Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 31, 2015

Change, Permanence, and What We Owe

Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

By N.S. Palmer

What do we owe to the past? To the present? To the future?

Taken literally, those questions are nonsense. We have obligations to God and to living creatures, especially humans. But past, present, and future are regions of spacetime. Obligations don’t apply to them.

Moreover, the very concepts of past, present, and future are elusive. The Christian theologian St. Augustine said that he knew what time was until someone asked him what it was, and then he didn’t know what it was anymore. That’s about as good an answer as most of us can give.

The past is a region of spacetime that, from our frame of reference, is fixed and cannot be changed. That is its defining characteristic.

Interestingly, the present has the same defining characteristic as the past: from our frame of reference, it is fixed and cannot be changed.

You might think that you can change the present, but think again: Whatever you do in the present is what you do. If you choose to do something else, then that is what you do. No change in the present is possible. So from our perspective, it might as well be part of the past.

The future is a region of spacetime that, from our frame of reference, is not fixed and can be changed. That is its defining characteristic.

Note that the character of all these regions of spacetime depends on the observer’s frame of reference. The existence of an observer’s frame of reference requires the existence of an observer. Without an observer, spacetime as we know it would not exist. The existence of spacetime depends on the existence of mind: God’s first, and ours second. Other minds are welcome to join the party if they so desire.

It’s also interesting to note that the content of any region of spacetime can in principle be changed as long as it’s viewed from an appropriate frame of reference. However, that kind of thinking is a bit above our pay grade on earth, as it should be. May Heaven protect us from humanity ever getting that kind of knowledge.

Let’s return to our original nonsensical questions: What do we owe to the past, present, and future?

The questions are of course metaphors. What we are really asking is:

  • What do we owe to people who lived in the past and are now dead?
  • What do we owe to people now living, including ourselves?
  • What do we owe to people in generations yet to come?

And perhaps most important:

  • What is the best way for us to fulfill those obligations?

For some suggested answers, check out my latest blog post for The Times of Israel:

What We Owe to Past, Present, and Future

What do we owe to our people who lived in the past and are now dead?

What do we owe to our people now living? What do we owe to our people in generations yet to come? And perhaps most important: What is the best way for us to fulfill those obligations?

We live in a time of rapid change — in technology, society, moral attitudes, government, and religion.

Whether the changes are good or bad, their reality and speed are undeniable. Their speed alone is disorienting: As soon as we get used to one new regime, learn its accepted and forbidden terminology, and start to recover from our shock at its reversals of long-established practice and belief, we find ourselves thrown headlong into yet another iteration in the relentless forced march of “progress.”

The destination of all that progress is a little vague, but there’s a reason: We are not marching toward something, but away from something …

Read the whole thing at The Times of Israel.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 22, 2015

All People Are Equal — Mostly

By N.S. Palmer

All human beings are equal. Let’s agree on that.

But we must add a qualification:

All human beings are equal in the morally relevant sense.

They might or might not be equal in other ways.

Let me tell you about Pete, my best friend in high school. We were both on the rifle team. Every day that the firing range was open, I was there practicing. I got very good, and I qualified at the highest level. But I never got as good as Pete, who never practiced. He was a natural shooter.

Or let me tell you about Bill, a friend in college. He could talk to women — effortlessly, charmingly, and successfully. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, nor was he even particularly smart in the way that I’m smart. But he could do things I couldn’t do.

Or let me tell you about one of my younger brothers. He’s good with money. From the time he was about seven, I borrowed money from him at interest rather than get it interest-free — with a stern lecture — from our father. I can do calculus, number theory, and linear algebra, but I can’t balance a checkbook. I never could. My brother can do things I can’t do.

We are all equal in the morally relevant sense that we have the same human rights and human dignity. But we are unequal in many other ways.

That said, it’s better to avoid talking about unequal abilities. If we can’t avoid it, we should do it very carefully.

The main reason is simple consideration for others. My friend Pete never said that he was a better shooter than I was. We both knew it, but for him to say it might have hurt my feelings. Likewise, my friend Bill never mocked my social ineptitude. My brother gives me financial advice and doesn’t belittle me for needing it.

When we talk about equality, we must do so with respect for two things:

  • We must respect the facts.
  • We must respect the people whom our statements might affect.

In addition, we must avoid doing a very harmful thing:

  • We must not draw unwarranted conclusions based on the facts.

Lots of people are better than I am at lots of things. But that gives them no special rights over me, nor does it diminish my inherent dignity and worth as a person.

Lots of people are worse than I am at lots of things. But that gives me no special rights over them, nor does it diminish their inherent dignity and worth as people.

Here are the ways in which all people are equal:

  • They all have the same basic human rights. Whether they have human rights simply in virtue of human nature, or because they are all children of God, they all have the same human rights.
  • They all have the same basic human dignity. Uniquely among biological creatures we know, human beings are self-aware. They not only have experiences, but at a second level, they are aware of themselves having the experiences. That self-awareness gives them what I call “reflexive self-value.” Whether we value their lives and welfare or not, they still have human value to themselves. Their value and dignity as people are inalienable — as in the U.S. Declaration of Independence‘s phrase “unalienable rights” — because they continue to exist no matter what anyone else thinks or does.
  • There are things we may not morally do to them. Their human rights and human dignity surround them with a “moral force field” that forbids us to cause them avoidable harm or suffering, even if we think it’s to our advantage.
  • There are things we must morally do for them. Because they have reflexive self-value, their lives are important no matter what we think about them. Their welfare matters. We can choose to be good people or bad; but if we choose to be good people, then we accept certain obligations to our fellow human beings. If they need our help, and if we can give it in a reasonable way, then we should.

