Jim Henry - for TC #260

Belief - historical vs. logical reasons

In the last issue I left off after sketching my personal history. In that article I focused on the sequence of events that led me from being dogmatically libertarian in politics and agnostic in religion about ten years ago, to becoming Catholic and being much less sure than I used to be of what the size and role of the state ought to be. Filthy Pierre writes: (TC #259, p. 80)

For the rest of us, "why I believe" is virtually identical to "how I went" from non-belief to belief.

I find, when I analyze my thinking processes, that there is often a time lag between my being logically convinced of something, and really believing it so that I can confidently act on it. This is especially true when the reasoning by which I am convinced is probabilistic, not an absolute proof, as is nearly all reasoning outside of pure math; when the results seem counterintuitive or unwelcome, going against my prejudices or self-interest or both. I see this happening in mundane matters, not just with respect to political and religious beliefs. Because I am optimistic, it takes me awhile to really start taking seriously evidence that the company I work for is doing poorly and I might be laid off, so that I start hunting for a new job. Because becoming Catholic would require changes in my habits, some seemingly difficult, and unpleasant confrontation with my Baptist friends and relatives, I took longer to process the evidence I saw into belief I could act on than I should have if I were motivated purely by reason and evidence. Because recognizing God as real would require a total change in my orientation, it took me awhile to go from reasoning through apologetic arguments and admitting their force, to actual belief in God. That psychological analysis is not the whole picture; the grace of God enters in to such changes in belief, not only when a person comes to believe in God, Christ, and his Church, but any time someone admits they were wrong about anything, conquering temptations to intellectual pride and self-deception, loving truth more than their self-image or reputation.

When we are convinced of something, even if not by rigorous geometrical logic, we often do not just suppose it probable; we believe it true, if it concerns us in any way such that we have to act on it in one way or another. If some asserted fact is remote and has no bearing on our lives, we might suspend belief, and really be agnostic about whether those who assert it are mistaken or lying, or really telling the truth. For instance, I live in suburban Atlanta, and rarely travel to the West. The stories about Bigfoot are disputed, and fairly unconvincing, so I think it improbable that such creatures exist. But I can afford to be agnostic about it because it has no bearing on my life, one way or another. God, as our maker and judge, has infinitely more to do with our lives than geographical facts about places we have never been to, which we might accept on third-hand testimony because we have no reason to doubt them, or be skeptical about but not positively disbelieve because they don't matter to us. True agnosticism about God is, I think, usually an unstable state of mind. Once you confront the evidence about God, you have to make up your mind to believe or disbelieve. But it may take some time. And when you go from thinking "these arguments about God are convincing, he probably exists" to "The Lord our God is One" - it doesn't make sense to suppose that you made that jump entirely on your own.

I hope this explains the distinction I made between "why I believe" and "how I came to believe". John Henry Newman's A Grammar of Assent (1870) treats this process in great depth, and his analysis largely accords with my own experience, so I know I'm not totally anomalous in this regard. I would be grateful if some of you can comment on your own experiences; whether you have noticed any gap between when you saw the decisive piece of evidence that "convinced" you of something, and your actually coming to believe it and act on it.

Some of the reasons I believe in God and his Church

The regularity and consistency of our experience leads us to realize that we are not the only being; we're embedded in an objective physical world, and we aren't the only ones so embedded. Other humans clearly have an internal mental life similar to our own. Why are we? Why is this world? Well, various possibilities are imaginable; but I think I can sum up the more plausible ones briefly:

  1. The world has always existed,
  2. The world came into existence by no cause, or,
  3. The world was made by some being more than human.

But if don't treat the time dimension as a special case, then those possibilities can be restated as:

  1. The world is infinitely long in the time dimension, and exists by no outside cause.
  2. The world is finite in the time dimension (either looped or bounded), and exists by no outside cause.
  3. Or, the world is caused by something logically (not chronologically) prior to it - whether it is infinite or finite in extent.

In other words, either the world is self-existent, or caused by something (or someone) outside it. It looks too complex and arbitrary to be necessarily self-existent; it doesn't explain itself. An eternally self-existent set of basic physical laws, and an eternally self-existent space-time medium in which they work out complex results such as life, seems more arbitrary and improbable than God, who is eternally self-existent and deliberately creates a space-time which works by laws he designed to allow humans and other creatures to live.

