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The wager and the machine

August 20, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Apart from his mathematical work, Blaise Pascal is most well known for his infamous “wager,” an argument for belief in God which plays a central role in his Pensées (that is, “Thoughts”; his notes toward a defense of the Christian religion). Perhaps only Anselm’s ontological argument has a worse reputation. But–as with the ontological argument, for that matter–there’s actually a lot to be said in the wager’s favor; and the things to be said for it open out onto the system of the Pensées as a whole. So the simplest reason to read the Pensées is this: it will clarify how concepts like chance, certainty, infinity, and self-interest, play a role in our understanding of belief (or lack thereof) in God.

Pascal never puts it this way–though (or because) he was a mathematician, his prose style put elegance above clarity–but the wager boils down to a complex practical syllogism:

Practical premise:

  1. When truth is not available, one should seek happiness.
  2. The return in happiness on various actions can be compared.
  3. So one should do what has the greatest expected return.

Theoretical premise:

  1. Some course of action B presents itself, with probability of success R>0, such that the return on the action depends on some event G, with probability P>0;
  2. And such that it has the following expected returns: ex(not-B)=(1-P)*u+P*x, and ex(B)=(1-R)*((1-P)*v+P*y)+R*((1-P)*w+P*z); that is,
    no attempt | B fails (1-R) | B succeeds (R)
    Not-G (1-P) u v w
    G (P) x y z
  3. And such that u, v, and w are finite, z is positively infinite, and x and y are either finite or or negatively infinite.
  4. So no matter the specific values of P, R, u, v, w, x, or y, the expected return on attempting B is (infinitely) greater than that on not attempting it.

Practical conclusion: One should (attempt to) B.

*

The argument certainly seems valid. Pascal, of course, takes G=”God exists” and B=”believe in God,” and declares it sound. Is it?

In isolation, this move invites many objections, which seem to me to be of three basic types:

  1. Why should G=”God exists”? And why the Catholic God? This is the most obvious point of attack. Other possibilities, after all, present themselves: the Muslim God; the Hindu God; Zeus; Odin; the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and no one said P need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
  2. Why should B=”believe in God”? The usual objection is to point out the strangeness of choosing to believe; we can’t belief because it will make us happy, we have to believe because we think it’s true! It’s less frequently noticed that, just as with (1), there are other possible B’s that gum up the works: for example, flip a coin, and if it lands heads, believe in God; or, wait till your deathbed, then believe in God; or, do nothing, and perhaps wind up believing in God anyway. It doesn’t matter that these have a lower chance of success than an immediate conversion; after all, no one said R need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
  3. Why suppose z can be infinite? Why allow infinite returns in the first place? Not only do we have a hard time imagining infinite returns (Heaven always sounds rather boring), but allowing it causes numerous problems. (1) and (2) are just warm-ups. Consider: what if we acknowledge the possibility (no matter how slim) both of “negative infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” and “positive infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” (e.g. predestination)? This situation would contradict the second theoretical premise: it would be impossible to compare expected returns with one another, for every course of action would include infinity minus infinity, which is not zero, but rather undefined.

In response to objection (1), I believe, Pascal would ask another question: Why suppose P can be greater than 0? It’s easy to take for granted that any logically possible event, no matter how implausible, has at least some positive probability; but are we really justified in doing so? We might (I would) instead require that, before we grant that there is a chance an event will happen, we demonstrate that it is not only possible, but probable, in the original sense of tending toward a proof; demonstrate that there be reasons for believing it to be the case. So for any G, we must ask: why think G? Pascal spends much of the Pensées arguing that “the Catholic God exists” is the only G for which we can offer plausible reasons.

In response to objection (2), a similar question arises: Why suppose R can be greater than 0? What reasons do we have for thinking that we are able to B? Pascal agrees that one cannot choose to believe. One can, however, choose to “immediately put oneself in a position which will bring one to believe in the Catholic God.” That this does not involve “dishonest” belief is is easier to accept if you think of “belief in God” as less like “belief that there’s a chair” and more like “belief in reading”. We cannot choose to believe, any more than we can choose to know how to read; but we can choose to seek a teacher, and, Pascal spends much time arguing, this is the only course of action which we have any reason to think will succeed.

Objection (3) does establish a paradox. However, it holds only if we allow for more than one G. It is not, then, a weakness of the argument, but a strength. If you really, truly find multiple incompatible religious systems plausible, then Pascal’s wager gives you reason to feel paralysis. If, on the other hand, you accept Pascal’s arguments for the only plausible G and B, then your only rational option is to try to B. This will make game-theoretic reasoning in the future somewhat useless: B will win out every time, in every situation. So perhaps exclude infinite returns when deciding among strategies all of which are compatible with trying to B. But none of this is reason to dismiss infinite returns a priori. And Pascal gives many reasons for believing infinite returns to be plausible.

*

So the application Pascal would make of the wager commits him to three further claims:

  1. Our actions can have infinite consequences.
  2. Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences.
  3. Immediately and wholeheartedly immersing oneself in Catholicism is the only plausible strategy for becoming Catholic.

The wager makes no sense if we do not take into account his arguments for them. He does not pull them from thin air. All three follow from the second pillar of the Pensées: the Machine.

*

By the Machine, Pascal means the World seen as a mechanism. It is to establishing this point of view that most of the Pensées devotes itself. It is, for this reason, less argument than rhetoric; or, perhaps, not rhetoric, but poetics.

(1) The mechanism is of infinite size; indeed, as Pascal writes in the most famous sentence in French literature, “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” It is as if, for Pascal, this aesthetic sublimity requires an ethical absolute to counter-balance it. Either our actions can have infinite consequences, or they do not matter in the least, overshadowed as they are by the vast cosmic void.

(2) The mechanism includes humanity. We are selfish animals, acting according to a shallow (that is, finite) conception of our self-interest. Catholicism–in any case, Christianity–is the only instance of a way of life spreading throughout the world that is not based on selfishness, but rather on charity. Pascal has much more to say about the virtues of Christianity, but this alone, he believes, is enough to single it out as potentially divine: it indicates that an outside force tampered with the mechanism.

(3) This outside force is able to affect us because, though we are part of the mechanism, we, alone in the universe, are capable of thought: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” He is not, however, a willing reed; he inclines where the wind blows him. Thought offers a fulcrum outside the universe, but does not offer an unmoved motive force. We cannot, in fact, supply that force; it must come from outside. We can only consider–from within the mechanism–how best to position ourselves for the outside blow. This involves not doing something, but being something: adopting the appropriate habit, making it part of the fabric of our lives. So the death-bed conversion strategy doesn’t work; in fact, no strategy will work. For it is not neutral to put belief off till tomorrow. Resolving to believe tomorrow is not resolving to believe August 21th, but rather resolving not to believe now. If we put belief off till tomorrow, we are putting on unbelief today.

*

Postscript: I suspect that one reasons Pascal left the Pensées the way he did–fragmentary and disheveled–was that, though he had the argument, the wager, down, he could not get the poetics, the machine, quite right. He could not find an order of words which would not just lay out the idea for the reader to take or leave, but would operate like an Audenesque poetic machine, forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of infinity. Of course, such a machine is impossible; grace cannot be externally compelled. But that does not stop perfectionists from making the attempt. This applies, I suppose, to Wittgenstein as well. People often say that the two have much in common.

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. David Simmons permalink
    August 25, 2014 5:22 pm

    Hmm. My main objection to this argument would be that if we take your definition of probability, then I would assign probability zero to the claim that a good God could use belief in himself as a criterion of moral judgement. Most other tenets [1] of Christianity are plausible but not that one. If someone honestly believes that God does not exist then that is not a moral failing [2]. Of course it’s presumptuous to say what God would do, but I think I’m justified in using your restrictive definition of probability here because it’s essential to your argument.

    [1] Since the Church has said that some unbelievers may be saved, it’s arguable whether this is really a tenet of Christianity or just persistently bad rhetoric – I don’t have an opinion on this yet.

    [2] Of course there may be related moral failings and I could see the wager as being a good argument for leading a moral life if one assigns reasonably non-negligible probability to Christianity. One could argue that being “immersed in Catholicism” will make you more moral, but this is I think a different argument, one which I’m not sure how I would respond to, depending on how it was phrased.

