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April 23, 2008

Comments

Joyless Moralist

I'm curious, Nathan: what is your take on the ending of Perelandra, in which Ransom is ordered to *physically kill* Satan? In this case the tempter was not himself doing physical violence (at least not to people; to animals he was, but it would be rather a large stretch to say that Ransom killed him to avenge the dead beasts), nor was he looking to squelch the views of others. He was wooing the woman with persuasion only, and not even denying Ransom his opportunity to speak his piece. His intent was malicious, but the same could often be said of people who spread false ideas. So, was it wrong for Ransom to kill him?

Nathan Smith

Well, the main difference is that the Un-Man was no longer a human being at all, but was actually just Satan or some other demon who had seized control of a man's body. That seems to make a difference.

Joyless Moralist

I suppose there are some tricky questions concerning the exact identity of the Un-Man. But it's clear that the Un-Man was a person, and equally clear that Ransom killed a human being by killing him. Particularly significant is the tone of the passage where Ransom realizes that killing the Un-Man is the right thing to do. I don't have the text handy but as I recall, he seems to realize that this solution, the obvious solution, had not occurred to him, not because of any real moral qualms of the sort that could articulated, but rather because of some vague sense of propriety telling him that things like that simply aren't done. That seemed to connect up with things Lewis has said elsewhere about why pacifism is wrong.

I just can't quite see what the Christian rationale is for the sort of claim you want to make. I guess I'm taking the claim to be something like: violence can never be used to suppress a person's efforts to spread falsehoods. Let's call it the Free Speech principle. But why would it be true? Admittedly there are many *prudential* arguments against violence that would rule it out in many or most cases. But you seem to want to turn this into a kind of absolute prohibition, which I don't really understand. I don't buy into the so-called harm principle in any case (i.e. the principle that all behavior is morally acceptable as long as it doesn't harm anybody else), but even if you did the Free Speech principle clearly wouldn't follow from it. Words can certainly be harmful, as the old proverb about pens and swords reminds us. Neither does the Free Speech principle follow from the rule against harming the innocent, because, even presuming that the people being suppressed are sincere in their views, it is possible to be morally culpable for what you believe. (As a case in point, consider various kind of bigotry that are widely understood in our society to be immoral.)

Political liberals often try to justify the Free Speech principle with some appeal to uncertainty (that is, we can't suppress anybody's ideas because they might turn out to be true, and the best way to figure out what is and isn't true is to throw everything into the marketplace of ideas and let people decide for themselves.) That won't work for a Christian -- particularly not for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Things received through revelation *can* be known, with at least as much confidence as we could attach to claims about so-and-so being guilty of crime X, or so-and-so being about to kill us. If those can sometimes be used to justify violence, I don't see how a Christian can use *uncertainty* as grounds to rule out a violent response to heresy, blasphemy or the spreading of evil falsehoods generally.

Again, I take no position on how often it would actually be both justified and prudentially wise to use violence to suppress evil ideas or words. Probably not very often. Possibly never. But let's at least be up-front about one thing: it's very possible for a non-violent person to be both malicious and extremely dangerous. I read the ending of Perelandra as suggesting that violent solutions should not be categorically ruled out as a response to such mischief.

Nathan Smith

It seems to me pretty clear that the Un-Man in Perelandra was *not* a human being anymore: well before the death Lewis has described him already as "one Satan has devoured," and that is a necessary condition in the rationale Ransom had in overriding the ordinary moral qualms which would have prevented him from killing him.

"I don't buy into the so-called harm principle (i.e. the principle that all behavior is morally acceptable as long as it doesn't harm anybody else)..."

Yes, I also don't believe in the harm principle if that's what it means, and anyway it's not applicable here: spreading falsehoods certainly may be morally wrong. That said, I think a variation of the harm principle might be applicable here, which would involve (a) a deliberate narrowing of the meaning of harm to violations of rights (which of course opens another problematic area), and (b) defining a prohibition on *violence* to resist any non-rights-violating actions, even if those actions may be morally wrong. At one level this is commonsensical and even embodied in law: one may justly punch a man in the face in self-defense against assault, but not as a response to an insult. However, I think there are many ways to make this point, and this one may not be the most promising, so I'll leave that line of argument for now.

"Political liberals often try to justify the Free Speech principle with some appeal to uncertainty (that is, we can't suppress anybody's ideas because they might turn out to be true, and the best way to figure out what is and isn't true is to throw everything into the marketplace of ideas and let people decide for themselves.)"

I think I would go with an argument a little bit like this. Only the uncertainty I would emphasize is not uncertainty about whether what the person is saying is true, but about what he means by what he says, what he thinks we mean by what we say, and what the reasons for his believing what he believes are. Joyless Moralist goes on to say...

"That won't work for a Christian -- particularly not for a Catholic or Orthodox Christian. Things received through revelation *can* be known..."

This claims seems to me to misunderstand the nature of revelation. If we accept for the sake of argument the claim that the Bible, say, or the traditions of the church, is revelation and therefore can be "known," that leaves the question of interpretation: how can we know that we understand it correctly? Of course the church can try to clarify, but how do we know we understand the clarification? Also, other people have been taught to believe in other sources of revelation: what attitude are we to adopt to them? I don't think I would use the word "knowledge" to describe any belief that is based *merely* on revelation. One may defer to scripture or tradition, with an attitude of "x seems right to me, but the Church says that y, and they're wiser than me so they're probably right." I often do that. But in that case I wouldn't claim to *know* something, I'd just say that I have a belief that y in deference to understand authority but I don't understand it, and I would add that I could be wrong, to which, if I wanted to be a good churchman I might add, "I don't that y may be false but only that I might be mistaken in my understanding of y," but such a clause would have little importance. Only when I had found out the truth of y through my own faculties in my own experience-- very likely in a somewhat partial and tentative way-- might I be inclined to say that I *know* y, although at some point one starts to feel that one's epistemic vocabulary masks so many shades of meaning that it's almost pointless to try to define one's terms.

Perhaps I've digressed here, or perhaps it's relevant; anyway, let me get back to the uncertainty point. Even if we know for certain that a person is deliberately lying and misleading others I think it would be wrong to punish him violently-- this has something to do with the retribution principle I think: it may be just to hang a man for murder but not for pickpocketing, because it's disproportionate-- but let me put that to one side. For while it *might* be possible with regard to someone one knows intimately to have a pretty good idea what they mean by what they say, and the extent to which they are sincere, it would never be possible for an organization implementing a policy, and especially not an organization known to possess means of coercion, to gain this understanding. It may be that when a person is spreading falsehoods he is speaking the truth, in the sense that what he understands by what he is saying is true. Or it may be that his view is an "honest mistake," that is, that it is false, but was the best he was able to arrive at given his information set and his reasoning powers. Even if his belief is neither true nor an "honest mistake," that is, if he is culpable in the way he arrived at it, he might, indeed he almost certainly would, be lying if he professed your belief out of fear. And surely you would be culpable in his lie; or, in the case of a religious belief, in a sacrilege. I could go further with this line of argument: the result of using force in the arena of belief would seem, almost necessarily and inevitably, to lead to the truth being expressed as a lie, that is, to people saying true propositions with the belief that they are false propositions and with the intention of lying; and when that is happening, will those who were originally speaking the truth as truth be able to remain wholly untainted? Meaning is a communal experience, and if "I believe in one God the Father Almighty..." and so on is widely taken to be a lie, might it become impossible, or at least much more difficult, to speak it as the truth?

