Make Apologetics Crazy Again

These days I bristle increasingly against the Christian apologists. I worry, even, that apologetics as it stands now is a doomed discipline. Nobody is being convinced; if anything, apologists are being convinced out of their own positions. The discipline has an unpleasant tendency to embrace equivocation, to back down from strong but unpopular claims, to view concessions as a necessary feature of spinning a compelling story.

The problem isn’t really with apologetics, one might protest. Their audience is unfairly unreceptive. Frankly, it’s mostly hecklers. This is objectively true, but it seems like a silly redescription of the situation. If a stand-up comedian bombs, he has failed his audience; they have not failed him. His job is to alter his methodology to suit their tastes. If they didn’t laugh, then he didn’t tell the right jokes. Instead of taking their silence in stride and updating on the fly, he doubled down and subjected his listeners to an hour more of what all his evidence already suggested wouldn’t be interesting or compelling to them. “Tough crowd,” he might complain–but that doesn’t make him any funnier, and it doesn’t change the fact that he did not win them over. Most importantly, he’s had this information–“they’re a tough crowd”–since the first minute of his set, but he took it as an out from his responsibility unto them rather than as a reason to try doing it differently.

The root of the matter is the wrong idea that apologetics is a kind of debate like those of politics or philosophy. It’s not. Any kind of pursuit to get someone on your side admits success defined only in terms of the other person. But the other person’s leeway in setting this marker depends on what kind of convincing is going on. Debates and papers do not allow their readers and listeners, with fundamental and radical freedom, to set an arbitrary starting point. They assume presuppositions; disputing the premises is seen as a lower form of engagement than critiquing the argument itself. There are unstated rules governing what standards are reasonable for the reader to set. I am not clever or sophisticated for rebutting Schlick by saying, “Metaphysics are important.” Nor have I outgunned St. Anselm when I proclaim that necessity isn’t actually true of God. I just have a different opinion about the matter and therefore I’m contracted from the set of people his paper considers to be its audience in the first place. I have to buy in before I can criticize. Does this device drastically limit philosophical discussion? Of course! More importantly, though, it severely weakens the demands to which the author is yoked when he begins to write, weakens them at least to a point where he is willing to take upon himself the project of writing. Imagine a world in which for a paper to be publishable, it was required to respond to every objection levied to it in the Library of Babel! Objections, objections to the author’s replies, misreadings of those replies… The author would have to answer just about every question anyone’s ever asked. Even if people had begun to philosophize before the time of Socrates and proceeded to colonize space, by the time of the collapse of the universe still no paper would be published. Philosophers are equipped with a notion of natural or reasonable objections to an argument; these are the objections to which a high-quality paper is expected to respond. They are not merely finite in number, but few. Limiting the scope of objections this way is crucial. If not for this cordon around engagement, nobody at all might write.

This is how politics and philosophy work. Apologetics is not like politics or philosophy. It’s more like a stand-up show or a concert or an art exhibit. Art, unlike argument, is unbelievably permissive of its audience to set the terms of engagement. A debater is told, “Make this well-defended.” An artist or apologist is told, “Make this palatable to my sensibilities.” Such mores, wildly dependent on the whim of the interlocutor, subject the presenter to radical and constant pressures. If your goal is to preach, then absolutely give yourself a pat on the back for simply making your ideas clear. But if your goal is to proselytize, you must be malleable. You are an algorithm; you must update, in real time, to the inputs of your interlocutor. You must equivocate. You must make yourself acceptable to them. No prior standards of their, well, priors are in place. Art is the playground of the critic, not the artist. “Is this funny?” means “Do find this funny?” The majoritarianism is undeniable. “Is this beautiful?” means “Does this adhere to my aesthetic sensibilities?” And yes, “Is religion true?” means in apologetics “Should I be religious?” Subjectivity reigns.

This is ridiculously unfair even in art, but at least there, sensibilities have some reasonable claim to precedence. In apologetics–ostensibly a fact-driven field–equivocation is just bananas. Yet equivocation is exactly what modern apologetics teaches us to do. We have a theory of apologetics now that says success is judged in terms of the palatability of our content to the sensibilities of our listener. We are mandated, broadly, to make ourselves sympathetic.

Apologetics is a proselytizing field. “Deal with us” obviously isn’t a useful approach, so I cannot totally dismiss all this subjectivity, unfair as it is. So here’s my solution. I want to instead see a theory of apologetics where we are told not “Make your position believable,” but rather “Make your opponent believe it.”

Yes. Let your opponent set the terms, and convince them anyway without relinquishing any of yours. It can be done. I can’t show you how, but I can tell you why. Existence, not construction–I’m doing my best.

Believability and belief are different–not just to the individual, but on a wide scale. If they weren’t, the epistemology of disagreement wouldn’t be a flourishing philosophical field, the subject of worries as horrifying to a Bayesian as the melan genie was to the skeptics. One of the consensuses of the field is that believability depends heavily upon prior experiences and sensibilities in a way that makes it sometimes untouchable by arguments, or at least by certain rational argument strategies.

Not all that is believable is believed. If I have two alternate theories, each supported by substantial evidence but mutually contradictory, I can suspend judgment, but I can’t believe both. This isn’t just coherentist; it’s logically obvious. Believing both makes me irrational. Assuming some deviation in priors, I will ultimately throw my support behind one of the theories; subsequently changing my mind and believing the other requires relinquishing my belief in the first.

This, of course, is not the part of the disjunction that I have to defend. The natural reply would be that the believed is a strict subset of the believable. My substitution–credence for credibility–would then constitute a restriction, which can’t possibly help the apologists. It would only further limit the terrible strategies already available to them.

Luckily, though, I think this subset idea is wrong. The believed, I say, can venture outside the realm of the believable without violating rationality. The wildest, most intuitively bizarre and incredible truth claims of Catholicism have always been the ones I accepted most eagerly. The Virgin Mary was assumed, bodily, into heaven? Sure. I’m literally eating Jesus every Sunday? Absolutely. Christ was fully human and also fully divine, but only one full being? The math checks out. I was disposed to believe these bizarre ideas before I was fully disposed to believe in God at all. Well, that sounds logically wrong. I rather mean: the minute I accepted the existence of God was also the minute I accepted these strange entailed propositions, even though they required further, weirder assumptions. I was fully on board with the biconditional “God exists iff priests can literally transform unleavened bread into His body” long before I accepted the left-hand side as part of my belief set. The veracity of these bizarre propositions, from a standpoint outside the Catholic framework, was precisely as certain to me as the baby steps toward accepting the framework to begin with.

Why? Why on earth could I possibly find most compelling the truth claims that seem objectively most likely to be false? The ones that involve not only coincidences, not just mere miracles, but Knuth-arrowed power towers of miracles–absurdity, contradiction, confluences upon confluences of crazy? The answer, like many helpful answers, can be found in William James’ “The Will to Believe.” Simply put, hypotheses possess a set of binary properties. They are either live or dead: acceptable in some world to the listener or else nowhere acceptable. They are either forced or avoidable: a listener must choose between them, or else may avoid doing so altogether, suspending judgment or holding no doxastic attitude at all. Finally, they are either momentous or trivial. A trivial hypothesis is one in which the decision “opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later proves unwise.” Momentous hypotheses satisfy none of these: they are now, critical, and binding. James argues that the adoption of religious faith is to many listeners live, forced, and momentous, and proceeds in a masterful argument to demonstrate that hypotheses with these predicates often admit of cases in which belief without supporting evidence is rational.

The truth claims of religion constitute, for many people, hypotheses that are dead. To me, the veracity of Christianity–under the various descriptions usually afforded to it by my apologist interlocutors–was a dead hypothesis for many years. The notion of God described in layman’s terms was not compelling to me. The “first cause” argument was not troubling–I found an expert’s counterargument, familiarized myself with it, and then thought no more of the affair. Many nonbelievers make light work of deconstructing the theologians’ best. A prime mover is believable. Extratemporal grounding for absolute morality is believable. I discarded these relatable, believable claims and all the baggage contained within them. They were dead. Much later, I would find that the brazen absurdities of the Gospels, the unexplainable behavior of the devout, the unshrinking insanity of the apocrypha, the hair-tearing complexities of the theological picture, were not. Or, rather: They had been dead. They were revived.

People tend to rely on expert testimony in defusing claims that they have been led to believe, by majoritarian opinion, are wrong, but are not interested in falsifying for themselves. They believe the favorable opinion relatively strongly, quite strongly even, and can adequately regurgitate an argument for it that is parsable to them. On the other hand, most of the people who have thought a lot about a hypothesis have either much more moderate opinions or else extreme opinions, including toward the unfavorable side. Yes–some experts strongly hold the opinion the less-informed public believes is obviously wrong. The proponents of the Steady State Theory definitely know more physics than I do!

This is a very weird trifurcation of belief states. It results in a strange world where the hierarchy of research (let alone of intelligence) does not reflect the hierarchy of information states. Consider two individuals both of whom possess the same information set about the United States government. One of them spends many dedicated hours researching the Tuskegee experiment and develops sympathy for some government conspiracy hypothesis–say, that the moon landing was faked, or that the government is conducting human experimentation in Area 51. His justification for this position is a careful outline of factors relevant to past cases of systematic governmental population abuse, which he identifies rigorously and applies to the present situation. The other person seeks no further information than what he has and holds strongly to the status quo opinion. Person 1’s disposition and slate of experience certainly weighed into his conclusion, but they cannot fully explain it. Person 2 is more likely to be right, his belief set is closer to the truth, and his information state is more accurate–but he is not better informed.

The ready separability of reciting (even understanding) expert testimony from reacting to a proposition is why I care about the crazy theories. Banal theories, I think, are the ones that tend to produce the “outsource to an expert” epistemological problem. Ask me my opinion on a dead, but not shocking, hypothesis–again let’s say the Steady State Theory–and I’ll recite the conventional arguments against it without seriously parsing them myself as they leave my mouth. I am convinced of its falsity, convinced enough to have reviewed the arguments for the particular purpose of arguing the point with you, but not so wildly convinced that I consider your claim not deserving of a counterargument. This was my reaction, roughly, to the first cause argument, and it is a dangerous state in which for a hypothesis to lie. Someone who possesses a strong argument against a claim, but doesn’t care about the claim all that much in the first place, can consider the claim safely killed. The claim, now settled, leaves his mind. Because he does not view it as a threat, a source of interest, an oddity, or an active debate, nothing about it sticks with him. It does not enter his mind again unless placed there by another interlocutor, and even then is not revived because he has an argument to deploy.

This is not the case with ridiculous hypotheses, and in particular, ridiculous hypotheses that upset our sensibilities without upsetting our emotions. These are the kinds of hypotheses that can be enlivened again in a listener to whom they are dead. They never merited the surface-level recite-and-forget maneuver that choked off all posterity for his interaction with them. Dead hypotheses can be revived; dead, momentous hypotheses especially; but dead, banal hypotheses–the ones the existence of which he ceases to recall the instant he is not defending his live hypotheses against them–are beyond saving.

Dead, shocking hypotheses, rather than setting in motion a deterministic fixed-action pattern of reciting a counterargument, render a listener completely verklempt. These hypotheses are very specific in nature. They are completely lifeless to us prior to our engagement with them; they radically disagree with our sensibilities; and their being presented does not offend or upset our first order emotions–it just baffles us. I will remember for the rest of my life the first time someone mentioned Christians believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I was in sixth grade at a summer camp. I remember the room I was in and the look on my interlocutor’s face. It is my only clear memory of that summer or that year. I had no prepared counterargument, because it was a thought that had not previously occurred to me as being within the realm of possibilities. I did not come to believe it that day or for a long time thereafter. But I believe it now. I will never believe the Steady State Theory.

I came to believe the virgin birth hypothesis without its plausibility ever entering the picture–because it isn’t plausible. Miracles are not credible hypotheses. They just aren’t. They lack the features that make theories believable under modern epistemology. They are not simple. They do not resemble the world we know. Often, they’re difficult to process. Yet they are very, very hard to permanently kill–and this gives an interlocutor more chances to convince you of them.

Some dead hypotheses that are shocking cannot be revived because they’re horrifying not just to our sensibilities but to our emotions. Anti-vaxxing is a position that comes to mind, as are eugenics and racism. I don’t think this is incidental. Our first-order emotions are a natural, moral defense against what is evil. I worry somewhat here about the “emotionalizability” of more neutral hypotheses, which I expect is a point that can be brought against me. Sensationalism is mainstream now, someone might reply; how do we tell the difference between genuinely deontological horror and manufactured horror? I’m not too worried, because manufactured horror passes, and most constructed things can be deconstructed anyway. Even so, a related heuristic can be created here. There is an important distinction between the emotional horror of radical consequentialism and that of the abstract idea of radiation poisoning. A philosophy student horrified by the idea of chopping up a healthy person to provide five necessary transplants is not reacting this way because of the experiences and sensibilities that are peculiarly his, whereas those who react strongly against getting an X-ray are disproportionately those whose universes of obligation have been affected by radiation events. Should we assign weight to the attributability of emotional responses to personal experience? It’s worth thinking about, although I suspect that emotional responses to things like this are heavily populated near the mean.

We ought, then, to revive our apologetics. We must begin with the crazy and conclude with the sane. G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I think, was the last great work in an apologetic tradition that shared this idea. “Christianity even when watered down,” wrote Chesterton, “is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.” How bold! How exciting! How vastly disparate from the claim of modern apologists: “What we’re saying isn’t crazy–it’s reasonable! It’s believable!” But it is crazy! It is breathtaking, astonishing, shocking, glorious–not banal, typical, or often even easily reconcilable with what we know of the world. And how bizarre indeed that this is what I find so compelling about it.

The long and short of it is, I think, that minority beliefs will always be considered stupid by the majority, and often they’re right to think so. But this is precisely what should allow apologists to exhale in relief from their self-imposed palatability constraints. Perhaps you worry that opening an apologetic piece by defending your most radical claim will stop people in their tracks to gape at your stupidity. Well, worry no more. They were already gaping at your stupidity. Adding audacity doesn’t make you seem any stupider. I’d rather be considered audacious, crazy, and stupid than reasonable and still stupid. The first set of predicates is certainly more interesting and probably more consistent.

Watered-down theology is not our theology, and gentleness is not our game. Warming someone up, “opening” someone, is what pickup artists and cultists do. I shall tie my anchor to radical authenticity.

The Genetic Fallacy is Not a Fallacy

One of the major mainstays of critical thinking is exhaustive enumeration of the informal logical/cognitive fallacies and the prostrate provision of promises to avoid them. Many of these fallacies have catchy names related to their geneses: the streetlight fallacy, the no-true-Scotsman fallacy, the if-by-whiskey fallacy. We are instructed to avoid them in the interest of rationality.

The genetic fallacy is the claim that it is fallacious to disregard or accept evidence because of its source. A victim of the fallacy might profess, “Y {emerged/was argued for} because of X, and as X is {good/bad}, Y is {true/right/false/bad}.” One can see that this is closely related to the ad hominem fallacy, the idea that facts about Person X, unrelated to his argument for Proposition Y, can count for or against accepting his argument. On a surface level, there are plenty of cases in which these fallacies are clearly, well, fallacies. A Congressman’s lack of bureaucratic ability should not have any bearing on our examination of his argument in favor of nuclear disarmament. My several-year study of Calvinist theology should not count toward my argument when I tell you to give the genetic fallacy its walking papers.

Sure. These are reasonable claims. But the terms of the genetic fallacy itself are vastly overreaching. I worry about the cultural dismissal of this kind of thinking, which I’m going to agnostically dub “genetic reasoning.” I worry that its origins stem from a clinical, anti-moralistic reductionism–an ancestral cousin of our present fixation on “facts and logic”–and that this stonewall cognitive feature still lurks in the background of our usage of it. Wait! No! I said I worry about the origins of genetic reasoning. I just committed the genetic fallacy! Shouldn’t I evaluate it on its own merits, instead of considering how it came about? Well, yes and no. Shutting down arguments like the one I started to make above is the dark side of calling genetic reasoning a fallacy. If you tell me I’m committing a fallacy when I dare to say the origins of something are relevant, I’ll never get around to explaining why they’re relevant.