  2. August 25, 2014 7:45 pm

    So, are you taking issue with “Our actions can have infinite consequences,” or with “Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences”?

    It seems, at first, that you take issue with the second. Your argument is: (a) belief cannot have infinite consequences; and (b) Catholicism claims that belief has infinite consequences; so (c) Catholicism is not a plausible response to infinity.

    But how does a belief having (infinite) consequences differ from an action having (infinite) consequences?

    If you hold that it doesn’t, then you’re in fact disputing “Our actions can have infinite consequences,” which the argument does not draw from the doctrines of Catholicism, but from an intuition we have when we realize the infinitude of the universe. If you don’t share the intuition “if I live a bad life, things will not be OK for me, even if my bad life is lived ‘sincerely’,” then I’m not sure how to proceed.

    But I suspect you’re in fact trying to draw a distinction between “belief” and “action”, such that we’re culpable for the latter, but not the former. I reject this distinction, and think the idea of “sincere belief” is akin to that of “fated action,” a way of saying “I couldn’t help it,” of excusing ourselves from taking responsibility for what we do and say.

    This is especially true when it comes to belief in God. “God does exist” is not a theoretical proposition the truth or falsity of which we are curious to establish. In fact, while “God does exist” is true (can be rightly said), so is (can) “God does not exist”! (See my post from a few weeks ago about analogical language.) And if saying “God does not exist” is sometimes correct, it would be strange if never saying “God does exist” were not, for some people, correct.

    So why talk about “God/exists” at all? Certainly no one even understands we we mean by the sentence! (So sez Aquinas–cited, not to prove my argument, but to prove that its Catholicity.) We do so because it has a valid purpose, which is of the utmost importance, and which, while it can come about in other ways–“baptisms of desire”–only it, only the language of Catholicism, can reliably accomplish. But not because it states anything theoretically true which others do not state.

    So why does the Church discourage saying “God does not exist”? Because those who do so, tend to do so not just to inform others of their theoretical beliefs (it’s not that kind of sentence), but to identify themselves with a certain “existential attitude.” That attitude isn’t always a bad one, but it tends to be.

    • David Simmons permalink
      August 26, 2014 4:08 pm

      It seems there is an unbridgeable gap between us regarding whether or not God’s existence is a factual question. Apparently you have never even been curious as to whether God exists, or if so you have successfuly stifled that curiosity and view it as a success. (Just paraphrasing what you said.)

      As to your first question, my answer depends on the question I asked in my previous comment: is the fallacy of viewing the process of belief-forming/retaining as volitional (and therefore with moral significance beyond that which has to do with prudence) rather than evaluative a fundamental tenet of Christianity/Catholicism, or just a misconception commonly associated with it? If a fundamental tenet, then of course I object to (2), as in that case Catholicism is not plausible. If a misconception, then my objection is not to any of 1-3, but rather to the implication that they imply the wager. ((3) makes reference to “becoming Catholic”, but if that is not the right goal then the assertion is irrelevant.)

      To be clear I should say that I am only characterizing my main objection, I have other objections as well but they are not as interesting and mostly have to do with disagreements that we’ve discussed already (such as whether or not God’s existence is a factual question), also they are not necessarily fatal to the argument.

      – “If you don’t share the intuition “if I live a bad life, things will not be OK for me, even if my bad life is lived ‘sincerely’,” then I’m not sure how to proceed.”

      It seems as though you are taking it as given that practicing Catholicism is a good life and agnosticism is not. This is precisely what I think would have to be reasoned out more carefully, because I don’t believe that the mere _believing_ aspect of it automatically makes it a better life — in fact, with respect to that aspect, I think it could make it a worse life (if you are believing for utilitarian reasons).

      By the way, by modifying it slightly it’s possible to make the Wager run in reverse. Consider:

      1. If God exists, then there is ultimate justice/goodness/truth/etc. “The Good Guys Always Win In The End”
      2. If God doesn’t exist, then the degree to which there are such things is dependent on what I do. (It could be argued that this is true in the case where God exists as well, but we’re still told things like “It’s not our job to administer Ultimate Justice, because God does that”.)
      3. Thus, in order to maximize these things, I should act as if there is no God (and work towards the goals mentioned above).

      The difference here is maximizing happiness (for yourself) or justice (for everyone). Funny how the values end up leading to the opposite of the positions they’re normally associated with…

      (I’m not particularly arguing that the above wager is a good one, I just thought it was interesting.)

  3. August 26, 2014 5:46 pm

    “Apparently you have never even been curious as to whether God exists, or if so you have successfuly stifled that curiosity and view it as a success.”

    I don’t understand what you find so bizarre about my position. I think that sentence “God exists” is true (=proper to say), and also that its contrary “God does not exist” is true (=proper to say), and that, strange as it sounds, these aren’t contradictory. On the other hand, I deny that we understand what the sentence means, and I think that, if we take the sentence to mean something that we do understand, then it’s false (=improper to say).

    Put more aggressively: when people say “God exists” and mean by it “I’m imagining an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent intangible invisible inaudible person, and the thing I’m imagining, exists” (e.g. Anselm’s argument), they are speaking falsely (and perhaps idolatrously). How is this position uncurious about God’s existence? It seems to me to take a pretty clear stance on the matter; in fact, many people would call it atheistic. Early Christians were often accused of being atheists.

    *

    “the fallacy of viewing the process of belief-forming/retaining as volitional (and therefore with moral significance beyond that which has to do with prudence)”.

    OK I’m also not sure what you mean by this. It sounds like you reject my claim that belief-forming/retaining is volitional just like other actions. But I don’t really understand why.

    To flesh out my position a bit: I hold that humans sometimes do things, and, in particular, sometimes say things. They are morally responsible for everything they do, and therefore, for everything they say. One things humans say, is they hold others responsible, not morally, but along other dimensions, for example, practicality. Practicality-speak is itself something that must be morally justified; if saying X was impractical was an immoral act, then it would be immoral to talk about practicality at all; but thankfully, talking about practicality is in general a good idea, morally speaking. Fact-speak (and so science-speak) is morally justifiable because it is practical: saying X is/not a fact is helpful for building houses, going to the moon, etc. But not all speaking is justified on terms of practicality! And, in particular, Christian-speak is not so justified.

    Now, saying “I believe in God” is often taken to be a scientific-factual statement, and therefore a practical statement, which can only be judged for its practicality; thus, people say, it’s wrong to hold them morally responsible for refusing to say it. But, first, justification isn’t transitive in that way: there may well exist beliefs which it would be immoral to hold, even though it would be practical. (I’m not saying there are, just that there could be.) Second, and more importantly, “I believe in God” does not play the role in our lives of a scientific statement. It looks like it does, because it’s about belief, and many of our beliefs are scientific. But “I believe X” means, basically, “if prompted, I ought to say X.” So all “I believe in God” means is, “If prompted, I ought to say that God exists.” That “God exists” ought to be said, need not be a scientific statement. Compare it to “the fittest survive.” Neither statement will play any direct role in the things you say when figuring out how to get to the moon, or to invent new life. “The fittest survive” isn’t a scientific statement, it’s a tautology; no scientific argument would appeal to it. But it’s a useful tautology, because reciting it it puts us in a state of mind to appreciate a certain scientific fact. Similarly, “God exists” is a tautology, and a useful one–this time, morally useful. And it makes sense to talk about both as beliefs. “I believe in the survival of the fittest, and in God”–sez me.

    (I haven’t argued here for why “God exists” is a useful tautology, only for the fact that that, not a factual claim, is what it is.)

    *

    “It seems as though you are taking it as given that practicing Catholicism is a good life and agnosticism is not. This is precisely what I think would have to be reasoned out more carefully, because I don’t believe that the mere _believing_ aspect of it automatically makes it a better life — in fact, with respect to that aspect, I think it could make it a worse life (if you are believing for utilitarian reasons).”

    No, I was just talking about a different part of the argument there…. My point was just that, before we can adjudicate between Catholicism and agnosticism, we have to establish that the goal is to learn how to live a good life, because “if I fail to live a good life then it would be better if I had never been born.” If we don’t agree about that, then I’m not sure where to go.