Since Joyless Moralist has anticipated an argument something like this, I'll respond to this:

"even presuming that the people being suppressed are sincere in their views, it is possible to be morally culpable for what you believe."

But, even I am morally culpable in my beliefs, I am morally culpable over and above that in lying about them. Let us suppose that I am a jealous husband who believes with very little grounds that my wife has been unfaithful. I am morally culpable for the belief: I ought to trust her. But now suppose, given that I believe that, if she were to confront me and say: "You're suspicious of me, aren't you? You've been accusing me with your eyes all evening!" My proper course of action is to admit it, and I do a further wrong if I lie. There *might* be a special case where I know I oughtn't to suspect my wife, and I think I can overcome the suspicions, and I know she'll over-react, etc., where lying about my suspicions might be the lesser evil. Still, in general, one has a moral obligation, both to do one's best to discern the truth in the belief-formation process, and, once beliefs have been formed, to be truthful to others about what they are.

My sense is that I have already rather over-proved why it is wrong to use violence to suppress beliefs, but maybe I should add that this act seems especially wrong for *Christians,* because it is against both the teachings and the example of Christ. Christ's "do not resist the wicked man" and "turn the other cheek" and "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword" etc. seem to amount to a clear and total repudiation of violence, rather atypically clear for a Teacher Who so often spoke in parables, and there is at most a very little that can be weighed against it. "I bring not peace but a sword" seems more a prediction of how Christians will be treated than how they ought to behave, especially in the light of later events. But then, Christians all fall short of living the teaching of perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, and it may be that in adhering to the precept of non-violence as an absolute dictate before one's life was wholly transformed by Christ's teachings one would do evil. A man who converted to Christian pacifism just before a battle might be making a sanctimonious excuse for cowardice, and be judged as such by God as well as man. Perhaps anyone who has possessions is relying on laws and police and armies to defend them, and would be a hypocrite to convert to pacifism. This may explain why, although there has been throughout Christian history a pacifist streak and a pattern of retreating from the world and giving up possessions in search of peace, Christians have not typically repudiated law and government wholesale and as official policy.

And yet I feel there is something special, and specially wrong, about violence committed *in the name of Christ*. If I use lethal force against a robber (restraining force is different and might be done for the robber's good, to save him from sin), the subtext might be: "I am violating the teaching to 'turn the other cheek,' but I must, because I am a worldly man, without sufficient faith to live without possessions and trust only in God; I fear to lose them; I am not committing sin now so much as I am committing it in my whole way of life, and to yield would not be the act of love for enemies that Christ enjoins." The act of self-defense is done, then, in the name of *self.* But to do *in the name of Christ* precisely what He forbid, indeed, to do exactly what the Pharisees and Pilate did to Him-- for he was prosecuted on a blasphemy charge-- seems to be a uniquely unholy act.

Joyless Moralist

We already know that we disagree about how to interpret Jesus' words concerning violence, so let's set that aside for the moment since we have enough other things to deal with for now. Regarding your "modified uncertainty principle" I guess I would start by saying that, while there are various interesting questions to be explored concerning the correct interpretation of revelation and authoritative statements, I think we can certainly reach a level of certainty that would, in any other part of life, be considered adequate for motivating action. After all, you can essentially never determine beyond any shadow of doubt that you have assessed a set of circumstances correctly. Timothy McVeigh looked pretty darn guilty, but it's *possible* that some very clever person could have framed him. The guy running towards me with a knife certainly does *seem* to be threatening my life, but he *could* just have taken a dumb dare from a friend to go scare the socks off some random stranger by charging her with a knife. There's always some room for uncertainty, but if a person is standing up and preaching, say, that Jesus Christ was merely an unusually wise man with no divine nature, or that he was not born of a virgin, or that his Resurrection was merely faked by his disciples who couldn't live with the knowledge of his being dead... well, I think I'm about as certain of that person's guilt as the court had of McVeigh's. I can think of a number of arguments, some rather persuasive-sounding, for not simply pulling out a pistol and pegging the guy, but "there might be more truth in his view than you think" is not one of them.

On the subject of proportionality... what makes you think that blasphemy, spreading heresy, and other such crimes are necessarily less grave than murder? As Jesus teaches us, the death of the body is less to be feared than the death of the soul, and heretics and blasphemers can certainly do considerable damage to souls. Violent crimes are not always the most serious ones. The crime of Judas Iscariot, after all, was not violent per se.

Now, my Free Speech principle didn't necessarily entail, as you put it, using violence to force people to profess things they don't believe. I spoke of using violence to suppress dangerous people who spread sedition and lies -- the main goal, in other words, is to stop them from corrupting other people, which needn't necessarily entail them actually making an insincere declaration of faith. You might require them to publicly recant from something they have said. But here I have to disagree with one of your underlying assumptions. You are obviously assuming that we don't have a choice about what we believe. I think we do have some measure of choice; certainly we have a choice about the beliefs to which we formally commit ourselves.

Publicly recanting after expressing a heretical view might be seen as something like a forced apology. When you force someone to offer an apology, are you requiring them to lie? I don't think so, exactly. Of course you *can* give an insincere apology, and that might be bad. (Whether it's worse to give an insincere apology or not to apologize at all is a bit of a question -- I think it would vary depending on the circumstance.) But you also have the option just not to be insincere! That doesn't necessarily mean feeling remorse from the bottom of your heart. Apologizing doesn't have to be an expression of feeling. In an apology you formally acknowledge wrongdoing. If you don't actually think you did wrong you may have debased yourself, but not through dishonesty exactly; the dishonor would be more closely related, I think, to surrendering a battle out of cowardice even though the cause was just.

In your example, a wife asks a husband about whether or not he has suspected her of unfaithfulness. To some degree it is a historical question, and the answer is fixed; even if we changed the question to refer only to the present moment, he may not be able to wish himself into changing his best appraisal of whatever evidence may be at hand. But recanting from heresy is more like the apology case. The heretic does not have to feel any certain way, and his best calculations can still lead him to a heretical conclusion; all he has to do is formally submit to the Church's authority. He can say, "X still very much seems to me to be the case, but, since the Church with her divine mandate and her greater resources insists that (not-X), I own that there must be some flaw in my reasoning that I have not yet found."

That declaration is fully adequate to absolve anyone of heresy. And I maintain that it is always possible, and never immoral, to make that move honestly and sincerely.