It’s not always easy to apply these principles. For example, consider the case of “illegal immigrants,” “undocumented workers,” or whichever term you prefer. They came to the United States in violation of the law. Echoing the title of a book by Israel’s Meir Kahane, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump says “they must go.”

For the sake of argument, assume the worst: illegal immigrants are a social burden. They commit more crime than American citizens. They use tax-supported social services and force cash-strapped institutions to hire interpreters while skimping on other priorities. And they take jobs that Americans definitely would do if they could get them.

Even if all that is true, illegal immigrants are still human beings. They have human rights and human dignity. There are certain things you morally can’t do to them. There are certain things you morally must do for them.

However, you have the same obligations to American citizens, who were here first and whose welfare is hurt by illegal immigrants. What should you do? If you know a clear-cut moral answer, then you’re wiser than I am. (That gives you no special rights over me, except that I have to wash your car once a month.)

Abstract principles are easy. Real life is a lot more challenging.

Thank God we all have human rights. At least we’re all equal in that way.


Copyright 2015 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 3, 2015

Conservative About Ideas and Compassionate About People

By N.S. Palmer

Most human characteristics are normally distributed.

Psychological masculinity and femininity are normally distributed.

Former Olympic athlete Bruce / Caitlyn Jenner says that he’s “the new normal.”

With respect and compassion for Mr./Ms. Jenner, I must disagree.

Concepts that have been around since the dawn of humanity serve a purpose or they would not still be around. We reject those concepts at our peril.

The philosopher W.V. Quine noted that it’s logically arbitrary whether we consider a cat to be one thing or, instead, consider it to be three things (a head, a body, and a tail).

The reason we consider a cat to be one thing instead of three is that the former works well and the latter works poorly. Similarly, if we start thinking there’s no such thing as a person’s sex (or any other idea that’s unfashionable and politically incorrect), we embrace an unproductive way of looking at reality and reject ideas that work well.

We are perfectly free to decide that we should be able to step off the edge of a tall building and not fall to our deaths, but we are not free to escape the results of doing it.

Likewise, most feminists believe — correctly — that women “should be able to” walk unaccompanied in perfect safety through a bad part of town while wearing sexy clothes. I agree that they should be able to do it. But they can’t. We must not confuse morality with reality. To do so has tragic consequences for actual, real-life women and for society.

Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics calls it “the intelligence paradox:” smart people, as some politically-correct zealots are, believe that long-established ideas and practices are illegitimate unless the zealots can see a rational explanation for them.

That belief often leads to “oops, we didn’t think of that” situations that are harmful to individuals and to society. The notion that sex is whatever we want it to be is a probable example of the phenomenon. The 2008 U.S. stock market crash was another example, as “free market” ideology led to the dismantling of regulatory safeguards based on real-life experience.

Genuine psychological transsexuals do exist, but they are rare.

All people have a mix of masculine and feminine characteristics, and the mix is normally distributed:

  • Sixty-eight percent of people are close to the average, which is “normal.”
  • Ninety-five percent are fairly close (within two standard deviations  away from the average).
  • Ninety-nine point seven percent are close enough (within three standard deviations away from the average) to fit within the normal concepts.
  • And 0.3 percent (three-tenths of one percent) are more than three standard deviations from the average.

Half of that 0.3 percent — that is, 0.15 percent — are “pure” males and females who have almost no characteristics of the opposite sex. The males are ultra-macho: a lot of them are in prison because they can’t control their physical aggressiveness. The females are ultra-feminine. Those people are not transsexuals by any stretch of the imagination.

The other 0.15 percent might be considered genuine transsexuals because they have very few psychological characteristics of their own sex and are almost entirely like the opposite sex.

Therefore, it is to benefit 0.15 percent of the population that we are now supposed to reject ideas and practices that work best for the other 99.85 percent of people. That does not seem sensible to me.

By all means, let’s show compassion and understanding for people who are different. Let’s not confuse difference with immorality. But let’s also not pretend that the abnormal is normal. And let’s not turn society, concepts, and language upside down in order to accommodate the abnormal at the expense of the 99.7 percent who are normal.


Copyright 2015 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 29, 2015

Reasonably Unreasonable Beliefs

Tenacity-of-Unreasonable-Beliefs

By N. S. Palmer

Do you need to prove your religious beliefs?

If so, exactly how do you need to prove them? In terms of what?

Those questions animate many heated debates between the devoutly religious and the devoutly secular.

Dr. Solomon Schimmel, one of our professors at Hebrew College, has written an excellent book about some of those issues. Called The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, it examines how the devoutly orthodox try to justify their religious beliefs.

It’s worth noting that both the devoutly religious and the devoutly secular have beliefs that are true and provable in their own belief systems, but false and unprovable in terms of the other. The secular belief system — materialism, atheism, and uncritical worship of science — has the upper hand in contemporary society. In other times and places, various belief systems of revealed religion have been considered just as unshakable as today’s secularism.

