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April 29, 2007



Is something possible just because God does it, or can God do it because it is possible?

To adopt the earlier question to God's omnipotence.

I mean just because GOD is all powerful and can do anything that can be done, does not mean that he can do things that can not be done.

Likewise just because God can know everything that can be known, does not mean God can know things that are not knowable, for example the future.

And just because God can only do good, does not mean that God's doing of things is the factor that makes them good.

Of course I think this is all nonsense. God is the cosmos it does what it does, and if we want to interpret the way in which we experience some aspect of the cosmos as "GOOD" or "EVIL" that is our business and has nothing to do with what "IS" good or evil, not even what "GOD" believes to be good or evil.

Val Larsen

Nathaniel proposes that maybe prophets are just guessing in God’s name and are sometimes right. If this is the theory of the believer, I would hate to see what the unbeliever has to say on the topic. The orthodox view has long been that God is outside of time. If that is true, there are no feedback loop problems with prophesy. God doesn’t have to worry that if he acts, it will create an unanticipated outcome. From his point of view, all actions and reactions have already occurred. Seeing all of it, time would be static for Him. The thing that helped me understand how this would work was reading an account of Flatland many years ago—a two dimensional world. From the third dimension, we can see the future of a person walking through flatland. His two-dimensional time is dynamic for him but static for us. By adding dimensions, it is quite easy to extricate God from time and posit that He has, unsurprisingly, a God’s eye view. But if one adopts that orthodox view, one is back on the horns of the foresight/free will/problem of evil dilemma.


God is beyond everything, so why should God care what happens. no matter what we all die in some way and torture is not as much less gruesome than cardiac arrest or Alzheimer's than people are lead to believe. There is no such thing as peaceful death, all death is cruel and gruesome.

Any way what is it to GOD is we die slowly on a cross, or are shot down in battle, or gassed in some camp, or wither away until our hearts give out on us.

What is it to GOD who is beyond everything, we build monuments to his name that erode to dust or we build idols to Moloch. What is it to God if our last breath is spent cursing his name or praising it.

Nathan Smith

Sorry Val, God may be outside of time in some sense, but when he speaks through a human prophet, he is operating *in* time, and he is subject to feedback loops. There's no way, logically, to avoid it. We know that any prophecy will affect all future events. If God interferes in a "flatland" world, one of the properties of that world is nonetheless that it is *directional* in the time dimension. It's as if there was a bulletin board where, if you stick a tack in the center of it, everything on the left side remains the same, but everything on the right side rearranges itself. We *know* that. We know about time and causation from our own experience.

Again, this does not depend on whether you believe in free will or not. Even if we picture a world where the only being who can alter his behavior is God, and all other creatures are as deterministic as billiard-balls, you would still have feedback loops.

I realize that my near-denial of divine foresight, or at any rate of perfect divine foresight, seems unorthodox. I feel uncomfortable with it but can't see any way out. However, how high are the stakes in this, really? I didn't really say that prophets were only guessing. I was thinking more of Peter denying Jesus three times-- suggesting that that, perhaps, was only a confident guess based on knowing Peter's character.

With prophets it's a bit different, because what the prophets are *usually* predicting seems to be something *God* will do, such as the coming of Jesus, or the resurrection of the dead, or the judgment of the wicked and the beatification of the just. There's no problem with God having perfect foresight of *His own* actions. A bit more problematic is something like the prophecy of Daniel, and the four empires of gold, silver, bronze, and copper, and then the stone that "came tearing down the kingdoms of this world." Empires emerge of human actions, how can they be foreseen? Other than to say that Daniel just guessed right, or-- even more subversively perhaps-- that his words were so metaphorical that any outcome would have been interpretable as fulfilling them, one can say (1) that in these big-canvas events "the laws of history" are at work and God could foresee their operations, or (2) that God planned to intervene in subtle ways to make sure that a series of empires culminating in the Roman came to power in the Middle East/Mediterranean. I'm not quite happy with either of those, but they're both consistent with free will and avoid feedback loops.