Nathan Smith

Joyless Moralist is hemming and hawing a lot here. I think the issues can be made plainer.

"On the subject of proportionality... what makes you think that blasphemy, spreading heresy, and other such crimes are necessarily less grave than murder?"

That's not the issue. The justice of retribution is that the wrongdoer is requited in kind. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Of course, you can't do *exactly* the same thing, and so we might jail a man for brawling, which is not retribution in the most precise sense. But physical violence is not at all the same kind of thing as leading a person astray intellectually, so it doesn't fit the retribution paradigm that justifies ordinary criminal justice. A punishment like excommunication is probably the closest we can get to a punishment that matches the character of the offense.

"There's always some room for uncertainty, but if a person is standing up and preaching, say, that Jesus Christ was merely an unusually wise man with no divine nature, or that he was not born of a virgin, or that his Resurrection was merely faked by his disciples who couldn't live with the knowledge of his being dead... well, I think I'm about as certain of that person's guilt as the court had of McVeigh's."

Guilt of what? Of holding/expressing a false view? Of deliberate dishonesty? It seems to me quite reasonable, in a worldly way, to think Jesus was a wise man with no divine nature, or that he was not born of a virgin. I believe those views are false, but the reasons why are complex and mysterious. I would not be at all comfortable comparing degrees of certainty about the Virgin Birth or the Divinity of Christ, on the one hand, and the murderous intentions of the man running at me with a knife, on the other. There is even, perhaps, a sense in which I am more sure of the latter than the former, but that is not a sense which can be translated into a public evidentiary standard that could be an appropriate basis for policy. An atheist would no doubt think it was crazy, if not to believe in the Virgin Birth, certainly to regard it as more certain than the man-with-the-knife case, and for practical, worldly purposes, he is perfectly right.

Moreover, the reasons that a person would be wrong to believe in the wise-but-human Jesus only underscore how crazy it is to impose such beliefs by force. For if a person really admires Jesus's wisdom as a human teacher, he may well be on the path to recognizing that that version of the story doesn't quite work, and to considering and beginning to apprehend the far stranger and more radical idea of the Incarnation.

"I spoke of using violence to suppress dangerous people who spread sedition and lies -- the main goal, in other words, is to stop them from corrupting other people, which needn't necessarily entail them actually making an insincere declaration of faith."

There are degrees of evil. The worst and wickedest act is to compel a necessarily insincere declaration of faith. That is to force a person to lie and to be complicit in the lie, and probably more guilty than the one who tells the lie. To order someone to be silent is also to some extent to compel them to lie, since it can in some cases be dishonest to be present when what one takes to be falsehoods are being said and not to contradict them, but certainly this is less severe. If we allow someone to express deprecated views personally, but prohibit them to publish them or teach them to others, the sin of compelling lies is very much attenuated, though there are still plenty of reasons this is both wrong and unwise.

"Publicly recanting after expressing a heretical view might be seen as something like a forced apology. When you force someone to offer an apology, are you requiring them to lie? I don't think so, exactly..."

Yes, you are. It's possible that the person really does feel sorry and the apology will be sincere. But that doesn't absolve you, because you didn't know that would happen. Of course, the word "force" is a little unclear. Generally when we talk about someone being "forced to apologize" we just mean that we use some provisional authority or a threat of social sanctions to induce an apology. That's not "force," strictly speaking; the person could refuse without risking bodily harm, if they believed their conscience required them to do so.

Anyway, forcing a heretic to recant is not the same as most situations of demanding an apology. Generally if we demand an apology, the person pretty well knows he is in the wrong. But a heretic will often if not typically believe firmly, whole-heartedly, and with the utmost sincerity, that his heretical view is the truth and that it is binding on his conscience to adhere to it and defend it. For that reason, the forced recanting of a heresy would typically be a very direct and blatant lie on very important matters, quite different from a typical reluctant apology. Of course, a person might recant a heresy voluntarily on discovering that his views were at odds with those of the Church. That is the way the recanting of heresies ought to take place. The only way.

"... the Church with her divine mandate ..."

But how do we know the Church has a divine mandate? The heretic probably concludes, at some point, that it does not, or that it probably does not, or that it may not. And if that's what he thinks, it is NOT possible for him to make the kind of declaration Joyless Moralist suggests honestly and sincerely.

"You are obviously assuming that we don't have a choice about what we believe. I think we do have some measure of choice; certainly we have a choice about the beliefs to which we formally commit ourselves."

Yes, we have some choice in what we believe, and somewhat more choice, full choice perhaps, in what we formally commit ourselves to (since we can do that dishonestly in any case). That's really neither here nor there. I may be able to persuade myself in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that my ancestral beliefs are true. If I do, I am being dishonest, even if it happens that my ancestral beliefs ARE in fact true, for reasons I am not aware of. It is consistent with honesty in some cases to defer to an intellectual authority in spite of my own contrary reading of available evidence. It is NEVER consistent with honesty to alter my beliefs in response to physical threats or fear of force (as distinct from the question of whether it might be honest to alter what I SAY in response to threats; possibly someone who uses force to extort a desired utterance has forfeited the right to be told the truth, but that is a separate matter). To try to make me do so is to try to make me lie, to be a tempter, and to share guilt in the consequences.

I guess I could concede that efforts to control merely the *expression* or the *spread* of undesirable beliefs is something of a gray area. There are a lot of reasons that it would usually or always be wrong, and probably also self-defeating, in practice. It would perhaps not be wrong in quite the absolute and unshakeable sense in which it is wrong to attempt to compel belief.

Joyless Moralist

I think you're setting up something of a straw man argument here, Nathan. I have never proposed that we should use violence as a means to compel belief. Actually, I've specified twice that that *isn't* what I'm defending.

Perhaps you're confused by my argument about how a person can at any time sincerely submit to the Church's authority. But if so, you misunderstood. I wasn't recommending that that violence be used as a means for making people believe (at least not directly). I was defending something less ambitious -- that, in pressuring a heretic to recant, you would not be forcing him to be insincere. He always has the option to genuinely submit to the Church's authority, and thereby to *be* sincere. You claim that this isn't possible because he has reached conclusions contrary to the Church's teachings. At the end of the day, though, this is not an epistemic question. If (as one obviously has to believe in order to make this discussion worthwhile at all) the Church really has the authority she claims, then it isn't possible for reason to *actually* lead a person to deny it. Any person who thinks it is is simply in error. And that person has a choice. He can trust his own thinking on the matter in question, or he can trust the Church's. The option is always there, and epistemology has nothing to do with it. (Invincible ignorance might sometimes make it genuinely impossible for a person to trust the Church's authority, but I don't think it has much relevance here. Any person who knows enough to firmly conclude that the Church is wrong doesn't seem likely to be invincibly ignorant.)

