One Year in Pittsburgh

I like it here.

I didn’t really expect to.

But I really like how downtown looks from the highway.

I like the bridges, in all their shapes and forms.

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I like the constant Christian rock on the radio.

I like the Moth and City of Asylum

I like the politics, whether or not I always agree with them

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I love the neighborhoods: Italian Bloomfield, hip Lawrenceville, bar-filled South Side

I like how green it is, how close national parks are

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I like the flowers

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I like the east coast parts – diners, things happening every night, the city-feel, a good bit of economic and racial diversity

I like the midwest parts – the casual dress code and short buildings and helpful strangers and the fact that people never seem to want to leave

I like how nice everyone is. The number of conversations I’ve had with strangers in coffeeshops is unreal, and it has made my life so much better.

I like the Indian and Thai restaurants all over

I like that it gets cold, but not as cold as Chicago

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I like that it gets hot and humid, but not as hot and humid as Miami

I like that I can drive to Detroit and DC and New York if I want to

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I like the bookstores and cafes all over the place.

I like the bars, even! (Some)

I like the beautiful, beautiful parks

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I like that there’s vegan and vegetarian food everywhere

I like the murals you can find all around the city

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I like the thrift stores where I shop for clothes and apartment things

I like my apartment, a lot

I like that my landlord speaks Italian

I like the little treasures – a cafe with a crawl space for children, a dessert place with an in-home library, dog-walking parks near my school that double as low-key hiking trails, a vegan-friendly wings and pizza place that’s most frequented by punks, a diner that’s 24/7, but only between Wednesday and Sunday

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I like the Saturday morning farmer’s markets.

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I like the natural history museum, and the fact that it’s in the same building as the art museum. Who says such things have to be separate?

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And I like all the things I haven’t done yet – visit the Frick, played trivia in a bar, taken pictures at the Phipps Conservatory

I didn’t think I’d end up here, but I can’t say I’m disappointed.

Liberal Purity

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, implores all of us, but especially liberals, to try to expand our moral intuitions to include dimensions they might not have before. He categorizes the six relevant axes as: Care/Harm, Fairness/cheating, Liberty/oppression, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation, and has found in his research that the last three don’t really resonate with liberals.

I wrote last time about what it might be like to try to make those qualities more morally relevant, and in thinking and reading about it (for instance my wonderful comments section), some weaknesses in Haidt’s theory have come to light. For instance, it seems that liberals do have glands for loyalty, authority and sanctity, though they take a different form than they do in conservative thought. And secondly, in my view, it is where liberals have these senses activated that their politics are worst. It is a very good thing to understand where others are coming from, but it is also a good thing to not assume that the most understanding view is the correct one.

Examples of Liberal Purity

  • Leah Libresco has discussed the way the Effective Altruism movement “can feel more like a “purity” decision than other modes of thought people have used to date”, in exactly Haidt’s sense. For those not familiar, Effective Altruism is a movement of people dedicated to doing the most good they can with their charitable dollars, and sometimes their whole lives. From a utilitarian standpoint, what that ends up meaning is that there is a maximally good thing you could be doing, and everything else is not that. In fact, utilitarianism itself, generally associated with liberalism because of its universalism (and to be fair to Haidt, its anti-authoritarianism and anti-tribalism), is generally going to lead to a purity ethic, since things are not just good, they are quantifiably good, and other things are usually better.
  • Environmentalism, similarly, advances “clean energy”, and speaks of coal companies not only as evil, but as disgusting, contrasting the pristine atmosphere with the black fumes belching from smokestacks.

Clean eating sadly doesn’t seem to involve a lot of cheesecake

  • Lefty spiritualism tends to make great use of the purity ethic; there is much talk of cleansing one’s self of toxins, and raw and non-meat foods are spoken of as cleaner than their alternatives (think “clean eating”). This is sometimes as narrowly applied to kale and quinoa, and sometimes as broad as not eating fast food or processed food. In either case, the higher, cleaner, greener things are purer than dirty, fatty, mass-produced food.
  • As in all political disputes, liberals speak of their opponents not only as wrong, but as disgusting. Bigotry and prejudice are dirty, and they tar anyone accused of them. This is by no means limited to liberals, but it certainly does not pass them by.