The secular worldview is currently dominant because it works better in dealing with the physical world than the religious view. That is not surprising. The secular worldview focuses on the physical world and its laws. If you want to deal successfully with the physical world, “secular” is the way to go. To design an airplane or investigate the historical causes of a political event, you don’t need to reference God, at least not directly. God might be the ultimate cause of everything, but the proximate cause is more likely to be, for example, a difference in air pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of an airplane’s wings.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a ground-breaking work not merely because of its scholarship (and Gibbon’s beautiful literary style) but because of its approach to history. Previous historical works had often included God, supernatural events, or eschatological assumptions in their narratives of historical events. Gibbon, on the other hand, deliberately looked only at earthly causes.

As a child of the Enlightenment, Gibbon had a very low opinion of revealed religion. He even blamed it for the fall of the Roman Empire. According to him, the stern Roman virtues of courage, logic, and “severitas” (moral seriousness) enabled Rome to become a world-spanning empire. The influence of Christianity, with its emphasis on love, universal brotherhood, and life after death eroded those Roman virtues and weakened the Romans’ ability to maintain their empire. In essence, he argued that you could be Caesar or you could be Jesus, but not both. You had to choose one or the other.

The typical challenge to religious beliefs in our time requires a similarly stark choice. It consists of secular people demanding that religious people justify their beliefs in secular terms. Logically, it’s a mirror image of Biblical creationists demanding that secular scientists justify evolution in terms of the Book of Genesis. However, we don’t notice that parallel because the secular worldview is so dominant. We assume the secular worldview without thinking about it, as being so obviously true that it is beyond doubt by any sane person.

Thus, for most people, the debate is over before it even starts. They accept all the basic assumptions of the secular worldview and all of its basic conclusions. They then want to know if a completely different worldview can justify itself in terms of secular assumptions and conclusions.

It can’t. In the nature of the case, it should be obvious that it never could. The match was fixed. The referees were paid off. You might as well just hand the prize money to the winner and move on to the next event.

That kind of outcome obscures an important point about worldviews and systems of belief.

Whether they are religious or secular, systems of belief are stories about our world that help us get through life. Such stories work well in some situations and poorly in others. How well they work depends on how well they accomplish their purpose. And you can’t know how well they accomplish their purpose unless you know what their purpose is.

The purpose of secular stories is typically to help us understand and control physical reality. The purpose of religious stories is typically to help us guide our conduct and find meaning in our lives. Each accomplishes its purpose in its own way. Neither type of story is very good at accomplishing the purpose of the other type.

Characters in a story, whether religious or secular, need to stay within the terms of the story. If they go beyond those terms, they cease to be characters in the story where they started. They have become characters in someone else’s story. Moreover, if they acknowledge that they are in a story, then they destroy the story. Instead of a place they can live and a way to look at the world, their story becomes just a text that nobody takes very seriously.

That is what secular critics of religious faith want believers to do: Concede that their faith is just a story, step outside the story, and assess the story in terms of someone else’s story — a story that is explicitly hostile to their own. And believers in the secular story accept it with the same level of commitment as believers in a religious story: as being so obviously true that it is beyond doubt by any sane person.

That is why believers in, for example, the literal truth of the Book of Genesis fight tooth and claw against secular attempts to discredit their beliefs. The truth of Genesis is part of their story. Not only does it help them make sense of life, but it’s their story, and someone with an opposing story wants to take it away from them.

Individual beliefs always presuppose the story in which they play a part. For the beliefs to be reasonable means for them to fit into their own story, consistent with the assumptions of the story and the principles of proof that it assumes are legitimate. They might or might not be reasonable in the context of other stories, but that’s irrelevant.

Worldview stories themselves cannot be proven because proof presupposes a world-view and its assumptions. You can’t prove anything based on nothing. You must assume that certain things are true and certain principles of proof are valid. However, proving those assumptions themselves is impossible because there’s nothing prior in terms of which you could prove them. As far as logic goes, you simply have to take them or leave them.

Worldview stories either work for us or they don’t work. Most such stories work well in some contexts but not in others.

To demand that one worldview story justify itself in terms of an opposed story is to demand too much.


Copyright 2015 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 10, 2014

Beliefs Aren’t Always Beliefs

By N.S. Palmer

Beliefs aren’t always beliefs, even if they look like them.

Suppose that you tell me:

“Abraham Lincoln was a circus performer before he became president.”

I then show you documentary evidence that he was doing something else before he became president. However, you still insist that he was a circus performer.

I ask you for evidence that he was a circus performer.

You show me a short story about Lincoln that was written 75 years after his death by someone who never saw him and who gets a lot of other historical details wrong. The story says he was a circus performer.

I point out that the story is poor evidence on which to base your belief, and that it is contradicted by all other known historical evidence.

You still insist that “Abraham Lincoln was a circus performer before he became president.”

We’ve discovered that no credible historical evidence supports your belief.

We’ve discovered that all known credible historical evidence contradicts it.

But you still insist on your belief. What does that tell us?

Well, what does it mean for something to be a historical belief?

  • It means that the belief asserts something about the past.
  • It implies that there should be at least some supporting evidence in the present.
  • It implies that any contrary evidence should at least be explicable in a way that preserves the belief.