If I haven’t yet provided enough motivation for you to take me seriously, I’ll dip into religion. Extremely frequently, I find that the very same people who call out the logical weakness of genetic reasoning will scoff at various organized religions because they think the founders were unreliable. Why? “Because they were con men.” “Because they lacked knowledge of modern science.” And I think, in many cases, the spirit of what these objectors are saying is right. But we need a sharper razor than “genetic fallacy” or “ad hominem,” because under the rules of modern logical fallacies, these claims are wrong reasons to discount someone’s arguments.

I want to push us toward sharpening the razor. There are four ideas behind the genetic/ad hominem fallacy family that should not be dismissed, and might allow us to instead formulate some kind of Bayesian way to make them not actually fallacies while still recognizing when they’re being used inapplicably. These four reasons why I think genetic reasoning is useful are discerning agenda, accounting for authority, examining eyewitness testimony, and using self-locating epistemology.

Discerning Agenda

Logic is a tricky thing. Syllogistic reasoning is axiomatic–if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true. But the premise has to be true first. Otherwise the conclusion is only valid, not necessarily true.

Listening to someone’s argument isn’t merely a feat of observing logical chains. Your interlocutor has to start somewhere. Anyone arguing for anything takes at least one premise as given. This is where we needn’t be value-agnostic. Although it would make little sense to discriminate between coherent arguments on the basis of whether we trusted the speaker or not, it makes plenty of sense to intentionally not recalibrate our priors to neutral before listening to the axia or premises of a speaker. Sometimes, we need to evaluate the agenda of a rational actor. If I have a lot to gain from Z, then my own utility is probably a significant subset of my reasons for arguing for Z–and while this cannot manifest in the logical chains from my premises to my conclusions, it may manifest in my premises themselves. A premise about Kant that originally sounded dubious might sound more dubious if you factor in that I despise Kant. The unsubstantiated claim “The budget is settled for the year” can be evidence for a variety of conclusions; I still might doubt the claim itself if it comes from the mouth of a CEO facing embezzlement charges who has a lot to gain if I sign off on his proposal.

This is even truer when we consider our set of propositions Y to be strictly finite-time actionable. In what world does believing that X wants Y for bad reasons not imply believing Y has some kind of bad actionable baggage? The fact that someone wants something for bad reasons is excellent evidence that something bad will happen if it obtains: namely, X will use Y instrumentally for his malicious endeavor. This captures the spirit behind the agenda objection to the fallacy. It’s especially true in regards to moral arguments: how are we meant to interpret the claim that Y is good if it is dependent on an X we regard as bad? If we return again to X, a bad man, arguing for some end Y, we see that the steelman of the ad hominem fallacy is not that X is bad, but that X is platforming badness. Given a chance to pursue an end in his interest, we know that X will; therefore, we assume Y is in line with his interests, and therefore will have negative consequences. The crucial factor is not that Y emerged for bad reasons, but that Y condones or forwards bad reasons.

Accounting for Authority

Factoring authority into our analysis of someone’s argument is where ad hominem/genetic reasoning most frequently comes into play. This is also the section where I’m going to neatly deposit my Social Commentary(TM).

Authority figures are generally more likely to be right about things in their areas of expertise than the layperson. My meaning behind this is pretty uncontroversial: if you pick somebody out of a crowd and ask him to answer a yes/no question, the answer is more likely to be correct if he’s a trained expert. As in the above section, this is largely a statement about the premises of an argument rather than the argument itself. But it also applies to arguments.

I said “trained expert.” A trained expert on Hegel is someone who studied Hegel, wrote an advised dissertation on Hegel. Just spending a lot of time reading Hegel is no indication of whether you understand Hegel.

Guys, we have a huge autodidact problem. At some point, I’ll write a post about its history and implications, but for now, take my word for it. I’ve studied math and philosophy for years, and in my lifetime–nay, in my six adult years–I’ve seen the Internet transform and eliminate barriers to entry for high-level discussion in most disciplines. There are YouTube videos with millions of views proclaiming that pi is rational. There are apocryphal, incomprehensible decision theories being applied by coders to nonexistent Newcomb situations. The most tragic part is that the autodidact channel takes bright minds away from the funnel to actual contribution. As fringe mathematicians tell us aleph naught is actually 17, six Millennium Problems sit unsolved. While bloggers argue over which nonsense causal diagram represents a certain decision theory, actual philosophers and economists studying decision-making under uncertainty can’t sell their extremely useful textbooks because apparently, foundational work to enter a discipline is so 1900s.

But I’ll talk about all that later. The point is, some of the epistemological claims made by these autodidacts are not false, or at least not obviously false, as in, vacuous. They aren’t falsifiable by conventional standards. I simply cannot evaluate whether this decision algorithm returns the correct result in a certain thought experiment if it isn’t formally stated. This is where accounting for authority comes in. I will not apologize for vetting my sources to make sure they’ve actually studied utility functions before examining what they have to say about utility functions.

To be fair, this is to some extent a pragmatic issue. I don’t want to waste time working through really complicated mathematics if I have a high prior that the argument isn’t going to be correct because the person giving it hasn’t done the foundational work in the discipline. I was already 10 minutes into that “pi is rational” video when the uploader declared that there are a finite number of points! I could have read a whole sentence of Hegel in that time!

But the justification that my prior is right stems from genetic/ad hominem reasoning. I’m evaluating the source of the argument before even listening to the argument–and I will be the first to tell you that this weed-out strategy works like a charm.

Examining Eyewitness Testimony

In my department the other day, a famous philosopher made a comment that really unnerved me. Essentially, he said that with the increasing ease of “deepfaking,” we will eventually revert to the gold standard of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials, as video evidence will count for nothing.

If that’s true, we need to have some sort of criteria for examining eyewitness testimony. Something weaker than Mandy Rice-Davies Applies (which can be used in almost any situation), but stronger than just taking people at their word, regardless of any mitigating factors. In legal courts, we cross-examine our witnesses, and plenty of ad hominem evidence counts against them, and justifiably! Prior perjury is a huge count against a witness, as is a plea deal, as are prior bad acts. If we refuse to ever use genetic reasoning outside a courtroom, we must ask ourselves: why are we holding ourselves hostage to a standard we don’t want the law itself to hold? (Libertarians, put your hands down. You know I don’t mean it that way.)

Here’s an example. A witness to a crime says, “I saw the defendant rob the bank, Your Honor. He had a knife and brandished it at the teller. He forced everyone, including me, to their knees. He took the money and ran to the getaway vehicle.”

The judge asks, “Did you see the getaway vehicle?”

The witness responds, “Yes, Your Honor. The getaway vehicle was a flying saucer. The defendant got in, high-fived the grey alien in the cockpit, and went to outer space.”

Come on. That single line of testimony discredits all the others. You’re fooling yourself if you say it doesn’t.

Using Self-Locating Epistemology

Self-locating epistemology and epistemic self-trust relate to whether our present circumstances affect our ability to interpret our surroundings correctly and come to adequate conclusions. When you are uncertain about your own ability to process information correctly, genetic reasoning can be your savior.

Consider two mathematics professors in an argument about the Hardy-Littlewood properties of some function. You are an undergrad and have no idea what they are talking about. If you are asked to evaluate their arguments, and come to a decision regarding whom to believe, you must rely at least to some extent on features other than those of their arguments. Which professor is more coherent in her explanation? Which professor has more published papers? Which professor has a reputation for being a crackpot?

You might respond, “I have no business whatsoever evaluating their arguments.” Okay, fine. Take this experiment instead. Your acquaintance Rudolph has a reputation for sophistry. In particular, Rudolph is very good at delivering wrong, but very convincing, arguments. Somewhere in Rudolph’s arguments, often there is a well-hidden equivocation, empirically wrong fact, or false entailment. But you always miss it. Now, Rudolph is waxing poetic at you again. Should you believe his conclusion? If you proceed strictly by evaluating his argument, you won’t find anything wrong with it. But in the Bayesian setting, this doesn’t seem to count towards the correctness of the argument. Given your epistemic self-doubt, it’s more likely that he made a mistake and you missed it.

Or perhaps something happened recently that made you suspect you might have been uploaded into a recently-created simulation. You know that if you were in a simulation, your thesis advisor Maria would have three eyes. Well, you ran into Maria this morning, and she had three eyes, and she told you, “This is a simulation.” It just so happens that Maria is a radical skeptic who firmly believes that the world is a computer simulation, and she often tells you, “This is a simulation,” but you never believe it (because she didn’t have three eyes then). Is it so wrong to suggest that this time your credence in the proposition that this is a simulation is raised because the source had three eyes?

A rebuttal might go along the lines of “But the epistemic work here is being done by the three eyes you saw on Maria, not by her statement.” Well, yeah! Exactly! That’s the point of genetic reasoning! And anyway, it still counts toward the veracity of the statement. I’m inclined to believe Maria’s utterance because my priors have already changed due to her appearance.

This rebuttal generally applies to all my sections: sure, the epistemic work is being done by the action or observance, not by the argument of the person. But because of that change in priors, the argument now holds additional or lessened weight. Statistically, it is less wont to change your priors than it would have been previously.

So, there you have it. The problem with genetic reasoning lies in its poor application, not with the reasoning itself. Banning genetic reasoning as a blanket statement makes little sense, given these four contexts in which it applies very well.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius: A New Translation

I’ve rendered a new translation of Tlon, striving to first match Borges’ style and second his content.

I owe to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia the discovery of Uqbar. The looking glass disturbed the depths of a corridor in a farmhouse on Gaona Street, in Ramos Mejia; the encyclopedia erroneously claimed to be The Anglo American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917), and was a faithful, albeit inadequate, reprint of the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Presently it will have been five years since it all happened. Bioy Casares had dined with me that night, and we dallied in a vast dispute concerning the proper execution of a first-person novel, whose narrator would delete or distort events and implicate himself in myriad contradictions, permitting only a few readers—scant few readers—the ascertainment of any true detail, outrageous or trivial. From the remote end of the corridor, the mirror spied upon us. We discovered (in the wee hours, such discoveries are inevitable) that mirrors possess some monstrous quality. Then Bioy Casares remembered that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominations, for they multiply the ranks of men. I queried as to the source of this striking observation, and Bioy answered that it was registered in the Anglo American Cyclopaedia, in the article regarding Uqbar. The farmhouse (which we had rented already outfitted) contained a copy of this work. In the final pages of Volume XLVI we found an article about Upsala; in the first of Volume XLVII, one concerning Ural-Altaic Languages, but not a word about Uqbar. Bioy, rather embarrassed, scrutinized the index. He exhausted in vain every conceivable spelling: Ukbar, Ucbar, Ooqbar, Ookbar, Oukbahr…Before leaving, he told me that Uqbar was a region of Iraq or Asia Minor. I admit that my assent was accompanied by some distrust. I figured that this clandestine country and its anonymous heresiarch were an extemporaneous artifact of Bioy’s modesty in order to justify his aphorism. The profitless perusal of one of the atlases of Justus Perthes strengthened my doubt.

The next day, Bioy called me from Buenos Aires. He informed me that he had before him the article about Uqbar in Volume XLVI of the encyclopedia. It did not betray the name of the heresiarch, but did convey a note on his doctrine, devised in words almost identical to those spoken by Bioy, although—perhaps—rhetorically inferior. Bioy had said, Mirrors and copulation are abominations. The encyclopedic text explained: For one of these Gnostics, the visible universe constituted an illusion, or in particular, a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominations because they multiply and extend it. I told him quite honestly that I should like to see the article. A few days later, he brought it to me. I was surprised; the conscientious cartographic catalogues of Ritter’s Erdkunde were thoroughly ignorant of the name “Uqbar.”

The volume brought by Bioy was, in effect, Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia. On the false cover and spine, the alphabetical marking (Tor-Ups) matched that of the aforementioned copy, but instead of that encyclopedia’s 917 pages, Bioy’s consisted of 921. These four additional pages comprised the article concerning Uqbar; they were not merited (as the reader will have been advised) in the alphabetical listing. We confirmed afterwards that there existed no other difference between the two copies. Both (as I believe I have mentioned) were reprints of the tenth Encyclopaedia Britannica. Bioy had acquired his copy at one of many auctions.

We read the article with considerable care. Bioy’s remembered quotation was perhaps the only surprising one. The rest were downright true-to-life, in continuity with the general tone of the entry, and (as is common) a tad boring. On a rereading, we found under the scrupulous script a prevailing vagueness. Of the fourteen names that figured into the geographical section, we recognized a mere three—Khorasan, Armenia, Erzurum—interpolated into the text in an ambiguous manner. Of the historical figures, we knew just one: Smerdis the impostor magician, invoked only as a sort of metaphor. The article seemed to specify the borders of Uqbar, but its indistinct reference points were rivers and craters and mountains therein. We read, for instance, that the lowlands of Tsai Jaldun and the delta of Axa defined the southern border, and that the islands of that delta were the mating grounds of wild horses. All this we found on the top of page 918. In the historical section (page 920), we learned that following the religious wars of the thirteenth century, the orthodox claimed refuge in the islands, where their obelisks still remain, and where it is not unusual to unearth their flinted mirrors. The section “Language and Literature” was brief. Only one feature was memorable: an annotation that the literature of Uqbar was of the fantastical persuasion; the epics and legends did not concern real events at all, but rather the two imaginary realms of Mlejnas and Tlon…The bibliography enumerated four sources that neither of us had previously encountered, although the third—Silas Haslam’s Hystory of the Land Called Uqbar, 1874—is featured in the catalogues of Bernard Quaritch’s bookstore [1]. The first source, Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen uber das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien, dated to 1641 and is authored by Johannes Vantinus Andrea. This fact is crucial: a few years later, I found his name on an unlooked-for page of De Quincey’s Writings, the thirteenth volume, and learned that he had been a German theologian who, at the turn of the seventeenth century, sang of the mythical brotherhood of the Rose Cross—a society later rendered real by the work of others, in imitation of the one he imagined.

That night we went to the National Library. In vain did we exhaust atlases, catalogues, annuals of geographical societies, memoirs of travelers and historians: not one had ever been in Uqbar. Neither did the general index of Bioy’s encyclopedia register its name. The next day, Carlos Mastronardi (to whom I had referred the matter) spotted on a bookstore in Corrientes and Talcahuano the gold and black spine of the Anglo American Cyclopaedia…He went in, and consulted Volume XLVI. Naturally, he did not find even the slightest mention of Uqbar.

II.

