Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I find myself being confronted repeatedly lately with the distinction between what we can prove (science) and what we just believe for no reason at all (religion). It seems there is a popular notion that we can either choose to look for a proof of a given belief, or just believe it. Reasonable people will presumably do the former; stupid or religious people (the suggestion is that there’s no a difference there) will do the latter.

I don’t think there’s much to be said for this picture – in fact, I think some very basic philosophy is enough to refute it. In this post I want to try to make this explicit, setting out some of what I think are the basics on faith and reason. My immediate motivation is the unconsidered nonsense I keep seeing on this subject from the militant atheist crowd, but I’m also trying to get my own thinking here clear. My basic claim is this: faith is everywhere, always. Everyone operates on the basis of things nobody can prove, and this is true all the time. Accordingly, the question is not whether we’re going to “just believe” or whether we’re going to develop a view of the world by demanding a reason for every claim. Rather, faith is built into every rational account of the world, and the question is how we’re going to decide where exactly to put our faith.

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I’m not religious, and never have been; I had an utterly secular upbringing. But I’m also not anti-religious: I’ve never been atheist, but rather agnostic, and I’m ever less inclined to regard militant atheism as a reasonable position, for reasons that should become clear below.

I’m going to focus on two problems for knowledge: doubts about the existence of an ordered physical world, and doubts about the utility of reason. After that, I’m going to describe how I think we get past these two problems. The punchline is that it seems to me that the sort of faith we need to get going with science proceeds in the very same way as the foundation of religion.

Also, my aim here is not precision, but rather to give a general view; and if the topics I touch on here are vast, with ample room for additional considerations, still my basic point here seems to me difficult to dislodge (and please do let me know if you think you can do that).

(1) Doubting an Ordered Physical World

Back at the dawn of the scientific revolution, there was a fellow named Descartes, and he had some doubts that seemed to undermine the claim of science to knowledge. As modern science grew into an ever more impressive artifice, philosophers became ever more concerned by their inability to respond to the problem. Descartes’ doubts, of course, pointed to our difficultly in knowing that an objective physical world exists at all. This can be quickly explained as follows: you’re probably reading this piece on some computing device, say, a laptop. How do you know your laptop is actually there? You can see it, you can feel it, maybe you can even hear it – but how do you know your senses aren’t deceiving you? How do you know that your laptop isn’t an illusion? For that matter, how do you know that everything you see, hear and feel is not just an illusion? How you know that anything physical exists, even your own body?

Philosophers, then, became rather worried about this problem because it seemed to undermine any claim science has to produce knowledge. After all, the whole of empirical science rests on the assumption that there actually is a physical world, but if we can’t know that there actually is anything physical, then it might seem that science can’t really know anything. (Descartes’ answer to this problem involved God, so it’s not palatable to a lot of people today.)

Descartes, of course, pushed his doubts farther than this, going as far as to question his own existence. After all, how do you even know that you exist? At this point it seems to be possible to start giving answers: do you doubt that you exist? If so, then you’re thinking, and you can’t think if you don’t exist: “I think therefore I am.” Many have taken this to be the one certain starting point for further inquiry – we each know of our own existence – but in fact there are problems even here…

(2) Doubts about Reason

Antiquity had deeper sceptics than Descartes, sceptics who denied that you could affirm anything at all (many today call themselves ‘sceptics’ simply because they deny the existence of God, but real scepticism goes much farther than that). One way to this denial is to note that Descartes’ answer to his doubts about his own existence rely on reason. To him, this does not seem to have been a great problem, but it is possible to doubt whether we should accept reason – and if we don’t accept it, we might as well say, “I think, therefore I don’t exist.” In fact, the question of how we can come to accept reason is a difficult one: can we give a reason to accept reason? Surely if we do, we’re already assuming what we need to prove – and yet if we refuse to provide any kind of proof of reason, we seem to be behaving irrationally. These theoretical difficulties find an empirical counterpart in evolution: we’re evolved to survive, not to perceive or think about the world as accurately as possible. It could be that reason, as we have evolved to grasp it, doesn’t really tell us anything about reality.

One response to this sort of problem is to say we don’t believe in reason, rather we use reason (e.g., as Steven Pinker or Jerry Coyne have said). I want to say a word about this because I have come across it repeatedly recently. The idea is that reason seems to work, it seems to deliver results, and so we keep using it: our use of reason has a basis in a kind of ongoing experiment. We remain open to the possibility that reason might fail at some point, and the moment we discover that irrationality, or something quite different, offers better results than reason, we’ll start making use of that other approach.

I think this is an obfuscation rather than an answer to the problem. I don’t think the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘believe’ gets us anywhere. I use a spoon rather than a knife to eat soup because I believe a spoon is more useful for this than a knife – it seems to me that we believe in everything we use. Moreover, the sort of experimental approach implied by this ‘use-not-believe’ approach implies a faith that the world has a certain order and stability, so that things that have happened in the past can be a guide to what will happen in the future. In an utterly irrational world, everything would just be luck, so there would be no point in experimenting to see what works.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to the problem here is to consider the following scenario. Imagine I have one dollar, and I go into a casino and bet that dollar on red 23 on one of those roulette machine-things. Say I win, and now I have $100. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $10,000. I bet that on red 23 and win again. Now I have $1,000,000. Just as I’m getting ready to bet that on red 23, and friend suggests it’s not that wise to believe I’ll always win with red 23. To this I respond, “I don’t believe in red 23, I’m using red 23.”

