Saturday, December 5, 2020

Why Would God Create People He Knows Will Go to Hell?

Why Would God Create People He Knows Will Go to Hell?
By Jimmy Akin

This is a common question, and many have tried to answer it online.

Most of the answers are unsatisfying. They tend to do one of two things:
 

- Say a lot of stuff that doesn’t really address the issue (e.g., discussing why anyone would go to hell and the possibility of salvation)
- Say it’s a mystery

Many of the answers you’ll find spend a lot of words on these two things (frankly, a painfully large number of words), but the first is irrelevant and the second is not very informative.

It’s true that, since God’s mind is infinite and ours are finite, we often can’t give definitive answers about his decisions, so an element of mystery remains.

However, we can often give partial answers—or at least make informed proposals. In other words, we often can do better than saying, “We just don’t know; it’s a mystery.”

I think we can do better in this case.

 

Keeping the Issue Focused

To avoid going off on tangents, let’s make the issue as focused as possible. Suppose there is a person—we’ll call him Bob—and the following is true:

    In his eternal perspective outside of time, God knows that—if he creates Bob—then Bob will freely choose to go to hell.

We’ll also assume that:

- In his eternal perspective outside of time, God could freely choose not to create Bob (i.e., God has free will).
-God is just.
-God is loving and thus does not want anyone to go to hell.

Given these things: Why would God create Bob? Let’s look at some possibilities . . .
 

Possibility #1: There Is a Competing Good

Even if people don’t want something, they may tolerate it for the sake of a competing good.

I may not want the pain of having to get an injection, but I may tolerate it in order to avoid getting a disease.

In the same way, God may not want Bob to go to hell, but he may tolerate it for the sake of some other good or set of goods.

What might these be?

 

a) Free Will (and Love)

An answer that some propose is free will. In other words, God tolerates the decisions of some to go to hell because he wants to preserve their free will—which he does for the sake of genuine love.

Love is God’s most important priority (Matt. 22:37-40), and he wants people to be able to freely choose love. Programmed, robotic “love” would lack something and not be fully genuine. This means he must tolerate the possibility that they will misuse their freedom and reject love.

All that’s true, but it doesn’t really address our issue.

If our starting assumption is true—that God knows what Bob will freely choose if he creates him—then God could simply decide not to create him.

In that case, he could stop Bob from going to hell without seeming to violate his free will. Bob would simply never have existed.

The free will defense thus doesn’t seem to work if our starting assumption is true, so what other possibilities are there for a competing good that would lead God to tolerate Bob going to hell?

 

b) God’s Glory

Perhaps the most commonly proposed answer is God’s own glory. The idea here is that it brings glory to God to have illustrations of his character that actually exist.

Bob’s going to hell provides a concrete example of God’s justice in that God did give Bob the offer of salvation—and Bob freely rejected it. He’s thus an object lesson that illustrates certain aspects of God’s character and brings glory to God.

Many will find this answer unsatisfying. If a human being were willing to let someone go to hell simply for the sake of his own glory, we would say that human was a raging egomaniac.

Of course, God is not a human being. We have only finite value, but God has infinite value, so his glorification would be worth more—even infinitely more—than the glorification of a human.

This would make it more understandable how God might tolerate the loss of Bob’s soul.

 

c) Something Else

It’s also possible that there might be a different good for the sake of which God tolerates Bob’s loss.

The history of the world involves a complex tangle of the billions of interrelated choices people make, and you could propose that—in order to set up the free will decisions of some to go to heaven—God must tolerate the misuse of free will by others.

Thus, God might tolerate Bob’s misuse of free will for the sake of making it possible for others to use theirs properly.

Or, since the universe is vast and we know only a tiny part of it, there might be some other good—perhaps one that we haven’t even conceived of—that justifies God tolerating Bob’s misuse of free will.

While both of these suggestions are possible, they are both very speculative, which means many will find them unsatisfying.

So perhaps we can look at the issue from a different angle.

 

Possibility #2: God Isn’t Being Unjust

One of our starting assumptions is that God is just. In the present context, that means it isn’t unjust for God to tolerate Bob’s free decision to reject salvation.

(You could challenge the justness of anybody going to hell, but that’s a different discussion. Here, we’re assuming that it is just for God to allow people to go to hell.)

In this case, God has genuinely given Bob the offer of salvation, and he has freely chosen to reject it, so God is not being unjust by respecting his choice.

Bob cannot—and, if he’s thinking rationally, would not—accuse God of injustice. God has been fair with him.

Is this enough to resolve our dilemma?

It certainly helps to realize that God isn’t being unjust, but it doesn’t seem to fully resolve the matter.

Our starting assumptions didn’t simply involve God being just. They also involved God not wanting people to go to hell.

So, if we’re not appealing to a competing good that would lead God to tolerate Bob’s loss, why wouldn’t he act on his desire to keep Bob out of hell and simply not create him?

There doesn’t seem to be a good answer to this question. So, while realizing God isn’t being unjust helps, it provides an incomplete answer.

 

Possibility #3: God Is Actually Benefiting Bob

But perhaps God is being more than fair with Bob. Perhaps he is benefiting him by creating him, even though he will spend an infinite amount of time in hell.

Some have argued that it’s better to exist—even in hell—than not to exist at all.

If that’s the case, then God is actually being generous to Bob by creating him, despite his damnation.

And we would know what the competing good is that leads God to tolerate Bob’s misuse of free will: It’s Bob’s own existence.

If it’s better to exist in hell than not to exist at all then that’s why God chooses to create him. Bob will actually benefit!

Whether you find this solution plausible will depend on how bad you imagine hell to be and how great a good you suppose existence to be.

Based on some of the images in Scripture (e.g., hell as a lake of fire; Rev. 20:14-15), many have thought that it would be better not to exist than to go there.

However, the images that Scripture uses to describe the afterlife are accommodated to our present understanding, which is limited by our experience of this life, and they should be read with some caution.

It could turn out that, from the greater perspective the next life will offer, even the damned will see that it is better for them to exist in their current condition than not to exist at all.

Some, even in this life, have made this argument.

