s decision, without any qualification at all, is that it does not sufficiently possess the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, in the example it does not seem to matter whether the father believes what he says, but only whether he says it. Second, since it is in the power of the children to fail to clean the house in any case, there seems to be a lack of sufficient causal connection between the statement and the cleaning of the house. Suppose belief did matter, namely suppose that the children will know whether he believes what he says or not. And suppose additionally that his belief had an infallible power to make his children clean the house. In that case it would be quite reasonable to say, without any qualification, “He decided that his children would clean the house during his absence.” Likewise, even if the father falsely believes that he has such an infallible power, in a sense we could rightly describe him as trying to make that decision, just as we might say, “I decided to open the door,” even if it turns out that my belief that the door could be opened turns out to be false when I try it; the door may be locked. This is why I included the clause “as understood by the decision maker” in the above proposal. This is a typical character of moral analysis; human action must be understood from the perspective of the one who acts.

In the amnesia case, there is a similar problem: due to the amnesia, the person’s current beliefs do not have a causal connection with his later actions. In addition, if we consider such things as “eating breakfast,” there might be a certain lack of causal connection in any case; the person would likely eat breakfast whether or not he formulates any opinion about what he will do. And to this degree we might feel it implausible to say that his belief that he will eat breakfast is a decision, even without the amnesia. It is not understood by the subject as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of giving up smoking, there are several problems. In this case, the subject does not believe that there is any causal connection between his beliefs and his actions. Regardless of what he believes, he thinks, he is going to smoke in fact. Thus, in his opinion, if he believes that he will stop smoking completely, he will simply hold a false belief without getting any benefit from it; he will still smoke, and his belief will just be false. So since the belief is false, and without benefit, at least as he understands it, there is no reason for him to hold this belief. Consequently, he holds the opposite belief. But this is not a decision, since he does not understand it as causing his smoking, which is something that is expected to happen whether or not he believes it will.

In such cases in real life, we are in fact sometimes tempted to say that the person is choosing not to give up smoking. And we are tempted to this to the extent that it seems to us that his belief should have the causal power that he denies it has: his denial seems to stem from the desire to smoke. If he wanted to give up smoking, we think, he could just accept that he would be able to believe this, and in such a way that it would come true. He does not, we think, because he wants to smoke, and so does not want to give up smoking. In reality this is a question of degree, and this analysis can have some truth. Consider the following from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VIII, Ch. 7-8):

Finally, in the very fever of my indecision, I made many motions with my body; like men do when they will to act but cannot, either because they do not have the limbs or because their limbs are bound or weakened by disease, or incapacitated in some other way. Thus if I tore my hair, struck my forehead, or, entwining my fingers, clasped my knee, these I did because I willed it. But I might have willed it and still not have done it, if the nerves had not obeyed my will. Many things then I did, in which the will and power to do were not the same. Yet I did not do that one thing which seemed to me infinitely more desirable, which before long I should have power to will because shortly when I willed, I would will with a single will. For in this, the power of willing is the power of doing; and as yet I could not do it. Thus my body more readily obeyed the slightest wish of the soul in moving its limbs at the order of my mind than my soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone its great resolve.

How can there be such a strange anomaly? And why is it? Let thy mercy shine on me, that I may inquire and find an answer, amid the dark labyrinth of human punishment and in the darkest contritions of the sons of Adam. Whence such an anomaly? And why should it be? The mind commands the body, and the body obeys. The mind commands itself and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved and there is such readiness that the command is scarcely distinguished from the obedience in act. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet though it be itself it does not obey itself. Whence this strange anomaly and why should it be? I repeat: The will commands itself to will, and could not give the command unless it wills; yet what is commanded is not done. But actually the will does not will entirely; therefore it does not command entirely. For as far as it wills, it commands. And as far as it does not will, the thing commanded is not done. For the will commands that there be an act of will–not another, but itself. But it does not command entirely. Therefore, what is commanded does not happen; for if the will were whole and entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. It is, therefore, no strange anomaly partly to will and partly to be unwilling. This is actually an infirmity of mind, which cannot wholly rise, while pressed down by habit, even though it is supported by the truth. And so there are two wills, because one of them is not whole, and what is present in this one is lacking in the other.

St. Augustine analyzes this in the sense that he did not “will entirely” or “command entirely.” If we analyze it in our terms, he does not expect in fact to carry out his intention, because he does not want to, and he knows that people do not do things they do not want to do. In a similar way, in some cases the smoker does not fully want to give up smoking, and therefore believes himself incapable of simply deciding to give up smoking, because if he made that decision, it would happen, and he would not want it to happen.

In the previous post, I mentioned an “obvious objection” at several points. This was that the account as presented there leaves out the role of desire. Suppose someone believes that he will go to Vienna in fact, but does not wish to go there. Then when the time comes to buy a ticket, it is very plausible that he will not buy one. Yes, this will mean that he will stop believing that he will go to Vienna. But this is different from the case where a person has “decided” to go and then changes his mind. The person who does not want to go, is not changing his mind at all, except about the factual question. It seems absurd (and it is) to characterize a decision without any reference to what the person wants.

This is why we have characterized a decision here as “voluntary”, “self-fulfilling,” and “as understood by the decision maker.” It is indeed the case that the person holds a belief, but he holds it because he wants to, and because he expects it to cause its own fulfillment, and he desires that fulfillment.

Consider the analysis in the previous post of the road to point C. Why is it reasonable for anyone, whether the subject or a third party, to conclude that the person will take road A? This is because we know that the subject wishes to get to point C. It is his desire to get to point C that will cause him to take road A, once he understands that A is the only way to get there.