I don't understand divine foresight, except of divine action, which does seem to be what much or most prophecy consists of. I do think that free will is about fifty times more important, and it's also one of the most fundamental facts of experience and so it would be a sin against truth to deny it no matter how strong the religious motives; and anyway the denial of free will would create even bigger problems for religion than the denial of divine foresight. That said, I think there may be room for a sort of paradigm shift about the whole question of time and choice... only I'm not sure where to begin or what it would lead to. Must think more. In the meantime, I'm not going to accept accounts of divine foresight that lead to other scandalous theological implications.

Val Larsen

Nathaniel, the Peter prophesy is inconsistent with any orthodox explanation but perfect divine foreknowledge. If Christ has merely said, "You will deny me when things get really rough," that could flow from deep knowledge of Peter's character. "You will deny me thrice before the cock crows" has a degree of specificity that cannot be explained except as perfect divine foreknowledge. The three times and cock crowing clinch the case, as does the cock crowing immediately following the third denial and Christ being in a position to look at Peter just after it happened (if I remember correctly). There is one higher critical concession you could make: Christ did say something like "You will deny me when things get really rough" and the diciples made the story better by adding in the extra details. But in making that concession, you are on the road to Unitarianism if not to whatever one might call Frowclown's religion/belief system. There are of course, lots of stopping points along the road. My main point is that none of your other accounts is consistent with an orthodox reading of this and a number of other biblical prophesies.

Val Larsen

To quote some of you, “No! No! No!” The idea of a feedback loop misses the point of being outside of time. It might help to think of it this way. All of God’s acts through all of time occur in a single instant when he creates time. From His initial vantage point, He has a completed relationship to the whole of time. He doesn’t act sequentially as it unfolds. So a distinction is in order. God’s acts in time—including prophesies--do have consequences. They just don’t have unanticipated consequences. The prophesy is always fulfilled because its consequences had already been taken into account when it was made. And it was made not in the temporal moment when we who are stuck in time see it unfold, then breathlessly or heedlessly await its fulfillment. It was made in the instant when time itself was created whole. So again, from the point of view of an atemporal Being, time is static, all action and reaction already completed. There are no surprises. Nor is this idea inconsistent with our having free will (if that concept can otherwise be understood to be intelligible.) Being able to see all time at once from beginning to end, God can see what we freely chose and know what we will do without necessarily causing it.

That said, the question we raised earlier arises for orthodox believers. Since all the actors in this completed, static time are God’s creatures and He could have not created them, how can He escape responsibility for their freely chosen actions? Conundrums like this make be grateful to be an adherent to the Mormon variant of Christian theology, which pretty much obviates all of these problems, though to be sure, it does pose other theological conundrums. Or should I say conundri?

Nathan Smith

Well, that seems right...

Except the part about the Mormon variant of Christian theology obviating the problem, which it doesn't. Or at any rate I don't see how it would. Maybe that's because I don't really know what the Mormon position is. But if the Mormons deny perfect divine foresight, they're obviously no better off-- then how does Jesus know? As we've seen already, denying free will helps only if you accept the idea that there's a sort of fancy footwork with the feedback effect going on. In *most* cases, a person warned beforehand that he would commit Shameful Act X would be especially careful to avoid it; Peter that night must have been a rare case where the feedback effects canceled each other out. But that seems like a contrived solution. Nothing that I know about Mormon theology offers the slightest help out of this problem, and I can't think what feature Mormon theology might have, unbeknownst to me, that would help, either.

Even if we set aside the issue of the truth of the doctrine of divine foresight, or of the Peter story, for the moment, what did the evangelists intend us to think about the Peter prophecy? What lessons did they themselves draw from it? Why was it worth reporting? Even if the answer is merely that they reported it because it was a striking occurrence, and they weren't sure what lessons to draw from it, why did they-- why would I-- find the occurrence striking?

It's striking because usually no one can foresee the future, and in this case Jesus did. It is also striking because it underlines Peter's humiliation, his terrible weakness of will at that moment: even after being warned by Jesus that he would deny, even after his enthusiastic protestations that he would die before denying Jesus, within hours he betrayed him. How I pity Peter every time I read that story! And the lesson-- that even the great St. Peter himself could falter so terribly-- is so edifying, for if such a man could be so loved by the Lord, and later show such charisma and courage and play such a great part in building the kingdom of God, what might God make of us, even if we seem so weak now?