 

Possibility #4: God Doesn’t Create Bob

Suppose that it’s better not to exist than to spend eternity in hell. In that case, if there is no competing good that would lead God to create Bob, he might simply not create him.

However, Bob is only a representative of an entire class of people—those who misuse their free will and reject God’s offer of salvation.

In that case, it would seem that God would not create anybody that would reject his offer, in which case hell would be empty.

This idea has been explored by various figures down through Church history, including the recent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), who discussed it in his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

Von Balthasar frames his proposal carefully. Since the Church teaches that hell is a real possibility, he only proposes we may be able to hope (not assert) that hell is empty.

The difficulty for this view is found in various statements in the New Testament that appear to indicate some people actually are in hell (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23, Luke 13:23-28).

(For a careful analysis of part of this issue, see Cardinal Avery Dulles’s insightful article The Population of Hell.)

 

Possibility #5: Reject the Starting Assumption

If the above possibilities are not fully satisfying, perhaps we should revisit our initial assumption concerning Bob, which was:

    In his eternal perspective outside of time, God knows that—if he creates Bob—then Bob will freely choose to go to hell.

This assumption holds that God knows what Bob would freely choose to do if he existed.

Does God have that kind of knowledge?

Historically, theologians have recognized that God has two types of knowledge:

-Knowledge of all possible things
-Knowledge of all actual things

Both of these kinds of knowledge cover everything past, present, and future.

If God creates Bob and makes him an actual thing, then God also knows what Bob’s actual choice is, which is to reject salvation.

However, suppose that God doesn’t create Bob. What does God know in that case?

By his knowledge of all possible things, God knows from his eternal perspective that it is possible for Bob to accept his offer of salvation. He also knows that it is possible for Bob to reject salvation.

But that doesn’t reveal which Bob does choose because Bob doesn’t exist and never makes the choice.

 

Middle Knowledge?

For God to know what Bob would choose if he were created, God would need an additional kind of knowledge that lets him know what people would freely choose if they are placed in certain circumstances (such as being created).

In the last 500 years, theologians have begun to explore this idea and have named this third kind of knowledge “middle knowledge,” since it seems part way between God’s knowledge of the possible and the actual.

In his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott holds that the Church has definitively taught that God knows all possible things and all actual things, and they are matters “of the Faith” (de fide) (pp. 40-42).

However, he lists middle knowledge as only the “common opinion” (sent. communis.) of theologians (pp. 42-43).

There are a passages of Scripture that one can appeal to in support of God having middle knowledge (e.g., 1 Sam. 23:1-13, Wis. 4:11, Matt. 11:21).

However, there are only a few such passages, and they can be read in ways that don’t require middle knowledge.

There also is an argument to be made against middle knowledge.

 

Omnipotence and Omniscience

Because God is all-powerful and all-knowing, one always should be hesitant to say there are things he “can’t” do or know, but there are limits to omnipotence and omniscience.

Omnipotence means that God can do everything that can be done—in other words, anything that is logically possible. However, it does not mean that God could make something that involves a logical contradiction, where the terms themselves conflict.

For example, God could not make a square circle or a four-sided triangle, because these involve contradictions in terms. They are just nonsense—a kind of word salad that has no real meaning.

Similarly, omniscience means that God knows everything that can be known. However, it does not mean that he knows logically impossible things.

For example, God does not know the shape of a square circle or the shape of a four-sided triangle.

What about Bob’s choice to go to hell?

 

To Be or Not To Be?

If Bob exists, then he freely makes the choice, and God knows it.

But if Bob is never created, then he would never make this free will decision, and God would have to know the outcome of a free will decision that is never made.

“The outcome of a free will decision that is never made” sounds a lot like “square circle” or “four-sided triangle.”

The essence of a free will decision is that it is really possible for a person to make one choice or another when the moment comes. But if the moment never comes, then there simply is no outcome, because the choice is never made.

There is thus a case to be made that “the outcome of a free will choice that is never made” involves a contradiction in terms.

In that case, God would not know Bob’s decision—unless he creates Bob.

 

The Free Will Defense Returns

If middle knowledge involves a logical contradiction, then God wouldn’t have it, and so he would not be able to foresee what Bob will freely choose and refrain from creating him.

To know what Bob will actually choose, God would need to create him.

And in that case, the free will defense that we discussed in Possibility #1 would work!

God would create Bob, see his decision to reject salvation, and the counterbalancing good that explains why God tolerates this is his desire to let Bob have free will so that he can make an authentic choice between love and non-love.

 

Mystery Remains

While “It’s just a mystery” isn’t a satisfying answer, it is true that we can’t always propose a single, definite answer to matters involving God.

However, while his mind is infinite and ours are only finite, we often can at least sketch the outlines of possible reasons he makes the decisions he does.

In this case, I haven’t settled on a final answer to the question we began by posing, so mystery remains.

But we have fleshed out possible reasons that shed light on this question.

Which solution you find most likely will depend on your views of various matters, but at least we can have the assurance that there are solutions.

And that God is just. And that he really does offer us salvation.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Halloween: Everything You Think You Know About it is Probably Wrong

 (Taken from Mark Shea's annual Halloween post at Stumbling Toward Heaven)

Every year, somebody stoops down to instruct us ignorant Catholics about the real origins of Halloween.

According to that pop history, it was originally a pagan feast and then the Christians baptised it.

Depending on who you talk to, this proves that a) Christianity is really just warmed over Druidry (according to neo-pagans) or b) the Catholic Church is an evil pagan cult that drove Real Bible-believing Christians underground with their devil-worshiping ways (according to Protestant Fundamentalists).

Thing is, none of that is real.

Sure the ancient Celts of the British Isles had a little festival on 31 October called Samhain.

And it was about as important as Arbor Day. But the feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” had nothing to do with it.

In fact, All Saints was founded by Roman Christians way down in Italy for a practical logistical purpose: the 7th Century Italian Church was swimming in martyrs and saints and every feast day was a day off from work.

Solution: celebrate them all at once and get Italy back to work. So that’s what the pope did–on May 13.