Some slight and shrinking memory of Herbert Ashe, engineer of the southern railroads, endures in the hotel at Adrogue, between the gushing honeysuckles and the illusory background of the looking glasses. In life he suffered from fantasy, like so many Englishmen; in death, he is not even the phantasm that he was then. He was tall and torpid, with what was once a red rectangular beard. To my understanding, he was a childless widow. Every few years, he went to England, to visit (I surmised, from some photographs that he showed to us) a sundial and some oak trees. He and my father had been close (the word is too strong) in one of those English friendships that begin without trust and proceed without conversation. They were wont to exchange books and newspapers; they were wont to meet for silent games of chess…I remember him in the hotel corridor, with a mathematics text in his hand, occasionally glancing towards the irretrievable colors of the sky. One afternoon, we spoke of the duodecimal numerary system (in which twelve is written as 10). Ashe said that he had just been translating some duodecimal tables (I do not know which) to sexagesimal (in which sixty is written as 10). He added that this work had been entrusted to him by a Norwegian in southern Rio Grande. Eight years I had known him, and he had never mentioned his stay there…We discussed the pastoral life, the plantation workers, the Brazilian etymology of the word “gaucho” (which some old orientals still pronounce “gaúcho”), and no more was said—God forgive me—of duodecimal systems. In September 1937 (when we were not in the hotel), Herbert Ashe died of an aneurysm rupture. Days before, he had received from Brazil a sealed and certified package. It was a book in large octavo. Ashe left it in the barroom, where—months later—I found it. Beginning to leaf through it, I felt a speechless, weightless vertigo that I will not waste words describing, for this is the history not of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlon and Orbis Tertius. In Islam, there is a night called the Night of Nights in which the disguised doors of heaven are thrown open, and water sweetens in the canteens; if these doors were to open, I would not feel the fulness of that which I felt that afternoon. The book was written in English and totaled 1001 pages. On the flaxen leather spine I read those curious words restated on the false front: A First Encyclopaedia of Tlon, vol. XI: Hlaer to jangr. There was no indication of the date or place. On the first page, and on a silken sheet of paper that covered one of the colored lamellas was stamped a blue oval with the inscription Orbis Tertius. It had been two years since I had discovered in a volume of a certain corrupted encyclopedia a dim description of a spurious country; now, something yet more precious and punishing awaited me. Now, I held in my hands a massive, methodical fragment of the complete history of an undiscovered planet, with its architectures and its tarot cards, with the terror of its mythology and the whispers of its languages, with its emperors and its oceans, with its sacred stones and its fowl and its fish, with its arithmetic and its flame; with its controversial theologies and metaphysics: all eloquent, expressive, without any observable gestures to doctrinal propaganda or satirical tone.

In this eleventh volume of which I treat there are allusions to tomes anterior and subsequent. Nestor Ibarra, in a now authoritative article in the NRF, has denied that there exist these companion volumes; Ezequiel Martinez Estrada and Drieu la Rochelle have refuted, and perchance prevailed over, his doubt. The truth is that until now, even the most earnest examinations have been barren. In vain have we disheveled the contents of the libraries of both Americas and Europe. Alfonso Reyes, fed up with these inferior sleuthing expeditions, proposes that together we commit ourselves to the work of reconstructing the many and mountainous tomes that we lack: ex ungue leonem. He estimates, in a tone between satire and seriousness, that a generation of “Tlonistas” could suffice. This risky reckoning brings us back to the fundamental question: Who are the inventors of Tlon? The plural is certain, as the hypothesis of a singular architect—one limitless Leibniz working in darkness and diffidence—has been unanimously discarded. Instead, the common conjecture is that this “brave new world” is the work of a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicists, poets, chemists, algebraists, moralists, painters, geometers…guided by some murky man of genius. Individuals who have mastered these diverse disciplines abound, but none of those are of the visionary sort, let alone capable of subjecting the visionary impulse to a strict and systematic design—a design so vast that the contribution of any one participant is infinitesimal. At first, we thought Tlon to consist of mere chaos, of an irresponsibly permissive imagination; now, it is known that it is a universe, and that the deepest dictums that govern it were well-defined, even by provision. It suffices to recall that the conspicuous contradictions of the eleventh volume are the hallmark which proves that the others must exist as well, so cogent and condign is the order that has been observed within it. Popular magazines have exposed, with pardonable sensationalism, the zoology and topography of Tlon; I wonder if its transparent tigers and towers of blood deserve the continued attention of all men. I dare to request a few minutes to explain Tlon’s concept of the universe.

Hume noted for posterity that the arguments of Berkeley do not allow the slightest refutation, nor do they cause the faintest conviction. This dictum is thoroughly reliable in its application to Earth, and completely false on Tlon. The peoples of that planet are congenitally idealists. Their languages and the cultures derived from these languages—religions, letters, metaphysics—are dependent upon idealism. The world, for them, is not a collection of objects in space; it is a sundry string of independent acts. It is successive; temporal—not spatial. There are no nouns in the conjectural Ursprache of Tlon, from which developed the prevailing tongues and dialects: there are only impersonal verbs, qualified with single-syllable suffixes (or prefixes) of an adverbial value. For example, no word corresponds to the English word “moon,” but there exists a verb which might translate in English “to moonize” or “to moon.” Where we would say “The moon rose above the river,” they say “hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo,” or in our understanding, “upwards and behind the constantly-flowing it mooned.” (Xul Solar translates briefly: “Up and behind where it onstreamed, it mooned.”)

The former refers to the languages of the southern hemisphere. In those of the northern hemisphere (the native Ursprache of which is very little treated of in the eleventh volume), the primordial feature is not the verb but the monosyllabic adjective. The noun forms through accumulation of adjectives. One does not say “moon”: one says “aerial-clear-light on the dark-round” or “orange-dim in the sky” or some other construction. In this case, the lump of adjectives corresponds to a real object, but this fact is purely a fortuitous coincidence. In the literature of that hemisphere (and the subsistent world of Meinong) ideal objects abound, summoned and dismissed in an instant, according to the poetic necessities. They are determined sometimes by their mere concurrence. There are objects composed of two terms, one of a visual character and the other auditory: the color of birth and the distant call of a bird. They are made up of multitudes: the sun; the waves crashing against a swimmer’s chest; the vague, vibrating rosiness that can be seen on the underside of closed eyelids; the sensations experienced by those who allow themselves to be carried by the current of a river and of a reverie. These second-rate objects can be combined with still others; the process, compounding by means of certain concatenations, is effectively infinite. There are famous poems composed of one unending word, which constitute the poetic “object” created by the author. The fact that nobody supposes the reality of nouns causes, paradoxically, that the number of these nouns becomes interminable. The languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon possess all the nouns of our Indo-European dialects, and many more.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to claim that the classical culture of Tlon concerns itself with only one discipline: psychology. All other subjects are subordinated to it. I have said that the men of this world envisage the universe as a series of mental methodologies, which proceed not in space but rather sequentially in time. Spinoza attributes to his infallible God the qualities of extension and thought; on Tlon, not a soul could fathom the juxtaposition of the former (typified only in certain states of being) and the latter (a synonym for the selfsame cosmos). The claim must be made in other words: the residents of Tlon do not believe that space persists in time. The sight of smoke on the horizon, then of a smoldering field, then of the half-extinguished cigar that produced the blaze, is considered just one of many possible associations of ideas.

This monism, or total idealism, invalidates the sciences. To explain or consider an event is to connect it to others; this interdependence, on Tlon, is a retroactive state of the subject, which cannot affect or account for the prior state. All mental states are irreducible: the simple act of naming them—i.e. of classifying them—brings to bear a falsehood. From this, it is fitting to conclude that there exist no sciences on Tlon—nor so much as reasons. The incongruous truth, however, is that such reasons do exist, and indeed are but innumerable. To systems of thought occurs the same process that occurs with nouns in the northern hemisphere. The fact that all philosophy is a priori a dialectical game, a Philosophie de Als Orb, only serves to further multiply them. Fantastical systems abound, always of an agreeable or sensational structure. The metaphysicists of Tlon seek neither truth nor even plausibility, but rather wonder. They view metaphysics as an arm of fantastical literature. They are aware that a system is nothing but the subjugation of all aspects of the universe to any mere one. Even the phrase “all aspects of the universe” is dubious, because it assumes the impossible: summation of the present moment and of previous ones. Neither is the concept “previous ones” admitted; it attempts another impossible operation…One of the Tlon traditions rejects time altogether, reasoning that the present is ill-defined; the future, only real as present hope; the past, only real as present memory [2]. Another school claims that all of time has already elapsed, and our life is a scant memory or mirror in the gloam, doubtless garbled and mutilated, an artifact of an irrecoverable process. Still another professes that the history of the universe—and these our lives, down to the most delicate detail—is the work of an auxiliary god seeking concord with a demon. Another, that the cosmos is comparable to those cryptographies wherein not all the signs are reliable, and that only the events of one out of every three hundred nights are true. Another, that while we sleep here, we are awake somewhere else; thus, each man is two men.

Of all the Tlonist doctrines, none has merited such infamy as that of materialism. Many thinkers have derived it, with less perspicuity than passion, like one who proposes a paradox. To facilitate the fathoming of this inconceivable thesis, a heresiarch of the eleventh century [3] constructed the casuistry of the nine copper coins, the scandalous renown of which is equal on Tlon to that of the Eleatic Aporias. Of this “specious argument” there are several versions, which differ in the number of coins and in the results. Here is the most prevailing:

On Tuesday, X traverses a deserted road and loses nine copper coins. On Thursday, Y finds on the road four copper coins, somewhat rusted from Wednesday’s rain. On Friday, Z discovers three coins in the road. On Friday morning, X finds two coins in the hallway of his house.

The heresiarch wished to deduce from this story the reality—in particular, the continuity—of the nine recovered coins. It would be absurd, he affirmed, to believe that four of the coins did not exist between Tuesday and Thursday; three between Tuesday and Friday afternoon; two between Tuesday and Friday morning. It is logical to conclude that the coins have existed—even in some mysterious manner, the fathoming of which is forbidden to men—in every moment of those three periods.

The language of Tlon resisted the formulation of that paradox; most did not understand it. The proponents of common sense at first limited themselves to denying the accuracy of the anecdote. They reiterated that it was a verbal fallacy, originating in the temerarious application of two neologisms, the use of which was unauthorized and alien to all rigorous thought: the verbs to find and to lose, which beg the question in presupposing the identity of the first nine coins and the following. They reminded others that any noun (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) carries only a metaphorical value. They denounced the duplicitous conjuncture “somewhat rusted from Wednesday’s rain,” which presumed that which it meant to prove: the perseverance of the four coins between Tuesday and Thursday. They explained that equality is one thing and identity quite another, and formulated a sort of reductio ad absurdum: the hypothetical case of nine men who, on nine consecutive nights, suffer a vivid pain. Would it not be preposterous, they challenged, to purport that the pain is the same? [4] They declared that the heresiarch had been driven only by the blasphemous proposition of ascribing the divine breed of Being to a few silly coins, and that he sometimes refuted plurality and other times accepted it. They concluded: if equality implies identity, it would be furthermore requisite to acknowledge that the nine coins were one.

Incredibly, these refutations did not definitively settle the question. Some hundred years after the parameters of the problem were set forth, a scholar no less brilliant than the heresiarch, but of the orthodox tradition, developed an audacious hypothesis. His happy conjecture vindicated the existence of only one subject, that this indivisible subject is each one of the beings of the universe, and that these beings are the organs and veils of the divine. X is Y and Z. Z discovers three coins because he recalls that X lost them; X finds two in his corridor because he remembers that the others have been recovered…The eleventh volume allows one to understand that for three crucial reasons did idealistic pantheism emerge thoroughly victorious on Tlon: first, the repudiation of solipsism; second, the possibility of preserving the psychological principal of the sciences; third, the possibility of retaining the worship of the gods. Schopenhauer—passionate, precise Schopenhauer—devises a similar doctrine in the first volume of Parerga und Paralipomena.

The geometry of Tlon comprises two rather discrete disciplines: the visual and the tactile. The latter concurs with that of Earth and is subsidiary to the former. The basis of visual geometry is the surface, not the point. This geometry disavows parallel lines and declares that a man displaced disrupts the forms around him. The basis of their arithmetic is the concept of indeterminate numbers. They emphasize the importance of the concepts of greater than and less than, which our mathematics represent with the symbols “<” and “>”. They attest that the operation of counting alters the sum, and renders determinates of indeterminates. The fact that many individuals who count the same quantity attain identical results epitomizes for the psychologists a case of association of ideas or of good use of memory; as we know, on Tlon the subject of knowledge is unified and eternal.

In the literary tradition too is the idea of the single subject supreme. It is unusual for books to be signed. The concept of plagiarism is nonexistent: it has been established that all books are the artifacts of a single author, anonymous and abiding. It is the wont of literary critics to invent authors, by choosing two unrelated works—say, Tao Te Ching and The 1001 Nights—attributing them to the same writer, and then examining charitably the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres

The books of Tlon are distinctive as well. Those of fiction encompass one plot with all imaginable permutations. Those of philosophy unfailingly contain a thesis and its antithesis, the rigorous cases for and against a doctrine. The book that does not include its own counterbook is considered incomplete.

Centuries upon centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlon, the duplication of lost objects is not uncommon. Two people search for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second encounters a second pencil, no less real but better adjusted to his expectation. These secondary objects are known as hronir, and are, although ungainly in shape, somewhat longer. Until recently, these hronir were the occasional offspring of distraction and neglect. It seems incredible that the dawn of their methodical manufacture was barely a hundred years ago, but so says the eleventh volume. The first attempts were feckless. Nonetheless, the modus operandi warrants mention. The director of a state prison notified the inmates that under the old riverbank were certain tombs, and promised freedom to whoever brought in a valuable finding. During the months leading to the excavation, they were provided with photographs of what they were meant to find. This first trial demonstrated that hope and avarice are inhibitions; a week’s hard work with shovel and spout succeeded in unearthing no hron but a rusty wheel, dated to after the experiment. The secrecy of the experiment was maintained, and it was repeated afterward in four schools. Three yielded near-total failure; in the fourth experiment (whose lead architect had died in a freak accident during the first excavation), the students exhumed—or produced—a gold mask, an ancient sword, two or three clay urns, and the moldering and mutilated torso of a king, whose chest bore an inscription that has still not been deciphered. Thereby was discovered the unsuitability of participants familiar with the experimental nature of the excavation…Mass investigations produce contrary objects; these days individual and nearly improvised assignments are preferred. The systematic development of hronir has been of tremendous use to archaeologists. It has allowed the examination and even the revision of the past, which is now no less plastic and pliant than the future. A curious fact: second- and third-degree hronir­—a hron derived from another hron, hronir derived from the hron of a hron—amplify the aberrations of the first degree; those of the fifth degree verge on uniformity; those of the ninth degree can be confused with those of the second; in those of the eleventh there is a purity of lines not even found in the original objects. The process is periodic; already the twelfth-grade hron begins to decay again. Stranger and purer than any hron is, sometimes, the ur: the product of suggestion, the object of hope. The great golden mask I have mentioned is a well-known example.

Objects duplicate in Tlon; they also possess the propensity to blur and lose detail when people forget them. A classic example is that of a ridge that persisted while visited by a beggar, but was lost from view after his death. On occasion, some birds, a horse, have rescued the ruins of an amphitheater.

1940, Salto Oriental

Postscript, 1947. I reproduce the above article as it appeared in Anthology of Fantastical Literature, 1940, with no excisions save for those of some metaphors and of a sort of derisive summary that now rings frivolous. Many things have happened since that date…I will confine myself to relating them.

In March 1941, a letter by Gunnar Erfjord was discovered in a Hinton book that had belonged to Herbert Ashe. The envelope carried the postal stamp of Ouro Preto; the letter explained entirely the mystery of Tlon. Its contents corroborated the theory of Martinez Estrada. The splendid history began in a night in Lucerne or London, at the turn of the seventeenth century. A benevolent secret society (which, among its affiliates, boasted Dalgarno and later George Berkeley) arose to invent a country. “Hermetic studies,” philanthropy, and the Kabbalah figured into the vague initial scheme. From this first era dates Andrea’s curious book. At the conclusion of a few years of councils and premature syntheses, they understood that a generation could not suffice to compose a country. They resolved that each of the experts involved in its integration should choose a student for the continuation of the creation. This hereditary provision prevailed; after a hiatus of two centuries, the persecuted brotherhood reemerged in America. Until 1824, in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the affiliates communicated with the ascetic millionaire Ezra Buckley, who allowed him to speak with some disdain—and chuckled at the modesty of the project. He told the affiliate that in America, it is absurd to invent a mere country, and proposed instead the invention of a planet. To this titanic idea Buckley added another, child of his cynicism [5]: that of guarding the enormous empire in silence.