    It’s certainly not the believing aspect that makes Catholicism the royal road to a good life. Causally, what makes it the case is that Christ died and was resurrected. We should think it plausible that it is the case, I said in the original post: “We are selfish animals, acting according to a shallow (that is, finite) conception of our self-interest. Catholicism–in any case, Christianity–is the only instance of a way of life spreading throughout the world that is not based on selfishness, but rather on charity. [… This] is enough to single it out as potentially divine: it indicates that an outside force tampered with the mechanism.” Remember, that only has to sound plausible, not like absolute proof.

    If, when you look at the Church, you do not see an institution that could not have arisen except miraculously, then the argument fails. Though, of course, you ought to devote due diligence to investigating the matter. (I can argue for this “ought” but this post is long enough already. It’s basically a re-application of the wager.)

    *

    “by modifying it slightly it’s possible to make the Wager run in reverse.”

    It’s an interesting counter-wager. I like the thought that Pascal’s wager buys happiness at the expense, not of truth, but of justice. That actually sounds to me closer to why Pascal’s wager actually bugs people. But still, it seems to substitute the modern understanding of happiness for a more classical “eudaimonistic” one. If, for “acquire happiness,” one substitutes the equivalent “live an (ethically) good life,” then trading justice for happiness sounds less selfish.

    I’m also not sure what “bringing about ultimate justice” would mean. It sounds like it would involve exercising an infinite amount of power, and trying to do it would lead to pride and a fall rather than to there actually being more justice in the world….

  4. David Simmons permalink
    September 1, 2014 6:58 pm

    My statement about curiosity was a paraphrase of your statement: ““God does exist” is not a theoretical proposition the truth or falsity of which we are curious to establish.” in which you explicitly denied that it makes sense to be curious about whether God exists, thereby implicitly denying that you are curious about whether God exists. I was just pointing out that that is a difference between us which appears to have a big impact on how we view these questions.

    On the other hand, maybe you were putting more emphasis on ““God does exist” is not a theoretical proposition” rather than on the curiosity aspect. Certainly I agree that the question of whether God exists is not merely a theoretical one…

    I should also point out that whenever I talk about whether or not “God exists”, I am mostly thinking in terms of “what people usually mean when they say this, do they tend to be correct?”. Most people think of the existence of God in factual terms, so if there is no fact of the matter as to whether God exists or not, I would tend to express that fact by saying that “God doesn’t exist”. I don’t see why this is an abuse of language as you’re saying it is.

    – “How is this position uncurious about God’s existence? It seems to me to take a pretty clear stance on the matter”

    Taking a clear stance on the matter is the opposite of curiosity. (It may be preceded by curiosity though.) But in your case, it seems like the curiosity was always regarding the question “Is it correct to say “God exists”?” rather than the question of whether or not God actually exists.

    – “My point was just that, before we can adjudicate between Catholicism and agnosticism, we have to establish that the goal is to learn how to live a good life, because “if I fail to live a good life then it would be better if I had never been born.” If we don’t agree about that, then I’m not sure where to go.”

    Do want to point out that I agree with you here that the goal is to learn how to live a good life. We may disagree on what the word “good” means in that sentence though.

    – “If, when you look at the Church, you do not see an institution that could not have arisen except miraculously, then the argument fails.”

    Hmm… I would have said that if, when you look at the Church, you do see such an institution, then you are basically already converted. How could one believe that the Church is an institution which could not have arisen except miraculously, but also believe that the Church did not arise miraculously? (Well… it is possible, but not rational.)

    – “Though, of course, you ought to devote due diligence to investigating the matter.”

    Agree with this.

  5. September 2, 2014 9:36 pm

    – “it seems like the curiosity was always regarding the question “Is it correct to say “God exists”?” rather than the question of whether or not God actually exists.”

    Hm…. much of the disagreement between us might come down to: I have no idea what the “actually” in this sentence means. As far as I can tell, it (and words like it–“really,” “truly,” etc) amounts to an expression of annoyance at the fact that I claim to be answering the same question you are, but you (for reasons unclear to me) think my way of answering it to be invalid.

    Perhaps because you’re pretty sure that “Most people think of the existence of God in factual terms,” and so my way of answering the question is somehow an abuse of language? But I don’t think most people do actually think of it in factual terms. Not that they think of it in my terms either, at least not explicitly; most people’s thoughts on the subject are quite confused. But many believers are quick to say “”God exists” is not a scientific hypothesis,” “… is self-evident,” “… is a tautology,” etc. (I think it’s a tautology but not self-evident, and that it’s a scientific hypothesis given the classical meaning of science but not given the contemporary meaning.)

    – “How could one believe that the Church is an institution which could not have arisen except miraculously, but also believe that the Church did not arise miraculously? (Well… it is possible, but not rational.)”

    Well, in a sense, what you’ve written here is Pascal’s argument. Like I said, the wager doesn’t prove much, and Pascal devotes much more attention to the machine.

    But there is an important point here about to what extent such a belief might be rational. Consider that someone might hold the following beliefs:
    1. The Christian Church is obviously the best candidate for a divinely guided institution. Nothing else comes even close. It has lasted for thousands of years despite persecution without and corruption within, all the while maintaining a consistent set of beliefs and producing a great number of people who have lived exemplary, indeed amazing, lives.
    2. The things Christians say sound insane.
    3. So the apparently miraculous nature of Christianity must be an illusion. It’s like the magician’s rabbit: we don’t know where it came from, but we still don’t believe it appeared in the hat by magic.

    These aren’t irrational, at least not obviously so. But Pascal has response, namely:
    4. The things Christians say to each other (“God exists”) are not like the things the magician says to his audience (“The rabbit magically appeared”). They’re more like (though not exactly like) the things he says to his apprentice: they actually do make sense, but only in the context of a living practice, in a way that makes it hard to evaluate from the outside.
    5. Believing the magician’s patter is, of course, insane, but becoming his apprentice is not, even if it does require learning new ways of speaking. So if the Christian Church impresses you, don’t continue to sit in its audience: apprentice yourself to it!

    • David Simmons permalink
      September 3, 2014 6:01 pm

      In that context, “actually” means “thinking about it on the object level rather than the meta level”. Now, sometimes one needs to think about things on the meta level, when one has a Wrong Question. You seem to be claiming that the question of whether or not God exists is a Wrong Question.

      It’s true that people mean many different things when they ask “Does God exist?”, so in that sense maybe it is a wrong question. What I’m thinking about is something more like “Is the God of Christianity real?” I don’t see how this can possibly be a wrong question – but if I am wrong I would like to see why I am wrong. The easiest way to do that would be to explain to me a (reasonably plausible) way that the world could be for which it would be unclear what the answer to the question would be. I don’t see that you’ve done that.

      • September 3, 2014 11:26 pm

        Here are some sample sentences that I think resemble “Does God exist?” in important ways.

        1) Do unicorns have horns?
        2) Does Ginnungagap exist?
        3) Is yellow between red and green?
        4) Does “A is not not P” say the same as “A is P”?

        I don’t think any are straightforwardly factual. But they’re also not much like each other, and none seem to me “wrong.” This leads me to think that your binary of object level/meta level is a bit simplistic, as is your suggestion that any question that isn’t a factual question must be a wrong one.

        Consider:

        People know how to answer (1), so it can’t be a “wrong” question in the sense of leading to confusion, but at the same time, no one imagines that it’s factual. Now, it’s tempting to reinterpret it as “really” asking “Do people talk about unicorns as if they have horns?”, but this fails. If people talking about unicorns were really talking about talking about unicorns, there would be an infinite regression; talking about unicorns could never begin. “Does God exist?” is like this, except that people talk about God for more serious reasons than they talk about unicorns.

        (2) cannot even be asked, let alone answered, unless we know what Ginnungagap means. But we can learn what Ginnungagap means! “Does God exist?” is like this, except we cannot learn what “God” means.

        I’m not sure what calling (3) and (4) “wrong” questions would mean, since they’re useful for teaching children and can be easily answered. Still, we can’t even imagine how the answer could not be “yes.” If someone did answer “no,” we would very quickly stop thinking he was mistaken about some fact, and conclude that he did not understand what “red,” “yellow,” and “green,” or “say” and “not,” even meant. “Does God exist?” is like both of these. Now, we usually take (3) to be less “necessarily” true than (4); it seems as if things might have been altogether different such that (3) were neither true nor false (what if we could see UV light?), but we have no idea what a universe without (4) would look like. In this, “Does God exist?” is more like (4).