It wasn’t for another century that All Saints got moved to November 1. And that was because it was the dedication day of All Saints Chapel at St Peter’s in Rome (not Britain or Ireland).

Indeed, it was not until a century after this that Pope Gregory IV commanded All Saints to be observed everywhere and not just in Rome.

And so this emphatically Italian holy day (finally!) spread to Ireland.

But here’s the thing: Ireland had already been thoroughly Christian (due to St Patrick) for three centuries by then.

So where does the Day of the Dead vibe come from?

Thereby hangs a tale. You see, about a century and a half later, the jumpingest joint in the Church was the monastery at Cluny (way over in southern France — not Ireland).

And the abbot there added a celebration of All Souls on November 2, which spread like wildfire, resulting in back-to-back feasts for all those in heaven and purgatory.

“Well, hey!” the superstitious Irish fretted, “What are the damned? Chopped liver? What if they get ticked about being stiffed?”

So it became an Irish folk custom to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Eve to mollify the damned.

The Church was not keen on this, but whaddayagonnadoo?

The Irish (alone) keep this up until the 14th and 15th centuries, when the colossal death toll of the bubonic plague gets most Europeans pretty focused on the afterlife, All Souls Day, and customs like the danse macabre, when the French would dress up in costume representing everybody from the pope and the king down to the fishmonger and have a fun time dancing their way to the grave.

Then came two other events: the Reformation and the discovery of the New World.

The Reformation made Catholics the persecuted enemies of the English and the New World made it possible for those persecuted minorities to mix and mingle among English colonists.

So the French and Irish Catholics started hanging out together and marrying each other in 17th-century America. Creepy Irish folk customs about mollifying the damned and creepy French masquerades went together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Protestants brought something to the mix as well: Guy Fawkes Night. Guy Fawkes was the English equivalent of the bogeyman or George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984.

He was executed in 1605 on the charge of being a Catholic Osama bin Laden and trying to blow up Parliament.

Instead of 15 Minute Hates, the crown settled on the wonderfully unifying device of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5, with all the fun of lighting bonfires, running around on a chilly fall night, and partying while an effigy of Guy Fawkes was hanged or burnt so that all Good English Protestants could thank God they were not like those Catholic vermin everybody hated.

And for extra special fun, in England and America in the 18th century, Protestants would put on masks and visit local Catholic houses in the dead of night demanding beer and cakes for their celebration — or else.

When they said “trick or treat!” they meant it.

This got amalgamated to the All Saints/All Souls partying of the Irish and French and by the mid-1800s, a largely made-in-the-USA Halloween was a fixture of American culture.

In short, Halloween is, in fact, as ancient, pagan, mystical, and druidic as “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

And where it is most ancient, it is least pagan — and most deeply Catholic–which is why (in non-COVID times) it is a Holy Day of Obligation. Meanwhile, in Europe, until American cultural trends started cramming our customs down their throats, Halloween has never been a thing. Indeed, the irony is that Halloween has only recently started to drift across the Atlantic to the supposed land of its birth.

Europeans tend to see it, not as a resurgence of pre-Christian pagan roots, but as something recent and ersatz–like saying the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland is an authentic account of 17th century seamanship.

Anyway, if you are Catholic don’t let anybody talk you out of celebrating All Saints and All Souls Days with bogus “history” of their supposed “pagan origins”.

And have a fun time tonight!)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Without a "mind" there is no music...

Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.

Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn't found the place to blow,
It blew to hard, the aim was song,
And listen, how it ought to go.

He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.

By measure, it was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be,
A little  through the lips and throat.
The aim was song, the wind could see.

R.Frost, The aim was song

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Is "GOD" one of "the gods", and is disbelieving in either the same disbelief?

(Quoted from Marc Barnes)

It seems apparent to me that, if the atheist wishes to disprove or otherwise snub his empirically verifiable nose at the idea of God, he ought to be sure that he knows what the word “God” refers to. David Bentley Hart makes this one of the central propositions of his book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” where he contends that “the more scrutiny one accords [the God Debate] the more evident it becomes that often the contending parties are not even talking about the same thing; and I would go as far as to say that on most occasions none of them is talking about God in any sense at all.”

There is a tendency, for instance, for atheists to believe that God is a god. The best example of this is in the following, oft-heard “arguments” — and I use the term in the haziest possible sense — against the existence of God: ”We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” or that tragic, near-mystical exercise in atheistic coyness — “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

The problem with believing that the God of philosophical tradition is just another type of powerful, supernatural being — akin to Zeus — is that He is not, and no theist can be a theist within his own tradition and maintain otherwise. The successful dismissal of God-as-all-other-gods has all the nonsensical weight of dismissing the existence of a buffalo considered as a planet. The gods are contingent beings. They all have stories of their own creation — something else is always responsible for their existence. They are always popping out of someone else’s head or, if you have the misfortune of being Aphrodite, from Uranus’ detached and far-flung genitals. They are explained by some prior cause.

This is not God. God, if we are going to talk about the same thing, cannot be considered as a contingent being. God, considered properly, is the source of his own existence. He is absolute, which is infinitely, qualitatively different than the contingency of “all other gods,” as it is from all other beings. The Christian has every right to agree with the atheist who refuses to believe in God with the same vigor by which he refuses to believe in Zeus, a fairy or a flying spaghetti monster. For any fairies or noodly phantasmagoria — if they do exist — would not contain the source of their own existence.

Not understanding that this is what Christians actually mean when they say “God” is the primary reason why any one lends any credence to the that pervasive and Reddit-friendly “argument,” that “If God created all things, who created God?” The question only makes sense if we are speaking of a god, a very powerful, but nevertheless contingent being, a being who does not contain the source of his own existence and must be held in being by some other cause. Why then, does the theist posit the existence of an absolute God? Why believe in God and not god?