Now how could you prove to me that reason, or anything else in the whole of experimental science, doesn’t stand on the same footing? How do we know that the whole of science isn’t just luck? (And before you appeal to statistics here, note that we have to confront the same problem there as well.)

I don’t think any scientist actually uses reason without believing it to be useful, and if we believe reason is useful in understanding the world, we are also committed to certain beliefs about the nature of the world. In particular, we believe that science enables us to make predictions. After all, we’ve got planes in the air, drugs being injected into people’s bodies, and nuclear power plants in operation. If you use reason without believing in it, then you are committed to the view that getting on a plane is no different than betting everything on red 23. I think there is a difference, because I think science tells us something about the world – and I think that because I believe that the world is sufficiently ordered that experimenting on it helps us understand it. The point is that the word ‘believe’ is crucial here: we take the leap of faith that the world is the sort of thing that is amenable to a rational approach, and that experimentation will therefore be an aid to our understanding.

Or here’s another thought: let’s say we have understood the world to a very considerable degree, that it actually is the sort of thing amenable to experiment – but all that is going to change next Tuesday at 3:17 pm, when logic, math, and all the laws of physics are going to go out of force. This might mean we all die (but only might, for reasons that should now be obvious). How do you prove to me that this won’t happen next Tuesday? Absent such a proof, we can only have faith that it won’t be the case.

(I’m no specialist in the epistemology of science, but last time I checked in there, the quest for simple certainty had not yet borne fruit.)

(3) Believe, That You May Understand

So here’s where we are: some faith is necessary to accept reason; on the basis of that faith, we say ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Some further faith is needed to believe that a physical world exists, and we need faith again to believe that world to be the sort of thing amenable to rational investigation, and thus to experiment. Only on the basis of all that faith can we get started with science – and note that these moments of faith are all constantly in operation. It’s not like we come back and prove them later. Every time you fly, you believe it’s not just luck that the plane will stay in the air. Every step you take is taken in the belief that the ground won’t explode like a landmine the moment you step on it; every breath you take is based in the faith you won’t inhale poison gas. Strictly speaking, if you eliminate faith entirely, you don’t know that things will go well in any of those situations.

If we were strictly rational creatures, in the sense of believing in nothing we can’t prove, we wouldn’t believe in a physical world, or that science tells us anything at all about that world. In light of this reality, consider the words of Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now, p. 30): “to take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” By this standard, the whole of modern science clashes with reason, for we’ve seen that science requires that we take a good deal on faith. So I don’t think the view he takes of faith and reason does a good job of explaining what’s going on.

Of course, I do believe in reason, in a physical world, and in the value of experimenting on that world. But what do we do about the fact that we apparently need blind faith to accept all this? How can that be reconciled to our desire to think as rigorously as possible about everything?

Here I think a change from a strictly logical to an existential register is helpful. What do I mean by that? Well, in point of actual fact, we don’t decide at birth to believe in an ordered physical world. Nobody imagines doubting the existence of that world until he’s lived in it for years: our belief in it is utterly arbitrary from the point of view of logic, from the point of view of what we can prove, but not from the point of view of the lives we have already lived. And by the time we get around to doubting the physical world, we have also found that we can trust it to an extraordinary degree: water always feels wet; when I drop a ball it falls; when I lick a metal pole in winter, my tongue gets stuck on it (actually, I don’t think many people do that more than once). We learn to take this world to be a radically ordered place: by interacting with it, we seem to be able to come to understand it better.

So we have what might be called a soft reason for believing in an ordered physical world. We can’t prove it exists – we have to believe in it – but we’ve already experienced that we seem to be able to interact with it in meaningful and consistent ways. Logically, we have no reason to believe; from the point of view of the lives we are already living, we do have a reason (i.e., with this particular faith, we can start to understand our lives). We believe, that we may understand.

I think the notion of trust is helpful here. As we go through life, we get to know many people, and discover that there are people we can trust, and people we can’t. In no case do we attain certain knowledge on this point, for that is the nature of trust: it always involves a certain amount of faith. I think it makes sense to think about the physical world in the same way. We don’t know it’s an ordered, objectively present thing, but we have a relationship of trust with it, in which our faith in it is constantly confirmed, and modern science deepens this trust immensely. If we refused to enter in to this relationship of trust, we would never get anywhere.

Now here’s what this is all building up to: the basis I’ve set out here for a scientific worldview could apply just as easily to religion. In fact, the phrase “believe, that you may understand” (crede, ut intellegas) comes from Saint Augustine, and he meant by it something along the lines of what I’ve just set out. He was focused on ancient scepticism, which, as I explained above, was rather more sceptical than Descartes, refusing as it did to affirm anything. Of course, scepticism stands at the doorway to philosophy: if you want to understand anything at all, you simply cannot get away from faith.