This gets us only as far as Deism; an aesthetic preference. If God created the world but but does not work in it to reveal himself to us, except by the orderly complexity of his creation, we might believe in God just because materialist atheism multiplies hypotheses needlessly. But: if God is involved with his world beyond merely creating it, what would that involvement look like? There are (at least) two anomalous phenomena in human history that look like God is revealing himself to us: the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. Their seemingly unnatural endurance over far more centuries than any other human tribe or human institution, combined with their explanations of this endurance - the Jews have survived and maintained their identity because they are God's chosen people; the Church has survived and kept teaching the same things because it was founded by Christ, who was God become a man - are odd, and are certainly evidence of something - of weird possibilities of human nature, if nothing else. When I look into the history of the Church, all the alternative explanations for it look silly and implausible compared to accepting what the Church says about itself at face value.

This is only a brief sketch; I can expand and give more detail on any point if other Connectors ask for it. I hope this is at least a start to answering Filthy Pierre's objection to my arguments about marriage: (TC #258, p. 40)

If you want to talk about God, and whether such a figure exists, I'm open to it. But I'll have to be convinced first, before I can give weight to propositions that assume God's existence.

I believe this was in response to my statement that God helps people who want to do right resist temptations, in our discussion of premarital sex (TC #258, p. 19). I don't expect this brief sketch of the evidence of God to convince you, but if you explain what part of it you find unconvincing and why, we can move on from there. Stephen, if you want to move beyond merely asserting (TC #258, p. 10) that "the Universe is a random collection of galaxies and other matter" with no "significance" and explain why you think it is random and without significance, I would appreciate it.

Comments on property and marriage

Filthy Pierre, TC #258, p. 39. Yes, a wider distribution of property requires cultural changes and education in how to use property of various kinds responsibly and sensibly. A sudden confiscation from the wealthy and redistribution to the poor would benefit few and harm most. That's not what I'm advocating. I'm not dogmatically committed to a progressive property tax, or to any other particular tax scheme. I tossed the idea out in a TC article, hoping others will point out what's wrong with it, if it's wrong. I don't think a progressive property tax would necessarily be "(essentially confiscatory)", but on further reflection I can see how it might develop that way over successive permutations of the law, just as the income tax gradually became confiscatory at the highest income levels once the princple of a progression of tax levels was admitted as constitutional. However, I don't think the incentive structure is quite the same for taxes on income and land. A high marginal tax rate on high incomes means that people already earning in the highest tax bracket have little incentive to earn more money; that reduces the productivity of the economy as a whole. A high marginal tax rate on large land holdings, on the other hand, would mean that property owners would have little incentive to acquire more land unless they can make it extremely productive. They would have an incentive to sell their less productive land to others. This could be a help to those with less wealth who are looking to buy, as more would be for sale and fewer wealthy persons and corporations would be bidding for what is available. But possibly there are other evil effects of this scheme which I haven't thought of, besides the temptation to make it increasingly progressive and, as you say, "essentially confiscatory".

Dante, TC #259 p. 12 - I am using "property" in a fairly conventional sense: primarily referring to real property (land and buildings) and personal property (clothes, tools, furniture, toys, etc. and abstractions like money, stocks, bonds, etc.), secondarily to intellectual property (things that can be copyrighted, trademarked or patented). Probably physical personal property originated first, in hunter-gatherer societies. Ownership of land probably developed later, either as distinct territories for different hunter-gatherer tribes, or parallel with agriculture. Abstract personal property (shares of stock, etc.) and intellectual property are the most recent developments.

Bernie, TC #259 p. 3 - I think your ideas about land ownership are ahistorical. You chastise David Hoscheidt (TC #256, p. 0) for generalizing about "the Indians" instead of mentioning "one particular Indian", and you state: "Under Libertarianism, individuals own property - not groups". You seem to think that the Libertarian model of property rights is transcendentally true for all human societies at all times and places. But what does it mean for the Indian tribes which either did not think of land in terms of ownership at all, or thought of it in terms of tribal territory? Do you mean that nobody really owned any land in North America until the Europeans with their ideas about individual real property came over, so their claiming unowned land involved no injustice to the Indians? I hope not. Or do you mean that the Indians really owned their "tribal" land individually, but they didn't know it because no Libertarian philosopher had enlightened them yet?