Jesus wanted to teach Peter a lesson, and that lesson was for his good. Fair enough. But how could he have done it? Since there are feedback effects, Jesus's prediction would have affected Peter's actions-- regardless of what we believe about divine foresight-- so either (a) Peter would have done it either way, or (b) Peter was in some sense "set up" by Jesus. Peter could have been set up by God, if God subtly intervened in some way to cause the incident to unfold the way it did.

I'm not averse to the suggestion that God's interventions in the world are comparatively frequent and pervasive-- not miraculous interventions exactly; in this case it would come through suggesting thoughts to certain minds, I suppose... But it's not at all clear to me how it should work.


If an entity "knows" the implications of each possibility in genuine detail, then those results are fully represented in all their relational detail. Represented scientists perform their represented experiments to discover represented physical laws which, being represented perfectly, never diverge from "veridical" physical laws. In fact, not only is there no epistemic difference, I do not think it possible to draw a non-question-begging ontological distinction between such fully elaborated extratemporal representations and substantive reality. Thus, God's omniscience constitutes instantiation of all that is possible, both good and evil.

Val Larsen

Turning to the argument I made in the first comment on this thread, I think I understand Nato’s position. He accepts all of my premises but differs from me on what the optimal mix of tradition and innovation is. If we were to dig into this more deeply, we would probably disagree on what counts as a tradition and on what the consequences for children are of our preferred mix of tradition/innovation. But those are complicated questions and at least the terms of the discussion are clear.

I’m less certain about Froclown’s position on the premises, but I am sure he feels Sadaam Hussein did his best to be a good father to Uday and Qusay and to preserve the family tradition by giving them the same opportunities to pillage, rape, and murder that he had provided for himself. (He was, perhaps, a less successful father to his daughters, because of his unfortunate tendency to assassinate their husbands.)

What is very unclear to me is where Nathaniel stands. In the post at the head of this thread, he implies that the argument is somehow invalid but then affirms its first premise that a person who lives a conventional life is more likely to be happy than a desperado who lives an unconventional life. Later in a comment, he seems to affirm the third premise and its application (that parents can influence how their children live their lives and that that influence is likely to be stronger for traditionalist parents): “traditionalists may be better able to keep their children under their wing.” He does qualify his acceptance of the third premise without rejecting it by saying that traditionalists will have less influence/a worse relationship with a rebellious child than will parents whose tradition is what’s happening now since the latter—being led themselves by whim, fashion, or untested personal philosophy—are neither disposed nor in a position to question their children’s decision to live by fashion, whim, or whatever personal philosophy the callow youths may have worked out for themselves. (I admit that summary may be a wee bit tendentious:^) He also notes that expectations are not always fulfilled—that someone may anticipate having a conventional life/relationship but be disappointed. (But this point doesn’t tell, since expectations are much more likely to be violated outside of a strong tradition than within it. This is true, almost by definition, by analysis of the word “tradition.” For example, marriages in Nathaniel’s own strong birth tradition are more likely to last than other marriages—probably because they begin with a shared horizon of expectations and persist in the context of a community that consistently reaffirms the importance of the marriage covenants, which is not, of course, to say that such marriages never fail. But they clearly do increase the odds of success-- and every claim in a discussion such as this must be probabilistic.)

Oddly, the main thrust of Nathaniel’s critique may be a rejection of my second premise—that the life of a parent will be happier if those who are dear to him (children, grandchildren) are also happy—though he never quite says so in three paragraphs of skeptical comment on the topic. So I await clarification. Which premises of the argument, Nathaniel, do you accept, which reject. If the logic is faulty, where does the error lie?

Val Larsen

I don't find Peter's forgetfulness--the lack of a feedback loop--particularly troubling in this case. This was an emotionally intense moment. He was surrounded by dangers and his life was on the line. After the fact, we are surprised that he could have been unmindful of the earlier conversation (and so was he, after the fact), but given that our minds can hold only so many thoughts at a time and that he had plenty to occupy his thoughts--survival, the prospect of his own crucifixion should he be discovered--I am not surprised that he didn't recall the prophecy and avoid fulfilling it. In a less dramatic vein, most religious people do the same thing. We hear a sermon, have a conviction that it is true and that we should avoid some behavior, and yet, later, in the moment, we forget our belief and commitment and sin again.