        Note that http://lesswrong.com/lw/it/semantic_stopsigns/ is a helpful article on this subject. Eliezer is basically right here, except that no one says “God!” at any particular point in the chain of reasoning. Rather, we argue that the existence of a semantic stopsign, call it “God,” is logically necessary; and that we should use the same one for all such necessities, for stopping all infinite regressions, whether related to causality, or change, or goodness, or….; and that contemplating the meaning of this stopsign, and our inability to fully understand it, is a worthwhile activity.

        *

        Now, as I understand it, “Is Jesus Christ God?” takes for granted that we find the word “God” meaningful in the non-factual sense outlined about. Hence I have no clear idea of how to ask “Is the God of Christianity real?” in a factual sense; it’s too clear to me that the question just isn’t factual.

        But my guess is that you mean something like this: Christianity appears to posit the existence of an an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent intangible invisible inaudible person who has taken certain actions at certain places and times; does such a person exist?

        I answer: the answer to that question tells us nothing about whether Christianity is true. On the one hand, if it’s “no,” then nevertheless Christianity may be true, so long as (1) the requisite events in Jesus Christ’s life happened and (2) it is correct to worship Jesus as God (a grammatical and moral, not a factual, question). On the other hand, if it’s “yes,” then Christianity might still be false, for we would still not know whether we ought to worship the omni*-in*-person. Our only reason would be that he says to and, being omniscient and omnibenevolent, has our best interests at heart. But, even setting aside the fact that “omnibenevolence” is not really a factual attribute to begin with, how do we know, e.g., that he doesn’t in fact want us to rebel against his request for worship? Nothing he says can answer the question for us one way or the other; only our own understanding of the word “good” can do so. If (a) what he commands does not accord with our understanding of the word “good” then, despite our stipulation of his omnibenevolence, we will not obey him; and if (b) it does so accord, then we’re not really worshipping him, since we’re holding him up to an outside standard.

        So I would not call the omni*-in*-person “God,” or worship him, even if he existed (which I think he does not). Or, at least, if I did call him “God” and claim to “worship” him, I would mean by the words something very different than I mean by them today.

  6. David Simmons permalink
    September 5, 2014 7:31 pm

    It’s true that the object/meta binary is not a complete categorization of thought (though I wouldn’t say that your examples show that it isn’t always applicable), and I was not trying to claim that any question which is not factual is a Wrong Question. (E.g. moral questions are not factual questions but are not wrong questions.) Rather, I would say that any question which someone thinks is factual but which is not factual is a Wrong Question. Since the question that I have in mind whenever I think about the question “does God exist?” is a question that I think is factual; thus if it is not then it is a Wrong Question.

    Based on your statement

    -“So I would not call the omni*-in*-person “God,” or worship him, even if he existed (which I think he does not).”

    it seems that you believe that the answer to my question is probably “No”, in which case we have (mostly) the same object-level beliefs but different meta-level beliefs. Incidentally, that distinguishes you from most other people I know who are Christian (I would say).

    So where to go from here? It seems our disagreement is not on the level of beliefs but rather values. I have a value that I call “truth” [1], and it seems that you don’t share that value; you may have a value that you also call “truth” but it is different from my value. I suppose you’re not unique in this respect, I have experienced that my valuing of truth relative to other goods tends to be higher than most people’s…

    [1] You misunderstand me every time you speak of my position as about “practicality” etc. I don’t care about practicality all that much, I care about truth.

  7. September 6, 2014 12:26 pm

    –“it seems that you believe that the answer to my question is probably “No”, in which case we have (mostly) the same object-level beliefs but different meta-level beliefs. Incidentally, that distinguishes you from most other people I know who are Christian (I would say).”

    I wonder if this is actually the case, or if (in a manner of speaking) most of these people in fact have the same object-level beliefs, but also have meta-level beliefs that lead them to express their object-level beliefs in a way that leads to systematic miscommunication. I tend to think many Christians are bad at arguing with rationalistically minded people because they don’t realize that they use many of their words in rather different ways. But this is a tangent.

    *

    –“You misunderstand me every time you speak of my position as about “practicality” etc. I don’t care about practicality all that much, I care about truth.”

    Hm…. I’m not really sure what you mean by “truth” then. Like I’ve said, it seems to me that truth can’t really be divorced from ethics: when we say “X is true,” we can’t explain what we mean other than with “We should say ‘X,'” with the “should” understood either absolutely, or practically, or aesthetically, or…. And so I say, “God exists” is true, but not practically, which means we shouldn’t expect our believing it to give us any advantage in maneuvering through the world, either directly or indirectly. On your view, does this amount to not actually thinking it’s true?

    *

    Incidentally, it seems like Eliezer might actually take the bargain: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nc/newcombs_problem_and_regret_of_rationality/

  8. David Simmons permalink
    September 6, 2014 1:00 pm

    I think I might actually say that you no longer have ability to think about truth at all anymore. Once you say that “truth can’t really be divorced from ethics” then you are not talking about truth anymore, but something else.

    -“Incidentally, it seems like Eliezer might actually take the bargain”

    That might be true. On the other hand, truth is not involved in the Newcomb problem in the same way that it is in Pascal’s wager – you can one-box without actually believing anything different from someone who two-boxes. And I have seen Eliezer say that a flaw of updateless decision theory is that “it does not tell me what to expect, even though it tells me what to do” – seeming to indicate that he places at least some value on truth. (I don’t remember where I saw this though.)

  9. September 6, 2014 1:45 pm

    What do you mean by truth, then? If you think truth has nothing to do with ethics or with practicality, then I can’t understand what you think it means, unless you having in mind something like: of the set of all possible beliefs, there’s a subset of the true ones, and these are the beliefs that it’s good to have. But this doesn’t make any sense; why would the LISP token “true” be particularly valuable?

    So I want you to answer this question: How is it not compatible with the meaning of “true,” to say of that a particular belief (“God exists”):
    1. It’s true
    2. We can see that it’s true
    3. We necessarily can’t fully understand it
    4. It makes no difference to our picture of how the world works or what we should expect to see happen
    5. It does make a difference to how we ought to live our lives
    ?

    *

    -“On the other hand, truth is not involved in the Newcomb problem in the same way that it is in Pascal’s wager – you can one-box without actually believing anything different from someone who two-boxes.”

    Yes, but elsewhere (can’t recall where) he discusses the idea that the extraterrestrial superintelligence will reward you only if you pick the box *for the right reasons*. Since rationalists are supposed to win, he comes out (IIRC) in favor of somehow adopting the “right” reasons rather than saying “well guess I can’t control what my reasons would be, so I guess I lose.” And doing something for a particular reason can’t (I’d say) be divorced from having a corresponding belief. So Eliezer would, I think, argue that you should believe whatever the ETSI commands, even if it makes no sense, so long as you can reasonable expect doing so to be beneficial to you. And the question then becomes: how to believe something that at present seems unreasonable, given that it seems to you to be a good idea to believe it?

  10. David Simmons permalink
    September 6, 2014 2:28 pm

    It’s not the LISP token that’s valuable, but what it represents. I don’t want to just think that my beliefs are true, I want them to actually be true. A more legitimate question would be to ask whether the LISP token is indeed correlated with what it claims to represent, but this is the question of rationality.

    -“So I want you to answer this question: How is it not compatible with the meaning of “true,” to say of that a particular belief (“God exists”):”

    So far as I can tell, the formal properties you’ve listed aren’t the problematic aspects of it (moral claims seem to share mostly the same aspects, to varying degrees), the problematic aspects of it are

    1. the syntax of the statement itself – saying that something exists is almost always a factual assertion and so it is highly misleading to use such grammar if you are not making a factual assertion. I can’t even partially understand what you are saying if you use such syntax, and therefore can’t accept it.
    2. the fact that you call the assertion a “belief” although you admit that it isn’t factual. This indicates that you are blurring categories and part of my valuing of truth involves valuing categories not being blurred in a way that makes me less able to understand what’s going on. (For instance, it seemed like it took way more effort than it should have to get you to admit that the answer to the factual question I was asking originally is probably “No”.)
    3. the fact that, despite what you may say, many if not most Christians think that omni*-in*-person exists, and by making such an assertion you are aligning yourself with them. But according to what you believe, they are promoting falsehood.
    4. the fact that you think other people are morally obliged to use the same language as you. I think that other people are morally obliged to do the right thing but not necessarily to think in terms of right and wrong (though this can sometimes help them to do the right thing (although it can also do the opposite)). This seems necessary because many people don’t talk in terms of objective morality just because they don’t understand the issue well enough, not because they don’t want to be moral. Similarly with “God” (or so I would say if I agreed with your viewpoint otherwise).