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the basic idea of personal property is probably inherent in human nature. But the extension of the idea to land, shares of stock, copyright in writings and so forth is contingent on development of customs and laws. When two societies with different customs about property meet, conflict is likely - e.g., between Europeans and Indians over property in land, or between the Americans and the Chinese over copyright of text, music, film and so forth.

As for the "wider distribution of property" I advocate, I am thinking primarily of land and personal property; intellectual property doesn't come into play here much if any.

Abigail, TC #259, p. 8. "Men can adopt their children to activate the laws which benefit children". Leaving that entirely at the father's option would be a bad thing; it give no disincentives against abandoning wife and children. As I noted before (TC #258), I am not entirely happy with the institution of civil marriage; it is not as good as the real thing, sacramental marriage. But your model seems to take no serious account of children. The law, flawed as it is, gives some protection to women and children, and gives incentives to fathers who might be tempted to abandon them. Abolishing civil marriage might have little effect on strong marriages, but it would probably make weak marriages break more often, and make the evil consequences of their breakup even worse.

Abigail, you said, or started to say, something about Hilaire Belloc, but I couldn't quite tell what. Was it that your father's best friend was a son of Hilaire Belloc? And who didn't convert to what?

Canonization, miracles, & post hoc ergo propter hoc

Filthy, TC #259 p. 77. Actually, proof of miracles is one of the last of several stages in the process of beatifying or canonizing someone. It's not enough by itself and it may be unnecessary. The first stage is an investigation of the person's life and writings, including interviews with people who knew them. This is initiated by the bishop of the place where they lived. If the first stage indicates that they practiced heroic virtue, and didn't write anything contrary to Church teaching, then the evidence is reviewed by the Congregation of Rites, and the person is generally declared Venerable at this stage. The number of miracles required for beatification and canonization varies depending on how direct and unambiguous the evidence of heroic virtue gathered in the first stage was. If the person died as a martyr, no evidence of miracles is necessary. If evidence was gathered by interviews with people who knew them directly, only two miracles are required, but if the investigation began long after their death and only written evidence (letters, diaries, etc.) was examined, up to four may be required. Further miracles after the beatification are required for canonization, unless the person was martyred.

The process stopped after the first stage with Christopher Columbus - he was not declared Venerable. John Henry Newman has been declared Venerable, but the last I heard no miracles attributed to his intercession have been investigated. The investigation of Fulton Sheen's life and works has just started.

Individual miracles attributed to the intercession of a holy person who is under consideration for canonization do not have the same burden of proof as the fact that miracles sometimes happen. That is, if once one has accepted historical evidence for one miracle, thus that God sometimes intervenes miraculously, then one will tend to accept reports of other miracles on the same basis as one accepts reports of other improbable but not implausible occurrences. Does the person reporting it seem honest? Does he have any motive to lie about it? Are the circumstances similar to those of other miraculous events in the past? Catholics obviously accept as historical a number of miracles connected with the life of Christ, the most important being the Incarnation and Resurrection; also various miracles that have occurred in Church history after Christ's ascension into heaven. So we hear a report of another miracle with some skepticism (people sometimes lie about miracles), and want strong evidence before we will believe the event is miraculous, but don't regard it as impossible, utterly contrary to our worldview, thus requiring "extraordinary" evidence, in Sagan's phrase - as the AMA doctors regard the cancer cure due to aloe vera juice, in Space Needle's example.

If we had absolute proof that even one miracle was due to the intercession of a particular person with God, we would know the person is a saint. Since the Church requires evidence of several miracles for canonization, obviously we don't expect the evidence for each particular miracle to yield absolute proof, only probable proof. One unexplained event for which no other explanation is available except a saint's intercession might be due to unknown natural causes; but as more and more cases accumulate, it starts to look improbable that all of them are natural.

Finally, our certainty that canonized persons are in Heaven does not rest solely on a chain of reasoning from the evidence of the person's life and writings, miracles attributed to them, and so forth. This certainty rests rather on Christ's promise that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth.

Jim Henry
Lilburn, Georgia

This first appeared in The Connection #260.

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