The average atheistic minded homo sapien – and the average Christian who doesn’t know better — seems to think that theists are proving the existence of a “god who started it all.” The argument goes like this: Every effect has a cause, and every moving thing is set in motion by some other thing, and thus there must be something which sets the first mechanical movement in motion, and — lest we become caught in infinite regress — this thing must be Uncaused, Unmoved, in short, Absolute. If all things are contingent, the first cause cannot itself be contingent, or else nothing would ever have come into existence. If all that ever existed was always contingent upon something else for its existence, nothing would ever exist. Therefore, from the fact of contingent existence, we may reasonably posit an absolute source of existence.

Now I’ll grant that this argument has more than enough weight to give the atheist pause.  After all, the only alternative to positing a first cause is positing some form of infinite regress. And atheists have, with wonderful gusto. The universe always existed, it is but one of an infinitely repeating cycle of universes, an infinite repetition of a Big Bang and Big Crunch, cycling through a wormhole, etc. If the theist questions the reasonable grounds for these theories, atheists generally point to the fact that, whatever poverty of evidence these theories suffer, they suffer no more than the theory of God.

It seems that we are at an impasse. The theist looks at the contingency of all things and posits an absolute which gives all contingent things a starting point — an Unmoved Mover. The atheist looks at the same and posits an infinite universe. Neither position seems to be rustling up any unopposable proof of its truth anytime soon. The theist may rightly ask how, if particular events are caused by an infinite number of prior events, any would ever happen. The atheist may rightly ask why an absolute one which all contingent things have their source has to be “God” in any meaningful sense.

But this first mover  (considered as so many atheists consider it, as an absolute “start” of all things (which, as readers have pointed out, is not how, say, Aquinas or anyone in the theistic tradition would consider it)) is still not God. Every single being in the entire Cosmos has some prior cause, and every single being has some other motion, event, or source that “takes responsibility” for its existence, and this is all well-worn and obvious, but things are not just contingent in their origin. Things are contingent in their current existence. Hart describes this fact well:

    If one considers the terms of one’s own existence, for instance, one sees that there is no sense in which one is ever self-existent; one is dependent on an incalculable number of ever greater and ever smaller finite conditions, some of which are temporal, and some of which are definitely not, and all of which are dependent on yet further conditions. One is composed of parts, and those of smaller parts, and so on down to the subatomic level, which itself is a realm of contingently subsistent realities that flicker in and out of actuality, that have no ontological ground in themselves, and that are all embraced within a quantum field that contains no more of an essential rationale for its own existence than does any other physical reality. One also belongs to a wider world, upon all of whose physical systems one is also dependent in every moment, while that world  is itself dependent upon an immense range of greater physical realities, and upon abstract mathematical and logical laws, and upon the whole contingent history of our quite unnecessary universe…In short, all finite things are always, in the present, being sustained in existence by conditions which they cannot have supplied for themselves, and that together compose a universe that, as a physical reality, lacks the obviously supernatural power to exist on its own. Nowhere in any of that is a source of existence as such.

All things, in their present existence, are contingent upon innumerable, equally contingent realities for the fact of their sustained existence. I — right here, right now, typing these words — do not hold myself in being. The infinite regress that results from a proposed contingent universe that does not rest on any absolute — this is the same regress we are shot into when we consider, not just the origin of things, but the present existence of any single leaf, electron or baby. It is because of this fact, this poverty, this contingency that pervades our every moment, not just our physical origins, that the idea of God, and not a god, takes hold in the intellect. Hart makes this point clear:

    One will not understand this line of reasoning properly, however, unless one recognizes that it is not concerned with the question of the temporal origins of the universe; it would make no difference to the argument whatsoever if it should turn out that the universe existed forever and will go on existing eternally, without beginning or end, or that it belongs to some beginningless and endless succession of universes….It might be worthwhile to invoke and old Western scholastic distinction between those causal relations that are “accidental (per accidens) and those that are “essential” or “intrinsic” (per se). The former are principally physical relations (in the broadest sense): transitions of energy, movements of mass, acts of generation or destruction, and so on. In an extended series of such relations, the consequences of a particular thing can continue indefinitely after that thing has disappeared, because all causes in the series are ontologically extrinsic to their effects. The classic example is that of a causal relation between a man and his grandson: by the time the latter is sired the former may have been dead for decades; the first act of begetting was not the direct cause of the second. The relation is one of antecedent physical history, not of immediate ontological dependency, and so the being of the grandson does not directly depend on the being of his grandfather. An example on a grander scale might be Roger Penrose’s postulate of an infinite sequence of universes that always meet at conformal past and future boundaries: even this beginningless and endless cosmogonic cycle would add up to only a causal sequence per accidens… Even if this kind of eternal chain of events and substances really were to exist, it would remain the case that, inasmuch as none of the links in that chain could be the source of its own existence, this entire series od causes and effects would be a contingent reality and would still have to sustained in a “vertical”–a per se or ontological–causality; and this second kind of of causal chain most definitely cannot have an infinite number of links. The ultimate source of existence cannot be some item or event that has long since passed away, like a venerable ancestor or even the Big Bang itself–either of which is just another contingent physical entity or occurrence–but must be a constant wellspring at work even now…The cause of being is not some mechanical first instance of physical eventuality that, having discharged its part, may depart the stage; rather, it is the unconditioned reality underlying all conditioned things in every instant.

A rejection of an absolute first “starting point” is not a rejection of God. It is, if anything, a rejection of the God of Deism, an uninvolved Absolute Domino in a cosmic line of dominoes. The God of theistic tradition, that which we mean by the word “God,” is posited by a reflection on the total contingency of all things, by the fact that no one holds the source of their own current-moment existence, any more than they do the source of their origins. A proposed absolute that results from this reflection would have to be an absolute that is an ever-present source of being, giving existence at every moment, an absolute in which all things live, move and have their being, utterly present in every single contingent thing, at every moment.

This is what the Christian tradition means by “God,” and it is not a claim done away with by the position of an infinite repetition of contingent causes, a repetition that requires a here-and-now source of being as much as it does a temporal origin. To do away with a contingent god is to do away with paganism and several sects of fundamentalism. To do away with a mere mover is to do away with Deism. To do away with the theistic tradition, one needs to confront God.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Thinking properly about 'The Lockdown"

(A snippet from Edward Fesser's blog that may help clear the field for thought about the pandemic. Not conclusions, but a guide to organizing thought about it...)