Again, I'm not arguing that violence is a good way of compelling a person to believe. I am just trying to show that, when a person is pressured to recant, he is not FORCED into being insincere, any more than a person made to apologize for a genuinely wrong action is FORCED to become a phony. (Again, he possibly would be if he was invincibly ignorant of the wrongness of the action, but that doesn't seem likely to apply here.)

There are really two things about your position that don't make sense to me. First of all, I can't understand why you put physical punishment and other kinds of punishment into completely separate categories. It certainly isn't a traditional way of looking at things (societies have for centuries used physical punishments for non-physical offenses, and ours is rather fond of using non-physical punishments for physical violence) and I can't see what's motivating it. Your recommendation of eye-for-eye retribution is particularly puzzling. Didn't Christ abolish that? What would be the reason for doing things that way?

The second strange thing is that you seem to have an idea that societies should be structured so as to allow people to be maximally "sincere." You even worry that, by suppressing particular viewpoints, we might lead more people to be insincere by *not expressing views that they actually hold!* I must say, I can't really see why we should be so eager to have people expressing themselves. Sincerity per se is not morally praiseworthy. And in fact, we constantly compel people to conform their beliefs to a recognized and orthodox set. If a student in, say, a physics class writes the wrong answers on a test and explains himself by saying, "I knew that the teacher wanted me to give different answers, but the truth is, I just don't believe the laws of thermodynamics," he won't be commended for his honesty -- he'll just get a failing grade. And most of us are perfectly okay with that. If you think that there's such a thing as truth, and that you know at least something about it, there's no reason to be either surprised or upset if there are sometimes consequences for those who refuse to conform themselves to the truth.

Behind many of your objections is one insight that I think is true. When a person conforms to the orthodox view (whether true or not) *purely* out of fear, we have reason to worry about whether or not the person really believes it, or even if he does, it's hard to believe that he could embrace the view, and make it part of his life, in the way that he might have done if the view was adopted more willingly. We don't *want* the physics student to write the right answer because someone is holding a gun to his head; we want him to write it because he understands the relevant concepts and accepts them as true. Likewise with the faith. So, yes, it would be a very bad idea to go around trying to bully and beat everybody into adopting all the right views. I think it's important to note that, while they have sometimes been willing to punish heretics, the Christians have never been enthusiastic about the "convert or die" choice that the Muslims were sometimes known to offer the people they conquered. It was generally understood that true conversion doesn't work like that.

But that's not to say that punishment can't *ever* have an appropriate place in instilling the faith. In the first place, punishment can sometimes have a salutary effect on the sinner's soul. The point is not retribution but correction. Of course you have to exercise good judgment in determining when that is likely to work -- the hardened heretic is liable to be hardened further by harsh punishment, but there may be some occasions when punishment really can impress on the sinner's mind the wrongness of what he has done. Spanking a child for blaspheming, for example, might be appropriate.

Also, though, the use of punishment can be important for habituating society as a whole. Executing an obstinate heretic might in some cases make him into a "martyr" in his followers' eyes, but it might also, under some circumstances, cement in the minds of the larger society the extreme wrongness of his rebellion. When people see another person condemned and punished for a deed, they are naturally inclined to conclude that whatever he did was extremely wicked. That is the other reason for punishing a heretic.

Again, I'm not commenting on whether and when this is and isn't a prudent method for instilling virtuous habits. In our own time it generally wouldn't be, because we're so accustomed to trumpeting the greatness of free speech/sincerity/independence that a person punished for the views he expresses is much more liable to be hailed as a hero. But that has not always been the case in every society, and the larger point is that you can condone the use of physical punishments for heresy, blasphemy, etc, while still agreeing that religious faith is poor at best when it is motivated entirely by servile fear.

Nathan Smith

Joyless Moralist strays into many absurd sophistries as she defends the indefensible. To begin with:

"I have never proposed that we should use violence as a means to compel belief. Actually, I've specified twice that that *isn't* what I'm defending. Perhaps you're confused by my argument about how a person can at any time sincerely submit to the Church's authority. But if so, you misunderstood. I wasn't recommending that that violence be used as a means for making people believe (at least not directly). I was defending something less ambitious -- that, in pressuring a heretic to recant, you would not be forcing him to be insincere. He always has the option to genuinely submit to the Church's authority, and thereby to *be* sincere."

In other words, the heretic might not be insincere because he might change his belief. In that case, you can't claim you're not trying to compel belief. What's clear is that you're *either* compelling insincerity, or else you're compelling belief-- and since you presumably prefer the sincere recantation, you are *trying* to compel belief.

But wait! It seems the divine authority of the Church is exempt because it is somehow a belief outside epistemology.

"And that person has a choice. He can trust his own thinking on the matter in question, or he can trust the Church's. The option is always there, and epistemology has nothing to do with it."

Of course epistemology has to do with it. That the Church has special access to truth is just another premise, to be incorporated into ordinary reasoning processes. If you believe, in some way or degree, that the Church has such special access, there's a conflict between your belief in the Church's authority and your heretical belief, and you can choose which one to stick with. But it may be that because of the false view the Church holds on a certain belief, the Church's authority is no longer credible to you. You might find that a submission to the Church would only be a lie, and find yourself saying, "Here I stand, I can do no other"-- rather the position I was in with respect to Mormonism ten years ago, when too many evident falsehoods had come to me from the Mormon Church for me to accept it. In that case, a sincere submission to the Church's authority is not an option.

Perhaps Joyless Moralist is in effect conceding this obvious truth with these parenthetical framed in arcane Catholic jargon:

"(Invincible ignorance might sometimes make it genuinely impossible for a person to trust the Church's authority, but I don't think it has much relevance here. Any person who knows enough to firmly conclude that the Church is wrong doesn't seem likely to be invincibly ignorant.)"

So the fact that I've firmly concluded the Church is wrong is evidence that I am *NOT* unable to trust in the Church's authority? It sounds like Joyless Moralist is saying that the fact that an object is black makes it unlikely that the object is nonwhite.

But I'll step back and address the most substantive issue:

"If (as one obviously has to believe in order to make this discussion worthwhile at all) the Church really has the authority she claims, then it isn't possible for reason to *actually* lead a person to deny it. Any person who thinks it is is simply in error."

No, no, no. It *IS* possible for reason to lead someone to an erroneous conclusion, if (a) they make mistakes in their reasoning, or (b) part of the information set from which they begin is, perhaps unbeknownst to them, false. Suppose that the Church holds Position A and the Heretic holds Position B, on the basis of Argument X. The Heretic is also aware of Argument Y, which also supports Position B, and of Argument Z, which would support Position A, but which is in fact fallacious, which the Heretic understands but regards as weak. There is actually another Argument Q, which is true and is the real reason that the Church is right to hold Position A, but the Heretic is either not aware of Argument Q, or is unable to understand it. In this case, to believe the truth for the right reason is not part of the Heretic's choice set. His best efforts at reasoning lead him to the false position. The fact that he is actually in error is not relevant to the epistemic morality of this scenario. He is "doing his best," within his constraints.