If you make what looks like a historical assertion but it doesn’t satisfy those criteria, then in spite of appearances, you’re not making a historical statement at all. You’re doing something else.

The relevant logical principle is called Modus Tollens (“denying the consequent”). Suppose you know that if A is true, B must be true. Then as a result, if B is not true, it follows logically that A is also not true.

You might be speaking in metaphor. You might be signaling your belief in political principles associated with your belief: for example, that heads of state should come from the common people. You might be trying to encourage yourself in your own aspiration to become a circus performer. But when the plain meaning of a historical belief leads to things that you claim don’t matter, then you’re not making a historical statement.

A current example is the belief that “Officer Darren Wilson unjustifiably shot Michael Brown, who had surrendered.”

Most people who believe that, as well as most people who deny it, neither know nor care much about the evidence. To them, the evidence doesn’t matter because they are not primarily asserting things about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Instead, they are signaling their moral and tribal commitments.

One group wants to signal that they are not racists, while the other wants to signal that they support law enforcement. In this case, it’s the implicit rather than the explicit message that’s important. They seem to be contradicting each other, but they’re not. They’re mainly just shouting at each other to prove their various commitments, and to show off their moral goodness to other people who agree with them.

People who think of beliefs exclusively in cognitive terms find that kind of behavior utterly baffling.

The key is to understand that beliefs do a lot of things in addition to making assertions. Sometimes, the apparent assertions are almost irrelevant, and it’s the signaled subtext that really matters.


Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 7, 2014

Exceptional You

By N.S. Palmer

You are exceptional. So am I. So is everyone else.

Ironically, however, we ignore the ways that we really are exceptional, and we pretend to be exceptional in ways that we really aren’t.

We really are exceptional in that we all have unique:

  • Life experiences
  • Innate abilities
  • Developed skills
  • Knowledge
  • Loves
  • Hates
  • Fears
  • Loyalties
  • Personal connections

We really aren’t exceptional in that we all:

  • Get an unknown but limited amount of time on earth.
  • Feel as if we’re the center of the universe, even though we know we’re not.
  • Have roughly the same human nature.
  • Are subject to the same moral laws.
  • Make excuses for our sins, shortcomings, and failures.

Every person is good at something. Every person can make a unique contribution to the world that no one else can make. Every person has secret passions and sorrows, virtues and vices.

What’s true of individual people is true of human groups. Every society, religion, ethnicity, and country believes that it is exceptional. Whatever it does is good, simply because it is good. Its motives are always the best. It does what is right; or if not what is right, then what is justified under the circumstances; or if not justified, then what it has no choice but to do.

That’s being exceptional in the same old ordinary way: Narrow-minded, self-centered, excuse-making, and heedless of the good or harm we cause to others.

But there’s a better way to be exceptional:

  • Try to see the good in others and understand their viewpoints.
  • Consider their welfare as well as (but not necessarily in preference to) your own.
  • Conduct a “reality check” on your beliefs. Are they actually true, are they self-serving propaganda, or are they a little of both?
  • Conduct a “morality check” on your actions. What are all the probable results? Who will probably benefit and who might be hurt? Can you live with that?

You are exceptional. Really. But you can do better. You can be the very best exceptional person possible.

It’s your choice. Whatever you choose, that’s the person you will see in the mirror.

Is the person in the mirror someone you can love and respect?


Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | March 19, 2014

Rules for Relationships

By N.S. Palmer

My rules for relationships. Take them with a grain of salt because I’m currently single:

  1. Keep the romance alive. Don’t miss chances to remind each other of why you got married in the first place (unless it was a shotgun wedding). Surprise your spouse with something that he/she especially likes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but focus on the issues and don’t be a blamer.
  3. Don’t be a grudge collector. Forgive and forget. And don’t forget to forget. If you keep remembering something that made you angry, it will keep making you angry. Let go of it and get on with things.
  4. If you need or want something, you should usually say so. That includes in the bedroom.
  5. Be available when your spouse needs you, but also remember that everyone needs space once in a while.
  6. Speaking of space, if the house is big enough, each spouse should have his or her own “private domain,” a room that (except in emergencies) no one else enters unless invited. However, accept in advance that there’s no way to keep the kids from snooping around once or twice.
  7. If you have a private domain, don’t spend all of your time there. If you do that, you’re neglecting your responsibilities to spouse and family, and you might as well be single. They need you and you need them, up close and in person, not sitting off in your own room doing Heaven knows what.
  8. Agree on standard practices in advance: who does what and when, date nights, and so forth.
  9. If you’re unhappy or angry about something, say so. But always remember that you’re talking to someone you love. Be kind.
  10. Likewise, if you’re happy about something or just want to say “I love you,” don’t be shy. Do it.
  11. On a regular basis, do things together as a family. You’re not just separate individuals. You’re a part of something bigger. Schedule some kind of family time at least once a week. “Hello / goodbye” in the kitchen on the way to work or school isn’t enough.
  12. Make friends with your in-laws. They are your family and you are a part of their family. Be so wonderful that they have to realize you’re “good enough for their son/daughter” (but don’t insist that they say it).
  13. (Women only): Remember that men don’t understand subtlety. If you want us to know something, you usually need to tell us in plain language.
  14. (Men only) Remember that women don’t always directly say what they mean and what they want. Make an effort to stay alert for subtlety. If you think that you’re missing some subtext, ask them.
  15. Accept the fact that your spouse is imperfect and so are you. You won’t always do everything right. In particular, there’s no way in the world to be a perfect parent. You’re going to screw it up. Just do the best you can and try not to screw it up too badly.