Perhaps in contradiction with Haidt’s hope that in understanding the moral foundations of one’s political opponents, we will all come a little closer together, it seems to me that these purity-based progressive communities come under some of the most fire from conservatives. Spiritualism and environmentalism are soundly mocked, and it might be precisely because they make use of the purity ethic. It’s one thing if liberals just don’t get the need for purity (they fail to recognize the decay of the social fabric, they have no respect for the sanctity of human life, etc.), but it might be all the worse if they claim to understand, only to get it drastically wrong. Heresy and false idols are sometimes worse than atheism.

One of the weaknesses of the purity ethic, as this showcases, is that it doesn’t allow much room for pluralism or diversity, since any step away from the highest and holiest is wrong and bad. It’s telling, for instance, that effective altruists may not want to be seen the way described above. And I wouldn’t either. The purity-based ideologies in liberalism are some of those I’m most embarrassed to see on my team. I think environmentalism is great, but if you sacralize the environment, it becomes impossible to make even beneficial trade-offs for other valuable things, like economic development that improves and saves lives. Environmentalism is at its best when it emphasizes the people hurt by climate change and polluted resources (care/harm), not when it makes you a disgusting person for not driving a Prius. Purity is a blinding force, making it harder, not easier, to compromise (as Haidt himself says, morality “binds and blinds.” Haidt wants liberals to understand purity, but when they do, they tend (as all humans do) to see themselves at the top of the scale and others, like conservatives, at the bottom. I think I’d prefer less purity-based thinking rather than more.

(Certainly, it is valuable to understand the sanctity ethic to be able to empathize and steelman and model other people’s minds better. But that might not be worth going so far as to weave that ethics further into our politcs).

The problem is, if you don’t sacralize anything, and everything is up for discussion, it’s much harder to form extremely cohesive, effective units. Haidt found, for instance, that religious experiments in communal living were about 6 times more effective than secular ones, even when the secular cause was based around shared ideas and beliefs. Furthermore, the more sacrifice was asked for (body modifications, rejection of material goods), the more successful the group, a phenomenon easily seen in fraternity hazing rituals and larger and larger fur caps in Satmar Jewish communities.

It’s still bad, but it does seem to work. Community building is a bizarre art.

Many liberals I know have long been aware of this fact, and as a result have a deep respect for the religious left and fervent moral thinkers of all stripes. Atheists, humanists and rationalists have long been involved in moral communities which approach sacralization of some virtues, from the Ethical Culture society, to humanism itself and to newer approaches, like Solstice. Powerful political communities can take on this flavor all on their own, as anyone who’s sung “We Shall Overcome” at a political rally can attest. But they do largely see their sacred virtues as slightly less ultimate and unquestionable than their more orthodox counterparts.

Nonetheless, these expressions of human community and morality are beautiful and important. Insofar as these are expressions of purity (they aren’t much) or sanctity (this a bit more), this axis has been part of the liberal framework for centuries, and it should continue to be. Making morality concrete and surrounding one’s self with people who ferociously fight for the things you find important is exactly the way to become a more active moral agent, and to become the kind of person you want to be. Hopefully, these approaches can be compromises between the disaffected abstractions that fail to invigorate and inspire and the hyper-self-righteous purity rhetoric that pushes groups apart and undermines our ability to empathize with others and universalize our morality.

Any more “purity” than that, and the benefits of understanding stop being worth it.

Sprouting New Moral Foundations

There are a lot of important ideas in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I just finished reading. He makes a descriptively compelling case for how WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) most of the readers of his book are, myself included, and how we should take our own moral intuitions with a grain of salt, knowing how different they are from those of people in most of the world.