"Your recommendation of eye-for-eye retribution is particularly puzzling. Didn't Christ abolish that? What would be the reason for doing things that way?"

Now this is a curious claim. Christ's own way seems to have been always to forgive. He claimed to be a king, but His "Kingdom is not of this world;" He forbade violence; He made no effort to influence the apparatus of state at all. But that is not justice; that is *mercy*. Always to rise above justice and to be merciful instead is admirable; but if we're going to make some concessions to fallen man unable to entirely live the Heavenly Way Christ set out for us, ideas of justice are still relevant. If we love the criminal as ourselves, we might not want to jail him at all, but that won't be a good way of preserving order in the streets.

And beware of a detour here. Joyless Moralist may say that we will jail the criminal in a desire to correct him, to give him a chance to become a better person. Perhaps. But if that's our motive, we might want to do it even before he committed the crime, or in response to an offense that, though in itself trivial, suggested a character in need of reform. The point is that *we would be unjust* in subjecting a non-criminal or a slight criminal (by force) to such a reformation treatment. Retribution sets an *upper bound* on what punishment is acceptable. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is in part a humane step, because it means, among other things, *no more* than an eye for an eye: thus, I can't kill a man because he kicked me, which I might have been inclined to do.

The point is that while mercy is admirable, justice is still binding. And what is the point of saying that many societies have perpetrated physical punishments for non-physical crimes? Many societies have been unjust. Nebuchadnezzar, a forerunner of the medieval Catholic Church in this respect, threw Daniel to the lions for refusing to worship idols. Was that just?

"When a person conforms to the orthodox view (whether true or not) *purely* out of fear, we have reason to worry about whether or not the person really believes it, or even if he does, it's hard to believe that he could embrace the view, and make it part of his life, in the way that he might have done if the view was adopted more willingly."

This is an absurd understatement. If "a person conforms to the orthodox view... *purely* out of fear," we know *ex hypothesi* that he does NOT really believe it. If a person conforms to the orthodox view *partly* out of fear, the corollary would seem to be that he partly disbelieves or doubts it, and he may influence others who profess it to profess it with the same tone of hypocritical formalism with which he professes it.

Another red herring:

"And in fact, we constantly compel people to conform their beliefs to a recognized and orthodox set. If a student in, say, a physics class writes the wrong answers on a test and explains himself by saying, 'I knew that the teacher wanted me to give different answers, but the truth is, I just don't believe the laws of thermodynamics,' he won't be commended for his honesty -- he'll just get a failing grade."

And this is completely different, as Joyless Moralist should know perfectly well. Ultimately the physics student is not required to believe the prevailing theories, just to understand them. It may be-- it has sometimes happened-- that a physicist *disbelieves* the prevailing theories for good reasons, and will go on to come up with new theories that are truer than the old ones and displace them. It's also possible that some physicists have spent whole careers teaching theories they don't believe. That would be a little odd, but I don't think the physics profession would necessarily have a problem with it, as long as the physicist taught the prevailing view correctly to his students. There would be no need for insincerity even.

The physicist could, if he liked, tell his class at the beginning of the semester, "I have a PhD from Harvard and am well known for my contributions to the theory of electromagnetism. As a personal footnote, though, I ought to mention that I am actually a Humean skeptic and disbelieve everything I'll be teaching you. Nonetheless, you can rely on me to give you an impeccable training in the way the physics profession thinks. Just think of me as a paid actor." I don't think either his colleagues or his students would have grounds to complain about this, and in practice some might raise their eyebrows, but I don't any would cry 'blasphemy'.

I'll finish on a note emphasizing the key virtue which I am participating in this debate in order to defend and uphold: truth. Joyless Moralist writes:

"Sincerity per se is not morally praiseworthy."

Yes, it is. It is one of the virtues. However, since "sincerity" might have connotations of gushy confessionalism that are distracting in this case, it might be helpful to add other virtue-words that are related and in the present context probably synonymous, but that have different connotations. Honesty. Truthfulness. Veracity. And some opposites too. Lying. Falsehood. Deceit. Hypocrisy.

The point is to maximize the former and scrupulously avoid the latter, both in ourselves, and inducing it in others. If a person believes a false view, perhaps arrived at honestly enough, from a biased information set or an inadvertent error in logic, his conscience may compel him to utter it, and will certainly forbid him to deny it. (If he has a belief in an authoritative church that he finds more evidentiarily compelling than the arguments or evidence in favor of the false view, that is simply to say that he doesn't believe, or doesn't fully believe, the false view, so that is a case apart.) Any degree of pressure on the man to deny or be silent about his view is a temptation to him to be dishonest. When violence is being used, the perpetrator of the violence shares responsibility for the lies that are induced. And it is because true Christianity does not condone coercion in matters of faith that honest men can be Christians.

Joyless Moralist

Well, as usual we come back to another of our old disagreements here. One of the main problems between us is that you don't believe in faith -- at least, you have your own version, but you don't believe in what the Church has traditionally regarded as faith. You think that we need some kind of adequate epistemic justification before accepting something through faith. That's not the traditional view. The truth of the Gospel, and the validity of the relevant authority structure, is the foundation and starting point for other reasoning. A person does need a certain amount of information before it's possible to get the habit of faith off the ground -- for example, you'd need to understand what the Church is claiming to be. But anyone who doesn't understand those things won't be in a position to reject the Church's authority, either, so I don't think that would apply to any of the relevant cases.

The situation you were in with respect to Mormonism could not happen to anyone with respect to the true Church. You had correctly perceived that the Mormon church was not true. No one could be in that position with a church that was true.

I might further note here that you are backing yourself into a corner that is very contrary to the spirit of Orthodoxy. As I think I've observed to you before, the Orthodox are very firm on the deep connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy -- and they also put a great deal of trust in sophia (non-discursive ways of knowing) even to the point of (from a Catholic perspective) undervaluing logos (discursive thought.) The righteous man will not have his mind and judgment clouded by false reasoning; God will enlighten him and enable him to see the truth. Thus, the idea that a man might actually be morally required to bear public witness to heresy is very much at odds with the Orthodox way of thinking. Anyone who was really "doing his best" would be freed from his pernicious error.

And no, I'm not proposing that violence be used *for the purpose of* compelling belief. When a heretic is pressured to publicly recant, the main *purpose* is to avoid the scandal he might have caused to others. (Possibly the effect of standing so publicly condemned may also have a salutary effect on his own mind.) But it is incidentally also the case that that person is not forced to be insincere, because, as I've explained, he always has the option to *be* sincere when he recants. Thus the Church is not forcing anyone to lie.