I do agree that the Peter story is wonderful. When Peter denied Christ, so did we all. Likewise, when he slept in the Garden as Christ suffered and atoned, so did we all. Christ selected from all humanity just a chosen few and led them to the Garden, then from that few, he chose just three to go with him further into the Garden and be with him as he suffered and prayed. And he asked one simple thing of them--that they remain awake to watch with him, to support him, as he began to suffer the sin of all humankind. But they/we failed. When the soldiers came, all but Peter seem to have fled, so Peter was humanity at its best--and yet thrice denied Christ. Yes, all are sinners and come short of the glory of God.

Nathan Smith

I'm not clear on what the premises of the argument are, but the conclusions seem to be:
1) Traditionalists are happier than people who lead unconventional lives.
2) People who try out new lifestyles are more likely to be miserable themselves, but they contribute to the happiness of mankind by allowing others to learn from them (whether as good examples, or cautionary tales).
3) One of the reasons that innovators are particularly likely to suffer is that even if they hit on a good way to live, their children are likely to follow their habit of innovating rather than adopt their specific lifestyle, and thus even the personally-happy innovators' lives will probably be marred by rebellious children.

It is the sort of ironic idea that can be interesting and useful to contemplate. But ultimately I think the generalizations collapse because the terms they use are too vague to hold their weight. What is a tradition? What is innovation? What is happiness? What is misery? Surely it is possible neither to follow tradition absolutely, nor to innovate absolutely, so everyone is in between and it must be a matter of degree, but how does one say even that X is "more" traditional, or innovative, than Y? That is, how does one *prove* it; how does one render adherence-to-tradition, as it were, quantifiable? Because adherence-to-tradition is not quantifiable, a self-appointed traditionalist can always stack the deck by looking at all the happy people and pointing out the ways in which they were traditional, and all the unhappy people and pointing out the ways in which they were unconventional.

It seems to me more instructive to look at specific traditions and innovations than to generalize about them. I would ask: is the person who experiments doing good things or bad things, living better or worse than his conventional fellow? Are the aspects of tradition that he rejects good, or bad aspects? If he adopts a new belief, is the belief true? If he adopts a new practice, is the practice kind, just, courageous, brave; or is it an abandonment of the kindness or justice to which his tradition exhorts him? Does the practice help or hurt people? Is the practice one that he would desire to be generalized, or would he be dismayed to find others adopting it?

While I am generally a fan of tradition, I think that self-conscious traditionalism is often, perhaps usually or even always, a bad symptom. Living traditions are too complex to be "lived." They do not supply a set of prescriptive rules to live by; they are full of apparent or real contradictions and complexities; each generation does not mimic the last, but first emulates it in a selective fashion, sometimes finding itself in respectful disagreement, and later transcends it.

Nathan Smith

"They do not supply a set of prescriptive rules to live by."

That should have been:

"They do not *merely* supply a set of prescriptive rules to live by."


”For example, marriages in Nathaniel’s own strong birth tradition are more likely to last than other marriages—probably because they begin with a shared horizon of expectations and persist in the context of a community that consistently reaffirms the importance of the marriage covenants, which is not, of course, to say that such marriages never fail. But they clearly do increase the odds of success-- and every claim in a discussion such as this must be probabilistic.)"

US divorce demographics:

Variation in divorce rates by religion:
Religion % have been divorced
Jews 30%
Born-again Christians 27%
Other Christians 24%
Atheists, Agnostics 21%

The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average" of 4.2/1000 people.

Val Larsen

Within Mormon theology, man is coeternal with God. Human beings are not God’s creatures. It follows that whatever his foreknowledge of them may be, He cannot be held as accountable for their acts as He could be if they were, wholly, his creation. Even if He has perfect foresight on what they will do, His only choice for avoiding the evil they would commit given an opportunity is do deny an already existing being the opportunity to prove him/herself—for good or ill. It is quite conceivable to me that all (God and humanity) might agree before that fact that everyone should be given a chance to fully express and develop their nature, aware as they would be that all but one had some measure of evil in them. This is quite a different problem than what the mainstream Christian God faces, for he has the option of simply not creating the being who will freely choose gross evil (or perhaps any evil). In Mormon theology, the causal link between man and God is severed and, ipso facto, God escapes responsibility for evil that may inhere in man.