In light of this, it is valuable for all of us to question our moral intuitions and understand those of others, so you know why other people think and act the way they do. This seems especially true given Haidt’s finding that liberals are worse at answering questions like conservatives than the reverse (that is, they are worse at ideological turing tests). And why is this?

Haidt’s research has found that humans tend to think about morality on six axes (from Wikipedia):

  1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions (He has also referred to this dimension as Proportionality.)
  3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation. (He has also referred to this dimension as Ingroup.)
  5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority. (He has also connected this foundation to a notion of Respect.)
  6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions. (He has also referred to this as Purity.)

Except that apparently, liberals care primarily about the first three, seeing 4-6 as morally less relevant, where conservatives care about all six. You can see where you fall at

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

These are my results. Probably not surprising.

I certainly fall into the pattern for liberals – whether something disgusts me isn’t relevant to how I judge it morally, at least when my System 2 is doing the evaluating. And it’s even worse than that; as a utilitarian, I’m really choosing to focus on care/harm and forget all the rest. Now, utilitarians have a long history of skirting that issue by simply saying that we care about 2-6 insofar as other people care about them. If degrading what is sacred to others makes people less happy, then, huzzah, we also care about sanctity. And even if disrespect for medical ethics makes sense in one particular case, such as using medical professionals ostensibly giving vaccines in Pakistan to sniff out Osama bin Laden, we can claim to take a longer view, noting that people may no longer trust those handing out vaccines.

That’s one of the primary strengths of utilitarianism; much like rationalism, it can simply absorb critiques and adapt to “care” about whatever other people seem to care about. On the whole, this is great, and utilitarians can learn a great deal from Haidt’s findings. It’s much easier to make people happy (or satisfy their preferences, or make them live better lives) if you know what those things mean. We ought to note that people like living in moral communities, where some things are held sacred, and some people are held as authority figures, even if those axes don’t mean a lot to some of us personally. As a plus, the research indicates that people behave better and give more to charity when they inhabit communities like this, since they are surrounded by people keeping them accountable to their professed values.

But none of this is the same as actually understanding what it would be like to feel that a standard of purity, or loyalty, or authority is a viscerally important ethical fact. What would that feel like?

My first instinct with regard to is to say it would feel like letting all of your lowest, instinctive feelings come through. Elevating the glimmer of disapproval I’ve had when I see women dressed “overly” sexily, or “too young” to an actual ethical consideration. Letting myself wholly disapprove of people when I feel that sense of disappointment that they don’t agree with all the liberal positions I thought they did. Hell, even chastising people for consuming too much low art: too much tv, not enough books; too many romance novels, not enough Jonathan Haidt. (It’s important to note that all of these would entirely condemn me as well). Even more grotesquely, it could start to look like The Gag Reflex, an article arguing for the value of letting our “natural” disgust at gay sex inform our moral sense about it. (Descriptively, several studies indicate that some significant portion of anti-gay attitudes are related to disgust). Sure, there are steelmen of these ideas, but these aren’t moral positions I want to get anywhere near.

Attempt 1:

But to really try, I might venture to say that there’s something beautiful or comforting about a natural order (whether from religion or from a secular teleology), which promises stability and contentment, if everything is in its place. Depending on what that order consists of, I might be comfortable with being concerned that my own actions or those of others are disrupting such an order. Conservatives do a lot of this, especially with regard to sexual morality, but I can imagine utilitarians and economically minded people thinking the same way about everyone working in a field where their comparative advantage lies. If we were really committed to the kind of world where everyone did what they do best and contributed the most, seeing someone do something where they weren’t would seem kind of…low, kind of missing the point of what you’re supposed to do with your life. How’s that for sanctity?

