Monday, June 9, 2008

Believing claims about visible things

Traditionally, Christians used to complain that some folks (e.g., atheists) suffer from a difficulty in believing in invisible realities. While there may be such an affliction, I think in a way it can be harder to believe claims about visible things. Consider, for instance, the difficulty a lot of people experience in believing that miracles have occurred out in the extra-mental physical world (some people are much more open to believing in miracles of inspiration than in physical extra-mental miracles), or the difficulty in gaining acceptance for philosophical theories that make empirical predictions, even if these empirical predictions are compatible with everything we know. In regard to the latter, I am thinking of three examples:

  1. Certain versions of libertarianism which entail that there are brain events that do not supervene on events that can be explained by physics.
  2. Versions of General Relativity Theory that entail that our world has foliation by spacelike hypersurfaces (e.g., Crisp's presentist General Relativity).
  3. The claim that no future pope will ex cathedra teach a doctrine that contradicts earlier infallible teaching of the Church's magisterium.

I think the issue is simply that it is pretty easy to believe propositions that have the property that even if they were (perhaps per impossibile) false, one wouldn't know it. In believing such propositions, there is no risk of being proved wrong. But it is harder to believe propositions where the belief involves a certain risk—i.e., propositions which are such that if they were (perhaps per impossibile) false, one might be proved wrong.

Similarly, it may be easier to believe propositions that have no practical consequences for us over propositions that have practical consequences. Consider for instance that a lot of people find it a lot easier to believe that God is a Trinity, despite all the paradoxes inherent in this doctrine, than they do to believe that contraception is always wrong, which doctrine does not involve any serious paradox, though it is counterintuitive relative to our culture.


Anonymous said...

" Consider for instance that a lot of people find it a lot easier to believe that God is a Trinity, despite all the paradoxes inherent in this doctrine, than they do to believe that contraception is always wrong"

It's not just a practical consequence issue. People have a moral sense that shows them clearly that contraception isn't actually wrong. In fact, safe and available contraception is obviously a moral good, and people's consciences show them that clearly.

You might convince people that they should fear God for using contraception, but it would be much harder to brainwash them into actually believing it is wrong, assuming they had accurate information about the safety and efficacy of modern contraceptives.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I actually think conscience primarily delivers obligations: "You must do this! You must not do that!" When we say "My conscience says this isn't wrong" what we mean by that is "My conscience doesn't say that this is wrong." But absence of evidence is only weak evidence of absence. That my conscience doesn't say that X is wrong gives little evidence for the claim that X is not wrong, especially since one of the main ways we human beings grow in conscience is by our conscience becoming more acute, more able to see duties and wrongs that it previously was blind to.

If I'm right, then nobody's conscience says that contraception is permissible, because conscience never speaks of permissibility, but only of obligation.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand. People use contraception all the time (this includes, by your tradition, coitus interruptus). Their consciences should (if it was "wrong") be telling them "don't do that!" every time they use a contraceptive. But that doesn't happen. Actually, the opposite happens, because they don't just get a "don't do that!" message they get a contrary "you'r doing the right thing!" feeling too.

Every time I think about my vasectomy, I think what a great thing I did for the physical and psychological health of my wife and family.

Maybe I should feel bad about my pride, but I sure don't feel any duty to have it reversed!

Alexander R Pruss said...

The conscience of fallen human beings can fail to inform them that they are doing wrong.

It is difficult to feel that something is wrong when everybody around one is doing it. That is why in communist countries a lot of people didn't feel they were doing wrong when they stole things from the workplace, because that was the practice of everybody around them. Similarly, it's only been recently that anybody felt guilty about, say, not letting women into certain professions.

In our culture, most people contracept. It is easy for our conscience to go with the flow on this one. However, given the high divorce rate, we have some reason to think that our culture's views on marital sexuality aren't that smart.

p.s. Even if an action is wrong, it does not follow that it is a duty to try to reverse that action.

Tim Lacy said...

Professor Pruss,

Your second, "social coercion" argument, doesn't stand everywhere and at all times. It is perfectly natural for a person to want sex but not want children. The problem is deeper than peer pressure. It's about the open, one-on-one communication that is necessary to the relationship communion and, for instance, natural family planning.

But, on the larger subject of your post, I think you're right about the consequences argument. When people want to deny a consequence, they'll justify their denial of the antecedent (whether material, spiritual, or intellectual) by any means. Belief in the Trinity, per your example, makes fewer claims on Christians that Humanae Vitae---no matter that HV might involve clearer premises, a valid argument structure, and true conclusions. - TL