The lockdown

A problematic aspect of the lockdown is that most of what is said about the subject rests either directly or indirectly on the testimony of experts or purported experts. Contrast that with a case of the sort with which readers of this blog are familiar. Philosophical arguments can, for the most part, be evaluated entirely independently of any considerations about the knowledge or objectivity of the person giving them. For example, you can evaluate Chalmers’ Zombie Argument, or Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlin Argument, or Searle’s Chinese Room Argument, without knowing anything about the expertise or biases of Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle.

Of course, you might think that the fact that they gave these arguments reflects certain biases or expertise on their part. But that is entirely irrelevant to how good or bad the arguments themselve sare. There is no premise in any of these arguments that requires you to assume that Chalmers, Nozick, or Searle made a correct judgment call. You don’t have to take their word for anything. For purposes of evaluating the arguments (as opposed to the purposes of, say, doing intellectual history) you can treat them as if they fell from the sky and have no essential connection to their authors.

Little of what is said by way of defending or criticizing the lockdown is like that. Most people’s opinions depend crucially on what they have heard from political commentators, journalists, politicians, and scientists. None of what any of these people say can be evaluated the way a philosophical argument can, viz. in a manner that entirely abstracts from considerations about the knowledge and biases of the people giving the arguments. And that includes, to some extent, the scientists. Moreover, the knowledge and biases of these experts give us grounds for having at least some reservations about what they say. And that too includes, at least to some extent, the scientists.

Before I proceed, and to forestall premature hyperventilating, please take careful note of what I am not saying. I am not saying that the epidemiological opinions of a Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow should be given the same weight as those of an Anthony Fauci. I am not saying that scientists qua scientists are in general as prone to political bias as opinion columnists and elected officials are. I am not saying that we are within our rights in dismissing whatever they have to say if we don’t like it, or that we should throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t trust anyone.

What I am saying is no more and no less than what I already wrote, with nothing hiding between the lines. There are grounds for having some reservations. Science, when done well, is much more immune to the problems of ignorance and bias than journalism and politics are, but it is not entirely immune. And to pretend otherwise is, here too, to commit a fallacy of appeal to authority.


Politicians and journalists

Let’s start with the more obvious cases, though. If you believe what you believe about the lockdown because of what Carlson or Maddow or Donald Trump or Andrew Cuomo has said, then your opinion is based not on abstract arguments but on the authority of someone you take to have the relevant expertise. But of course, politicians, journalists, and opinion makers are in general not experts in epidemiology or public health, and they have strong political biases. That doesn’t mean that you should entirely dismiss what is said by a commentator or public official you judge to be in general competent and honest, but you certainly should take the views of even the best of them with more than a grain of salt.

Let’s put aside for present purposes the more unhinged and blatantly partisan accusations, such as that conservatives don’t care about whether the elderly die or that liberals favor the lockdown only because they hope it will hurt Trump. Even when these are factored out, there are some biases that do plausibly influence the way commentators and politicians approach the current crisis.

For example, conservatives are temperamentally bound to be suspicious of governmental measures that dramatically interfere with the everyday functioning of families, churches, and businesses. This can reflect either the libertarian strain in modern American conservatism or the concern for subsidiarity among more traditionalist conservatives. Naturally, since I am a traditionalist conservative, I regard this as a perfectly normal and healthy instinct. But there is no doubt that, if one is not careful, this instinct can lead one too quickly to dismiss such measures even when they are necessary.

But liberals deceive themselves if they think the bias is all on the conservative side. If the right-wing bias is in the direction of liberty and decentralization, the left-wing bias is in an egalitarian and “one size fits all” direction. This is obvious from the way left-wingers tend to think about healthcare and poverty.

For example, take the premise (with which I agree) that government ought to do something to remedy the fact that some people don’t have adequate healthcare. All that follows is that government should assist those specific people. What does not follow is that we should have a single-payer system. “Government should guarantee that everyone has healthcare” does not entail “Government should be the sole provider of healthcare to everyone.” That some people need governmental assistance doesn’t entail that everyone needs it. The left-wing tendency here is to make the exceptional case the rule for all. Similarly with “universal basic income” schemes. That some people don’t have sufficient income entails at most that government should assist those particular people. It doesn’t follow that government should send everyone a check every month.

Nevertheless, if you don’t favor single-payer healthcare or a universal basic income, some (not all, but some) left-wingers are quick to accuse you of not caring about the needy. Their tendency is to suppose that if you don’t want far-reaching government action in these areas, then you must want no government action.

There is a parallel with the divergence between conservative and liberal reactions to the lockdown situation. It seems pretty clear by now that most people are not in danger of death or even serious illness from Covid-19. It is primarily the elderly and those with certain medical conditions who are at risk, and even then the virus seems to be more of a problem in some parts of the country than others. Nor, as it turns out, have U.S. hospitals been overwhelmed or medical supplies run short (which would affect everyone). Hence, conservatives reasonably wonder why a completely general lockdown is still necessary. Why shouldn’t the lockdown be relaxed, and confined only to the most vulnerable parts of the population?

Some liberals respond with the accusation that conservatives don’t care whether grandma dies – which is as ridiculous as saying that unless you favor single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income, you must not care about the poor. They seem reflexively to think that a policy that is needed for some people must be applied to all. Accordingly, it is perfectly reasonable for conservatives to suspect that some left-wing public officials and journalists have let their bias toward statist and “one size fits all” policies unduly influence their thinking about the lockdown.

Another bias to which all politicians, left and right, are prone is the “sunk cost” fallacy. They are unlikely to want to retreat from a risky or costly policy, precisely because it is risky and costly. To do so would invite the accusation that they have made a colossal blunder. Hence there is a temptation to move the goalposts and look for new rationalizations of such policies.

Many today would say that this is what happened with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they seem not to consider that there is a danger of the same thing happening with the lockdown. The original rationale was to “flatten the curve” so as to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and medical supplies from being depleted. And again, those things have not happened. Mission accomplished. So why is a general lockdown still necessary? As I have argued before, it is not sufficient to reply by suggesting that these bad outcomes could still happen if the lockdown were relaxed. What we need is solid evidence that that is likely.