Attempt 2:

Or if you really believe, in a secular virtue ethical kind of way, that people seem to be happier and more fulfilled when they take steps to interact with other people around important issues, or spend time with nature, rather than watch Netflix or spend the day indoors? Or even the question of doing something active (blogging, exercising, reading) over something passive (sleeping, watching tv); I don’t hold by this, but I could imagine what it would be like to want to push people to the “higher” things over the “lower” things.

Attempt 3:

If you’re in an Effective Altruism community, you might think that most of the focus is on Care/Harm, since you’re trying to help the most people with your money. However, Leah Libresco has pointed out that features of that world harken closely to the purity axis, since every part of your life now becomes up for critique as “the best thing you could be doing with your time and money” or “not the best thing you could be doing with your time and money.” We could extend that further; if I lived in a community where everyone committed as much money and time as they could to saving lives, and someone didn’t, they wouldn’t just be impure; they’d be disloyal: to their cause, to their community, and to the global poor that this community has claimed as their sort-of-in-group.

Part of the philosophy is how people tend to do philosophy and charitable giving incorrectly.

Attempt 4:

In some of the best examples of moral communities the liberal world has to offer, communities of political activists and secular/humanist groups, respecting authority could mean that it’s important to give your president or humanist minister the benefit of the doubt, and questioning what they want us to do on Sundays, whether it’s go to a march in Ferguson or go to a blood drive, would be undermining the very moral communities that research has shown us are so important. There are so few strong secular or progressive moral communities, someone might say, it would be such a shame to divide this one by not letting the duly selected leader do their best.

I have the podium! Listen to me!

It is easy for people on the left side of the political spectrum to find issues with every example I’ve constructed. It would be awful to coerce people into choosing jobs that made them unhappy just because it’s what they’re best at. There are dozens of reasons, including issues surrounding physical and mental disability, why it would be terrible to stigmatize “passive” activities and elevate “active” ones. And few of us would want to be in a secular community where people shushed us for questioning the leader; that attitude is why so many left religion in the first place. I’ll examine examples like these in the next piece.

But these are, for me, examples that at least make it plausible that Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity could be ethically relevant in my life. If you agree that it’s important to understand where other people are coming from and why they think the way they do, what worlds would activate the moral axes that you usually dismiss? What features do they have? What can we learn from them?

The Caring Less Game

Let’s talk about the Game Where You Pretend You Care Less, explained succinctly by Thought Catalog: “The person who cares less has all the power. Nobody wants to be the one who’s more interested.” Is it just me, or does this game *suck*?

I know, as a long time player, that it doesn’t always feel like a choice, and that not playing can be incredibly painful. But I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to have the sinking feeling that you don’t care for someone quite the way they care for you, and to have that make you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you can’t just be happy. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve this person’s care and affection. And it doesn’t make you feel powerful, unless you’re a special kind of manipulative narcissist. Quite the opposite; when you like someone more than they like you, at least you’re aware and you can decide what to do. Often you don’t wish you liked the other person less; feeling love is it’s own kind of beautiful thing, desirable in its own right.

When it’s the opposite, it’s always felt to me like everything would be better if they just didn’t like me quite so much, and yet I am powerless to make that happen. It feels like it’s my fault that everything is going wrong and that the relationship, romantic or otherwise, is inevitably going to fall apart. Worst of all, I become increasingly uncomfortable just being in their presence, no matter how much I care for them, because the sheer weight of their liking me more than I like them is overwhelming. And that discomfort morphs into pain, which begins to hurt them, and then we are both hurting, and damaged, and why couldn’t I have just liked them more?

Which is all to say that a relationship where there is this kind of asymmetry of feeling isn’t a relationship with unequal power, unless one or more people are using that asymmetry to make power plays, which is a case of abuse, not someone losing the Caring Less Game. It feels like unequal power to the person who feels that they care more, because they are hoping and pining and the other person seems just fine. But that person doesn’t feel thrilled and in control as a result, as you imagine they will from the other side, at least not in my experience. They are just as likely to feel frustrated and unhappy. There’s no winning this Game. No one ever wins.