Copyright 2014 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 14, 2013

Scientific Certainty? Oops.

By N.S. Palmer

How many chromosomes do human body cells have?

It seems like a simple question.

Until the 1950s, biology textbooks said that human cells have 48 chromosomes. That number of chromosomes was determined in 1923. American biologist Theophilus Painter counted them.

How many chromosomes do people actually have?

46. That’s the correct number, given by all current books.

From 1923 through 1956, everyone thought that people had 48 chromosomes because Painter mis-counted them. After that, nobody bothered to recount them.

That’s the power of conventional wisdom and groupthink. “Everyone knew” that human cells had 48 chromosomes, so what was the point of counting them? If you happened to count them and you didn’t get a total of 48, you simply assumed that you’d made a mistake. Everyone knew there were 48. Who were you to say otherwise?

Today, “everyone knows” that blood cholesterol causes cardiovascular disease. Ancel Keys got the ball rolling with some rather sloppy research in the 1950s. Most physicians have spent their careers telling people that it does. Their sense of self-worth is riding on the belief. Drug companies have made countless billions of dollars selling statin drugs as a result of that belief. They’ve got lots of money riding on the belief. Is it true?

It might be. But I remember the books that said human beings have 48 chromosomes. And I wonder.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 5, 2013

You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances

By N.S. Palmer

Nuance won’t fit on a bumper sticker.

Of course, if we’re talking about the word “nuance,” it fits just fine. But what the word denotes — subtleties, complications, uncertainties, and ambiguities — won’t fit. It’s big and it’s messy. That’s why people absolutely hate it. That’s why they tend to avoid it in their thinking.

These comments are inspired by a recent discussion among my co-workers. One of them made a favorable remark about vitamins and herbal supplements as health aids. Another cited an Atlantic Magazine article by Dr. Paul Offit, a physician who thinks it’s harmful to take vitamins in amounts greater than the government’s recommended daily allowance (now called the Dietary Reference Intake or DRI).

Let’s lay out the facts. Very few people on either side of the debate like them. They don’t fit on a bumper sticker.

There is some evidence that vitamin consumption in excess of the DRI can improve health and reduce one’s risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. There is some evidence that it’s a waste of money. There is some evidence that in certain situations, it can be harmful (though still safer than prescription drugs). Taken as a whole, the evidence is all over the place in terms of results, clarity, and credibility.

Add the fact that in spite of astonishing scientific advances in the 20th and 21st centuries, the human body is still poorly understood. We still don’t know exactly what factors (that’s “factors,” plural) result in heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. We still don’t know with a high degree of certainty how, why, or even if some medicines work. And the people who sponsor studies are usually selling something.

As a result, even people who are careful and well-informed have to base their judgments on a real mess. They have to sift through contradictory evidence, assess the credibility of various experts (Linus Pauling, Paul Offit), and reach a conclusion. If they’re smart and self-aware, they know that their conclusion might be wrong. Or it might be right. And that’s as much certainty as they’re going to get.

The human mind hates that kind of ambiguity. It’s much easier to say that Nobel laureate biochemist Linus Pauling was a nut, vitamin intake over the DRI is worthless, Paul Offit is right, and conventional medical treatment is always the solution to our health issues. Or to say that Linus Pauling was a god, vitamin intake over the DRI makes you disease-free and immortal, Paul Offit is a corrupt apologist for Big Pharma, and conventional medical treatment will kill you for profit.

Linus Pauling didn’t subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. When he was dying of cancer at the age of 93, he said that he never thought Vitamin C was magic. He thought it would reduce a person’s risk of premature death from various illnesses and would probably confer other health benefits. And, as a scientist, he knew better than to cite his own individual case of living to the age of 93 as proof of his theories. In science, individual cases tend not to prove much.

Nor do I subscribe to that kind of over-simplification. Dr. Paul Offit is neither stupid nor ignorant, but like all of us — including me — he has a point of view through which he sees and evaluates the evidence. Like all of us, his point of view is biased by his psychology, his personal history, his sources of (considerable) income, and the things he learned first. Whether or not it’s true, what we learn first tends to bias everything that we learn later, because we assess the credibility of new information in terms of what we already believe.

And the issue isn’t limited to vitamins. It affects our judgments in many areas where the evidence is uncomfortably complex and we try to cram it into a simple, black-and-white picture:

  • The free market is the solution to all our problems, and liberals are a bunch of America-hating Commies (though I guess now, they would be secret Muslims). Or socialism is the solution to all our problems, and capitalism just means the rich exploit everyone else.
  • The Bible is God’s revealed truth, and as such, is error-free in every word it says. (Pick your favorite Bible translation: That’s the one that God likes.) Or the Bible is superstition, and religious believers are ignorant fools.
  • Neuroscience can account for and cure all psychological problems. Or Freudian psychoanalysis can, and neuroscience is beside the point.
  • America is good. Or America is evil. But whatever it is, we still hate the French.