Man’s uncreated nature also opens the possibility of God foreknowing what will happen in time through Lapacean calculation as a kind of ultimate manifestation of the logic Nato articulates in the May 02 2007 10:12 AM post above. Human nature may be fixed and yet free in the sense that behavior expresses only the internal necessity of the individual’s uncreated nature. So the idea that human freedom consists in self-determination is a live possibility in Mormon theology though not a settled truth that all Mormons believe. Self-determinism isn’t a live theological option for mainstream Christianity. If our actions merely and necessarily express our innate nature (but God fully determined what our nature should be), the problem of evil, of holding God responsible for evil, is unavoidable. Mormons may also believe (and many do) in the kind of unintelligible, uncaused choice that mainstream Christians have as their only option. When they do, they sacrifice a theological comparative advantage with respect to other Christians who do not have the option of giving a more intelligible account of human freedom. But then, what theology one subscribes to should not primarily be about winning debating points.

God being outside of time is also a possibile way for Mormons to explain Divine foreknowledge, though it is more problematic than for mainstream Christians—and the idea is not widely thought through or held. It is problematic because the Mormon God is corporeal. Matter in motion necessarily entails time. So the Mormon God must be in time in whatever dimension He exists. It is possible that He might be outside of our time given existence in a dimension orthogonal to our four, but He would be enmeshed in the time of that fifth dimension.

Val Larsen

Thomas, to speak to my argument, you will need to report the divorce rate for Mormon Temple marriages. Also relevant would be the divorce rates for other strong traditions, e.g., the Omish, orthodox Jews, traditionalist Catholics. The antinomianism of Protestant Christianity makes it a poor representative of tradition in the sense that I have been advocating, though to be sure, it has certain traditional aspects. Also, it would be interesting to do the comparison controlling for age. I suspect that if age is factored in as the first predictor variable in the regression equation, that the sign on the beta for religiousity might flip.

Val Larsen

Nathaniel, you will find my premises conveniently numbered in my intial post above, the one immediately following your blog entry. Your argument in the latest seems to be that the words "tradition" and "innovation" are too vague to be meaningful, though you seem to have understood the distinction well enough in the post at the head of this thread. To be sure, these are abstract terms, but I don't think any of us would have much difficulty in supplying prototypical examples of social traditionalists and social innovators (as Wittgenstein would urge us to do to get a handle on the meaning of a term). You yourself brought up the Omish who are in many respects prototypically traditionalist. Hippies on a commune in the 1960s would be one prototyical example of social innovators.


Nathanael gets at the heart of my disagreement with Val: definition of terms. What is 'happy', 'tradition', 'innovation', etc. From my perspective, the grandest and most resilient tradition over the expanse of Human history is the tradition of applied reason. Innovation, social or otherwise, would hardly even be possible without reason. Most cultures have developed widely varying religious traditions, but the tradition of reason has been pretty standardly held by all cultures going all the way back to the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Chinese, and Egyptians. None of these ancient cultures had any traditions in common that weren't based on either reason or necessity.

Even if we accept Val's arguments in their entirety, it still seems it's better to be an innovator than a traditionalist. Sure, if you only care about your own personal happiness or the happiness of your progeny, then you should selfishly strive to be a traditionalist. But if you are self-sacrificing and altruistic, then trying to innovate, even in the face of certain failure, is more noble than trying to maintain the status quo, since your innovations, if successful, will benefit all of humanity and not just yourself.

In order for me to buy Val's argument, though, he needs to be explicit about what he considers a 'tradition' to be, and in what objective way following that tradition makes people happy. But even if he does demonstrate such a tradition, it's bound to be of the variety that is so obvious and necessary that reason alone is sufficient to arrive at it. For instance, it's traditional in American society to own and drive an automobile or motorcycle. Clearly there are good reasons for such a tradition, but if someone violates the tradition by owning no such implements of personal conveyance, we can't really say that they will for certain be less happy than those who do follow the tradition; the person could just prefer to use public transportation. Perhaps that is not a good example of a tradition, but without an explicit definition of 'tradition' it's difficult to come up with an example that would seem good. Perhaps 'tradition' is something that people do without really knowing or understanding why they do it. If that is something like Val's definition, then I am and always have been an anti-traditionalist, because I believe in doing things for a *reason*; an action without an intentional purpose loses all coherence, as MacIntyre pointed out. I would be interested to see how Val defines the term.