Which means that the view of relationships as being one where you win the game by caring less is terrible. It undermines our ability to empathize with both sides of a difficult situation, and also normalizes a very unpleasant dynamic. Certainly, there are times when it’s reasonable not to want to overwhelm or scare someone (such as at the beginning of a relationship), or respect their wish for something less emotionally intense, but those are clear exceptions to what sometimes feels like the crushing nonchalance with which this Game is accepted as normal.

Instead of constantly playing the Caring Less Game as if it were the price of admission to a romantic relationship, it might be better if we took it as a bad sign, and looked instead for people who were head over heels for us, and we for them, and no one afraid to say so.

What are other people’s experiences with this dynamic? How has playing or not playing the game affected your relationships?

Jewish Atheism

Coming as no surprise, I identify both as a Jew and an atheist. I’ve written about what it means to me to identify as religious, and how I reconcile the potential contradictions here and here (oh, and here), and I spoke about the Holocaust memorial on the Ohio statehouse on the Camels and Hammers show, which can be found here.

The atheist community seems split on this (I mean, insofar as they are deeply preoccupied with this questions, which is not so much). Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says no. Kate Bigam says yes. Many many people say things that I find demonstrate a total ignorance of Judaism and Jewish identity. These comments range from a misunderstanding of what the Jewish star is and represents, to what halacha (Jewish law) and the separation of genders in Orthodox spaces is supposed to do.

My dear friend Miri Mogilevsky and I sought in the most recent FTBCon (full play list here) to explain ourselves and address some of those ideas and misconceptions. Comments and further questions welcome!

Oh, The Hedgehogs You’ll See!

Maybe I was too mean to hedgehogs when I first talked about hedgehogs and foxes and what types of thinking they represent, and then when I described how I’d been only a pupa as a hedgehog, but blossomed out of the chrysalis into a fox.

(Mixed animal metaphors are the crocoducks of writing)

Anyway, while I stand by what I said in that piece, I do want to give a more nuanced account of the roles of hedgehogish and foxish thinking, and how important they both are to the history of thought and to all of our quests to understand our complex world.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Low level hedgehogs
  2. Low level foxes
  3. High level hedgehogs
  4. High level foxes

1. Low level hedgehogs

Now I’m beating up on the hedgehogs again. But if you’re going to have a Big Governing Principle, it seems like it would be worthwhile to know it well, and to be able to defend it. Any hedgehog who defends their Big Idea badly is a low-level hedgehog. This kind of thinking leads to: totalizing political ideologies which cannot respond effectively to criticism, simplistic religious views which nonetheless encompass someone’s entire worldview, inconsistent ideological approaches which fail to examine their own lack of coherence, and so on and so forth.

A brilliant argument. I’m always thrilled when this gets brought up.

These are the kind of people we tend to call stubborn and closed-minded. While they may provoke some thought in others, it is not the kind of high level inspiration we would hope productive disagreement would create. I am reminded of the sneering, uncharitable, unnuanced Republicans I knew in high school, who I made it my business to prove wrong at every possible turn. I learned a great deal in the process, but I was given none of the understanding of thoughtful and high level conservatism that I gained in college.

2. Low level foxes

These foxes can be thought of analogously to low-level hedgehogs; they attempt to balance many facts and ideologies, and do so clumsily or inconsistently. For one reason or another, they fail to effectively negotiate the complexities of the issues they are engaging with. But in contrast to the low level hedgehogs, they have at least decided that a sole guiding principle is not enough.

Simplistic understandings of progressivism and feminism have always fit in here for me. The focus on choice and everyone being supported in what they want is a valiant attempt to balance the competing desires of moral people (as opposed to the hedgehog, who would generally classify those people more strictly as moral and immoral, based precisely on those desires). When critiqued by hedgehogs, high or low level, they tend to shy away from the attack and claim that their worldview already encompasses the desired elements.