Those kinds of ideas fit nicely on a bumper sticker, so they are congenial to the simplicity-loving human mind. But they ignore a big truth:

In most situations, you pays your money and takes your chances.

In my opinion, anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding himself.


Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 26, 2013

Toward a New Ethics of Belief

June and Ward Cleaver from a 1960s TV series.

Ward believes that June is the best wife in the world.

By N.S. Palmer

Who is the best wife[1] in the world?

There are many criteria you could consider. But let me give you a shortcut. Skip the criteria. If anyone ever asks you that question, there is only one correct answer:

My wife is the best wife in the world.”

Why? Because she’s your wife.

One hopes that you mentally believe she’s the best wife in the world. But whether you mentally believe it or not, you’d be wise to say it when someone asks you.

It’s not just a matter of prudence. Even if the sofa is very comfortable and there are plenty of frozen dinners in the refrigerator, you have a moral duty to be loyal to your wife. That includes believing good things about her — or even if you don’t mentally believe them, then at least verbally assenting to those beliefs.

But wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to believe things only if you have good logical or empirical evidence that they’re true?

Delete the “only” and that’s correct. Other things being equal, if you have good logical or empirical evidence that things are true, then you should believe them.

But the story’s a little more complicated because it’s “other things being equal.”

What if you have good logical or empirical evidence that by some set of criteria, your wife is not the best wife in the world? Then you have a conflict of duties:

  • You’re obliged by evidence to believe that your wife is not the best wife in the world.
  • You’re obliged by loyalty to believe that your wife is the best wife in the world.

Which duty takes priority? A lot depends on the circumstances, but it also leads us to the fact that “belief” can mean different things, have different functions, and be justified in different ways.

To determine what belief is, we should not make up a definition, then go out into the world and see if anything matches our definition. We should look at the circumstances under which people say that someone believes something.

Likewise, to determine what belief does — what functions it serves for individuals and society — we should look at how it actually works, not just at how we think it works. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, look!” This is empiricism and common sense. Aristotle and Maimonides would approve.

In one sense or another, you believe X if you do any of the following:

  1. Mentally assent to the proposition that X is true.
  2. Orally or in writing, state consistently that X is true.
  3. Behave consistently as if X is true.

Even if logic prevents your mental assent, you can still believe that your wife is the best in the world if you give your verbal assent and act as if the idea is true. Trust me: if you want to stay married to her, that’s a wise course of action. It’s also the right course of action.

As Sherlock Holmes Would Say, “A Clue!”

The clue that we’re dealing with more than logic and evidence comes in the very question we’ve been discussing:

Under what circumstances should you believe a statement?

“Should” is not a logical word like “is” or “implies.” It’s a prescriptive word, telling us how to act and how to live. That tips us off that we’re dealing with an ethical issue. The logical and empirical evidence supporting a belief are relevant, but they’re not the only relevant factors.

And the fact that it’s an ethical issue tips us off that belief is not a special kind of thing, off in a corner, governed only by its own rules. It’s a form of human action. To believe something is to do something. And what we do is governed, inter alia, by moral concerns.

A Field Trip to Southern Africa

In search of answers, let’s take a field trip to Southern Africa. There we encounter the Herero people, a subgroup of the Bantus. They have a curious preoccupation with witchcraft. If anything bad happens to someone, they believe it’s because the person was “witched.”

But witchcraft doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us. There are no boiling cauldrons, no eye of newt, nor even usually any deliberate spell-casting. According to Henry Harpending in his book West Hunter:

The way it works is this: perhaps Greg falls and hurts himself, he knows it must be witchcraft, and he discovers that I am seething with jealousy [at him], so it was my witchcraft that made him fall. What is surprising is that I was completely unaware of having witched him, so he bears me no ill will. I feel bad about his misfortune and do my best to get rid of my bad feelings because with them I am a danger to friends and family.[2]

The result is something very positive:

Everyone except the Americans agreed that witchcraft was a terrible problem, that there was danger all around, and that it was vitally important to maintain amicable relations with others and to reject feelings of anger or jealousy in oneself.[3]

So here’s the question: Should the Herero people abandon their belief in witchcraft because it lacks empirical evidence to support it?

Unpacking the Belief

It will also help if we can get clear about exactly what the Herero people believe. Their idea of witchcraft is peculiar by our standards. They think that if someone bears ill will toward someone else, then through some unknown mechanism, it causes misfortune to befall the other person.

What’s their evidence for the belief? Correlation: Whenever a person suffers misfortune, it’s always possible to find someone who bears ill will toward him or her. All that’s missing is a real theory about how the ill will causes the misfortune.

Here’s how their belief in witchcraft looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: The Herero mentally assent to the statement that negative emotions toward other people can cause harm to those people. The content of their belief consists of a known subject (negative emotions), a known object (harm to other people), a known correlation (negative emotions followed by harm), and an unknown process that accounts for the correlation.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: The Herero consistently state that a causal relationship exists between negative emotions and harmful consequences. They never deny that belief.
  3. Belief as behavior: The Herero consistently behave as if a causal relationship existed between negative emotions and harmful consequences. If something bad happens to someone, they look for a negative emotion in another person that might have caused the misfortune. When they find it, whether in themselves or in someone else, they try to defuse it to prevent any further harm.