At that time circulated the twenty tomes of Encyclopedia Britannica; Buckley suggested a meticulous encyclopedia of the illusory planet. He would loan them his gold-bearing mountain ranges, his navigable rivers, his pastures trampled by bull and bison, his Blacks, brothels, and bullion, under one condition: “The project will have nothing to do with that impostor Jesus Christ.” Buckley did not believe in God, yet wished to prove to the nonexistent God that mortal men might be capable of constructing a world. Buckley was poisoned in Baton Rouge in 1828; in 1914, the society sent to its three-hundred-some collaborators the final volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlon. The edition was secret; the forty volumes it comprised (the greatest project men have yet undertaken) were meant to be the guide for another even more minute, written not in English but in one of the languages of Tlon. This study of an imaginary world was provisionally christened Orbis Tertius, and one if its modest makers was Herbert Ashe—I do not know whether as an agent of Gunnar Erfjord or as an affiliate, though his receipt of a copy of the eleventh volume ought to favor the latter. But what of the other volumes? By 1942, the progression of events had intensified. I recall with singular clarity one of the first, and I believe I felt even then something of its foreboding character. It transpired on a section of Laprida Street, in front of a clear, tall balcony that faced the sunset. The princess Faucigny Lucinge had received silverware from Poitiers. From the vast depths of a crate plastered with international stamps, splendid sedentary objects were emerging: silverware from Utrecht and Paris with the heraldic faunal crest, a samovar. Between them—with the visible and tenuous tremor of a resting bird—a compass was pulsating unexplainably. The princess did not recognize it. The navy needle pined for magnetic north; the metal cage was concave; the letters on the sphere corresponded to those of one of the alphabets of Tlon. So went the first intrusion of the imagined world into the real one. It unsettles me yet that a coincidence rendered me witness also to the second. It occurred a few months later, in a Brazilian grocery in Cuchilla Negra. Amorim and I were on our way back from Sant’Anna. A flood of the Tacuarembo River compelled us to chance (and to suffer) the grocer’s primitive lodgings. He provided us crisp cots in a large room, clogged with casks and cowhides. We lay down, but the drunken delirium of an unseen neighbor, who mixed inescapable insults with gusts of milonga songs—or rather, gusts of one unending milonga—prevented us from sleeping until dawn. As to be expected, we attributed the insistent shouting to the sharp cane licquor of the owner…In the early morning, the man was dead in the hallway. The rough tone of his voice had deceived us: he was a young man. In his delirium, he had dropped a few coins and a lustrous metal cone, the diameter of a die, from his belt. In vain, a boy attempted to recover the cone. A grown man barely managed to lift it. I held it in the palm of my hand for a few minutes: I remember that it was of intolerable weight, which persisted after the cone was taken away. I remember, too, the perfect circle it engraved in my flesh. This trace of an object so small yet at the same time so heavy left me with a disagreeable affect of disgust and dread. A local proposed that we throw it into the fast-flowing river. Amorim acquired it by means of a few dollars. Nobody knew anything concerning the dead man, except that “he came from the border.” Those tiny, incredibly heavy cones (made from a metal not of this earth) are effigies of the divine in certain religions of Tlon.

Here, I give pause to the personal component of my narrative. The rest lies in the memory (if not in the hopes and fears) of all my readers. Bear with me as I remember or mention the subsequent facts, with a reticence in words that the hollow collective remembrance will enrich or enlarge. Around 1944, a reporter from the newspaper The American (out of Nashville, TN) unearthed in a Memphis library the forty volumes of A First Encyclopedia of Tlon. From that day to this one, it is still debated whether the discovery was accidental or the leaders of the still nebulous Orbis Tertius authorized it. The second is more probable. Some far-fetched features of the eleventh volume (for instance, the proliferation of the hronir) have been deleted or diminished in the Memphis version; one might imagine that these deletions follow the plan to present a world not too incompatible with the real world. The circulation of objects from Tlon in various countries would enhance such a plan… [6] The fact is that the international press gave voice to this “find” interminably. Manuals, miscellanies, summaries, word-for-word copies, reprints authorized or pirated of the Great Project of Man crowded, and continue to crowd, the earth. Almost immediately, reality collapsed in more than one place. The truth is that we longed for it to. Ten years ago, any symmetry mimicking order—dialectical materialism, antisemitism, Nazism—sufficed to enchant men. How could we fail to submit to Tlon, to the ponderous and punctilious evidence of a structured planet? It is useless to protest that reality too is structured. Perhaps so, but it is in accordance with divine laws—that is, to inhuman laws—that we can never fully discern. Be Tlon a labyrinth, but a labyrinth woven by men, and a labyrinth destined to be decoded by men.

The contact and custom of Tlon have disintegrated the world. Enchanted by its intricacy, men forget again and again that it is the intricacy of grandmasters, not of God. Already the conjectural “prime language” of Tlon has infiltrated schools; already the teaching of its harmonious history (full of thrilling events) has obliterated that of the one that commanded my childhood; already in memory our past is replaced with a fabricated past, of which we are certain of nothing—not even of its falsehood. Already have numismatics, pharmacology, and archaeology been reformed. To my understanding, biology and mathematics too await its intervention…A dispersed dynasty of hermits has altered the face of the world. Their mission carries on. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years ago someone will discover the hundred volumes of A Second Encyclopedia of Tlon.

Then will they be gone from the earth, English and French and trifling Spanish. Earth will be Tlon. I pay that no mind; in these quiet days at the Adrogue Hotel, I proceed revising an irresolute translation (which I do not intend to have printed) of Urn Buriall by Browne.

[1] Haslam has published A General History of Labyrinths as well.

[2] Russell (The Analysis of Mind, 1921, pg. 159) supposes that the planet was created mere moments ago, provided with a human population that “remembers” an illusory past.

[3] “Century,” in accordance with the duodecimal system, indicates a period of 144 years.

[4] Today, one of the churches of Tlon maintains the Platonist view that such a pain, such a greenish shade of yellow, such a temperature, such a sound—are the only reality. All men, in the vertiginous instant of coitus, are the same man. All men who recite a line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.

[5] Buckley was a freethinker, a fatalist, and a defender of slavery.

[6] There remains, naturally, the problem of the substance of such objects.

Atheism is a Religion

Nobody’s angry at me and I’m bored. So here’s a controversial opinion: atheism is a religion.

I’ve been wanting to make this post for a long time. I hear almost daily all about how atheism is not a religion–it’s special, and unique, and boldly escapes categorization as an intellectual school. An atheist will tell you that “atheism” is not a philosophy, a set of beliefs, or an algorithm. Instead, it’s the absence of one; its adherents are those of us who’ve taken the proper-colored Matrix pill and concluded, a la Matthew Broderick, that the only way to win is not to play.

Actually, I think War Games makes a perfect metaphor. Back when I was an atheist, I would have been sympathetic to the supposition that religious people are playing a “game,” as it were, and I was on the sidelines. This wouldn’t have been an inherently negative view. If I knew any philosophy back then, I would have said people of different faiths are playing a type of tic-tac-toe in which their metaphysical, empirical, ontological, and teleological precepts are the respective X’s and O’s–and that rather than subscribing to different machinery (“W’s” rather than “O’s”), I chose not to play at all.

But atheists are wrong about this. The claim “atheism is not a religion” collapses when examined. For starters, most atheists don’t even care if it’s true or try to prove it. It’s mostly stated as a point of pride, along the lines of “Atheism is nothing like other religions.” But even that weaker claim isn’t true, as I’ll endeavor to show here. After the Averroes style, I’m going to argue against the “atheism is not a religion” thing on two fronts:

  1. If “atheism” as a concept isn’t sufficiently well-defined, then to say “atheism isn’t a religion” misunderstands what is meant by the phrase “X is/isn’t a Y” and can’t be evaluated via the predicate-in-subject principle. It would be comparing apples and oranges. But if atheism is sufficiently defined in a way that makes the statement true, then the statement is vacuous.
  2. Even if “atheism isn’t a religion” were true in the abstract, the thing most people mean when they say “atheism” is not “lack of belief in a deity or ordered universe” but “subscription to one of three particular philosophical schools shorthanded as ‘atheism,’ which provide principles regarding the order of the universe.”

Types of Things and the Predicate-in-Subject Principle

There are two kinds of philosophical questions: the ones that never get conclusively answered, and the ones that can be answered in tautologies.

This isn’t to say that tautologies are stupid. I find tautologies fascinating; I wrote my thesis on them. There’s a great quote–I can’t recall to whom I ought attribute it–that if four sets of three lions walked into the forest, and eleven lions walked out, then you shouldn’t enter the forest, and the tautology “four times three is twelve” is an important step in that argument.

It turns out that pretty much anything verifiable is a tautology, because of one of the major axioms of early modern philosophy: a claim is true iff the predicate is a property of the subject. As simple as it seems, this is actually making a fairly rigorous claim: if it can be verified that the thing said to be true of X is a property of X–a fact that would appear in a list of all facts about X–then voila, the claim is true. Now we have machinery for evaluating sentences. Tautologies like “All bachelors are unmarried” can be easily verified because the predicate is a property of the subject. Bachelors are definitionally unmarried, so the claim is true.

When we look at a claim like “Atheism is a religion,” we can evaluate it based on whether “is a religion” is a property of “atheism.” This is to say: is “religion” something that can be attributed to “atheism”? Consider the following example of a false claim:

“Atheism is a fruit.”

Being a fruit is pretty transparently not a property of atheism. Neither is fluffiness or three-sidedness. Wait–hold on–are these things properties of atheism? We need to define atheism first. According to Wikipedia, atheism is “in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.” It seems, then, that there is an argument that atheism is “three-sided”: it consists in “the broadest sense,” the “less broad” sense, and the narrowest sense.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the level of analysis that ought to go into verifying “X is/is not Y” claims in the form “Is Y something that can be said of X?” I will make the following claims:

  1. A bachelor is unmarried.
  2. Christianity is a religion. I say this because I know many things about Christianity; I can list these things as “attributes,” and a replacement of Christianity with the predicate “contains belief in a deity” matches the reduction of religion to “belief in a deity.”
  3. Skepticism is a philosophy. It makes claims about methodologies that should be used to evaluate the surrounding world (“retain doubt, suspend judgment”); this matches a definition of “philosophy.”
  4. Suspension of judgment is a doxastic attitude. This one’s obvious and definitional.

All right, how about this one:

5. Suspension of judgment is a judgment.

This seems true too. If I choose to suspend judgment, I am judging that my current informational state is insufficient; therefore Y is a predicate of X. But now I’ve blatantly cut my own legs off. It doesn’t make any sense to regard “suspense of judgment” as a judgment in the way we mean when we say “suspense of judgment.” It has become apparent that this entire exercise is meaningless. I have played the old switcheroo game and replaced concepts like “skepticism” and “suspense of judgment” with corollaries that are true in some sense, but not a doxastic sense. This is exactly what I think atheists are doing in claiming “atheism is not a religion” is true.

Think about it this way. “Suspension of judgment is a judgment” defeats the purpose of the subject. But then again, “suspension of judgment is not a judgment” makes equally little sense. The problem is that “suspension of judgment” in the subject refers to a doxastic attitude, and “judgment” in the predicate refers to a philosophical concept. This is the problem that “skepticism is a philosophy” has, and also the problem that “atheism isn’t a religion” has.

Attitudes are not philosophies, so “skepticism” parsed as an attitude is not a “philosophy.” But “Skepticism” can be parsed as a philosophy, in which case the claim is true. When atheists say “atheism is not a religion,” they refer to atheism as an attitude–not a school, not a philosophy, but a point of view from which to regard a precept held by certain schools and philosophies. And they’re right: “atheism,” parsed as an attitude, is not a “religion” because attitudes are not religions.

But that is a stupid reason for why atheism is not a religion. It’s a technicality. It belies the point atheists are trying to make when they say “Atheism is not a religion.” It’s a statement in the same spirit as “Bicycles are not a religion”–it isn’t worth saying aloud because it’s trivial. “Walking is not a fruit” is true, but it’s vacuous; it doesn’t have the same weight behind it as the claim “A tomato is not a fruit.” Similarly, the phrase “atheism isn’t a religion” can be evaluated as meaningfully true or false only if more is established about what, beyond a doxastic attitude toward one thing, atheism means.

I’ll go even further: “atheism isn’t a religion” is evaluable in a meaningful way only if enough is established about atheism that it might as well be a religion because it lacks the noncommittal propositional stance its proponents want.

Potential Rebuttals

Even if atheists are content with “Atheism is not a religion” being true only in that silly sense, I argue they should want more out of the term atheism.

Maybe atheists are fine, in theory, with “atheism” being restricted to the “attitude”-kind of thing I’ve described above. But “atheism” as an attitude is very, very weak. If atheism is merely a way to view one precept, it doesn’t deserve the kind of scholarly categorization it has. Atheists want to retain both the lack of positive content atheism possesses, and its prominent position in discourse. But this can’t be done. There are few books about skepticism (regarding one precept); there are a lot of books about Skepticism, or even “general skepticism” towards many or all precepts (because of a positive reason why not to believe said precepts). To regard those books as Skeptic requires that we accept “skepticism” as containing some content rather than a negation of one principle. I have never seen a book by any notable atheist that is entirely concerned with the lack of substance of atheism. A strengthening of the notion “atheism” will make it a more considerable concept in this regard, but a new problem arises here. The natural way of strengthening the subject “atheism” is by viewing it as a worldview rather than as a doxastic attitude. There are two ways to interpret this steelmanned “school of atheism”: either as a “religion”-type subject, or as a “philosophy”-type subject. Both of these strengthened notions of “atheism” make the statement “atheism is a religion” very compelling.

“Okay, okay,” says Alice the Atheist. “What if atheism is a set of doxastic attitudes toward many related principles? Then atheism still isn’t comparable to a religion, but it deserves mainstream coverage.”

How many principles, Alice? A philosophical school based solely upon the precept “Walking doesn’t exist” is no philosophical school at all, but adding both “Cars don’t exist” and “The RTA doesn’t exist” comes close to making a powerful positive claim: “The set of modes of transportation is restricted to running and biking.” Strengthening “There’s no higher power in the universe” to “There’s no general order to the universe” (which requires some additional negations) implies the corollary “There’s complete general disorder on Earth.”

Alice: “What if I just suspend judgment about those things? I believe there’s no general order, and I believe that we should suspend judgment about whether there’s complete general disorder on Earth.”

But Alice, “p implies q,” “not q” and “suspend judgment about p” cannot be held simultaneously. And if you’re about to tell me you don’t strongly believe “not q,” then why give the fact that you don’t believe something strongly so much airtime?

“Wait,” cries Alice the Atheist. “I’m fine with atheism being a doxastic attitude about only one claim.”

Okay, so atheism makes no positive claims? What about modern science? Most atheists are believers in the Inductive Method (asterisk about this below). It seems reasonable that they believe in scientific conclusions at least somewhat because of atheism. If “atheism” is a principle–a razor, if you will–used to justify belief in a positive claim of this sort, then it’s not a religion, but only for a dumb categorical reason.

“Tessa, that’s just because rational people tend to come to a set of true beliefs! Atheism isn’t a principle I use to justify my metaphysical claims!”

Are you trying to tell me that mainstream atheist philosophers believe in things like evolution, induction, and logical positivism for reasons completely unrelated to their atheism? I’ve heard defenses of this before and I think they’re self-defeating. The three modern “atheist” schools of reasoning make positive claims that are at least in part based upon their atheism. This is obviously true, because the existence of God is an alternate explanation of various real-world facts. A scientist seeking an explanation for real-world facts needs to discard the theories he finds implausible, and he needs a reason to discard them–some defense of why he finds them unlikely. Do you believe in evolution, Alice? Well, intelligent design is a rebuttal to evolution–the possibility of a different cause of observed phenomena. On what basis do you discard the theory of intelligent design, if not on the basis of your atheism? (Don’t even try to claim Occam’s Razor.) Atheists lean on their atheist precepts simply in order to defend their other beliefsWe now have two choices:

  1. Atheism is a principle used to defend (insert X philosophy here).
  2. Atheism is a school encompassing (insert X philosophy here).