Val Larsen

Wittgenstein gives good guidance on how we ought to approach the definition of categorical terms like “tradition” and “reason” and, for that matter, “rock star.” Things that fall within the category tend to have “family resemblance,” meaning that they share a bundle of attributes that make them recognizable category members even though there may be no single attribute that all category members share. Among the attributes that compose the concept tradition are duration through time, the involvement of some kind of willed act, some degree of prescription, sociality (meaning the act, like language, is communal, not purely individual), stability, implicit authority, unreflective acceptance, habit, ritual. There are theoretical “ideal types” that have all defining attributes of the concept, but concepts are normally easier to understand in terms of “exemplars,” actual instances that are prototypical in the sense that they have more of the relevant attributes than other claimants to category membership.

The word tradition is used in more restrictive and comprehensive senses. In its restrictive sense, it refers to particular practices. In the more comprehensive sense (which I have been using), it refers to a constellation of customs, rituals, behavioral expectations, normative practices, and relationships that are embraced and passed on by some relatively stable community. As I have indicated above, prototypical examples include the Omish, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Hindus, and conservative Catholics. Cultures that honor the elderly (most Asian cultures) tend to be more traditional than those that don’t and that celebrate youth instead (America). The converse of tradition includes many youth subcultures—hippies, punk, goth—and consciously non-tradtional, rationalistic movements such as communism. The Chinese Cultural Revolution may be the prototypical exemplar of unbridled anti-tradition innovation—the creation of the brave new world of the rational idealist. Over time, out of successful revolutionary innovations a tradition tends to crystallize. This happened in Mormonism, the tradition I know best, which was very youthful, revolutionary, and unstable from 1830 – 1850 but thereafter developed a strong, stable tradition. Nathaniel is right to suggest that living traditions continue to change, but the strongest of them change slowly enough and cautiously enough that the family resemblance to the tradition of the past is not lost.

All of the terms I have been asked to define—tradition, happiness, innovation—can be quantitatively defined using a response latency measure. The procedure is to give examples of potential category members and see how long it takes respondents to say whether the candidate fits or doesn’t fit the category. Judgments are made very quickly when the candidate clearly fits or doesn’t fit the concept. The response latency is longest when the entity to be judged lies close to the border of a concept. Using this procedure, I think it could be demonstrated that none of these terms are quite as mysterious as some of you seem to be suggesting. That said, I will concede that in addition to universally recognized prototypical exemplars of a particular category, e.g., happiness (a picture of a smiling face), there will be dialect differences (e.g., in the drug subculture, someone who is stoned might immediately be categorized as happy while in the larger culture the same person might be classified as unhappy).

Val Larsen

Briefly in response to Thomas, no one can live la ife that is rationally examined/guided with any rigor. As I have noted before, the brilliant minds at GOSPLAN couldn't get one, apparently small thing right in their society--proper prices. The problem is that all of our decisions potentially interact in complex ways with thousands of other decisions and environmental factors. We can never fully calculate the consequences of an act. Tradition lets us adopt well tested ways of behaving that have been shown to produce good results through the empirical test of many lived lives. It lets us capitalize on the kind of distributed intelligence that gets prices more or less right in a captalist economy despite the fact that no one person can come to grips with all the relevant factors that should/do affect price.


"...no one can live la ife that is rationally examined/guided with any rigor. As I have noted before, the brilliant minds at GOSPLAN couldn't get one, apparently small thing right in their society--proper prices."

Is GOSPLAN an appropriate analogy for Tom's position? I don't think so. Tom is talking about the application of one's personal reasoning to one's personal situation - a position analogous to, at most ambitious, a corporate economist but more ordinarily the household accountant determining how to allocate funds. There are traditional and non-traditional ways of allocating capacity (in corporations) or income (in households), but Tom thinks that one's application of reason should always in some way validate - not necessarily derive - one's allocation.

Now, there's a limit to how far you can take it. Just as most people do not have the time, resources or expertise to fully examine economic choices, we do not have the knowledge, intelligence or impartiality to fully examine our methods and traditions. We're all on the same page there. But ultimately reason - not tradition itself - remains the standard by which we must evaluate traditions.