By this point, I hope it is clear that the terms ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ have come to point to something rather different from what people commonly suppose them to mean. Not all faith is entirely blind, nor is reason ever entirely separable from faith. It seems to me that those who claim to have left faith behind for reason are displaying either their ignorance or their dishonesty.

The question, then, is not whether we’re going to believe anything without proof, but what we’re going to believe without proof, and why. The answers to these questions are going to involve the sort of ‘soft’ reasoning I set out above, in which we try to make retroactive sense of the lives we’re already living. Here it seems to me there might be a good deal of room for religion to get going on exactly the same basis as science does. One might take the world to be so fundamentally ordered that God is necessary to explain it. Alternately, if we assume for the sake of argument that there is no proof of the existence of God in the empirical world, still it might be the case that religion is necessary to make full sense of normative life, that is, the ethical life that can sustain both an individual and a community. These are matters on which I remain agnostic (I need to do rather more work on them), but as I have begun to look at the state of the Western world in light of the second, normative, concern, I find myself wondering more and more if religion might be necessary after all.

That, however, is a large matter, for another time.

(And if anyone wants to say that science doesn’t assume the existence of the physical world, but just tells us how things would stand if there were such a world – well, the religious could take the same approach: “just in case God & the afterlife are a thing, we’re going to church.”)

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Of Opiates and of Liberty: Thoughts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Recently I finished a book about the opioid crisis in the US: Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I found it pretty much unputdownable, and while it’s certainly essential reading for anyone interested in its subject matter, I also found that it provoked thoughts on larger matters, on which I have blogged recently. I’m going to try to give a brief account of those thoughts here.

First, an overview of the book. The problems with opiates started back in the 80’s, when a movement in medicine set out to turn back what was thought an irrational prejudice against prescribing painkillers. Before this, doctors had been taught that patients could easily become addicted to these drugs, and were accordingly quite reluctant to give them out. In the course of the 90’s, however, this reluctance was overcome, thanks not only to the genuine desire of many doctors to help people in pain, but also to a certain laziness in reading the research (more on this below) and funding from drug companies. The result was that doctors came to believe that the addiction risk was not so great as had previously been thought, and began to prescribe opiates on a considerable scale. Unfortunately, the pills actually were quite addictive. Worse yet, they turned out to be an ideal gateway to heroin – OxyContin, the prescription drug with the biggest role in this story, “contained a large whack of a drug virtually identical to heroin.”

Soon, thanks both to honest doctors and to those who ran “pill mills,” dolling out pain medication for a fee to anyone who asked for it, parts of America were awash in prescription pills, and thus in people addicted to painkillers (Quinones tells of how pain pills were so plentiful in Portsmouth Ohio that they actually became a currency with which anything could be bought). Enter the Mexicans. Families from a single town in Mexico called Xalisco began to develop novel heroin-delivery networks across America that brought small amounts of the drug virtually to customers’ doors in the manner of a pizza-delivery service. Eschewing violence, these new dealers avoided major cities where markets in illegal drugs were already controlled by gangs (they also avoided black people, for their prejudices had caused them to believe black people violent). Instead, they set out to develop new markets across the country in places where heroin had scarcely been seen, paying particular attention to those already caught up in the opioid crisis.

The result was an epidemic of addiction in places that had never seen such a thing, one that hit not only poor people in cities, but also rich – and largely white – people in rural settings. Quinones has many sad stories to tell, of the children of lawyers or police officers getting hooked and dying, of college students who can’t kick the habit, of people stealing from their children or even from their dying parents to maintain their addiction. But the epidemic is not only remarkable in claiming victims from such a wide variety of backgrounds, but also in its sheer scale: “the number of Ohioans dead from drug overdoses between 2003 and 2008 was 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.”

This, then, is the shape of the story Quinones has to tell. There is a lot to think about here, but I found myself returning to one thought in particular: its connection with Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I wrote about a last month. In that post, I discussed the peculiar conception of freedom that defines what Deneen calls ‘liberalism,’ and this included (and implied) a notion of mastery in modern science, a mastery of the natural world. In that post, I reflected a bit on how this striving for mastery played itself out in environmental concerns (inter alia), but the very same concern with mastery seems to me to lie at the heart of the opioid crisis.

For consider: the decision in medical circles to start taking a different approach to opiates is clearly a decisive moment in the whole story. (At one point, we here of a doctor who suddenly found himself confronted by “what was unthinkable a few years before: rural, white heroin junkies. ‘I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.’”) But what was the motive force behind that decision? It might seem tempting to just hang the whole thing on the greed of drug companies – and that greed certainly is part of the story – but Quinones avoids such a simple and easy path, and tells a deeper story, one going back decades:

“World War I had … demonstrated to doctors the merciful painkilling benefits the morphine molecule provided. Fresh, too, in their memory were heroin’s first decades, which showed just as clearly that addiction too often bedeviled those who used opiates. Try as they might—with strategies as varied as farm work, group therapy, or prison—rehabilitation specialists never graduated much more than 10 percent of their addicts to true opiate freedom. The rest relapsed, slaves, it appeared, to the morphine molecule. This seemed a shame to scientists and physicians. Was mankind really doomed to not have it all? Couldn’t it have heaven without hell? Couldn’t the best scientists find a way of extracting the painkilling attributes from the molecule while discarding its miserable addictiveness?”