Alice: “I’ll take 1; I’ll settle for ‘atheism is not a religion’ being true for a dumb reason, as long as it’s true at all. I’m fine with atheism being just one claim.”

But your contemporaries aren’t, Alice. This is where I talk about the Three Schools of Modern Atheism.

The Three Schools of Modern Atheism

This is the section in which I discuss what I see as an emphatic, trifold division in modern atheism. I’m going to skip a long intro about the Four Horsemen because, well, why.

Probably the most important atheist-qua-atheist on the planet is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent books  The Selfish Gene, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality, and An Appetite for Wonder. The first school of what I term “atheism” is Dawkins’s brainchild. Essentially, Dawkins’s brand of atheism–the one I’m most amenable to–constitutes a profound respect for the natural order, physical laws, and the conclusions of modern science. Reality, Dawkins claims, is mystical in some sense, by sheer dint of being so remarkable. Dawkins indicates that the absence of God makes the existence of the beauty surrounding us even more important. He emphasizes that lack of belief in God should not motivate depression about the apparent lack of meaning in the universe, because the biological basis of life imbues it with a meaning just as sacred as if it were divine. At the risk of sounding trite, Dawkins’s view is not altogether dissimilar from the notion “God is science,” or, in particular, “God is the biological interactions in the universe.”

Okay. To be fair, I am giving Dawkins a very charitable, Catholic-Lite read here. But the point, I think, stands. If he would disagree with anything I’ve said about him, it’s in large part because I’ve used Christian language (but the context, I think, makes it forgivable). The general claim I am making is that Dawkins elevates the meaning contained within biological interactions to a realm which–to a religious observer–resembles our divine.

On the whole, I find this to be pretty healthy. It is a productive atheism–an atheism that motivates action, is clear about goals, and supports at least some framework of morality (the good of the gene [cf. Selfish Gene] or more generally of the species, perhaps, being the basis). But it is definitely a religion–a way of looking at the universe in which a certain force or property guides and reigns supreme.

The second school of “atheism” is “rationalism.” Out of the three, rationalism is the school I attribute most strongly with the now-ironically-outdated moniker “New Atheism” (which is what “cool kid atheism” was before it underwent this trifurcation). Eliezer Yudkowsky and Sam Harris come to mind. Dawkins is often (erroneously, in my opinion) affiliated with this school, but his is very different. Dawkins thinks the supreme force is biology. Rationalists think the supreme force is rationality, “science” (whatever that means), or sometimes psychology. Dawkins views himself as within a closed, operating system. Rationalists view the human brain–imbued with logic and philosophical precepts–as the system. Dawkins is on the outside, looking in; rationalists are on the inside, looking out. A Christian might say of a rationalist that his mind is his God.

Rationalism has some redeeming qualities, although I regard it with increasing distaste. I left the EA movement over what I perceived to be bizarre incongruities in its moral framework. I have known rationalists to make absurd, libertine moral claims of all sorts regarding the value of humans of various abilities, races, and genders. (To be fair, Dawkins does this too, but his reasons are different–he comes at it from a biological basis; his morality, though also wrong, is more consistent.) On the bright side, rationalism is action-oriented to a laudable extent (even if I find the actions chosen to be not the most useful ones). Still a religion, though.

The final school of “atheism” is the most dangerous. I call it Humeanism, which is a joke at the expense of Humanism and a reference to the school’s founder: David Hume, who rejected science, the Socratic method, and induction. Humeanism is Greek polytheism, on steroids, minus the gods: ATOMS CLASHING IN A VOID WITH NO DISCERNIBLE ORDER. Extremely Willem Dafoe voice: “CHAOS REIGNS!”

I don’t want to waste much time describing what I call Humeanism, because–thankfully–it is going out of style, and also because it is incomprehensible. It is heavily influenced by the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and by Nietzsche. Plato wrote, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger”; a Humean might say, “Justice is whatever happens,” or perhaps “Justice will never be attained,” or maybe “Justice is a nonsense concept.”

I’m not actually sure Humeanism is a religion. The Void is God, sure, but while radical skepticism is a philosophy, it isn’t really a worldview. It buries its head in the sand and refuses to even evaluate the world. However, I don’t think any self-respecting atheists are Humeans, so I don’t have to prove it’s a religion to make my point.

Upshot

The upshot, essentially, is that anyone who really thinks about being atheist–who identifies with being atheist in more than the casual way that would be better described as “agnosticism”–has to take one of the following options:

  1. Be a pariah in the literature by reducing atheism to “disbelief in God or gods,” in which case his atheism is truly not a religion, but also not anything worth writing home about. His atheism must be one single precept; he cannot expand it to any conclusions regarding “order” or “meaning,” affiliate with any of the schools referenced above, or acknowledge the existence of an “atheist movement.”
  2. Concede that atheism is a religion.

All right. The argument is now complete. I look forward to all the holes my one subscriber–here’s looking at you, beloved, proud Dawkinsian Mom–can poke in it.

Library of Babel: A New Translation

Frustrated by the ambiguity regarding the combinatorics textbook excerpt, I set about rendering a new translation of Biblioteca de Babel.

The universe (which some call the Library) is composed of a quantity indefinite—perchance infinite—of hexagonal balconies, interspersed with great chasms of open air, encircled by stout railings. From within each balcony, one sees higher and lower floors, iterating interminably. The allocation of the balconies’ interiors is unfailing: twenty shelves, five spanning each side excepting the last two; their height slightly greater than that of your typical archivist. One open side extends into a tapered foyer, which leads to the next balcony, whose setup is identical to that of the former and of every other balcony. To the left and right of the hallway stand two little cabinets. One allows a man to sleep while standing; the other permits him to fulfill his human essentials. Between them rises a spiral staircase, ascending and descending into the distance. Also in the foyer sits a mirror, which bears faithful witness to all these sights. Men are wont to take the existence of the mirror as signifying that the Library is not truly infinite: if so, whence the need for artificial duplication? I prefer to hope that these glistening surfaces configure and cultivate the infinite…Light originates from spherical orbs we describe as lamps. Two of them bridge each hexagon, crosswise. The glow they produce is paltry, but perpetual.

Like all men of the Library, I spent my youth traveling through it; I have quested after books, perhaps even after the Catalogue of Catalogues, but now that my eyes can scarcely decipher my own prose, I expect to die a mere few leagues from the balcony in which I was born. Once I am dead, an abundance of pious palms will hoist me over the railing; my tomb shall consist of the bottomless air, my body falling forever, decaying and dissolving in the wind produced by the interminable plunge. I assert that the Library is infinite. The romantics claim that the hexagonal layout of the rooms constitutes a necessary truth about the notion of space, or at least of our interpretation thereof. They reason that triangular or pentagonal rooms are unthinkable. (The mystics, in their ecstatic pretensions, profess to have seen a circular sanctum with walls ringed by the unending spine of an enormous, circular book, but their declarations are dubious, their words obscure. That round book, they say, is God.) Bear with me for the moment as I echo the universal opinion: the Library is a sphere centered at any given hexagon, with unknowable circumference.

Each wall of each hexagon contains five shelves; each shelf girdles thirty-two books of unvarying appearance; each book has four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, some eighty letters of black ink. There are letters, too, on the spine of each book, which do not betray the contents of its interior. I know that this disconnect once portended mystery. But in advance of sketching the solution—the discovery of which may constitute the crucial deed of history, despite its traumatic implications—I must call to mind a few principles.

First, the Library has existed ab aeterno. No sensible mind can doubt that fact (from which follows, immediately, the entire future of the world). A man, a flawed librarian, may owe his existence to luck or to a cruel creator; the universe, consisting of its dignified display of shelves, its unfathomable volumes, its tireless stairs occupied by travelers and lavatories occupied by men at rest, must embody the handiwork of a god. To discern the distinction between the human and the divine, it suffices to contrast these crude, quivering symbols, scrawled in my errant hand on the cover of a book, with the consilient characters inside: even, intricate, pitch black, uniquely symmetrical [1].

Second, there exist twenty-five orthographical characters. The ascertainment of this fact permitted the formulation, some three hundred years ago, of a general theory concerning the Library and the satisfactory resolution to the question that no hypothesis had yet proved capable of explaining: the formless, chaotic makeup of almost every book. One, which my father found in a hexagon on the 1594th circuit, comprised the letters MCV, perversely recited from the first line to the final. Another, much-examined in this region, is a mere maze of letters, but on the penultimate page contains the phrase “O time thy pyramids.” As you have certainly by now guessed, each straight line or linear account is vastly outnumbered by meaningless cacophonies of linguistic potpourri and inconsistency. (I know of a vulgar place in which the librarians disavow the naïve, myopic custom of parsing books for meaning, equating it with searching for sense in dreams or in the disorderly designs of the wrinkles on one’s handThey concede that the creators of the writing system appropriated the twenty-five organic characters, but nonetheless maintain that the connection is accidental and that the books, taken by themselves, mean nothing. This belief, as we shall soon see, is not altogether inaccurate.)

For some time, men believed these unyielding tomes were relics of ancient or faraway languages. Certainly, it is true that our predecessors, the early librarians, used a system of communication quite different from that which we use now; certainly, a few miles west, the local language is dialectic, and ninety floors overhead, it is unintelligible. Of course, all this still stands true—yet four hundred ten pages of immutable MCVs cannot possibly represent any language, however dialectic or vulgar it may be. Some suggested that each letter may influence the following, and thus that the meaning of “MCV” on the third line of page 71 may differ from that of the same sequence on another line and page, but this imprecise theory did not spread far. Others attempted cryptography, an algorithm that has now been widely accepted, although not in the manner its inventors intended.

Five hundred years ago, the chief of one of the higher hexagons [2] discovered a book for the most part as confusing as any other, but containing almost two pages of lines of uniform spacing. He proffered his find to an itinerant decoder, who informed him the pages were phrased in Portuguese. Others told him the sheets were in Yiddish. Before a century had passed, the language was conclusively established: a Guarani dialect of Samoyed-Lithuanian, with classical Arabic inflections. The content too was deciphered: a theory of combinatorics, demonstrated by examples of permutations with unlimited repetition allowed. These examples enabled a librarian of great genius to pen the fundamental law of the Library. He first noted that each book, however different its contents may be than those of any other, admits no variation in its parameters: spaces, periods, commas, the twenty-two graphemes. He had also adopted a theorem confirmed by every traveler: in all the vast Library, no two books are identical. From these principles he deduced that the Library is complete, and that its shelves constitute the sum total of possible combinations of the twenty-some characters (a number which, though enormous, is not infinite), or, equivalently, contain everything that can be expressed in any tongue. Everything: the diligent documentation of events to come, the archangels’ autohagiographies, the authentic catalogue of the Library, thousands upon thousands of errant catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the false catalogues, documents pertaining to the fallacies in the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, its commentary, the commentary on its commentary, the accurate account of your death, the reproduction of all books in every language, the insertion of the text of each book into that of any other, the treatise that Bede might have written, but did not, concerning Saxon mythology, the lost tomes of Tacitus.

When it was realized that the Library encompassed all books, the first response was one of soaring bliss. Every man at once considered himself guardian of a complete and clandestine treasure. There existed no problem, personal or global, whose resplendent resolution could not be found in some hexagon. The Universe seemed justified; immediately, it absorbed the unlimited dimensions afforded it by hope. Before long, men spoke often of Vindications, books of augury and apologetic, which continually corroborated the actions of each man in the Universe and safeguarded the spectacular secrets of his future. Insatiable throngs fled the comfort of their natal hexagons and scrambled up the stairs, driven by their determination to discover their Vindications. Those pilgrims brawled in the cramped corridors, traded heinous maledictions, strangled one another on the sacred stairs, hurled the duplicitous books down the columns of air, and were murdered by the inhabitants of the faraway regions they explored. Some lost their minds. The Vindications are real (I have seen two, which refer to people of the future, people perchance not fictional), but the pilgrims failed to recall that the probability of a man’s encountering his own Vindication—or even some perverse variation thereof—is effectively zero.

Some faithfully awaited answers to the ultimate mysteries of humanity: the origins of the Library and of time. That these solemn secrets may be explainable in words is tenable; if the language of the philosophers proves inadequate, the multifarious Library will have fabricated whatever unprecedented language is required, and constructed its vocabulary and syntax. For the past four centuries, men have taken up the project of exhaustive exploration of the hexagons. Some such men are official questers, inquisitors. I have observed them as they go about their duties. They arrive greatly fatigued, raving of a stairless staircase that nearly killed them. They converse with the resident librarian about the balconies and stairways. Once in a while, they will seize the nearest book and leaf through it in search of fabled words. Of course, no one expects to find anything.

When the years of boundless hope ended, crushing despondency naturally followed. The confidence that some shelf of some hexagon cradled precious books—and that those precious books were thoroughly inaccessible—seemed almost unbearable. One blasphemous cult proposed that men cease searching and instead jumble the letters and symbols until the construction—a preposterously unlikely event—of those blessed books. The authorities were forced to implement severe orders, and the sect dissolved. In my childhood, however, I sometimes saw old men who hid in the lavatories, covertly juggling metal pieces in a forbidden tumbler, feebly attempting to reproduce the disarray of the cosmos.

Others believed the opposite: that the paramount project was the removal of nonsense books. They stormed the hexagons, flashed badges—not always forgeries—flipped furiously through one volume and doomed entire shelves: to their barren, puritanical rage one can attribute the senseless perdition of millions of books. The name of their cult is anathema, but those who mourn the “treasures” destroyed by their hysteria disregard two crucial facts. First, the Library is so enormous that any reduction wreaked by human hands is imperceptible. Second, while each book is unique and irreplaceable, there forever exist—by the completeness of the Library—hundreds of thousands of flawed facsimiles, works differing by a mere comma or letter. Despite the ubiquitous opinion, I venture to suppose that the consequences of the Purifiers’ pillaging have been magnified through the horror inspired by their fanatic ways. They were beckoned by the allure of conquering the contents of the Crimson Hexagon: books smaller than the typical ones, powerful, mystical, enlightened.

I also know of another legend of that time, that of the Man of the Book. In some shelf of some hexagon, the argument goes, there must exist a book that constitutes cipher and compendium of all the rest. Some librarian has studied it, who might as well be a god. In my region the vestiges of His cult are still apparent. Many took up pilgrimage to find Him; for a century, they vainly exhausted the most eclectic courses. How would one find that covert and consecrated hexagon that housed Him? A regressive method was submitted: to find Book A, consult beforehand Book B that describes the location of A; to find Book B, consult beforehand Book C, and so on ad infinitum…In pursuits like these have I wasted my years. To me it does not seem unlikely that on some shelf of the universe sits the canonical book [3]; I pray to the abandoned gods that some man—one only, who lived (for all I care) thousands of years ago!—has studied and read it. If such honor, wisdom, and jubilation cannot be accorded to me, I wish them for others. May heaven truly exist, even if I am destined for hell. Though I be weathered and annihilated, I hope that in a moment, in a being, Your Library is vindicated.