Apart from the supposed causal relationship between negative emotion and misfortune, there’s nothing very objectionable going on here. The social and moral results of (2) and (3) are overwhelmingly positive. And even the unknown causal relationship at the root of (1) isn’t logically disreputable. We often notice and act on correlations that are useful but unexplained. For example, aspirin (in the form of tree-bark extract) was used as far back as ancient Greece because someone noticed a correlation between aspirin consumption and pain relief. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we had any idea why aspirin worked. We just knew that it did work: and our knowledge was based on a bare correlation without any explanation behind it.

Now, we may fault the Herero for not testing their belief scientifically. They’ve never set up a control group, they haven’t looked for negative emotions that didn’t cause harm, and they give too little weight to other causes of mishaps.

But what would be the point of all that extra effort? Their belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. There’s no percentage in putting it under a microscope. It works. The best outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to validate the belief, in which case they wouldn’t have anything more than they already have. The worst outcome of a scientific inquiry would be to discredit the belief, in which case they would have lost a powerful support for moral behavior and social harmony — giving it up for the relatively minor benefit of logical purity. They would have exchanged something more valuable for something less valuable.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: They should believe in witchcraft as they define it. The belief is a good thing. Taking that belief away from them in the name of logical purity would be wrong.

Do We Even Disagree with the Herero’s Belief?

Here’s a much trickier question: Do we even disagree with the Herero’s belief?

Remember what they assert: negative emotion, bad result, correlation, and a postulated but unknown causal mechanism.

We might say that we don’t see what the causal mechanism is, but neither do they. We might say that other causes are involved, but so do they. If they believe that witchcraft made a rock fall on someone’s head, they don’t claim that witchcraft alone caused the injury. The rock was clearly involved. They just think that other factors were also involved. Do we disagree? No.

Often, because of differences in terminology, context, or ritual, we think that disagreements exist where there are none. We don’t like the word “witchcraft” because of the meaning that we but not the Herero attach to it. However, we have no substantive complaints to make about the Herero’s belief. We tend to think that our disagreement with them, to the extent it exists at all, is much larger than it really is.

Unpacking One of Our Own Beliefs

Let’s apply the same kind of analysis to a belief that’s much closer to home:

I believe with perfect faith that God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them.

That, of course, is Maimonides’s 11th principle of the Jewish faith. In one form or another, the belief is held by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In particular, Orthodox Jews believe that there are 613 commandments governing every area of life: 365 negative commandments that forbid certain actions, and 248 positive commandments that require certain actions.

What is the evidence for the belief? As befits a principle of faith, the evidence falls far short of proof. Though it’s doubtful that any imperfect human being could keep all the commandments all the time, some people do try. And sometimes, good things happen to them. But overall, we know far too painfully that earthly rewards and misfortunes bear no dependable relationship to obeying the commandments or to moral behavior generally: the Bible’s Book of Job testifies to that fact. So we are left to see the rewards as either spiritual or deferred until “the world to come.”

Here’s how our belief in Divine reward and punishment (“God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress them”) looks in terms of the three belief types mentioned earlier:

  1. Belief as mental act: Because God transcends human understanding, we cannot form a concept of God[4] (the belief’s subject). Therefore, we cannot hold the belief as a mental act unless we do some covert anthropomorphic substitution.
  2. Belief as verbal declaration: Orthodox Jews consistently state that God rewards those who follow the commandments and punishes those who violate them.
  3. Belief as behavior: Orthodox Jews try to obey 613 commandments that govern every area of life. That requires constant thought about the moral status of their actions. It also discourages impulsive or unethical behavior. It’s no guarantee: people who are inclined to cruelty or criminality can usually find an excuse, even within the constraints of the commandments. However, Orthodox Jews’ resolution to follow the commandments generally helps them be kinder, more honest, and better citizens than otherwise. The same applies to any other humane and comprehensive moral code.

Even though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, the fact that it invokes the Creator of the universe as its authority increases its motivational power. Without that added authority, the belief would be less helpful. As belief types (2) and (3), the belief signifies membership in the religious group, expresses loyalty to the group, and promotes social cohesion.

Now, we may fault the Orthodox for holding a belief they can’t understand mentally, for not testing it scientifically, and indeed, for holding it in spite of voluminous contrary evidence.

On the other hand, those objections concern only belief type (1): belief as a mental act. And though the belief cannot be formed as a mental act, one can construe it as a slightly different, entirely comprehensible mental act that’s an ellipsis for two other beliefs and a resolution:

  • Right and wrong are a basic aspect of our world.
  • Acting morally is important.
  • Therefore, I resolve to act morally by following the commandments.

The first part is a metaphysical statement that summarizes a vast number of observations, attitudes, and descriptions about the world. The second is an evaluation. The third isn’t even a statement of fact, but expresses an intention. Put more concisely, the belief amounts to:

Right and wrong are a fundamental and important feature of the world. As much as I am able, I resolve to do right and to refrain from doing wrong.

Construed in this way, the mental-act belief is logically innocuous while being morally and socially helpful. It works. Science has nothing to say, pro or con, about any of it. The type (2) and (3) versions of the belief are indisputably positive.