That is, the dream is of being able simply to escape pain, with no side-effects. This dream is a form of the striving after mastery I discussed in my post on Deneen, the aim of simply liberating ourselves from our natural limits. The story of the opioid crisis is a story of how the pursuit of this goal without sufficient attention to its risks leads to a new sort of hell: as Quinones says, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.” This idea is not at all new, for one repeatedly encounters talk of enslavement to pleasure (or the appetites) in ancient philosophy. What is new is that in a premodern context, such talk can often seem counterintuitive, and usually needs some explanation or thought before it seems an appropriate way to speak; modern science, however, has produced drugs that make it immediately obvious that it is correct to speak of ‘enslavement.’ On this basis, Quinones makes a more general point about human nature: “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain and the deprivation that temper his behaviour.” This would not be news to the ancients, and it is part of the problem that Deneen sees in certain ideas that have helped drive the West in the last 500 years or so.

Think about what Quinones says about “man’s decay” for a moment, in the context of pain. What is being said is that we need pain. Certainly this is true in a superficial sense – e.g., pain tells us when something is going wrong with our body, and without that we might easily die of internal injuries or by failing to learn to avoid excessive risks, etc. But there is a deeper point here: Quinones speaks of man’s decay and debasement: human dignity disappears as people become enslaved to the escape from pain. That is, the need for pain is not simply instrumental. Our nature as creatures with a certain dignity does not seem to endure a total release from pain. To the extent that we’re capable of liberating ourselves from pain, we seem to become reduced to that attempt at liberation. In describing the search for a non-addictive painkiller, Quinones repeatedly speaks of the “Holy Grail,” a deeply appropriate term in that it suggests a quest for something beyond what is possible for humans.

Of course, the striving after the Holy Grail, the attempt to push beyond what is possible, is remarkable not only for the harm that it directly produces, but also for the humbler, less dangerous pursuit it discourages: Quinones explains how a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to pain, one that would not have produced an opiate crisis, was pushed aside and abandoned for decades because people thought these pills were a straightforward fix.

In the context of all this, I found myself seeing a wisdom in the old “just say no” slogan: not many of us are likely to be stronger than heroin – anyone who uses it a few times is likely to find himself unable to stop, enslaved to it [ed. I’m told it takes more like a month]. However, there is one way that anyone can attain a sort of mastery over heroin, simply by realising that here is something stronger than one’s will, and that one should therefore avoid it. Heroin has no power over such a person: real mastery, real freedom, involves recognising one’s limits and acting within them.

Quinones’ account includes a simply magnificent example of a sort of motivated reasoning (or at least motivated intellectual sloth), which I mention here because it seems to be driven by the striving towards mastery I described above. Those who led the movement to make prescribing painkillers more permissible beginning in the 80’s didn’t have as much evidence as they thought they did. One particularly influential piece of work was known as ‘Porter & Jick,’ which was cited and re-cited in papers and presentations until it seems to have attained a sort of legendary status, in which it bore considerable weight as an argument against the addictive potential of opiates. “Medical professionals,” Quinones tells us, “assumed everyone else had read it,” and it was referred to as “an extensive study” or “a landmark report.” In fact, it was a single paragraph letter to a medical journal, published in 1980; it seems that scarcely anyone had actually bothered to read it. One can imagine that if it had said something unpopular, something that people didn’t want to believe, many would have found time to read it, and read it critically. But of course, everyone wanted to believe that the Holy Grail had been found, that a simple liberation from pain was at hand with no side-effects to worry about – and so Porter and Jick remained unread even as its authority grew.

From the opiate crisis, then, we have another perspective from which to contemplate a truth introduced in my post on Deneen: the striving for a mastery of nature can be a very dangerous matter indeed. There is a need for a moment of acceptance, or perhaps of resignation, a recognition that we are not entirely in control. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now at the moment (a review will follow in some weeks/months as time permits), and one of my main problems with the book is that it seems to lack precisely this moment of acceptance.

And finally, since my last post was about the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, here’s a short piece of his from a few days ago on the opioid crisis.

A Quick Thought on Faith

The last 4-5 years have seen my views on many things change dramatically. I used to be well to the left on even the Canadian political spectrum, and now I find myself becoming more conservative, to the point that I could even contemplate voting Republican (once they’re done with Trump). This has come about in response both to things I’ve read and to events (more posts to come about that). I’ve found that as my views change, I occasionally find myself struck, when I hear a view I now strongly reject, by the fact that I used to hold it as an obvious truth.