It is not unreasonable, then, to worry that “sunk cost” thinking and “goalpost moving” is also a factor in some politicians’ thinking about the lockdown.

Here is another potential source of bias. Consider the sorts of people who have primary responsibility for shaping policy and opinion on the lockdown – politicians, journalists and other writers, scientists and other intellectuals, administrators, and the like. For the most part, these are people whose livelihoods have not been affected by the lockdown. Many of them work at home anyway, so that the lockdown is for them largely business as usual. It is not unreasonable for people whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically affected to believe that the policy- and opinion-makers don’t have “skin in the game,” and thus lack a sufficient grasp of the gravity of the lockdown’s effects.

Finally, though it is foolish to suppose that left-of-center journalists and politicians favor a lockdown merely for the purpose of hurting Trump politically, it cannot reasonably be denied that there is a political slant to much coverage of the crisis. For example, though New York has the highest Covid-19 body count in the country and Governor Cuomo’s administration has made serious mistakes in dealing with the crisis, he has enjoyed hagiographic media attention. Does anyone seriously believe that Trump or any other Republican would have gotten the same treatment under those circumstances?

For reasons like these, it is not irrational for people to have reservations about media reports and statements from public officials concerning the lockdown. They are not necessarily guilty of an ad hominem fallacy. On the contrary, they would be guilty of a fallacy of appeal to authority if they didn’t have at least some reservations about what politicians and journalists say on the subject.


But the science!

Some will respond that what matters is what “the science” tells us, so that the biases of journalists and politicians wash out as irrelevant. But one problem with this is that very few people are getting “the science” straight from the scientists. Rather, most are getting it only as filtered through the testimony of… journalists and politicians. This is true to some extent even when scientists are allowed to speak for themselves in interviews. Interviewers, of both the right and the left, will often try to goad their subjects into saying something they can use as political fodder, or otherwise choose or formulate their questions in a way that reflects a certain bias. Even if a scientist tries to correct for all this, much of what he says might still end up on the cutting room floor.

Then there is the fact that scientists themselves have their own biases, simply because they are human beings. You shouldn’t have to have read writers like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend in order to realize this, but it helps. Even when dealing with theoretical abstractions remote from everyday experience, even when the empirical evidence is rich and well understood, and even when they have the leisure to take years calmly to mull things over in relative privacy, scientists are influenced in their thinking by extra-scientific considerations of a philosophical and even political kind. It would be absurd to think things are any different in a context where the evidence is poorly understood and changes daily, the media attention is intense, and the social, political, and economic implications of their advice are enormous.

Scientists also have biases just by virtue of being scientists. What I mean is that, if they are not careful, scientists are prone to look at an issue from a purely scientific perspective even when it has important extra-scientific aspects, or to look at it purely from the perspective of their own scientific sub-discipline even when it has aspects that fall outside the competence of that sub-discipline. Everyone knows this is true of the social sciences, as is evidenced by the genre of “economist jokes.” But it is no less true of the natural sciences.

Now, the question of how to deal with the Covid-19 situation is, of course, an epidemiological and medical question. But it is not just that, because human life is multifaceted, and there are, accordingly, other crucial aspects of any policy implemented in order to deal with the virus. For example, how much economic damage is likely to be done by a lockdown? How will such damage ramify over time? How does the gravity of such damage weigh against the damage the virus is likely to do? At what point might a lockdown result in more sickness and death, given factors such as the lack of herd immunity, neglect of ailments other than Covid-19, the insolvency of medical institutions and their funding sources, etc.? What sort of psychological toll is a lockdown likely to take on people? What sort of social instability is it likely to produce over time? What effects will it have on education?

Medical doctors and epidemiologists have no special expertise on such questions. They fall instead under disciplines such as economics and social psychology. But most importantly, weighing all of these considerations and determining how to balance them requires statesmanship, and the virtue of phronesis – practical wisdom or prudence – which you cannot acquire by reading a book or getting a degree.

Scientists are no more likely to have this virtue than anyone else is. And scientism– the view that science alone gives us knowledge – is one of the great enemies of phronesis. It fits all of reality into an abstract procrustean bed, which rules out the grasp of nuance and concrete circumstances that phronesis requires. And it is blind to what Michael Polanyi called the “tacit dimension” of knowledge that is embodied in habits and instincts acquired through experience rather than book-learning. Yet this tacit knowledge is precisely the kind that phronesis requires.

By no means are all scientists guilty of scientism. But the people who most loudly and obnoxiously claim to have “the science” on their side in any dispute are typically guilty of it, and the degree of self-confidence they possess stands, accordingly, in inverse proportion to their possession of phronesis.

A scientist like Anthony Fauci, then, is not some Philosopher-King whose word should be law, though neither is he a sinister Dr. Strangelove of whom we should be suspect. He’s just one important expert giving valuable advice to be weighed seriously, alongside other valuable advice from other important experts. Nothing less, and also nothing more.

Then there is the fact that “the science” on Covid-19 is very far from clear or settled anyway. “Trust the science” is good advice if we’re talking about the Periodic Table, but just demagoguery in a context where, at least where crucial details are concerned, no one even knows what “the science” is. Certainly it would be dishonest to pretend that science has established that a draconian lockdown strategy is better than, say, Sweden’s approach.

You might say: Why not just go with what “the best science” is telling us? But how do we know which of the “the science” is the “best”? Should we rely on journalists, politicians, and other non-scientists to tell us? But the whole point of appealing to the authority of scientists was to avoid having to rely on these non-specialists! So this answer would just take us back where we started. Should we let scientists themselves, then – well, the best ones anyway – tell us? If you can’t see what’s wrong with that answer, I’ve got a T-shirt to sell you.