  11. September 6, 2014 3:12 pm

    –“I don’t want to just think that my beliefs are true, I want them to actually be true.”

    But why is that valuable??? Cf. Wittgenstein: “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism.” It seems like you’re saying: “there’s a set of beliefs we call “true,” and a set we call “false,” and we should value this distinction because”–well, WHY? If the division doesn’t have a point, then the word we use to make the division is just a LISP token that doesn’t play any role in the rest of the program. And if it does have a point–well, that’s what I meant when I said truth can’t be separated from ethics.

    *

    RE: Your objections to my truth-claim:

    1. Syntax–so, do you also object to statements like “Right and wrong exist”? Or statements like “The universe exists”? Neither of those make factual claims. The former claim is moral. The latter, more interestingly, is grammatical–it’s a tautology that helps us see what the word “universe” means. “God exists” is like this.

    2. Belief–I think you have a non-standard way of understanding the word “belief.” It seems to me that there’s standard language for what you want to express–“empirical,” “factual,” etc–and so you could have asked “Is ‘Does God exist?’ an empirical/factual question?”, which I would have answered “no.” It wasn’t a matter of my “admitting” that “God exists” isn’t factual, it was a matter of my not realizing that this wasn’t already clear to you. It seems obvious to me that it isn’t factual: if we don’t know what the word “God” means, what fact could “God exists” possibly refer to?

    3. Man-on-the-street–I think that this is the most serious objection. I’m not sure whether or not my response answers it adequately; to a certain extent it’s an empirical question. But I’m not convinced that “many if not most Christians think that omni*-in*-person exists.” Or, rather, I’m not convinced that they think it in the way you understand “exists”–namely, empirically. Which isn’t to say that they all share my (rather complex) view. Rather, they’re conceptually confused. People have habit of hearing metaphysical language and making it concrete; for example, people often image that the soul weighs something, when this makes no sense whatsoever. The question is what to do with someone who says “The soul exists, it weights 23 grams”–do you explain to him why the soul can’t weigh anything, or do you tell him that he’s entirely wrong? You, it seems, would do the latter. I would do the former, because I think that he believes in the soul for good reasons, and we can’t tell him he’s wrong without implying that those reasons are also wrong, which they’re not. The problem is just that he’s not very good at avoiding improper inferences from his (correct) belief that “the soul exists.”

    4. Moral language–I don’t think I would say that people are obliged to use moral language. Or, at least, it depends on what you mean by obligation. Someone can be a good person even without using it (and it’s tautologous to say that a good person can never be damned). But their doing so would, in a sense, be a fluke. Using moral language is a way to *reliably* act morally. And using Christian language is the best way to do so. Another way of putting it: I think the set “actions that are moral” is coextensive with “actions that imitate Jesus Christ.” And if this is the case, then sure, people sometimes imitate Christ accidentally; but doesn’t it still make sense to try to get everyone to do so on purpose?

  12. David Simmons permalink
    September 6, 2014 8:39 pm

    – “It seems like you’re saying: “there’s a set of beliefs we call “true,” and a set we call “false,” ”

    That is not what I am saying. I am saying “there’s a set of beliefs that _are_ true and a set that _are_ false”. The meta-level distinction between truth and falsehood is one that applies when reasoning about beliefs, rather than to specific beliefs. Indeed, saying “I believe that X is true” is no different from saying “I believe X”.

    Given that some beliefs are true and some are false, should we have terminology to signify that? Yes, because it helps us to make general statements such as “I value truth”. But the terminology only makes sense if you believe that there is a pre-existing difference that is being recognized.

    -“so, do you also object to statements like “Right and wrong exist”? Or statements like “The universe exists”? Neither of those make factual claims.”

    I certainly think that the statement “Right and wrong exist” can be misleading. For the most part I think it is better to think about right and wrong in object-level terms, only going meta when necessary. And at that point, I would say something more like “Morality is objective” rather than “Morality exists”. Anyway, I think the non-factuality of the statements is hinted at fairly significantly by the words “right” and “wrong”.

    I do think “The universe exists” makes a factual claim. Not really sure why you think it doesn’t — you seem to think that tautologies are automatically nonfactual? Perhaps we mean something different by the word “factual”…

    – ” It seems to me that there’s standard language for what you want to express–“empirical,” “factual,” ”

    But “empirical” and “factual” have completely different meanings. E.g. I would call mathematics factual (under a Platonic view at least).

    – “But I’m not convinced that “many if not most Christians think that omni*-in*-person exists.” Or, rather, I’m not convinced that they think it in the way you understand “exists”–namely, empirically.”

    Again, “empirical” is not the same as “factual”.

    Regarding point 4, I was basing it off of your statement:
    – “Now, saying “I believe in God” is often taken to be a scientific-factual statement, and therefore a practical statement, which can only be judged for its practicality; thus, people say, it’s wrong to hold them morally responsible for refusing to say it. But, [etc.]”

    The most obvious interpretation of this sentence is that you think people should be held morally responsible for refusing to say “I believe in God”. Maybe that wasn’t what you meant, based on your response to my objection.

    Regarding moral language, I think a distinction must be made between object-level moral language and meta-level language. The meta-level language is what tends to be controversial and I’m not sure how helpful it is in making people act morally. The object-level language can say things like “You shouldn’t do that because it would hurt someone” but doesn’t say “You shouldn’t do that because it would hurt someone, and hurting people is wrong”.

    I could imagine someone refusing even to use object-level moral language, but it is difficult (to imagine) and I’m not sure how we should judge them until we know more about the situation.

    • David Simmons permalink
      September 6, 2014 8:44 pm

      By the way, regarding the question of whether people think of God as factual, one of my friends, after I explained to her the Bayesian definition of evidence, immediately proceeded to try to point to evidence of the existence of God which would be evidence in this sense. I can’t think of any way of interpreting that other than that she thinks the question of whether or not God exists is factual. (Of course this is only anecdotal evidence…)

  13. September 6, 2014 10:04 pm

    –“But the terminology only makes sense if you believe that there is a pre-existing difference that is being recognized.”

    Right. And the preexisting difference can’t be between beliefs-I-hold and beliefs-I-don’t-hold, since obviously I can hold beliefs that are false. So what is it? I hold, as I’ve said, that it’s between beliefs-I-should-hold and beliefs-I-shouldn’t-hold. In other words, it’s a moral difference, a question of what I should and shouldn’t do. Now, it sounds like you disagree, since you think truth is unrelated to ethics, but WHAT, then, is the difference, and WHY should we value it?

    *

    –“And at that point, I would say something more like “Morality is objective” rather than “Morality exists”.”

    So what do you mean by objectivity? I’m dubious about the prospects of explaining it without appealing to the idea of existence… You seem to want to have special words that we use only for value sentences, and other words we use only with factual sentences, so that we can always tell which is which, but I’m not sure this is possible, since the fact/value distinction is parasitic on a way of speaking that doesn’t make that distinction… but this is a tangent.

    *

    –“you seem to think that tautologies are automatically nonfactual? Perhaps we mean something different by the word “factual”…”
    Well, yes… you don’t think they’re automatically nonfactual?

    I won’t try to define “factual,” but part of it, it seems to me, is this: if something’s a fact, then understanding that it’s one way entails understanding that it could have been the other way–maybe not physically, but at least logically. Whereas if something is a tautology, then understanding that it’s this way, entails understanding that it couldn’t have been any other way. Negating a fact, e.g. “The sun does not go around the earth,” makes sense, even if it’s false. Negating a tautology, e.g. “The universe does not exist,” makes no sense; it amounts to attempting to speak a different language than the one we’re actually speaking.