So it was as I heard Jerry Coyne, the author of a popular (and excellent) blog (Why Evolution is True), talk about religion on the Rubin Report. (watch here and here) At one point (I forget where exactly), Coyne suggests that religious faith is problematic beyond the specific content of any particular religious doctrine, because it gets people in the habit of simply believing things without evidence. That is, there is something inherently harmful about the fact of faith in itself: it is a bad intellectual habit. A good intellectual habit, on this view, would seem to be to get as far from faith as you can, basing your views, as much as possible, on evidence.

Wow – I used to believe that, with some vehemence. And wow: I sure don’t believe it any more. Not at all.

I can think of two kinds of faith that we need and use on a constant basis. Without both, our lives would simply not be possible. The first is central to the possibility of a scientific understanding of the world – that is, the sort of understanding that Coyne would hold up as an alternative to religion. The second deals with our relationship with other people; I wonder if this second kind of faith doesn’t lead on to religion.

The first kind of faith is suggested in an article by Theodore Dalrymple, in which he responds – convincingly, I thought – to the “new atheists.” He makes the point succinctly: “if I questioned whether George Washington died in 1799, I could spend a lifetime trying to prove it and find myself still, at the end of my efforts, having to make a leap, or perhaps several leaps, of faith in order to believe the rather banal fact that I had set out to prove.” Of course, the point can be generalised to include the whole of science. I believe global warming is a major problem, but if a well-educated climate science denier were to debate me, I would be reduced to appeals to authority very quickly indeed. The same would happen to almost all scientists aside from the climate specialists (although almost all real scientists would last longer than me in such arguments). The same will be true of any other field of knowledge: specialists might hold their own, but non-specialists must follow the lead of authorities.

Of course, it is probably true for most of what is understood about the world today that if we investigated any particular matter, we could eliminate most of our faith on the matter. However, for all actual people, the reality is that most of what we understand about the world is in fact a matter of faith. Modern science allows us to put our faith in sound authorities, but we do need that authority. The idea of eliminating faith and replacing it with reason is utopian, and like most utopian ideals, when it is forced upon the real world, it becomes a source of harm as well as benefit (in this case, the utopian ideal of eliminating faith obscures from us the reality of what is actually going on, for a start).

There is a second sort of faith, and this one has to do with people: we cannot live without trust. That is, faith in other people is necessary to a genuinely human life. If you couldn’t trust anyone else, you couldn’t even walk down the street – after all, you might get stabbed. More than that, a great deal of what gives depth and meaning to life comes from trusting other people. Imagine if your interactions with other people consisted of the absolute minimum necessary to sustain your life: you would trust other people enough to walk down the street, to work, and to conduct basic economic transactions. Nothing more. No pleasures of conversation, in which you might reveal something of yourself, no substantial or lasting relationships with others. Most people would find life intolerable without substantial (and thus trusting) relationships with other people, and I don’t think it is reasonable to see in such a life the pinnacle of human flourishing. A life worth living requires faith in other people – indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that life is more worth living to the extent that we can rightly make use of such faith.

Accordingly, as in understanding the world, so too in our dealings with other people: the trick is not to eliminate faith, but rather to learn where it is appropriate and where not. And it is not hard to see how the matter of faith in other people might lead on to religion: our ability to have faith in other people doesn’t merely increase our chances of survival, but makes life far richer, far worthier of living, than it otherwise might be. What if religious faith is like that? What if we who are not religious are in a situation similar to that of people who miss out on so much of what life has to offer because they never trust anyone else, and thus never have any substantial relationships with other people?

I’m not religious, but sometimes I wonder if I should be.

Why I Subscribed to the National Post

[Yesterday was the second anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. That means I’ve had a subscription to the National Post for almost two years. I wrote this a year ago, but now seems a good moment to put it up here.]

I grew up reading The Globe and Mail. Sometime in the mid- to late eighties, I began copying my parents, and began reading the paper before heading off to school. Often I would return to it in the evenings. In university, my grandmother gave me a subscription, and I kept on reading. I can still remember certain headlines, certain pictures, and above all, certain editorial cartoons (having now read papers in seven countries, I think the Globe’s Brian Gable is the best anywhere). Having grown up with it, I have long had a certain sentimental fondness for the paper. I was, and would remain, a Globe reader for life.

At some point in the nineties, I became aware that another national newspaper was going to start up soon. Bankrolled by the owners of a very large chunk of the Canadian press, it was to be called The National Post. It would provide a conservative alternative to the Globe, and would have all the advantages that its owners’ deep pockets could provide. From the start, I regarded it with a kind of horror, not only because I was appalled by its conservative standpoint, but also because I worried about the harm it might do to the paper I’d grown up with. I remember taking people to task for subscribing to the Post; on at least one occasion I went without the day’s news because only the Post was available (and the fact that it only it was available on that occasion somehow made me feel that evil and dishonourable machinations were at work). I was, after all, a Globe reader, for life.