What all of this entails is that even an appeal to the authority of scientists can in this context be fallacious, not only because scientists too can be biased, but also because there are two respects in which they can lack the relevant expertise. First, their expertise qua scientists concerns only one aspect of public policy vis-à-vis Covid-19 (albeit a very important aspect) and not the whole of it; and second, the body of information of which they have specialized knowledge is, in the first place, highly incomplete and in flux.


The bottom line

The bottom line is that a non-expert is not necessarily unreasonable if he doubts the experts who favor continuing the lockdown – and indeed, that it would be unreasonable not to have at least some reservations about their advice. That is not to say that everyone who doubts this expert advice is reasonable. There are, of course, cranks among lockdown skeptics. But there are cranks in every area of controversy.

Indeed, if the case ultimately rests on appeal to the authority of experts, it is not at all clear that the grounds for continuing the lockdown are really any stronger than the grounds for winding it down, or at least greatly relaxing it. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (and as others have too), the burden of proof is on those who favor continuing the lockdown, not on those who want to relax it. I trust you have sufficient expertise to do the math.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Denialism...

(A snippet from Edward Fesser's blog)

"Here’s a narrative we’re all by now familiar with.  Call it Narrative A:

Those who initially downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 were guilty of wishful thinking, as are those who think the crisis can be resolved either easily or soon.  This is what the experts tell us, and we should listen to them.  Even though those most at risk of death from the novel coronavirus are the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions, this is a large group.  Moreover, many people who won’t die from the virus will still suffer greatly, and even those with mild symptoms or none at all can still infect others.  Draconian measures are called for, even at the risk of massive unemployment, the undoing of people’s retirement plans, and the depletion of their savings.  Better safe than sorry.  To resist these hard truths is to be guilty of “coronavirus denialism.”

This narrative is now widely accepted, and I have nothing to say here in criticism of it.  More to the present point, it seems to be widely accepted by Catholic bishops, who have been moved by it to suspend most public access to churches and to the sacraments.  I have nothing to say here in criticism of that either.

Here’s another narrative that is also familiar, but less widely accepted.  Call it Narrative B:

Those who suppose that few if any people will go to Hell are guilty of wishful thinking.  This is contrary to scripture and 2,000 years of teaching from the popes, the saints, and the Church’s greatest theologians.  They are the experts and we should listen to them.  Even if it turned out that a minority of the human race is damned, this could still be a large number.  Moreover, even those who will end up instead in Purgatory will still suffer greatly, and those who teach errors or live immoral lives out of invincible ignorance might lead others into damnation.  The call for conversion to the Catholic faith and repentance from sin must be urgently pursued, even at the risk of causing grave offense and inviting serious persecution.  To resist these hard truths is to be guilty of “damnation denialism.”

I am well aware that secular readers, universalists, and others will scoff at Narrative B.  But this post is not directed to them.  It is directed to those who claim to accept the teaching of the Catholic Church, such as the bishops.

The question for these Catholics is this: If Narrative A is compelling, how much more compelling should we find Narrative B?  After all, as Christ taught: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  Since COVID-19 attacks only the body but Hell entails the perpetual suffering of body and soul, shouldn’t damnation be an even more urgent concern than COVID-19?"

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Brillant Ages - from John C. Wright

Lifted from his blog at http://www.scifiwright.com/2015/11/the-brilliant-ages/
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The Dark Ages have a bad reputation.

But, in many ways, the feudal system, with one universal Church and many local kings and barons maintaining the folk law, tied to subjects and vassals by personal oaths of loyalty, with neither the slave markets of the ancient world, the theocratic sultanates, ancestor worship, or caste systems of the Near and Far East, nor with the plutocracies, state-syndicates, and socialisms of modern Europe, achieved something unheard-of in the ancient world and forgotten in the modern:

It achieved maturity. It achieved something never achieved before or since: a form of civilization fitted to the human condition, high and low, male and female, spiritual and temporal. It achieved the modern world without the more notorious evils and drawbacks of the modern world.

It took the wreckage of the Roman Empire, while being attacked from the Norse and the Paynims, and managed to throw the Mohammedans out of Spain. Meanwhile, in the East, the Byzantines has a centralized empire more similar to our modern bureaucracy-state, and collapsed before the approach of Islam.

Monarchy is not a perfect system, but it is better than the Imperial form of government where anyone, from the son of the previous emperor to a famous general to a camel driver can be elevated to the purple as the Praetorian Guard elects, and no one else gets a vote.

Meanwhile, from 500 AD to 1500 AD under precisely the type of government at which you sneer, the West abolished slavery, invented science, erected the Common Law (which is the single greatest juridical accomplishment of Man) created perspective in drawing, the Gothic arch and flying buttress in architecture, the horse collar and stirrup, the romance story in art, individualism in psychology, the Magna Charter, the dinner fork, the Julian calendar, the monastic order, parliamentary government, separation of secular and spiritual government, the University system, the code of chivalry, the notion of limited warfare, Christmas carols, the windmill, modern astronomy, the clock, eyeglasses, the bound book, the Copernican model, and the idea that marriages had to be voluntary for both partners. This was while civilization was wrecked and under remorseless attack by more powerful forces from north, south, and east.

And they did this while preserving pagan culture, arts and letters, unlike their neighbors to the south, the Mohammedan, who destroyed what they could lay their hands on of the previous cultures they conquered.

And they did all this without letting the rich and the moneylender run roughshod over the rest of society. The socialist impulse was channeled into constructive use: anyone who wanted to live without property could join a monastery. Any Puritan who wanted to live without luxuries could be a hermit. Anyone eager for productive work could join a guild or move to a chartered city. There were taxes aplenty, but no tax on income.

One might be tempted to think the guild system and the ownership by many small yeoman-farmers of many small shops and farms imposed undue restrictions on the free market. However, the minute regulation of every aspect and element of life, we whose toilet water tanks are regulated, cannot in good conscience mock the sumptuary laws and guild restrictions of the medieval. They were freer than we are. And their gold was gold indeed.

They had more holidays than we have now. People used to sing in public, together. And churchbells pleasing to the ear from high spires pleasing to the eye sent sonorous echoes across the landscape to mark the hours.