Val Larsen

Since I am arguing rationally that it is beneficial to make tradition an important component of ones life, it follows that I do not see reason and tradition as being inimical to each other. Indeed, I view tradition as the rational solution to the problem of a finite intelligence navigating an infinitely complex world. Since we can't consciously calculate the consequences of each of our actions, we assume the regularity of the world and let habit/tradition guide most of our actions. We deploy conscious reason most extensively in novel situations where habit/tradition cannot guide us. To build upon Nato's household purchase example, most purchases we make are what scholars in this area call "automatic rebuys." In other words, when we go through a grocery store, most of the things we purchase are things we have purchased before that we always toss into the cart because we have found they meet our needs in the past and we expect them to continue doing so. We generally reserve extended decision making for new purchases (including decisions to switch from one of our traditional products/brands) or very expensive purchases that are infrequently made. When we do switch, we often limit the choice set to known brands. This explains why brand extensions/family branding is so widely used (e.g., many different products sold under the Del Monte brand name). This marketing practice capitalizes on our tendency to use heuristics/habit when making purchase decisions.


"Since we can't consciously calculate the consequences of each of our actions, we assume the regularity of the world and let habit/tradition guide most of our actions.

To what is this position intended to be an alternative? Tom's position does not conflict with this, since it only requires that the habit/tradition that guides our actions to be explicable, not constantly explicated.

I suppose there's a possible tension here: Tom asks "Why do we do this?" and Trad responds, "because we always have, and it seems to work." Tom asks how Trad knows that it works and there's two options: 1) Trad has convincing evidence that the method works better than extant alternatives or 2) Trad can only point to, say, a lack of disaster. Assuming that 1) is true, then Tom might ask, "Why does it work?" and Trad would either 1a) give a cogent explanation of why it works 1b) say "no one knows" or 1c) give a dubious explanation

1a) seems sufficient grounds for ending inquiry on most practical questions. Cases 1b) and 1c) would invite further investigation but overall support continuing practice of the habit/tradition under discussion. I think we all agree so far. On 2), however, I'm not sure were all our positions are - and of course more definition of that case is probably prerequisite to clearly delineating the same. Further, there may be some disagreement about the value of continuing to question until we arrive at a b and c, but I feel pretty sure that Nathan, Tom and I generally regard that as something worth doing as often as possible.


What if there is no regularity in the world at all, but part of it's regularity is that we seem to think there is regularity. Our minds are actually just as chaotic as the world, but we can't realize it.

Like what if there is no "why things are". It is not day or night, day and night or neither day nor night all at the same time. and it's none of these.

And the same is true for every single preposition, it is true, false, true and false, meaningless, true and meaningless, false and meaningless, true, false and meaningless. and it is none of these.

(Nothing is TRUE, everything is permissible)

Which is the only real alternative to the idea that there is some kind of regularity, sense and order to the world.

How are we proposed to interact with such a world founded on utter chaos?

Val Larsen

Have any of you read "The Black Swan" by Nassim Talab? He offers an extaordinarily powerful argument against using theory laden reason to organize one's life. In a word, he makes the case I have been arguing here much more effectively than I have done. Human beings are not good at episteme (theoretical knowing) he argues, though we are pretty good at techne (practical knowing). His argument (he is a hyper Hayekian) is deeply elorated. It demonstrates, among other things, that ideology/theory tends to blind one to truths that are otherwise obvious. For example, it has been demonstrated experimentally that if one is shown a picture of a dog but with the resolution so low that the dog can't be made out, then in 10 successive stages, the resolution is sharpened, many people will never be able to pick out the dog. If the resolution is sharpened in only 5 stages, they pick it out more reliably. The explanation is that theories on what the image shows that one formulates over the course of the more gradual sharpening of the resolution blind one to what would otherwise be obvious. Enlightenment reason--Talab cogently argues--makes one blind. Focusing in particular on medicine, he demonstrates that most major discoveries have been serendipitous--accidental products of techne, not consciously pursued results of theoretical episteme. A lot of the argument is statistical--focused on the law of large numbers (which makes outcomes predictable) and its inapplicabily in novel situations (which appplies to social innovation) where prediction becomes difficult/impossible and serendipity is the relevant discovery process. I haven't read the book yet. I get this from an interview Arnold Kling had linked. But I am going to read it. It sounds like a wonderful elaboration of the fundamental Hayekian insight and as I have said, makes the case I have been trying to make much better than I have made it.

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