This past year something changed that. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, newspapers everywhere were confronted with a question: would they print the cartoons? In France and in Germany, the focus seemed to be on the matter of principle: freedom itself, the bedrock of our society – indeed, of our civilisation – was under attack, and now was the time to stand up for it. In Germany it seemed that every paper reprinted some of the cartoons (if not always the most offensive). One paper had an entire pull-out section with dozens of reprints of Charlie Hebdo covers, some featuring Mohammed, some not. Another reprinted a Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed, but pasted him into their own background, so that he was taking a bath in blood. In France, while so many papers reprinted the cartoons, it was noted in several that virtually the entire press in les pays anglo-saxons (i.e., the English-speaking world) was not printing anything from Charlie Hebdo.

With a few (generally right-wing) exceptions, in Canada, the US and Britain, people who wanted to know exactly what all the fuss was about had to turn to the internet. This situation was not necessarily indefensible. There are two main reasons why editors might have preferred not to publish the cartoons. The first was summed up memorably by Boris Johnson: “about 10 years ago, the whole Danish cartoon controversy blew up – and I remember distinctly concluding that I would never have published them in The Spectator, which I edited, not just because they were gratuitously inflammatory, but because I didn’t see how I could justify my decision to the widows and orphans of my staff, in the event of an attack on our offices.” In other words, we might be moved by fear, perhaps rightly. The second reason is the desire to respect others, and the further pragmatic reflection that if we want to live in peace with others, a posture of conciliation will help us do so. This standpoint sees publishing the cartoons as not only be wrong it itself by virtue of its failure to live up to the civilised ideal of polite regard for others, but also as undermining our hope of peace in the future by provoking further violent acts.

The Globe, along with much of Canada’s English-speaking press (and in contrast to much of French-speaking press) did not print the cartoons. On January 8th, 2015, an editorial explained why. In addition to an argument to the effect that actually seeing the cartoons was not necessary to understand the story, the reason came down to a matter of principle: “we hadn’t published the cartoons before the slaughter and our editorial position remains the same today.” The decision attracted some criticism from readers, particularly online. Three days later came a second justification of the paper’s decision. It was the worst editorial I have ever read.

This second editorial seemed to me not to be altogether consistent. On the one hand, it continued the principled stand of its predecessor: “we made the same decision in 2006 after a Danish magazine was threatened by extremists for publishing cartoons depicting Mohammed as a terrorist. Both decisions were made in accordance with the newspaper’s beliefs and values.” That is, the decision was a matter of maintaining a consistent principle, of standing firm and refusing to be moved by the violence of current events. To say this is precisely to say that the Globe was not moved in this decision by fear.

The editorial, however, contained remarks that seemed to point in another direction: the Globe’s critics, we were told, “have nothing on the line as they gleefully accuse the media of heinous shortcomings in the emotional aftermath of the murders of most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editorial masthead.” To say that your critics “have nothing on the line” is to draw attention, albeit indirectly, to the fact that you, by contrast, do have something on the line. That is, the appeal here is “you may be criticising us, but we’re the ones who face violent consequences if we publish the cartoons and things go badly. Put yourself in our shoes, and see how that makes you feel (and just now we’re going to mention that most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editors were killed).” This line is continued a moment later, when it is said of critics, “how incredibly easy. How crass and pompous.” That is, incredibly easy for you… This line of thought invites us to consider: if you were an editor thinking about publishing those cartoons in that context, how would you feel? There’s only one answer: afraid. The appeal is unmistakably to fear. To act out of fear is precisely not to stand on principle.

So in the middle of a defense of the principled and consistent stand taken by the paper’s editors, we are pointed at something quite different from principle and consistency: fear. The argument is something like this: “we stand unflinchingly on principle, unmoved by fear, and anyway, we’re afraid – wouldn’t you be afraid?”

I don’t pass judgment on the editors at the Globe and Mail for being afraid. As they remind me, I don’t have the right to: I’m not running a newspaper; I’m not in their shoes. What I absolutely do judge them is on the terrible job they did of explaining themselves, on the back-handed way in which they introduced fear into the argument, stooping to name-calling at the very moment they were showing that their appeal to principle was nonsense. Because here’s the thing: you can’t stand unflinchingly on principle and act out of fear. It’s either one or the other.

What hit me like a tons of bricks, however, was the fact that the episode brought another historical era to mind. High-sounding declarations of principle on the surface, while an unspoken fear lies underneath, driving behaviour? I had seen this before: this was appeasement.

The word ‘appeasement,’ of course, refers to that period in the thirties, when the Western democracies wanted so desperately to avoid a second world war, and so failed to stand up to Hitler as he went from a cartoon character to a terrifying and almost unstoppable force. Like the editors of the Globe, of course, nobody wants to be seen to be moved by fear – or to see themselves this way – so when we read the words of the appeasers of the thirties, we often find appeals to high-sounding principles. The need for conciliation and trust, the importance of admitting our own mistakes and injustices, the great virtue of universal peace – these are the sorts of appeals we find again and again. You can also find a rather desperate willingness to trust this new Hitler fellow. After all, if you’re intent on building a world on trust rather than violence, you have to be able to trust the other guy. People like Churchill who warned about and criticised Hitler were put under tremendous pressure to stop doing so, and were denied platforms in many places (wouldn’t want to provoke another war).