No doubt the Progressive reader is aghast at the notion that the Thirteenth Century was more mature than the Twentieth, but I invite the candid reader to use any reasonable metric to measure what is actually suitable for human life.

The Dark Ages society is the only one, ever, that eliminated both forms of superstition, the consultation of oracles and the worship of autocrats as divine, which have afflicted every other human society ever.

Julian the Apostate had a slave girl slaughtered so that her entrails could be read. He was the last (and only) pagan Emperor of Constantinople. But the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and every other great civilization of the past thought they could divine the future by consulting the stars or the birds. The Socialists thought they could divine the future using the abortive science of Marx economics.

You may not have noticed that the Brahmin claim to spiritual superiority over their servile classes is not unique to India. In fact, it is a universal conceit outside the Christian world: the ancient Egyptians paid divine honors to the Pharoahs, the Japanese and Chinese to their Emperors, as the Romans to theirs. The descendant of Mohammed claim rulership based on the sacred blood in their veins. The corpse of Lenin displayed for the adoration of the public, or the worship of the Glorious Leader in North Vietnam are modern variations on this theme.

Only the Christian kings know that they will be a naked on Judgment Day as the lowest serf, and that our God is no respecter of persons. Royalty and nobility was thought to be a higher rank than common blood in the Middle Ages, but this was not a spiritual superiority. It was not the elitism of a Brahmin or a Leftwing partisan, who thinks he is morally superior to the common ruck whom he despises. It was an elitism of a military hierarchy only: the king, in the earliest days of the Middle Ages, was merely the commander in chief, not the guardian of your conscience. I assume the medieval practice of routine confession of sins prevented the growth of the spiritual elitism of Brahmins or Leftists.

Only in Christendom could a beggar like Francis be honored with sainthood  on an equal footing with King Louis. With the end of the Middle Ages, this great principle was smothered in Protestant nations: both Cromwell and the Puritans in Massachusetts said all their followers were saints, everyone was a saint. Their names are forgotten, and no one erects statues to them. By making everyone a saint, whether he meant to or not, Cromwell made sure no one was.

The Twentieth Century was more violent both physically and spiritually. Maturity is the ability to combine conflicting elements either in a man’s heart or in man’s civilization into a rule and a sense of balance where no one mood, no one passion and no one faction runs away with you.

Maturity in a soul means the reason, the appetites and the passions act in harmony, and the more harmony is achieved, the more the maturity. It is the child who cannot control his appetites and passions, and lets a fierce mood or sudden disappointment throw him into childish rage or erupt into childish tears. Maturity in a community means that the spiritual and temporal powers are balanced, the elite and the commoners agree with mutual recrimination or mutual hatred, that the cities and the country cooperate, men and women are settled into roles fit for human life, and so on.

In the modern day, the elite hates the commons and seeks forever to destroy and enslave them, in the name, ironically enough, of freeing them. The elite and intellectuals in the Middle Ages were clerks in the Church, not vicious and deceptive pundits, newspapermen, and empty headed actors burning with a zeal to subvert and suborn middle class values, and destroy their hated enemies, the Bourgeoisie.

The elite were not a different religion from the commons then, but agreed on the basics of the basic vision of a just life. Not every king was a good king, but there was a basic agreement on what a good king should be. Sneer me no sneers about the divine right of kings placing some men above others: that doctrine dates from the Reformation. The legal theory of the Middle Ages was Roman and hence, in the technical sense of the term, republican.

This legal theory, best explicated by Thomas Aquinas, does not promise civic equality to all men, and so is anathema to the modern age. But then again, the legal theory of the Modern Age started with Machiavelli: both sides of the great conflicts of the Twentieth Century, Democrats or Socialists, justified their politics on the basis of it being a necessary evil, an evil that is done that good might come of it.

The idea of a state whose mission is to encourage the virtue of its citizens comes from the days when the clothing and architecture and music likewise was meant to be both useful and beautiful. Nowadays we dress in drab denim, and live in steel boxes. The society that lives for its own pleasures and powers produces ugliness; the society that lives for God, for something greater than itself, produces pleasure and power.

In the Middle Ages, sacred things were actually set aside from the rough and tumble of common life. Any man or woman could retire from the world and join a nunnery or monetary, and be immune from the class requirements of the surrounding society.

Historians mark the reign of Henry VIII as the end of the Middle Ages. Starting with him, nations began to claim the power to redesign and redefine the contents of the Bible, the nature of the Eucharist, the authority of priests, as well as the doctrines and disciplines of the Church. Separation of the spiritual power from the temporal was lost, and sacred and mundane became intermingled to their mutual detriment.

It was the shipwreck of the world’s most glorious civilization, and a continual loss of personal liberty until, far overdue, some medieval notions of the proper rights and duties of man resurfaced in new guises during ironically-named Enlightenment, the Age of Reason which ushered in the Guillotine and the Gulag.

Once the idea of civil power ruling over sacred things became commonplace, Cromwell became possible, perhaps inevitable: what all such Puritanical movements involved is trying to be holier than Christ, and to force common people to adopt one or more disciplines of the Church: Some foreswear alcohol, some foreswear all worldly pleasures, and some foreswear private ownership of property. The Puritans of Cromwell, the Terror of the French revolution, and the appalling mass murders of the Bolsheviks are, each one in its own way, was attempting to impose the Jesuit life a Jesuit imposed on no one but himself onto the general society in no way suited for such special spiritual discipline.

This confusion of the spiritual and temporal power is the source not of one, but of all the political controversies of the Twentieth Century, and the Twenty-First. That confusion was introduced by the end of the Middle Ages, and introduced a civil war into Christendom which eventually led to its self-destruction at the apex of Europe’s greatest splendor, at World War One. Europe died then, and its dispirited but hollowed eyed corpse has continued from that day to this merely by inertia, waiting from some Christ-hating power, either communism in the East or Islam in the South, to roll over the lifeless Europe, and put a stake through it heart.

If Europe rediscovers Christ, she may be born again from the dead. That is what Christ does for those who have faith in his name.

If not, the churchbells will never be heard again. Instead we shall hear the eerie wailing of the Muslim call to prayer.