When kink critical feminists criticize liberal feminists on the basis of say, the glorification of violence against women, the low level foxes tend to say only that BDSM is about consent and if everyone is happy, it’s fine. That’s great, and I think it’s true, but it is an ineffective and inadequate response to the critique. Similarly, so-called “choice feminists” tend to ask, “Isn’t feminism about choice?” and expect that their choices always be respected. But as has been pointed out many a time, this is a self-defeating and unhelpful approach.

A beautiful sentiment, but is this really enough of an argument?

Low-level foxes are also frequently overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. Many intelligent people I have known have been like this, and I was as well (and often still am); it results in trying to take into account a great number of things, but never coming out the other side with clearer thinking. For instance, such a fox might look at the fact that buying sweatshop goods ensures that sweatshop labor will continue but that not buying them will harm all of the people who work for sweatshops and be flummoxed. Which is fair, it’s a totally flummoxing thing. But that approach means that more information can lead to indecision and frustration rather than clearer understanding, which is what we’d hope more and better data would do.

3.     High level hedgehogs

Now, high level hedgehogs are where things get interesting, They are brilliant thinkers, far more nuanced than their low-level brethren, but still adhere to a single guiding principle to explain the world. And it’s for that reason that their ideas change the world. Marx changed the world by injecting totally new strains of thought into dominant conceptions of society and economics, and he did it because he was a hedgehog, because he fought on the basis of the unique all-encompassingness of his ideas. I cannot imagine he would have had the same effect if he had said, “Well, I have this new idea, but I’m sure it can be accommodated into the existing capitalist framework.” No, the point was that he was a revolutionary thinker, and not just because he wanted a revolution. His clarion and focused demands forced everyone to think differently, especially the foxes, who depend in large part on hedgehogs to give them the raw material that they combine into their complex and nuanced worldviews. He made everyone update what they thought was true and tinker with their understanding of the world to accommodate him.

He definitely looks like a hedgehog

This is the glory and birthright of the high level hedgehogs, even if, in being hedgehogs, they are almost certainly wrong (at least about something ). Plato, Cornel West, Robert Nozick, Yeshayahu Liebowitz , Robert George – I cannot help but find their worldviews totally compelling, because they seem so sure, and because they force me to think differently. I have had to grapple and engage with their writings, because they left me no way out, no comforting caveats or seductive shortcuts. They said, this is the truth, and you’d better figure out why you don’t agree with it.

4.     High level foxes

Then why do I place high level foxes at the top? They certainly aren’t always right; I imagine Obama’s political ideology to be fairly foxish, but not entirely correct. But based on my previous argument, if someone were to be correct, it would almost certainly be a high level fox. These are the people I trust to amass huge amounts of knowledge and then carefully assess the data, ideas and ideologies they’ve found, take out the best parts of each, and assemble them into a novel, consistent whole. People like Nate Silver, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muelhauser, while perhaps not always exactly right, certainly are right more than they ought to be because they have that capacity. I have a friend who I’ve described as someone who, when asked what his political position on a topic is, will go to Google Scholar and tell you in ten minutes. He has that kind of openness to evidence, that kind of ability to sift through the data to find what’s important, and that kind of clarity of thought.

And a crucial part of doing this intellectual work is examining the thinking of high level hedgehogs, assimilating what is brilliant and true, and discarding what is overreach and folly. If we are not only to seek foxishness, but excellence in foxishness, then we must cultivate a healthy respect for high-level hedgehogs and the novel ideas they have forced us all to reckon with. Dismissing Marx because he was empirically wrong or because Stalin was a mass-murderer might prevent gaining a deeper understanding of honest and incisive critiques of capitalism. Ignoring Robert George because he’s an anti-marriage equality Catholic leaves no opportunity for coming to a clearer opinion on what marriage really is and what it’s for. (And of course, understanding high level thinkers you don’t agree with is an excellent way to have better arguments). Hedgehogish ideas must be among those that foxes should make it their solemn duty to seek out and respond to, so that everyone can learn from these thinkers. If we want to be the best foxes we can be, hedgehogs are too important to ignore.