Given that circumstance, the conclusion is clear: Orthodox Jews (and anyone else so inclined) should believe faith Principle 11. The belief is a good thing. Giving up that belief in a misguided and ultimately quixotic quest for logical purity would be wrong.

But Is Belief Voluntary?

An obvious objection to this line of thought is that belief is involuntary. We can only be obligated to do what we have the ability to do. If we cannot control our beliefs, then we cannot have a duty to believe one thing or to disbelieve another. As Brand Blanshard put it in Reason and Belief:

Now, beliefs are rather like tics and sneezes. In some cases, they are completely uncontrollable, and then to talk of duty in connection with them is absurd. If a man were offered a million dollars to believe at this moment that three and four made eleven, or that the chair on which he seemed to be sitting was the only living unicorn, he would lose the money.[5]

Blanshard locates our ethical duties about belief in two actions that we can control: First, to acquire the relevant evidence to assess the beliefs; and second, to form careful and logical habits of mind that make our involuntary acts of belief reliable.[6]

However, this objection applies only to belief type number one: belief as a mental act. If someone offers you a million dollars to believe mentally that three and four make eleven, then you’re out of luck. But if all that’s required is for you to say that three and four make eleven, then I’d suggest that you take the money unless significant countervailing evil would result.

Likewise, some members of a community might mentally disbelieve (or, with statements about God, simply not understand) some of the community’s most cherished articles of faith. But as long as they give their verbal and behavioral assent to those articles of faith — as long as they “believe” in senses two and three — then harmony will be preserved and everyone in the community will benefit. In that case, the verbal affirmation of the belief serves as a badge of membership in the community and as an expression of loyalty to the other members of the community.

It’s true that some articles of faith should not be believed in any sense at any time, such as beliefs that counsel harm or denial of human rights. But since belief types (2) and (3) are justified by the good they produce, such beliefs are automatically excluded from our duties.

But Are Belief Types (2) and (3) Hypocritical?

Another obvious objection is to point out that this argument seems to endorse hypocrisy. Hypocrisy means either or both of two things:

  • Saying something while mentally withholding judgment about it or mentally believing that it is false.
  • Saying something while behaving as if it is false.

Let us not evade the issue: Yes, if you mentally believe not-X while saying that you believe X, or while acting as if X is true, then you are acting hypocritically.

But in humility and with no small amount of trepidation, I must insist that hypocrisy is not always and everywhere a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be a very good thing. Sometimes, it can even be morally obligatory.

We can agree that truth is good and honesty is a virtue. But truth is not the only good and honesty is not the only virtue. Likewise, expressing mental beliefs is not the only function of belief statements and believing behavior.

Consider a question that most husbands[7] have faced at one time or another:

Does this dress make me look fat?

You know that only one kind of answer will keep peace in the family. If you give any other answer, you do so at your peril. Even worse, you cause unhappiness to your wife. But before you feel guilty about your hypocrisy, think for a moment about the real significance of that question. Is your wife asking for an objective statement of fact? No. In spite of the words she used, she is asking for your affirmation, encouragement, and support:

Dearest, that dress makes you look beautiful. You always look spectacular, and you make me glad to be alive.

In this case, your wife neither asked for an objective factual statement, nor should you have given one. You looked beyond her words and understood the real question, whose answer is “I love you.” To say otherwise would have been honest, but wrong. Hypocrisy was the right choice in that situation.

Like any human practice, hypocrisy can be used for evil purposes. However, it can also help sustain communities and cooperation. When a group of people all affirm the same articles of faith, the essential function of their statement is not to assert facts. Instead, their affirmation expresses loyalty, solidarity, and shared values with the other members of their group. In such situations, hypocrisy is often a virtue rather than a vice.

Belief as a Form of Human Action

Let’s sum up. Belief is a special kind of human action. It has at least three different types. It can serve different functions, both individual and social. It has its own logical obligations, but it is also subject to the same moral obligations as the other kinds of human action.

That being so, our obligations to believe or disbelieve are not purely logical. They also involve considerations of social benefit, personal character, group loyalty, and self-definition. We may believe things for logical reasons only, moral reasons only, or for both. In some cases, moral reasons outweigh purely logical ones — especially when our logical duties are not settled by the available evidence and the moral reasons are of great consequence.

Footnotes

  1. I’m using “wife” for concreteness and simplicity. Readers may substitute “husband” or “spouse” if they prefer.
  2. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, West Hunter, loc. 589 of eBook. Self-published compilation of the authors’ blog entries, mostly about genetics and anthropology.
  3. Ibid, loc. 591.
  4. Although “God” appears to be a proper name, it is actually an abbreviation for a description, i.e., “The God of Abraham.” Unlike “Joe Smith,” to whom we can point, we cannot perceive God in any normal way and therefore cannot name Him. Moreover, saying that the name “God” abbreviates a description only pushes the problem back a step. Either the description uses the word “God,” in which case it repeats what we already said, or it uses some other term, such as “the Being,” in which we again have a term (“the Being”) that is undefined and undefinable.
  5. Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief, p. 402. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1973. The book is based on his Noble Lectures at Harvard in 1948 and his Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews in 1952-53.
  6. Ibid, p. 403.
  7. As before, readers may substitute “spouse” or some other term if they prefer.

Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

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