Saturday, September 26, 2015

Chesterton and Kierkegaard on the Difference of Christ

What difference does Christ make?

This question has many answers in many different contexts. Two of my favorite writers, G.K. Chesterton and Soren Kierkegaard, focus on the difference Christ makes in terms of human possibility.

Man is different from other animals insofar as he lives self-reflected in a world. Beavers and dogs don't worry about how they relate to the world; they just exist as they are unselfconsciously in the world. They are the world. But man knows himself as who he is in relation to the world. Kierkegaard describes this difference in The Sickness Unto Death in terms of the self as "a relation which relates itself to itself." The fact that man by nature relates himself to the world means his existence, unlike that of non-rational animals, is a dialectic of possibility and necessity. I understand who I am (or think I understand), and I also understand the world and my place in it, and in terms of that relationship life presents a present reality of necessity and a horizon of possibility. I exist as a relationship to the world, but I can know that relationship and (perhaps) change it - I can relate myself to the relationship which constitutes my self in the world.

But I can do that only in terms of the possibilities available to me, and those are constituted by my philosophy. What sort of possibilities are available to the natural but pre-Christian man, that is, the pagan man? Chesterton in Orthodoxy describes the pagan world as a world of pink. The great pagan virtue is moderation; a little of everything but not too much of anything. Red and white mixed together, not too much of each. This is a natural and sensible policy, and in the pagan world it produced great men like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. The ideal gentleman is a little bit of a warrior and a bit of a scholar as well. He drinks wine but not too much; he loves others but not too much of that either. For love is a form of madness and madness is unbalanced. Above all he maintains self-control, for he knows that the world contains good things as well as evil things, and that it ends in death. He keeps these facts before him and holds himself well so that he is neither carried away by good fortune, nor destroyed by misfortune, for life inevitably involves both. There is no better wisdom in a world without Christ, especially in a world that cannot imagine Christ. The life of balanced moderation is the best life that the best pagan mind could imagine; it defines the horizon of pagan possibility.

What has changed with Christ? The Gospel of John tells us that His first miracle occurred at Cana, and involved the replenishment of wine at a wedding feast that had run dry. We can assume that the host of the feast had on hand an appropriate amount of wine for the celebrations. It would seem, then, that any additional wine would violate the principle of moderation; we've gone from having a sensible good time to getting drunk in excess. But this is why it is a miracle, for a miracle is more than merely the suspension of ordinary physical expectations; it is a sign and revelation of a new order of existence, an order that breaks through the old pagan compromises and proposes a way of life that answers to the transcendent meaning of Christ. The exhaustion of the wine at Cana symbolizes the exhaustion of pagan virtue and the existential hopes it offered. The party is over; it is expected to be over and the celebrants are prepared to go home; no one can imagine the party continuing, or at least continuing with any propriety. But Christ can imagine it, and through His grace he turns water into wine, that the party may continue, theoretically indefinitely. From that moment forward the horizon of pagan hope has been forever shattered, for the possibility that it is not the final limit, that there is a way of life that is not bound by pagan compromises, has been permanently introduced into the human imagination.

