Ed Giese's Web Log

The Limitations of Blogs

Posted on 2020-12-06 21:00:00 in Technology

I wrote a post in response to another post I read on David's blog. David responded with an email, and I responded to the email "inline," as they say in emails -- that is, I duplicated his email and interrupted the flow with my own responses. David replied with a yet longer email.

The "inline" format will not work for this longer email. The problem with inline responses is that the organization of composition is dictated by the original email. It also seems to encourage a kind of oppositional writing. "You say this, but I say this," is an easy pattern to fall into.

I want to do justice to David's objections, but I cannot do it without writing way more than anyone is likely to read in one piece. So, in order to be fair, I'm reproducing David's response below. I'll link to it later, so that anyone can read his own words, but just as he did not reproduce my entire post in his email, I'm not going to do that again.

I thus cede the rest of this post to David without comment, except for the very general observation that even the organization of ideas affects them. Do we communicate in emails, debates, blog posts, or essays? Each would, I think, result in a different kind of reasoning. Martin Luther was very proud of his work The Bondage of the Will, which is a point-by-point refutation of a much shorter essay by Erasmus called simply A Diatribe. Erasmus was stung by Luther's response and wrote a very lengthy book of his own to answer Luther. Medieval convention, apparently, said that the best writing exhaustively refuted an opponent's work at every point. It makes for very long reads.

Thank you for including my thoughts in another blog post and for your detailed response. I’m sure this topic is difficult to discuss dispassionately for both of us. You’re frustrated that I say the question isn’t entirely rhetorical; I’m frustrated because I feel like you aren’t giving me the benefit of the doubt.

When I wrote the post, I had been exploring the relationship between faith and righteousness. As you know, I think God is unfair to judge people based on their faith. My question comparing the agnostic to the Christian came out of this exploration. In any event, I am sincerely interested in the question. As I admitted, it is somewhat rhetorical because I do suspect I know the answer, but I am not entirely sure that I do, and I’m open to thoughtful counterarguments like the one you’ve made about unconscious actions. If you consider this “trying to have it both ways,” then I guess I am.

Let me clarify a few points in my last response: First, while this wasn’t obvious, I mentioned utilitarianism and intentionalism as examples of why the question is interesting. I wanted to demonstrate that you were too quick to turn the questions into assertions. I didn’t mean to imply that the questions were meant to ponder utilitarianism. As you said, it would have been odd if it had been. Second, you imply I am judging a “belief system by the weakness of its adherents,” but I’m not, and you should have given me the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn’t be so unfair. I know Christians who do good to go to heaven, but I’m not judging a belief system by its adherents. I’m judging Christianity because it prioritizes faith over works; these individuals are just examples of why the system feels inconsistent.

Your main point is that it is difficult to compare a Christian and an agnostic. I agree, but I don’t think it is impossible or meaningless. I’ll say more about this later, but this comparison isn’t my original interest in the questions. To illustrate this, consider a similar question:

Two Christians live outwardly identical lives—the first has a strong faith, the second has a weak faith. Which Christian is more righteous?

I think the Christian with weaker faith is more righteous. If Abraham had known that Isaac would be saved before the knife struck, would his sacrificial journey have been credited to him as righteousness? If you knew without a doubt that Jesus, the creator of the universe, existed, loved you, and wanted a personal relationship with you, then should you get much credit for praying and reciprocating that relationship as you do now, being somewhat sure, but far from completely? These examples demonstrate that weaker faith allows someone to be more righteous. Furthermore, if faith didn’t matter, why does God hide from most of us?

My original question is the limiting case of this analysis. The agnostic has no faith. So what is it about a little faith that changes the comparison so much? It’s like an ethical state change. This is the issue I’m primarily interested in. I don’t understand why God emphasizes faith so much.

You may object that two outwardly identical lives are impossible; the difference in faith would alter their behavior somehow. I would be happy to explore this further, although clearly, two individual actions can be performed by people with different degrees of faith. Thus I suspect the entire life comparison isn’t impossible. It is only a thought experiment. Now I’ll return to the main point of your two posts.

It is a fact that Christians and non-Christians are operating under different ethical frameworks and that this needs to be accounted for. However I think they can be.

A little formalism may help me explain why. Imagine that each ethical system provides a righteousness function. This function takes a vector of a person’s contextualized choices as its input and returns a “righteousness value” as its output. Imagine the righteousness value ranges from 0 to 1. Let’s represent it using this equation: R = F(C). In reality, we can never know C, but that’s okay because this whole exercise is a thought experiment. There are similar functions for individual actions: r = f(c).