He’s happy that he’s important

I Need a Better Science/Religion Venn Diagram (my post from Catholic site Strange Notions)

I was very kindly asked a few months ago to publish a piece for the new Catholic discussion site Strange Notions. I was allowed to respond to any piece I liked, so I picked Jimmy Akin’s piece about Creation and scientific explanations for the Big Bang. It is reprinted in full here, and I would love your comments, but it’s also worth checking out the original piece with the same title so that you can see all 419 comments at Strange Notions. There were some very interesting arguments over there :).


Jimmy Akin’s piece warning Catholics not to put too much stock in any given scientific explanation of the Big Bang is very interesting. For most atheists, the first and perhaps only question about religious claims is, “How do you know?” It is a request for evidence only satisfiable within the epistemological framework of modern rationality, which in a case like this means scientific, empirical findings.

Empirical Religion?

Religious people have a number of philosophical responses to such a request. They may claim that they share standards of evidence with their atheist interlocutor, and that the science is simply on the religious side. This is frequently the purview of creationists, who are often very well informed about the intricacies of radioactive dating and the weaknesses of paleontology. That’s a dangerous business, though, since a rationalist epistemological framework demands that one is only as sure of a result as the evidence allows, and that one be willing to change one’s mind if the evidence doesn’t turn out as expected. As far as I have been led to believe, such a way of thinking is not particularly compatible with sincere religious faith.

In addition, this approach comes off to atheists as intellectually dishonest. There is something crass about claiming that there is a religious realm of knowledge entirely distinct from empiricism which truth can be found and yet that all empirical evidence lines up distinctly and without exception in your favor as well. It’s similar to political partisans whose interpretation of the Constitution just happens to line up extraordinarily well with their beliefs about ideal public policy. Mike Adams, in his recent piece on Mormonism, criticizes Mormonism both for its inconsistency with the Holy Bible and for its inconsistency with archeological fact (implying, of course, that his religious beliefs were perfectly consistent with both, and that both are legitimate avenues to truth). To claim both standards of truth at once is mildly suspicious.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

But only mildly, because in fact this difficulty is trivially simple to dispose of. Many, many people have thought of the solution before. If you have two standards of truth that you’d like to keep intact, never let them answer the same questions. From here we get Stephen Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria and who knows how many religious folks’ conception of the same idea, and, all within the same intellectual tradition, Jimmy Akin.

If Akin successfully makes his point, and no one thinks that the Bible makes scientific claims, then there’s never any conflict, no double-truth. Science answers the what and religion answers the why, as a common saying goes.

But it can’t be that simple. It can’t be, because Christianity does answer certain empirical questions. For instance: Did Jesus really live? Did he really die and resurrect 3 days later? My understanding is, if the answer to these questions is no, then Christianity is a false religion.

A Hierarchy of Sureness

So what are we to make of Akin’s argument? When Leah Libresco converted from atheism to Catholicism, every atheist I knew seemed to be asking what evidence she had seen that had convinced her. What did she know that we didn’t?

But that was the wrong approach. The reason, as far as I remember, that Leah Libresco converted is that she was more sure of objective moral facts than she was of the empirical evidence against God. That’s the key. She was more sure of her morality than of her epistemology. So she backslid and changed her epistemology. This is rare, but within her system, it makes perfect sense.

Akin is not merely more sure of God and Catholicism than of science. He is infinitely more sure. As he says,

Losing scientific support from the Big Bang would not disprove the existence of God. It wouldn’t even disprove the Kalaam cosmological argument. It would just mean that the premise in question would have to be supported some other way.

If it were to turn out that the Big Bang was not the beginning of the physical universe then this argument in apologetics would have to be revised.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though. Apologetics, like the physical sciences, is subject to revision based on the evidence available at the time.”