Chesterton describes the difference as a world of pink becoming a world of bold reds and whites; reds for the warriors and whites for the monks. There were warriors in the ancient world, of course, and pacifists as well. But the pure warrior, like the pure pacifist, could not express an ideal human type because he violated the principle of moderation or balance. More significantly, the warrior and the pacifist had nothing to do with each other. Each might despise the other and, if they didn't, by the nature of things they at least expressed different philosophies of life. But in Christendom the martial Knight was as much an expression of the authentic Christian life as was the peaceful Monk. Far from expressing opposite philosophies of life, they both expressed different ways of performing the same mission: Redeeming the world in the name of Christ. Chesterton states the difference this way: In the ancient world the balance of existential possibilities was expressed in the single individual of the moderate, virtuous gentleman. In Christendom, the balance of possibilities occurred in the Church as a whole rather than individuals:
This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescencies exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years. In a Gothic cathedral the columns were all different, but they were all necessary. Every support seemed an accidental and fantastic support; every buttress was a flying buttress. So in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold an crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionnaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart. But the balance was not walkways in one man's body ad in Becket's; the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England. This is what makes Christendom at once so much more perplexing and so much more interesting than the Pagan empire; just as Amiens Cathedral is not better but more interesting than the Parthenon.  - Orthodoxy, Ch. 6
For both Chesterton and SK, the advent of Christ permanently changed the nature of existence and of the world - and that whether you believe in Christ or not. The key point they share in this regard is that Christ revealed possibilities that were unimagined prior to the Incarnation. After the Incarnation, those possibilities cannot be eradicated from the human spirit, even if Christ Himself is later denied. The price of denying Christ cannot be a simple return to the pre-Christian world, for the possibilities he revealed will remain in the human imagination- it is only their fulfillment that will become impossible, since that fulfillment is only possible with the grace of God. The result is that post-Christian life can never be a simple return to paganism; it will instead be one of melancholy and despair.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Linda Problem and the Conjunction Fallacy

Over at his Neurologica blog, Dr. Steven Novella has an interesting post concerning probability and the "conjunction fallacy". The conjunction fallacy arises from not realizing that the conjunction of two propositions can never be more likely than each proposition taken separately, i.e. "A and B is true" can't be more likely to be true than "A is true." I was hoping to comment on his blog about it, but Wordpress won't let me register, giving me "internal server error" messages every time I try. So I'll just post my commentary here.

The specific case taken in Novella's blog post involves a study that posed the following problem:

Participants are given information about a hypothetical woman named Linda:
  • (ELinda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.
After reading the description of that target E, they requested the participants to estimate the probability of a number of statements that were true referring to E. Three statements are included as follows:
  • (TLinda is a bank teller.
  • (FLinda is active in the feminist movement.
  • (T ∧ FLinda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
The interesting result from the study is that many participants rate the last statement as more probable than the first. The scientists immediately conclude (and Novella goes along with them) that the participants must be guilty of the conjunction fallacy: T ^ F can't be more probable than T. If Linda is a bank teller and is a feminist, then it is certainly true that she is a bank teller.

It's unfortunate that the scientists did not follow up with interviews investigating the thought processes of the participants (at least I couldn't find where they had). They just immediately conclude that the participants are guilty of the conjunction fallacy and blame it on a reliance on "intuition". But I suspect that if the participants were asked straightforwardly about the conjunction fallacy - "Is both A and B being true more probable than A by itself being true?" - most everyone would come up with the right answer. So there is likely more going on here than a simple failure to understand the conjunction fallacy.

What's going on, I think, is that the Linda Problem is actually a poorly formed question in probability. Likelihoods have meaning only in the context of an implied probabilistic experiment. We understand what "there is a 50% chance it will rain tomorrow" means because we supply for ourselves the implied probabilistic context: "Given days with meteorological conditions like today, half the time the next day is rainy and half the time it is not." The question about tomorrow's weather is really a continuation of the experiment and we estimate the probability based on prior outcomes.

But it's the case that once a probabilistic experiment has occurred, the probability of the outcome for that experiment goes to 1 and all other outcomes go to 0. Once the dice are rolled and come up 7, the likelihood that the outcome of that experiment was 7 is 1 and that it was anything else is 0.

Now consider the statement T, "Linda is a bank teller." There is no probabilistic context here. Linda is what she is and is nothing else, like a dice roll that has already happened. So the probability that Linda is a bank teller is either 1 or 0 depending on whether she actually is a bank teller. Same with her being a feminist, and same with the conjunction of her being both a bank teller and a feminist. They are all either 1 or 0.

Of course, if Linda is not a bank teller, then the probability of T is 0 and T ^ F is 0. But if she is a bank teller but not a feminist then the probability of T is 1, F is 0, and T ^ F is 0. So in that sense it is strictly true that the third statement can never be more probable than the first.

But this is a degenerate use of "likelihood." Likelihood adds nothing to the analysis which is strictly logical. And in fact the participants are not "failed" for a failure to estimate probabilities correctly, but for the alleged failure to perceive the logical necessity of the conditional "If T^F then T".  So there is a bit of a bait and switch going on.