    *

    “The most obvious interpretation of this sentence is that you think people should be held morally responsible for refusing to say “I believe in God”.”

    Like I said, it depends on what you mean by words like “obligation” and “morally responsible”. I don’t think refusing to say “I believe in God” is a punishable offense because a voice in the sky says so. I think it’s akin to refusing to learn to read (if your society using writing as a main means of communication), or refusing to learn to handle a gun safely (if you’re often around guns). I think someone who refused these things might, in some circumstances, be morally responsible for their refusal, even if it didn’t end up leading to any too-serious consequences.

    *

    –“For the most part I think it is better to think about right and wrong in object-level terms, only going meta when necessary.”
    –“Regarding moral language, I think a distinction must be made between object-level moral language and meta-level language. The meta-level language is what tends to be controversial and I’m not sure how helpful it is in making people act morally.”

    I understand the desire to minimize the appeal to the meta level. But I don’t understand the idea that it’s not sometimes necessary to do so. At all. Why wouldn’t meta-language about right/wrong be just as useful as meta-language about truth/falsity? How could you even go about evaluating whether or not such language helps people act morally without using it (e.g. the phrase “act morally”)? Saying we don’t need moral language is basically saying that people will just naturally be good, without putting any effort into it. That’s about as naive as saying that people will just naturally be rational without putting any effort into it. Maybe people can even be rational without talking about truth and falsity–after all, they can always just talk about what they do, and don’t, and might believe!

    *

    “I can’t think of any way of interpreting that other than that she thinks the question of whether or not God exists is factual.”

    Well, it’s one thing if someone thinks that God’s existence is a fact. It’s another if, having never considered the question, someone is asked it by someone who clearly values facticity. A regrettable but natural reaction in such situations is to become defensive, and start trying to come up with arguments for how it is a factual question. Cf. most people’s reaction to Cartesian skepticism: they try to prove that (though it looked dicey for a second!) the external world *really is* there, rather than showing that the Cartesian hasn’t actually produced any reason for doubt in the first place.

    We can, I think, see that “”God exists” is factual” is a confusion, when we observe that most people making such arguments sound vaguely uncomfortable: as if they feel compelled to make this argument, but all the while think it’s somehow beside the point.

    *

    Here’s a sketchy summary of my claims about truth and ethics. I think that beliefs are attitudes towards propositions; that the set of true beliefs is a subset of the set of right attitudes; that attitudes are about things, and manifest in the uses of those things which they tend to produce; that an attitude is right if it tends to manifest in right actions, for some definition of “tend”; and that actions are right if they tend towards the goal that we agree everyone should share. Now, we think of beliefs as special because their rectitude doesn’t vary across place, time, or person, but this isn’t because they’re not attitudes, but because they’re attitudes towards propositions, which are also thus invariant.

  14. David Simmons permalink
    September 7, 2014 3:15 pm

    – “It seems there is an unbridgeable gap between us”

    – “Now, it sounds like you disagree, since you think truth is unrelated to ethics, but WHAT, then, is the difference, and WHY should we value it?”

    You’re asking me to try to cross this unbridgeable gap. The difference is that true statements are those which are true, and false statements are those which are false. It sounds circular to you only because the words I’m using aren’t correctly functioning as pointers when you interpret them, because you deleted the mental algorithm they were pointing to. To me, your definition that the distinction between truth and falsehood, besides being a wrong definition, is simply circular in the same way – it’s referring to the notion of “beliefs I should hold”, but which are the beliefs that I should hold? The beliefs I should hold, of course! (From the other end of the gap, I can sort of see what you are saying, but my conception of “should” depends crucially on my conception of truth, so what you are saying looks circular to me.) I would rather define the beliefs I should hold to be the ones that are true [1], and then define the beliefs that are true to be the ones that are true.

    [1] Although “should” can also refer to prioritization of which beliefs are more important than others; this is a more complicated issue though.

    I want to press the issue of whether or not there are many Christians who treat God’s existence as factual. I point to the following:

    1. The Vatican investigates miracle claims in order to determine who gets canonized. One of the key parts of their investigation is that any miracles must be “not explained by modern science”. Now, why would they have such a criterion? Isn’t everything that happens due to God, and so can be treated as a miracle in the broad sense? And whatever is good should be especially attributed to God? But it seems that Vatican miracle investigators are trying to use evidence to reason about the world in a way that treats God as a causal node which can’t be removed without giving different predictions. Thus, they treat God as factual.

    2. Exorcisms.

    3. The Pentecostal movement in Catholicism — people who prophesy, speak in tongues, etc. Again they claim there is no naturalistic explanation of the phenomena, so they treat God as a causal node, and thus as factual. Some Pentecostal rituals have been approved by the Vatican.

    4. Every argument ever made for Christianity which is based on historical facts, e.g. arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection. Or are you going to argue that “historical” doesn’t necessarily mean “factual”?

    From these examples we can see that the viewpoint of treating God as factual is not simply one of a confused “man-on-the-street”, but rather one shared by many in positions of power in the Church, whose views are not widely considered to be mistaken. On the other hand, it is also a widely held belief that “miracles (and/or historical facts) shouldn’t be used as the basis for faith”. Perhaps I never understood what this meant until now — if the question of whether God exists is not factual, then miracles obviously do not provide any evidence for God’s existence, so it would be silly to base your faith on them — faith just means using language in a different way than non-Christians, and there’s no reason to change our language based on what’s actually going on in the world. What a silly idea that would be.

  15. September 7, 2014 6:03 pm

    –” It sounds circular to you only because the words I’m using aren’t correctly functioning as pointers when you interpret them, because you deleted the mental algorithm they were pointing to.”
    –” I would rather define the beliefs I should hold to be the ones that are true [1], and then define the beliefs that are true to be the ones that are true.”

    To the contrary, I’m not worried about all about the circularity. And if you want to define ethics in terms of truth rather than truth in terms of ethics, that’s fine by me. What I’m worried about is *insularity*. My claim is that truth and ethics can’t be extricated from each other, and so it *doesn’t matter* which you define tautologously and which you define in terms of the other: it will be impossible to understand what you mean by either one without the other. It’s like addition and subtraction; we can define one in terms of a tautologously defined other if we want, but in fact we can’t understand either until we understand both. The tautology “truth is true” isn’t helpful unless it also reminds you that “truth is good.”

    I hold that this is what *most* people mean by “true.” You, however, seem to think that we can understand what “true” means without understanding what “good” means. This sounds to me like nonsense. You are perhaps imagining something like a detached observer who did nothing, making it meaningless to talk about it acting well, but who still thought things, and so could be spoken of as having true beliefs. But what would count as this observer thinking anything, true or false? From an objective point of view, this observer would be nothing more than a complex recording instrument, like a camera, a piece of paper, or a stone tablet. And subjectively–well, why think that a stone tablet has subjective experience, just because *we* can use it to think things?

    (In a slogan, my position is: An AI can’t be said to have true/false thoughts until it can be said to do good/bad deeds.)

    *

    RE: miracles, exorcisms, Pentecostals, Resurrection:

    You continually ignore the difference between belief in God and belief in Christianity. These kinds of evidence you cite are all required to prove Christianity, not to prove God. Of course Christianity requires evidence! I’ve never denied this. And yes, people often treat such evidence as proof of God. In a way, it is. The proof runs like this: “Jesus Christ is an admirable person; the most admirable, in fact, as shown by his Resurrection. He believes in God (of course not as a fact). Therefore we should too.” We use this kind of argument from authority all the time, and it’s not invalid; the problem is, most authorities are admirable to a limited extent, so the argument can be easily overruled: e.g. “Aquinas thought the sun revolved around the earth, and that’s reason for us to think so, but we can also explain why he thought that even though he was wrong, so we won’t think so.” Since the Resurrection proves Christ to be absolutely admirable, however, the proof stands. And all miracles have as their purpose establishing a human authority in this way, whether Christ’s, or his followers’; they are not meant to prove God’s existence.

    So do miracles (most importantly, the Resurrection) require God as a causal node? Not any more than everything else that happens requires him–i.e. not in any factual sense. The difference is, miracles don’t have any *other* causal explanation, either. Miracles aren’t distinguished by their being caused by God; they’re distinguished by their lack of any factual explanation whatoever.