You also have a very curious idea about the relationship between justice and mercy -- you seem to think that Christ *jettisons* justice for the sake of mercy. But that's not right at all. Scripture insists -- and the Church has also always maintained -- that God is just. He is also merciful. How exactly these two are bound so closely together is largely mysterious, but some things at least are understandable to us. Punishing someone who had yet to commit a crime would be neither just nor merciful. The only reason punishment *can* serve as a merciful corrective is precisely *because* it is just. The sinner comes (hopefully) to realize that his suffering is deserved because of his wicked deeds, and this serves to chasten and correct him. There are lots of factors to take into account in deciding what punishment would best achieve the desired end, and sometimes the point might be better made when the punishment is "in kind" with the crime, but I don't see why justice *requires* this. Is it unjust to spank a child for lying or blaspheming? To execute a traitor for giving vital secrets to the enemy? To slap a soldier for disobeying his superior officer? Offhand it doesn't seem clear to me that it is. For the offenses in question there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to give a punishment "in kind" with the crime, and as I've already said, your dividing of offenses into two basic categories of "violent" and "non-violent" just seems kind of ad hoc and unmotivated to me.

Whatever happens, it *cannot* be the case that the exercise of justice is merely a "concession to sinful man." Justice is a virtue, and one of God's perfections. It has to have a place within a righteous society.

I don't buy your way of differentiating the physics case from the religious one. You say that the student is not insincere when he writes the correct answers on the physics test because he isn't indicating that he believes them. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Nothing about the environment of the classroom or the wording of the test is going to indicate that there's anything hypothetical about it. The test question will simply ask: "what are the four forces?" or "what are the three types of stars?" or whatever. If the student really disbelieves the "orthodox" answers, I don't see how he is doing anything but bowing to pressure (and being insincere!) when he gives them on the test. Of course people rarely feel as strongly about physics questions as they do about ones concerning religion. But as for your Humean physicist -- he might be able to get away with it, largely because Hume, as one of the champions of materialism, is popular with scientists already. But if he were, say, a Christian Scientist-type idealist, announcing that he really believed that all of what we take to be the world is really just a figment of God's mind... no, I think that person would have real problems getting anywhere in the field, no matter how willing he was to "provisionally" conform to the orthodoxy. But look, even with the Humean, I think the real thing is that, if you're teaching and working with the assumed orthodox principles every day, nobody *really* believes that you don't think they're true. You just have some little bizarre pet theory that you like to talk about for a couple of minutes at the beginning of each semester. But if you're that committed to using and perpetuating the orthodox principles, you must in a practical sense believe them, and that's why people would be inclined to give the wacky Humean physics teacher a pass.

"If "a person conforms to the orthodox view... *purely* out of fear," we know *ex hypothesi* that he does NOT really believe it. "

Well, I have good reasons for resisting that claim, because fear has always been held to be one of the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Church dogmatically teaches that submitting to the faith purely out of servile fear IS sufficient to get a person to heaven. Of course, they're not thinking about fear inspired by guns held to the head. They're thinking about fear of hellfire. And even then it's considered the weakest and least noble kind of faith; a person can be saved that way, but he'll probably be spending a lot of time in purgatory. Over time, and as the Christian grows in charity, the gift of fear can be transformed from its servile form into what the medievals call "filial fear" -- a fear of offending God, which the loving Christian would never want to do.

This is another problem that often arises between us. As an economist AND one obsessed with early modern errors about epistemology, you don't really believe in habituation. Or at the very least, you severely underrate its role in shaping human life and belief. For purposes of habituation, fear IS sometimes an effective tool. Maybe it's not always the best one, but it has a place; the influences that shape our souls are many and varied, and usually not fully understood by us at the time when we are influenced by them. You always want to act as though people were nothing more than "rational agents", or perhaps rational agents with some emotions ladled on top. It's not surprising that you should, because that's how the early moderns thought of them, and that's mostly how economists regard them too, but it isn't so. Many aspects of human nature are neglected with this view.

And on that note, I will conclude by firmly insisting that sincerity is *not* a virtue. It's a kind of faux-virtue that the Romantics tried to pass off as a real one, which is easy to do because it is something that we rightly value, but it was *never* included in the classical listings of the virtues, and there is good reason for that. Sincerity is attractive to us, because we recognize that the best and most virtuous people are full of it. Most of us also have some experience with people who basically do the right thing most of the time, but who are *not* full of it, and this is irksome to us. Properly understood, though, this is not evidence that sincerity is a virtue, but only that sincerity is *attendant on* the most developed kinds of virtue. As Aristotle observed, the most virtuous man will be the one who not only knows the good and does it, but even *takes pleasure in* doing the right thing. His sensibilities are ordered such that all good pleases him, and doing good himself is therefore a real pleasure. Such a person will be full of sincerity. He will embrace all goodness with an eager will, and that will make him open and good-natured about everything. On the other hand, there are also people who recognize the good but who have not yet trained their sensibilities to enjoy doing it. Those kind of people may for the most part behave well, but they won't take the same pleasure in it, and on many occasions may act against many of their own contrary proclivities -- thus they are much more likely to be "insincere." It's better to be the first kind of person than the second, obviously. But it's better to be the second kind of person than to submit to one's evil impulses and "sincerely" do wrong. Even to do the right thing purely for the sake of avoiding punishment or obtaining reward is better than to give into one's own stronger impulses by doing evil. People who continue living well for selfish or fearful reasons may eventually find that their sensibilities have changed somewhat, so that a lifestyle that was originally distasteful to them has become tolerable or even pleasurable. It happens all the time. Thus, people who promote sincerity in its own right are making a mistake somewhat similar to that made by people who go around trying to talk everyone and anyone out of feeling guilty. They're right, of course, that heavy guilt is not part of the optimal human condition. But being guilt-free is not per se a good thing; it's only good when it's attached to various other good states of being.

Nathan Smith

OK, busy now, can't respond in full, and anyway I take a lot of what Joyless Moralist just wrote to be refuted previously. Also some of it I don't understand. Thus, on sincerity, JM seems to be using it in a sense that involves liking what you do rather than just obeying out of a sense of duty, but that's neither here nor there. Sincerity in this case is the opposite of lying. As for the physics student, it is well known that to pass an exam one must reiterate the accepted answers, but if the student had qualms he could preface each answer with: "I have a different view myself, but here's the textbook approach..." and if he was able to reproduce the textbook approach he would deserve, and I think in practice probably would get, a passing grade.

This is the heart of the matter:

"The situation you were in with respect to Mormonism could not happen to anyone with respect to the true Church. You had correctly perceived that the Mormon church was not true. No one could be in that position with a church that was true."

Suppose a Fact X which is unknown to me would, if known to me, affect the proper course of action that I should take. I cannot be blamed for failing to take Fact X into account. The truth of a church which a person feels compelled on intellectual grounds to leave is just this kind of Fact X. There is, of course, a point of difference between the person who feels compelled by reason to leave a false church and one who feels compelled by reason to leave a true church, but it is not one that can be morally relevant.