The evil attest that senselessness is the norm in the Library, and that logic (even the humble standard of pure coherence) is a virtually miraculous deviation. They talk, I know, of the “frenzied Library, whose arbitrary tomes forever threaten to morph into one another, and meanwhile confirm, reject, and confuse all claims, like a babbling god.” These words, which decry disorder while simultaneously engaging in it, are known to prove the poor taste and hopeless vanity of their speakers. In essence, the Library encompasses all syntactical structures, all permutations of the twenty-five orthographical characters—but not one instance of true nonsense. Of the many hexagons over which I preside, it is feckless to note, the premier volume is titled “Thunder, combed”; another, “The plaster cramp”; still another “Axaxaxas mlo.” These concepts, at first blush incoherent, doubtless are possessed of validation cryptographical or allegorical; such validation consists in words and ex hypothesi is formed already, somewhere in the Library. I cannot assort the letters “dhcmrlchtdj” without that the Library has witnessed them and endowed them, in one of its tranquil tongues, with a monstrous meaning. No syllable may yet be voiced that is not replete with tenderness and terror, that does not spell in some language the powerful name of a god. To speak is to invoke tautology. This useless, long-winded letter already takes form in one of the thirty tomes upon the five shelves of one of the innumerable hexagons, and its refutation too. (Suppose some quantity n of potential languages use identical vocabulary. In some, the symbol ‘library’ summons the notion ‘collection of ever-present, enduring hexagonal galleries,’ but the word ‘library’ means bread or buttress or what have you, and the six words by which I have defined it, those too have different meanings, so I must ask, reader: are you confident you understand my language?)

My methodical writing has distracted me from the current condition of my fellowmen. The certainty that all has been written incenses and invalidates us. I have heard of districts in which children bow before the books and bestow bestial kisses upon their pages, yet do not know how to interpret even one character. The hysterical epidemics, the controversies, the expeditions which inexorably lapse into banditry, have decimated the population. I believe I mentioned the suicides—growing in number each year. Perhaps my anxiety and advancing years deceive me, but I suspect that the human species—the only species—will soon perish while the Library persists undying: illuminated, isolated, infinite, immobile, incorruptible, intimate, ineffective, laden with precious volumes.

I have just written the word ‘infinite.’ I have inserted this adjective not for rhetorical convention; instead I say it is plausible that the world is infinite. Those who deem it finite claim that in some distant district, the balconies and passageways and staircases—impossibly—stop, which is absurd. Those who envision it without bound forget that the number of possible books is bounded. I shall hazard a guess toward the solution of this ancient paradox: the Library is countless and cyclical. If a timeless tourist crossed it in any direction, he would observe after centuries that the same volumes would reappear in the same incessant disorder—which, repeated, would constitute an order: the Order. In my solitude, I rejoice in so elegant a hope [4].

[1] This original manuscript contains no numerals or capitals. Its punctuation has been limited to the comma and the period. Those two symbols, the space, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet constitute the twenty-five basic symbols enumerated by the anonymous author.

[2] Before, there existed a man for each three hexagons. Suicide and sickness of the lungs have decimated this proportion. A memory of unmentionable melancholy: at times, I have traveled many nights through corridors and burnished stairways without encountering even a single librarian.

[3] I reiterate: it suffices that a book be conceivable for it to exist. All that is excluded is the impossible. For instance: no book is simultaneously a staircase, though doubtless there exist books which discuss and deny and demonstrate this prospect, and others whose structure resembles that of a staircase.

[4] Letizia Alvarez Toledo has observed that the vast Library is wasteful: strictly speaking, merely one volume of the standard size would suffice, printed in nine- or ten-point typeface, which would consist of an infinite number of infinitely fine pages. (Cavalieri, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, claimed that all solid matter consists in the superposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silken almanac would not be facile: it is imaginable that each sheet would unfurl into indistinguishable others; the unfathomable central page would have no verso.

Reflections on Reading the Commedia (Again)

Below is an expanded version of my description of how I felt about the second greatest story ever told, four years after first finding it, at the conclusion of a year-long seminar. Quotations italicized, from Durling or Borges.

I have never felt impostor syndrome like this, but that is how it goes with me and Dante. I remember with great clarity what I felt as I closed the Mandelbaum translation for the first time. Less than a dram of blood was left me that was not trembling. I thought: How many other people, upon reading this text, knew instantly that they had to follow it forever? For that was, indeed, what I knew immediately. There was nothing else in the world more worth doing.

I have been obsessed with that beatific vision since I was 18, and I have often felt like a casualty of the poem—as if it is unfortunate that I feel this way. I have been angry, frustrated, desperate, doomed, as if to be inclined to follow Dante is an unlucky genetic predisposition, as if I have been wronged by the vaulting cosmos. I keep telling myself that I cannot study the Commedia forever. In a more nascent field, I might be able to emerge as exceptional, but if I were to jump into the ring with even just those Dante scholars currently alive, no dice. My other great literary love, Borges—himself one of the greatest Dantisti—wrote hundreds of stories, each, ironically, finding a new way to say that there is nothing new to say. Would he have been driven to such desolate creativity, I wonder, had he never heard of Dante Alighieri?

“Dante, let’s settle this, you and me,” I found myself thinking each year of my undergraduate education. Like a parking lot fistfight. Mass has ended, go in peace. I waited for the omega, for the catharsis, following him in and out of classroom after classroom, each reading more confusing than the last. Dante, ever circuitous, compelled me through his own obstacles: into the academy, to Christianity.

It would be absurd to claim that my travails this year have solved the Comedy for me, and that is the end of it. There are still so many moments I don’t understand: the placement of various individuals, the greater intricacy of Hell than Purgatory or Heaven, the arrangement of the outer spheres of Heaven regarding deficient forms of the virtues, Virgil’s role. Why the omnipresent allegory of the Montefeltros? Why Lucia? What methodology is there to his strategic placement of friends and foes, pagans and believers, in the various spheres of damnation and paradise?

To me, the study of the Commedia is often about sorting, and to read the poem through discussion with peers has provided me ample opportunity to conduct research. I have learned that everyone has his “guy” in the Inferno, the one with whom he most sympathizes—or rather, whose trials most affect him. The usual suspects include Francesca, Cavalcante, Piero della Vigna, Brunetto Latini, Vanni Fuci, Ulysses, Guido da Montefeltro, Count Ugolino, and Frate Alberigo; I have been trained to discern which of the condemned will appeal most to which of my friends. I have learned to characterize Dantisti by which of the questions Dante asks in PAR 4 they more seek the answer for: the apparent unfairness of punishing the inconstant for circumstances outside their control, or how to understand phenomenological veil rendering the placement of souls in heaven. I have learned to draw conclusions from who it is that they think “made the great refusal,” Celestine or Pilate, and whether they prefer Sordello or Statius, Buonconte or Manfred. To some extent, I now know what the Commedia is; my remaining questions concern why and how. To have heard the battles my classmates picked with Dante along the way taught me their whys and hows, and helped me to discern my own. Therefore, I have the firm conviction that this is how the poem is supposed to be read: over a year, over biweekly discussions, a slow climb up the mount. What my classmates have done is to confirm the existence of that secret society that is the Dantisti: dark symbols, white flourishes, Borges’ “iron scimitar.” In the Library, we seek the Crimson Hexagon. I feel no longer alone, because, as Dante did, we are meant to make the pilgrimage together. As he was, so I am among friends.

The moment, I think, that makes the most sense to associate with the way that I have felt about this experience is that of Dante’s witness of the divine flower. Beatrice disappears; he asks Bernard where she has gone; he looks up and sees her “making herself a crown by reflecting from herself the eternal rays.” Though he is distraught by her absence, he is thoroughly consoled by the fact that although she is very far away, he sees her clearly.

This moment struck me as a particularly odd one. To me, it seems that Beatrice is absentmindedly messing around, amusing herself, in an intimate moment not meant to be seen by Dante. It is a strange moment—a moment in which she is not focused—for Dante to have chosen to look at her. Yet he describes it, even though he too must be confused by her behavior, even though he must be pondering the “why” as he dutifully relates the “what.” Throughout the poem, Dante is baffled by the beauty he observes, but no too baffled to give a detailed overview of its likeness, if not its metaphysical content. The way I feel about this room, the people in it, the project we are now concluding, is like Dante looking up at Beatrice in that intimate vignette. Before, he asks Bernard for an explanation. Then he witnesses the mystery. There is an overwhelming joy, first. Then a confusion, and then a faithful reproduction of events. Finally, a kind of peaceful resignation abounds. This is not an exhale of hope, not a Lasciate ogne Speranza, but a “Stay awhile.” And as he calls, so I will—even now, I recognize the signs of the ancient flame.

Religion and Humility: Rationality, Diagonalization, and the Hardness Criterion

This summer I had a good old-fashioned Crisis of Faith.

It became apparent that I’ve let myself go a little in terms of having a ready retort on hand for spontaneous atheist arguments. I spent some time this summer at a conservative think tank, full of minds like mine (if significantly more libertarian) and blest with a high degree of Catholic literacy. Although I was regaled there daily with requests to mathematically prove God’s existence, thankfully the majority of the religious arguments my classmates took up with me ran along the lines of “Is the seat of Peter empty?” rather than “How can you believe in miracles?”

My return to New Haven engulfed me in the world of mathematics, leaving little time for theological debate. Mathematics departments nationwide run the gamut from very religious to Dawkinsian (it’s hard to be a Humean mathematician, and impossible to be a Humean statistician). Ours enjoys a variety of religious viewpoints, with the majority falling secular agnostic. Thus, when a mentor posed a new and unusual atheist argument to me, I was caught unprepared.

The Problem

I’ve seen all the inane, readily neutralized atheist claims–“Do you really believe in virgin birth?,” “Haven’t terrible things been done in the name of Christ?,” or “Religion was established to keep citizens complicit.” SSC raises a hilarious one about whales not being fish.

Nonetheless, arguments from epistemology are more compelling. Not the “argument from unknowability,” per se. I’ve long considered the existence-of-God problem undecidable. This doesn’t bother me, because I’m not a logical positivist; physical facts are not the only important components of a system. I don’t care that atheists and I don’t disagree on any physical matters that can be finite-time decided, and I don’t think the criterion of falsifiability is useful.

The counterargument with which I was presented was much slicker, and imbued with all that meta-level, logically contradictory, late-Inferno-style contrapasso of which I am so fond: “Throughout history, people have realized how much they don’t know. The more we learn, the more there is to learn. Religion, in presupposing the ultimate answers, is the Platonic form of hubris.” Steelmanned: “Religion is prideful, but prides itself in being humble.”

That got to me. My discipline of choice is a field in which we constantly know less than we did before, in a certain sense, because every answer prompts questions that didn’t previously occur to us. We learn “calculus” in high school and think we know what integration is, then learn vector analysis in college and think this time we really know what integration is, then learn Lebesgue theory and realize we’ll never know what integration is. Humility is both necessary and proper to the discipline of mathematics, as it is to the discipline of theology. But mathematicians don’t claim to have solved the (perhaps undecidable) Collatz conjecture, whereas theologians do claim to have solved the (probably undecidable) God problem.

Religious sensibilities are more insidious than religious confession. My mother, an evolutionary biologist and enthusiastic Dawkinsian atheist, is terrified by The Exorcist and has admitted to me that she’d never attend a LaVeyan meetup because she could not sign her soul over to Satan even though she believes him nonexistent. She’s one of many nonreligious I know with religious sensibilities ranging from the theological to the social to the moral, yet I know no believers who have the faith but lack the sensibilities. I believe these inclinations precede confession; they are a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite to genuine faith. So what happens when religious sensibilities undermine religious conviction? What happens when the truth claim of religion is at least in some sense hubristic, but the sensibilities of religion are humble?

I go to a highly-regarded research university and thus constantly make use of the immediately available option to knock on the office door of one of the smartest people in the world and demand answers. My theology thesis advisor wasn’t in, so I stopped in at the first office I could find: that of a professor specializing in the intersection of religion and political theory. Perfect–exactly the kind of person who’d know all about the theory of the “opiate of the masses.” I walked in, introduced myself, and explained my problem: the priors for religion are heavily dependent on humility, but the truth claims of religion are hubristic. How can I be both Bayesian and Catholic? Help!

A Helpful Digression

The paradox with which I confronted the professor is related to signaling theory and what I’ll describe as the “hardness criterion.”

Definition 1. Hardness Criterion. A map F defined from the set of tuples on the space of choices to the space itself, where F(a,b,…) = argmax{difficulty(a), difficulty(b),…}.

In other words, the Hardness Criterion is the belief: “When presented with multiple options of action, I should do the one that is most difficult.” Naturally, “difficult” can mean a bunch of different things, some of which may be contradictory. For example, being a doctor is more technically difficult than being a garbage disposal worker, but the latter is more psychologically difficult for an Alpha on the alpha island in Brave New World.

The Hardness Criterion seems obviously wrong at a first glance, but I urge my readers to consider it more carefully. Steelmanned, it tells us that Man has a duty to pursue the highest spheres of work, self-analysis, and the search for truth, and to reject hedonism, which seems observably true. It doesn’t beget any of the silly fallacies detractors would like–“But everyone can’t do the universal hardest thing; some people have to do something else, or else we have a society of doctors” and “If everyone does the hardest thing, no one will be good at his job”–because what’s difficult differs by person, and how hard something is, in my experience, is orthogonal to how good I am at doing it. I’ve never been able to gauge how good I am at mathematics because it seems roughly equally difficult no matter how good you are at it, like cross-country running but unlike music or politics.

Those who deride religion for providing cushiness and a “Heavenly Daddy” figure are unknowingly, implicitly employing the Hardness Criterion in a way similar to Occam’s Razor. The argument goes like this: Religion permits an emotional solace in the form of the promise of eternal life, whereas atheism does not permit such solace. Therefore atheism is more difficult and I should do it.

Of course this requires the Hardness Criterion, because there is no other grounds for rejecting religion on the basis of its provision of emotional solace. One can only reject this solace if they believe the solace to be bad, which requires the Hardness Criterion, because in theory, whether a belief provides emotional solace is orthogonal to whether it is true. Sure, emotional solace might discredit the epistemic honesty of one’s acceptance of the framework, but it bears no consequences for the truthfulness of the framework itself–unless you’re willing to categorize “things that provide emotional solace” as “things I should not believe,” which utilizes the Hardness Criterion.

To reject the Hardness Criterion properly requires diagonalization. It’s noticeable that “hardness” generalizes to the meta-level, which prompts the question, “Is the algorithm ‘do the action that is hardest’ the hardest algorithm? Doesn’t doing the easiest thing all the time place me in opposition to the Hardness Criterion, which is, if I believe in the Hardness Criterion, an intellectually difficult space in which to operate?” This counterargument works beautifully, because at the meta-level, “choose the most difficult thing all the time” is a very easy algorithm, in that there aren’t any hard choices, given that your options are well-ordered. It seems to me that one could prove the Hardness Criterion is not well-defined in much the same way one can prove the halting problem is undecidable.

This is the reason the Hardness Criterion argument against religion is easily deflated. On the meta-level, “believing the thing that is harder” provides a degree of emotional solace that stems from finding one’s beliefs to be in accordance with the Hardness Criterion, while being religious is “harder” in that sense. Similarly, while atheism is “harder” than religion in terms of lacking the component of emotional solace, religion is “harder” than atheism in terms of a meta-level hardness factor: the difficulty the religious face in rationally justifying their beliefs given their first-order apparent rejection of the criterion. This ultimate point–that under the Hardness Criterion, the most contrarian seems always to win–deals a death blow to its acceptance as a useful algorithm.

The Solution

I ended up talking to the professor for about thirty minutes, and she did not disappoint (how I love this school!). We had a fruitful discussion about the fallacy described in the digression section, and she forwarded me an article she’d written arguing that support of Islamic political parties in Muslim-majority countries is rational insofar as the emotional support provided by religion eases stress. Naturally, I and my Dante-meets-Borges-meets-Bostrom mindset loved this because of its seeming counterintuitiveness: as strange as it is to accept, the emotionally easier option is of course the more rational one, in the sense of utility maximization.