People generally approach test questions in good faith. They assume the questions are well-formed, and when they aren't, they provide their own context in an attempt to interpret the question as well-formed. In this case, being explicitly told that the question is probabilistic - and intuiting that any probabilistic question requires a probabilistic context within which the concept of likelihood makes sense - they supply the probabilistic context that is not provided by the question. Really they should say that the problem is degenerate and the likelihood of each statement is either 1 or 0, but we can't say which.

To come up with any other numbers requires a probabilistic background against which to generate a non-degenerate likelihood. This is where the much maligned "intuition" comes in. Forced to generate their own background, the participants likely tell themselves something like "If I was trying to find Linda, would I be more likely to find her starting with the general population of bank tellers, or focusing on the population that is both bank tellers and feminists?" And they reasonably conclude the latter is the better choice.  Formally what they are doing is saying "Given a random draw on the populations of bank tellers, or the population that is both bank tellers and feminists, I'm more likely to come up with Linda making a draw on the latter." And they are right about that.

An intelligent participant would be understandably irritated if told later that he got the question wrong because he doesn't understand that if Linda is a bank teller and a feminist, then she is a bank teller. What the experimenters did was bait (or force) the participants into treating the question as a probabilistic one (requiring a probabilistic context), then graded them as though they had asked them a logical question about conjunction.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Cult of Suffering and Assisted Suicide

Andrew Stuttaford at the Secular Right has a post on what he calls the Cult of Suffering and assisted suicide.

I was struck by Stuttaford's objection to a certain Sister Constance Veit:
That last paragraph is, I have to say, disgusting. Sister Veit's argument that those wrestling with the later stages of a cruel disease are on a "mission" on behalf of the rest of us, a mission that they never asked to be on, is an expression of fanaticism, terrifying in its absence of empathy for her fellow man.
The "a mission that they never asked to be on" reminds of Chesterton's discussion of this point in the chapter "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy:
 A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag, long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In other words, we are born on a mission, and have accepted that mission, long before we ever have the chance to "ask" whether we want to be on it. GKC calls this the "primary loyalty" to life and, like all primary principles, it can be difficult to defend because it is generally what one argues from rather than what one argues to. Historically this primary loyalty was taken for granted as obvious and commonsensical, like patriotism and loyalty to one's country - in this case, "cosmic patriotism."

Life begins in suffering - birth is a traumatic experience - and involves suffering of some sort until death. Until very recently, regular and persistent pain was a fact of life. Imagine having a toothache before novocaine or a kidney stone before modern surgery. My grandfather's generation would pull their own teeth with a pair of pliers. And I remember reading about an instrument people once inserted in themselves all the way up to their kidneys in order to crush kidney stones so they could later be passed in excruciating pain.

And yet, historically,  persistent suffering of a physical variety was not what generally drove people to suicide. Those reasons were typically emotional - Romeo and Juliet or stockbrokers jumping off buildings after the 1929 crash - or matters of honor: Roman (or, recently, Japanese) generals doing themselves in after a defeat, or pederasts caught in the act (King George V: "Good grief! I thought chaps like that shot themselves.") If persistent suffering were something that could only be answered with death, everyone would have killed himself 200 years ago. So much for the human race.

The problem with suffering is that it is a fact of life that doesn't go away whatever your philosophy. (Well, that is not quite true: Death makes it go away.) Mr. Stuttaford speaks of "empathy for your fellow man" but I wonder what his "empathy" actually means in practice. The Little Sisters of the Poor minister to the dying who are beyond hope of recovery. Whatever Stuttaford thinks of their empathy, they at least make sure the dying do not die alone or friendless. And they offer them the hope that their suffering is not meaningless. Does Stuttaford spend any time with the dying, or does his "empathy" extend only so far as the abstract position that they should be offered a lethal syringe? I find such "empathy" far more horrifying than anything Sister Veit says - and in fact is not empathy at all but merely an embrace of the Cult of Death. To that I prefer the Cult of Suffering.