The appeasement in the thirties was not only a moral failure. It also made the world far less safe – indeed, the appeasers can be said to have caused the second world war in a very real sense. There was never anyone easier to stop than Hitler.

That Globe editorial caused a paradigm shift for me. Suddenly appeasement was not a far-off phenomenon from the pages of history, like the Spanish armada or the Athenian empire. Suddenly it was a defining characteristic of our own times. In addition, I found myself conscious of something I had never felt in my life, almost a sensation in its intensity: I felt ashamed to be Canadian. I was in Germany, where the press had decided, virtually as one, to stand for something, if only for a moment. The French were doing the same thing. And what did the English-speaking world, Canada, and above all, the paper I had grown up with do? They chose to be moved by fear, all the while making high-sounding declarations of principle. They chose appeasement. The National Post chose another path, so suddenly subscribing to it seemed positively like a duty. It also began to occur to me that having this other national newspaper, with a substantially different point of view, might not be such a bad thing after all.

The path of appeasement was not the only one available. Consider what Dan Hodges, at the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “just before I started this piece I was about to tweet the picture of the cartoon of the prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I was going to do it ‘in solidarity’. And then I stopped. I stopped because I was scared.” That is a contribution, because it gets the fact of fear out there. Hodges can’t feel good about himself in the way that the Globe editors can, because he admits that he’s not acting on the basis of some great principle, he admits he’s acting from fear. But the first step in dealing with fear is to admit it’s there, and so Dan Hodges performed a service by making it a matter of record that there is now a climate of fear, and that people are changing their behaviour because of it. The Globe didn’t even do that. I don’t think that the paper I grew up with would have made the same decision, but I’m quite certain they would have done a better job of explaining themselves.

As appeasement in the thirties made us all less safe, so too does it have the same effect today. We have given way: there now exists an unspoken ban on certain words and pictures where Islam is concerned. Charlie Hebdo is not going to draw the prophet in the future, and the same is true of the Jyllands-Posten. They can hardly be blamed; they’ve done their bit. But when even the freedom of speech fanatics aren’t going to do it, the rest of us certainly cannot.

And we need freedom of speech fanatics. It is the bedrock, the foundation, the sine qua non of everything else we value, of our way of life. For example, freedom of speech is prior to feminism, because feminism is only possible in a society in which basic cultural norms can be safely challenged. Notoriously, when Mary Wollstonecraft put her arguments to certain men in the 18th century, they just laughed at her. But consider what they did not do: they did not throw acid in her face, nor did they stone her or beat her to death. Since the turn of the century, we’ve become conscious of the fact that there do exist societies where such things happen. In the end, the difference comes down to freedom of speech. One could pile up similar examples at some length. (And see David Paxton’s piece on this whole business, which I thought made some good points. Also this: some good stuff on that blog.)

I suspect that the difference between the reaction of the English-speaking world and that of the Germans or the French is to be explained to some degree by a cultural difference: the French and the Germans tend to see the principle more readily, and to act on it; the English-speaking tendency is to focus more on the particular situation at hand. From the latter perspective, one can see why it might not seem so important to print the pictures. After all, by doing so, one doesn’t seem to accomplish all that much, while the danger might be quite real. All the same, a matter of principle is at stake, and principles really do matter. As Thucydides has Pericles say, “this trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance.”

Some Thoughts on the Use of Statistics in Ethical Matters

Some months ago, I was discussing Donald Trump’s election chances with a couple of friends, and I happened to mention a voter I had read about somewhere, a young man in California, who described himself as a feminist. He was concerned about the power of false rape allegations to destroy the lives of men, and was on that account leaning towards a vote for Trump. I said that while I didn’t sympathise with the vote, I certainly understood and sympathised with the concern behind it. One friend responded that such false accusations were surely statistically far less significant than real cases of the crime itself that go unpunished. The other friend agreed, and that seemed to settle the matter, at least for the two of them.

For me, well, it got me thinking. I have since found myself noticing how arguments that proceed by means of statistics are often used as though they provide a sort of final knock-down in ethical matters, unanswerable and definitive – and yet this is something they can almost never provide.

To see why, let’s indulge for a moment in a bit of philosophy. Most undergraduates who have done a philosophy course should have some idea about what utilitarianism is. We can define it as the principle that the greatest good should be done for the greatest number of people possible. Our undergraduates should also have some idea of a potential problem with utilitarianism: it is compatible with an acceptance of radical evil, provided, of course, that the evil is done to a minority. You could literally exterminate people while achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. (The responses of major utilitarian philosophers to this problem is something we can leave aside here.)

Now here’s why I bring this up: it seems to me that the sort of claims you can make with statistics are precisely the sort made by utilitarianism. Statistics give us a coarse overview of a subject; they tell us that something is the case on the whole, and for the most part. And to the extent that we confine ourselves to this view, we open up the possibility of radical evil, so long as it is done to a relatively small number of people. So if we’re going to commit ourselves to statistical state of affairs as a desirable aim of policy or activity, we should think quite clearly about what we’re actually advocating.