Someone might respond that in this case we could characterize the decision as just a desire: the desire to get to point C. The problem is that the example is overly simplified compared to real life. Ordinarily there is not simply a single way to reach our goals. And the desire to reach the goal may not determine which particular way we take, so something else must determine it. This is precisely why we need to make decisions at all. We could in fact avoid almost anything that feels like a decision, waiting until something else determined the matter, but if we did, we would live very badly indeed.

When we make a complicated plan, there are two interrelated factors explaining why we believe it to be factually true that we will carry out the plan. We know that we desire the goal, and we expect this desire for the goal to move us along the path towards the goal. But since we also have other desires, and there are various paths towards the goal, some better than others, there are many ways that we could go astray before reaching the goal, either by taking a path to some other goal, or by taking a path less suited to the goal. So we also expect the details of our plan to keep us on the particular course that we have planned, which we suppose to be the best, or at least the best path considering our situation as a whole. If we did not keep those details in mind, we would not likely remain on this precise path. As an example, I might plan to stop at a grocery store on my way home from work, out of the desire to possess a sufficient stock of groceries, but if I do not keep the plan in mind, my desire to get home may cause me to go past the store without stopping. Again, this is why our explanation of belief is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one explicitly understood by the subject as such; by saying “I will use A, B, and C, to get to goal Z,” we expect that keeping these details in mind, together with our desire for Z, we will be moved along this precise path, and we wish to follow this path, for the sake of Z.

There is a lot more that could be said about this. For example, it is not difficult to see here an explanation for the fact that such complicated plans rarely work out precisely in practice, even in the absence of external impediments. We expect our desire for the goal to keep us on track, but in fact we have other desires, and there are an indefinite number of possibilities for those other desires to make something else happen. Likewise, even if the plan was the best we could work out in advance, there will be numberless details in which there were better options that we did not notice while planning, and we will notice some of these as we proceed along the path. So both the desire for the goal, and the desire for other things, will likely derail the plan. And, of course, most plans will be derailed by external things as well.

A combination of the above factors has the result that I will leave the consideration of the fourth and fifth arguments to another post, even though this was not my original intention, and was not my belief about what would happen.

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.

The Practical Argument for Free Will

Richard Chappell discusses a practical argument for free will:

1) If I don’t have free will, then I can’t choose what to believe.
2) If I can choose what to believe, then I have free will [from 1]
3) If I have free will, then I ought to believe it.
4) If I can choose what to believe, then I ought to believe that I have free will. [from 2,3]
5) I ought, if I can, to choose to believe that I have free will. [restatement of 4]

He remarks in the comments:

I’m taking it as analytic (true by definition) that choice requires free will. If we’re not free, then we can’t choose, can we? We might “reach a conclusion”, much like a computer program does, but we couldn’t choose it.

I understand the word “choice” a bit differently, in that I would say that we are obviously choosing in the ordinary sense of the term, if we consider two options which are possible to us as far as we know, and then make up our minds to do one of them, even if it turned out in some metaphysical sense that we were already guaranteed in advance to do that one. Or in other words, Chappell is discussing determinism vs libertarian free will, apparently ruling out compatibilist free will on linguistic grounds. I don’t merely disagree in the sense that I use language differently, but in the sense that I don’t agree that his usage correspond to the normal English usage. [N.B. I misunderstood Richard here. He explains in the comments.] Since people can easily be led astray by such linguistic confusions, given the relationships between thought and language, I prefer to reformulate the argument:

  1. If I don’t have libertarian free will, then I can’t make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions.
  2. If I can make an ultimate difference in what I believe that was not determined by some initial conditions, then I have libertarian free will [from 1].
  3. If I have libertarian free will, then it is good to believe that I have it.
  4. If I can make an ultimate difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, then it is good to believe that I have libertarian free will. [from 2, 3]
  5. It is good, if I can, to make a difference in my beliefs undetermined by initial conditions, such that I believe that I have libertarian free will.

We would have to add that the means that can make such a difference, if any means can, would be choosing to believe that I have libertarian free will.

I have reformulated (3) to speak of what is good, rather than of what one ought to believe, for several reasons. First, in order to avoid confusion about the meaning of “ought”. Second, because the resolution of the argument lies here.

The argument is in fact a good argument as far as it goes. It does give a practical reason to hold the voluntary belief that one has libertarian free will. The problem is that it does not establish that it is better overall to hold this belief, because various factors can contribute to whether an action or belief is a good thing.

We can see this with the following thought experiment:

Either people have libertarian free will or they do not. This is unknown. But God has decreed that people who believe that they have libertarian free will go to hell for eternity, while people who believe that they do not, will go to heaven for eternity.

This is basically like the story of the Alien Implant. Having libertarian free will is like the situation where the black box is predicting your choice, and not having it is like the case where the box is causing your choice. The better thing here is to believe that you do not have libertarian free will, and this is true despite whatever theoretical sense you might have that you are “not responsible” for this belief if it is true, just as it is better not to smoke even if you think that your choice is being caused.

But note that if a person believes that he has libertarian free will, and it turns out to be true, he has some benefit from this, namely the truth. But the evil of going to hell presumably outweighs this benefit. And this reveals the fundamental problem with the argument, namely that we need to weigh the consequences overall. We made the consequences heaven and hell for dramatic effect, but even in the original situation, believing that you have libertarian free will when you do not, has an evil effect, namely believing something false, and potentially many evil effects, namely whatever else follows from this falsehood. This means that in order to determine what is better to believe here, it is necessary to consider the consequences of being mistaken, just as it is in general when one formulates beliefs.

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.

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.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.