Jim Henry - for TC #262

Modes of reasoning, and what can go wrong with them

Pierre: you divide reasoning into two types, mathematical and scientific. (TC#261, pp. 30+) Most of our everyday reasoning by which we manage our lives, and most if not all of our reasoning about politics and religion, is of a third kind, which I could call probabilistic - I'm not sure if it has another formal name. We reason syllogistically, as in mathematical reasoning, but mostly from premises that we think, not self-evident, but highly probable to be true. We derive such premises by induction from experience, and by authority of other people we trust. In the sciences in which, from the nature of the subject matter, one can't perform controlled experiments, or in which it's difficult or impossible to vary only one factor at a time, we use probabilistic reasoning as well as or instead of the scientific method strictly so called. I'm thinking of such fields of study as linguistics, economics, and all kinds of historical research (including archaeology and paleontology). Our conclusions are not mathematically certain, but they are as probable as the product of the probability of the premises. If we choose our premises well and reason correctly, we can get near enough certainty to act in reliance upon our conclusions.

The reasoning by which I came to think it highly probable that God exists (before I got to the stage of asking God, if he existed, to help me further), and the different chain of reasoning by which you came to think it highly improbable that God exists, are mostly probabilistic. We used some self-evident premises (e.g. "I exist") but mostly probabilistic premises (e.g. "There are consistent patterns in my experience, and it's often surprising; so almost certainly the world is real and objective"). We started from different sets of premises, so we came up with different conclusions.

Probabilistic reasoning is the best we can do in this matter, until and unless God helps us to go from a probable conclusion to the certainty of faith. He made the world, and us who are embedded in it, to work in consistent ways. He leaves us free, and doesn't tinker with the processes of the world frivolously, or with the working of our minds unnecessarily or without our (at least implicit) permission.

There is a moral component to probabilistic reasoning, in that our ability to select good premises and estimate their probability accurately can be distorted by our self-interest if we aren't careful. The most obvious examples are in political reasoning; it's easy to convince ourselves that policies which are good for us are just. To some extent such self-deception takes the form of fallacious reasoning; but more often, I suspect, it involves falsely estimating the probability of the premises on which we base our political reasoning. The same is true of religious reasoning. Recognizing God as real, and, later, recognizing the authority of his Church, required that I reorient my life around him; it required me to start changing my habits in some difficult ways. So, as I wrote in TC#259 and #260, it took me awhile to accept the arguments for God's existence and the truth of Christianity, and I was tempted (and succumbed for awhile) to believe a world-view that made fewer demands on me.

Fundamental premises where Christianity and materialism (nearly) coincide

In TC#261, p. 0, I said that materialists assume that humans' experience and behavior can be completely accounted for in terms of basic physics; and that we can eventually figure out how to do so, given enough time. This is an additional set of assumptions over and above the basic physical laws which materalists assume as primary in accounting for the world.

In reply, you write: "You question whether the fact that the laws of physics work when applied to subatomic particles, and atoms, and molecules - whether that has any relevance to living things." (TC#261, p. 30) Not quite; I am uncertain whether the known laws of basic physics can completely explain life, and I believe that they cannot completely explain humans' experience. You go on to wonder what would have happened if Newton, or Darwin, had stopped exploring after their first major discoveries, instead of proceeding further on the assumption that the laws of nature are consistent and apply across different realms of experience. Well and good. But this assumption is common to Christianity and materialism. Materialism assumes that phenomena occur in completely consistent patterns, and that these consistent patterns can be briefly described as "laws". As you point out, this is a powerful assumption, actions in reliance on which have led to many interesting and useful discoveries. Christianity (and Judaism, as best I understand) assumes that God works consistently in his administration of the world, and designed the world to work consistently because he likes complex order. This is a powerful assumption, actions in reliance on which have led to many interesting and useful discoveries. It would be hard to sort out all the discoveries due to materialism and those due to theism, because Christian, Jewish, Deist and atheist scientists have been using each others' discoveries as the starting points for their own further researches and discoveries for hundreds of years.

You write (TC#261, p. 31; thanks for the replacement pages!):

Specifically, the materialist "assumption" has proven very powerful over the last few centuries. Therefore, those who want to deny it must meet a heavy burden of proof; they must clear a high bar.