In the case I began with, we are indeed dealing with a readiness to do real evil to innocent people in the name of achieving what is taken to be a statistically desirable result. Feminist activists often speak as if the purpose of the justice system is to bring about a certain proportion of convictions relative to the number of complaints made. That is, they claim that only a very small fraction of rape accusations result in convictions, and that this small proportion indicates a failure on the part of the justice system. The implicit aim is a system that produces convictions in some much larger proportion, say, 50% or 98% (though I have never seen an actual number given). There is no room in such calculations for the possibility that the lives of innocents might be utterly destroyed by baseless accusations. Indeed, that a callous indifference to the possibility of crushing innocent people is in fact at work here is confirmed by such well-known cases as the Duke lacrosse team rape trial, or the travesty of reporting about another such supposed crime that Rolling Stone committed. If we were to follow the statistical point of view to its logical endpoint, the proper question to ask is not about the guilt or innocence of the accused at all, but simply whether or not the appropriate number of guilty verdicts have been delivered so far relative to the overall number of accusations.

The purpose of a justice system worthy of the name, however, is not to produce a statistical result, but rather to answer a specific question: what is the truth of the matter in this particular case? Such an approach is not likely to produce the most pleasing proportion of guilty and innocent verdicts, and is likely to fall short of its goal regularly, but it allows the rights of accuser and accused to be balanced against one another. Perhaps most importantly, it keeps the justice system, as much as possible, from the active commission of injustice. The words primum nil nocere – “first, do no harm” – are supposed to apply to doctors, but they should be a principle of the justice system no less.

Certainly statistics might inform and guide us in subsidiary ways, but only to the extent that we observe the more important principle of a system that does not itself do active harm to the innocent. When discussing ethical matters, then, we should always be cautious when confronted by arguments that proceed only on the basis of statistics.

Statistics are dangerous in other ways, too. They can give a seductive, but misleading impression of being simply factual; they can seem to clothe a particular view in the robes of science, giving it an apparently insuperable status in comparison with non-statistical arguments. (I’m reading a book right now that seems to suffer from this very failing; a blog post reviewing it will probably follow in the weeks to come.)

Of course, statistics can be massaged, and where crime is concerned it is clear that they often are massaged. Consider Rainer Wendt, federal head of the German Police Union: “if I, as a senior officer, want narcotics-related crime to go down in my city, then I send the officers responsible for it out to police [vehicle] traffic infringements. Then I promise you, that narcotics crime will go down – at least statistically.”

In fact, things may be far worse than Wendt’s words suggest. There is reason to believe that the arrival of statistics-based crime fighting has corrupted our justice system in a most fundamental manner. Here I will allow Theodore Dalrymple to speak, as he relates his wife’s attempt to report a crime:

She noticed some youths setting fire to the contents of a dumpster just outside our house, a fire that could easily have spread to cars parked nearby. She called the police.

“What do you expect us to do about it?” they asked.

“I expect you to come and arrest them,” she said.

The police regarded this as a bizarre and unreasonable expectation. They refused point-blank to send anyone. Of course, if they had promised to make every effort to come quickly but had arrived too late, or even not at all, my wife would have understood and been satisfied. But she was not satisfied with the idea that youths could set dangerous fires without arousing even the minimal interest of the police. Surely, some or all of the youths would conclude that they could do anything they liked, and move on to more serious crimes.

My wife then insisted that the police should at least place the crime on their records. Again, they refused. She remonstrated with them at length, and at considerable cost to her equanimity. At last, and with the greatest reluctance, they recorded the crime and gave her a reference number for it.

This was not the end of the matter. About 15 minutes later, a more senior policeman telephoned to upbraid her and tell her she had been wasting police time with her insistence on satisfaction in so trivial a matter. The police, apparently, had more important things to do than suppress arson. …

It is not difficult to guess the reason for the senior policeman’s anger. My wife had forced his men to record a crime that they had no intention whatever of even trying to solve (though, with due expedition, it was eminently soluble), and this record in turn meant the introduction of an unwanted breath of reality into the bogus statistics, the manufacture of which is now every British senior policeman’s principal task.

Once the job of the police is to fight crime statistics rather than crime, the possibility of almost infinite corruption has been opened up – indeed, a motivation for corruption has been provided.

As one reads other Dalrymple essays, one encounters similar episodes: police refusing to respond to crime, or even to record it – or, alternately, responding to minor infractions, committed by individuals likely to respond to the authority of the police, rather than to violent crimes committed by people likely to respond in a violent manner (e.g., here or here or here).

Statistics, then, will not only fail in most cases to provide a decisive argument when considering ethical matters, they can also be the cause of great harm. Any insight they provide has to be balanced against direct contact with the problem in question. Localism – taking power away form massive bureaucracies and putting it in the hands of smaller communities – would no doubt be helpful. The more I read Dalrymple, and the more I read of the views of police officers in England, America and in Germany, the more I think that policy on criminal matters should never be allowed to be made on the basis of statistics alone, and that there should be a requirement that people who deal directly with crime are given some substantive power in the production of that policy.

And while I’m dreaming, I’d also like a private jet.