    I can say more about miracles but they’re a topic in and of themselves. I don’t entirely agree with him, but have a look at what Wittgenstein says about them:

    A miracle is, as it were, a gesture which God makes. As a man sits quietly and then makes an impressive gesture, God lets the world run on smoothly and then accompanies the words of a saint by a symbolic occurrence, a gesture of nature. It would be an instance if, when a saint has spoken, the trees around him bowed, as if in reverence. – Now do I believe that this happens? I don’t.

    The only way for me to believe in a miracle in this sense would be to be impressed by an occurrence in this particular way. So that I would be say e.g.: “It was impossible to see these trees and not to feel that they were responding the words.” Just as I might say “It is impossible to see the face of this dog and not see that he is alert and full of attention to what his master is doing”. And I can imagine that the mere report of the words and life of a saint can make someone believe that the trees bowed. But I am not so impressed.

    The useful point here, I think, is that we can’t mechanically identify miracles (say, when something with probability <0.00001% happens). Recognizing a miracle is like recognizing a facial expression. It's an ethical, not a factual, question, even though factual questions go into it. Just as they do with recognizing facial expressions: if I know you were given an electric shock, then I won't interpret your grimace as directed towards me.

  16. September 7, 2014 6:25 pm

    –“faith just means using language in a different way than non-Christians, and there’s no reason to change our language based on what’s actually going on in the world. What a silly idea that would be.”

    This is, I take it, how you respond to my position once you’ve finally accepted that I’m *really not* using “God” in a factual sense. But I think it’s rather unfair. You accept that (what you call) meta-language plays an important role in our lives. You’ve spent the last several posts defending the use of the meta-word “truth” when you thought I was arguing against it. Well, theism is basically the claim that “God” should be a word in our meta-language. Isn’t it irrational to assume that having such a word is the same as refusing to change our (object-)language based on what’ actually going on in the world?

    Perhaps the idea that religion is “just” about meta-language seems absurd to you because it always sounded like it was about *more* than that. But the “just” is misleading. Is “truth is true” a fact? No. Is it a part of our meta-language? Yes. Does this mean it’s “just” part of our meta-language? Not necessarily; we can adopt a perspective from which our meta-language is just a functional adaption to make our normal language run better, but nothing forces us to do so. We can believe “Truth is true” isn’t a fact, while also believing that it’s more than “just” a useful phrase (though this “more” may be impossible to elaborate). The same with “God exists.”

    I can give arguments for why “God” should be part of our meta-language just like “Truth is true,” but that really is a different conversation, and, like you say, at a certain point it can’t be argued: there’s an unbridgeable gap. More importantly, however, theistic language, while correct to use, isn’t ultimately all that important. You’re right that, in a sense, it’s just about how we use words. Christianity is not just about the meta-word “God”; it’s also about the person Christ. That’s what, so to speak, gives Christianity teeth.

  17. David Simmons permalink
    September 7, 2014 8:48 pm

    -“You, however, seem to think that we can understand what “true” means without understanding what “good” means.”

    Yes. Truth is the map corresponding with the territory. Someone can know that, and know how to use it (to pursue their goals whatever they happen to be), without being a good person, or having a good understanding of what goodness is. Not saying that they should. But they can.

    I think we mean completely different things by “factual”. Anything that is caused by something factual, I would also call factual. Because once it is “on the grid”, it makes sense to talk about Bayesian evidence for and against it.

    For example, I would never say that moral truths caused physical facts. A physical fact may be caused by the fact that someone believed a moral claim, but that itself is a physical fact not a moral fact. If supernaturalism is true, physical facts may be caused by other types of facts that we don’t know about, but whatever those facts are they are automatically factual.

    This goes back to what I said a while ago about how I define reality to be “the causes of our experiences” rather than taking your definition of “the things we care about”.

  18. September 8, 2014 10:37 am

    -“Someone can know that, and know how to use it (to pursue their goals whatever they happen to be), without being a good person, or having a good understanding of what goodness is. Not saying that they should. But they can.”

    I think we’re using “good” in different ways. I would say that, a robot tasked with killing all humans would still require a way to evaluate its actions and see which did a better job, which did a worse, of killing all humans; and this would be analogous to our use of the word “good”.

    It would, I admit, be only be analogous. But any way of evaluating its beliefs would itself be only analogous to our word “true”! Consider: the robot will not be evaluating its beliefs in an attempt to make its map perfectly reflect the territory; it will instead make its map as useful as possible for a particular purpose. If believing something false–e.g. that the sun goes around the earth–turns out to be useful for the task of killing all humans, then the robot will not care that it’s not true.

    Now, we use the word “good” to evaluate not just actions, but entities; and in this sense, the robot can be called good, in the sense that its good at doing its job, just like a mosquito can be called “good” even though its a nuisance and we wish it were dead. Neither genocidal robots nor mosquitos are evil. We don’t usually use “true” in this way, to talk about entities not beliefs, but if we did, we could describe the robot as true so long as it were not in the habit of forming beliefs that undermined its goal.

    We’re like the robot, except our goal is vaguely defined for us, and accordingly the scope of truths we’re interested in isn’t limited–anything might turn out to be relevant.

    *

    –“I think we mean completely different things by “factual”. Anything that is caused by something factual, I would also call factual. Because once it is “on the grid”, it makes sense to talk about Bayesian evidence for and against it.”

    I’m not sure why you think I disagree with this. What do you think I’m putting on the grid and yet calling non-factual? God, or miracles?

    That factuality follows causal chains is why I tried to avoid using the word “cause” to describe God’s relationship to us. In the sense you use “cause,” God’s relationship to us is *not* causal. To answer whether A caused B in your sense, we have to ask whether B would have happened without A, and it’s nonsense to ask “what would have happened without God.” The problem is that there are other, non-factual, senses of the word “cause,” and its in these senses that people say God causes the world. Cf. Aristotle’s four causes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes

    I also don’t want to say that moral truths, or metaphysical truths (this is a better word, since not all meta-language truths are moral truths), cause miracles. My whole point was that *nothing* causes miracles. They just happen.

    I suspect your problem with my position will turn out to be that you reject the idea of effects that lack causes. I agree it’s prima facie unlikely. Miracles are *supposed* to be bizarre–that’s what makes them worth looking at (miracle < mira = sight).

    *

    –" If supernaturalism is true, physical facts may be caused by other types of facts that we don’t know about, but whatever those facts are they are automatically factual."

    Some people are supernaturalists in the sense you mean. They tend to be interested in things like scientifically analysing telepathy, ghosts, and other occult phenomenon. I'm not a supernaturalist in this sense. Metaphysical entities (God, souls) are not like physical entities minus physical appearances; they are not forces acting on the world causally while hiding themselves from our perception. That wouldn't even make any sense. Seeing their acting on the world *would* be seeing them, just like seeing the light waves the sun emits *is* seeing the sun.

    Rather, metaphysical entities are *completely* different from physical ones. So different that the best way to imagine them is to imagine that they are words which refer to nothing beyond themselves. Words, obviously, can't cause anything, but that doesn't mean they're meaningless.

  19. David Simmons permalink
    September 8, 2014 10:55 am

    – “we could describe the robot as true so long as it were not in the habit of forming beliefs that undermined its goal.”

    You mean, you describe the robot like that. I wouldn’t, that way of describing it seems ridiculous to me.

    By the way, I’m not entirely sure whether a mind that places absolutely no value on truth should even be said to have beliefs, since it seems that it is not thinking of any part of its algorithm as a “map” which is supposed to correspond to some “territory”. But I’m not sure about this.

    – “I suspect your problem with my position will turn out to be that you reject the idea of effects that lack causes.”

    No, my problem with your position is that the criteria that you’re using to determine which effects probably lack causes is a kind of criteria that will find classes of events which have a common cause, rather than a class of causeless events.

    For example, part of the argument for the Resurrection is that “given that God exists, it makes sense that God would resurrect Jesus as a way of proving the validity of his message to the world”. This way of thinking about things is clearly treating God as a cause. Furthermore, I maintain that most thinking about supernatural occurrences (e.g. the examples I cited above) are dominated by this kind of thinking.