There is simply no evidence that will change his mind about God.

Given this hierarchy of sureness, this theology, this epistemology, Akin’s piece is exactly right. In fact, what I find most interesting about it is that it resonates in part with the Less Wrong style of looking at the world. Everything adds up to normality, say the rationalists, and everything that is true is already the case, so we must let the evidence push us towards truth and keep ourselves unattached to beliefs we may not want. And so the theists say, everything adds up to God, and God is true, and God is the case. Any scientific truth will lead to God and no scientific finding can overturn God. Thus, theists may be light as a leaf regarding scientific truth, and let the evidence take them where it may. To imbue a model, whether the Big Bang Theory or Creationism, with religious truth, is to chain God’s truth status to that of a changeable fact. This is theologically unacceptable and argumentatively ill-advised.

Perhaps we are now saved from the horns of contradiction. To be that much more sure of religion than of empirical truth makes religion a trump card; any time there’s an overlap between religious epistemology and empirical epistemology, religion wins the trick. Apparent contradictions can be dissolved by a total faith in God and God’s truth.

What would that mean?

If this model is accurate, then I am tempted to say that we should throw our hands up and decide that Wittgenstein was right all along. The world consists perhaps less of people who have different predictions about what the world looks like, and more of people who have different orientations to the world, who take different axiomatic truths as obvious, who orient themselves to the world in different but individually unjustifiable ways. This takes us back, in some ways, to the general tradition that gave us non-overlapping magisteria. People just evaluate truth differently and there’s no objective way to decide which is best, at least from among the most reasonable options. There’s simply no discussion about the fundamental points to be had. The apparent contradiction disappears because the standards of truth are different.

But this just doesn’t hold up. Many religious people I know wouldn’t want the “out” that the first option provides; they are willing to make empirical claims and believe in them wholeheartedly. And Akin, as I argued above, does believe that the Bible requires making the empirical claim that Jesus lived as is recounted in the Gospels, died and was literally, empirically, resurrected. The intersection is inevitable. But no scientific fact will change his mind about the bible or God; his Bayesian priors for both are 1. This gives us the same contradiction and potential for intellectual dishonesty as above. If you agree on science as an epistemology, and you hold empirical facts to be true, you no longer get to retreat to Non-Overlapping Magisteria or anything similar.


The other option religious people and atheists and agnostics have is to agree on standards of truth so that they can engage within the same framework. After all, questions like who the Problem of Evil is more of a problem for, while fascinating, don’t answer the fundamental question; they are no one’s (or almost no one’s) True Rejection to either atheism or Catholicism.

But it is blatantly obvious that Catholics and atheists don’t have the same standards for truth, and to pretend to for the sake of dialogue would be a farce.

So we have a problem.

Atheist argumentation may have its flaws, but it is generally consistent on its epistemology: reason and empiricism. Perhaps the Catholic response is well documented in the literature, and I am simply insufficiently familiar with it. But as I currently see it, the onus is on Catholics to give a more thorough account of exactly how the epistemologies of faith, reason and empiricism interlock, what predictions they make, and which beliefs they feel are fundamental, versus which they would be willing, in the final analysis, to relinquish to the cleansing fire of truth.

I think Akin provides a useful and thought provoking model of how to deal with science and religion. But it is not enough.


It turns out that I may have overstated Mr. Akin’s position. He was saying that the Kalam Cosmological Argument isn’t weakened if the Big Bang Theory turns out to be false, as the universe would likely simply have an earlier (or perhaps later) starting position. That may well be true, and I encourage anyone interested to read through Luke Muelhauser’s excellent and painstaking work on the subject.  But this challenge, of sorts, was not just for Jimmy Akin and the Big Bang, it was and is for all believers in a system that both includes the supernatural and makes empirical claims.

Keep an eye out here and on Strange Notions for my upcoming StrangeNotions piece on whether atheism is a religion!