I went home and thought about this for hours. Hours turned into weeks, which turned into months. And finally I figured it out. Would it be possible to create an inverted Hardness Criterion labeled the Ease Criterion, affiliated with a straightforward Kahneman/Tversky-type utility function, yielding a bijective relationship between Ease Criterion rankings and outputs of some rational choice function? Definitely. Pick the option with minimal difficulty.

But does this Ease Criterion collapse as obviously as its negation does? In one sense, the Ease Criterion is easy on the meta-level because the choices it provides are well-defined. There’s no simple, Berry-paradox-type situation in which the Ease Criterion falls apart. For all intents and purposes, the Ease Criterion is at least as good as Occam’s Razor, because I can imagine some situation exists in which the algorithm that uses simplicity to pick a course of action is not the simplest algorithm. Does there exist one in which an algorithm that uses ease isn’t the easiest (if we admit “emotional solace” as a stand-in for “ease”)?

Indeed there does. The Ease Criterion on two variables always picks what the Hardness Criterion doesn’t pick, so the inverse diagonalization produces a contradiction. I can readily imagine somebody emotionally tortured by the notion that he’s always choosing the easiest option! A theorem of this flavor feels like it ought to follow:

Theorem 2. No operator that definitionally outputs a single choice from a choice set by a metric of difficulty or complexity is consistently defined.

I don’t think the generalization to multidimensional operators works, but that isn’t really relevant here, as no one claims two religions. The conclusion: if we allow difficulty, ease, simplicity, or complexity to serve as a stand-in for “rationality,” then we cannot consistently behave rationally. (Aside: I know rationality isn’t everything, but it still benefits us to create a more nuanced notion of what rationality is.)

The contradiction my mentor voiced was, as you may have by now realized, isomorphic to the problem with the univariate criteria described above. I could now see that the problem he had presented was that the Humility Criterion is inconsistent, and his claim was definitely legitimate. The Humility Criterion makes truth claims! Of course, on the meta-level, it isn’t humble.

Central Question: Does Christianity actually make use of the Humility Criterion?

Naturally, the only way to disarm the paradox of the humility of faith versus the pride of faith is to reject the notion that Christianity uses a so-called “Humility Criterion”–e.g. while humility is a virtue, it is not the methodology one uses to arrive at Christian conclusions.

Virtues are not algorithms. Consider the algorithm “Do the thing that is virtuous, or if multiple virtuous options exist, the one that is most good” (so phrased because I don’t like the notion of “most virtuous”). If you’re an effective altruist, it’s clear this algorithm is virtuous, which is not self-contradictory. But performing this algorithm is not a virtue any more than entering a convent is a virtue. They’re both methodologies used to pursue virtue. (This is why I love that Christianity enumerates so specifically what the virtues actually are.)

Not convinced? Consider the following argument why virtue is not meta-level. Take the action of “cultivating an environment in which I can better pursue the virtue of almsgiving.” It’s clear that an almsgiving person who cultivated such an environment and an almsgiving person who didn’t are both almsgiving, and thus are both manifesting the virtue of charity. The person who didn’t cultivate such an environment might even be a better person, by dint of emerging triumphant against more temptation.

Similarly, I recently posed the following thought experiment to a Catholic close friend: Mr. Brown doesn’t want to give alms. Which is worse: for Mr. Brown to falsely tell mendicants he doesn’t carry his wallet, or for Mr. Brown to deliberately leave his wallet at home so he doesn’t have to lie when he tells that to mendicants? We agreed that it was the latter, because it eliminates the possibility of repentance (cf. Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno XXVII).

Humility is not an algorithm; it is consistent for Christians to use algorithms that are not themselves humble in order to maximize their humility. And because humility is not an algorithm, it is not used to discern truth, and thus it cannot be a contradiction that the “lux” part of faith is so glorious. The centrality of the nonexistence of a Humility Criterion is paramount! Without it, “do the things that are humble” does not imply “believe the things that are humble.”

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” -James 4:10

-TEVM

The Libertarian Theodicy

There is an eminent tautology that emerges when we consider where federal power ends. All powers that are not claimed by the national government are left to and reserved for the subsidiary bodies of government, especially the states. The question of where, exactly, federal power ends has been one of much controversiality in American history, from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to the Civil War to the Seventeenth Amendment to the civil rights movement.

Tremendous swaths of people have fought bitterly for legal decisions to be made closer to home, whether home was Texas or Massachusetts. Indeed, it’s a common misconception that states’ rights were the Southern battle cry during the Civil War. The Northerners used those arguments too–especially in their rally against the Dred Scott decision and Fugitive Slave Act, which they saw as federal infringements upon their states’ illegalization of slavery. The claim “on our land, you follow our rules” has further manifested in recent times, surrounding the Obergefell decision. Even today, the legality of state nullification and secession is an open question.

States’ rights’ advocates will tell you that the argument against these extensions of federal power is orthogonal to any metric of virtue. Small-government enthusiasts claim not to oppose the federal enfranchisement of minorities or gay people out of racism or fear or even the belief that these laws are wrong. They won’t defend their desires to have the matters relegated to state courts for any ideologically-based reason. Rather, they’ll tell you they fight such measures because of their nefarious sweeping scope. Libertarians detest the notion that the national government is settling what they see as intra-state affairs on states’ behalf.

1865 libertarians wanted the issue of slavery left to the states. 1965 libertarians wanted the same for civil rights. Abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage, marijuana? Advocates and detractors alike of the individual issues have argued for the legality of these actions and products to be determined on a smaller scale.

In a world where righteous indignation has always been the motivator of activism, it seems remarkable that so many have crusaded for the right to be wrong–not, in fact, believing themselves to be correct, but rather seeking the opportunity to determine their own stance; to have moral choices not prescribed unto them.

Why fight for states’ right to decide, even if that means some states won’t legislate the way I want them to? At first blush, the problem looks isomorphic to that of non-natural theodicy, the consideration of why men commit acts of evil in the world. The canonical answer is that free will and perfect goodness are mutually exclusive. God had to pick one.

While the natural world is an object-level entity, the realm of the divine ought be considered as the meta-level whose principles manifest in the world that we see. In the eyes of the divine, when is free will better than goodness? Clearly, if there is either something good in free will exercised in and of itself, or something bad in permanent and immutable goodness. Object-level goodness is not the same as meta-level goodness; choosing the option that maximizes the amount of good is the correct solution, and free will both allows individual choice (meta-level good) and results in some people who perform acts of virtue (further instantiation of object-level good). Instilling perfect goodness allows only the latter. It is better for Man and for God’s glory that humans have ownership and possession of the acts they perform.

Now is the part where I show my cards and say that there’s an enormous logical fallacy taking place in the application of human theodicy to government. The two are not isomorphic, because states’ rights constitute a case in which ownership can differ greatly from possession, involvement, and agency, all of which need to be present to justify free will.

Can a Texan claim that he has more ownership of local politics than of federal–that a court decision made locally is more his than one made by SCOTUS? Probably. He has a small chance of sitting on a Texas jury, and none of sitting on a federal one. He has some tiny margin of influence on ballot propositions in his home state, again narrowly beating out his influence vector for federal propositions. Any positive epsilon is greater than zero; given infinite time, our Texan will, sooner or later, find himself the determining vote in an issue important to him. So his state’s decisions belong to him more viscerally. So far, so good.

Is his home state more likely to side with him in terms of deciding legal matters? Definitely. Statistically, the population of Texas is likely to look more like him than the voter base of the nation at large, as there is some self-segregation due to shared state values. His ten neighbors are more likely to agree with him politically than ten people selected at random from the United States voter base, by sheer dint of the fact that they chose to live near him, which they probably wouldn’t have done if his politics were anathema to them. This also makes his state’s decisions more his, because they are more likely to resemble his own decisions.

But does the Texan have more involvement in his state’s decisions than in national ones–that is, more of a say? Not really. It is more likely that the outcome will turn out in a way he’d find agreeable, but his participation had near nothing to do with it. In terms of issues, he has narrowly more of a say in state matters, but not so in elections. In Boolean terms, the influence of individual voters within a state (especially a small one) is just about as negligible as that of voters in a federal election.

Does the Texan have more agency in his state than in the nation? No–that one’s just ridiculous, because agency is concerned more with actions than results. Not that the results of his political activities are really that different in the discrete spheres. He can write an angry letter to his Congressman, to his governor, or to the President. None of those people is significantly more likely to read the letter than the others. (One of his congressman’s staffers will probably read it, but won’t be able to do anything about it. So in each case, he took the same actions and got the same null results.)

So the Texan has more ownership of his state’s politics, but no more involvement or agency in their determination. The free will argument doesn’t hold up, because even if God predetermines our actions, they still belong to us, and the culpability is ours. Calvin, the father of determinist theology, argued in Institutes of the Christian Religion that in the predeterminist worldview, Man retains full ownership of his actions. For Man to have free will, he needs something greater than ownership–involvement and agency, which the Texan gets no more out of Texas than out of the U.S.A.

Thus I conclude that he wants the issue at hand to be left to the states not out of a want of self-sovereignty but because he concludes, not incorrectly, that the population of his state is more likely to vote his way. That seems pretty likely when you realize that none of the approximately three Green Party members in Texas wants the issue of abortion determined closer to home.

Is there a saving grace for the states’ rights argument? Yes! The empirically validated belief that communities themselves make the rules that work best for them. But this is clearly an argument from epistemic modesty, rather than from the lofty rhetoric of freedom as its own good. Groups of people should be self-governing because they are more likely to do a good job than their detached overseers, not because their freedom is viscerally important in the abstract.

This understanding, radically different in its first principles, doesn’t change political results all that much. It does, however, alter the approach with which we view the negative externalities I mentioned above: that some states won’t legislate the way want them to. For issues that are one-size-fits-all, we no longer need gaze upon our fellowmen in different territories with sympathy at the unfortunate political results their freedom has prompted. We might instead assume their model works better for them, and wonder whether it would for us, too.

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul: Atrocities, Guns, and the Misuse of Expected Utility Theory

“We often find, upon a thorough review, that our expedients, while they have for a time seemed to produce very valuable results, have in fact corrected one evil by creating or enhancing another. We have borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.” -Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through the Back Country

It is, I think, for the reason of epistemic modesty that even the most virtue-inclined of us quaver at the prospect of discussing the great atrocities of the past: slavery, genocide, mass murder. We want to believe that our modern values are correct, neither too cruel nor too enabling. But the best counterargument to our new and improved morality is a simple wave at the vast cohort of people throughout history who similarly believed themselves to be right while upholding principles we have since decided are unthinkable.

The conventional defenses of these grave affronts to human decency all ring the same. James Henry Hammond, governor of South Carolina during legalized slavery, claimed, “It is by the existence of slavery, exempting so large a portion of our citizens from labor, that we have leisure for intellectual pursuits.” Historian Tony Judt reports that in war zone surveys of German nationals during World War II, a majority of the population claimed that the killing of Jews and other non-Aryan peoples was “necessary for the security of Germans.”

The idea that citizen nationals turned a blind eye to the evils of slavery and genocide is a myth. Indeed, they recognized the shattering and sundry sufferings of their fellowmen as not only manifest, but instrumental to their own fulfillment. As Olmsted succinctly surmises, “We have borrowed from Peter to pay Paul.” In this case, the Pauls that the participants paid were themselves and their cultures, and the Peters were very unfortunate indeed.

So why, then, when I encountered the Olmsted quote above, did I think first not of atrocities but of the type of moral justification I hear daily? I and the people around me are aware of the great quantity of suffering in the world, and at least profess that we want to bring about better circumstances. In so doing, we claim that the reasons we’ve chosen to pursue a university education rather than join up with an international relief organization are ultimately altruistic. We are bettering ourselves, we declare, so that we can be of better help to others someday. But how much do we need to be “improved” before we are ready to go put such improvement to use towards the final end of reducing human suffering? We say of our meta-values that it is virtuous to pursue the kind of world-class education that will permit us to grow in virtue. But is there really nothing immoral about the kind of “virtue development” that tells us to spend four years enjoying the company of friends, languishing in well-furnished dormitories, gorging ourselves on ready-made food? We claim that the time we spend here gives us the direction we need to figure out in what way we can best help the world in the era of specialization. But how long and costly must a cost-benefit analysis be before just taking the plunge and guessing becomes a more effective mechanism?

In his famous essay “Singer’s Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer (with whom I generally don’t agree at all) argues, “The formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” I’ll slightly reformulate Singer’s point in a way that makes more sense for a long-term value maximizer of the type I’ve described: “Whatever time and money you’re not spending toward your own necessities should be redirected toward altruistic ends.”

But the alleged long-game virtue-seeker worms his way out of this request using an application of expected-utility theory (EUT). “If I were to right away begin a life of service,” he responds, “I’d be losing career opportunities that would later allow me to cut a fatter check for charity.” He plugs in some arbitrary values for probability and reward and breathes a sigh of relief at the implication that he is, in fact, living virtuously. I’ve seen people go ridiculously far down this line of reasoning: “I’m morally obligated to attend a party with my colleagues tonight instead of volunteering at X shelter, because that way I marginally increase my chance of getting a promotion from the boss, and thus will receive more money for my later donation.” And depending on his Bayesian priors, he can prove this to be true. Sure, “self-centered” doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but these two scenarios lie on an increasing axis of puerility. Somewhere before either of them is the point where self-improvement turns into self-indulgence and altruism becomes a weapon against itself. Either that, or letting Econ majors and politicians use EUT for effective altruism just happens to create results that seem very convenient in light of their first-order desires.

We readily acknowledge the depravity of slavery and genocide, but we don’t often talk about why they are so depraved–because, as it turns out, the best defense of these unconscionable acts is also the best defense of the way many of us currently live. If we ignore for a moment the vast difference in moral charge between allowing the deaths of millions of people worldwide and literally killing them firsthand, then the perpetrators of atrocities meet our reasoning with uncanny accuracy, almost point for point. If they had declared that they wanted to grow in virtue for the particular end of being better toward the people whose well-being they were sacrificing to accomplish these ideas of virtue, then the situations would be isomorphic. But they didn’t. They instead espoused a perverted brand of preferencing, e.g. “Paul’s net worth is more important than Peter’s,” to justify their moral abuses. We, living in the era of equality, have rejected this notion and replaced it with the affirming market-based rhetoric of “If he takes enough of Peter’s money to begin with, then Paul can invest it through Bain and pay Peter back tenfold in two years!” And to me, this line of thought doesn’t seem all that much safer.

I’m not claiming working in finance to “save up” for charity donations is anywhere near as awful an act as genocide. The manner in which the two are comparable is purely at the meta-level. Using EUT-based morality calculations to justify our ceaseless borrowing is actively destructive to the fabric of ethics in a way that selective usage of the concepts of freedom and nationhood wasn’t. This conclusion stands regardless of how much more pain mass atrocities caused, or how much more directly its authors were involved in its causation. How poor must Peter be before we pay him back? It doesn’t matter anymore, amidst all the dollar signs that will pull him from destitution in two years…if he survives that long. Yes, we are not responsible for Peter’s death in the way that the perpetrators of genocide were. But their meta-principles, unlike ours, didn’t validate the ability of anyone, anywhere, to use the tools of morality against morality itself. In fact, the reason we’re aware of their moral fallacy at all is that at the meta-level, their principles were not even coherent. Our successors will have a much harder time disproving our meta-principles than we did theirs.