  20. September 8, 2014 12:08 pm

    –“By the way, I’m not entirely sure whether a mind that places absolutely no value on truth should even be said to have beliefs, since it seems that it is not thinking of any part of its algorithm as a “map” which is supposed to correspond to some “territory”. But I’m not sure about this.”

    I basically agree. This is what I meant when I said that the robot would only be said to have true beliefs analogously. What it has aren’t beliefs in the normal sense, but they’re enough like beliefs that it’s useful to call them beliefs.

    But I continue to think that the map/territory metaphor causes more confusion than it clarifies. You seem to have an idea that something can’t count as a “map” unless the person making it has as a goal it corresponding perfectly to some territory. But maps *never* correspond perfectly to their territory. If they were to do so, they would have to mirror the territory in size, shape, color, location, etc–the only perfectly accurate map of the territory would *be* the territory. No one actually uses maps this way. Maps deviate from the territories they describe in ways that don’t make them bad maps. It would be silly to say “this map of the transit system isn’t to scale, and that makes it a bad map”; transit maps aren’t supposed to scale, because the goal isn’t to communicate distances, it’s to communicate the connections between the different nodes. This kind of deviation is not only normal, it’s necessary. Similarly, if the robot finds it useful to have its map represent the sun going around the earth, that does not make it a bad map. That makes it a good map–a map that does its job well.

    I agree that, for the “map” in our minds, this is somehow insufficient (which is why “map” is a bad metaphor). But not because the robot makes maps for a specific purpose while we just make maps for no reason whatsoever, or because we feel a bizarre compulsion to make ever-more-accurate maps. Rather, it’s because we haven’t been assigned any *specific* purpose, and so there are no aspects of reality we can afford to ignore, the way a transit map can afford to ignore the distance between nodes. This lack of specific purpose doesn’t somehow divorce accuracy from purpose entirely!

    *

    –“For example, part of the argument for the Resurrection is that “given that God exists, it makes sense that God would resurrect Jesus as a way of proving the validity of his message to the world”.”

    Who says that this is part of the argument? I do not agree that this is part of the argument. No Christian should. God did not raise Jesus from the dead; Jesus rose from the dead. “Rose” here is an intransitive verb. There was not some other entity “God” that “raised him.”

    This isn’t just a grammatical quibble. The main argument for the Resurrection is that it happened, and people saw it, and we can trust them. The secondary argument is that it make sense the way someone fulfilling a promise makes sense: Jesus made a promise to rise from the dead, and then fulfilled it. Is there spooky causation here? In a sense–Jesus came back to life, without using any physical causal chain to do so!

    To understand this we have to ask what can it mean to say “Person A did action B.” I don’t think this is causal language in your sense of causal: person-related language (I claim) can’t be reduced to physical-causal language. Two events can be physically identical yet be described differently on the personal level if their contexts differ. If Jesus had not promised to rise from the dead, then it would be less clear that we should describe the Resurrection as something that he himself did.

    But you’ve never really explained what you mean by causal so I can’t really carry the argument further.

    *

    –“I maintain that most thinking about supernatural occurrences (e.g. the examples I cited above) are dominated by this kind of thinking.”

    You’re free to maintain that. Meanwhile I’ve given actual reasons for why we should interpret the specific examples you cited otherwise.

  21. David Simmons permalink
    September 8, 2014 1:43 pm

    -“Who says that this is part of the argument?”

    Off the top of my head, I can name Richard Swinburne. I’m sure there are others.

    To argue for the Resurrection, you have to start by having some view of how the universe works that makes the prior probability more than infinitesimal. The easiest way to do that is to describe a world where God exists and then argue that it could be our world. You don’t want to do that, and you also don’t seem to want to accept the materialist view of how the universe works, which would set the probability at so low that the amount of evidence we have for the claim is negligible in comparison. What model are you using of how the world works? To me, it looks like you are secretly including “God” in your model of how the world works but refusing to admit it.

    If there is a part of your model of how the world works that is not part of the standard materialist model and which fulfills the roles usually ascribed to God, then I think you believe in omni*-in*-person. If there is a part of your model of how the world works that is not part of the standard materialist model but which does something different, then I have no idea what it is.

    I suppose you will just say “I don’t make models of the how the world works, I care about _truth_, which means `believing the Right Thing’ “.

    • David Simmons permalink
      September 8, 2014 1:54 pm

      Just thought of a second: C. S. Lewis in “On Miracles”.

      • David Simmons permalink
        September 8, 2014 1:55 pm

        sorry, I mean “Miracles: A preliminary study”.

  22. September 8, 2014 3:11 pm

    Swinburne and Lewis are both Protestants. Protestants tend not to agree with Catholics about this sort of thing. Most, for example, don’t take the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity very seriously. But since I haven’t read either one on the subject of miracles, and you haven’t said what *part* of my attack on that sort of argument they would object to (which is important since my objection was to the *specific way* you put the argument, not to the argument’s “jist”), I can’t say much more about it. Just two comments:

    1) If they say “God resurrected Jesus,” transitively, in a way implying that the one who raised was different from the one who was raised, then they’re contradicting the Nicene Creed, which does not say “and the third day he was raised again”.
    2) They may well mean something different by “cause” than you do. Since you still haven’t said what you mean by “cause” this is difficult to evaluate.

    *

    –“I suppose you will just say “I don’t make models of the how the world works, I care about _truth_, which means `believing the Right Thing’ “.”

    You’re right, I think, that I don’t make “models of how the world works.” Rather, we make models of particular aspects of the world. Our models always omit an infinite amount, because they can only include a finite amount. I think it’s silly to think that combining all of our models of individual aspects together will add up to a model of the world in its entirety. I would say that I reject, not materialism, but the idea that we can come up with a set of physical laws that offers a comprehensive causal explanation for everything that happens. That sounds to me like a fantasy of creating in our mind a copy of the world that’s just as good as the world itself for the purpose of thenceforth interacting with the model rather than with the actual world.

    That is, I reject causal determinism; I think that no matter how well prepared we are, it’s always possible for the world to surprise us. (Amusing tangent: search this web page http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ for the phrase “space invaders”.) So the Resurrection shouldn’t be understood as contradicting the way things always happen, in a way that makes it infinitesimally improbable. Rather, it should be understood as contradicting the way things normally happen, in a way that doesn’t change what normally happens, but instead introduces another way things can happen, one that it does no good to think about causally.

    *

    –“If there is a part of your model of how the world works that is not part of the standard materialist model and which fulfills the roles usually ascribed to God, then I think you believe in omni*-in*-person.”

    Just because you can’t tell the difference between a non-materialist position and belief in the omni*-in*-person (which, by the way, I think is basically an idolatrous form of materialism), doesn’t mean such a difference doesn’t exist. If I believed in the omni*-in*-person, then the universe COULDN’T surprise me: I would have an explanation before-the-fact for all the strange things that happened. At best the universe could annoy me, the way a tyrant annoys his subjects by giving them arbitrary orders. Tyrants are unpredictable, but they don’t *surprise* anyone.

  23. David Simmons permalink
    September 8, 2014 3:28 pm

    You have an interesting definition of “surprise”.

    If you insist that you don’t make models of the world, then I suppose that there’s not much more to say — it seems like we don’t have enough common ground to continue a conversation.

  24. September 8, 2014 3:56 pm

    I also insist that YOU don’t make models of the world–you make models of parts of it. My question is, what reason do you have to believe that you’re modeling all of it, other than a belief that it somehow *ought* to be possible to model all of it?

  25. David Simmons permalink
    September 8, 2014 4:20 pm

    I don’t know… the distinction between modeling parts of the world and modeling all of the world seems pretty pedantic to me, to be honest. The models of parts should fit together in reasonable ways, whether you want to call that a model of all of the world or not. The point is just this — you for some reason seem to think that resurrection events are not that implausible. To me it seems that you don’t have any good reason for thinking that, since you explicitly disavow the one thing that would make it reasonable — omni*-in*-person. It seems obvious to me that you actually do have a model but you refuse to acknowledge its existence because you consider that to be idolatrous. But we’re using so many words in different ways that I’m not really sure whether we are communicating anymore.

  26. September 21, 2014 11:56 pm

    Last chapter in Pensees was ‘The Miracles’ and it suggests he realised some spiritual power. regards http://YourWellWisherprogram.wordpress.com

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