There is a sense in which the word "faith" is often used which is a synonym for doublethink or intellectual dishonesty, insisting that one "knows" things for which one has no arguments or evidence. That faith in this sense is a sin is self-evident on moral grounds, but an additional problem for it is that it is arbitrary what one puts one's faith in. The Catholic Church and the Mormon Church both claim infallible divine inspiration, and if one accepts that premise one's intellectual qualms are irrelevant, because one is precommitted to assuming that it is always oneself, and not the Church, that is in error. Whatever faith means, it can't be that.

I thank JM for giving an intimation of the way out of this trap (though for some reason that I can't understand she thinks it is a point against what I've been saying:

"As I think I've observed to you before, the Orthodox are very firm on the deep connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy -- and they also put a great deal of trust in sophia (non-discursive ways of knowing)... The righteous man will not have his mind and judgment clouded by false reasoning; God will enlighten him and enable him to see the truth."

Well said. The real path to truth is likely to be something that we would never think of except in the context of a lifelong attempt to live out the teachings of the Gospel. In the meantime, to try to compel a person to profess formulations of truths which in any case evade words, when because of sins his "judgment [is] clouded by false reasoning" is only to make him tell lies.

Nathan Smith

By the way, I mostly agree with JM's justice/mercy stuff. I probably created confusion by not writing clearly.

Joyless Moralist

"Suppose a Fact X which is unknown to me would, if known to me, affect the proper course of action that I should take. I cannot be blamed for failing to take Fact X into account. The truth of a church which a person feels compelled on intellectual grounds to leave is just this kind of Fact X. There is, of course, a point of difference between the person who feels compelled by reason to leave a false church and one who feels compelled by reason to leave a true church, but it is not one that can be morally relevant."

But that's precisely what I deny. Look, there are clearly many cases in which people culpably neglect truths which are in some important sense available to them. You might say that about the racist, for example. His parents or friends or whoever may have told him that a particular ethnic group is morally inferior, but he has (let's say) a reasonable amount of actual contact with people from the given ethnic group. I think in that case it would be reasonable to say that the racist person has mitigated responsibility for his morally repugnant beliefs, due to his defective upbringing, but that he is still somewhat blameworthy because his actual interactions with people from the given group should enable him to perceive their moral worth. He is thus culpably negligent of the truth in this case, and it very likely leads him both to speak falsehoods and to behave in vicious ways. I think something similar applies to the heretic. (Something like this story of culpable negligence must be possible, because if it isn't I find it very challenging to explain how sin and evil could have arisen in the first place.)

If "sincerity" is the opposite of lying, then it is telling the truth. In that case, I absolutely agree that it is something to foster, but in that case the heretic *cannot* be sincere, because what he speaks isn't truth, but rather pernicious falsehood. But I don't think that's what you meant. So I took sincerity to mean something like "*meaning* whatever it is you do, whether in direct speech or in action." The virtuous person, because he both knows the good and enjoys doing it, will most easily be able to "mean" whatever he says and does. Other people, because they are more filled with warring impulses and uncertainties, have a harder time being sincere. There is more than one way to solve the problem; sincerity can accompany anything said or done wholeheartedly, unambiguously, with fully intended "meaning." As I said before, we rightly admire that, but we don't want to buy it at any price; the really desirable thing is to be sincere *in speaking the truth and doing the good.*

If you really want to carry the physics example through, try cross-applying it this way: I imagine many of the people who tried heretics would have been satisfied if the heretic had said, "I really believe in my heart of hearts that my judgment in this matter is right. But I realize that that puts you in an awkward position institutionally, so I would be willing to recant publicly and keep pondering the problem privately." I'm not saying that that would always have sufficed, but sometimes it would (it may have been more or less what Galileo did, for example.) Would that be adequate for you? I don't think so, and yet this is more or less what you're suggesting the physics student do.

Now, I thought it was clever of you to copy my paragraph about Orthodoxy without one of the key sentences, which is this: "Thus, the idea that a man might actually be morally required to bear public witness to heresy is very much at odds with the Orthodox way of thinking."But really, I am confident that an orthodox Orthodox (sorry, no pun intended) would not say that. You seem to want to make my explanation into something like, "by living the way that seems best to me, I will eventually arrive at the truth." That's not right. Living in accordance with the Good and speaking in accordance with the Truth (the actual Truth, not one's false perception of what is true) are mutually reinforcing. The idea that one could move further down the path to righteousness by doing public injury to the Truth is very foreign to the Orthodox way of thinking, I am sure. There is no way that virtue can ever compel a person to do a thing contrary to the Good and the True, and bearing witness to heresies (however sincerely one believes them) is clearly an assault on the truth.

Faith is not doublethink, nor intellectual dishonesty, but neither is it the rational conclusion of extensive reasoning. By accepting the faith, one adopts an entire way of looking at the world, together with all that it entails. As I've said, it isn't the *conclusion* of a chain reasoning, but it offers to *ground* all one's future reasoning in a new sort of way. Mormonism wasn't able to ground reasoning and give meaning to life, because it wasn't true. Lived experience could teach you that it wasn't the real Church. But the *true* standpoint of faith does not disappoint in that same way, and it is a world view that's available to anyone who has the relevant background information (and as I've already said, it seems pretty clear to me that a person who's speaking out *against* the Church must have that relevant information.) The person who has enough information to understand what the outlook is, but who nonetheless chooses not to adopt it, is culpably negligent and can be blamed for not conforming himself to the truth.

I'm sure you've read *The Great Divorce*, haven't you? Then it must have occurred to you that the damned who reject God's grace quite often think that they are doing it on good, rational intellectual grounds.

Nato

What do we make of a person who will not submit to God because she thinks He is immoral in some way, and is willing to forgo paradise for it? I *am* an atheist, after all, so it doesn't mean much when I say that I actually find an immoral/amoral God slightly less logically impossible than an omnibenevolent God, but nonetheless, it seems admissible. Certainly I don't find the God telling Joshua to massacre everyone in huge swaths of Canaan to be very good, so if faced with a God like that at death, I would hope I would not wish to suppress or eradicate my morality so that I could enjoy the afterlife hanging out with that God of Genocide. I'm sure I would be very tempted to find a way to overlook or justify this God's crimes so that I could avoid damnation or whathaveyou, but I hope that I am more capable of maintaining my identity than that.

The scenario begs so many questions it's hard to relate it in a concrete manner to the discussion - especially given how far I am from being any kind of theologian - but it may be relevant.

Joyless Moralist

Actually, Nato, I think the book of Job would be quite relevant to your question; it's kind of an extended exploration of what happens when a person feels himself to be in that position. But the short answer is, it is never possible to need to choose between God and some other perfection, because God is the perfect embodiment of all perfections. The person who thinks that God is immoral is somehow confused. Whether or not he is *culpable* for that confusion is another question. Presumably we'd have to look at his life story in order to decide. If, say, the only thing he'd ever been taught about "God" was through an abusive parent threatening that God would smite him if he did X, Y or Z, then his mistaken view of God could presumably be written off to invincible ignorance, and he would need to be reeducated. But there are an enormous number of less clear cases that I will not try to adjudicate.

