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April 23, 2008



How about instead of eliminating heresy, we try providing enlightenment? When we help someone who is poor, we don't really "eliminate" her poverty, do we? No, we provide necessities she's lacking. You can't "eliminate" poverty, for poverty is already a negative state; did God eliminate nothingness through creation? Likewise, you can't eliminate ignorance (presumably the root of false belief) because ignorance is a negative state. What we can do is provide money to make someone less poor, and provide instruction to make someone less ignorant.

Should we punish someone for ignorance or redeem her through instruction?


To build on Tom's point I think JM sort of sees heresy as a contagious disease, in which we do not quarantine for punishment's sake, but to protect the rest of the population. One problem, of course, is the difference between the type of substance in Tom's metaphor and mine: heresy in my example is a positive, both by analogy to pathogens, which are physical additions, and as an exceptional to the 'default' of health. It's strange to think of heresy as a viral displacement of truth, and one would think that in any fair contest the truth would win, leaving heretics to be pitiable, one-off fools.

The scenario in which I can imagine heresy being more worrisome is if it gets wrapped up in authoritative pedagogy, a context in which there is not a level playing field. Much of learning, whether in school, Church or home, follows this model and so heresy of whatever type really can displace truth via a sort of generational contagion. Putting the shoe on my other secularist foot, a teacher at my high school made it very clear to his classes during any mention of evolution (something extremely common in AP Biology, which he took over after the school lost its only teacher with a degree in the subject) that he didn't believe any of it. This is, one might say, a sort of heresy with respect to professional biology. His casting doubt on the material provided any student looking for an excuse to do so support for discounting the material, but really it seems unlikely that his disbelief qua heresy did any real damage except perhaps causing a little embarrassment for the school. He also wasn't a very good teacher because he didn't know the material, but the econ professor was at least as incompetent without being at all heretical with respect to the subjects he was obliged to teach. Now, if that teacher had been given latitude to teach only what he thought was true, on the other hand, students wishing to get a high AP test score and a good preparation for college biology would have been damaged.

If we generalize this to theological heretics, then it would seem that the solution is to either not put heretics in the position of teaching doctrine as an authority, or to make sure that they competently presented orthodox reasoning. In both cases, only the artificial strictures that prevent open comparison of ideas would allow untruth to consistently best truth. And if we don't let them contest, well, *my* epistemology would regard all findings as more than suspect. That doesn't mean we must let all ideas contest at all times, since that would just be anarchic intellectual cacophony; just that only special circumstances justify restrictions on/punishments for the telling of what we believe to be untruths.


If human interaction is the main variable in our equation, then beliefs will always approach truth over time. There may be undercurrents of people that go against the flow toward truth, but they are merely eddies in the grand scheme of things.

I'm not an idealist, however, so I realize there really is a way for Humanity to go backwards, and that is through apocalyptic disaster: meteors, nuclear holocaust, climate change, super volcanoes, etc. However, I couldn't conceive of a scenario that had a group of people successfully labor against truth to the point where society ended up more ignorant and worse off consistently over time. Maybe it's possible to set society temporarily back through genocide, war, mass murder, and expatriation, but I don't see how advocating false belief could really do that much long-term damage. For instance, most religious beliefs are mostly wrong, many are strongly and violently advocated, and the most popular have exerted tremendous amounts of coercive pressure against competing beliefs, and yet, religions have lost so badly against advocates of truth that they've had to mold their falsehoods to accommodate those truer beliefs. Any mainstream church that seriously tried to go back to the good ol' days would take heavy losses to its congregation. People just don't believe anymore all of the things that ancient churches preached. Humanity has moved passed that, and so have the churches.

Nathan Smith

"Any mainstream church that seriously tried to go back to the good ol' days would take heavy losses to its congregation. People just don't believe anymore all of the things that ancient churches preached. Humanity has moved passed that, and so have the churches."