This is all unnecessary, because one really doesn’t need to consider the two evils as comparable in order to want to avoid both. The old “killing versus letting die” distinction is toothless here. Singer is aware of the salience of ignoring moral qualms in which we are not directly involved. “To be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet,” he admits. But the metric of difficulty should not be confused with the metric of virtue. We do plenty of good without even thinking about it (and if you can’t recall an example, that’s equally likely an indicator that you never perform unconscious virtuous acts as it is that you often do and don’t even consider them consequential enough to remember). Anyways, even the strong version of this argument–that killing someone is, de jure, worse than letting her die–does not mean that we should a priori take to be supererogatory any moral actions toward remedying situations which we did not cause. How virtuous should we be expected to be? My answer: virtuous. There’s no spectrum. I’ve long believed that “good” and “bad” are measured in degrees, whereas “virtuous” and “sinful” are binary. A friend asked me today, “If you’re off the mark, doesn’t it matter by how much?” I answered, “Yes, but first you check whether you hit the target, which is a Yes/No question, and then you measure the distance in terms of inches or feet.” Similarly, consider two pregnant women; one is due in 3 months, the other in 6. Would you regard one as “more pregnant” than the other? No, that’s ridiculous–“pregnant” is a binary variable, and “time until due date” is a continuous, distinct variable. Just so for morality: we should turn the “virtue” switch on, and strive to maximize the continuous variable of “good.”

We could perhaps take this blatant misuse of EUT more charitably and claim that the Paul paid in the exchange is not ourselves, sheepishly holding up an IOU, but future recipients of aid, endowed with all the good we can instantiate with this carefully augmented nest egg. In such a calculus, we’re foregoing present good for the sole purpose of maximizing future good, and we do not enter into the equation as agents. But then isn’t it a failure of epistemic modesty for us to assume we can invest these “Schrodinger’s utils” more reliably to produce a long-term sum than can the organizations and people we’d be helping if we forked it over now? It’s at least paternalistic, which is usually a warning sign. And in the case of those economic geniuses who are truly best suited to monitor the growth of the utils, I find it hard to believe that they’re doing so purely to provide invaluable, unpaid financial management to the United Way. Even if they were, how is it not completely self-defeating to take from the present to give to the future–when those from whom we are withholding real-time aid would perhaps otherwise have become the parents, educators, missionaries, and relief advocates for the agents of the future?

It doesn’t matter if killing is different from letting die, because this kind of reasoning, as it turns out, causes both. A few days ago, my nation was hit by a devastating act of violence, only the most recent in a series of cases that have seemed to demonstrate an upward trend in mortality. On the afternoon of Ash Wednesday 2018, a former student opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 students and teachers at the scene and injuring 15 more.

The Wikipedia articles for school shootings in all other world countries are consolidated into a single page. But America has perpetuated and suffered enough violence in this avenue to constitute its own page, as long as the rest combined. Yet lawmakers who refuse to clamp down on gun sales attribute their reticence to precisely the manner of thinking we’ve just explored.

Yes. Proponents of easy market access to automatic weapons use exactly the method of poorly-applied EUT to justify their farcically circular reasoning. They are, quite straightforwardly, robbing innocent lives to grant what they perceive as a public right that will then theoretically be used to prevent further loss of life. After the First Baptist Church shooting, two civilians grabbed their own rifles and pursued the shooter until he crashed his car, a heroic action that launched them into the national spotlight. One of these vigilantes, Texan Johnnie Landendorff, received overwhelming praise from far-right media such as Townhall and Breitbart. Said one Townhall staff member, “In the hands of a ‘good guy,’ a gun is what finally put an end to the massacre.”

Any good NRA hack will tell you that the best defense against a mass shooting is an armed, vigilant citizen. Sure, he argues, it is a drain on the aggregate value of society for some dangerous individuals to have access to guns, but this is a necessary price in order to allow the righteous citizens of America to purchase the guns they’ll use productively–to grow in virtue to the point where they can overcome such criminals. The logic of needing any guns in the first place if their telos is to resolve violence caused by people wielding other guns is blatantly self-defeating, like all instantiations of classic misuse of EUT. But no matter! We must pay Paul! It’s just too bad if we are both Peter and Paul, and we never break even.

Now you see the stark line between atrocity and innocent misuse of expected-value theory is not so stark as we thought. This Peter/Paul reasoning can feed the continuity of tragic and evil acts. It is as dangerous as they.

Given that even statistically-minded me has a penchant for permitting gun ownership, I’ll give any pro-gun readers some epistemic credit: there are better reasons not to want stringent gun control than this paradoxical argument. Using it is an insult to our intelligence and our values. If you are pro-gun, then other factors are entering into your reasoning than absolute aggregate utility–factors like freedom as a first principle, or concerns about effectiveness of the governmental measures themselves, or a non actor-network theoretic understanding of the relationship between weapons and people. For reference, nobody who believes in the legalization of heroin explains their position with “If everyone has access to heroin, we can use our experience with heroin to grow in virtue to better help addicts.” If you strongly believe that gun control legislation is wrong, then you can make a better case by avoiding such pathetically post facto justification.

The point is, there’s clearly something absurdly wrong with using EUT for post hoc justification of selfishness. This problem stems partly from the fact that it doesn’t make any sense to consider every present action we take through the lens of expected-utility theory. I posted earlier about the paralysis this approach causes. But I espoused a principle in that article that needs clarification in order to be consistent here: that we should care just as much, in certain situations, about future actors as we do about present ones. What does this mean, when the starving children represented by the $1K you didn’t pay Peter ten years ago are now dead because of your inaction, and any reparations you can make by paying forward your $10K to Peter’s sons will go to completely different people? What does it mean when the healthy children at Stoneman Douglas are now dead, rendering worthless the glorious bullets that would have been used to save them when the Civilian Hero arrived on the scene?

We should preference existent actors over nonexistent actors in cases where the existent actors are in clear and present danger, especially if helping them may help to avert the need by future actors of help.

To do this rigorously, we could use multivariate EUT in which probability/value pairs are Borel products with different distributions that are time-sensitive to earlier selections. Karni (1989) has already done good work on EUT over multivariate probability distributions, which could be a place to start.

In less mathematical terms, we could think of this as a binary indicator. Is there danger for existent actors that is greater than some small epsilon? Probably. There likely will be for a long time–or at least until we stop using backwards EUT to implode morality. If there is such a danger, then act now to stop it instead of saving up to help people who will be born into suffering in the interval in which your bond was doubling–people who might’ve been born into comfort if you’d helped someone else. (Aside: “those people might not have existed, exactly” isn’t a counterargument worth rebutting here; helping earlier agents may linearly help later agents that don’t yet exist, regardless of the counterfactual details.)

This comment brings me to an important corollary. I don’t believe my metric applies to work that is done to overturn a long-term political principle that is contrary to virtue, or to instantiate one that is in accordance with virtue. In these cases, the future population in danger will likely look the same regardless of the individuals helped, and working to stop the cause of the danger rather than its effect may be more potent. If your current actions are directly and non-hypothetically correlated with a virtuous end goal that you can’t yet enact, perfect! Tell the truth when asked: that instead of joining Teach for America, you’re pursuing your law degree or self-studying machine learning in order to illegalize the death penalty or better implement AI alignment strategies, respectively. The moral threats you have diagnosed as salient–for you just can’t find everything salient–are best helped by what you are actually doing. This argument, I think, only works for systematic risks, in which one can have a good idea of what the climate of his concern of interest will look like moving forward. If you’re this kind of person, you’re probably already donating or tithing to the cause of current moral actors, so continue to do that in tandem with your altruistic project. One such altruistic project might constitute bipartisan endeavors to create a better understanding of what “guns” are and should be, who should have access to them, and what they should be used for.

So, reader, even if you’re just not going to donate to charity or volunteer for a helpful cause no matter what argument I present, stop using EUT to justify that impulse. Regardless of what Singer says, it would be unreasonable to expect you to donate all of your resources to relief, and the idea that this is the “only” moral way to live is a contributing factor in the emergence of post facto bad use of EUT. Perhaps going out for a nice dinner to clear your head will meaningfully improve the good you can do in the coming week, but this conjectural claim isn’t the way to frame your choice if someone angrily asks why you’d do such a thing. Neither is the default response that you are entitled to such days off, which harkens ominously back to the infamous atrocities of history–whose instigators claimed justification through the preferencing of their own abstruse interests over other moral actors’ very basic rights. You are not entitled to a day off from morality any more than you are entitled to a gun.

This shouldn’t be taken as a claim that there is only one model for a virtuous life, a model that always puts others before the self. When Luther wrote “On Temporal Authority,” he argued that God would not begrudge a thoughtful and principled monarch the occasional joust or hunt, but a monarch who strove to be thoughtful and principled would find little, if any, time in which to pursue such pastimes. As humans, we are constantly sinning in small ways by preferencing our immediate interests over more important concerns. The fact that it is to some degree inevitable doesn’t make it any better–but honesty does. No, it’s not moral to value your $200 fuzzy parka over the life of the child you could have saved with the money you used to buy it. In fact, it’s probably immoral. But it’s not anti-moral to admit that uncomfortable truth. It is anti-moral to say you bought the parka to keep yourself dry so that when you one day climb a mountain to save a stranded Himalayan child, you’ll have slightly less slippery skin. And it is deeply anti-moral to claim that the reason you own a gun is to someday be the hero who steps in to protect somebody from a villain wielding a gun just like your own.

If I have convinced you, call (800) 367-5437 now to donate to UNICEF. Go to http://www.gofundme.com/stonemandouglasvictimsfund to support survivors of the Stoneman Douglas tragedy. All you need is a credit card and a sense of doubt.

-TEVM

The Virtue Transduction: Reflections on Ash Wednesday

“The majority of signal transduction pathways involve the binding of signaling molecules, known as ligands, to receptors that trigger events inside the cell. The binding of a signaling molecule with a receptor causes a change in the conformation of the receptor, known as receptor activation.” -The Wikipedia article on signal transduction

Before I was a Catholic convert, I was an atheist missionary.

Well, an ineffective one. I didn’t stand on street corners handing out bottles of water and copies of On the Origin of the Species to clubgoers. I didn’t go door to door asking Cleveland residents if they’d heard of our lord and savior, David Hume. If you’d asked me why not, I would’ve said, “I don’t go door-to-door telling people not to believe in Santa Claus either. The burden of proof is on the religious, as it should be.”

I would’ve been lying. For all my feigned reticence from activities antireligious, I eagerly climbed atop the pulpit when safely nestled within my steadfast circuit of militantly atheist friends. Together we’d scorn the blind credence of the faithful, not bothering to hide our laughter when someone said grace at the neighborhood Easter party.

So, I repeat: I was an atheist missionary, albeit an ineffective one. I chose to push effortlessly at open doors, rather than fruitlessly at locked ones. For the same reason, I had my most ardent political debates within the confines of my school’s Green Party club, opening discussions by repeating the words we all already knew we espoused.

There’s a cultural notion that each individual is a missionary, peddling his worldview. In some ways, this idea is correct. The soapbox orator seeks to attract passersby with flashing lights, bright colors, and raised voices. His beliefs are his signal, presented to the outside world, eagerly awaiting reception. He particularly enjoys preaching to the choir, because this process is more likely to result in a pleasant cacophony of go-ahead lights. Because he doesn’t care if the receptor’s admission of his signal was ready or hard-earned, there is no point in wasting his time converting the heathens.

Therefore, these orators more resemble cell ports than peddlers in their signaling. They await a predictable response light–a signal of “Well done, keep going”–rather than attempting to persuade a reluctant buyer. With this in mind, I posit the following theorem: the missionary-to-convert ratio will always be high. Why? Because we are all more concerned about our capable transmission of the signals we project than we are about their reception in unlikely places. Fittingly, then, we are least concerned with our own reception of others’ signals.

Has value transfer itself become a process of virtue signaling? Are we doomed to forever be ineffective missionaries, more concerned with demonstrating that we are missionaries–a procedure forwarded by the green-light sign from the community of believers–than with actually converting anyone? Echo chambers are safe, warm, and comforting, but they’re no place for politics. If this phenomenon exists as I’ve diagnosed it, we must stop it.

My computer hood is unfashionably bare. It doesn’t contain the requisite effective altruist stickers or space colonization decals typical of laptops belonging to those of like minds. But how far must I take this ideological purity? Most of the time that I wear a rosary or walk around with a conspicuous copy of Borges or Losing Ground or Global Catastrophic Risks, it’s thoroughly accidental and not meant to signify anything. Is intent the level on which the wrongdoing is occurring–and if so, is this the level on which it ought to be corrected? (Those two statements are not equivalent.) Must we engage in exhaustive good-faith meta-analysis of all our signaling mechanisms, whether unconscious, directed, or just preening? There are multi-level operators at work: perhaps I bought my brand-name shirt to ally myself with a cause, but wear it for convenience, or vice versa.

This morning, I will go to an early mass and participate in an age-old Catholic ritual: a cross of ash, blaring loud on my forehead. Why am I doing this? Because it’s in accordance with my faith. Why is it in accordance with my faith? Various reasons, some theological, others practical. I won’t get into the theological here–it’s important and beautiful, but not related to my point. Practically speaking, the Church is reasonable to demand this small act of devotion from its constituents. Technically I’m allowed to wash off the ash, but many Church officials encourage Catholics not to do so, as a public declaration of faith. Indeed, it is good to have the kind of faith that makes an individual proud to have a cross of ash on Ash Wednesday. Unfortunately, this virtue of proud faith has the inadvertent corollary of being a signaling mechanism, easily trivialized by a poorly understood notion of why one has ash on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday–“because I’m supposed to.”

Imagined conversation between Catholic 1 with no ash on her forehead and Catholic 2 with ash on his:

C1: “Why are you wearing ash on your forehead?”

C2: “Because I am a Catholic and I want everyone to know it, and it is traditional to present that devotion in this way.”

C1: “Yes, but can you defend the particular act of wearing ash on your forehead, as a distinct and special indicator of your faith? You don’t wear a Catholic T-shirt every day, or very conspicuously bless your food before eating. Why is this a good method of engaging in an easily corruptible signaling procedure? Given that people might be wont to misinterpret the theological and practical implications of your wearing ash in a way that they wouldn’t misinterpret a large-font sign hung around your neck containing Catholic doctrine, why are you doing this particular thing? And given that the gesture of having ash on your forehead is immediately interpretable to other ash-wearing Catholics, with whom you exchange a response signal, but not to non-Catholics who perhaps have never seen it before, this can’t be an effective missionary mechanism. Are there other virtuous purposes of loudly stating your beliefs to the world that aren’t just about converting people?”

C2: “I could answer all your questions with some version of ‘I do what I’m told because of the mystery of faith,’ but I don’t think that’s the correct answer here. No, the ashes are not a missionary mechanism. Placed on my forehead, they encourage me and perhaps subconsciously others to engage in meaningful reflection; that makes them a better manner of engagement than, say, a T-shirt. Whenever I look in a mirror, I will remember that to dust I will return, and celebrate the good news of the Lord. But ultimately, I wear them because outwardly declaring my love for Christ is an end in itself. Saint Peter’s mistake in denying Christ thrice was to eschew that end.”

Thank you, Catholic 2! I love it when the attacked person in my imagined conversations is able to simply and elegantly defend himself. Yes–there are several brands of signaling here that we ought to separate.

  1. Creating a signal so that others will join your cause (e.g. handing out fliers for veganism).
  2. Creating a signal so that others will notice that you self-affiliate with a cause; social signaling, virtue signaling (e.g. linking an article without providing commentary).
  3. Creating a signal because manifesting your devotion to the cause is helpful to the cause. (This one’s trickier; e.g. wearing a work uniform so you can be identified by clients who need your help, which will cause the business to be more successful.)
  4. Doing something signaling your devotion to a cause, as an end in itself (e.g. wearing ash on Ash Wednesday).

1, 3, and 4 seem to me to be good-faith manners of engagement, and constitute the ways in which we should think about our signaling.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” ” -Matthew 6:5-6, NIV

The hypocrites love to be seen by others–but this fact in itself is not the source of their problem. They pray only to be seen by others, manifesting virtue without needing to enact any. In proclaiming devotion to a cause as an end in itself, we can avoid this hypocrisy and signal a virtue that is thoughtful, deliberative, and, above all, felt.

-TEVM