There are many ethical systems, each with its own function. God has one; the Old Testament is the story of the Israelites’ R values perpetually being too low. Each of us has one, be it vague and time-varying. Different religions and time-periods have them. Christians value their relationship with God and evangelism, while Buddhists value meditation and monastic donations. A Hindu ethic cares if you choose to eat beef, while a Christian’s doesn’t. Thus, some choices only matter for certain righteousness functions. Other choices matter for nearly all of them; most of us agree we should give the hungry food, cloth the naked, and visit the sick; thous shalt honor your mother and father; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not murder. These seem universal, and it is this universality that holds society together. I also think the overlap extends beyond consequentialism. Like you said: “No one likes that kind of kid.” Most people care about intentions a lot—just because we don’t always know what they are doesn’t mean we don’t care about them. If someone says something offensive, we care if it was intentional. I think the agnostic also has to struggle with motives. Certainly, we feel like a billionaire who publicly gives away a lot of money is less righteous than the one who anonymously does.

I recognized the difficulty of comparing a Christian and an agnostic when I wrote the post. That is why, in the first question, I said, “two people do the same good deed” and in the second question, I said, “two people live equally charitable lives.” I used the term charitable to denote the righteousness-comparison was being made in the overlapping regions. I believe I even considered a few alternate words, before selecting charitable. (Note that I had not thought of this formalism at the time—this only occurred to me while writing my response.)

I suspect you will say that the non-overlapping portions matter so much that any comparison is meaningless. Perhaps you are right, but I don’t think it is so obvious that the question must be a rhetorical sleight of hand. If you say this, then I think it has to do with our differing understanding of Christianity’s righteousness function. Maybe I think it is more similar to the typical agnostics than you think it is. For example, I’m still surprised that your function excludes any deeds that were consciously done. I thought God wanted us to have free will. Otherwise, why create the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If only the unconscious deeds count in the final judgment, couldn’t God have made us robots? (By the way, I think you’re right that one can pray and fast without being conscious of the motives. This is also a good point.)

The only response I could think of is that, although unconscious deeds are all that matter in the last analysis, they do so not for themselves but because they are the only true reflection of our internal moral state. If you think this moral state is fixed, then we don’t have free will. But if it is not fixed, then how would we change it? It seems that it must be changed by conscious deeds. Thus, conscious deeds lead to unconscious habits. If this is the case, then it seems like the conscious deeds are still the ones being judged. One could then compare the Christian who, desiring heaven, formed righteous habits to the agnostic who, wanting to have a good self-image, formed righteous habits.

Thank you for pointing me to Matthew 25. I read it a couple of times, and while I see the point you are making about sheep vs. goats (and I recall you making this in sermons past), it is subtle. I’ll have to take your word on the theology—I shouldn’t have questioned you on this in the first place.

I left out some personal remarks. There was also this from a later email:

I was a bit surprised by you reasoning here:

The fact is, everyone knows this story, even millions of unbelievers. How many people took every opportunity to visit a stranger? And, conversely, how many were so callous that they never took a single opportunity to do so? A simple reading of this situation leads to a ludicrous result.

In particular, when Jesus said the story, it wasn’t the case that everyone had heard the story. Why do you think it’s appropriate to reason from how we would interpret how the story sounds to us today back onto its original meaning?

It seems to me that if the God wanted us to be unconsciously good, the sermon on the mount could have made this much more explicit. E.g., instead of:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It could be

“Beware of practicing your piety before yourself in order to improve your self image; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So give alms often and earnestly enough so that you no longer consciously consider your motives, do not give to charity as the anonymous agnostic philanthropists do, so that they may feel good about themselves as they approach their old age. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do it without thought of an outer physical reward of eternal heaven, nor of the outer reward of other people seeing you do good, nor even the inner reward of a positive self-image, so that your alms may be done in secret even from your own mind; and your Father who sees what you do unconsciously will reward you."

Does this second version reflect what you think is meant by the passage? If not, what would you change about it to make it align with your thinking?

Emails have their own limitations. The above actually condenses an edit from a later edition of an email. In emails, one cannot revise easily. Perhaps there is some variation of a source code control system that could serve better the needs of these kinds of idea discussions. In the mean time, I'll just make do with this post and move on later to comment as I have time.