The difference between the Christian and materialist explanation for the world's existence (God made it, vs. There is no reason, it just exists) leads to few or no practical differences in the way Christians and materialists do research in physics or biology. The materalist belief in immutable physical laws, and the Christian belief in God, who acts consistently and designed the world and the living things embedded in it to work by consistent physical laws, leads materialists and Christians to form similar hypotheses and perform similar experiments - often working together on the same research teams. It is in explaining human experience, and guiding human behavior, that the divergence occurs. Our experience of thinking and deciding, and our sense of right and wrong, have not been satisfactorily explained in materialist terms. And as far as I can see, actions in dealing with humans based on materialist assumptions have not led to great results compared with actions based on Christian assumptions.

Where Christianity and materialism diverge

Christian thinking on the nature of humans led to the ameloration of slavery, by ensuring rights of the slave, and its eventual abolition. It led, more generally, to stronger protections for rights to life and property than were typical in pagan times, and to less absolute government with more divided powers. The Founding Fathers to the contrary, the fact that "All men are created equal" is not self-evident (many people who aren't obviously insane disbelieve it); it's a revealed truth taught by Judaism and Christianity. It's true that not all of the men who architected our system of government with its protections for rights were Christian; some were Deists or Unitarians, and a few were atheists. But note that a Deist or Unitarian, though he differs from a Christian in a number of beliefs, typically has a belief that all men are created equal by a more or less transcendent God. To a consistent materialist, who does not recognize any human essence, this notion is at best a convenient fiction that helpfully leads humans to treat other humans nicely.

Or so it appears to me. If you (and I address this question generally to all Connectors who are atheists) believe that all humans are by nature equal, that all humans have basic rights which we have an absolute duty to respect in all cases, which rights it is really wrong, and not just inexpedient, to violate - and it seems to me that many of you do believe this - how does it connect with the rest of your philosophy? I'm not being facetious; I actually want to know. I know that some materialist philosophers base their idea of rights on qualities such as intelligence and consciousness, which leads them to respect such rights to some extent in more complex animals, and ignore them in very young, or severely mentally retarded, or senile humans. Is that what you believe? Or if not that, then what, and why?

Another clear contrast between the results of materialist vs. Christian thinking about human behavior is communism, and the prolonged resistance to it by Catholic and Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe and Russia. Or we can compare how psychoanalysis and other materialist schools of psychiatry compare with Christian counseling and spiritual direction; which has been more productive of human happiness, even on the natural level? This is a messy area; you can find people who have been helped by psychoanlysis and people who have been hurt by Christian counselors and spiritual directors. But it appears to me that psychiatry is most harmful when it acts most consistently on materialist principles; and that all the cases of harm done by Christians doing similar work which I'm aware of (and I know of plenty) are cases of Christians not acting like Christ, or even on Christian principles.

Creation: not exactly causation or implication

You write (TC#261, p. 31): "causation involves a time sequence; if there's no time sequence, then whatever it is you're talking about, it isn't causation."

If you don't want to use the word "cause" for non-temporal relations, fine. What other word would you prefer to use for the relation between 1 and 2? Whatever it is, that is closer in an important way (timelessness) to what Christians mean by God creating the world, than any analogy from causation processes acting within the history of the world. On the other hand, God is free to create the world or not; he freely chooses to create it, and us. But 1 necessarily implies 2. So really God's act of creation is sui generis; timeless unlike conception and birth, or invention and construction, but free unlike logical implication. We don't have a word for this; we have to use either "cause" or "imply" in an analogical sense.

When it makes sense to hypothesize a miracle

Filthy Pierre writes (TC#261, p. 32), about the belief that miracles do occasionally happen,

The problems with the latter (religious) approach I talked about above: when a Galileo looks up at the pendulum chandelier in his church, or Newton looks up at the heavenly bodies, and wonders why things are as they are, crying "Miracle!" ends the process right there. Nothing is learned about how to predict or control or use such effects; science never happens.