Formal heretics, of the sort that are condemned by councils and recorded in history, are never mere simpletons who got some foolish ideas from a crotchety aunt and ran wild with them. Almost always they are intelligent and theologically educated, and often in positions of influence where they can attract followers. They are equipped to understand fully what they are doing when they formally defy the Church's authority. I'm not going to deny that there have probably been some lower-profile cases that were badly handled -- in the Inquisition, say -- where people were punished for heresy when some patient teaching would probably have done the trick. I'm not going to try to defend every single case, nor do I need to to be a good Catholic. Particular church officials can make mistakes. But in the high profile, famous cases, considerable care has been taken in examining the position, in explaining the response, in giving the condemned an opportunity to acknowledge his error and recant, and so forth.

Joyless Moralist

Obviously I'm just giving you the Catholic answer, Nato. If other people want to offer thoughts from a different perspective, of course they're quite free.

Nathan Smith

Well, I should probably exit this discussion, because it's making me angrier and angrier. I'm aghast that someone could grow up in America and end up as sounding like a character out of Dostoyevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor." Perhaps the correct response to an open exhortation for the Church to compel people to engage in sacrilegious lies, such as the following:

"I imagine many of the people who tried heretics would have been satisfied if the heretic had said, 'I really believe in my heart of hearts that my judgment in this matter is right. But I realize that that puts you in an awkward position institutionally, so I would be willing to recant publicly and keep pondering the problem privately.'"

Is no argument at all but simply an outraged "Get behind me, Satan!" But I am probably just as culpable, for a certain rationalistic flippancy in discussing questions with sacred import. So I apologize. Praise God that this is America and such discussions are merely abstract.

Tom

What's the point of suppressing heretical beliefs and blasphemy? Even if we allow that the church possesses divine truth, what could possibly be gained by coercing people to never go against that truth? If a belief is false, then its utterance surely could not have the same impact as the utterance of a belief that is true. It seems to me that falsehoods must imitate truth in order to be plausibly believed at all, and as people become better able to discern truth from fiction, the fiction must further approach truth if it is to take root in a person's beliefs. There's no reason to worry about false beliefs and heresies, because all falsehoods necessarily orbit truth and eventually get pulled closer and closer to it with time. The principle of evolution is at play here with falsehoods: falsehoods closest to the truth more easily take root in belief and spawn new falsehoods that may or may not be closer to the truth. Rinse and repeat. If you don't believe that falsehoods approach truth (as you understand it), then there must be something seriously wrong with your beliefs, for if truth is to have any power at all it must be to draw people to believe it. If your version of "truth" can't do that, then maybe it isn't really true.

Nato

It is certainly a huge epistemic problem if truth has no power (ceteris paribus) to motivate belief.

Joyless Moralist

I think the critical phrase from Tom's post would be, "as people become better able to discern truth from fiction." Do they?

You're certainly right that a claim must have some resemblance to truth if people are going to believe it. Successful lies "mimic" truth. It's not a foregone conclusion, however, that people will get steadily better at sorting them out. In the first place, we have the learner's paradox to cope with -- if you really don't know something at all, you won't be able to "discover" it because you won't know when you've found it. (Plato dealt with this through the theory of recollection. Christians tend to use some combination of natural God-given faculties and the help of divine grace.)

But also there's the fact that I mentioned before -- people's beliefs are not unrelated to their moral state generally. And obviously we don't evaluate every fact that's presented to us entirely independently; we do it in terms of other things that we already believe or assume. Thus falsehood can compound itself. If you "feed" people the sorts of lies they're inclined to believe, their ability to recognize the truth will get steadily feebler. To go back to my old standby: if you tell a racist person lots of fallacious stories about the evil deeds done by the ethnic group he despises, he will probably be inclined to believe you. His deception will thereby be deepened that much more, and he may well respond by, say, treating the people in question even worse, inspiring them to return the hostility and perpetuate the enmity, etc etc. Falsehood does have this power to perpetuate and even intensify itself.

So in other words, yes, the truth has power to motivate belief, but insofar as our truth-perceiving faculties are "broken" (and I'd postulate that pretty much everybody's are to one degree or another), certain falsehoods may also have that power. No matter what you actually believe is true, it seems pretty plausible that the history of the world involves some sort of interplay between truths and seductive lies. It's not a foregone conclusion that the truth will easily win, so sometimes it's prudent to weed out some of the lies so that the truths can shine through.

Tom

The individual is irrelevant. Sure, some people will always believe certain falsehoods and never approach truth. But the old guard dies, and the new guard is sufficiently different enough to not fall into (exactly) the same traps, or if they do, they don't fall quite as hard. Society as a whole steadily improves in its ability to discern fact from fiction (or perhaps lesser fiction from greater fiction), and this improvement comes in spite of coercion, not because of it. There was tremendous coercive pressure against the views espoused by Galileo, but because those views were closer to the truth, they eventually won out. The "flat Earth" falsehood could not survive in the face of countervailing truth, even with violent coercion against truth. How could anyone be worried about falsehoods when confronted with examples like this that show how anemic they are compared to truth.

If you're religious, God is Truth. Truth can't be any more powerful than that.

Tom

I just realized I mixed references. Galileo advocated heliocentrism, and Ptolemy advocated the spherical Earth, but my point is the same.

Joyless Moralist

I agree that truth is powerful, but the fact that people seem to spend so much of their time in error indicates to me that it doesn't perpetuate itself. People have to be willing to help spread it; that's when it's power is seen. And in the fight to spread the truth, there's no reason why stamping out lies shouldn't be included in the project as much as actually promulgating the truths themselves. It certainly happens with the scientific truths you're interested in. The Christian God also takes pains to eliminate detractors and heretics, multiple times, in the Bible.

Your little story about an old generation dying and new, more enlightened people taking their places sounds nice, but I don't think history bears it out. Societies both rise and decline. Ancient wisdom is often lost or forgotten over the course of time when newer falsehoods crowd it out. And concerning Christians, it seems perfectly clear to me that those denominations that don't trouble themselves to eliminate heresy quickly fall apart. The Catholic church takes these things seriously, and its message has stood the test of time. The Unitarian Universalists, say, allow their people to say or believe pretty much anything, and they're now little more than a glorified club, with no useful perspective to offer on anything.

Nathan Smith

"Eliminate."

Shudder.

Joyless Moralist

Well, you don't seem to have a problem with it when the thing being "eliminated" is disease, poverty, war, illiteracy, despotism, starvation, domestic strife, or a whole host of other things I could name. I think it'd be a real shame not to put heresy on the bad list.

Nathan Smith

Let me put it this way. If you had written...

"it seems perfectly clear to me that those denominations that don't trouble themselves to *diagnose* heresy and to *marginalize and occasionally excommunicate heretics* quickly fall apart."

... then the statement wouldn't have sounded scary.

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