That's true, in a way, but only because the Church, which is a human institution at one level as well as being the mystical Body of Christ, always has a bit of its own times. In any age, some more than others, there are inessential contemporary ideas that filter into Church teaching or at least into sermons and presentation style. However, the really core notions-- the Fall, the Law, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, souls and sin and salvation etc.-- have been with us for two thousand years and are as strong as ever. In recent decades it is precisely the churches that have made the most compromises with materialism, left-liberal politics, and other fads that have weakened the most. A Christian writer like C.S. Lewis knows how to strike the right balance (mostly), adapting to the modern philosophical climate and accepting the superiority of modern scholarship and modern values in many ways, yet pointing out from this position that there is no reason to compromise one bit with respect to the core of Christianity.


I know we've been over this before, but it doesn't hurt to say it again:

It seems to me both intuitively and in a few different quantifiable metrics that we humans have been getting better as time goes by. Not uniformly so, of course, and not without ups and downs, but better nonetheless. We seem to be, on average, less racist, less sexist, less classist, less tyrannical, more ready to recognize and focus on love*, less thieving, and generally more expansive in our empathy. Most of the old moral problems are still out there, and it would seem that as long as there are humans, "falling short" will be the order of the day, but I do very much feel we've wallowed in lesser and lesser errors.

This is a feeling as well as a judgment, but it is one from which dissent baffles me. When I encounter the opposite position (and it does not spring from rank amnesia about how the past really was), the judgment seems to center around people not following a particular moral system in doing what they do, or acting in a specific manner the judge regards as error. Well, we haven't gotten better in every way in every generation, I'll freely grant, but many of those judgments seem specifically doctrinal or traditional. Doctrines and traditions are certainly distillations of cultural wisdom, but neither does it seem that cultures are all that perfect either, and can be in error and are not eternal authorities.

Of course, we have different sources of eternal authority. I might call mine (always imperfectly knowable) Truth, while others tend to be more complicated. I occasionally meet some unconsciously postmodern religious folks who put "God" separate from and above "Truth", but I understand that most religions roll those two together in a manner inscrutable to me. Perhaps this is an unbridgeable logical gap, but history seems(to me) to signal that we don't have to get over it in order to make progress together.

*Though probably no better at managing it, since the new ways have cast the old strategies (largely coercive) in chaos

Nathan Smith

re: "I occasionally meet some unconsciously postmodern religious folks who put 'God' separate from and above 'Truth', but I understand that most religions roll those two together in a manner inscrutable to me."

Interesting. One reaction is to say that God is an entity, truth is a relationship between propositions and entities/properties of the world, so God is not the same as Truth, but rather an entity about which true or false propositions can be made, so that God is Truth might simply be a way of saying that it is true that there is a God. But then, Christ said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," the Gospel of John calls Christ "the Word made Flesh," and when the Holy Spirit is called "The Spirit of Truth," that seems to mean something a bit more fundamental than merely that He communicates truths to people. So I guess you're right that God and Truth are rolled up together and it's something of a mystery. As a way to approach the idea, you might try thinking about the metaphysics of propositions. In what sense does a proposition exist? And what are the ramifications of the fact that propositions are so often, as it were, "incarnate," that is, not floating about in some logical ether, but embodied in ink-on-pages or sound-waves-in-the-air or firing-neurons? However, those are only hints, and possibly misleading ones. Nato has touched on a mystery here on which it is beyond my powers to shed much illumination.


"In what sense does a proposition exist?"

The same sense, I submit, that minds (and my interpretation of souls) exist. It would be entirely fitting to put a God into that category; I have not encountered other construals of God's ontology that make more sense than that. And while I grant it is a mystery, I do not use the word to imply insolubility. Tom definitely makes a case that the ontology of electrons and propositions can be unified, though I don't think he takes himself to have actually *done* it so much as offered reasons to believe it can be done. I just bracket the issue and carry on with as sort of working dualism.

Steve Smith

It's not my "dog in the fight," so to speak, but lest readers get an inaccurate perception of the Catholic view on these issues, I take the liberty of quoting a few passages from Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965.

"This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.


"This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

"The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

"It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed."

No doubt there are different interpretations of this Declaration. So I leave it for the rest of you which of the contributors to the discussion comes closest to expressing the Catholic view.

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