Your examples are poorly chosen. Christians believe that miracles are exceptional (rare) occurences; that God acts consistently and designed his world to work consistently. As I pointed out above, physical phenomena such as Galileo and Newton investigated can be (and were, by Newton and others) explored just as profitably using Christian assumptions about extremely consistent natural law, as on materialist assumptions about immutable law. It is with apparent exceptional occurrences, that don't seem to fit with natural law as understood till now, that the hypothesis of miracle is sometimes entertained. We know that miracles are rare, so, until an occurrence has been thoroughly investigated and natural explanations are ruled out, a miracle is the least probable explanation. It's true that, in saying "that is apparently a miracle", Christians are in a sense "giving up" on further investigation. But it makes sense for us to do so, if we keep in mind some of the conditions under which miracles are known to sometimes occur; generally in connection with very holy persons, following prayer. By allowing the hypothesis of miracle we occasionally get false positives, describing as a miracle something that may turn out to have been a natural occurrence; but materialists, in refusing to admit the possibility of miracle on a priori grounds, get a lot of false negatives.

Limited usefulness of Ockham's Razor

In TC#260, p. 23, I said that materialist atheism "multiplies hypotheses needlessly", because I judged the assumption of an eternal set of complex laws and their implementation in the world to be more complicated than the assumption that God exists. In reply, you've made the argument that the idea of God is more complicated than the materialist analysis of the way the world works. The relative complexity of our ideas is not necessarily the same as the relative complexity of the realities those ideas refer to. You're probably right that we aren't going to get very far trying to compare the fewness of the assumptions made by Christianity vs. atheist materialism, because of inability to agree about what counts as one assumption.

Brief comments for Abigail Bosworth, Stephen Frey, Jim Downard

Abigail: I don't understand your comment in TC#260, p. 3. Are you making a distinction between sentience and intelligence? Or are you asserting that Jews and Christians make a false distinction in kind between humans and all other animals, and saying you think the difference is one of degree - various animals having somewhat lesser degrees of sentience and/or intelligence than humans? Please clarify.

Thanks for the family history (TC#261, p. 11). I know that Hilaire Belloc suffered a stroke and was unable to speak or write for the last several years of his life; I don't know anything about his son Hilary except what you've told me. What do you mean by "one wonders at the karma involved"?

I've recently read Hilaire's The Path to Rome, a delightful travel memoir about his pilgrimage (mostly on foot) from his hometown in France to Rome in the summer of 1901.

Stephen: You write (TC #261, p. 7): "I find it difficult to believe that you were ever a genuine atheist... I have never, ever, known a real atheist to convert to [Christianity]". This sounds to me like a curious echo of the Baptist notion of "once saved, always saved". Many, perhaps most, Baptists believe that a Christian can never cease to be a Christian. Some of our Baptist relations are in doubt about whether Brian is deluding himself now that he's a neopagan, or whether he was deluding himself earlier that he was a Christian; they can't believe that he was a Christian and is no longer.

Jim Downard: I said (TC #259, p. 23) that "it is important to improve the distribution of wealth... by helping destitute people become merely poor...". You ask (TC #260, p. 21):

...a more honest formulation of your premise would be "it is desirable" to find some mechanism to more equitably redistribute the wealth. Am I right?

Why should I care whether the destitute (homeless) have a home?...

"It is desirable" is not strong enough. I would rephrase what I said thusly: We have a duty to ameliorate and prevent severe poverty. Whether we can best fulfil that duty by organizing private charities, altering the tax system, or something else (or some combination) is open to debate.

I'm not sure there is any argument I can use that is sure to convince you, as I could convince an apathetic Christian or Jew simply by reminding him of principles of his religion he hasn't thought about in a while. But try these thought experiments.

  1. You make a series of stupid mistakes and become poor, and everyone you ask for help says: "Sorry, you made such and such stupid mistakes, you can go starve for all I care." What would you think of them? What would you think if you finally meet someone who says "Yes, I see you've made mistakes, and I hope you've learned from them. I'll help you in such and such ways so you have another chance to start over"?
  2. You get sick for a long while, lose your job and your health insurance, have to sell most of your property to pay medical bills, and end up living in a slum apartment, able to work only part-time because you aren't fully recovered. Everyone you ask for help says "It's your misfortune and none of my own". What would you think of them? What would you think of the few people you later find who are willing to help you? Which kind of person would you rather be?

Jim Henry
Lilburn, Georgia
http://www.pobox.com/~jimhenry
jimhenry@pobox.com


This first appeared in The Connection #262.

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